Jimmy Gardner: Bafta-winning writer whose scripts for 'The Cops' exemplified his tough, gritty, realist style

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The Independent Online

The writer Jimmy Gardner co-created The Cops, a groundbreaking drama series that was so uncompromising in its portrayal of the police that their assistance was eventually withdrawn.

The first episode, written by Gardner, featured a rookie police officer high on speed at a nightclub shortly before the start of her shift. More broadly, the programme showed the problems of poverty and desperation on the streets and estates of a town in north-west England and how they challenged the local police force's black-and-white view of the world. Officers advocating community policing had to battle with others whose solutions were firmly rooted in more old-fashioned methods.

Gardner – whose anger at injustice was reflected throughout his work – was a driving force behind The Cops (1998-2001), which was shot in documentary style with hand-held cameras, and won two Bafta awards for best drama series. "We spent three weeks in Blackburn, shadowing the police – we had access all areas," he said. "The reason why The Cops was so successful is that it was so well researched. What really struck us was the futility of it. Most of the villains were just hopeless. One of the officers said to me, 'If it wasn't for drugs – if you count alcohol as a drug – we wouldn't have a job.'"

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1957, the eldest of four brothers, Gardner was the son of a civil engineer and a teacher of deaf children who later moved back to their native Edinburgh. As a result of his mother contracting German measles while pregnant, he grew up with a heart defect and, through poor health and hospital visits, missed much of his schooling at George Watson's College, Edinburgh.

When he was 18, open-heart surgery improved Gardner's health and he completed his A-levels at Napier College (now Edinburgh Napier University), before graduating in English and American literature from the University of Kent. For years, he drifted from job to job – labourer, street trader, mini-cab driver – in London, New York and Lisbon. Following the birth of his son, Eugene, Gardner decided he needed a career.

He studied at the Northern School of Film and Television in Leeds. His break came with the school's production of Borderland (1993), a short film he co-wrote with its director, Dominic Lees. Screened at Edinburgh and Venice in 1994, it told the story of an IRA member and a young British soldier living on opposite shores of a lake between Northern Ireland and the Republic. When Borderland won Best Student Film award at the 1994 British Short Film Festival, one of the judges was the producer David Puttnam and the accolade – plus a Bafta Best Short nomination for his 1996 The Butterfly Man – brought attention.

His first scripts were for The Bill (1996-97), then the cult series This Life (1997), made by the veteran producer Tony Garnett's independent company, World Productions. Its next major series, The Cops, was devised by Gardner, Robert Jones and Anita J Pandolfo, with Gardner scripting two episodes for each of the three series.

He and Jones then created the prison drama Buried (2003), set in the fictional HMP Mandrake, near Manchester. It followed the fortunes of a new inmate, Lee Kingley (Lennie James), beginning a sentence for shooting and grievously wounding a man who raped his sister. Again, he and Jones did intensive research, interviewing prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs, London, and Grendon, near Aylesbury, to ensure the result was another gritty drama.

"We wanted to show that most people who go to prison are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations," Gardner said, "and that, basically, any of us could end up in there, given the wrong set of circumstances." The result was another Bafta. Gardner then contributed two scripts to the criminal-lawyer series Outlaws (2004), before re-teaming with Lees to write with him the feature film Outlanders (2006), about the dilemma faced by a Polish immigrant after his brother is discovered to be bringing illegal labour to Britain.

Praise from the television critics disappeared only when Gardner left realism behind with Goldplated (2006), a series about "Cheshire girls" taking over the mantle from their stereotypical Essex counterparts – throwing themselves at men with money and flaunting it themselves. "The Cops was about losers and people living in sink estates," he said. "It was about poverty in Britain. I thought it would be interesting to go to the other extreme and look at the winners."

Gardner turned to adaptation for the first time with Missing (2006), based on Karin Alvtegen's novel about a homeless young woman (played by Joanne Froggatt) going on the run when she is suspected of being a serial killer. Also working on the two-part drama was the script editor Claire Russell, whom he married in 2008.

Last year, Gardner contributed a script to the second series of Survivors, about the aftermath of a virus that kills most of the world's population, and another to Inspector George Gently, starring Martin Shaw as the detective of Alan Hunter's novels.

James McKay Gardner, writer: born Flatwell Heath, Buckinghamshire 27 August 1957; one son; married 2008 Claire Russell; died London 14 December 2010.