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Interview: Single-Handed Creator Barry Simner

25/07/2011 13:48 BST | Updated 23/09/2011 10:12 BST

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Scriptwriter Barry Simner talks about creating 'uncomfortable stories' for ITV1's Single-Handed, about Ireland's painful secrets and why American crime series are better than the UK's...

Whenever anyone says, 'I love watching Midsomer Murders/Doc Martin/Lewis because of the lovely scenery,' it's hard not to want to push them off the nearest cliff.

In contrast, ITV1's second series of Single-Handed (Thursdays 9pm), the story of lone Connemara copper Sgt Jack Driscoll, has scenery enough to make your eyes pop out. But its six episodes are not for viewers who like the mountains and seascapes. It's for people who want to watch hard-hitting crime drama.

With its opening two-parter, 'The Lost Boys', written by series creator Barry Simner and dealing with childhood abuse at the hands of the Christian Brothers, the storytelling is a long way from Ballykissangel. And it had a heart-rending performance from Stephen Rea.

The new series has had good reviews, and Barry Simner is on a high after receiving from The Times 'just about the best review I've ever had in my life'.

'Connemara is beautiful,' says the writer, 'but everywhere you look you see signs of depopulation, the history over the last 300 years - famine, displacement, immigration, in the ruined farmhouse or village. It was the tragedy in the landscape that I responded to.'

Simner, who previously ventured into tough storylines in the popular ITV series The Vice, specialises in drama that can be uncomfortable while also emotionally strong.

In this new series of Single-Handed, we've seen Jack, played by Owen McDonnell move in to live alone above the Garda station. He has to do everything, from buying the tea to taking his own photos at a possible crime scene.

Joining the cast has been Simone Lahbib (Wire in the Blood) as Gemma and Matthew McNulty (Lark Rise to Candleford) as Brian, who have come to Ireland to trace his long-lost father, Sean, played by Stephen Rea. Sean also turns out to be an uncle Jack never knew he had.

Jack's digging has revealed horrors of the past, with his discovery that Sean was sent away to an industrial school at the age of 10 for stealing chocolate. It was a moving, compelling start to the series.

'Midsomer Murders is a show I've worked on, and it's tongue in cheek,' says Simner. 'But Single-Handed is done for real. It is possible with a cop show to do something that is powerful, and we haven't had any adverse criticism out there about it. For a popular cop show, these are quite uncomfortable stories.'

Stirring the conflict nicely has been new character Dennis Costello (Sean McGinley), a corrupt former garda inspector who has taken over the local pub. He is skilled at pouring poison into the ears of those around Jack.

So he is drawing the sergeant's lazy deputy, Finbarr (David Herlihy), into his web, and has hinted to Jack's new-found cousin, Brian, that he might have a claim on some of the land owned by Jack's mother. Further tension seems likely with a little electricity between Gemma and Jack.

The initial three Single-Handed episodes, made by Irish broadcaster RTE, were shown on ITV1 last summer. Simner originally pitched the idea to the BBC, which, after early interest, went cold on the show. After the script lay dormant in Simner's drawer for a couple of years, an RTE producer got in touch.

Single-Handed was to be set in Wales, where Simner lives, until he got the call from Dublin. 'They said the idea would work well in Ireland,' he says. 'Jane Gogan, head of drama, was fantastic.

'She said two things which, as a writer, you really want to hear. She said, I don't want it to be Oirish, it is not Ballyk, and can you make it darker. TV execs never say that, they always want you to make it warmer and softer.'

Hence the moving story that opened series two, which is joint production between RTE and ITV. 'Stephen Rea was magnificent,' says Simner.' I wrote the bloody thing but his performance made me weep. I was pleased that he agreed to do it because he is quite fussy about scripts. But he said to me he thought this was a story that needed to be told.'

Owen McDonnell, in the lead role, is little known in the UK, but he holds the drama together as the strait-laced new lawman in town - a bit Gary Cooper in High Noon. In fact, that's how the writer conceived the character - 'Jack's a guy who is exposed. I thought of it as a Western. He's a sheriff in this huge mountainous wilderness.'

The American influence doesn't stop there. 'I'm really a fan of the American shows,' Simner says. 'I don't watch a lot of British crime drama, to be honest. I think the two greatest shows I've ever seen on television are The Wire and The Sopranos. In their different ways they're works of genius. The Wire, especially, I loved because of that novelistic approach.

'Of course, you can't mention those shows here in British television. People say, they were wonderful but nobody watched them. But people did watch and bought them in their millions on DVD. They are the inspiration.'

Unpleasant and gruesome are also descriptions he uses for British crime series. And mention forensic series such as Silent Witness to him and he says, 'They're almost beyond, I can't watch them. The Americans still know how to make a cop show with uniformed cops, and that's where really exciting policing happens. It's the stories of the men and women on the street that are interesting.'

His next project? 'Writing a cop show for Robson Green, and if that happens it will be set in Newcastle. He is going to play a uniformed police officer.'