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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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All The Small Things press pack: interview with writer and Executive Producer Debbie Horsfield

What was your inspiration for writing All The Small Things?

I've been involved with choirs on and off since I was about 10 and being part of a choir is something that I still enjoy doing – though I don't claim to have a particularly spectacular voice! It's also a subject that I hadn't written about before and something I felt was a great concept for a drama, given the potential for varied characters and multiple storylines.

You've always had a love of music, so was this an idea you've harboured for a long time or a more recent idea?

I'd been thinking about it for about two or three years before I put pen to paper. I was originally thinking about writing the story as a stage play, before deciding that developing the idea as a series would give me more opportunity to go into extra depth with the characters and narrative.

This isn't the first time that you've incorporated music into a project is it?

I have used music a lot in other projects before. I wrote a couple of songs with composer Mark Hinton Stewart for Cutting It.

I also co-wrote (with composer Mike Moran) all the original songs for the TV series Sex, Chips And Rock And Roll and later co-wrote (with composer Hereward Kaye) the songs for the stage version of Sex, Chips And Rock And Roll, three years ago. Music's played quite a big part in a lot of the things I've done and I suppose it was a natural progression to make it a central theme to a drama.

Was All The Small Things a very different writing experience because of the musical element?

The writing of the story wasn't different. But working with the musical arrangers was definitely a new experience.

It was really important, for the drama, to get the right feel for the different arrangements we used – especially as I didn't choose particularly straightforward or conventional arrangements of songs.

I experimented using the local Sixth Form College – Glossopdale Community College, to try different ideas. Some of the students actually ended up being in the show – we used some of the children from the lower school in two episodes where a school choir features.

In terms of Esther's choir, quite a few of the Sixth Form students who'd been involved at the experimental stage actually ended up being part of Esther's choir.

The Head of Music at Glossopdale, Chris O'Hara, and the Head of Music Technology, Colin Hanson-Orr, worked very closely with me.

I don't think I've ever worked harder on a show because it was a whole added dimension that I'd never taken on to such an extent before.

The casting of the piece feels perfect – did you have any cast in mind when you were devising the characters?

I think very early on we knew that Sarah Lancashire would be perfect for Esther. Also pretty early on, Richard Fleeshman was my chosen 'Kyle'.

But generally, I never write with actors in mind in the early stages. I just see how the characters develop and the actual 'putting a face to a character' comes later. I guess I had three episodes written by the time we started casting.

I have to say I couldn't be happier with the casting – we have the most perfect cast – they are all absolutely brilliant and believable. Sarah and Neil are utterly convincing as conductors and the rest of the cast equally believable as accomplished singers.

Even so, it must have been quite nerve wracking on the first day of filming?

Sarah and Neil are both very musical which was a massive help, for them and us.

We'd decided in terms of voices for casting, we would always go for actors first, and if they were musical it was a bonus. We got a lot of bonuses as a lot of the cast are extremely musical with amazing voices!

The first day wasn't as nerve-wracking as you'd imagine, because by this point, everybody knew what each other sounded like. Critically, we also knew we would have to pre-record the singing as it would be impossible to perform a song live 48 times on the day which took the pressure off.

When we started the music rehearsals and the cast started singing together, a lot of them hadn't sung in choirs before, so they suddenly got a real buzz from singing together in parts.

Singing actually raises the level of endorphins in your body which gives you a buzz and a high, and that's absolutely what happened in rehearsals – the cast hugely enjoyed themselves.

I was surprised when I was writing to discover that choir-singing is the second most popular hobby in the country after sport. Singing has been phased out in many schools and I think people are beginning to realise that was a mistake and there are a lot of initiatives now to rectify that.

The use of an ensemble cast in this production is a large part of its appeal – what's the secret of keeping multiple plot lines in the air while driving the central narrative forward?

That's the thing that's always fascinated me about writing long-running drama series. The enjoyment of controlling and developing several people's stories, often simultaneously, is probably the reason I've done very few one-offs.

I started off writing for the theatre and even then I couldn't say all I wanted to say in one play – it ended up as a trilogy!

I sometimes wonder if the reason I'm interested in telling stories about several characters at once is because I come from a large family and I'm used to lots of stories – and conversations – going on simultaneously!

As well as writing All The Small Things, you're also executive producer – how was this experience?

Being involved in all the key creative decisions is something I've always done, though the experience this time was particularly full on and intense. I've been involved in every stage of pre-production, production and post-production. It's been a long haul but a hugely enjoyable one.

The logistics of scheduling rehearsing must have been quite a challenge on this production. How long did it take to shoot the series?

We had the same amount of time as a 'normal' drama. But of course, people can't just turn up on set and sing their part without rehearsal, so this required a lot of extra input.

Sometimes, for story purposes, the performance of the choir was required to be less than impressive, which is a lot harder than you might think, as everyone's natural impulse is to do the best they can!

There were other times when the choir needed to sound absolutely amazing, so taking all this on board meant a lot of additional rehearsal and planning – so there was certainly more required of the cast in All The Small Things than I would generally say is required of actors in a drama.

What do you hope the audience take away from All The Small Things?

I hope the audience will feel uplifted and inspired and come away with a sense of the sheer pleasure that can be had from singing.

There's a redemptive aspect to the stories, which illustrate why choirs in themselves serve a really important purpose in a community. They are a family within themselves, and in an era when the framework of family is constantly breaking down, Esther's choir provides an inclusive, welcoming substitute "family" which people can join without being criticised or judged. As opposed to Michael's choir which ends up being elitist and exclusive, and quite a scary place for people to be!

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