Shame on the lot of you: Paul Abbott on the betrayal of TV drama

Paul Abbott isn't just the creator of such modern-day classics of TV drama as 'State of Play' and 'Shameless'. He is also one of the industry's most outspoken critics. Ian Burrell stands well clear
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The Independent Online

Paul Abbott appears, purple-shirted and perspiring profusely. For the purposes of alliteration it would be nice to say he is also palpitating with anger.

But no. The writer of some of the most exciting drama to be seen on British television - Shameless, State of Play, Clocking Off - is just mildly annoyed, a little offended but not greatly surprised at news of the BBC's new reluctance to move significant parts of its operation to the north-west of England.

From the moment he arrived as a young writer on Coronation Street more than two decades ago, through to his work on the forthcoming fourth series of Shameless, Burnley-born Abbott, 46, has fought harder than almost anyone to bring an authentic Lancastrian voice to British broadcasting.

He is a passionate supporter of the Media City:UK project, the proposed new Salford Quays home for the BBC's sports and children's departments and the Five Live radio network. But that is now a plan in jeopardy after Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, indicated earlier this month that the impending licence fee settlement might be insufficient to fund such a move.

"I'm not surprised," says Abbott, who keeps a flat in London but mostly lives in Manchester. "I think the prevalence of that resistance is what stopped decentralisation of the BBC happening 10 years before. Eighty per cent of the material that's made for the BBC is made or commissioned from Shepherd's Bush. It's absolute bollocks - it's meant to be a federal system but they give away the fact that it's not every time the news comes on and they say, 'Over to the weather where you are'. I'm thinking 'Where are you then? You're meant to be with me.' It's so dislocated - such a bad, bad tract to inflict on the audience. And they always smile when the weather is better in the south-east."

The second-youngest of 10 children, Abbott watched his mother walk out when he was nine years old, and his father leave two years later. That left one of Abbott's elder sisters as head of the family. After such an upbringing - the inspiration for "the UK's most dysfunctional family", the Gallaghers of Shameless - Abbott is a survivor who's not afraid to say what's on his mind.

He will not be deflected by the BBC's hesitation. "We are pushing ahead anyway," he says. "Truth is there has been a lot going on [in Manchester] for a good 30 years. They talk as if they are going to cultivate the North with the potential and skill to make television programmes. But Cracker, Prime Suspect, Band of Gold all came out of the same stable in Manchester, 12 or 14 years back. It's not giving to, it's giving back to."

He is still bemused by Granada's decision in 2002 to relocate its headquarters from Manchester to the London Television Centre, on the south bank of the Thames. "I don't think they know what they lost when they migrated. It's not about political, it's about regional or territorial pride in what you are doing. Granada stood for a lot, so a lot of people went to them for free, the kind of writers they couldn't tempt back in a month of Sundays," he says. "Manchester hangs over a really fertile breeding ground for writers and musicians. It just seems bankrupt of forethought to have not invested in that."

Abbott is making his own investment, convinced that the BBC's move will mean little if it amounts merely to spending on bricks and mortar while the commissioning process remains in London. He reveals that he is setting up a studio for writers, which will be based in a country house 10 minutes from his home in the Manchester suburbs. "It's not an academy, it's a studio that is about distilling ideas to the best they can ever get." Will it be like the specialist schools of writing already being established at the BBC by drama chief John Yorke?

"The total opposite. No disrespect to John but they're teaching writers how to write soap- long running series. They need writers for EastEnders, Holby and all that. That's hardly a writing academy. You are creaming off the ones who can do it exactly to your standard."

Teaching people to find their true writing wings takes at least two or three years, Abbott says. "That's why you end up with boring writers, because they're all fully-cooked too early and nobody wants to make them fly. Mind you, some of them I've had to make them fly by pushing them off a tower block."

Abbott, who constantly talks about "raising the bar" and "aiming higher", is frustrated at the standard of the scripts in British television. He's cancelled his satellite subscription because there's nothing worth viewing. "They're just willing you not to watch telly. It's so wilfully bad. I know you've made a reality show but you could have done it with more dignity than that."

British television grossly underestimates the intelligence and imagination of its audience, Abbott says, comparing the industry unfavourably with America. "Just because an audience wants to watch Heartbeat doesn't mean to say you've got to make it like white, sliced bread. Heartbeat could have been Heimat. The bar is set way, way too low. I watch ER, I don't watch Holby - it looks like you've crammed one hour's drama into 26 episodes. We breed typists and it's our fault."

Abbott is clearly proud that the Emmy-winning writer for ER, John Wells, has bought the rights to develop an American version of Shameless. "You watch people on ER working and they are just supremely comfortable. Nobody fears putting up a suggestion that is crap because they know that the next stage is the growth stage and somebody has to say the first bit."

