"The bleaker and darker No Offence gets, the more people love it. We're given a license for extremity and twistedness."
From Cracker to Clocking Off to State Of Play to Shameless, writer Paul Abbott’s name has become a byword for quality, unflinchingly honest TV drama. His latest venture, Channel 4’s darkly comic police drama No Offence opened series three last night with an emotional sucker-punch of a first episode and, as the 58-year-old tells NME, events are only going to get more extreme.
Without giving any spoilers away for those who want to catch up on All 4, it’s fair to say fans were shocked by the start of the first episode….
“It’s a breathtaking first act, isn’t it?”
What was the battleplan going into this season of No Offence?
“It’s finding unique stories that are dark, serious and meaningful enough to make the comedy jet-black, so taking on a far-right agenda is a big ask but from episodes one to six, I think we’ve done a really good job. Every year we try to satisfy the audience with something with a decent gravity and seeing how we can twist the humour out of the hardest of spots.”
The main plot involves an assassination attempt at a mayoral hustings which the police believe is connected to a new far right group called Albion. Did you do much research into EDL-style organisations and what was the most surprising thing you learned?
“Yeah. People have to be written with respect otherwise the humour doesn’t earn its place. We interviewed people and watched every documentary going. Nine tenths of this you don’t need because what you’re looking for is fully-rounded people who sound like they live on your street – not just the telly version of it. It’s just understanding the logic of your antagonist. It all makes so much sense if you say it a certain way. Having to take that on and not just writing people as stupid, but people with a political agenda who have thought it through and know how to appeal to the public, so you can’t just write abstracted, simplified characters. Because that’s the terrifying thing – it all makes so much sense. Certainly more sense than Trump does.”
You run the Writers’ Studio in Manchester which encourages a more team-written US approach to shows. How does it work?
“When we’re putting together the overall storyline, it’s a team effort but when we deliver the scripts, it’s also a team effort because I’ll swap my script with another writer to see what they can do with a scene and vice versa, and we cross-fertilise. It’s the best teamwork project I’ve ever worked on. Nobody’s precious. If it can be sharpened up by another writer then it’s going to happen. Paul [Tomlin, first episode] wrote some cracking scenes in my episodes and I did the same with his. We kind of do it in the American format without it costing the same, basically. But in the American model, you can have a script taken away but we haven’t done that. We knock it about until we get it right and then it goes back to the original writer to polish it up. It’s a really satisfying, grown up way to proceed. Like on Shameless, if anybody had a rough time with a script, we panicked and it got taken away from them and handed to another writer because the speed of the process was so great. The hardest thing is we have about a fifth of the money [than US TV shows] – they spend about $6.5 million per episode of the American Shameless compared to less than one fifth of that for us (Laughs).
Have you ever had any brushes with the law you could draw upon?
“No, I haven’t. ‘Cos I did bad things but I was too swift and smart to get caught. (Laughs) But I’ve had plenty of experience within my family of brothers who went to prison, so seeing it from the other side has helped enormously.”
Are police officers now approaching you with their own jet-black comedy moments, saying ‘You should put this in a script’?
“Yeah they do. Even though there’s loads of things that are not technically accurate, they love it, because it gets to say its bit in a way we’re not allowed to in real life. When we first got a police adviser, he said: ‘But detectives never speak to uniformed police’. And I said: ‘But then we haven’t got a series, what are you talking about?’. It’s like when the adviser on Cracker said: ‘But no psychologist would be allowed in a room with this person’. I went: ‘Well we’re fucked if we proceed like that – give us some latitude’, and we’ve groomed our police adviser on how to benefit the story, and he said his colleagues absolutely love it. The faults in accuracy are more than compensated for by the humanity we paint within the stories.
Can you see it running as long as a US network series like Law and Order?
“Well it’s different because it takes a year to write six or eight episodes and they have a formula that can be churned out, but we have to fine-tune our content for that unique molecule that gives us a story that we can make a big public human statement with and in the darkest fashion – certainly the finale is about as dark as you can get. But the darker we get, the funnier we have to make it.”
No Offence is bracingly honest and politically incorrect. Do writers ever fear – in the age of mobilised campaigns about shows like Insatiable and 13 Reasons Why – a social media backlash?
“To be honest, if No Offence had gone out in a previous era – say when Cracker came out – we could have been taken off by a couple of reviews saying ‘this is an outrage’. Now with Twitter, people are going: ‘We want more outrageous stuff’. The audience can smell in No Offence that they’re being well-respected. I don’t mind being on the wrong side of it all, but on No Offence, the bleaker we get they seem to love it more. On social media, they love the extremity and twistedness of it. The channel controllers are your paymasters but the audience is your boss. Episode three of No Offence – which I wrote – is a very, very dark little piece but we’re given a licence for extremity as long as we can encapsulate the humanity of the situation.”
How did you feel when the UK version of Shameless – which mined your own experiences growing up – ended in 2013?
“I was thrilled. (Laughs) In a way, I think if I’d stayed on top of Shameless it could have gone on for a very long time, but by the time it finished, I was bored by the vulgarity and the simplification of the format. When you look at early Shameless, it was a sophisticated combination and I think the back-end of it was reductive and I was glad to see the back of it, take a breath and see where I wanted to go next. And I’ve pumped out four really good new formats and it took a while to recover after Shameless and it’s been thrilling and scary, and has inspired me to be braver and more talented.”
What are you working on next?
“In short, I’m working on a new series about morbid obesity called Patsy Klinger’s Near Death Cookery Course, which is a jet-black comedy about something I find repulsive – morbid obesity – and at the same time, it’s a beautiful family saga. I’m working on a new series of State Of Play for the BBC. And I’ve written a new series about the Pendle witches but not from The Crucible side of it, it’s more from the resistance workers who refused to allow it to happen. It’s called The Tormentors and is about a resistance force in a village that were very inventive at cheating the witchfinders. And I’ve written a new series called 22 which starts in the Syrian War and takes a very young soldier, literally 22 years old, into a company called 22 which is a government Black Ops unit. Oh, and I’m working on a series called Barking which is a psychiatric road movie with Sarah Lancashire happily attached to it.”
Did our current political climate prompt you to return to State Of Play?
“No, they commissioned the script 14 years ago. It took a while to flourish. When novelists take 10 years for their second novel, nobody questions it. Television writers take 10 years to resurface, it’s a controversy. It takes time to refertilise properly, and not just churn stuff out every year. You have to tackle the difficult stuff to truly be lit up.”
What happened to the HBO mini-series about the life of Princess Diana you were writing?
“I just started on the wrong vein on that one. To be honest, I went through a divorce and I didn’t find divorce palatable (Laughs). I was writing about the biggest divorce in public history – while going through one of my own – and it just put me off the whole thing and that’s a very weak thing to say but it was quite affecting at the time.”
No Offence airs Thursdays, Channel 4, 9pm. The first episode of series three is available to watch now on All 4 now.