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The One Lesson I Have Learnt Is to Listen to Actors

13/11/2015 08:27 GMT | Updated 12/11/2016 10:12 GMT

One of the most irritating things about being a writer is the lessons you're constantly learning. I always hoped I'd reach a stage with scripts where I'd worked out how to do it. I'm 15 years in to a 'career' now and writing a script still seems like climbing a really large mountain on a tiny slightly mouthy donkey. Even this week a script I'd thought I'd 'cracked' has been undone by a clever note, and with that I've slipped down a mound of scree and found a donkey beside a thistle looking at me with a jaundiced expression" "You again? Still a bit of a loser aren't you?" I've been assured by older (and better) writers that this feeling never leaves you.

So I plod on. With a donkey.

The one lesson I have learnt is to listen to actors. The trouble (I'm full of troubles I know) with making stuff for screen is that actors come on board extremely late, sometimes within weeks of the shoot starting, occasionally within days, and when they come on board they do so because they like the scripts, the channel likes the scripts, and so, again, trying to avoid donkey time, you think, well, everyone likes the scripts, the scripts are done, I'm finished, I'll just wait for the inevitable acclaim at the end. And then the actors start to ask questions, start to needle the script, start to question motivations, and you think - well, I don't want to undo anything, this script works, you liked it, the production company liked it, the channel liked it, your note may be good but... honestly, I'd rather leave things as they are.

Working on two different shows convinced me that this wasn't the case. One was a show called Cast Offs, a show about disabled characters on a reality TV show that played late night on Channel 4. On that show we made the decision we wanted a truly open casting process, we didn't want to write the part for a blind man only for an amazing blind woman to walk in through the door. We cast it as we would a reality TV show, we found the characters and then we tried to rewrite the show to 'fit' their conditions. Only, of course, we weren't just fitting their conditions, we were fitting their personalities. Mat Fraser's character became spikier, Victoria Wright's kinder, we were adapting to the shapes they leave in the world, and, by doing so, I believe we made the show a lot better.

The other was This Is England, a show where the actors were genuinely empowered by a director to control their characters. Shane and I would sit in a room and hammer, hammer, hammer at the scripts, but if Shane then talked to Vicky McClure and what we had planned for Lol felt wrong - then everything would change. The person I'd say that this was most true was Stephen Graham, an incredible actor who I'd watch simply sitting silently. Without wishing to give spoilers for those who haven't seen it there was a (subtle) revelation in This Is England 90 about who his Dad was. That revelation was written into every single one of This Is England series, the final episode of '86, the second episode of '88, but it didn't feel right - on the day - for Shane and Stephen and so it didn't happen. Each time I'd be surprised it wasn't there, and each time I'd know it was for the right reasons. Shane is a genius, but part of his genius is the trust he gives to his actors. I learnt so many lessons from that.

On The Last Panthers I'm lucky enough to be working with actors who's body of work is beyond extraordinary. Samantha Morton, Sir John Hurt, Tahar Rahim, Goran Bogdan, actors who can do things with a text other people can't do.

One of the challenges of the show was that it is cross-cultural - and multi-language - and I am not. If I wanted to make a Serbian character true - I had to do a lot of research, spend a lot of time in Serbia, talk to lots of Serbians - but the people I learnt most about Serbia from were the actors - in fact Igor Bencima who plays Zladko grew up in Zemum, the home of organised crime in Belgrade. Similarly with Tahar - who plays a French policeman - the French judicial system seems to be one even the French don't understand and Marseilles a city full of strange hurdles and being French Algerian is complicated right now with the far right on the rise. But the main thing I learnt from all of them is about their characters. Yes, I thought I understood Naomi, the loss-adjustor who Samantha plays, but actually Sam understood her better, and so all through the process of filming (which took place over eight months) we'd meet and talk and adjust, constantly adjust so that what she was playing felt true to her and so felt true on screen. Sometimes I was reluctant to learn, but I tried to think what would Shane do, what would Mat Fraser insist on, and slowly I got back on the horse (donkey) and tried to plod on.

I feel very lucky to have worked with such extraordinary people on this show. Everything from the research period onwards has been a mad mad ride. It is a story where we've tried to be really ambitious with what we're saying about the world, and it is a war cry of sorts, or a cry of anguish, for what Europe has become where organised crime is more organised than policing and where big business is frequently cutting corners and making alliances with the criminals in order to affect profitability. We have a phrase in the show: 'we used to think the Barbarians, we're in a country far away, then we discovered they were at the gates and now - well, I increasingly believe we're all Barbarians now' (imagine it said by Sir John Hurt, it sounds much better). It has been extremely difficult at times, and I think we almost killed at least three producers, but I think we're all proud of what we've produced. The strange thing with film is it is said to be 'by' the director, the strange thing with TV is it's seen to be 'by' the writer, the truth about The Last Panthers is that it's authored by Johan Renck, the incredible director who helmed all six episodes, by Jerome Pierrat, the man who knows the world of organised crime inside out and made sure we told our story properly, by Jimmy, Caroline and Peter the brilliant producers, and particularly by an incredible cast who grounded it with a truth and authenticity I thought I could only dream about.

Anyway, I hope people watch it and like it and now I'm going to go get on that donkey again.

Tune in tonight, Sky Atlantic, 9pm.