Politics, humour and strong female characters lead the pack for the creator of some of Britain’s best-loved dramas, from Fat Friends to Band of Gold, who also has two new series on the horizon – Love, Lies & Records for the BBC and ITV’s Girlfriends.
Boys from the Blackstuff
I absolutely loved it. Written by Alan Bleasdale, it looked at the stories of a group of men who have lost their jobs. I just thought it was amazing, and it made me want to write Band of Gold. It was about five men and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to write about five women,’ although it became four. I also realised each episode could be a play for today. Each one could be about a particular character, with a beginning, middle and end, but looking at the collective as well. You could also tell a really dark story in a funny way – that’s a theme through all my work.
This taught me that it was possible to be political and funny simultaneously. It was more overtly political than Boys from the Blackstuff – it looked at corruption and power – but was similar in that it had dark humour and made me laugh hysterically in places. GBH is also by Alan Bleasdale, who I think has probably influenced me the most among English writers, because he’s also from the North and he’s not afraid of humour, of feelings and emotion, or of having something to say. He doesn’t write about just cops or doctors; he writes about people, and that’s what I think inspired me.
I Love Lucy
This was probably the first show I saw. I used to go to stay with my aunt on Friday nights when I was a little girl, and one of my earliest recollections of television was sitting watching in her front room. I’d watched things like Bonanza, all about men, but I Love Lucy was my first with a female lead. My mother was one of four sisters so, for me, life was all about women talking and being central. So when I watched Lucille Ball playing Lucy, it was a big influence on me to know that women could have lead roles.
I found this Danish series by accident when flicking through Netflix, and within about two minutes I was hooked. I was really intrigued by this woman – flaws, warts and all. In England we sometimes think our leads can’t do anything bad, because then viewers won’t like them – but Rita’s creators flaunted that in our face. I loved the dare of it, and Mille Dinesen [who plays the eponymous teacher] was amazing. You’d see a shot of her sashaying down the corridor and they’d linger on her. They’d never do that in England because it would be sexist, but they don’t care. It’s all about attitude and what she thinks. She expresses herself in the way she moves and I loved that about her.
An American Rita. This show looks at a woman [played by Téa Leoni] who is jettisoned into the position of Secretary of State, and I just loved the way her family life often echoes what’s going on in her work life. It’s a masterclass in writing. Some might say it’s a bit formulaic, but it’s formula at its very best. It’s got a lot to say about global issues and dares to do things with which I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s a woman centre stage again, looking at her team of people and her home life. It probably inspired [registry office-set] Love, Lies & Records.
The Sopranos was one of the first US shows I just could not stop watching. I loved it because it was so dark and so funny and the production values were incredible. [Series creator] David Chase was doing things I was jealous of. You’d go from quite a domestic episode to one set entirely in a forest. It was quite violent, not my usual cup of tea, but it also had dark humour. There wasn’t one actor who was miscast, there wasn’t one duff episode and it was watercooler television as well. Often writers are told you can’t do certain things because people won’t like the character, but viewers forgive anything as long as the character is truthful and interesting. That’s what I’ve learned from series like The Sopranos.
Irish public broadcaster RTÉ is making its biggest investment in drama for six years.
Explaining why, acting MD of RTÉ Television Dermot Horan said: “We know that Irish people want to see their stories on screen and that’s why this year we [have] three new series in production in the coming months. Our role is to deliver programming that captivates and inspires the broader population and I believe this new line-up delivers on that promise.”
In writing terms, RTÉ’s investment is a boost for James Phelan, creator of Striking Out, a four-part comedy drama that is being touted as Ireland’s answer to Ally McBeal. Produced by Blinder Films, it features Amy Huberman as a solicitor who sets up her own practice after her fiancé and colleague cheats on her.
RTÉ head of television drama Jane Gogan described the show, which was called Cheaters during development, as “a series that reflects a modern world and stories of family and emotional relationships – the flux, the chaos and the ridiculous – and how such stories end up in the legal system. This is a good time to explore this subject but, then, when isn’t?”
After some success in screenwriting schemes, theatre and short films, Phelan’s introduction to the TV business came in 2009 with Galway Races, a well-received comedy drama for Gaelic-language channel TG4.
More recently, he attracted attention for Wrecking the Rising, a three-part comedy drama, also for TG4. The latter, which was produced in a mix of English and Gaelic, is a time-travel show in which three historical re-enactors are propelled back in time to the 1916 Easter Risings. In a year that has seen plenty of serious coverage of that landmark political event, Phelan’s story was an interesting dramatic diversion.
