How to turn a crisis into great drama

Paul Abbott's Shameless has a history every bit as colourful as the TV show itself, writes Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

The television series Shameless was recognised last week as the finest such show of last year - but we'll never know if it would have had the same impact had it been called Brendan. That was the title the writer Paul Abbott gave to the project he submitted to BBC Birmingham in the late 1990s, only to withdraw it because he was unhappy that the partly autobiographical piece didn't quite hit the spot.

Seven years later, Abbott was persuaded by friends to revive the script, which draws on his experiences growing up as the seventh of eight children, abandoned first by their mother and then their father, leaving the family in the charge of his 16-year-old sister. As a result of his change of heart, Abbott was able to create the Gallaghers, the most dysfunctional but still much-loved fictional family on TV.

Last Tuesday in London, the judges at the Royal Television Society awards described Shameless as an "exciting, intelligent, mucky, poignant, raw, amusing, involving and always entertaining" programme by a "truly fine writer at the top of his game". Having given Abbott two awards for the series, the host Kate Thornton then summoned the writer back to the stage for a special honour, the RTS Judges' Award, for "his high-voltage energy, youthful disrespect for the obvious and a bravura ability to speak the unspeakable".

For once, Abbott, a dramatist of extraordinary energy and work-rate, was rendered, by his own admission, "absolutely speechless". After gathering himself, Abbott explained that Shameless was about "doing something on TV that I'd never seen. I knew it existed but it wasn't there."

Referring to the history of the project, he said: "I did it about 10 years before; it was a real kind of mess. About seven years later they just attacked me from both sides [to write it]."

"They" were the trusted confidantes who have helped him to grow into one of the most influential television dramatists of his generation. His CV includes such landmark productions as State of Play (2003), Linda Green (2001), Clocking Off (1999) and Reckless (1997). He was also one of the most important scriptwriters on Jimmy McGovern's groundbreaking psycho drama Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane, and he cut his teeth devising storylines for Coronation Street.

David Liddiment, who was the director of programmes at ITV from 1997 to 2002, was head of entertainment at Granada Television in Manchester when the young Abbott was honing his craft. "He was incredibly driven and hungry, and 20 years on he still is. He's so hungry to write and has so many stories he wants to tell that there aren't enough hours in the day," he says. Liddiment has stayed friends with Abbott. "Like all great writers, his skill is in his insight into the human condition, that's what great drama boils down to."

Abbott's talent for being what Liddiment describes as "not genre-specific" was clear to Laura Mackie, the BBC's head of drama series and serials, who executive-produced Abbott's acclaimed political thriller State of Play. "He's such a chameleon as a writer," she says. "He can write a love story like Reckless [in which a surgeon has an affair with his boss's wife] and character-drawn pieces like Shameless."

For Mackie, one of Abbott's talents is his ability to write great parts for every character in a script. "It doesn't matter whether it's the leading part or a two-liner; they always have a particularity of their character that gives a richness to the whole piece."

That Abbott has a writing career at all could be seen as an extraordinary achievement. His mother left the family home in Burnley when he was nine, and his father left two years later. He was raped by a stranger at around that time, later suffering a nervous breakdown and undergoing psychiatric treatment after being "sectioned". Through sheer force of will he found a way for his talent to out, winning a short-story competition and then persuading Alan Bennett to sponsor a radio play he had devised for the BBC. He joined Granada as a scriptwriter for Coronation Street at the age of 21.

Abbott caught Liddiment's attention because his work embodied a North of England perspective not found elsewhere in television. The writer is still based in Manchester, where he lives with his wife Saskia and their two children. His most important working relationship has been with Hilary Bevan Jones, who worked with him on Cracker and with whom he has established a Soho-based production company, Tightrope Pictures.

Bevan Jones, who was at Abbott's table on Tuesday night, describes him as "irrepressible", often sending her 4am e-mails about scripts. "He is so full of ideas that he will come up with a new one when he's halfway through a sentence about an existing topic."

Nicola Shindler, executive producer at Red Productions, who worked with Abbott on Clocking Off, says Abbott is not just prolific, but is endlessly prepared to upgrade his work. "He just had story after story pouring out. He was prepared to throw things out and use just one page out of 20 he had written." It was this willingness to start again that allowed Abbott to be talked into translating some of his life experiences into what became Shameless, the story of the often absent but strangely likeable wreck of a father that is Frank Gallagher, and his brood.

The key pair Abbott said "attacked me from both sides" were George Faber, who had been head of BBC film drama when he had first pitched up with "Brendan", and Tessa Ross, who later became head of film and drama at Channel 4. Ross saw the potential for developing what was originally a single film into something longer.

She says: "I did say at one point, 'I wonder whether this is mad, but I do think it might be a series.'" Abbott re-worked the original idea, injecting humour into what had been a far more serious piece of work.

Melvyn Bragg, who is making a South Bank Show feature with Abbott and who interviewed him the day after the RTS awards, describes the writer as "quite something. He's got originality and attack, and the kind of resonance with what's going on of a Dennis Potter. At the same time, he carries alongside that almost a devilish streak of humour. It's hard tragedy and tough laughs, and brilliantly constructed."

Charlie Pattinson, Faber's partner in Company Pictures, the independent that made Shameless, says Abbott's success has not stopped him from wanting to help up-and-coming writing talent. "He's very generous. People write to Paul and send him scripts, and he reads a lot. He gives them proper time despite everything he's got to do. He doesn't pay lip service to it; he genuinely rolls his sleeves up." As for Abbott's own work, he says he's preparing a drama, The Box, for BBC1, about a man who murders a TV celebrity.

According to Ross, America is his for the taking. "He could walk through any door and he would be told yes," she says. "I have sat in offices in America with important, posh people and they know about Shameless. A lot of people in America would want to work with Paul Abbott."