In all my most recent shows – Exile, Talk To Me, The Street and Accused - I have created lead characters that are morally complicated. Lead characters that walk the fine line between good and bad, their behaviour is sometimes appalling, but in the next breath they are charming, funny, likeable. These characters are interesting to me – I don’t do good guys - I like characters that are difficult, characters that tell lies, characters that keep secrets, characters with flaws. So when Jim Poyser and myself came up with the idea for The Driver – a taxi driver who starts driving for a criminal - I instantly knew I had a character I could write.
David Morrissey stars as Vince McKee in The Driver.
The idea came from a lunch we had together one day. We were just having a laugh and shooting the breeze, as friends do, when Jim told me of a half idea he had about a guy who works for a crime boss in his spare time. He’d imagined a comedy. But something chimed with me. I’d read a story weeks before, in the Manchester Evening News, about a taxi driver who had been done for carrying cash for a local gang. And suddenly, as these things sometimes do, an idea started forming.
I went away and wrote up some pages. I showed them to Jim and he liked them. Then, I made a bizarre decision. Instead of pitching this to a channel, I decided to write episode one. I just wanted to. I knew the story, I knew the characters and I knew that the tone needed to be very specific. So, I wrote a draft. I loved writing it. I sent it to Jim, and he did a pass. Then I did another. With no one to answer to and no deadlines to meet we were able to just write the show we wanted. A rare treat.
Vince is reunited with old friend Colin (Ian Hart) when Colin is released from prison.
Around this time, I was due to have a meeting with David Morrissey and his business partner (and producer) Jolyon Symonds. I’d been trying to work with Dave for years and during the meeting I started talking about The Driver. Dave and Jolyon liked the sound of it. I said I would send the script over. And before long, we were all heading into the BBC to discuss the project with Polly Hill.
For BBC One to make a show about a man who drives for a criminal gang is a very bold move. This is bad behaviour. Vince is most definitely NOT a hero. His motivation is understandable, his emotional journey is truthful, but he is most definitely NOT your standard mainstream lead character.
And yet… I would argue that the themes of the show are universal. Don’t we all feel bored sometimes, like we want life to mean more, to be more exciting? Don’t we all have difficulties in our families that we wish we could solve? Don’t we all wish we could reignite some of the passion and simplicity of our youth?
The Driver was pitched as a longer show than three parts, but what we discovered through the development process was that the story worked best as a kind of feature film for TV. Reaching this understanding wasn’t always easy. My first draft of episode two was baggy. I was giving too much space to characters around Vince. I was indulging myself in humorous set pieces. And whilst this material was enjoyable, it didn’t shift us forward. It let the air out of the balloon.
Gang leader The Horse (Colm Meaney) offers Vince an exciting job driving for him.
Development can be painful sometimes. But the secret to getting through it is to listen to others whilst trying to keep hold of your original vision. If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy. As a writer, I like to work only with people I trust to criticise me. My main collaborator over the years (and co-producer of The Driver) is Red Productions. They are a company I always feel safe with. I recently re-wrote a script from scratch (page one rewrite folks!) because they felt it wasn’t working to a standard they’d hoped. All writers need that trust. All writers need to be open to changing things, even radically, if they are not working. And yes, it’s much nicer if they LOVE your first draft, but let’s be realistic, no one gets it right all the time…
For me, stories need to end. That’s what storytelling is. So a TV serial is the perfect medium. Whether it’s three parts, five parts, eight or sixteen, a story should reach a conclusion. Stories should offer the viewer some kind of satisfying closure (even if they return). We could all leave things open ended, but that’s not proper storytelling. If you were reading a book to a child and the last page didn’t have a proper ending they’d screw their face up and say, ‘Is that it?’ Well, so do viewers. So, when I’m writing I like to have an end point. I might not always know how to get there but at least I have a destination in mind. How many times do you watch something and get let down by the ending? Endings are vital. They are what you leave the audience with. A great ending can blow you away.
The Driver is the story of an ordinary man who makes a terrible decision.
But as well as a great ending, a thriller motor, truthful emotions and a believable family at the heart of the drama, I wanted one other thing in The Driver: humour. Whatever I write, with the possible exception of my Accused episodes, I always try and add humour. Life is funny, even in its darkest moments. And it is a great mystery to me why so little drama has any humour in it. Comedy and drama can blur together. Life is absurd. And when shows manage to capture this – The Lakes, Breaking Bad, Shameless, The Sopranos – it is television gold.
Obviously the characters you create will help with this. I like characters that are turned up a notch or two, characters that can naturally say funny things. So in creating Vince’s best mate Col, or members of the gang like Woodsy, I provided myself with characters for whom funny stuff was forthcoming. One of my favourite characters in The Driver, is Kev Mitchell, played superbly by Lee Ross. This guy is in about five scenes and yet he is brilliant in all of them. He could so easily have been ‘the bloke that Vince works with’, but I decided to make him a divorced sexual deviant who has started internet dating and is like a kid in a sweet shop. This is a trick I learned from Paul Abbott, if you make the small characters rounded and engaging, they lift the whole show.
The Driver is a drama I’m incredibly proud of. It contains subjects I love to explore – ordinary people in extraordinary situations, father and son relationships, double lives, the lies we tell ourselves, the need to escape the mundane. But most of all, I’m proud of the fact that we have mixed together a character drama and a thriller and come out with a show that can break your heart, whilst also having some kick ass car chases.
The Driver begins on Tuesday 23 September 2014 on BBC One and on BBC iPlayer
Read scripts by Danny Brocklehurst: