Here's more notes from the TV Writers' Festival in Leeds last week. Most people went to a John Yorke masterclass first thing on Day 2, but I went to Matthew Graham on Pulling the Plug - The Pressure of the Last Episode. He was candid, entertaining and discussed a couple of potential projects I don't think have been widely discussed.
WARNING! Contains spoilers for Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars
Matthew Graham: Ashes To Ashes [A2A] came about because of the way Life on Mars [LoM] finished. A third series of LoM was planned, a Gene Hunt focused series to explore the purgatory element. John Simm said he didn’t want to do anymore, missing his family. Plus he was in almost every scene, incredibly draining. But he agreed to do a Christmas special, to tie things off.
Jane Tranter suggested a spin-off. We [MG and Ashley Pharoah [AP]] weren’t sure, we thought it might be milking it. But we used the recording Sam makes when he returns to 2006 to keep the mystery open. Give ourselves that option. It’s so hard finding a show that works, nobody wants to give that up.
We deliberately had a three year for A2A, to stop flannelling. We knew it was a purgatory, a place where dead police go. We had some quite nasty hate mail for not getting the characters of Gene and Alex Drake together.
The first series of A2A was quite frivolous, with Alex commenting on events. The second series was darker, and in the third all hell let loose. The first didn’t work so well, it undermined the premise – making Alex so arch, so knowing.
We had story conferences with the writers we employed on the show. Lots of things came out of those conferences, like the idea of Gene Hunt dying as a young cop.
Having Sam commit suicide at the end of LoM went to the top of the BBC. The question was can a hit TV series lead character commit suicide as a happy ending? The BBC decided to be brave.
Jim Keats was only created for one or two episodes for A2A series three. Keats became Gene’s nemesis, the devil himself while Gene is Heaven’s gatekeeper.
Bringing Sam back at the end of A2A would have been a cheat, undermining Alex and A2A. Plus John Simm’s cantankerous. I love him to bits, but he would have been humming and harring until the last minute. He might have said no and left us in it. We never made an offer to John, asking him to come back.
Keeley [Hawes] got very bad reviews after series 1 of A2A, she didn’t want to do series 2. We made her character too arch, too comedic – it was our fault. We persuaded her back, but she played it too almost too quiet and dramatic in series two, she had to find a middle ground.
Becoming execs - we wanted to help out, it’s not that we wanted a lot of control. Obviously, it’s a money, you get a bigger slice of the pie from world rights.
Most shows get cancelled between series in Britain, most don’t have an ending.
If you want the incredible high of a greenlight and the incredible low of cancellation, do Bonekickers! It was trying too hard to do knockabout TV for grown-ups. The lesson? Be grateful that once in your life you created Gene Hunt.
We’ve got no plans to do another Gene Hunt TV series, though Ash threatens to do one set now called The Laughing Gnome. We’ve unmasked Gene, we’d just be repeating ourselves.
[MG & AP are adapting the Jackson Brodie novels – three Kate Atkinson novels about a private detective – for BBC Scotland]
MG: It’s all about character, not whiz-bang writing. It’s the first adaptation I’ve done. Kate’s done the heavy lifting, so it’s about the tradecraft, structuring for TV. You have to transform it, otherwise you make it not as good as the books.
Kate’s really happy with our scripts. We’ve created a lot of new stuff. Each book will be a two-parter. There’s three books out, so that’s six eps. A little self-contained story within each ep. There’s not dense books, but they’ve depth.
You draw from the well. We’ve pretty much used up the books. We have permission to create new stories for the second series, if it happens.
MG & AP don’t write together, they storyline together and then divvy it up.
MG: We are thinking about a Gene Hunt film to introduce the character to a new audience, much as the Star Trek film reinvented the TV series. Effectively it’s an English version of The French Connection, Gene Hunt as the English Popeye Doyle.