Quick to respond

Quick to respond

By Michael Pickard
May 2, 2024

The Writers Room

How do you follow one of the biggest BBC dramas in recent years? That was the question facing writer Tony Schumacher ahead of season two of The Responder. He discusses reuniting with star Martin Freeman and keeping his hometown of Liverpool at the heart of the action.

When he completed work on the debut season of BBC drama The Responder, creator and writer Tony Schumacher didn’t have great expectations for his first television project. It was only when he noticed people watching it on a train, overheard others talking about it, and was then recognised after an appearance on breakfast TV that he started to realise the impact it was having.

“I genuinely thought we’d made this little show, and it was going to go out there and a handful of people would watch it,” he tells DQ. “I remember saying to [executive producer] Chris Carey, I think it’s going to be a little sleeper hit that might come around again in three years’ time. We joked that was the way it was going to be – and then it exploded.”

Schumacher shouldn’t have worried. With Sherlock and The Hobbit star Martin Freeman heading the cast, The Responder quickly became one of the BBC’s biggest dramas of 2022, launching to more than 9.6 million viewers in January that year. Produced by Dancing Ledge Productions (The Salisbury Poisonings, Crossfire), it also became a global hit after distributor Fremantle sold the five-parter into more than 195 territories.

Tony Schumacher

Freeman (Sherlock) starred as Chris Carson, a crisis-stricken and morally compromised urgent-response officer working a series of night shifts as he grapples with the conflicting demands of local drug dealer and childhood friend Carl Sweeney (Ian Hart), straighter-than-straight rookie partner Rachel Hargreaves (Adelayo Adedayo) and young troublemakers Casey (Emily Fairn) and Marco (Josh Finan).

Acclaimed for holding up a mirror to the emotional extremes of life on the front line of British policing, The Responder is now returning for a second season. Picking up six months later, it finds Chris attempting to rebuild his life and his relationships, desperate to avoid the corruption that nearly sucked him under.

He is trying to be a better police officer, a better man and, most importantly, a better father to his daughter Tilly, all while still dealing with the relentless trauma of being a night response officer. Chris wants – and needs – a day job, but is he prepared to risk everything to get one?

Once again filmed and set in and around Schumacher’s hometown of Liverpool, all five new episodes are written by Schumacher, while Freeman returns in the lead role alongside Adedayo and local actors and breakout stars Fairn and Finan.

With the impact of S1 coming as a shock to Schumacher, it’s no surprise to hear the writer hadn’t given the idea of a second season “a second thought”. But just two months after the show first aired, the BBC announced it had been recommissioned and Schumacher went back to work, relishing the chance to continue the series with his “perfect” cast.

“Martin made people turn the show on, and he kept them there, but I do think we got a cast who were perfect,” he says, speaking from his office inside an old Victorian convent, where a framed poster of Freeman in character hangs on the wall behind him. “Adelayo, Josh, Emily, MyAnna [Buring], Warren [Brown] – everyone was just perfect. It was like alchemy. We threw all this stuff in a pan and bang, it just happened. If there’s one thing people talk to me about, it’s the cast. Emily and Josh have become folk heroes in Liverpool.”

Matin Freeman returns to lead the cast as Chris Carson in The Responder S2

Describing the series as a show about people rather than police officers, Schumacher says he was excited to see where his characters might end up after five more dramatic, emotion-filled episodes.

“For example, Marco’s got a kid. Why don’t we ever see the kid? Let’s see the kid,” he says. “Then suddenly, for me, sitting at 2am writing this stuff, I’m just enjoying it happening in front of me. It wasn’t more difficult, it was just the same. I try not to think about it too much. You just let it happen. I don’t know how I do it, I just let it happen.”

Characters aside, another reason the show landed with viewers is its authenticity, highlighting the city in which it is set right down to the local accent – one adopted by Freeman to play Chris – and the slang that makes up Schumacher’s natural speech.

“It’s funny about the vernacular because a lot of people thought we should tone it down,” he reveals. “What was great was, around the third episode, I saw on Twitter this guy living in Hemel Hempstead say, ‘I’m going to go into the office and call everyone ‘lad’ all day.’ It was mad how it caught on.

“It was the truth of it that made people buy into it. It wasn’t forced, it didn’t feel tacked on. It’s just the way I speak. It was great to see that, the Scouse vernacular going out into the world and people seeing it and loving it.”

Freeman is also an exec producer on the series and was involved in early discussions about the project

Schumacher also puts elements of himself into every character. From the outset, the show was based on his own experiences of frontline policing after suffering from burnout and poor mental health. But as the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old, parenting is now playing a big part in his life, “and if I’m leaking into that script, a lot of Chris’s journey is trying to be a better dad,” he notes. “Everyone on that show is just trying to be a better human being.

