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Interview: Emilia di Girolamo, Lead Writer for Law & Order: UK

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Emilia di Girolamo is the lead writer on the fifth series of Law & Order: UK, which returns to ITV1 this month (from Sunday, 10 July, 9pm).

The drama, which was spun-off from the classic US series and takes the original American storylines as the basis for each London-based episode, has now become a popular drama fixture for ITV1.

Here Emilia reveals how she has shifted the tone of this latest series, giving the lead characters, DS Ronnie Brooks (Bradley Walsh) and DS Matt Devlin (Jamie Bamber) more emotional depth, and how season five is heading for a huge cliffhanger finale. Her episodes in this series are "Safe", "Deal" and "Survivor's Guilt".

Emilia, who lives in Hastings, also discusses her career in scriptwriting. Having got a PhD in the rehabilitation of offenders and worked with prisoners, she decided to become a writer and spent years struggling for a break in television. She also reveals which popular BBC1 series she would love to write for...

Now that her work on series five and the next series of Law & Order: UK is finished, Emilia is writing an original drama series for Clerkenwell Films/ITV, and working exclusively with prisoner Jeremy Bamber to tell the story of the White House Farm murders, for which he has so far served 25 years in prison, but maintains he is innocent.

The new series delves into Matt & Ronnie's lives - can you give some idea what's in store for them?

Both Matt and Ronnie will go on extraordinary journeys this season. For Ronnie, it all starts in episode two, "Safe", when he discovers his estranged daughter is pregnant, and continues into season 6. Ronnie is faced with questioning his past and present behaviour and choices and the fallout of one tiny moment in time will leave Ronnie emotionally challenged as never before. Matt also goes on his own journey this season and finds it hard to control his anger when faced with one particular offender - Mark Ellis, a cold blooded drug dealer played brilliantly by Charles Mnene. In this role Charles is like something out of The Wire - utterly convincing and very, very frightening.

In such a tight format, is it difficult to do this - to explore the characters?

It is challenging and the character arcs need to work seamlessly with the storytelling but when it becomes part of the storytelling itself, then it works with the format. I think audiences are crying out for character-led drama right now and bringing that element to the forefront of Law & Order: UK has given us some explosive, emotional territory to explore.

Is it your ambition as lead writer to inject more depth and emotion into the characters?

Yes, and also to make sure all the stories we tackle feel relevant to a UK audience. It's no secret I'm a big SVU fan [Law & Order: Special Victims Unit]. I love that emotional style of storytelling and I think it works well with our format. We've always been a little more emotional than our US counterpart and digging a little deeper into our regulars' lives doubles the impact.

Why are you concluding the series with a double bill? Will we see a different kind of story here?

"Deal" and "Survivor's Guilt" explore one story over two hours of television but in fact they won't be airing together as a double. Instead we end series five with "Deal" and kick off series six with "Survivor's Guilt". The two hours of storytelling mean we can delve into the story, and particularly into the emotional fallout for our characters, a lot deeper than we usually do. In these two episodes we have the most explosive, emotionally charged and heart-rending episodes Law & Order: UK has ever done. We will end series five on an enormous cliffhanger and we believe for our loyal audience it'll be worth the wait to find out what happens.

As a fan of the original Law & Order, can you sum up the series' qualities? Why is it special? Do you have favourite episodes or stories?

There is something immensely satisfying about watching a case go from dead body to offender in the dock. It's the whole story. I think this is the real magic of the formula - it's a satisfying viewing experience which doesn't leave a viewer wondering if the whole police case will get thrown out when it comes to court! In Law & Order we get to see the case thrown out for ourselves and usually our hero's find a way to retrieve things so all is right with the world in the end, if a little messy.

I have too many favourite episodes to mention them all but I'm very glad to be tackling two of my all time favourites in season five, "Angel" and "Slave" ("Safe" and "Deal"). They've both gone on huge journeys in adaptation and I'm immensely proud of both of them but still love the original US eps too.

Your move from working in prisoner rehabilitation to becoming a leading TV writer is interesting. Can you give some background on how this came about?

