It’s amazing, I can’t think of a time that I cared less about politics, except maybe before I reached puberty. I’m just appalled at the whole mess. Right wing, left wing, middle of the road, do-gooders, bad-doers and those that are just downright insane. However, I will vote, because people fought for the right to vote, people even died for the right to vote – so I have to vote. Besides if I didn’t my mum would never forgive me.
Party politics have never played a great part in my writing, but I’ve frequently made social comment, which of course often indirectly comments on politics. It was almost impossible to not comment on society when working on EastEnders. I’m regularly asked if we chose topics to explore – AIDS, homosexuality, rape etc. I of course can’t speak for everyone or for all times, but during my stint on EastEnders, the character came first and the stories grew from them, which is the way I believe it works best on long running series. In shorter form dramas, I tend to decide on the story and let the characters grow from the premise. For example, when I was writing Silent Witness, virtually every time I’d decide what the plot was going to be, then create the characters from the story. You were inheriting the regular characters, so they were a given.
I’m a great believer in story. For me the story is god. There’s a perennial argument – story led drama versus character led drama. For me the two are one and the same, you can’t have one without the other. How the hell can you tell a good story if the characters are shit and two dimensional. Equally, what’s the point of having great three dimensional, almost touchable characters, if you have a crap story. Doesn’t make any sense.
Drama works best when story and character work hand in hand.
In the 80s we ran a rape story on EastEnders. One of the regulars, Kathy, was raped. There’s going to be millions out there, who don’t know anything about the character and more who don’t know anything about the story. But briefly, Kathy was one of the original characters in EastEnders, she was married with a son. She started working in a local pub, not the Queen Vic, run by a guy called Wilmott-Brown. Wilmott-Brown takes a fancy to her and after a few too many drinks one night, he rapes her. The story was born out of the character’s history and the situation developing between the characters on screen. When the possibility of her being sexually assaulted was first mentioned, to mirror something that had happened to her in the past, there was talk of Willmott-Brown being a psycho rapist. He was stalking her, stealing her underwear, taking covert photos, really weird shit. I didn’t think this was a good idea. I didn’t believe that was what the show was all about. In fact I was dead against it. In the script meeting I made my feelings known – loud and clear, and went home believing I’d just signed my own dismissal from the series. I felt I’d stuck my neck out too far and it would more than certainly be chopped. The reverse happened and I was asked to write the three episodes which covered the rape and its immediate aftermath, being told by the producer that she’d had a great idea, which in fact was mine.
What the story became was a story about date rape, a phrase that at the time had yet to be coined. For me telling the story in that way, rather than making it some sort of pseudo horror/thriller, fit better with the show in 1988. Date rape was an encounter most people could relate to – a situation that gets out of hand and turns into something criminal, malicious and seriously nasty. On the other hand I don’t think most people are familiar with psychotic rapists.
The story hit the front page of most of the papers, originally because the second of the three episodes showed an unsympathetic cop who was sort of telling Kathy that she’d asked for it. Uproar. How dare the writer say that?! Especially a male writer. I was accused of being irresponsible and the episode would put girls off reporting sexual assault. Actually that part of the story came from my own research and the Met police’s attitude to rape at the time. There were a number of rape suites in various police stations throughout the capital, but invariably when a rape occurred, they were occupied by someone else – they’d seen an empty room and moved in. Not all the male police were unsympathetic, but a lot were. The phrase ‘she was asking for it,’ was pretty prevalent. The whole thing, on the surface looked fine, but really it wasn’t. This all became clear after the third episode, which had a sympathetic policewoman take over the case.
Because of those episodes the Met started to look at the way rape victims were treated and the Commander at the time, I believe her name was Commander Wagstaff, came out in support of the programme, agreeing that the system was flawed and had failed a number of victims. To get across the inadequacies of the system at the time, the story had to be rooted in reality. If I’d have portrayed Kathy as being wonderfully handled by the police from the start, then it wouldn’t have had the same effect. And if Wilmott-Brown had been a character out of a horror film, then it wouldn’t have been taken seriously at all.
I doubt I would get away with it nowadays. Somebody would dilute the story so the programme didn’t offend anyone. In the 80s the BBC wasn’t the same institution it is today. They weren’t worried about complaints in the way they are today. As far as we were concerned if people complained it meant they were watching and taking note. At the time I was allowed to defend what I’d written, and the producers were allowed to defend their shows. Certainly, by the 90s, that was changing and the powers-that-be started to be concerned that if anybody, anywhere was upset by a show’s content, then there must be a problem with the show. I just wanted a reaction.
I never set out to write a political or social comment piece. I don’t want to preach to anyone. I just want my characters to be able to express the views and opinions I believe they would have; however offensive that is to certain people. If I write a killer, it doesn’t mean to say I agree with everyone being able to kill someone. If I write a racist, a homophobe, a misogynist, it doesn’t mean I hold any of those attitudes. If anyone doesn’t like any of those character’s views and find them too offensive, then they’re at liberty to say so, turn off the TV and get a book out and read. (I recommend BECK LE STREET.)
And what is really worrying is I’m not sure how long those freedoms are going to last. The whole political divisiveness that has arisen through Brexit, the environment, right and left wing politics and eco warriors and industrialists, I believe is creating a censorship and curtailing freedom of speech in a way I have never before experienced in this country. That isn’t taking sides with the right or left wing, that’s just stating what I believe is happening.
Now when I’m writing I’m aware that there are certain things I’m unable to say because they will be deemed offensive by someone or other and certainly be cut before reaching sight of the public.
But what I try never to forget is that first and foremost, I just want to tell what I consider to be a good story.