The Lucy Gannon formula

From 'Peak Practice' to 'Soldier, Soldier', she's written some of the most popular drama on television. How, as they like to say on the box, does she do that? By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Lucy Gannon has a lot to answer for. Thanks to her, we have had to endure the sight and sound of Robson and Jerome. She is the woman responsible for Soldier, Soldier - the army drama that launched the tuneless twosome to the top of the charts and on to every teenage girl's wall in the land.

Not content with that, Gannon also devised the hugely successful Peak Practice (doctors in beautiful surroundings) and Bramwell (doctors in beautiful costumes). To create one top-rated ITV drama is more than most writers could ever dream of managing; to create three just looks greedy. She has also developed a nice little sideline in single dramas such as Tender Loving Care, in which Dawn French played a murderous nurse. Gannon is now one of a very few writers whose name alone is sufficient to give the green light to any project to which it is attached. So how has she done it? Does she, like the makers of Coca-Cola, possess a secret formula?

Usually hard-nosed executives go all gooey at the very mention of the most sought-after writer of popular drama in British television, an unassuming, well-built woman with short-cropped black hair and a winning smile. (If you passed her on the street, you might think that she was a care worker - as indeed she once was.) All of them extol, first and foremost, her mastery of character. After all, you can have a drama without car chases or casualty units, without explicit sex or violence, but you can never ever have a drama without characters.

"The few times I've had an idea rather than a character first, it's always gone dead on me," Gannon herself confirms, while sipping coffee in a quiet cafe off Marble Arch after a gruelling day filming Trip Trap - a one-off BBC drama about domestic violence. "When I started Wicked Old Nellie [a 1989 play about a woman in an old people's home], all I got was a mental picture of an old woman sitting in a room looking at her foot and thinking, 'Whose is that? It can't be mine.' Unless you get the characters first, you can't do it."

Jonathan Powell, head of drama at Carlton and the man responsible for scheduling Soldier, Soldier, Peak Practice and Bramwell, concurs. "She is a complete one-off. She dominates popular drama because she is brilliant at creating sympathetic characters that audiences like. In her scripts, there's an absolutely natural and instinctive directness. She's unfiltered, a very unpretentious person. She's not afraid of engaging the emotions of the characters or the audience." Think of the beautifully modulated minuet of UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension) between headstrong doctors Jack Kerruish (Kevin Whately) and Beth Glover (Amanda Burton) that resonated through Peak Practice.

The producer Ruth Caleb has worked with Gannon since her first play for television, an adaptation of Keeping Tom Nice in 1989. "Lucy is a writer with a good understanding of what makes people tick," Caleb reflects. "She has a very good instinct for what people want to watch, and you can't learn that. Her writing is character-driven. She finds the plots only after she's found the characters. There's a richness to her writing because it's bedded in character." This enables Gannon to deal with "issues" such as feminism (Bramwell) or child abuse (Testimony of a Child) or teenage pregnancy (A Small Dance) without bashing viewers over the head with them.

"Her strengths lie in dealing with ordinary people in extraordinary situations," Caleb continues. "She is also able to deal with complexities simply. There are layers of complexity underneath a work that appears quite straightforward."

Like Thunderbirds, all the work goes on behind the scenes. Gannon, a widow with one teenage daughter, is often at her desk from seven in the morning till 11 at night, buffing and polishing her scripts. George Faber, the BBC's head of single drama, calls her "a master craftsman, or should that be mistress craftswoman? She has a nose for a good story and constructs it with craft and skill."

Powell adds: "She's amazingly technically proficient. The first episode of Bramwell [in which the lead character, a crusading Victorian doctor played by Gemma Redgrave, and her partriarchal opponents, are cleverly introduced against the backdrop of a medical emergency] is a textbook example of how to set up a series. In years to come, when they're teaching television screenwriting at universities, they'll look at that first episode and see a sheer piece of construction."

