Danny Brocklehurst: Steering the script

Danny Brocklehurst’s new TV show tackles themes of mental health, poverty and forgotten towns. But the Manchester screenwriter's Brassic is more about loveable rogues than issues

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Danny Brocklehurst began writing stories and scripts at a young age, but it never occurred to him he could make a career out of it.

“Perhaps it’s this working-class lack of belief you could do that but the idea of making a living from scriptwriting seemed sort of preposterous, really. You left school, you got a job and started earning money,” says Brocklehurst, 48, who’s worked on the likes of Shameless, The Street, Ordinary Lies and Safe over the last 20 years.

Growing up in Hyde, Greater Manchester, he did what was expected of him and got a job in retail, which he endured for a few years until a group of friends asked him along on a month-long inter-railing trip.

“While I was away something just clicked in my brain. I thought, I really love English and books and language – I’ve got to go back to college and carry on my education.”

He enrolled at Tameside College and credits a lecturer for inspiring him when he was battling self-doubt.

“He gave me the belief in myself to push onto higher education and to pursue writing and the arts, but it took a lot of perseverance to get to university and achieve those things because no one in my family went to university. It just wasn’t what people did.

“My mother, who died when I was quite young, and my dad, who was remarried at this point – I wouldn’t say they were negative about it, but I just don’t think it was in their consciousness.”

Brocklehurst’s experience is the inspiration for one of the storylines in Brassic, his new comedy drama for Sky in which Michelle Keegan’s character Erin is determined to leave her childhood town.

“The only way it felt like I could get out of my background and the town I grew up in was through education, and through finding a different path. Sometimes circumstances contrive to try and stop you from doing that and you think, Christ, I’m being kept here, I can’t escape,” says Brocklehurst, who now lives in Heaton Moor.

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Above: Brocklehurst Main image: Brassic is based on the actor Joe Gilgun’s (far left) own experiences growing up in Chorley.

“And I’m not trying to diss Hyde. It’s not that. It’s just that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there. I wanted different things and different opportunities and sometimes it can be quite hard to tell yourself you’re somebody who can achieve that.”

Brocklehurst co-created Brassic (slang for skint) with This Is England’s Joe Gilgun, who was keen to use his experiences growing up in Chorley as the basis of a show.

Gilgun plays the lead character Vinnie, who was taught to blast his first safe at age seven and now lives in a shack in the woods. Like Gilgun, he’s also bipolar.

“It’s a big aspect of Vinnie’s life, just as it’s a big aspect of Joe’s life, and we wanted to represent it properly, but we didn’t want that to define the show. We wanted it to be something that was in the mix of what’s essentially a comedy drama,” notes Brocklehurst.

Vinnie’s best mates are Dylan (Damien Molony) and his girlfriend Erin, and then there’s the rest of the group, Ashley, Tommo, Cardi and JJ – lads you might describe as loveable rogues.

“I grew up watching shows like Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Only Fools and Horses and Minder, guys who were up to no good in certain ways, but you loved them for it, and that’s kind of what these are,” says Brocklehurst.

“Some people might say they’re criminals, but they’re not always stealing for personal gain. Like in episode two, they’re stealing to try and provide a funeral for someone they loved. They’re just finding a way to survive and this is how they do it.”

Although based in the north, the fictional town of Hawley could be any one of Britain’s forgotten towns.

“Outside the major cities, there are small towns where people have developed their own rules or kids who’ve grown up and never left and they’ve got crummy jobs, or drifted into various ways to survive, and this is the truth of modern Britain,” says Brocklehurst.

“This is not a political show and I’m not making any big point about that, but I do think there is a small message there.”

While these towns are floundering, vast sums of money are being pumped into cities like Manchester where the number of cranes reflects a city on the rise.

“I don’t know – I do wonder if it’s losing its character,” muses Brocklehurst, who worked as a journalist in Manchester during the 1990s, including feature writing for Big Issue North. Maybe I’m looking back with rose-tinted glasses but it felt like – and this is no exaggeration – that Manchester was the centre of the universe. Everything was going on. There was music and culture. It was a very vibrant time.”

It was during this period that he “crept towards” screenwriting, creating plays for the theatre and radio, before a couple of scripts caught the attention of the BBC and “suddenly EastEnders was interested”.

“I didn’t do that by the way but bit by bit you build your confidence,” notes Brocklehurst, who recalls the life-changing encounter he had with the writer Paul Abbott.

“I went to his house to interview him. Paul is a great talker and after we’d finished, we had a drink and started talking more casually. Being a cheeky bugger, I told him I was doing some writing and he offered to look at the script.”

Abbott passed the script to Nicola Shindler, founder of Manchester-based Red Production Company, who hired him for Clocking Off.

“It was Nicola who gave me my first shot and that was very bold and brave of her because I was a complete unknown and I’m forever indebted to her.”

Later, he went on to work with Abbott on Channel 4’s Shameless, set on an estate in Manchester’s suburbs.

“It was utter, utter chaos from start to finish, particularly series three. I wish we’d made a documentary. Everything was going on. It was absolutely crazy. There were never any scripts, and actors were falling apart and shagging each other and there were drugs. I don’t know how we ever got it made.”

After the third series, Brocklehurst decided to leave. “I was so worn out and felt like I’d said everything I had to say, and I had another show greenlit, but then a couple of years later I missed it. I almost went back but then you never should go back so I didn’t bother in the end.”

He refers to a quote from the jazz musician Miles Davis he keeps in his office. “Basically, you’ve got to be about change, evolution. It’s not about standing still and being safe and if anyone wants to keep on creating, you’ve got to be about change and I think that’s true.”

Reflecting on his career, he says he was heartened by the reaction to the 2018 drama Come Home about a woman who leaves her kids (“it really touched a nerve and that’s great”) and is proud of Exile, the 2011 thriller starring John Sims and Jim Broadbent (“I thought it was a really beautiful piece of work”) but the one he misses most is Ordinary Lies.

It was an ensemble piece about the rippling effect of telling seemingly innocuous untruths, which debuted in 2015 but was canned after the second run.

“It had a lovely audience reaction but the BBC didn’t want to do any more, which is like a real kick in the nuts but you’ve just got to go, fine, I don’t want to do the same thing forever anyway, so let’s move onto the next thing. And there’s always something new you can get excited about,” says Brocklehurst, who recently collaborated with crime writer Harlan Coben for a third time, this time adapting the thriller The Stranger, which was filmed in the north and is set to air next year.

“I do basically spend all day with imaginary people, which is a bit of a strange job and sometimes I do long for a little bit of real company, but I think as a writer, you get the pay-off later.

“My big responsibility is obviously to try and write a great show, but if you can say some things in there that are helpful for people, then it’s important to do that. And the more we can reflect modern Britain in all its diversity on screen, the better.”


Brassic’s riches

Danny Brocklehurst has admitted he had initial reservations about bringing someone else’s experiences to the screen but immediately hit it off with Joe Gilgun.

The Affair’s Dominic West makes a regular appearance as Vinnie’s uninterested doctor (unless he’s asking Vinnie to get him some weed).

The Lancashire town of Bacup has a starring role in the series, with various locations used as the fictional town of Hawley.

It’s not the first time Brocklehurst and Keegan have worked together. They also teamed up for the first series of Ordinary Lies, her first big gig post-Corrie.

Despite the fast pace and naturalistic dialogue, about 95 per cent of Brassic is tightly scripted, leaving little room for improvisation.

Although it’s not been confirmed, word is a second series of Brassic could already be in the works.

All episodes of Brassic are available on Sky and Now TV 

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