Debbie Horsfield on her new BBC One drama Age Before Beauty and her writing career
Debbie Horsfield's TV writing career ranges from factory drama Making Out to The Riff Raff Element, Sex, Chips and Rock n' Roll and Cutting It to the recent hit BBC One adaptation of Winston Graham's Poldark Novels.
We caught up with Debbie to ask about her career, her new drama Age Before Beauty, creating characters and for any other advice she could share.
Age Before Beauty (Chizzler (STRUAN RODGER), Ivy-Rae (SUE JOHNSTON), Lorelei (MADELEINE MANTOCK), Wesley (JAMES MURRAY), Bel (POLLY WALKER), Leanne (KELLY HARRISON), Teddy (ROBSON GREEN), Tina (LISA RILEY), Disney (ISABELLA GILL) , Heidi (VICKY MYERS) (Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures/Todd Antony)
What made you want to write?
That’s a difficult question to answer because I’ve been writing since I was four. My dad used to tell me stories and it just seemed a natural medium to me. I was the first child in my family, so the centre of the world for everybody! My brother was born when I was 4 and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that’s when I can remember starting to tell stories to myself, in which I was actually the main character. I think that was possibly my way of coping with the fact that I wasn’t the centre of the universe any more! After that, because I have 5 siblings, I just carried on writing little stories, writing little plays that I forced them to be in (they must have hated me). Writing was just the way I dealt with the world and I’ve been doing it since then. It wasn’t something that I thought could be a career, it didn’t even occur to me that it was a job.
When did that change?
I did English Lit at university and was involved with the theatre society. I wrote a play that we took to the Edinburgh Festival but again I wasn’t thinking ‘this is a career’, it was just two weeks of fun in Edinburgh before I had to get a proper job. However it was at the Edinburgh Festival that I was approached by an agent and three theatre directors who asked me what I was writing next. My initial thought was ‘I don’t think I’m writing anything next’. My play was about female football fans and I thought that was all I had to say about anything.
How did you get a break into TV?
Having got the agent, which was completely out of the blue, I got a commission to do a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play (as it was then). I was working full time as well in theatre administration and wrote a couple of other plays on spec'. One of these was put on by the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The director had heard that BBC Two was doing a season of writers new to TV so he sent the script and the BBC asked me to adapt it for TV. At the same time I got commissioned to write an episode of ITV's Crown Court (made by Granada Television). The deadlines were on exactly the same day which was pretty taxing as I was still working full time and coming home and writing until 2 in the morning and at the weekends.
Watch the trailer for Age Before Beauty
What was the inspiration for your new series Age Before Beauty?
I did a series a few years ago called Cutting It which was set in a hairdressing salon. I knew quite a bit about that world because I have twin sisters who had a salon. What was really clear at the time is that a salon environment is great for generating stories, particularly if it’s a family business. I was talking to the two producers Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie who had done Cutting It with me and we were talking about what’s changed in the years since then and agreed that there’s much more obsession with the idea of staying young and attention on appearance. We came to the conclusion that everything from glossy magazines to people posting on Instagram has focused attention on appearance in a way it hadn’t been twenty years ago. That seemed an obvious territory to explore using three generations of one family and looking at what our expectations are of how people should behave at a certain time in their life. Having three generations of one family gave the space to explore that.
All your work (apart from Poldark) has been set around Manchester. How important is location to you?
For me it’s vital as it roots things and gives them a sense of authenticity. Manchester is my home territory and it’s important when I’m writing that I can imagine where things are taking place. I will, even before we’re in production and have found shooting locations, go around looking at locations even if we never end up using them, because I need to have a clear idea in my head what each place in my story looks like.
Leanne (KELLY HARRISON), Heidi (VICKY MYERS), Bel (POLLY WALKER), Tina (LISA RILEY) in Age Before Beauty (Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures/Todd Antony)
What is it about multi-generational families that interests you?
Well I’m the eldest of six and we have a large extended family. I’ve four kids of my own. I have my in-laws living next door to me. Two of my sons live next door to me, a grandson lives next door. I think that my dream has always been to be surrounded by family because I have had a good experience of it, but I also know that it’s a very rich source of drama and stories. There is no end to the stories that come out of families including conflict, ideas, conversations. Family is my inspiration.
How do you approach writing the series once you have the commission?
The process starts way before the commission. It starts probably with me talking to the executives from the company who would make the series if it gets commissioned about the themes and territory that we want to explore. After that it would be me going away and doing preparatory work on who the characters are, the stories I might want to tell, what themes I might want to explore. I do a massive amount of work for my own benefit before I even start talking about what the idea might be just because I need to amass quite a lot of material for myself to know where I’m going to take the story. All of this prep work happens before I sit down and write any dialogue.
Ivy-Rae (SUE JOHNSTON) in Age Before Beauty (Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures/Todd Antony)
Do you have any tips on creating characters?
I usually begin with some element of someone I already know (but never the whole person) as a starting point but it quickly moves beyond that. Having that foundation in a real person’s characteristics is the thing which anchors any character and allows me to build them.
