Jack Thorne on Exploring Complex Topical Issues in TV Dramas


Jack Thorne, whose recent TV projects include The Last Panthers, National Treasure and Kiri, talks to World Screen about being attracted to topics in the news he feels have been covered too simplistically by the media and wanting to explore complex issues to which he has no easy answers.

WS: Where did the idea for Kiri come from?
THORNE: My mum was a care worker. She worked with adults with learning difficulties at a day center. She called them clients, I knew her clients very well [because] I grew up going to a day center after school. They were mostly adults with Down syndrome. We would go over there often; they were part of our lives. That [idea] of people who care professionally and how it works inside their brain has always fascinated me. Toby Bentley, the script editor of National Treasure and producer of Kiri, and I were talking about adoption and the way it works. He said he thought there was something in that and we started investigating it. Then we came across transracial adoption, which is a massively contentious issue worldwide, in terms of how you preserve cultural understanding in kids who are not being brought up in the cultural environment that their [race] would suggest. That became the starting point. We thought, what is the story here and how do we manage to examine this issue? That was the complicated beginning of Kiri.

WS: Did that entail a lot of research?
THORNE: A huge amount of research. [With Kiri and] National Treasure, when you are dealing with issues where people’s scars are still so painful for them and you’re being given the opportunity to write about it on television, you have an enormous responsibility to do your job properly and that means research, research, research.

WS: Does the sense of responsibility block you, or if you’ve done a sufficient amount of research can you follow your storytelling instincts?
THORNE: Yes, [it blocks you] to some degree, but you get used to it. It is blocking the first time you do something like this, and there are projects of mine that I’ve probably screwed up as a result of that. But it’s always a question of lines—what lines are you prepared to wiggle around that aren’t necessarily exactly factually [accurate] in order to tell your story?

WS: Because you’re telling a fictional story, it’s not a biography of someone.
THORNE: Exactly. But then it’s about—without wanting to sound pretentious—the larger Aristotelian truth. What is morally true in this situation? What are the moral lines I can’t cross because if I do cross them, then I will do damage? Working out those lines is tricky, but it’s doable.

WS: Do you write on your own or do you write with someone?
THORNE: I talk to people. Actually, on Kiri, there is one episode that is co-written because I got stuck. I knew another writer who I really admired, Rachel De-Lahay. I asked her to come in and help. She did help enormously and transformed it. And that was because I was talking about Black Lives Matter and I just felt like I wasn’t telling the truth. I felt I was worrying too much about offending people and not being honest as a writer. And Rachel, as a black writer, as a writer who has written about this issue so beautifully in the past, I felt would be able to help me. She was making her TV debut, and I’m very excited that we were her TV debut. She’s a playwright. I think she’s going to go on to make a lot of important stuff.

WS: What sparks your desire to write about topics like sexual abuse and transracial adoption? Is it news-driven or are you just commenting on what you see around you?
THORNE: It’s news-driven to some degree; issues where I feel the media has taken a very simplistic line. That’s not damning print media; it’s just that because of the nature of tabloid sales, they end up telling a story too simply. The great advantage of drama is that you can go into any issue and you can show the audience people. And if the audience sees people, they start to understand [the issue] in a whole new way. So that was the drive. But each time there had to be a question I didn’t know the answer to so that it never became polemical. I get very bored when I feel a writer knows what he wants the audience to think. It tends to be all men, so that’s why I say “he.” It tends to be male writers who go, I know what I want my audience to think at the end of this—it becomes very proprietary. I don’t know the answer to the central question of National Treasure, and I don’t know the central answer of Kiri. And the central question of National Treasure was, How do you prosecute these [sexual abuse] cases? Do you have to make the perpetrator public in order to protect the victim? Paul Gambaccini [a radio host falsely accused of sexual abuse] is a very important radio voice in the U.K. His name was made public to see if other people would come up, and he said he was made to feel like human flypaper. It’s horrific that someone had to go through that, but on the other hand, you realize that these are historical sex crimes where people have carried wounds for so long that if you publicize these names and you give the opportunity for justice to occur, that is the only way justice is going to occur. So what do you do? What’s right? The central question of Kiri is what to do when you have a limited number of minority homes that are prepared to take in minority kids and a large number of minority kids who need homes. How do we help these vulnerable kids? Is it right for a white family to take in a black child? And what does race mean in the U.K.?

WS: You started writing for the theater. You’ve done movies. Was the transition to television, where you have four or six or more episodes, freeing or scary?
THORNE: I like it. I have since written a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, that is six hours long! I’m working on His Dark Materials at the moment. I think that film struggles from having to condense so much plot into such a small window. On TV we get the opportunity to truly explore something. I like that exploration, and I like the ability to be really, really slow and then really, really fast. There is so much opportunity within the pacing of television; that isn’t true with other media.

WS: Given the level of success that you have achieved, is it easier for you to pitch and get projects approved by broadcasters, or is the process still difficult?
THORNE: The process is still difficult. We’ve got a problem in the U.K. at the moment. There is a limited amount of people telling stories on British television, and it tends to be the same old faces, of which I’m one. I think that has to do with the fact that the process is so brutal and hard that they’ve got to know that you are going to go with it. Now the commissioners that are currently commissioning are willing to actually look a bit further and are willing to trust new voices. Charlie Covell, who wrote The End of the F***ing World, had done a couple of episodes of Russell T. Davies’ show Banana and then she was ready, and My God was she ready!

WS: Do you feel there is more diversity needed in front of and behind the camera?
THORNE: Absolutely—huge yes! It’s just a reflection of a more conservative time, and I think the commissioners at Channel 4 and the BBC are much more willing to take a shot on new voices [and that] will hopefully [lead] to a more dynamic and interesting TV landscape.

WS: What upcoming projects do you have?
THORNE: His Dark Materials for the BBC, which is an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s books, has been really exciting; and The Eddy for Netflix, which is a drama about an American jazz club in Paris. Damien Chazelle is directing the first two episodes. I’m very excited! He will be brilliant, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that.

WS: Has the American model of the writers’ room taken hold in the U.K.?
THORNE: Not for me. I’ve tried it, and I’m not very good at it. But I’m aware that I need to start bringing other voices through. It’s my responsibility as well as the [broadcasters’] responsibility. So on The Eddy, there will be other voices, and they are really exciting, diverse voices. I realize that TV has a problem, and I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to stop because I love writing for television, but I’ve got to work out a way of not being a greedy white man that is ultimately denying others a voice.