Television: A class act - Lucy Gannon

After hit TV series such as `Soldier, Soldier' and `Bramwell', writer Lucy Gannon turns her attention to the classroom
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Twelve years ago Lucy Gannon was a 39-year-old nurse living in a "concrete council house with no central heating". Now she resides in a converted barn in Derbyshire and is one of the most sought-after TV writers around. After creating such long-running series as Soldier, Soldier, Peak Practice and Bramwell, Gannon is one of only a handful of screenwriters whose very name on a project is enough to ensure it is commissioned.

It all started in 1987 when, having only ever seen one play in her entire life, Gannon decided to enter the Richard Burton Award for New Playwrights. She was hoping to win some money towards a new car. In the event, her offering, Keeping Tom Nice, about a disabled boy whose father commits suicide, beat 1,500 other entries and earned her the award, pounds 2,000 and a six-month attachment to be writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In 1988 Keeping Tom Nice was staged to acclaim at the Almeida Theatre in London, and in 1989 shown as a BBC TV Screenplay starring Linus Roache. A writer was born.

The fact that Gannon had another life before coming into television - she has been a military policewoman and a residential social worker as well as a nurse - only enhanced her writing. According to George Faber, the producer who brought Keeping Tom Nice to television: "Lucy had lived. She has had a number of very demanding jobs that gave her tremendous life experience - all of which comes through in her writing."

Gannon is now anxious to tell us stories about teaching in Hope and Glory, a gripping new BBC1 series about an inspirational headmaster, Ian George (Lenny Henry), sent in to turn around a failing school. Gannon invests that particular world with the same sense of authenticity she gave to doctors and soldiers. In one especially tough scene, Henry's predecessor is humiliated by chanting children as he tries to give his farewell speech.

Henry admires the fact that Gannon "never flinches from life. It's invigorating to work with a writer who's so unafraid. Lucy gets her fingers into the guts of a story and has a real look at it. She gets down and dirty."

She also has a keen awareness that the three most important elements of a convincing drama are character, character and character. "When it comes to writing real people, Lucy is one of the best," says Amanda Redman, who plays Henry's deputy in Hope and Glory. "You can pick up a scene and rehearse it once and know it, because it's absolutely the way it should be."

The character of George is an example of perhaps Gannon's greatest strength: making a drama out of the apparently ordinary. She can find heroes in the most unlikely places. "In all drama, from Shakespeare onwards, when you boil it down you're talking about people achieving something against the odds," she says. "In every good story there is an element of heroism - even in a strip cartoon. I don't understand how people can go through life without ideals or striving against ridiculous odds. I can't relate to people who potter through life with no feeling of owing something to the world. They're very boring, and I can't write about them. Whether you stack shelves or perform brain transplants, everyone is capable of heroism."

As well as her series, Gannon has a bulging portfolio of successful single dramas, including Tender Loving Care, Trip Trap, The Gift and Big Cat. She currently has an ITV mini-series about Edwardian repression and a BBC serial about infidelity on the go. However, unlike some prolific writers, Gannon rarely lets the quality control slip.

That has, of course, not stopped the more snobbish critics sneering at the popularity of her writing. "I write about things I know for audiences I know," Gannon says. "I'm not sitting in an ivory tower. I've never had awards because I don't write for critics or accolades. I write for people sitting at home.

"I've been the target of snooty critics because I don't pretend to know more than I know. The people who watch and commission me value me. Everyone else can watch the latest subtitled French film."

`Hope and Glory' starts on BBC1 on Tuesday at 9.30pm