Paul Abbott is currently writing a new series entitled No Offence. It's not a phrase you would usually associate with the writer. He has made his name by testing the limits of good taste with Shameless, his Channel 4 series about that family of walking invitations to an Asbo, the Gallaghers.
If you don't believe me, here is a selection of vignettes from the forthcoming first episode of the third series.
Social services are coming round to the Gallaghers' chaotic, parent-free house on the tough-as-old-boots Chatsworth Estate in Manchester to check up on five-year-old Liam. He has been acting up at school. The final straw came when he announced to the assembled audience - while he was playing one of the three kings in the nativity play - that "Jesus is a made-up person, and the Bible is all pretend stories to make people be good."
Terrified that social services will realise there are no adults looking after them and split up the children, Liam's resourceful older sister Debbie paints his face yellow, shaves off his hair and pretends to the visiting social worker that he has cancer. The local pub, The Jockey, immediately launches a charity appeal and a "Liam Day" to raise money to send him to Disneyland. To dull his anguish about his son's illness, Liam's fabulous waster of a father, Frank (a bravura turn by David Threlfall), starts asking youths at The Jockey to supply him with drugs. He is livid when one can't come up with the goods. "No gear? Call yourself a teenager?"
Meanwhile, the Gallaghers' illiterate next-door neighbour, Kev (Dean Lennox Kelly), falls for his lusty reading teacher and, in order to remain faithful to his jealous partner, Veronica (Maxine Peake), he takes to masturbating frantically in the most inappropriate places. When an old woman catches him at it in a phone box, she tut-tuts: "The kiddie's dying, and you're doing that, you dirty bastard." Truly, this is the series that taste forgot.
Abbott is entertaining me in his flat. He is a slight, wiry man, but he crackles with electricity. Thanks to a wheelbarrow-load of awards for such hits shows as State of Play, Clocking Off, Linda Green, Touching Evil, Reckless and Cracker, he is the most in-demand writer operating in television. The 45-year-old has half a dozen scripts on the go and, through his production company, Tightrope Pictures, is executive-producing half a dozen more. Somehow, he also manages to spend three months a year mentoring new writers. He constantly has unsolicited scripts pushed through his letter-box in the dead of night. "They've come all the way from places like Coventry. How do they know where I live? I don't even know where I live!" Abbott's discoveries have included Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Queer as Folk), Danny Brocklehurst (Clocking Off, Linda Green) and Caleb Ranson (Child of Mine, Heartless).
Firing up the first of many full-strength Marlboros, Abbott, who added to his stash of awards with the Best Comedy Drama gong at the British Comedy Awards last week, starts by explaining the glee that he derives from pushing the envelope with Shameless. "I love the fact that nowhere else in the world could you put this sort of stuff on TV," he beams. "I sit there thinking, 'I can write exactly what I want.'"
Abbott goes into "outrageous overdrive" when he pens the character of Frank, the spectacularly dissolute loser who will pretend to be dead, lie in state in a coffin and fake his own funeral just to foil the bailiffs. "Days spent writing Frank's speeches are some of the best days of my life," Abbott enthuses. "I love it, for instance, when he is completely outraged about the fact that nurses are going to arbitration over a 2 per cent pay rise when he's never paid a day's tax in his life. Every carpet is a soapbox for Frank, and it's hilarious that he believes we're taking every single one of his words at face value. He has this pristine, unassailable self-regard, even when he's stealing money from his kids to pay for drugs. When I'm writing stuff like that, I just sit there howling with laughter. My wife says, 'But you're laughing at your own jokes', and I reply, 'No, I'm not. I'm laughing because I know I'll get away with this.'"
By rights, we should abhor this family from hell, who are addicted to scams and sexual shenanigans. But instinctively we warm to their closeness, and their determination to thrive in defiance of snooty neighbours constantly telling them that they are the scum of the earth. Just as the Gallaghers stick by each other, we stick by them.
Abbott writes the characters with real affection. He grew up in Oldham as one of eight children. By the time he was 11, both his parents had legged it, and the youngsters were brought up by Abbott's 16-year-old sister, who was pregnant at the time. The children lived a sexually promiscuous, borderline-criminal, almost feral existence. In the end, the anarchy that prevailed in the household got to the sensitive Abbott, who had a nervous breakdown at the age of 15.
"I hung on to the title Shameless for its irony, the kind of accusation outsiders would have chucked at my family back in the Seventies," he muses. "To observers, we were a chaotic bunch of kids trying to bring ourselves up after both parents had walked. We were a mess. But how were we to know that? Ignorance being bliss was our most treasured human asset. We were loud, aggressive, primitive and anarchic. But I never once recall us feeling shameless."
So why has Abbott's fictionalised re-imagining of his own wild childhood struck such a chord with audiences? "We enjoy watching other people's chaos because we can't cope with our own. Audiences also relish being in the Gallaghers' world. I think we've created a world that lives by its own oxygen and that feels like it will survive, whether you're watching it or not.''
The cast of Shameless all say they know people like the Gallaghers. Jack Deam, who portrays Marty, the Gallaghers' arsonist, Tourette's-syndrome-suffering neighbour, says: "I was talking to someone from a Manchester estate the other day, and he told me that a bus recently crashed near his home. Instead of people trying to get off, they were all trying to get on so that they could claim compensation.
"Where I grew up in Oldham, I also knew lots of families like the Gallaghers. There was one family in particular. I remember having a fight with one of their children when I was 12. His mum came out and I thought, 'Great, she's going to stop the fight.' But she didn't - she just started shouting, 'Come on, Johnny, smack him!'"
Abbott is going to the US in the New Year to oversee production of an NBC version of Shameless. "It's my mission to get it on mainstream TV over there," he says, eyes twinkling mischievously. "But there are restrictions left, right and centre. You can show a 14-year-old kid blowing three people's heads off with a gun, but you can't show him lighting a cigarette. And they get in a complete state about anything to do with sex - remember the furore about Janet Jackson's nipple? I predict the anal sex in episode two might be a bit of a problem!"
For the time being, Abbott is delighted to exploit the freedom to write what he likes over here. He certainly shows no sign of running out of ideas - he is already mapping out storylines for the fourth and fifth series. "I've got 45 years' worth of stories to draw on," he laughs. "If Shameless ran for 15 series, I'd still have too much material."
Shameless is a series quite unlike anything else on TV. In Threlfall's memorable view, "The Gallaghers are like the Simpsons on acid. Their motto would be: if you can't stand the heat, blow up the kitchen!" The actor sees no reason the show shouldn't continue to break new ground. "If we remain fresh, we can take it anywhere. I don't want it to get to the point where viewers say, 'Is Shameless on?' I want them to say, 'What on earth are these people going to do now?'"
The new series of 'Shameless' starts on 3 January on Channel 4Reuse content