There is a blandness to London media, he argues. "It's flooded with people who are under-skilled and not creative. They're all architectural scaffolders and there's nobody doing masonry."

Abbott knows that as his own status grows so he too becomes vulnerable to claims that he is losing his touch. "The worst thing about getting a reputation is people withdraw the right to fail. It's really important that you don't let that constrict you. I had three or four lifetime achievement awards in one year and yet I am writing a scene that doesn't work and thinking, 'This is the end of me, the end of me'."

One critic damned him with faint praise by saying that a successful first episode of State of Play might not prevent the rest of the series from going downhill. Abbott refers to this writer as a "pan-faced, miserable, peevish oaf."

Though sensitive to criticism, the creator of Frank Gallagher delivers his retorts with a crude but easy humour. He has spent a decade mentoring young writers and, though he is not hesitant to identify failings in television, he is essentially an optimist and talent spotter, a declared enemy of those curmudgeons and misanthropes who foster a culture of underachievement.

Press references that place the word "scriptwriter" ahead of his name are often "pejorative", he claims. "There's one journalist who does it quite often and says 'the scriptwriter Paul Abbott'. I think, 'You can't still be saying that.' I've got five lifetime achievement awards and a better writing style than you."

There was a time when Paul Abbott avoided describing himself as a writer for different reasons. "My family only found out I was writing when they saw me in the paper with the trophy when I had won the Lancashire Festival. It was like being caught masturbating. I bet one of my family was on a court report three pages down and they'd have been more proud of him than me. But if I had told them they'd have talked me out of it."

By the time the young Paul Abbott joined the Burnley Writers' Circle, submitting articles for magazines such asTitbits and the Weekly News, he had already undergone a breakdown. He still suffers from depression and recently took part in the Mental Health Media Awards to promote better coverage of such issues. "Most bipolar people - schizophrenics - I know, wouldn't sacrifice their illness. I know that's what makes me. I don't like the bad bits but tough, I would not take it away. The last time I went through a really bad one I created State of Play and Shameless in the same year. Male members of my family will not talk about my breakdown. It's not as if it's embarrassing, I pulled through it didn't I? They don't want to talk about it because they don't know how to and you've got to teach them how to."

Abbott reaches out on such issues through his drama. "It's like homeopathy. You've got to go in and take a bit of the worst of it and take the audience and their fears with you. I'm really proud we did that on Shameless, sliding stuff in under the audience's radar. Half my family vote BNP, but I can't have a row with them because they'll just twat me and say 'Oh shut up, you're talking like a social worker.' I will talk to them through Frank [Gallagher], who they love, doing his immigration speech at the end of the Christmas special. They found that funny. I said, 'If you found that funny you have to understand what it means.'"

He will shortly go further and make a musical feature film about the BNP in Burnley. He won't be asking the locals to contribute suggestions for the script. "I don't want putting off. I'm not going to canvass their opinions - I don't want them to shape my film. If you import too many of other people's philosophies you can't be a writer."

Abbott, whose production company Tightrope Pictures has offices in London and Manchester, is also working on a new project for Channel 4, Mrs In-Betweeny, a sort of transsexual Mrs Doubtfire. "It's about stripping away gender to teach kids that are divorced that there's no superior authority one way or the other," he explains.

He has been writing professionally since 1982, after sending work to Alan Bennett and getting the chance to write radio plays for the BBC. He thinks the current crop of radio drama is mixed and is not afraid to tell Radio 4 that "a huge amount of radio plays are just appallingly reductive, patronising lumps of old shite but then you get one that keeps you listening for the rest of the year. I'm often phoning up saying, 'Where was the microphone there?' I think I'm barred from the duty log now."

Coronation Street, for which he became the youngest-ever scriptwriter at 25, no longer demands its audience to tune in for every episode, he feels. "They've made it too disposable. It's mix-and-match, scratch-and-sniff."

As he talks, he signs copies of the DVD of the third series of Shameless, which is released this week. He admires the way his entrepreneurial son put one Paul Abbott-autographed Shameless DVD (RRP £19.99) up for sale on eBay. He is less happy that it sold for £20. "My signature was worth exactly one pence."

Already Abbott is working on series five, which will have a longer, 16-episode run but, he promises, will not be diluted because of it. "I'm trying to drive characters and build a constellation that takes us into a longer order series by putting more in and not less."

Back in Burnley at the Abbott family's MOT garage ("it's run by my nephew, Keith, son of Keith, son of Keith, if you ever get stuck"), a giant 48-sheet Shameless poster covers one wall, with the added message "As seen on TV!"

The Abbotts may have been the model for the Gallaghers but Shameless is more than autobiography. "You are not importing actual events. The whole point is story-telling, and it's a really satisfying job when you're allowed to do it properly. There's barrels of that stuff left yet. More than Bush has got."