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Creating 'The Coroner' for BBC One

Sally Abbott

Writer

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At 2.15pm on Monday 16th November, the first episode of my first ever TV series, The Coroner, will be broadcast on BBC One. Something that is simultaneously thrilling and ever so slightly nerve wracking.

The Coroner: Mick (Ivan Kaye), Judith (Beatie Edney), Beth (Grace Hogg-Robinson), Jane (Claire Goose), Davey (Matt Bardock), Clint (Oliver Gomm) (Photo credit: BBC/Mike Hogan)

Before writing The Coroner I’d been writing continuing drama for five years. After graduating from the BBC Writers Academy (now the BBC Writersroom's shadow schemes), I’d earned my living writing EastEnders and Casualty. I loved both those shows and had been fortunate to write some big Casualty episodes – burning down the hospital, riots on the street of Holby and crashing a helicopter… But I wanted to write something that lasted longer than twenty-four hours (continuing drama episodes generally last no longer than a day and a night). I loved writing characters and stories for these shows but (like every other writer in the world) I was desperate to write something that had my DNA running right the way through.

The genesis for The Coroner came two years ago when I met Ceri Meyrick (Development Producer at BBC Birmingham) to talk about creating a TV series. I’d moved from the city back to the countryside (I’m from rural Somerset) and was keen to write a show about a family who do the same. I loved how in a village, everyone knows your business, you have a rich mixture of characters and there’s that sense of a real community. All I knew was that a couple move in with the wife’s parents who run the local pub as if it’s Jamaica Inn, major players in a local black market economy. She might be a teacher, he might be a copper. But that was it. Ceri liked the setting and the characters but there was no “story engine”. What we needed was something that would give us story. Lots and lots and lots of story. Something that could run and run. Hmmm….

The Coroner: Davey (Matt Bardock), Jane (Claire Goose)(Photo Credit: BBC/Matt Hogan)

A few months later, Ceri called me with an idea from Will Trotter, the prolifically successful Executive Producer who runs BBC Drama Birmingham. Specifically nine words: “Coroner, woman, 40, beautiful location, maybe Cotswolds, maybe Devon”. They wanted a show which had self-contained stories of the day and no serial so it could be shown in any order (like their other show Father Brown or like, say, Columbo). She also emailed me some research about Coroners.

It gave me one of those rare beautiful bolts of creative lightening where everything suddenly and gloriously fuses together – old ideas, new ideas, even my life. Five days later I met Ceri and gave her a rough pitch about Jane, a high flying solicitor, who leaves the city and a failed marriage to return to the childhood home she ran away from to take up the post of Coroner. She’s forced to work with Davey, the detective who broke her heart (and the reason she ran away), to investigate the “death of the day”. I also pitched the other four regular characters; the world and ideas for stories. Being from Somerset with family in South Hams, I knew it had to be set in Devon. We pitched it to Will Trotter on the phone and the next day he pitched it to the Controllers for Daytime and Worldwide. A week later they commissioned the series bible and first episode. Six months later, after writing the bible and 3 episodes (the brilliant Ann Marie di Mambro wrote one) we got the greenlight for the series – ten episodes to be shot in Devon in 2015. It sounds like it all was very simple and straightforward – of course it wasn’t (this is the short version) but it was very quick.

The Coroner: Jane (Claire Goose)(Photo Credit: BBC/Matt Hogan)

A Coroner is a brilliant character to have at the heart of a series. Every country has them but many people don’t know who or what they are (when I canvassed friends, they thought a Coroner was a pathologist). A Coroner investigates sudden or unexplained deaths. They have to answer four questions: Who died? Where did they die? When did they die? How did they die? Of course, for our series, Jane also investigates “why” did they die? They represent the dead, which gives us the most beautifully juicy story engine – the search for truth for someone who no longer has a voice. Coroners don’t just deal in murder (in fact they very rarely deal with murder as that becomes a police investigation); they also deal with suicide and accidental death. A Coroner is also responsible for any treasure found in their area – a story begging to be written. I met with several Coroners and it was fascinating to find out they’re autonomous, with no one set way of working. They work alongside the police but people confide in them in a way they never would with the police.

I always felt that if we’ve got a show that deals with death then it also has to deal with life. So alongside the “death of the day” we have the contrast of Jane’s other relationships. Will and Ceri were always very keen to have lightness in the tone. They knew it was a winner on Father Brown. So, whenever we’re dealing with the grieving and the dead, we’re very respectful but the moment our regulars aren’t with them lightness kicks in. In real life, people who work in Coroners offices have quite a dark sense of humour. The same sense of humour I found in those who work in emergency medicine. You couldn’t do those jobs without it. You’d be emotionally drained and burn out. That juxtaposition is our show’s tone.

Ceri, Will and I did a huge huge amount of talking about the show and characters. As working mums, Ceri and I were keen to not have a lead woman who’s brilliant at work and terrible at home – it felt like it’d been done to death. Jane is good at both, although has serious trust issues which means she gets more involved than a Coroner normally would. Jane was the hardest character to develop – we didn’t want her to be worthy or too serious. Will and I, separately but simultaneously, came up with Katherine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib as a potential role model – real, tenacious, funny, strong, infuriating and able to change in a click of a finger. We also gave her an accident-prone streak and the occasional nickname “Calamity Jane”. The ability to fall or knock something over is one of my own character traits. Spencer Tracy in “Adam’s Rib” also gave us the inspiration for Davey, the detective Jane works with – the most decent man you could ever meet. They’re childhood sweethearts and neither of them has ever quite got over the other. But he’s married (not unhappily just to the wrong person) and would never betray his wife; Jane would never hurt another woman. They know neither can go there. Will wanted to create that “Moonlighting” massive “UST” (unresolved sexual tension) between them. We know the moment they get together, we’ll lose interest in them so written in the bible in bold capitals is “THEY CAN NEVER GET TOGETHER!”