In an interview with Film Ireland earlier this year, Phelan was asked whether he was afraid that viewer fatigue would kill the show’s chances. His response was: “Of course. I’m afraid of everything. Afraid we’ll be lost in the flood; afraid that we won’t get a chance to connect. But we hope people give us a chance because we really are something radically different in relation to 1916. It’s not just marketing rhetoric, we are genuinely the antidote to all the solemn stuff. We rip through history and though we are not ripping the piss, we provide something original, outrageous, extreme but also extremely funny and thought-provoking. There’s been a lot of classical treatments of 1916 knocking around — this is more punk rock.”
Fortunately, the Irish media bought into Phelan’s approach, which augurs well for his new series. The Irish Times said: “Despite having roughly the production budget of a bag of cans, Wrecking the Rising is for the most part delightful, with a sold foundation from James Phelan’s script, which nimbly supplements its more broad and silly moments with some self-aware, snappy insights.”
Incidentally, Phelan wasn’t the only writer to come at the Easter Risings centenary from an unusual angle this year.
Another of Ireland’s rising stars, Mike O’Leary (who wrote an episode of Misfits), penned EIPIC, a six-part Irish language drama series for TG4. In this show, a group of five rural teenagers take over their local abandoned post office to start a musical revolution in 2016.
TG4 called it “a bold story about escape, empowerment and what it means to be a teenage ‘hero’ in contemporary rural Ireland set against the backdrop of the 1916 centenary celebrations.”
Back to RTÉ’s new tranche of drama investment, another beneficiary is Colin Teevan, who wrote RTÉ’s Rebellion – a serious dramatic look at the Easter Risings. There were reports at the start of the year that Teevan was working on a second season, though at the time he said a greenlight depended on Rebellion’s ratings performance. The show, perhaps not surprisingly, caused a heated debate about the accuracy of its history. However, RTÉ has now confirmed there will be a follow-up series entitled Resistance.
Teevan is a literary powerhouse whose entrance into the TV business came after he had established himself as a highly regarded theatre writer. Aside from writing acclaimed plays such as Kingdom, he is a collaborator with the likes of Kathryn Hunter, Sir Peter Hall, Hideki Noda, Walter Meirjohann and Dalia Ibelhauptaite. In addition, he is also professor of playwriting and screenwriting at Birkbeck College, London University.
Teevan clocked up a few TV credits at the start of this decade but it was his three-part miniseries Charlie that really announced his arrival as a leading Irish TV writer. Produced for RTÉ in 2015, it told the story of charismatic Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey – using his extended career at the top as a way of exploring the emergence of the modern Irish state.
Another drama coming to RTÉ’s autumn schedule is My Mother and Other Strangers, which is also due to air on the BBC in the UK. Set in Northern Ireland, the show follows the fortunes of the Coyne family and their neighbours as they struggle to maintain a normal life after a huge US Air Force airfield, populated by 4,000 service men and women, lands in the middle of their rural parish in 1943. Written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel), it was first reported on back in summer 2015.
Meanwhile, in the UK, there were reports this week that the transformation of BBC3 from a conventional TV channel into an online service had contributed to an 18% fall in 16- to 34-year-olds viewing BBC content. However, one positive outcome of the BBC’s reinvention of BBC3 is that it appears to be doing well on the BBC’s on-demand platform, BBC iPlayer.
Figures released last week show that seven of the top 20 most requested programmes of the year on iPlayer came from BBC3. Most requested of all was the contemporary drama Thirteen, with three million requests.
The show stars the impressive Jodie Comer as a 26-year-old woman trying to put her life back together after escaping from a cellar where she has been imprisoned for 13 years. It was written by newcomer Marnie Dickens, a 30-year-old Oxford graduate whose breakthrough success follows a few years of hard graft as a floor runner and assistant director.
In a recent interview with the scribe, The Oxford Mail reported that “this year is looking even busier than the last for Dickens – her new series Forty Elephants, about a 1920s criminal gang of women, is currently being developed by the BBC, and she is also teaming up with Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones on a new project called Kit and Nim.”
Also in the news this week is Kay Mellor, whose many credits include Band of Gold, Fat Friends and The Syndicate. Now she is writing Love, Lies and Records, a six-part series about a registrar trying to juggle her personal life with the daily dramas of births, marriages and deaths, and the impact they have on her.
Mellor said: “This has been cooking in my brain for quite a while and it feels like the right time to put it on the screen. The idea came to me when I was registering my mother’s death at Leeds Town Hall, closely followed by a friend’s wedding in the very same place. I remembered registering the birth of both of my daughters there too, and I realised that the register office and registrars really are at the very heart of life. It’s a place of laughter, tears and great drama.”
The six-hour series has been commissioned by Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, and Lucy Richer, acting controller of drama. It will be produced by Rollem Productions and filmed in and around Leeds. The executive producers are Kay Mellor for Rollem Productions and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC.