Paul Abbott is not cagey about the fact that he had a difficult childhood. The seventh of eight children growing up in the northern English town of Burnley, he was raised by his eldest sister after they were abandoned first by their mother, then their father. Abbott eventually found solace in writing. He got his start in radio plays before landing a gig on the iconic soap Coronation Street. Abbott then set out on his own, creating and writing a wealth of shows, among them the political thriller State of Play. With his next project, Shameless, Abbott took inspiration from his own life. The Channel 4 series chronicling a dysfunctional Manchester family was both a critical and commercial success, eventually being adapted for Showtime in the U.S. Abbott’s most recent show, No Offence, made by his AbbottVision production company, is heading into its third season on Channel 4 and has sold well courtesy of FremantleMedia International. One of the most in-demand and lauded writers working in the U.K. today, Abbott tells TV Drama about the inspiration for his comedic crime drama and his approach to writing.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about the idea for No Offence. I understand it’s something you came up with a long time ago?
ABBOTT: It wasn’t ready for about eight years. Like all the best stuff, it incubated for quite a long time. That incubation period was its refinement. My original inspiration was to attract a crime-addicted audience to a comedy. But many comedies have to go so broad to achieve their comedic value. So did No Offence when I first came up with it. I put it back in the drawer because it just kind of offended me. When we went too funny it was rude. And when we weren’t funny enough it just looked like a cop show. So we had to find a very specific bandwidth. The funny thing about this is, we did so well on the first series we were cocky, as cocky as you could imagine. We thought it was all available to us. And it wasn’t available to us because we had a brand-new story, and with a brand-new story you have to find that bandwidth again. Writing a series for a crime-addicted audience is one thing. Writing a comedy is another. Technically we have to write two separate shows and then weld them together. Basically, you have to write the procedural as a pure piece of drama and learn how to tilt it. It’s not easy! [Laughs] It’s one of the hardest shows I’ve ever written. And dragging new writers into this is not easy. They all think they want to write the comedy. Well, they can, but they have to write the procedural aspect of it so diligently that you’re permitted the privilege of the comedy. It’s a very high call. And we do draft after draft. The grammar for telling the story is hard to find because it can very easily look vulgar, sloppy or lazy. We have to attend to that and tighten the nuts. It has to sound like real life to be funny. If it’s not like real life it’s just comedy, and it can’t just be comedy. It’s a one-hour show. If it were a 26-minute show, the comedy would be far more explicit. Eight years before we clicked on it was when I wrote the first [draft]. It had a big blousy woman with hairs coming through the tights on her legs. But it’s not that now. The people are far more credible. We can get comedy stories from the stories of the week, we can get comedy stories from the serial story, but they are not to be comedy first. The principal rule is you satisfy the procedural first. We are doing two shows for one payment! [Laughs]
TV DRAMA: How much of the overarching serialized story can you unwind in each episode while also telling the story of the week?
ABBOTT: We haven’t been prescriptive about our formula. Sometimes the serial story demands more attention and then there isn’t space to get a big story of the week in. We’ve done all right so far, finding odd things that you’d just never see on television. Taking the audience to a place they didn’t know they wanted to go is the principal mantra of the series. And probably most of the things I do, to be honest. If all we do is procedural then we’ve failed our mission.
TV DRAMA: You have a team of writers on No Offence, which is rare for the U.K.
ABBOTT: I worked on Shameless in the U.S., and the writers’ room is very well funded. We don’t get the same budgets [in the U.K.]. We can’t spend £6 million an episode, we spend just over £1 million an episode. So we all stay together, live together, for five days and talk every aspect to death. And then the writers go back to their homes elsewhere and write their shit. You interrogate all aspects of the story. People don’t mind contributing to other people’s stories; they don’t mind refining other people’s stories. Your salary pays for you to belong to the series and the title is the chief imperative, not your name, not your lovely words. Can we make it look like a team effort? It’s not an easy ride. It shouldn’t be. We really are trying to take the audience to a place they didn’t know they wanted to go. Some of the gags are very crude and vulgar, but you have to earn those, you can’t just chuck them in. It’s not Roseanne with a gag-a-minute set-up. The gags are three times their value if they sound like they belong to real life.
TV DRAMA: Doing six or seven episodes per season, is that constricting in terms of having to limit your story, or freeing because you can spend more time on each episode and have the room to work on other things?
ABBOTT: This year we’re only doing six, and that’s because Channel 4 wants it to go out at a certain time and this series just takes time in the edit. I think we did 12 cuts on one episode just to get it right. Every cut was incrementally better. It’s not apologizing for what you’ve shot; it’s tidying your bandwidth. We need a lot of material to be able to do that because the narrative metabolism of the series is so demanding. You need quite a lot of material to attack to get that intelligent compression.
TV DRAMA: I read somewhere that you prefer to write longhand and then use an electric typewriter.
ABBOTT: To be honest, I bought an electric typewriter recently and I just couldn’t bear to look at it. Longhand is lovely. [A typewriter] gives it away to everybody in the house that you’re typing. And if you’re not typing they don’t think you’re writing. If you’re staring at the wall you don’t sound like you’re typing, you don’t sound like you’re writing. When you’re writing longhand your editorial compression is so much greater. You can’t keep scribbling out [words] because then your page looks ugly! [Laughs] So you think twice or three times before you [commit to the page]. But then you get your feet up, you write better and it’s more fluid.
TV DRAMA: What were some of the things you learned from writing on Coronation Street? You were there for a while, weren’t you?
ABBOTT: I was there for four and a half years as a story writer. That’s an awfully long time, except I loved it. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was very young when I went there. I was about 23 when I started. I just found a picture of me age 25 on Coronation Street. I had grown a beard to look older because all the other writers were quite mature and they treated me like a tea boy. The constitutional reward from working on a soap is that you have to work every single day—it can’t stop. Even if you’re sick, you’re writing an episode. You’ve got to know how to just dissolve your entire structure and say, I’ll start again, with vigor. You get excited about the next try because you’ve just learned something. It’s a big problem with new writers when they’ve written something and they read it a week later and it’s shit, and that puts them off writing. Well, you thought it was glorious when you typed it and if it’s not a week later, that doesn’t mean it’s shit, it means you’ve grown and you just keep growing and keep moving on.
TV DRAMA: Can you write anywhere?
ABBOTT: Well, I’m having to! I became a writer because I wanted to be a hermit. And then you realize you’ve got to talk your head off and travel around the world. Talking about it and telling people your master plan is a total constitutional contradiction to the reason you became a writer. I’ve gotten good at remembering that I came from a very big family and to write you have to find a place inside your head, not your office. That internalization of stuff is so rewarding. You have to find your space inside your head because you won’t find it in a fucking house! [Laughs]