Kitchen sink drama

From Clocking Off to State of Play and Shameless, Paul Abbott has created some of the most memorable TV of recent decades

Hero image

Chatting to BAFTA-winning screenwriter Paul Abbott, there’s something you can’t quite put your finger on. Then you realise, his voice is the voice of “Mack” MackIntosh in Clocking Off or Cal McCaffrey in State of Play, even Shameless’s Frank Gallagher. It’s as though each of his characters is imbued with a little bit of him.

Many of the great anti-heroes he has created over the past 30-odd years have had a streak of anger or rebellion in them, not unlike Abbott himself. But the Abbott we meet now, aged 56, is cheerful, warm, friendly, funny. Perhaps he’s sliding into middle-aged mellowness?

He laughs loud. “Oh, I’m screaming like a middle-aged man but I’m screaming like a middle aged man who can get away with sounding like a teenager on paper!”

A journalist once referred to him as the “laureate of white sliced bread” and he has previously admitted he wrote State of Play, an intrigue of politics and journalism, in a fit of pique at the remark. Again he laughs when reminded of it.

“I’d rather watch Trumpton than a soap now because it has more character depth.”

“Everyone I complained to about that said they would be really proud if they’d been called that! If you don’t have anything to prove, it’s worth faking a motive. All my best work has been good tantrums. Self inflict, become your own opponent. Being bi-polar and as mad as a hatter. It’s good fun.”

He’s referring to his well-documented mental health problems, largely stemming from his extraordinary childhood in Burnley. Deserted by both parents, he
was raped by a stranger at the age of 11 and attempted suicide twice before the age of 16.

Although now he has moved several lifetimes from his Shameless – much of the series was autobiographical – childhood, he keeps it all in mind so his feet stay on the ground, despite the homes in Cheshire, France and LA.

“I often have to invite the kid back in as a writer to have that sense of reality,” he says. “He made bigger moves than I do. I don’t have to make those moves now and I feel that. I’ve bonded with that bit of me in the past five years more than I ever thought I would. I don’t mean you should always look back to what you were, or even explain your past, but if you can remember the kernel of where you shot from, where you found your propulsion, then it’s a spur for today.”

We meet at the Writers Studio in Cheshire where he and a team of collaborators work creating, writing, revising and editing his screen masterpieces. It’s a hive of activity with writers, editors and directors all milling about or meeting in the vast kitchen. Abbott has his own space, an office above the garage where he writes solo. So you are aware you are in a centre of excellence, his four BAFTAs are lined up on a casement windowsill.

Currently they are working on Abbott’s latest creation, series two of Channel 4 police drama, No Offence. In it, Abbott has created another extraordinary lead character in DI Viv Deering, played by Joanna Scanlon. Viv is a bottle-blonde, straight-talking force of nature in red heels. “She’s midwife to all her flock. She gets things done at the same time because she is strategic and a tactician,” says Abbott.

He originally wanted to create a comedy police drama, The Bill with laughs, but that didn’t really work. “We found that when we were going for funny lines, it just didn’t work. We want a satisfying hour of police drama, not just comedy. Vivacious wit and dark humour – that’s the frequency we inhabit. Just this side of straight takes us a long way.”

Humour and character were learnt as a writer on Coronation Street in the early 1990s.

“In those days the characters were in minute circles – you had to write about them. The trick was to explore the characters’ psyche and take them full circle and bring them back.”

Referring to the use of major catastrophic set pieces to woo viewers, Abbot adds: “You lose the audience’s love by having a chopper coming through the roof. They watch for the moment. You need to get back to the snug with three people sitting there… I’d rather watch Trumpton than a soap now because it has more character depth.”

Abbott’s new-found calm is in part due to changes in his private life. In a tale that could have come from one of his dramas, he married for the fourth time to Larkin from California, had a vasectomy reversal and now has a two-year-old daughter, Ellis.

“It’s brilliant! I do feel as if I have grown into myself. The whole baby thing feels like it should have happened. I had to pay for it to happen – it was a reverse vasectomy! That’s why I am so pleased, pleased it worked! It’s a beautiful thing to have done.

