The Responder: From police officer to writing a BBC police drama

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment & arts reporter

Image caption,
Martin Freeman stars in Tony Schumacher's TV drama The Responder

Tony Schumacher spent 10 years in the police in Liverpool before the pressures of the job led him to burn out. Now, he's written a major TV drama about a Liverpool police officer in the middle of a breakdown.

The people who PC Chris Carson is supposed to be helping in BBC One's The Responder - the teenage boy who has just found his gran dead, or the schizophrenic girl who he coaxes out of a wheelie bin, even his own young daughter - have a habit of turning to him and asking if he's OK.

PC Carson, played by Martin Freeman, is one of the responders who races to be there in the public's hour of need. But they can tell that, in reality, he needs help more than them. He's fed up, worn out and ground down.

Tony Schumacher knows how he feels. The show's writer says he drew on his own experiences in the police. "Chris's mental health is [based on] me. The way that Chris is struggling is me," he says.

Image source, Tony Schumacher/BBC
Image caption,
Schumacher was a police officer in Liverpool for a decade

"There's little things, like his need to constantly work alone. And some of his temper issues. He's finding it more and more difficult to control himself. That was me - although I never got as bad as Chris.

"As my mental health spiralled in the way Chris's has, it became more and more difficult to measure your own performance. That is very much me."

The character may be based on Schumacher's own experiences, but the storyline is not. PC Carson is put under even more stress when a childhood friend and drug lord demands the fictional officer's help.

There are murmurings of corruption in PC Carson's past, and he operates in a grey area where the letter of the law is so blurred it's virtually illegible.

He often takes matters into his own hands, if he thinks he's serving the greater good in the long run. But he is a good guy. Probably. Just.

Image caption,
Ian Hart (centre) plays drug dealer Carl

"I love that moral conflict," Schumacher explains. "People who do good things for bad reasons and people who do bad things for good reasons. I like to muddy the waters."

Carson is, in cop drama parlance, a maverick. But - thanks to Schumacher's inside knowledge - he's more complex than the stereotypical maverick cop, and The Responder is more complex than your average police procedural.

In the early reviews, The Radio Times described it as "the anti-Line of Duty" and "a triumph".

The Times said the programme's problem is that it is "so relentlessly dark". However, the Scouse humour lightens the mood in occasional laugh-out-loud moments.

'A tour de force'

The Telegraph said it blows cop show cliches "out of the Mersey", and that the Sherlock, The Office and The Hobbit actor "gives a tour-de-force turn".

Screen greats Rita Tushingham and David Bradley also give delicious cameos.

But as PC Carson, Freeman strikes the required balance between toughness and vulnerability, despair and gallows humour, right and wrong.

"He wants to be a good bobby, he wants to be a good dad, he wants to be a good husband, and he just wants to be a good man," Schumacher says of the main character. "But he's just lost his way."

Image caption,
MyAnna Buring plays PC Carson's wife Kate

Schumacher, 54, loved being in the police when he joined up himself a quarter of a century ago. "It was exciting. It was challenging, and funny," he says.

"You get to have a punch-up on a Saturday night. It was great fun. I thought it was the job for me."

But he started struggling as the years went on. Being badly assaulted twice and needing surgery for an injury "pushed me over the edge", he says.

"It's probably the wrong term to use, but I was convinced I was going mad. I cried and didn't know why I was crying. I had a panic attack one night buying dog food.

"It was totally alien to me because, to me, I'm not that guy. But I went fully into a breakdown and I ended up quitting my job and walking away. That was when I ended up homeless. My marriage broke down and everything else."

Image source, Rekha Garton
Image caption,
Rita Tushingham makes an appearance as PC Carson's ailing mother

Schumacher became a taxi driver, but had always fancied being a writer. One day, he picked up the editor of the Liverpool Confidential website. "I just blurted out, 'Oh, I'm a writer.' And I hadn't written anything. I had written nothing of that kind since I was 14, 15, 16, at school."

But he blagged it, telling her he wrote about things that happened in his cab. She asked him to submit an article.

"So then I had this deadline. I knew it was a new golden opportunity. So I wrote a 1,000-word story. I spent all night. I sent it and then she bought it.

"And I'd suddenly become a writer. That was the thing that started my recovery, I think."

Image caption,
The Responder was filmed on location in Liverpool

Thirteen years after he left the police, Schumacher has now written three novels and, on The Responder, his debut screenplay, was mentored by the great Liverpudlian dramatist Jimmy McGovern.

"It's like God ringing you," Schumacher says of the first time McGovern phoned him.

PC Chris Carson can be filed alongside McGovern's Cracker as one of TV's most complicated police characters. Schumacher hopes viewers will really have to think about what they think of his creation.

"If you're conflicted about something, you'll think about it afterwards," he says.

"They'll think about Martin's performance, which is phenomenal. But they'll think about Chris and think, I shouldn't like him, but I do."

The Responder begins on Monday at 21:00 GMT on BBC One and on iPlayer.