What’s The Virtues about?
It’s about someone who is in the darkest possible moment of his life. He’s lost his kid to a country so far from the UK that he’s going to struggle to be able to visit. He’s realised he is a disaster and he needs to look into how he’s ended up in that place. That takes him somewhere that he wasn’t expecting at all.
Why did you choose this story to tell? What attracted you to it?
Shane Meadows. Shane wanted to tell this story and when Shane calls I drop everything. Always.
Really? You literally will go to him if he summons you as it were?
Exactly, every time. Because he is a poet and he is an extraordinary person to write with. He’s the finest of film makers. I still can’t quite believe he’s happy to work with me. Whatever he wants to do I will do.
What did you do by way of research for this?
A fair amount of reading around trauma. It was something I’d looked into before with [Thorne’s 2016 Channel 4 drama] National Treasure so in some ways it was something I knew some things about. I knew sort of the area we were looking into but with Shane it’s always surprising. There was a lot of checking out afterwards that we got the thing from the right place. But there’s also things you know randomly and start talking about and realise could be really… like, we were at one point going to have an entire episode on the ferry [to Ireland]. The reason I knew about that particularly ferry was because my wife and I had planned on taking that ferry for a holiday and doing an overnight stretch. I always thought there was something wonderful about doing an overnight ferry. The Belfast ferry. There’s lots of little things like that. You’ve just got weird stuff in your head and that somehow ends up pouring out because you’re in a room with Shane.
You often write on your own but you also collaborate a fair amount. Do you have a preference? Are they significantly different processes?
They’re hugely different processes. I don’t really co-write that much. I’ve co-written before on a show called Cast Offs. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child wasn’t really a co-write, it was a ‘co-story’. On other projects where I’ve got a co-writing credit it’s because generally I’m too tired! Shane is the only one now I co-write with. It’s an entirely different process to anything else that I do.
How much of what ends up on screen is improv and how much is written?
I have absolutely no idea! But there’s an awful lot of improvisation. Our job is to make the scripts as real as possible so Shane knows he’s got a story he wants to tell. So, we perfect them, always. Then Shane takes those scripts and he makes the magic. He’s not a director that’ll turn back to the page and go, “Oh, what’s this comma doing here?” He’s always: If it feels real in the moment, he’s happy. He’s got the script in his hand and the actors, to varying degrees, have got the scripts in their heads. They take the scripts and they do their magic with it. Honestly I think the script for This is England ’88, probably the best I’ve ever been part of, but it didn’t end up on screen the way we’d written it!
How much are you around for the shoot?
Not at all. No; That’s Shane’s bit. I’m there to get the stuff on the page for him and when the shoot has taken him to unexpected places occasionally I get a call. Like I got a call about episode four where it was like, “I think what we’ve done is in the wrong place … Can you go away and write something for me?” So I wrote a script for him on the basis of conversations we’d had but he was deep in it by that point so he couldn’t write it himself. Obviously it became something different entirely again. I’m there to feed him pages. That’s what I try to do.
Why is it called The Virtues?
That relationship between sin and virtue is really, really interesting. Shane has a really interesting relationship with religion. I genuinely don’t know where he stands on religion or whether he is religious, we’ve just never had that chat. But I think the relationship between virtues and sin is fascinating too. The way that goodness and badness comes out of a certain situation is really, really interesting.
I remember in This is England ’88 when we put Lol at church, that was something I’d written because I was a choirboy and there was a particular tune that I thought would be really amazing for Lol to hear in that moment. I don’t even know if that was the tune Lol ended up hearing. That somehow struck a chord when Shane read those pages and went, “Oh I think I could do something there”. I think it fascinates him.
I don’t think I’ve seen Stephen Graham better in anything and that’s really saying something.
Oh, yeah. That scene in episode one where his character gets the pub drunk in order to be drunk, that’s come from somewhere deep and dark inside his soul, and inside Shane’s soul. Amazing.
It must be a thrill for a writer to have an actor of that calibre performing their work?
Oh God, yeah. Yeah. When we did ’86, one of the first questions I asked Shane is, is Combo coming back? I really hope Combo is coming back, and I love Stephen Graham! He was off doing Boardwalk Empire at the time. Getting him back for a little bit of it was all we could do but he’s the most soulful, wonderful man and he just gives everything to the screen. He’s amazing. He and Shane together is a certain type of alchemy.
With Channel 4’s Kiri and now The Virtues you’ve made two dramas in relatively quick succession about families and the care system. Why is that an area you’ve become interested in?
My mum was a carer for adults with learning difficulties, so I grew up around care and visiting residential homes. That’s where Kiri came from. I think I was writing Kiri at the same time as we were doing The Virtues, it was just a longer process bringing the latter to screen. It was just something that I had lots of information and thoughts about, so when Shane started talking about it as somewhere he wanted to take Joseph I was able to feed quite a lot of stuff. The choice of story is never mine, the story is always Shane’s and I’m just trying to work out how to put it on screen.
Lastly, all this material is quite dark. Are we going to see a frothy rom-com by Jack Thorne anytime soon?
I bear no responsibility! I remember, when we were doing This is England ’86 and Shane said: “I want to do a Christmas special next,” and I was so expecting the Christmas special would be this slightly joyous experience where we spend time with the Woodfords and that kind of stuff, and we literally wrote the darkest Christmas special anyone has ever written. I remember Channel 4 going, “Well, I don’t know if we can put it on exactly over Christmas…” I love that we can do that.