Tuesday 23 Sep 2014
How did you become involved in Exile?
Having worked with Paul Abbott on three previous shows – Clocking Off, Linda Green and Shameless – we were keen to work together again.
After thrashing through a few different ideas, Paul produced a short six-page document from his bottom drawer and asked me to read it. It was entitled Exile and was the premise for an independent feature film. It was set in America and involved a sex scandal in US politics. But at the heart of it was a father/son story, which really interested me.
So we set about reconfiguring the story and it kind of took on a new life. I brought in a lot of themes that excited me and took it into the politics of local government. But I always tried to remain truthful to Paul's original idea.
How long did it take you to write and where did you draw inspiration from?
The first draft of episode one I wrote very quickly, and then we did subsequent drafts with various changes, especially to the opening 10 minutes. I worked out the whole story in advance and when the show was greenlit, I then set about writing the other episodes.
I tend to find inspiration from real life, so I drew upon a lot of personal things for Exile and did a fair bit of research to get the Alzheimer's strand right.
What is at the heart of the drama in your eyes?
I wanted to write a truthful, moving father/son story. Exile for me is a story about fathers, sons and how difficult those relationships can sometime be.
Do you have experience of Alzheimer's in your life?
No. But one in three of us will get some form of dementia in our lives, so it felt like a subject that I should tackle. I did bags of research, but also our producer Karen Lewis, director John Alexander and actor Jim Broadbent all brought first-hand knowledge of the disease, so between us I think we have got pretty close to the truth.
How was working with such a stellar cast and have you worked with any of them before?
I've never worked with John or Jim before, but I have always wanted to. John Simm is one of the finest actors of his generation, but he makes it look effortless. And if you look back across his CV, whether it's The Lakes or Life On Mars or State Of Play or Never Never, he has been involved in some of the very best drama of the last 15 years. It's a privilege to have him saying my words.
Jim Broadbent is simply one of my favourite all-time actors. I remember seeing him play sleazy copper Roy Slater in Only Fools And Horses when I was a kid and totally loving him. And since then he's done stacks of great movies and amazing work with Mike Leigh, Life Is Sweet is an underrated classic.
Our supporting cast are fantastic too: Olivia Colman, Claire Goose and Shaun Dooley all give 100 per cent. I'm delighted with them.
You have strong links with the North – how did you find setting and filming the drama there?
I live in the North and almost everything I've written has been set up here. I find writing about this part of the world very easy. But it's nice to set a show in the north-west countryside (around Bacup and Oldham), which we don't see very often. It's totally beautiful, but has a rugged, lived-in quality. They are surrounded by hills, so they feel very enclosed. The production company Red are based here too, so it's great that the whole team was local.
How do you hope for Exile to be received? What would you like viewers to take from it?
Obviously, I hope it is received well. My personal philosophy is to write drama that, if I were a viewer, I'd want to watch. I know that seems obvious, but I sometimes get offered things and have to ask myself, "would I watch this?"
To me, drama, whether it's contemporary or period, should have something to say about the world, reflect our lives in some way, and do so in as entertaining a way as possible.
Exile is stuffed full of important themes, but hopefully it never feels preachy or worthy. I'm very proud of the fact that we've managed to squeeze laughs into a piece that has such a dark undercurrent.
What have you taken from it?
I just enjoyed writing a thriller. I've written a lot of stuff about ordinary lives, which is what I love, but haven't done anything like this before.
You and Paul have a reputation for exceptional work – do you feel the pressure?
I feel the pressure to do good work, because that's what all writers should aspire to. Paul has taught me a great deal over the years and his body of work inspires me.
I'm a particular kind of writer; I could never do sci-fi or something with vampires, because that stuff just doesn't interest me. I want to grapple with contemporary lives. My other favourite writer is Tony Marchant – if I could get close to some of the stuff he's done, I'd be a very happy man.
Nicola Shindler at Red gave you your first break in television and you have continued working with her ever since. Why is that?
Nicola Shindler is fairly unique in that she runs a production company that puts the writer at the heart of every project. She helps me be the best that I can be. She always pushes writers towards excellence and expects to get your very best work. I adore her.
What are you working on next?
I'm currently writing a show for HBO. It's called Dirty. We have Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold attached to direct the pilot. It's very exciting.
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