"When I first started, people didn't care when I mentioned that I wasn't using any of the old characters," says Mark Ravenhill, the writer entrusted with creating a third series of This Life. "But in the end it reached the point where if I said `Anna's not going to be in it', entire rooms would go silent. It was extraordinary. People would come up to me and say threateningly, `I hear you're going to get rid of Miles...' It's so ironic, I'm going to be more publicly lambasted, ridiculed and attacked for dropping a character called Miles from a soap than I am for putting rimming and buggery on the West End stage."
And lambasted he certainly has been. As rumours of the demise of This Life grew, and turned into "fact", fingers were pointed in several directions. Who had brought about this television catastrophe? More fingers pointed at Ravenhill than at anyone else. He was tried by the media and found guilty without hitherto saying a word in his own defence. Mark Ravenhill had killed off This Life by writing a story line that was too gay. Shopped it and fucked it, so to speak.
The truth, according to Ravenhill, is less dramatic and more complicated and focuses not upon him and homosexuality, but on Tony Garnett, the 61- year old producer, a radical since the Sixties who fell out of love with the programme. Why? Because all the experimental reasons for its existence had gone.
Gayness, as Ravenhill points out, certainly was not the problem. The first two series had a dramatically high sex count and from the very beginning the programme quickly established itself as gay cult viewing. This was, after all, late-night BBC2.
When Warren, one of the original characters left the show, the gay quotient was continued by the complicated shenanigans of the bisexual despatch- rider Ferdy - who proved so popular that he is now emblazoned upon the poster for the current London stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar.
"I looked at the first two series," says Ravenhill, "and said to the producers, `well, I think you've done gay men pretty thoroughly. It would almost be nice not to have any for a while'. I was asked to be the lead writer, which meant writing `the bible' [the outline for the new, thirteen- episode series which Garnett's company wanted to commission] and the key episodes.
"I put a couple of subsidiary gay characters in my bible, and a big lesbian storyline which hotted up as the series went on, but there was less male sexuality than before.
"At that time, the second series had just started, but it wasn't anything like the cult it became by the end."
When Ravenhill met Garnett,whose track record includes such groundbreaking, influential works as Cathy Come Home and Kes, he was suitably impressed. "He's an extraordinary man. He's got real integrity, real standards. He can be a bit of a difficult old bugger but it's always built around trying to do the right thing."
Ravenhill duly accepted the commission but realised that he was in difficult territory: the BBC wanted the third series to be very much like the second, but Garnett was not exactly wedded to that idea.
Although much of the recent gossip was about which of the cast would return, they had already all been killed off. "Tony always liked new stuff. I think he saw it as the fringe theatre of TV. He always wanted new actors, new writers, new directors... it was like a training ground. Having regulars wasn't in the spirit of the original conception."
Ravenhill even removed the whole idea of lawyers from the equation. He was much more interested in the difficulties of a fresh group of twentysomethings sharing a house and trying to deal with the fact that although they are old friends, they now have vastly differing incomes.
Much of the blame for the This Life "tragedy" was dumped on the shoulders of Mark Thompson, controller of BBC2 - who is said to have delayed too long and thus lost the cast to other projects - but Ravenhill is swift to defend him. "He was accused of dithering but I think that was very unfair."
So what did happen in the end? "Tony called me and said: `You're going to hate me for this, but I'm not going to make a third series and you'll probably not want to talk to me for a while, but if you ever have an idea for the future, come to me.' And that was that."
Ravenhill bears Garnett no ill-will whatsoever, which might seem surprising, except when you consider that he has been paid to undertake a masterclass in writing drama for television, something most young writers would gladly give their eye-teeth for.
Garnett is notoriously wary of the press and has remained silent but for the brief press release in which he stressed the excellence of Ravenhill's work and the friendliness of the relationship between his own production company and the BBC. As far as he's concerned, "in the end, I decided it was time to move on".
Fans may have wanted to follow the fallout from the gruesome marital finale of series two, but Garnett quit while he was ahead. He didn't want to repeat the formula - several of the cast were unavailable anyway - and the risks in a "new improved" version were very high. He had, it should be recalled, been on similarly dangerous territory before.
It was Garnett who made the excellent police investigation series Between the Lines. At the end of series two, the plot exploded, leaving the third series as a pale imitation of its ratings-grabbing predecessors. There was a distinct danger that history might repeat itself. With the BBC hungry for more work from the company, mature reflection would suggest cutting This Life off in its prime may have been the smartest of moves.Reuse content