I worked in prison for eight years (1992-2000) using drama-based techniques to address offending behaviour and the work became the basis for my PhD. I was also writing plays during this period and wrote a novel (Freaky, 1999, Pulp Books). Freaky was optioned by Clerkenwell Films and developed for TV. Reading the scripts made me realise how much I wanted to write for television, so I left my prison job, did a six-month retraining programme and started trying my luck as a TV writer.

It took a few years to get a break, and a lot of projects that never made it to the screen, but I started out on EastEnders, then got the job writing one episode of Law & Order: UK - "Hidden" for series two. I was taken on to the core team, then offered the job as Lead Writer/Co-Producer, and now I'm incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I turn down more work than I can take on. Things have come full circle too and I'm now writing my own TV series with Clerkenwell Films for ITV1, which is incredibly exciting.

How did your move to lead writer on L&O: UK come about? What is your role as lead writer?

My episodes in seasons two-four were very well received and when it became clear we would need to create new regulars for series five and six, Executive Producer Andrew Woodhead asked me to take on the Lead Writer & Co-Producer role and create the new characters as well as shape the storytelling across series five and six. I had a real vision of where I wanted our characters to go and their arc across the 13 episodes so I jumped at the chance.

How does your expertise in prisoner rehabilitation influence your writing?

I spent eight years around offenders, looking right into the eyes of people who had done some really terrible things and trying to get to the heart of their behaviour in order to try and change it. It would be impossible to do that job and not find it influencing my writing now. I try and be as real as the format allows me to be. I like to explore difficult, morally complex and challenging territory without resorting to clichéd crime drama shorthand. I try and bring the truth of my experience with real offenders to my work on screen.

You've mentioned the 'clichés that TV crime writers rely on'. Which clichés do you think are prevalent these days on TV?

There are a whole host of clichés in crime dramas - too many to mention. I suppose there are some that particularly wind me up - murderers with ridiculously complex motivations. Most of the killers I met in prison actually had very simple motivations or more often the killings were spur of the moment and totally unplanned. I think you can be true to that reality and still weave a compellingly dramatic, complex and twisty tale that will keep viewers guessing. I think Forbrydelsen (The Killing) is the best crime drama in a long time. The characters are fantastic and the storytelling twists and turns keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout but also feels very real. I love the layers, looking at one crime story evolve over 20 episodes from those three perspectives - the cops, the politicians and the victim's family.

L&O: UK tackles some hard-hitting stories. How would you sum up the series' approach to crime drama? Any unexplored stories/themes you'd like to get stuck into?

We try and make drama that feels relevant to a UK audience, rooted in an element of truth but dramatically entertaining. We like our audience to feel comfortable even when the territory we explore is difficult and challenging. In "Safe" this season, we tackle some very dark territory but Ronnie takes our audience on that journey and you can't fail to feel safe in Ronnie's capable hands. I've written 10 episodes in total and really think I've explored everything I wanted to within this format, but I'm enjoying tackling other aspects of criminal behaviour in my new series and other original projects.

Is there any scope or desire to do completely original stories for L&O: UK?

I guess it depends how long the show runs! There are 20 years of great stories to draw on from the Mothership and we take our episodes on quite a journey in adaptation. Sometimes it's about adapting an original that a writer loves and sometimes it's about finding an original that could work as a vehicle to explore a theme or world the writer wants to look at, so it feels liberating rather than constrictive. I certainly feel that my episodes are original and very much mine because they travel such a long way from their US counterparts. I honestly never felt the desire to write completely original stories for the show but I've left now so who knows what future series will bring.

In your downtime, what do you enjoy reading and watching on TV? Favourite authors/shows?

I rarely get to read these days unless it's a script, research material or a book I've been asked to consider adapting, though that does mean I get to read some great crime novels! I'm adapting The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly for STV and that's a great read. I do watch television though and lots of it. I think Misfits is probably the best written series on UK TV in a very long time - just brilliant viewing. I found The Crimson Petal and The White incredibly compelling so will definitely be watching out for Lucinda Coxon's next project - her writing's beautiful.

All-time favourites include The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, Conviction, Afterlife, Funland and North Square. My light relief is 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm - they both make me laugh and all crime writers need to kick back now and then!

I also love Doctor Who and Torchwood and would secretly love to write an episode of Doctor Who and give it my spin, so if you're reading, Mr Moffat...