I reckon the biggest question on everybody’s mind at the moment is – “What happens when this lockdown ends, and we get back to ‘normal?’”
I think it’ll be like starting again, not from the stone age, but from some point we’ve never been at before. For a lot of people it’s going to be complete fresh start. And fresh starts are not always bad, fresh starts can be good. For instance, there was a girl in my class called Alice Hooker. Well you can imagine as soon as we were old enough to know what a hooker was, Alice got the piss taken out of her unremittingly. This went on all through school. I didn’t see her for ten years after that, then I ran in to her one day in a bar of all places. I naturally asked her how she was … how life was treating her? She said she’d had an awful time since leaving school. The piss taking never ceased. First at Uni, then at every job she had since … and because of this relentless micky taking she’d been forced out of at least half a dozen jobs. I expressed my sympathy and said I hoped things would get better. I finished my drink and was just about to go on my way when she stopped me. Alice had very piercing blue eyes and she looked directly at me. For the first time I saw optimism in her eyes, before her eyes had always looked sad. Then she told me things were about to change … she was about to make a fresh start. I said that was wonderful and asked what this fresh start entailed? With a smile she simply said, “I’m changing my name.” Why she’d never done it before, I’ll never know, but it didn’t matter, because she was going to do it now and her life was going to start afresh. “What you are changing it to?” I asked genuinely pleased for her. She looked at me with her piercing blue eyes and said: “Janice.”
Of course, that isn’t a true story, but I tell it to highlight the point that if you’re having a fresh start, make sure it’s an improvement from what you were doing before.
My career has been full of fresh starts. As I’ve said before I spent the first dozen or so years of my working life as an actor. I think the longest I ever worked anywhere was nine months. I was constantly changing jobs, because that’s what happens if you’re an actor and are not cast in a long running West End show, or a long running TV series. I never did a West End show and although I did lots of appearances in various TV shows, none were ever a running part, two or three episodes at the most. Except for Beadles About, which I spent twelve years doing. But that wasn’t really work, that was just well-paid fun. In between acting jobs, I was doing all manner of other work to make ends meet, from a building site labourer to bingo caller, from bar work to carpet fitting. I did absolutely anything and everything. And every time I did a new job, it was like having to start afresh. I had to get to know a whole new set of people, get to know all the quirks and mores of each particular post. A lot of the times I had to lie about what I did for a living, otherwise I wouldn’t have been given the job. Then I had to lie to get time off to either go for an audition, or to do some filming, naturally if I got a stint in theatre, I had to come up with some excuse and quickly quit. The excuses had to sound plausible, because your week-in-hand-money was at stake. They were the type of job you always worked a week-in-hand and if you didn’t give the requisite notice, then you’d lose that money. My reasons for leaving became quite elaborate, but none of my excuses were as inventive as the one I heard from a student in the early 70s. We were working for a company called Allied Services, which basically cleaned and repaired boiler suits – this was in the days when the UK had a thriving manufacturing industry and there were literally thousands of boiler suits in daily use in thousands of factories all over the UK. When it was discovered I could add up correctly, I was immediately promoted and given my own office where I checked the number of garments each of the women on the sewing machines had repaired – they were on piecework, paid by the garment. After a few weeks I got a theatre job and so I made up some excuse about my family moving or something, but it was nothing as ingenious as a student, Simon, who needed to go back to college. He went into the manager’s office, looking very serious. I thought he’s going to tell them that he was having to leave because of a family bereavement – hence the solemn visage. When he came out, I asked him how it had gone, and he told me that it had gone good, they’d bought his excuse. Apparently, he’d told them that he was unable to continue working, because six months previously he’d been to an anti-war demonstration where he’d met with some Vietnamese and he’d signed up for the Vietcong – they’d just called him up. He got his week in hand.
Occasionally things got a bit too close, like when I was loading lorries through the night for a meat company, and I arrived at work only to be greeted by one of my fellow workers saying he’d seen me on the TV the night before. And indeed, I had been in Terry and June or The Liver Birds or some other sitcom, I just hoped nobody at my workplace had been watching. But it seems that they had. So I just blatantly lied and said it wasn’t me. Whether or not he believed me, who knows, but I kept the job until I left to do a stint in theatre.
I don’t know whether it was the nature of the work, or something inherent in me, but starting afresh is something I’ve never shied away from. In fact completely the reverse – I’ve actively sought it.
There have been times in my career when I know I should have just settled in and made hay while I could. When we started EastEnders, it was something totally new for me. As my writing career started to take off, I never had any intention of writing long running dramas, the truth of the matter was, I’d never even thought about it. I’d started writing because I loved it, not to make a living. Being paid was, at the time, a bonus. I’ve changed somewhat since those days.
