In the second series of Shameless, new mum Sheila convinces herself that her twins have been snatched. We enter the scene as she is remonstrating tearfully with four policemen, and only seconds before granddad returns safely with the tots in the pram. "Can I pay for your petrol money?" she apologetically asks one of the coppers, who shakes his head. Casting around for some other way to express her gratitude, she asks "How about a fuck?" The boys in blue scratch their heads, make their excuses and leave. It might sound shocking, and perhaps it should, but somehow, in context, it works.
Shameless is set on the Chatsworth council estate in Manchester and revolves around the Gallagher family of close-knit delinquents. Six children and an absent mother are loosely ruled over by the permanently sozzled Frank, played by David Threlfall, who makes Ozzy Osbourne look like Robert Robinson. The family is the default pit-stop for all local police cars, but despite blatant delinquency, vandalism and irresponsibility, the series is so grounded in the sense of community that at times it feels more like Passport to Pimlico than a booze or ecstasy-drenched version of The Royle Family.
The first series of seven programmes, made by Company Pictures, went out on Channel 4 in January and won rapturous praise for its writer and creator Paul Abbott. The fact that he compares it with The Waltons, the acme - or nadir - of home-spun charm, says much about the world Abbott came from, since he freely admits that every character is based on someone he knew from his own upbringing.
For Paul Abbott, family life collapsed aged nine when his mother left home, leaving his father - a man no better at holding his drink than at holding down a job - in charge of six children, and Paul the second youngest. When he baled out a few weeks later, Paul's elder sister, then aged 16, took over the role of mother, as does the 20-year old Fiona in Shameless. At least Frank didn't bolt altogether, unlike Gallagher senior, but the tension between the generations, and the character of the father who is the biggest child in the whole family, is artistic licence of a pure and inspired nature.
Abbott's real family dared not claim benefits for fear of arousing too much interest from the authorities, so, rather than "scrounging" - which really would have been shameless - family members took on all manner of humble jobs to keep some money coming in. The Gallaghers have no such qualms, however, and much of the comedy of the first series came from their efforts to con the system with, quite often, the younger members proving to be the most enterprising.
Perhaps it was to immure himself against the challenges of his own family that Abbott, encouraged by his English teacher, started writing when scarcely a teenager. Or perhaps it was to do with his having been raped by a complete stranger at the age of 11. For a while he went into a period of free-fall which included depression, a nervous breakdown and a failed suicide attempt at 15, but with the help of the NHS, he was back to reasonable health within three years, and writing as if his life really did depend on it.
Abbott has been writing professionally since 1982. As well as being a radio dramatist and a script editor on Coronation Street, he cut his teeth - and almost his wrists, if he hadn't done that already - as a producer of Cracker which starred Robbie Coltrane, and which he described as "the best and worst year of my life".
Later credits include the six-part crime thriller Touching Evil (1997-99) starring Robson Green, the industrial mini-series Clocking Off (1999) starring Christopher Ecclestone, and the six-part political thriller State of Play (2003) starring Bill Nighy. He could turn his hand to comedy too, as he proved with Linda Green (2001) starring Liza Tarbuck.
As evidence of his ability to juggle, or proof of his need to be in control, Abbott set up Tightrope Pictures with Hilary Bevan Jones, whom he had met on Cracker. Their current projects include a film about elder abuse for Comic Relief and Richard Curtis's latest work, a love story against the background of a G8 conference which reflects Curtis's interest in the Make Poverty History movement. For Bevan Jones, Abbott is an inspiration. "I think he's a genius," she says. "He has real energy and fantastic enthusiasm."
And fear too, obviously, hence the name Tightrope. "You have to dare to fail," she says. "And it's helpful to have someone holding the rope."
George Faber of Company Pictures first talked to Abbott about a dramatic reworking of his adolescence when he was at the BBC ten years ago. "He's always searching for the right format," says Faber, explaining why what emerged as Shameless went through so many incarnations. Tessa Ross, who commissioned Shameless when she was at Channel 4, feels the same way about Abbott. "Ideas just tumble out of him," she says. "He's fantastically sharp, and I think he's only just beginning."
In the Christmas special, Lip (short for Philip) and Kev Gallagher nick a consignment of contaminated meat which poisons more or less the entire estate just in time for Christmas. Meanwhile, in true Christmas spirit, Sheila goes into the sort of labour pains which even her daily Valium allowance can't deaden. It sounds like a dystopic vision of Christmas hell, but, again, it works, hence, perhaps, the comparisons with Boys from the Black Stuff, though Abbott would welcome references to Spinal Tap too.
Having realised that not everyone lived like he and his family did, it must have been a further shock to realise that he could promote the series for TV. And he says himself that it's a lot cheaper than paying a therapist.
Abbott says he is proud of Clocking Off because "it broke a mould and created an opening for other writers to express their own single stories." His championing of promising writers on further series of Shameless is further evidence of Abbott's generosity towards his younger peers. Abbott is now executive producer of his own series, and is also selling State of Play to Universal Studios in America, for a sum which will no doubt leave the 44-year-old, married with two children and living in Manchester, with ever more capacity to indulge his imagination. While not hostile to reporters, he is no regular fixture on the London social scene.
Some moralists have condemned Shameless as if it were TV with its flies undone, or a dramatic rephrasing of the way that a series such as Little Britain revels in society's amoral underbelly, but that charge would have more resonance if the show patronised its audience. Instead, it somehow champions the underclass while also confronting a moral compass which very rarely finds the ethical equivalent of magnetic North. Sure, stuff goes missing, but, as Abbott knows, people pinch stuff.
"He's not just a polemicist and it's not just folk stories he's telling," says Tessa Ross. "He's a ball-juggler who loves what he's doing. If you hadn't seen it you might think it's tragic, but his world is all about love."
George Faber likes to tell the story of when Paul Abbott first pitched him the idea which became Shameless, but it didn't quite work. "He insisted on paying me back the advance," Faber says. "But now he's at the peak of his form, and nurturing the next generation too." Unlike the financially shifty Gallagher family, Paul Abbott is busy repaying his debts, many times over.
'Shameless Christmas Special', Channel 4, 23 December, 9pm. The second series of 'Shameless' starts on 4 January.Reuse content