Saturday, 12 July 2008

A Must-Read Article

If you have any interest in TV writing, or the creative mind, or the use of art as an escape, you have to read this Guardian interview with State of Play writer Paul Abbott. To say it's inspirational does it an injustice, not only because Abbott would probably tell me to piss off for treating his life story like Finding Forrester or something equally trite, but also because, screw it, it really does give the reader hope that it is possible to escape a desperate situation using creativity as the way out, but without easy resolutions. Abbott's been through hell, and still (by his own admission) suffers now, but hard work and dedication to his craft give him a way out. It's an amazing interview.

He talks frankly (very frankly) about his young life, his bipolar depression, the anti-intellectualism of his family and the pressure they apply even now he is successful, and yet through it all his intelligence, humour, and work ethic show that yearning to be a writer and just not getting around to it is no excuse. He even manages to rail against the commissioning bods working in the UK TV industry, and defends "populist drama", something that delighted me when I read it this morning.

He has been accused of snobbery for criticising populist dramas, but the charge only makes him angrier. "I don't think I've ever been snobbish. It's the fact that they started making [Footballers' Wives] like a piece of shit, and laughing at how trashy it was. Don't do that! You can't make a piece of shit, because that's half a million pounds for each episode. That's the audience's money.

"We can all do crap police series, and London's Yawning type stuff - a child could write that. But we know the audience is brighter than that, and we've never attended to it. We make a police series, with a bit of a maverick copper as the lead. I say, 'Is he called Maverick?' They go, 'No, he's called John.' Why not call him Maverick and let's get it over and done with. I mean, you might as well. It's derelict, it's fucking derelict."

Channel commissioners frequently want Abbott to spell out his scripts, filling in every gap as if the audience were stupid. It drives him mad. "The distance between what we think and what we think the audience thinks is the biggest problem in the industry. If you make stuff for the audience like you'd make it for you, you won't make many mistakes. But if you wouldn't watch it, then you shouldn't fucking make it."

Abbott's conversation is exactly like his drama, unmediated by lack of trust in his audience. When people suggest his writing comes from his background, he scoffs angrily, "That's one of the most offensive things anyone could ever say. What, you can only get good from damage?"

How, then, does he explain why it's so rare in TV?

"The industry is full of people who'll go for a mechanism before they'll go with instinct. We're surrounded by Cambridge double firsts who are pointedly not using what they know. You just have to write with honesty. Emotional truth is the most powerful thing you've got."

That comment about writing for yourself is the one that hit home the most, especially as I recently read a short piece on writing by Philip Pullman. It had been included in The Observer Book of Books, a free booklet given away a few months ago, and as a result does not exist online (sorry). In that he had said the same thing; writing for yourself is the most important thing, and books/TV shows/films written for an invisible market will get you nowhere. I have no idea what Abbott or Pullman would think of Doctor Who or Torchwood (though I suspect Pullman might be getting a little bored with Russell T Davies' continual lifts from the His Dark Materials trilogy), but at least as far as I can tell, the best episodes of Who seem to have been written by people who love the show and are excited about what they are creating. Torchwood, on the other hand, often feels like it was written by people who don't have much interest in sci-fi. I'm not saying only sci-fi fans should write sci-fi, but certainly they would at least be writing for themelves. As it stands, the show suffers from not having that passion in its writing. Or much else that would help pull it out of its rut.

I once used to refer to Abbott as "That Chap What Ruined Cracker," after he had Fitz's son tied to a bed and electrocuted by a stalker, a plot that reeked of absurd melodrama, but since then I have come to appreciate his immense talent (and hey, Jimmy McGovern did an even better job of ruining Cracker with that ill-advised anti-American rant disguised as a murder mystery from a couple of years ago). Now that I've read that interview, I'll think of him as a kind of writing superhero. Now stop reading me blogging about it, and go read the interview. And buy/hire Shameless and State of Play on DVD.


CJ said...

Thanks for this link. Great blog, btw.

Admiral Neck said...

Thanks for the compliment, cj. I just checked out your blog, and it was great, especially your appreciation of the scene from In Bruges, a terrific movie and a fantastic feature debut from Martin McDonagh.