The Coroner: Davey (Matt Bardock)(Photo Credit: BBC/Matt Hogan)

Our other regulars include Jane’s mum, Judith, who is the most gloriously confident woman in her early 50’s. She’s happy in her skin, has a very healthy love life with her boyfriend Mick and is totally body confident. She’s got absolutely no filter, which makes her hysterical to write. She’s one of those characters who emerged totally fully formed; she’ll always try and take over scenes if I let her. I always think of Jane living with two teenagers – her mother and Beth, her daughter, who’s fifteen and described in the bible as “Lisa Simpson meets Marilyn Manson” – a goth; obsessed with death with Jane’s same sense of fairness and doing the right thing.

There’s also Mick – Judith’s boyfriend and landlord of “The Black Dog”, our local pub. He’s loud, rude, funny and very dodgy. He’s got his finger in every pie and can get you anything – fags, booze, watches or information. He adores Judith but is less keen on Jane who accidentally set fire to his pub when she was younger and got him investigated by the Inland Revenue.

I love that the characters with the healthiest sex lives are our two oldest characters – something that was absolutely deliberate. Our sixth regular is Clint – the Coroner’s Officer. Normally they’re the person carrying out the investigations but, along with Jane’s trust issues (which makes her insist on leading the investigations), we’ve made him allergic to dead bodies. He’s in his mid twenties, an IT whizz and is a slacker, surfer, stoner dude. He’s always respectful to the bereaved but keen to hit the surf whenever possible.

The Coroner: Jane (Claire Goose)(Photo Credit: BBC/Matt Hogan)

People sometimes ask you as a writer if the actors are anything like the characters you imagined – often the answer is no! I feel I really lucked out with the casting and can’t imagine anyone else playing them. Claire Goose as Jane literally gave me goose bumps. Beatie Edney, as Judith, is hilarious and so joyful and confident. Ivan Kaye (Mick), Oliver Gomm (Clint) and Grace Hogg-Robinson (Beth) all got under their character's skins instantly and were perfect. I like to write characters with an actor in mind but the only part I did that for on this was Davey. Working on Casualty, I knew Matt Bardock was leaving the show months before it was announced. I’d secretly written Davey with him in mind and was dead chuffed that Matt got the part.

As well as our six regulars we also have a seventh character – the biggest one of all – South Devon. It’s a gloriously beautiful place – lots of sea, rolling countryside and strangely old-fashioned, archetypally “British”. We knew we’d be selling it overseas and it was a chance to have dark stories set against gorgeous locations. Will and Ceri were keen to have as much of the show set outside as possible. After working on shows where you can only write 8 pages on location, it was a luxury to write 80% of it outside.

We had a total of seven writers beside myself on The Coroner: Ann Marie Di Mambro (who wrote two), David Bowker, Kit Lambert, Al Smith, Dan Muirden and co-writers Matthew Cooke and Vincent Lund. As the creator and lead writer (we don’t have a showrunner, something I’d love to do) I read all the story pitches first and production drafts. We had a small tight team for the show – as well as Ceri and Will there was also Loretta Preece and Neil Irvine (our brilliant script producers), Lee Saczak (our tireless researcher) and Sandra Maciver (an incredible Producer who I’m positive can actually spin gold out of straw). I wrote four of the episodes although we didn’t end up using the first one. It was the episode where Jane and Beth arrived and their “set up” battled with the “story of the day” format making it feel too different to the rest of the series. Even though it wasn’t used, it gave everyone a very clear sense of who the characters were and how they’d got there.

The Coroner: Davey (Matt Bardock)(Photo Credit; BBC/Matt Hogan)

Reading the other writers' scripts was great. They absolutely “got” who these characters were and how the world worked. Specifically they’d all got the tone too – the balance of light and dark, comedy and tragedy. The characters in The Coroner are very warm, the kind of people you want to hang out with. It was such a lovely experience seeing them brought to life by other writers. Each episode is very different, set in a new world. I feel very proud that we’ve created a show where writers absolutely keep their individual voices and tell their stories in their way.

Even though The Coroner is a daytime drama doesn’t mean it’s any less ambitious than its evening counterparts. On daytime drama you can often be more adventurous and more “out there” than in an evening pre-watershed slot. There’s far greater autonomy and less layers of notes. We could create the show we wanted without worrying about what other people thought and jumping through hoops. Decisions were made very quickly. The two Controllers, the people with the budgets, were discussing character in the first week of the project’s inception. That’s music to a writer’s ears. Also, because Daytime has a smaller budget (though I think you’d be hard pushed to know that on The Coroner), it can afford to take greater risks. If it had been an evening show, I doubt I would have been the lead writer – I wouldn’t have the track record. Crucially, I don’t think we would have been able to have the boldness of our tone.

So what next? We currently have our fingers crossed that audiences will enjoy it and we’ll get to make more of it. We have a very narrow filming band of April to July in South Devon (to make sure we get the weather and to avoid tourist season) so the other writers and I are already developing episodes for a second series. I’m also developing a sitcom, a children’s TV series and four drama series. In the meantime, I hope people love our characters and stories as much as we loved making them.

Watch The Coroner on BBC One from Monday 16 November 2015 at 2.15pm and on BBC iPlayer

Read a Q&A with Sally Abbott packed with loads of writing advice and watch an interview

Read the scripts for episodes 1 & 2 of 'The Coroner' by Sally Abbott and Al Smith

 

 

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