The architecture of Trip Trap is equally impressive in the build-up to the first act of violence. Junior school head Ian Armstrong (Whately, imaginatively cast against type) is first seen sweetly reading bedtime stories to his adoring children in front of a roaring fire. Then, ever so subtly, hints about his vicious streak are dropped in, as he tetchily corrects his wife's (Stella Gonet) grammar, wipes her lipstick off with a threatening "That's better" and dismisses her best friend as a "bloody woman". The sense of menace develops as he complains about having to keep a "tight hold" on her all the time before, some way into the film, he suddenly snaps into ugly, rib-breaking punches when she gets a wine delivery wrong.

Unlike many writers who graduate straight from short trousers into major drama commissions, Gannon has a hinterland. After more than 20 years as a nurse, residential social worker and military policewoman - all of which came in very handy for her subsequent career - in 1987, at the age of 39, she entered the Richard Burton Award for playwrights in the hope of winning some money for a new car. Although she had only been to the theatre once before, she defeated 15,000 other entrants with her play, Keeping Tom Nice, to win pounds 2,000 and a six-month spell as writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Faber, who brought that play to television, sets great store by the fact that Gannon has a masters degree from the University of Life. "She has lived," he observes. "She has had a number of very demanding jobs that gave her tremendous life experience - all of which comes through in her writing. She has an astonishing insight into the human mind. It's always good to work with writers who have lived: they've got more stories to tell. Whatever their talents, younger writers don't have the same urgency to impart things."

Powell grabs the baton. "It's unusual to find someone who came to writing so late in life," he opines. "She's very, very different from other television people because she came in without an inherited agenda. She came in fully- formed as a person. It would be a bit like Alan Plater or Troy Kennedy Martin popping directly from the womb. She's not an Oxbridge type looking down on the audience. She understands them without condescending to them."

Gannon underlines the importance of her background. Her father was in the Army and she had a peripatetic upbringing, leaving school at 16. "Army life gives you a breadth as a writer that you don't get if you've spent your entire life in Piddlington-by-the-Sea," she reckons.

Trip Trap is ostensibly a departure from the comfortable, tried-and-trusted recipe. But the prolific Gannon has had popular successes with one-off "issue dramas" before: Keeping Tom Nice, about a handicapped boy whose father commits suicide, picked up the John Whiting Award in 1990, and A Small Dance, in which a teenage mother abandons her baby, won the 1991 Prix Europa. Faber, for one, sees no conflict between hard-hitting and popular drama. "There is no distinction," he asserts. "Most popular drama is hard-hitting these days - look at Band of Gold or Cracker. Trip Trap is popular in that it takes ordinary people and puts them in a situation that has touched millions of people."

Gannon's work has not been immune to criticism. One columnist called her "the Betty Boothroyd of Derbyshire". "He said I was strident and left-wing," Gannon recalls, "and was convinced I had this huge political agenda. Wish I did." And after Wicked Old Nellie, the writer was condemned by a critic as "a bloody left-wing social worker".

But what irks her most is that snootier critics have looked down their noses at the popularity of her shows. "There's this tendency to decry ITV and to decry the popular," she harrumphs. "That's crap. If you value the viewer, then how can you be sniffy about Peak Practice or Soldier, Soldier? The great mistake is to think that if 15 million watch a programme and the reviewer doesn't like it, then it must be because the 15 million are all stupid."

Even after more hits than Mike Tyson, Gannon feels an outsider in the cocky world of television. "I still find it daunting," she admits. Nevertheless, three different drama executives are pleading with her for series ideas, and she already has a series about an open prison and a 17th-century love story in development at the BBC. The Gannon production-line shows no sign of slowing down.

"As soon as you get one out, they ask, 'Got any more?'," she sighs. "Telly is a huge writer-gobbling-up machine. Writing for television satisfies the village need for anecdotes - 'How's Mrs Bloggs?' - that sort of thing. I don't resent it. It pays me well and I love it. Seven years ago I was living in a council house with no central heating. Now I've bought a converted barn in Derbyshire and I'm trying to move to London. Writing is emotionally draining, but what a privilege at the age of 39 to find your voice. When Soldier, Soldier started, my husband George used to look out of the window and say, 'There are people out on the street. Don't they know Soldier, Soldier's on?' "

'Trip Trap' is on BBC1 at 9pm tonight. 'Peak Practice' continues on ITV at 9pm on Tuesday. 'Soldier, Soldier' and 'Bramwell' return later in the year