Beauty school dropout

Debbie Horsfield is of a school of northern writers who were told to get proper jobs and went on to dominate prime time television

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Next time you tune into an episode of Poldark, or indeed anything else Debbie Horsfield has penned, imagine her on a treadmill scripting it.

“It’s not a treadmill exactly,” laughs the Manchester writer, 63. “I read about these walking desks that are big in the States. You don’t have to walk very fast on them. I tend to walk about three kilometres an hour which isn’t very fast at all. It does mean that you are on your feet more often than sitting down and it keeps the blood flowing and the oxygen to the brain. I wish I’d have discovered it years ago.”

“I had never written a period drama or adaptation so I was an odd choice for Poldark”

Along with keeping fit, Horsfield says it gets her creative juices flowing: “That was the thing that made me think about it. In the past when I’ve got stuck with writing something I’ve gone for a run. But I started to think, especially in winter, you don’t particularly want to be getting your running togs on and going out into the snow when all you need is 10 minutes of increasing of your heart rate to think through a problem.”

Horsfield is one of those writers, along with Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor and Sally Wainwright, whose names dominate prime time television. Is it a coincidence that they all hail from the north?

“It’s an interesting question actually. Pretty much all of us cut our teeth in theatre. Jimmy did, I know Kay did and Paul. For me personally I didn’t have any expectation that this would be what I would make a living out of. I didn’t think it was an actual job. I didn’t think I was going to take the world of theatre or TV by storm. I just loved telling stories and creating performances. And it all happened from there. I suspect we all came at it from the same way, we didn’t go into as a career or in it for fame and fortune but we did all have stories to tell.”

But Horsfield says writing was never considered a suitable career. “I’m sure that was the case for Jimmy as well. My dad was a greengrocer and then he worked on the locks on the Manchester Ship Canal, and with the very best of motives he tried to persuade me not to do it. He didn’t think it was a career or a safe profession. He wanted me to have a solid job. None of us came from a background where it was thought to be a real job.”

From an early age she was dramatically creative, the eldest of six children, and one of five girls, Horsfield used to write plays and persuade her siblings to perform them. “That was definitely my first writing and directing experience. We only needed one more to be the Von Trapps,” she laughs. “We still all hang out together. We have a very large extended family.”

Age Before Beauty is the new series by Debbie Horsfield (main image)

Horsfield started writing as a career almost by accident. After graduating from Newcastle University, she and some friends headed to the Edinburgh Festival. “We decided to write a new play, because if you take a new play you get free publicity in the Fringe brochure. I suggested writing about something we knew about, like girl football supporters. I wrote a play about that in 10 days, and ended up being approached by an agent and three directors.”

She went on to spend two years at the RSC as Trevor Nunn’s PA. “We spent most of the interview talking about football. He’s mad on Ipswich Town, so he’s not really a football fan,” jokes Horsfield who is a passionate Manchester United fan and a patron of the club.

Writing what she knew became a theme and two of her sisters, twins Jeannie and Lynnit were the inspiration for Horsfield’s hit BBC series Cutting It, set in the world of hairdressing: “They owned a hairdressing salon and would enter these huge competitions and it was all so cut throat, it was a great starting point for a drama,” she says. The series earned Horsfield her second BAFTA for Best Drama Series, having won her first in 1994 for The Riff Raff Element.

Now Horsfield is returning to the world of beauty for a new BBC series, Age Before Beauty starring Robson Green, Sue Johnston and Polly Walker. “One of the interesting things I learned through Cutting It, although set in a hair salon it wasn’t really about that – it was a stage for telling a family saga and love story. We had to get the details right yes, but we weren’t doing an exploration of the hairdressing industry. Similarly, in this, the premise is a beauty salon and the anti-ageing business which, obviously, is very current and very topical. It’s not about the products and procedures, it’s just the platform to explore family dynamics and a love story. We touch on multi generations in families, the expectations at various times in our lives. It’s a backdrop to the wider story.”

The new series couldn’t be more different to Horsfield’s other big writing venture, the remade Poldark for BBC: “They didn’t even have toothpaste, let alone Botox,” quips Horsfield. “Some of the make-up for women literally killed them because it was lead or mercury based. It wasn’t unheard of for women to die at the age of 28 after years of slapping the make-up on!”

Until the 18th century-set series, Horsfield had been known largely for writing modern day dramas. The nearest thing to a ‘period drama’ was her series Sex Chips & Rock & Roll which was set in the 1960s. “I did think, ‘why me’?“ she admits. “I hadn’t written anything that wasn’t contemporary and I’d never done an adaptation, so what an odd choice I thought. I’m enjoying every minute of it to be honest.”

She and her partner, actor Martin Wenner, have four grown up children: “They have all left the roost. They are between 30 and 34. I’m shocked all the time I have such grown up children.” Three years ago she became a grandmother, which had more of an impact on her working life than she thought: “I broke my wrist stopping the baby from falling down some stone steps,” she explains. “Fortunately I could still write as it’s all on the computer and dictating but, nonetheless, I was quite hampered.”

After living for a while in London, Horsfield and her family moved back north to a village just outside of Manchester. “My son and daughter-in-law and the baby live next door to us and I see them every day. My in-laws live next door the other way. We’ve got a commune going on here!”

The proximity to her family helps in keeping up connections, for a disciplined writer who gets to her desk at 8am and often stays until 8pm. “I do try to switch off but haven’t for the past two or three years. In fact last year, with both Age Before Beauty filming and Poldark, I only had Christmas Day off. And I do occasionally wake up in the middle of the night and mull something over. I don’t ever totally cut off except when I am watching United.”

So it’s definitely a ‘proper job’ then? “Absolutely,” she says. “Like I say, when I had both things filming last year, I realised there are literally hundreds of people employed across these shows because of what I have written. Oh yes, it’s a proper job!”

Age Before Beauty is on BBC1 

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