“There’s 22 years between Ellis and my daughter Annie. We had a garden party for them both: the 22 year old and two year old. I love parenthood. It’s great. The unconditional part of it is the glory. Even the observational side of it, every single day there is something amazing that comes out of Ellis’s mouth and you think she doesn’t know what it means until she repeats it in context. Oh wow! Her speed of computation is amazing.”

In another plot twist worthy of Abbott himself, his eldest child, Tom, is a policeman. Bearing in mind many of Abbott’s extended family have spent time as guests in Her Majesty’s prisons, it’s something of a turnaround.

“I know – bonkers. I’ve got pictures of him aged two in police hats. He never didn’t have it on… He loves No Offence. He was one of the originating writers on it. Then he shot off and became a cop.”

Did he worry his children would inherit his mental health problems? “Yeah, and I do and see it in my kids. To be honest, I think there is bi-polarity in anyone who is remotely artistic. You have to be a little bit flipped to think you can turn a blank page into something and expect money for it. You’d probably get sectioned for that it in a normal way,” he says laughing again.

“I see all kinds of things that are borderline dodgy in all the kids. Tom can spin off in all different directions, but he’s amazingly articulate and you usually find out where he’s going when he’s gone. You see sparks of it but they are put to good use.”

Being inside Abbott’s head must be a fascinating tour. He very rarely writes ideas down but nor does he ever stop dreaming up new things. “There isn’t a day when I don’t write. I’ve become more selective on the amount of ideas I’m shuffling. Every now and again, one just surfaces with amazing clarity. Now I’m getting very good at keeping things rumbling in the background.”

He’s even working on a novel, as a hobby. “It’s my little pastime. I can switch to it easily. Yesterday we were frantic on No Offence and doing all sorts of stuff and then I went into my office and sat down for a few moments and had amazing clarity on the novel. Nobody’s pushing for it, I’m not contracted or anything so it’s for me. I’ve barely written two chapters except I will go back to those and dump them because they have revised themselves in my head in the meantime.”

Even way back in his troubled youth, he used to write. “You know, people have often asked me what would I have done if I had not become Paul Abbott, writer.” He bursts our laughing again. “It’s an impossible question but I probably wouldn’t be here!”

No Offence

In the bull pen

A disused youth centre in Manchester has become the hub of No Offence: the Friday Street Police Station, home of DI Viv Deering, DC Dinah Kowalski and DS Joy Freers, the female cops who are the focus of the drama.

The three are about to become four, with a new boss, stern fast-tracker Detective Superintendent Christine Lickberg, played by Bad Education star Sarah Solemani.

Solemani, currently also seen playing Miranda in Bridget Jones Baby, describes No Offence as “The Bill on methadone”.

The last series had many moments of black humour and shocking plots involving the search for a twisted serial killer. Solemani says series two will be equally provocative. “I’m not sure if there will be anything as close to the edge as a dead Down’s Syndrome girl as in the last series but there are many twists and turns.

“I’m not allowed to say much but gang warfare is involved, drugs and there is a bomb.”

Watching filming in the “bull pen”, the main police office, even though you recognise actors Will Mellor and Elaine Cassidy sitting at their desks, you could be fooled into thinking it’s a real police hub. Empty coffee cups and half-eaten pizzas in boxes are littered about, the computers actually work and there’s lots of realistic mugshot posters asking “Have You Seen This Man?” Most of the photos are actually production crew staff.

Men and women in uniform are milling around and, if they look convincing cops, it’s because most of them are ex-police, like Abby Lambert, a former PC from Avon & Somerset who left because of cutbacks and joined an agency that provides police and medical extras. “Because we are all ex-police we bring a touch of reality,” says the veteran of Happy Valley, DCI Banks, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. “We do guide the cast and crew on procedures and what happens at the scene of a crime or an arrest.

“I don’t miss the real job at all. My husband is still a policeman in South Yorkshire but you can’t beat this.”

Main photo: Howard Barlow. No Offence returns to Channel 4 in January 

Interact: Responses to Kitchen sink drama

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.