British TV writer Paul Abbott based his sitcom Shameless – the original Channel 4 series and Showtime’s U.S. version – on his own rough childhood on a Northern England housing estate. But his talent stretches far beyond autobiography, with a resume that includes blue-collar drama Clocking Off, psychological crime series Crackerand the parliamentary thriller State of Play (the U.S. film adaptation starred Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe). His next project – a miniseries on the life of Princess Diana he is doing for HBO and the BBC – will take him right to the top of the British class system.
Abbott will receive the 2011 Hollywood Reporter Award for excellence in international television at next week’s television festival and confab the Cologne Conference.
The Hollywood Reporter’s German Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough spoke to Abbott about his method for creating stories that appeal across national boundaries, his struggles with bipolar disorder and why moving from the Gallaghers in Shameless to writing on the royal family is not as big a leap as you’d think.
THR: Your work has been successful both in the original and in adapted versions around the world. What do you think it is about your stories that make them to travel so well?
Paul Abbott: I think I have an answer to and I think it’s something I’ve long worked for. I don’t think it is something you’re born with. When you’re writing a story there are many different layers to it. Any decent writer writes at least 3 layers. And my stories often have many more. It’s part of my illness, bipolar disorder, that I write so many layers. And a lot of them are non-verbal.In addition to the dialogue of a scene, I write little mini stories about what’s going on in the background, where often the mood goes against what the audience is looking at. I try to tell the audience a lot more than what is being said by the actors. For example, you could have a scene of domestic violence and have something beautiful happening in the background.I embroider this non-verbal behavior in my scripts as part of the narrative. And that always translates. You know immediately what’s going on. This kind of layering is common in film and I think TV writers should write to that too. Any viewer, anywhere, can tell immediately how much or how little composition went into the writing of a scene. All the best shows, be it Mad Men or a well-plotted series like The Shield or The Wire, the best of all of them they are similarly layered and the audience gets it. They can smell the author’s respect for the audience.
THR: Do you think that kind of deep writing is missing in most television today?
Paul Abbott: I think too much of the time, TV does what it says it’s doing. A crime show is a crime show, a soap is a soap. But you don’t have to do that. You can take the audience where they didn’t know they wanted to go. Most of my work has been a petulant obsession with proving you can do more with less. You can make the ordinary, extraordinary.
THR: Was that you’re goal when you created Shameless? The storyline is quite to your own childhood.
Paul Abbott: Yes. Both parents left us by the time I was 11 and my 16-year-old sister brought us up, me and eight other siblings. With no money. In architectural terms I directly lifted the story of Shameless from my life, but not in storytelling terms. Shameless was a sort of camouflage jacket. I wanted to sneak in a sitcom that would force the audience to watch our underclass, to watch British poverty as it really is. You know our soaps are the inversion of yours. Yours are about the upper class. Ours are all blue collar. And we were pretending that this was what Britain’s lower class was really like. The only time on TV where you’d see the kind of domestic situation that I grew up with was in poverty documentaries or really dire reality shows. But I remember things that were beautiful – I was remembering things from my past were pretty horrific and sat the same time having a smile on my face. I wanted to tell a story about poverty by having something beautiful.
THR: What do you think of Showtime’s U.S. version of Shameless?
Paul Abbott: I think the Showtime people have made it unmissable. How they’ve interpreted it. They’ve made it its own thing. It’s a good example of how careful scrutiny can be used to adapt a series. Many remakes fall apart because they are too closely matched to the original. But here they slide in their own words when it makes sense. Use ones that are equally beautiful but different and more appropriate.
THR: Do you think you could have made a U.S. version of Shameless before the financial crisis?
Paul Abbott: When we first took it on, over 10 years ago when I wrote the first script in Britain, I don’t know if we could have sold it to the U.S. that way. We had offers from different networks but they weren’t using the same grammar. They weren’t behind the extreme nature of the project. They wanted to clean it up. But it doesn’t work then. You have to make it that extreme. Maybe the economic crisis woke people up to that reality. The stock crash on Wall Street gave us a leg up. We were probably the only ones to benefit from that.
THR: Who’s the best Frank Gallagher – William H. Macy or (British actor) David Threlfall?
Paul Abbott: I love them both. They are fascinating, enjoyingly different figures. Interestingly, they play using nearly the same hand movements – which must be instinctive since I don’t think Macy has seen David’s performance. They are both odd ball actors playing odd ball characters. And I’m an odd ball writer. So it works out.
THR: You’ve got a reputation for accurately capturing working class life – in Shameless or the BBC series Clocking Off. But one of your most successful shows, the miniseries State of Play, was set in the corridors of power, the British parliament and among the broadsheet denizens of Fleet Street.
Paul Abbott: I wrote State of Play as a tantrum. A journalist called me white bread, what’d you call a redneck. So I wanted to show him I could make something posh, to show it wasn’t my upbringing that lets me write like this. It’s fucking talent. Yes, State of Play is posh but it’s armature posh. You’ve got all that beautiful Westminster dressing but Shameless is written just as sophisticated. It really winds me up when someone says you can write well because you have a tough life – it doesn’t harm fertilizing ideas but it’s talent, not upbringing.
THR: Where do you get your ideas from?
Paul Abbott: My ideas germinate really quickly. That’s a problem, actually, when I’m in the middle of a film and another one comes to me. Like three weeks ago, I woke up with an idea and I sat up at six in the morning and started typing. By mid-day I had 12 full pages that I could sell tomorrow and it’s beautiful and complete. It’s like a full course meal – like a dream. It’s honestly one of the most complete ideas I have ever had and it happened over course of six hours. Of course that may be a sign I am going manic, so it’s something I have to keep an eye on.
THR: How has your mental illness impacted your work?
Paul Abbott: I think I developed biopolar disorder, which has become schizophrenia, when I was very young. From the age of five or six I realized I was so low down the pecking order – at home if you talked you either got scolded or slapped – so I started writing in my head. My siblings were all illiterate, literally illiterate, so while I couldn’t say it to their faces I could call them a fat cunt in secret. It’s how I became a writer. So I have a lot to thank my illness for.
THR: But it must also cause problems.
Paul Abbott: Oh yeah, yeah. I tried to keep it secret for a long time. I’ve been married 24 years now and we’d been married 17 before my wife found out I was bipolar. The more you’re watched, the worse you get, so I tried to hide it. But then my father tried selling my medical records to one of the national papers here. Overnight, I had to write a piece for the Telegraph that would be published before his information would be. I had to tell everything that I didn’t want to tell to my wife in a public forum. It was horrifying. Now I have a really good radar switched on to protect myself.
THR: Your next project is a miniseries based on the life of Princess Diana for HBO and BBC America. That’s a stretch from writing about the Gallagher family.
Paul Abbott: It is, except that when I was writing Shameless, on every single episode when I was finished I went thought all the characters’ dialogue and I pretended they were the royal family. And it fit perfectly! So I knew it was universal. I mean you talk about a family of dysfunctional alcoholics! That’s our royal family all over. It’s an entire aristocracy based on gin!