"We don't go down the pole. Stairs are quicker".
This is the most underlined sentence in the notebook I took on my first visit to a fire station in 2009. It made me laugh, imagining the crestfallen face of the rookie hearing this on their first day. But it also suggested something else: that if even that unassailable truth - that firefighters slide down poles - was in fact up for grabs, then there was a version of this world that could be put on screen that was authentic and surprising, unlike anything we had seen before on television.
Throughout the long development of The Smoke, I've been asked why I'd want to write about firefighters when "they already did London's Burning". It's a tribute to the deep affection viewers still hold for the world that Jack Rosenthal created. But that show ended 12 years ago. Aside from anything else, both the fire service and television itself have changed enormously in that time. There is no single answer to the question, but here are some of the things that led me there:
2008: I write a spec script and a pitch for a series and share them with Noelle Morris, who would ultimately be executive producer of The Smoke, but who at this point is someone I have a burgeoning working relationship with - and who is brave enough to put a lot of trust in a 25-year-old who looks about 14 with only two-and-a-half TV scripts to her name.
The pitch is too much like lots of other things. But the spec script, set around a thinly veiled version of the Palm Tree pub in Mile End, is especially interested in men, and takes place against the backdrop of a part of London about to undergo violent change as the Olympic juggernaut approaches. Noelle mentions that she's long wanted to make a show about firefighters - and suggests that the stories I want to tell could be a perfect fit for that world.
We make our visit to the fire station in Soho. I'm especially taken with a charming, stocky firefighter bearing the scars of what looks to me like a Chelsea Grin, who used to be a dancer in Pan's People. This contradiction will get into the show's DNA as I start to write the first draft and create my fictional White Watch.
I meet a policeman, who tells me that a rising quotient of his time is spent escorting fire crews to shouts, so that they can work without being attacked.
I am lent a copy of Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Aside from being an extraordinary book, it is a bravura dramatisation of bruised, damaged masculinity, and I steal flagrantly from its pages.
I learn with glee about firefighters getting erections on their way to shouts.
When the show is greenlit, the director of Sky 1, Stuart Murphy, has one note - to request the fire station not be in Soho. We suggest moving it to somewhere around Mile End and Stratford. Happily, he agrees. I grew up in Manor Park, so I'm excited by the chance to put on screen those underexposed parts of London, the bits that brush up against Essex. I especially want to see the area filmed in a way that doesn't make it look like a crime scene.
I've long been a fan of Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichenstein, Peter Ackroyd, Michael Moorcock, chroniclers of East London - and particularly the slippage between past and present in an East London that is suffering an identity crisis. Old streets flooded by new money. A theme park for people who talk about E Pellicci's, but don't know what bread pudding is. The failure of a post-Olympics Stratford - the empty towers of one-bedroomed flats that flank the high street, tall girls still waiting to be asked to dance. You can see some of them in the background of our first episode, as a young woman is pulled from her wrecked car under the Bow flyover. Dennis Severs, a troubled rookie, takes his name from the historian whose house in Spitalfields preserves a London long since disappeared from the world beyond its windows.
This relocation unlocks something; that every one of our firefighters is dealing with social, sexual or personal revolution - from Kev, who only ever wanted to be a husband and father, and finds these things horrifically wrenched from him, to Mal Milligan, whose relentless sexuality is lately causing women to fall not into bed but under trains, to Ziggy Brown, whose footloose façade is beginning to crumble... the show becomes about people whose identities at work are defined by a uniform, but who are in giddying flux once they leave the station.
Most of all: Noelle Morris and I talk a lot about heroes. We are devoted fans of those great American shows, The Sopranos and Mad Men especially. Noelle loves The Shield, I love Eastbound & Down. Aside from aspiring to the quality of those shows - to achieve the fluency of subtext, metaphor, theme and imagery they so brilliantly deliver, all the things that elevated TV at the end of the 20th century into Art - we are interested in defining our show against them. Because what they have in common - what has captivated audiences since the moment we first saw Tony Soprano punch a guy in the balls to the sound of Dion and the Belmonts - is that they deal in anti-heroes. Characters through whom we can live vicariously as they kill, deceive, fuck around, parent badly, terrorise; yielding every episode to their worst impulses.
But Noelle and I have both recently been victims of crime. As we develop the show, I'm in a state of mind wherein I am sick of the anti-social behaviour that is mostly violent at one end of society, mercenary and hateful and self-interested at the other; and most of all, I'm sick of a cynicism I feel encroaching on British culture from many quarters.
To be a firefighter seems to me the antithesis of cynicism (though the sense of humour that comes with the job joyfully trends that way). It is inherently hopeful and inherently apolitical: the job is at once incredibly hard and very simple - to respond, to help, to save lives, regardless of the situation. To be a firefighter is to contribute to society in a concrete way on a daily basis, whether you're pulling bodies from burning buildings or dealing with the aftermath of a daft teenager who has decided to drive home on ketamine. It is a vocation that runs counter to a culture whose value systems have become entrenched in the monetary.
Speaking of which, something else underlined from that notebook, a joke:
"What's the difference between a firefighter and a senior officer?"
"About forty grand"
I do a Denis Leary and nick that one wholesale. It's a bit of firefighter humour I know to be authentic. But it also asks an important question: how do your wages correlate with your value to society? What is it to do a job that jeopardises your life, when your earnings scrape the minimum required to live in a city like London?
We decide that this is not a show about anti-heroes, but about heroes.
And those are some of the ways in which Kev Allison, our lead character, was born; not a gangster or meth dealer, but, in his words, "the dib-dib-dobbiest boy scout". A normal man trying to be good, in a world, a workplace, a body, all increasingly hostile to this. In Jamie Bamber's wonderful hands he is a complex, engaging everyman, the bloke who would've been the Don Juan of the sixth form, but has grown into a decent, generous leader, a man of heart and acute intelligence, who loves women, is unthreatened by them...until he suffers a devastating violence that unmoors him from everything he understood about himself.
I wrote the redundant fireman's pole into my fictional station - like Soho, we would still have one, it'd just be kept for the benefit of hen parties. It's in the first draft of the first episode. Since then, there have been roughly 60 drafts of that script. Innumerable pages of work have been discarded over the years. But the fleeting scene in which Mal "Spike" Milligan tells Dennis "Asbo" Severs that they don't use the pole, because the stairs are quicker, remains - and is paid off in my favourite moment of the final episode.
Because five years later it still distills something for me. Our White Watch struggle, fail at times, and in spectacular ways. But the show is a celebration of them. How could it be otherwise? There is a strain of bravery running through any firefighter I couldn't claim to be anywhere close to possessing. They are people who arrive at work each day ready to put their lives at risk for us. As I write, they are people whose jobs are under threat from cuts that endanger us all, yet are consistently demonised when they strike. They are people for whom cake is important social currency (this I can relate to).
But most of all, beyond the bravado and heroism, they are people who quickly discard this glamour in the face of getting the job done - and should we ever suffer the misfortune of having to call on them, we would surely be grateful for the small, quiet fact:
That they are people who won't go down the pole, when the stairs are quicker.
'The Smoke' starts tonight at 9pm on Sky 1; the first episode of series 1 will be available at youtube.com/skyfirstepisodes from 1 March