EastEnders was a new and strange environment with a whole load of new and strange people. Originally, I thought if things worked out, I’d work on the show for six months or so, make enough money to then think about going off and doing something else. But as time went on, I became more and more entrenched in the programme. Quite early on I started story lining for the show, creating new characters and eventually I had the opportunity to direct. At the time I was certainly the only writer directing his own episodes. So leaving at that stage never really entered my head. I was also working on other shows as well, but at the time, these almost seemed to go unnoticed. I was becoming known as an ‘EastEnders’ writer and that was it. I can understand why, at the time I did numerous interviews about the show both for print and broadcast, I was the first writer to write a hundred episodes of the show, I virtually picked which episodes I wanted to write and my influence on the show was evident for all to see. But still I didn’t really want to be known as a ‘soap’ writer. I always thought I was a ‘writer’ and I did other shows to try and make that clear, but it was difficult shifting the perception.
I decided the only way of moving on was to … move on. Quit EastEnders totally, no going back for the odd special episodes, no guest directing, finish completely, the end, kaput. I’m not sure which year I decided to do that, but I do know it took me a good few years before I was able to fully implement the plan. I kept being sucked back in through some bizarre loyalty to the programme. However, eventually I wrote my last episode – the murder of Saskia (Deborah Sheridan-Taylor) by Steve Owen (Martin Kemp). And that was it. I’d finished with EastEnders and off to a fresh start. The fresh start included a ten-part horror thriller called Headless for Channel 5 which we filmed a few years later. By that time I must have put EastEnders way out of my mind, because I cast Deborah Sheridan-Taylor in one of the lead roles not realising I’d worked with her before on EastEnders.
Of course, the sensible thing to have done would have been to just put my head down and got on with it. Just kept on writing and directing those episodes, because this is a business that rarely offers security and EastEnders was one of the few times I was offered just that -good regular money. But I also know if I hadn’t have got out when I did, then I would have grown bitter, bitter because I wasn’t doing what deep inside I was yearning to do.
Shortly after leaving EastEnders I was engaged to write a spin off for the BBC’s long running, highly successful, Saturday evening hospital drama – Casualty. And so Holby City was born. The first series was launched with just 9 episodes and proved so successful a second series was quickly commissioned. The second series consisted of 16 episodes. Very soon into the planning of the second series I felt that the show was going off in a direction I wasn’t keen on. I wrote a few episodes and off I went again to pastures new. There was also the feeling that I’d only just managed to get out of one long running series and here was another in the making – did I really want to do the same again. But again the sensible thing would have been to knuckle down, go along with it and grasp the hand of security … but I didn’t. There was something else out there that I knew I had to do.
A few years later I was approached about returning to Holby City as a story consultant. By then the show was doing 52 episodes a year and obviously eating up story faster than The Sun eats up headlines. I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay around, but at the time I saw it as a challenge – how do you make quality drama in that quantity. For me it’s always in the storytelling and how that storytelling manifests itself. There was and is a tendency in all the long running series to lurch from incident to incident, even though they might spend hours planning the storylines for next three to six months, they still feel the urge to pack the stories with falsely generated incidents trying to pass them off as drama. I was hoping to move away from that model.
After a short while I was asked to take over as Executive Producer, which meant I was across everything, from scripts to actors, from design to credit sequences. At the time I decided I’d do it for a year – I ended up doing it for four years.
Did I enjoy it? I loved it. I loved that control. So often you’re at the mercy of other people and I’ve always said I don’t have a problem putting my head over the parapet. If I get it wrong and I’m in charge, then fair cop. But if I get shot down for something I’ve been forced to do and didn’t agree with, then that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On Holby the buck stopped with me – which was the way I liked it. Still do.
After four years I was getting weary and started to worry I wasn’t giving the show the hundred per cent attention it needed, so I decided it was time to move on.
Again, not the most sensible move. This was the BBC, I was by no means doing a bad job, in fact the show was performing really well, so I could have just kept my head down and enjoyed the benefits that came with it.
But no – I quit.
I clearly have this glitch in my character – workwise, when everything is going good, I have to find a new challenge – start afresh.
So I may stand alone but I feel a rush of adrenalin when I think about what happens now, where does this country go next? I know patriotism is somewhat unfashionable, but my belief is this country has been down and out on many previous occasions and just come back stronger. When I was born there was still rationing in this country, I saw that disappear, I saw the general quality of life improve, seriously improve, and that was only six years after a world war. Six months of some virus – piece of piss! We can handle that – can’t we?