I often do quite a detailed document in which I take the main characters and ask them the same hypothetical question which might be ‘where do you see yourself being this time next year?’ That helps me start to hear what their personalities are like because the answer comes in the form of a monologue in which I can hear their voices. I let them describe themselves. Anyone reading that document will get a sense of what these characters sound like and what their particular idiosyncrasies, speech patterns and sense of humour are. It allows them to answer in their own voice with their own attitudes and gives them speech patterns, aims and aspirations. It’s a great short cut to creating distinct characters. You can also practise this by thinking of five people who you really know and writing down what you think would be their responses to the same question.
To me it feels like the characters already exist but I don’t know them yet, but as I write them I get to know them better – just in the way you get to know a real person.
Have you planned out the whole series before you write the first episode?
I do quite a detailed document about what will go into the first episode, of around 10 pages, but only give an indication of what happens next as I know from experience that although I may know what the end point is, how we get there always changes as I write more and more of the story.
Teddy (ROBSON GREEN) in Age Before Beauty (Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet/Todd Anthony)
Did you do any specific research for Age Before Beauty?
We hoped it would be a good excuse to get loads of beauty treatments in the name of research! However in the end we didn’t do any of that as ultimately that isn’t what the story is about.
Do you have a favourite character in the show or one you enjoyed writing the most?
I love Teddy (Robson Green) because he’s not what you expect. The show is about appearance on every level, on a dramatic level it’s about whether things are how they appear or not. I enjoyed writing a character who absolutely appeared to be one thing until you begin to peel the layers away and realise that isn’t him at all and then you begin to realise why he’s made the decisions he’s made and done the things he’s done.
I’ve loved writing Leanne (Kelly Harrison) because she’s so outrageous and insensitive. It always fascinates me when people are so insensitive that they ride rough-shod over you but they don’t think they’re being horrible or don’t mean to be. She was fun to write because she’s got some great turns of phrase.
It was great writing the older generation (Struan Rodger, Sue Johnston), because actually in their behaviour, they are the most outrageous characters in the whole show.
Leon (KOUASSI ARNOLD OCENG) in Age Before Beauty (Image Credit: BBC/Mainstreet Pictures/Matt Squire)
How involved are you with the production of the show?
I’m always involved in that because I’m an executive producer too. That includes the casting, the choice of directors, the designer, composer etc. all the key roles. I also get to see everything that’s shot at the end of each day and at every stage of the editing process. I don’t tend to go on set very much because if you’ve done your job properly and have a good relationship with the director and you’ve done a lot of prep work then you have to hand it over. For Age Before Beauty I went on set for the episode with a Northern Soul night as that was so great to watch as we had some amazing dancers who’d been at the Wigan Casino back in the 70s and 80s.
What do you want the audience to take away from Age Before Beauty?
I want them to enjoy the twists and turns of the stories but also I think we pose some interesting questions about why we are so judgmental about what we are and are not ‘allowed’ to do at certain ages and why the older characters feel that they have nothing to lose in behaving more outrageously and don’t care about what people think any more. Basically I want the audience to feel entertained and intrigued and engaged and to want to go on the journey with the characters. That’s what you want from drama.
Poldark (Demelza Poldark (Eleanor Tomlinson), Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner). Debbie Horsfield has adapted Winston Graham's series of novels for the hit BBC One Drama.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It’s a real cliché but ‘write what you know’ – there’s a truth to it. You can be much cleverer if you know something inside out than if you are second guessing what your response would be.
In Poldark for example I wrote about a character who suffered from being in a Prisoner of War camp and although it wasn’t understood in the 18th Century was suffering from PTSD. If you know somebody who has undergone that you are not having to second guess how they might feel but are writing it from a place of inside knowledge and authenticity.
What was your last box set binge?
I came very late to Breaking Bad and had resisted it. My generation didn’t binge watch but for all of my kids that’s how they watch TV. With Breaking Bad I thought ‘I haven’t got time for this but I’d better at least watch the first episode’ and 30 seconds in I knew I would have to watch the whole thing – it’s one of the most brilliant openings of all time – so that was six weeks of my life every evening! I’m wary of getting into box sets as I know I’ll become obsessed.
Do you have any top tips for new writers?
It depends what you mean by a new writer? I think most people who are going to make it as a writer have been telling stories for a long time and have a sense of what kinds of stories they want to tell and what they feel passionate about. I was lucky coming up through theatre to find my voice through the subjects I wanted to write about. If you come up through a long-running series there’s a real challenge in holding on to your voice and not feeling constrained by the demands of the show that you’re writing for. I’ve never written for a long-running series and don’t know the mechanics of that but it’s unique original voices that people are looking for. It’s about trusting your instinct and sticking to your guns on that.
The other truth is you have to be prepared for a lot of hard work. If you get to the stage of having your own show then it’s gruelling, you have no other life for a long time. It’s a joyful and highly satisfying experience but it’s also exhausting. If you think it’s all red carpet events and parties being a writer then you’re going to be disappointed! I’ve probably been to two red carpet events in my life. Being a working writer is about turning up to your laptop at 8.30 in the morning and putting in a ten hour day for six, sometimes seven days a week. If you’re not prepared for that it might not be the gig for you. If you are prepared for that then it’s amazing.
What have you got coming up next?
I’m writing the fifth series of Poldark at the moment. I’m actually writing episode 8 of 8 which is quite sad. It’s possibly the last ever episode, but possibly not, we don’t know, we never know ahead of time. Whatever happens it’s been an awesome project to be on.
Watch Age Before Beauty on BBC One from Tuesday 31st July at 9pm and on BBC iPlayer