Frustrated with inflexible TV regulators, the groundbreaking creator of Brookside and Hollyoaks, Liverpool’s Phil Redmond, has turned his pen towards novel writing. Set in a familiar but fictional northern town, Highbridge (Century, £12.99) follows two men as they take the law into their own hands to avenge the death of their loved one.
Have you always had ambitions to write a book and how did the writing process differ to writing for TV?
I think the fact that I spent 30 years in television is an indication of where my ambitions lay. But over that time I was, I have come to understand, a storyteller. And as television regulations became too inflexible for the type of stories I wanted to tell – the hard social reality of Brookside – I decided it was time to move on. But I missed the storytelling. So the logical step was to turn to books. The process is different. I don’t have to worry about budgets, persuade a team of writers that burying a body under a patio is a good idea, convince actors that it is the character acting abysmally, not them, and, above all, I don’t have to negotiate the Kafkaesque world of television regulation that treats the audience as eight year olds.
The book is dialogue heavy – were you conscious of it becoming a script?
No – not at all, but I think that after 30-odd years of Grange Hill, Brookie and Hollyoaks I am probably conditioned to write in a visual style. I also think I would rather have the characters tell the story in their own words – using their slang and colloquialisms to add a deeper texture. Perhaps descriptive prose is something I will learn as a “new writer” for books. Also, anyone reading the book will know where I come from and I suspect there will be many from the old TV audiences. I hope so anyway.
Do you hope to adapt Highbridge for film or TV and who would you envision playing Sean and Joey?
No – have no plans for that – as I’m still enjoying creating the fictional universe for the follow-up books. Although I’ve got a few actors in my own head, the experience of casting the long runners is that the actor you cast is never the one you originally envisioned. And going back to the difference between film, TV and books: when casting an actor you usually only get one chance to get it right for the entire audience, but with books you can leave it to each reader to imagine the character in their own way.
When creating a fictional town in the North West what did you decide its key attributes should be?
I’ve used a line somewhere about how “a lot of people live in towns like Highbridge, but not many can remember why”. For the opening of the book I wanted the central character Joey ruminating on this point, running through a quick history of what could be many a northern town where history has delivered people and then moved on without them – so that eventually you end up with commuter towns full of people whose only reason for living there is because, well, they weren’t born somewhere else. They’re not farmers or potters or miners or steel workers – they’re just townies. But it is their town.
“Whereas the north used to be the powerhouse of empire, it is now waiting to see what, if anything, devolution will bring.”
So I think the shared attributes are a sense of place that stems from somewhere that “used to be something” but is still waiting to be something else – which creates a sense of isolationism created by the historic shift to centralise everything around London. The great Northern Powerhouse encapsulates all this. Whereas the north used to be the powerhouse of empire, it is now waiting to see what, if anything, devolution will bring. If it doesn’t bring co-ordinated investment and real local political control and remains simply an administrative accounting exercise, shifting money from one pot to another, then the danger is it will become more the great Northern Slaughterhouse.
In other words, most northern towns probably feel marginalised with a healthy disrespect for centralised policy making that leads to the sense of disconnect we are experiencing in the UK at the moment – which leaves the vacuums for nationalism to fill.
All the major soaps bar EastEnders are set in the north. Why is it such a good setting for drama based on the lives of everyday people? And are they responsible for regional stereotyping?
For the reasons above, the north a good setting for drama based on everyday lives. The Northern Playhouse? One reason is that that’s where all the real people live, but it’s probably more prosaic than that, in that the early 1960s television expanded rapidly and new ideas and new people were needed. That opened the gates for more working class writers – who were predominantly in the north – as were the ITV companies responsible for Corrie and Emmerdale, then Hollyoaks and Brookie, when it was still on. EastEnders was London because that’s where the BBC production base was – in fact sharing a location with Grange Hill. However, the wheel has come full circle and most television drama is controlled from London again – and there’s more middle class writers down there!
“Soaps aren’t responsible for stereotyping but they do play to it.”
The stereotyping point is not the fault of the soaps. They aren’t responsible for it, but they do play to it – as does news, current affairs and the football terraces every week with the predictable, stereotypical chants. It is just part of our culture. We actually, really, like to be part of an “us against them” culture. We like to be in groups and clubs and societies or movements, which means inevitably there will be others who are not the “thems”. It happens everywhere. In America, as soon as you arrive you feel you are in a movie – and never sure what came first. Life imitating art or the art impersonating life?
Are Sean and Joey’s educational backgrounds responsible for the different routes they take to avenge Janey’s murder?
Mainly, yes, because Sean went into a profession, accountancy, which brought with it a set of professional cultural values. Belief in the “system” and law and order. But also because while Joey is a lot more streetwise, having perhaps seen more of the reality of the world than Sean, the older brother has travelled and seen a lot more of the geographical globe, witnessed different cultures and different approaches to life – but with the common factor being the need for political systems. Sean has faith in, and trusts the establishment, while recognising that there is always a minds and hearts battle to win. Joey does not, because he went through the state system and then a working trade as an electrician on building sites, so he knows bad guys do not play by the rules. That’s it. Simple. You can pass all the laws you like but the bad guys, by definition‘outlaws, won’t care. He believes in direct action because you waste too much time trying to convince people of the obvious and, while you’re winning that battle, you lose the war.
“There is a lot, surprisingly, where I would have had trouble with the regulators.”
You’ve become known for your politics as well as your TV writing career – was the novel a vehicle to say something that TV regulations won’t allow you to?
Yes. There is a lot, surprisingly, where I would have had trouble with the regulators. The scenes where Luke and Matt torture the bad guys are obvious, but perhaps not the commercial references. In TV I would still be answering the letters about why I was giving such undue prominence to Sandra’s – Sean’s wife’s – choice of shoes! Yet fashion, choice of house, place to live or car are all indicators of a person’s character.
I think Highbridge is written for adults, not eight year olds watching Mary Poppins telly – and that is what the novel allows me to do that TV regulators probably wouldn’t.
What specifically did you want to say about the justice system?
That like a lot of our social systems and policies, it has drifted away from its original intent. With people having to travel further and further to court, it is no longer about being judged by your peers, by people who come from the same village, town or area – who may actually know something of the context, the area or local conditions. Nor is it about “12 good people” but more about which side has the best advocate or performer defending them. It’s a bit like a reality TV – jury voting on who’s got the best legal talent.
Because of that it is too process-driven and not working within and for local communities. It is simply a mechanism of the state to control everything from murder to recycling bin contents. It’s time for a real overhaul – not just a cost-cutting exercise – and more local courts for more local justice, before more people like Joey and Sean start taking things into their own hands.