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28 October 2014

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David Morrissey as Ripley Holden

Writer Peter Bowker chatted with us about bringing Ripley back, why he wrote a musical in the first place, and his favourite drag clubs in Blackpool.

Tell us about the origins of Viva Blackpool.

We'd left it open whether Ripley could come back. Jane Tranter (Controller, Drama Commissioning) said, completely separately, that it would be nice to have a drama with a World Cup theme.

"What if it was three men locked in a battle for the World Cup?"
I was watching The Maltese Falcon one afternoon, and thought, this is a lot of fun. But I was a bit disappointed with the Falcon itself, so the question popped into my head - what if it was three men locked in a battle for the World Cup? Suddenly that became something for Ripley to be involved in, and the whole thing came together from that.

Is it possible that the World Cup might have been swapped for a fake in 1966?

I made that up, but somebody told me recently that it may have some basis in fact, which is a bit scary. The World Cup that we won did disappear in Rio after Brazil were allowed to keep it outright. So I knew it was missing, but I thought it would be more interesting to centre the story on England.

The Jules Rimet World Cup I always thought it was an extraordinary story, Pickles the dog finding the World Cup. Once you've stolen it, why would you stick it under a bush? So it all fitted together.

Apparently the FA did have a replica made, after the trophy was stolen, because they were so paranoid about the security. The one that Nobby Stiles is dancing with is actually a ringer. A policeman came in the dressing room and told Nobby to give the real one to him. And when a policeman told you to do something in those days, you generally did it.

How did you come up with Ripley as a character?

I watched The Way We Live Now and thought, "could you create a contemporary capitalist monster, but with the charisma and appeal of Malmont, the David Suchet character?" Ruthless businessman as created on telly tend to be slightly one-dimensional, and I wanted to do somebody who, though you wouldn't agree with anything they actually believed in, you'd still quite like to go for a drink with.

I haven't got the vernacular, interest or sympathy for the business world, but the minute I thought of it in terms of an arcade, it suited me. So Ripley comes from the pages of Anthony Trollope really.

What's Ripley learnt from the events of Blackpool?

Ripley's learned that you're meant to be doing all these things for family and the people you love, but if you don't keep putting some effort into those relationships they're not worth anything anyway. He thought if he put effort into the business and his larger-than-life world, somehow that's serving his family, but it's not, it's serving himself.

"He's discovered that other people are as capable of surprising him as he is them."
He's discovered that other people are as capable of surprising him as he is them. I don't think he saw the behaviour of his son, his daughter or his wife as possible. He finds it very hard to understand that people exist outside his ego.

In my imagined world, he's gone off to Vegas, and he's been a door greeter in a casino. He's come back telling people he's made a great job of Vegas, but clearly the fact that he's living in a caravan in a Blackpool car park is some indication that he hasn't.

David Morrissey as Ripley Holden outside his wedding chapel But he's scraped enough together, he's seen the wedding chapel market, which I don't think is a bad business as these things go, and that's where we find him now. That's a converted toilet, the outside of his wedding chapel.

Did you expect to come back to Ripley as a character so soon?

Normally you're virtually writing a second series as the first series is going out. And with the quality of cast we had, it was going to be hard to get them together again. Although, funnily enough, Sarah Parish and David Tennant wanted to be in any follow-up, but it just so happened that due to the demands of the story, they weren't in it.

With a follow-up, what I'd really like to do is pick all of them up in five years time, because their lives will have changed to a greater extent. It never really suited the piece to have that "a year later, another year later" rhythm. But then this opportunity came up to bring Ripley back in a standalone story.

Tell us about Kitty. What's makes her tick?

Megan Dodds as Kitty De-Luxe I wanted Ripley to fall in love with a woman who was more Ripley than him. The template was almost that everything his first wife was, she isn't.

She has no family, she's driven by ambition, she lives for the carnage. She's got to know that in getting something, she's beaten others to it and they feel bad. I wanted to write a woman who was capable of standing up to Ripley, and surprises him in that.

What's happened to Shyanne's bloke?

