Interview: Amy Jenkins: Once in a lifetime
The creator of cult TV show 'This Life' never planned to be a writer. Now she's a hot new property, working with the best in British film
Sunday 20 April 1997
What dogs did for Dodie, lawyers have done for Amy Jenkins, the creator of the BBC2 series This Life, inspired by her days as a law student. She was also a scriptwriter on the first series and has contributed storylines to the current run. This Life, depicting the Sturm und Drang in the days of a group of twentysomethings huddled under one roof, has Amy Jenkins earmarked as the Lynda La Plante of the MTV generation. It has now been nominated for a BAFTA. "It's the quirky outsider," says Jenkins. "Up against Ballykissangel, EastEnders and Hamish Macbeth. The series deserves to win, really, simply because it was groundbreaking and brave."
With its emphasis on relationships, and a cameraman as animated as the actors, the series, according to its creator, has given a segment of her generation a voice on the small screen, previously only found between the sheets of the style press. "In the late-Eighties and early-Nineties, I knew 200 people. We thought that we were at the cutting edge. Out of our heads on drugs, dancing the night away. Everyone believed they were going to be pop stars, models, fashion designers. Some of them did. Seal was one who became successful." It soon became apparent that many of the group were not raving but drowning. "After two years, I realised that the people who were doing things were those who got up in the morning with a clear head, answered their letters and got things done."
Tired of her nights on the town, and weaving in and out of temp jobs after her stint in a law firm, Jenkins took a leaf out of self-help books such as The Road Less Travelled, Feel The Fear, I'm OK - You're OK, which have also been squeezed between the palms of characters in This Life. She discovered the power of positive thinking. "I had written little books for myself as a child, and read voraciously. I loved books like Ballet Shoes, and, of course, I Capture The Castle was a favourite, but I'd never thought of writing as a career."
This despite her stepmother being the journalist Polly Toynbee and her late father the political columnist Peter Jenkins. It was the standard, liberal, media-class upbringing, with the principle of a comprehensive education in an upmarket postcode coming into play. Now a Chelsea girl, Jenkins has no plans to pick up the political baton waved throughout her parents careers. "Most people of my age are more internally focused, we're not so concerned with politics. We don't want to make a big statement but focus on an individual journey. We're accused of being selfish, but selfishness in the real sense can also mean taking responsibility for yourself. Begin with yourself, and the details you can control. There's a morality in that. Begin at home with the real issues and the broader ones will follow."
The pursuit of social change via the self-help route rather than storming Downing Street or going underground like Swampy, characterises many a Nineties progeny of liberal parents who took to Grosvenor Square during their Sixties' street-fighting years. The lack of political activism is a criticism that has been levelled at the characters in This Life. "There's been an enormous amount of middle-class guilt around TV professionals. Some of the initial reaction to This Life was, who cares about these yuppies? They think they've got problems. The characters, like a lot of twentysomethings, aren't ashamed, and to the generation above that is unforgiveable."
Jenkins, a single woman with a dog, has no immediate plans to settle down and conceive anything more time-consuming than the next film script. She hopes to take some time out from writing to slip into a producer role to help one of two recently completed screenplays, Elephant Juice, make the transition from page to screen. As with This Life, and her Stateside favourite, ER, the relationships between the characters take precedence over pile-ups and shoot-outs. "It's a comedy of manners, inspired by the panic about the rise of the divorce rate. Everyone marries or gets in a relationship expecting it to be for life. Our attitude should be much more fluid. If a relationship ends it shouldn't be seen as a disaster but part of a life process. Then our expectations will match the reality. The story plays with the idea that breaking up is not such a bad thing."
The second of these scripts has reunited her with Danny Boyle, who is on a roll after the success of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. A friend of Jenkins' parents introduced her to Boyle when he was looking for a "rave consultant" while directing an episode of Inspector Morse. She got the job and this became her introduction to a writing career. "I don't think that I can talk about the story, but Danny Boyle and the producer Andrew McDonald are the best British film people to be working with now. They've revolutionised the process of film making. They make the writer feel like an equal."
With her rave days behind her, it's doubtful that any of her scripts will come vacuum-packed with the Trainspotting themes of drugs, clubbing and the obligatory soundtrack. These days she prefers to stay at home and write. She cites her favourite script as one that sets her apart from her contemporaries, who would doubtless choose something from Quentin Tarantino or Abel Ferrar. It's that rara avis that puts the beat into bank holidays - a family musical. "The Sound Of Music is my favourite film. It's beautifully written, well constructed and really sophisticated. Nothing could be that popular for that long and make so much money if it wasn't special. I've learned a lot from that film."
It's not the mountains of Salzburg, but the hills of Hollywood that are her ultimate destination. "I love a lot of Hollywood films because they are not afraid to be films, even something as high-camp as The People Vs Larry Flynt. And a lot of American TV, since things like NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues began showing here, like ER, nowadays, the procedural elements are very formulaic. It's the lives and the relationships that tell the real stories."
It will be some time before I Capture The Castle reaches the screen, and maybe even the Oscars, but a BAFTA for This Life would be the perfect hors-d'oeuvre in the meantime.
This Life goes out on BBC2 at 9.45pm Mondays and is repeated at 12.20am on Fridays.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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