“I love shows like Succession where people revel in being evil, but I’m always interested in people who are just trying to be better. I love having inner demons and trying to overcome them – and everyone on this show is trying to do that.”

But having left his police career behind, Schumacher was clear in his mind he didn’t want The Responder to be a traditional cop show. “If I thought of writing a cop show, what’s the point of leaving the police? I may as well have just stayed if I was going to do that,” he says. “It’s easier to just write about people. I’m not interested in cops, bin men or taxi drivers. I’m interested in people. That’s all I want to write about, so it’s the people I’m writing about. It just so happens one’s a drug dealer and one’s a cop. That’s all that matters.”

It’s the personal nature of The Responder that meant Schumacher also chose to script all five episodes himself. “It feel so personal to me, I don’t know if I could hand them over,” he says, admitting that on the next series he creates he would be more willing to share writing duties. “It takes it out of you, it’s two years of your life. I keep saying I’m not going to write it all, but I am quite jealous of what I write and quite protective. If I did give it to another writer, I’d probably end up doing even more work making it like my stuff.”

Acting on dreams to become a writer after he left the police, Schumacher began penning novels before he was selected for a bursary scheme that enabled him to develop The Responder with Dancing Ledge while being mentored by Jimmy McGovern (Time). Yet he would admit his approach to screenwriting is anything but conventional.

Also returning is Josh Finan as Marco, a memorable character from the first run

“I just get in the seat and do what I do, and not give it too much thought,” he says. “I was on a panel with a few people, and I was sitting listening to a brilliant writer who was chatting away about form and clarity and arcs. I was like, ‘Fuck.’ I should have been taking notes. But then I think, just tell stories.

“I’ve been gifted this innate thing and I don’t want to think about it too hard. I don’t want to take the edges off. Just let it happen. God help the poor script editor.”

He also describes himself as a “director’s nightmare,” writing “acres” of description in his scripts that relay exactly how he imagines a scene playing out or even a line being delivered.

“They say things like, ‘Don’t write loads of action,’ because it will piss off the director and they know what they’re doing, but I write, ‘The sun is rising wearily over a building. Chris runs his hands down his face…’ If they don’t want to do it, that’s fine. But to me, instead of having that conversation, I’ll just put it all there,” he explains. “The actors are the same. I’ll literally write about where their feet are in a shot, and if they ignore it, that’s great because that’s their job. I’d be so frustrated if one of them said, ‘Well you should have told me.’ I put it all in there.

“Someone like Martin, he’s so gifted. Occasionally he’ll say, ‘You don’t need to write that, I’ll say that without words,’ and that’s great. That’s fine, go and do your thing. I’ll never argue when he says that to me. If they think they can do it, go and do it.”

Freeman is also an executive producer on the series and has been heavily involved in the project behind the scenes, joining discussions from the first meeting to the last. He and Schumacher also shared a number of calls before either of them agreed to do season two, with the writer travelling to London for coffees with the actor and to talk about what they thought might – and might not – work.

The Responder is filmed and set in Liverpool, Schumacher’s home city

“There was always one thing, which was it’s just got to be better,” he says. “Both of us said let’s not go out for the sake of doing it. Let’s go out and do it better. Whether it is or isn’t, I don’t know, but at least try to make it better.”

If there’s any doubt about what’s in store for season two, Schumacher hopes viewers will get to see “The Responder turned up to 11,” adding: “You want it to be a lot of love, a lot of laughing, betrayal and hopefully people getting better, and there are different ways of being better. They don’t just all start collecting dog food for charity. There are different ways to improve your situation.

“For me, there’s just more depth to it – and that’s not just Martin’s character. There’s more depth to other characters. Nobody’s just holding up someone else’s story. Everyone’s holding up their own story, and they overlap and move through, but it feels like there’s a real distinct set of shows within a show, which is what I’ve always thought telly should be.”

With The Responder returning to BBC One and BBC iPlayer this Sunday, Schumacher is now working on a couple of new television projects, while he still tinkers with a work-in-progress novel lying three-quarters finished. Dare he allow himself to dream about a third season of The Responder?

“We’ve not even talked about it. Me and Martin haven’t talked about it; other people have, but we haven’t,” he says. “The guns have gone silent and we can hear the birds singing, so I don’t think there will be an immediate restart, advancing over enemy lines again. We’ll have a break, talk and see what happens. If it looks like I have to renew my taxi licence, I’ll probably talk to Martin.”

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