Matthew Hall: Why I abandoned my successful TV scriptwriting career

After becoming disenchanted with the state of TV drama, acclaimed scriptwriter Matthew Hall switched careers to write a gritty debut novel, 'The Coroner'. He tells Peter Stanford why he's fed up with television but why, at long last, things might be about to change
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The Independent Culture

Even successful television scriptwriters tend to be an anonymous bunch as far as the rest of us are concerned. If you leave aside Peter Morgan, Russell T Davies and Lynda La Plante, the names of those who fill our screens and win awards for their efforts remain unknown outside a small circle of commissioning editors. Matthew Hall is a case in point. His credits are impressive – Dalziel and Pascoe, Kavanagh QC, New Street Law and Wing and a Prayer, for which he was nominated for a Bafta – yet the prime-time audiences who enjoy his dramas will never have heard of him.

"There's always a couple of screenwriters who are 'names' at any one time," he explains, "but overall, television is now so driven by executives and managers that writers have become less and less important. The executives cast themselves as the creative force and so we are increasingly marginalised."

It is not the lack of name recognition that irks him. Softly spoken and diffident, 39-year-old Hall would, I sense as we settle down to talk in his publishers' north London offices, run a mile from a celebrity party. He long ago abandoned city life in favour of rural Monmouthshire where he lives with his wife and two sons. His real gripe is what he calls "the lack of creative freedom" for TV screenwriters today to explore what he regards as important, contemporary issues. Hence his trend-bucking decision to turn his back on that world and write his first novel, The Coroner, out later this month.

He has, in one sense, exchanged one kind of professional anonymity for another. On the jacket he is billed as MR Hall. "The publicity people here were keen that I had an androgynous name," he says, "because 70 per cent of books are evidently bought by women, and I'm writing about a female main character, so it would be strange if it was obviously a man's name on the front cover."

The Coroner is the story of Jenny Cooper, a determined but mentally fragile lawyer in her early forties, who is appointed to the ranks of Britain's coroners. In theory they are invested with great powers to investigate deaths; in practice, those powers are seldom invoked. Cooper is driven to test the limits of the authority of a coroner's court by a pair of apparently unrelated teenage suicides which brings her in touch with the murky world of privately run detention centres.

"I had originally thought of it for television but at that time, two or three years ago, television drama was in its most frivolous phase," Hall recalls. "Something with a brooding, psychologically damaged character at its centre was never going to make it on to mainstream TV." Even with, say, Amanda Burton heading the cast? "No, not even then, because TV only wanted characters in their twenties. There was all this hysteria about young audiences going to the internet."

Hall believes that, in the current climate, books allow writers a better chance of dealing with important stories. "I started out in television with quite high hopes, but it has become a tabloid media. The possibilities for proper comment, really intelligent comment, about what is going on at the moment, which is what television ought to be for, have been taken away."

There are, he concedes, a few high-profile exceptions – TV dramas such as Morgan's Longford, Rowan Joffe's Secret Life (about paedophiles) or Peter Kosminsky's Britz (anti-terror legislation) – but as an example of the habitual response of commissioning editors to high-minded projects he quotes his own 2006 BBC One series, New Street Law. "It should have been a really good, street-level law show, but in the strange world of television it got whittled away, and pushed and pushed and pushed into being a soap with romance – and skip all that law business."

It was a "depressing" experience that finally pushed Hall into sitting down to write a book. "I'd wanted to for about 10 years, and had even started one a few years ago and got part of the way through, but I had married and had children quite young, so I had all these commitments. Television was what was earning me an income and I literally couldn't afford the six months off to write a book. I tried it several times, but then my wife got ill – she got ME – and so it didn't happen. But I'm quite glad now, looking back, that I had to wait and had to form a character properly."

Does he mean Jenny Cooper's, or his own? "Well both," he laughs. "This character has been bubbling away in the back of my mind for four or five years in various manifestations but initially as a male character. It sort of flipped and came alive when I thought of her as a woman." There is, though, he acknowledges, a lot of himself in Cooper and her battles, public and private.

Hall worked as a criminal barrister for six years before growing exasperated with the failings of the system. "I was representing young kids. Back then they had to be 14 or 15 to be sentenced to imprisonment. Now it is 12. From the age of 10, they can effectively be locked up in secure care homes. I remember one spirited 12-year-old I represented in court. He'd escaped from a secure care home and got as far as Amsterdam. When I asked him how he did it, he told me he just starved himself until he could slip through the bars of the window. I ended up feeling quite paternal towards him and thinking that anything would be better than taking a young teenager and locking them up. It's brutal."

Jenny Cooper takes just such a stance in The Coroner, ruffling establishment feathers in the process. But the links between her and her creator go further. Hall talks guardedly about the "domestic chaos" of his childhood and its long-term impact on him. "Jenny is tortured by a dark past. My experience is that people take a long time to cope with that sort of thing. There is a lot of my own personal psychological experience in her, so I'm working through that as well."

How different, I wonder, was writing a book from a script? "I just used the techniques I would use for script writing and turned it into prose," Hall replies almost apologetically. "It was the only way I knew to go about it. In terms of structure, the novel has 25 to 27 chapters and three scenes in each chapter, so I have structured the story as I would a screenplay. I carefully planned the story out for several months before I started writing because that is the only way I know how to do it. But now I'm writing a second book about Jenny Cooper and I am being a bit freer, because I have that little bit of confidence that comes with knowing someone wants to publish my first. I've relaxed the bonds a little bit and actually enjoyed writing prose, but I do still tend to like prose writers who write stories in scenes. I find it more exciting."

From all he has said about the state of television, I assume that – rather like his career as a barrister – his time as a screenwriter is over. But no. "Just when I thought it couldn't get any more frivolous, the first glimmer of light is appearing on the horizon. The commissioning system has broken up a bit, especially at the BBC, and is starting to be more spread out, including into the regions."

Hall runs a small production company, One Eyed Dog, with his stepfather, the radical writer and producer, GF Newman, responsible for such challenging drama in the 1970s and 1980s as Law and Order and The Nation's Health. He is happy to acknowledge Newman's influence. "We have just had a series of six stand-alone dramas on controversial subjects commissioned – provisionally called Contemporary Voices. We're trying to bring the single play, serious, issue-led drama back to the BBC, and right now it feels wonderful to be developing it."

Will this new climate in TV drama one day allow The Coroner to come to the screen? We begin debating casting. I kept seeing Amanda Redman as Jenny Cooper when I was reading it, but Hall seems intent on maintaining clear blue water between his new career as a novelist and his on-off one as a screenwriter. "I think I'd have to get someone else to adapt it," he says. "It might benefit. They always say when you're adapting someone's book for TV, you should read it a couple of times and then not look at it again." Just the sort of attitude, you might think, that drove him to publishing in the first place.

The extract: The Coroner, By MR Hall (Macmillan £10)

'...She felt like a fraud. She was still popping pills and starting at shadows. The subtext of David's question was: I hope you're not kidding yourself. Cracking up in the Coroner's court really would be the end of your career... She took a large mouthful of wine and wondered if she shouldn't have taken the Temazepam after all.'

'The Coroner' by MR Hall is published on 22 January

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