You want to be in my gang?

He worked in a pub, then on the trading floor before discovering theatre. Now Tony Grounds is one of television drama's most distinctive voices. And his new series about a group of fortysomething men should further enhance his reputation. By Clive King
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The Independent Culture
With more bemusement than bitterness, Tony Grounds recalls spending a year of his childhood living in fear of his teacher. "I was only eight," recalls the television writer, now 40. "Any minor misdemeanour and he would whack you with this big yardstick. I never got to go back and beat him up, so in a way I suppose this is my revenge." The opening episode of the BBC2 drama Births, Marriages and Deaths, broadcast on 22 February, depicts a group of fortysomething buddies paying a drunken visit to the headmaster who terrorised them as children.

Grounds is a warm, easygoing character, whose conversation demonstrates the same mixture of down-to-earth sincerity and sharp observation that characterises his work. The teacher-bashing incident is the catalyst for an epic tale of three families struggling to keep the lid on a Pandora's Box of terrible secrets. Ray Winstone, the writer's best friend since they met at West Ham matches in their teens, leads a strong cast which also includes Phil Davies, Mark Strong and Maggie O'Neill. Grounds wrote the part of Alan, the Jack-the-Lad leader of a pack of three lifelong mates, especially for his pal.

Alan, a petulant bully who lords it over his less successful friends, is not the most flattering role to bestow. "Alan is Ray without the charm," explains Grounds. "After the read-through he turned to me and said `Well, if I don't get this right after 40 years of rehearsal...' He's aware of the similarities. Ray is brash, in your face, he wants to be the leader. When you go out with Ray you have to accept that hes in charge, you go where he says. But you want to, because its always great fun."

Alan's put-upon pals are Graham (Davies), who lives in a council flat and works as a rat-catcher, and post office employee Terry (Strong). "Alan's big, flash house is at the top of a hill, with Terry's semi half way down and the council estate at the bottom," notes Grounds, who grew up in a working class area of Ilford and arrived at his current Enfield home via a council flat in Camberwell. "Its not some great polemic about the state of Britain today, but it does have a political dimension. One of the ideas was to strike the final nail in the coffin of Thatcherite Man, to see him destroyed by his own selfishness and greed. Alan represents that, with Graham as more of an old-style working man and Terry as the caring new man type."

Grounds is reluctant to locate himself in this neat trinity of contemporary masculinity. "I'm the writer, so there's a little bit of me in all of them." Pressed, he admits that he feels the greatest affinity with Terry, who takes on the responsibility for a ready-made family when he weds a mother-of-two. Grounds is step-father to his wife Carolines two children, Lauren and Louis. They have one young son of their own, six-year-old Oscar.

"I suppose all original writing comes from somewhere in your own experience," he says. He cites the example of his acclaimed 1998 drama Our Boy, which starred Winstone as a distraught father failing to come to terms with the loss of his son. "I started writing that two days after my father died. Although in the film its the son who dies, it's about fathers and sons and grieving for the end of that relationship."

Having built his reputation with comedy dramas such as Gone to the Dogs, Grounds believes he "turned a corner" with Our Boy. "I proved I could do other things besides comedy. Having said that, all good drama runs tragedy and comedy side by side. That's how you really move an audience, by making them feel for someone they've just been laughing at."

Leaving school "with a few O-Levels", Grounds's first job was in a pub. Then one of the regulars offered him the Holy Grail of the early Eighties - a job in the City. "I was pretty good at yelling," he laughs, summing up his three years as a trader in cocoa futures. A leaflet pushed through the door of his Camberwell flat alerted him to the Old Vic Youth Theatre. Pushing thoughts of Reg/Ruth to the back of his mind, he found himself part of a vintage crop of young hopefuls which included Sophie Thompson, Linda Harris and, most influentially, the director Oliver Parker.

"Ollie was a real inspiration to me. He encouraged me to leave the City and go to the Central School of Speech and Drama. He even filled in the forms." Parker also opened the writer's eyes to a different way of life, richer in both senses of the word. "I thought we were pretty classy, until I met Ollie. His family lived in a big house in Kensington with pictures on the wall that werent cut out of magazines. And their attitude was whatever you want in life, just go out there and do it. My own parents had always played it very safe."

For a few years after he left Central, Grounds became a secondary school drama teacher. When the actress Camille Coduri saw some plays he had written for his young charges, she persuaded him to write something "for grown- ups". Shortly after its premiere at the Lyric in Hammersmith, Made in Spain, a rambunctious comedy of bad manners set on the Costa del Sol, was snapped up by ITV.

"Overnight, I was a television writer and got offered work on existing shows. My first meeting at EastEnders, there were all these guys around the table with cowboy boots and long hair. I thought, these are real writers, they've got cords on. Mental note: buy some cords. Then the producer came in and went `Right, episode 328, Dot confronts Nick, episode 329, fire in the caff...' Suddenly all the writers jumped up and started shouting episode numbers. They all knew the form so I ended up with something like episode 332, Dot loses a shoe. I thought I was the seller, you see, not the buyer."

After a couple of episodes, Grounds washed his hands of soap. He had a go at The Bill but found the cop show an equally unarresting genre. "Then I did this thing called Chancer with Clive Owen, and again that was fairly hard. Luckily, Ted Charles at Central Television asked if I had any ideas for my own series. So I said, `I've got this great idea about Jim Broadbent and a three'legged greyhound'. I'd been to the dogs the night before and it was the only thing I could think of." The six- parter Gone to the Dogs was commissioned on the spot and became one of the big hits of 1991.

Viewers hoping for a second helping were to be disappointed. "I was offered Gone to the Dogs 2, but instead I asked to do a wholly new but no less unsophisticated romp. Something contemporary, but set in a strange almost Dickensian world of ghosts and villains and garden centres." One of the unsung masterworks of Nineties television, Gone to Seed flopped. "I watch it now and I can see it was a bit too dense in places, too entangled."

Although he has two feature films in development, Grounds wants to continue writing for the small screen. He is passionate about the power of the medium, if disheartened by the proliferation of game shows and join-the- dots dramas. "Telly is important," he insists. "Along with the computer, it's probably the most significant invention of this century. Everybody watches it, so don't just give them chewing gum. I'm not saying we shouldn't have soaps or quiz shows, but we should also have fantastic drama."

`Births, Marriages and Deaths', 22 Feb, BBC2