Gaby Chiappe and Alex Perrin co-wrote the new ITV crime drama, The Level. Sarah Hilary caught up with the pair ahead of Gaby’s appearance at the Killer Women Festival.
We tend to think of writing as a solitary craft, but I suspect collaborative writing is very rewarding. Do you come up with ideas together, as well as sharing the writing itself? How does it work in practical terms?
We have worked together over the years on two or three projects including ‘Cuffed’ (that’ll have to be re-named if it ever gets made on account of the BBC’s Brighton-based cop-show of a couple of years ago, ‘Cuffs’!). The Level is the first one that resulted in a series commission, and for both of us, is the first time we’ve had an original idea commissioned. We both also have solo careers, and as you say, writing is a very solitary occupation… you probably wouldn’t go into it if you didn’t like your own company and weren’t happy spending hours, days, weeks – months even, very much on your own, but even if that degree of isolation suits you, the prospect of collaborating closely with someone is a really lovely thing to run alongside working alone. You can sometimes get that kind of collaborative relationship with a script editor or a producer – but only in short bursts. When it comes to actual writing it’s still you, your computer and the blank page. Bouncing ideas off yourself is slow and often frustrating work – you can only ask yourself the questions that are already in your head, and although you can and do make breakthroughs that way, it can feel like a real slog. We both found it incredibly fruitful to have a creative conversation with someone else. You still hit brick walls, but at least you do it in company.
In terms of how we actually go about writing collaboratively … We have known each other for years, have similar tastes and didn’t really struggle to find a way of working together creatively speaking. We come up with the ideas together, structure the story together, first in broad sweeps and then in episode-sized chunks, and only when it comes to the beat by beat outlines and the actual writing of scenes do we part company – and then never for very long. Usually we break the episode down into smaller and smaller chunks and then each write a chunk, usually a matter of a few scenes – we will then edit each other’s work and sometimes re-work it together. Some key scenes we actually wrote together to start with and then continue to refine together. Unfortunately, we’re both inveterate tinkerers – the hours we’ve spent worrying about the choice of words and the punctuation (even for stage directions) doesn’t bear thinking about. We each wrote one episode alone, but even those were story-lined together.
The problems of working together tended to be more practical than creative as one of us lives in Leeds (Gaby) and the other in London (Alex). Skype is absolutely integral to this working relationship, it’s how we thrash out story, write and edit. When the signal’s good, we tend not to mess with it and just leave it on. Claire Armspach, who is officially our script editor but is actually much, much more than that, is often part of these conversations too, so we have three-way skype-athons that last all day. Sometimes we are able to meet and be in the same room – those days tended to be the most productive. Amazingly, in all that time, we’ve never had a serious disagreement – tempers more likely to fray over dodgy Skype signals!
The Level has some fascinating (and complex) female characters, from Nancy Devlin (our heroic detective) and her mother to Cherie and her daughter, Hayley. Do you feel there is more room in TV crime drama now for strong females, on both sides of the law? Perhaps even a demand for these kinds of women?
The number of female protagonists in TV crime drama at the moment would suggest there’s a huge appetite for strong women characters. But in a way, why wouldn’t there be? Half of us are women, we live in a world in which women take their place absolutely alongside men – (even if they’re still not being paid equally for doing so) – and with rare exceptions (e.g. Juliet Bravo in the 1980s, Jane Tennison in the 1990s) it’s taken TV a long time to catch up with that, so maybe there’s a thirst there that’s going to take a while to slake. In terms of writing strong women – that’s the world as we see it, it’s not a matter of ticking boxes. Crime dramas have (too) often created a landscape in which to be a woman is to be a potential victim, and even more perniciously in which violence against women is sexualised. Gaby is a woman, Alex has a female parter and a female child – why would either of us want to create a TV world in which women are the victims and the bait? It doesn’t mean that our characters are all superwomen, they’re not – Nancy has a world of trouble on her shoulders, her mother is struggling with mental health issues, Hayley is moving back to her parents’ house with her kids after her marriage falls apart, Cherie is a mother trying to cope with many things including a challenging (adult) son. Mixed in with the heightened jeopardies of a thriller, they all have real-world, every day problems.
In relation to The Level, it also made particular sense for our compromised detective to be a woman. In the real world only around 30% of police officers are women at lower rank (decreasing to around 20% at senior level). Nancy’s decision to go into the police says a lot about her passion and determination, and raises the stakes on her internal conflict.
Do you have favourite ‘killer women’ on television, past and/or present?
Gaby: Jane Tennison, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Agent Scully of the X files.
Alex: Jane Tennison, Catherine Cawood (Happy Valley), Birgitte Nyborg (Borgen)
How does it feel taking custody of other people’s characters? Gaby, you won a great deal of (deserved) praise for your writing on Shetland. Do you approach this sort of writing any differently to where you’ve created the characters from scratch yourselves? How do you factor in the strong sense of ‘ownership’ that many readers and fans have for long-running series characters?
Well, ideally you’ll be a reader and a fan yourself, so you’ll have a love for the characters and a respect for the work that’s already gone into them. That was certainly the case with Shetland. But even if you’re coming to characters new, you can fall in love with them. And you need to. If you don’t love and respect the characters you’re working with you probably won’t be able to write them. When you work with your own characters, you invest in all of them, love them all – something’s wrong if you don’t. Whereas it may be that you ‘receive’ characters and one or two don’t interest you: in which case, where possible, you’d be well advised to steer clear of them, and work with those that do. If none of them grab you – don’t take on the work! You have to spend a long, long time in their company, without a passionate attachment to them your working life is going to be very bleak – that’s true whether the characters are your own flesh and blood or whether you’re fostering someone else’s characters for a time.
The main difference in working with your own characters is that they are often still being defined. So there may be a greater freedom to explore – you can set your own parameters. In particular, someone else’s character is likely to have acquired their past before you work with them. And, even more crucially in drama, they are likely to have been cast: you are working not only with what you imagine, but what you see. Whether you’ve created the characters yourself or are borrowing them, casting probably make the biggest difference. Writing for characters whose voices you can hear in your head because actors already inhabit them, is a very different experience to writing for characters whose voices only exist in your own mind. In the latter case you are essentially going round with a head full of entirely imaginary people who are very, very real to you. It can make you a bit odd. Or maybe you do it because you’re already a bit odd….
What’s next for you both in terms of writing?
Well, another series of The Level would be nice! And Gaby is working on a screenplay adaptation of Dark Matter, a fantastic and very scary ghost story by Michelle Paver. (Another example of loving the characters someone else created so much that you are desperate to spend a few years in their company.)
Gaby Chiappe is part of the Serial Thrillers panel at the Killer Women Festival on 15 October.