I think he's probably in therapy, don't you?

Well, they've had the child together and it hasn't worked out. My backstory for that is that he left her for a woman his own age. He realised what was driving him and Shyanne in general was that acrimony from Ripley. And given his character, he just couldn't keep up with Shyanne any more!

And what's Danny up to?

It was in the script, but we could never find a way to do it that fitted with the plot. But Danny has refurbished the arcade as a gay club.

"It's a bit like a gay TARDIS."
On the outside it still looks like an arcade, and we had this wonderful scene where Ripley walks back to the arcade, walks inside and it's a gay club. It's a bit like the gay TARDIS. It's called Slots. Though I don't know if we'd have got that past legal.

Blackpool is a very pink town. There's lairy heterosexuals having stag nights, and then this whole gay thing going on as well. Hopefully for the sake of the gay lot, they won't bump into the lairy heterosexuals. I think gay men were the first to discover the possibilities of Blackpool.

What made you decide to do a musical in the first place?

I was watching an episode of Six Feet Under* where Nate imagines himself at his own funeral performing as a rock star in front of screaming girls. What interested me was that the rock star Nate inhabited was the kind of rock star he would be. It wasn't ridiculous. He was kind of cool, he'd be at the REM end of the market, it all made sense. In other words, he was in character.

I remember thinking, "Isn't it funny how the Americans have embraced this use of music, and we're all scared of it because of Dennis Potter?"

"I think most British writers have been intimidated by the notion that you can use music."
Because Potter did it so brilliantly, I think most British writers have been intimidated by the notion that you can use music. Whereas I thought Dennis Potter has invented a new form of dramatic language, and nobody's using it. So why can't I be stupid enough to try?

When it came to it, I used music very differently. Dennis Potter, in his two best known works, Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, had men who were unable to express themselves in any other way. Bob Hoskins' character was trapped in a world that wasn't as romantic as he wanted it to be, and Michael Gambon's was literally trapped in a hospital bed by a terrible disease. Their songs were almost forced out of their trapped and repressed state.

David Morrissey as Ripley Holden My songs are more in a traditional musical vein, where at moments that people can't express things any other way they burst into song. More like Bollywood. Each song punctuates or underlines, or moves the action on. In Viva Blackpool, during It's Not Unusual, what Ripley's actually doing is checking out that Kitty has definitely stolen the World Cup. It's a big plot point disguised by the song.

What makes it work is that gap between what you expect a song to deliver, and what it actually delivers on screen. There's a bit of fun to be had. I used I'm Going to Make You Love Me when Ripley's trying to appeal to a planning committee.

What do you think of the final result?

I'm delighted with it. It takes a lot to make everything meld, especially something that looks like Blackpool. The grade [how the programme is coloured] is very important, and you only get that very late.

Watching it, I'm interested in the characters, it takes me along for 90 minutes, it's funny. I suspect there'll be a bit of a backlash of, "It's not as good," or "It's different from the series," but there was always the intention that it be different, and I think it is as good, in a different way.

I can see lots of ways it could have been a series. Then there'd have been a way of following Danny's new story and so on. But Jane Tranter said to me, "I don't think Ripley's finished, do you?" So, watch this space.

What's your favourite place in Blackpool?

Blackpool Tower There's two. There's the one for the younger me, because we went to Blackpool for our holidays, and I loved the beach at Little Bispham. And there's Funny Girls*. [Big drag club and cabaret]. It's astounding. Julie Anne Robinson [Director of three episodes of Blackpool] and I have a long-term plan to write a whole series set in Funny Girls.

And, can I have a third? It's Coral Island*, which is a huge, huge arcade, where I spent a lot of time, mostly just watching.

What are you doing next?

Bit of a change of pace - I'm writing a three-part drama about the Iraq war, called A War of Three Halves. It isn't a musical, but it's darkly funny. My usual thing, men on the road talking about women, but they're all soldiers.

And I'm also writing a drama about the pre-Raphaelite painters, but with a rather irreverent take. It's for the BBC - the pitch is the pre-Raphaelites meet Desperate Housewives!*
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