Welcome to Inside Red, a series of exclusive interviews with actors, writers, directors and the other talented people who create the Red shows you love. Today we’re talking to Lee Warburton, writer of the fifth and final series of Scott & Bailey.
RED: You started writing for Scott & Bailey in its fourth series. What’s it like to write for pre-existing characters compared to a script you’ve created on your own?
LEE: Well, the characters on S&B are so well defined they are a complete gift. I think all of the writers on S&B have had so much respect for what Sally has done that we try to stay as close to them as possible. That being said, I love how you can also see which elements of the individual characters each of the writers chooses to bring out. The audience love the show because they feel like they know the characters so well. They are surprised by their actions, but understand 100% why the characters have done what they’ve done. So for me, that’s a huge short cut compared to creating my own characters, and a delight to step into the heads of characters that you know the audience love already. You know those characters already work. So, the only real downside to that is knowing that if you fail to deliver them, then that’s down to you. It can also make you wary of taking risks with characters, in the same way as you might with your own. I’m constantly aware that I’ve been allowed to play with somebody else’s train set… so you can get yourself in trouble by trying to repeat beats or by staying too safe with the characters. If we’re just repeating beats and staying in well-trodden territory then I’m not sure there’s any point in writing new shows, when we can just watch repeats. So, it’s that balancing trick of trying to own something that’s not really yours and then if it goes wrong explaining to the owner how you broke it. Saying all that, I had so much help from Nicola (Exec Prod.) and Saskia (Script Editor). As always they were so supportive and knowledgeable about the characters and the show, that I could guarantee that if I was writing something that wasn’t true to our women, that they would put me back on the right track.
RED: This series of Scott & Bailey covers some very timely and grisly subject matter in its depiction of the darknet. What inspired you to take the story in this direction? What kind of research did you have to do?
LEE: The technology side and its use by criminals is not something that I knew a lot about. I knew a little, and what I knew scared me, so that felt like a good place to start looking for a story. We did quite a bit of research, but even so, I feel like we only just scratched the surface. It’s a HUGE subject matter. But in the time we had, we did our utmost to make sure this was based in reality. I’m fully aware that this could seem far-fetched and sensationalist – all a bit ‘telly’ – but everything in the program is backed up by research. We did that on the internet (of course), and we spoke to forensic psychologists, police advisers, computer programmers etc. I was also interested in a theory about a group of killers in the States, who a retired police officer believes were leaving chalk symbols for each other at crime scenes (tagging their murders) so that other killers would know it was their handy work.
The most terrifying thing about the writing process was that if I got stuck, I’d just imagine the thing that would help me solve my story problem and then try and find a real case or situation where something similar had happened. Every time, I found the truth being much darker and scarier than the original idea which I’d generated.
RED: This series of Scott & Bailey breaks with tradition and covers a single case over multiple episodes. Do you feel this approach lends you any advantages as a writer? Does it raise any challenges?
LEE: Well, S&B is so rich in character that if you get a particularly juicy personal story, you can be fighting for space with the crime story – particularly if you’re trying to tell that over 46 minutes – so the new format gave me more elbow room to manoeuvre. That’s especially true of this series, because we knew we were coming to an end, and that this would be our ‘goodbye’. We wanted to make sure that our heroes’ stories played as strongly as the crime story.
Of course the new format is a big gamble (nobody wants to alienate the fans) and meant we had no template to copy, so I found that exciting/scary/risky, but I liked that we were trying something new.
Another challenge is my level of experience. I’m still a very new writer and so it was a huge challenge to plot three episodes before the characters had spoken one word in the script. That was very difficult for me, and I found it quite limiting at times to commit to story beats three episodes down the line before I’d ‘broken ground’ on the first.
RED: What does your writing process entail? What does a day in your working life look like?
LEE: Well this is ever-developing, and I wouldn’t say that how I do it has any benefits for anybody else, but it’s what currently works for me: I seem to spend a ridiculous amount of time getting a few sentences of structure together before I start writing. It can take me days and days (weeks sometimes) making sure that the simplest barest bones of my story, and it’s shape, are in place. Nothing as extravagant as ‘ beat sheets’ or huge story docs; it’s really just finding a few words, a couple of sentences for each character which ‘nail’ their journey across the episode. But when I know I’ve got them right, it means I’m free to explore the characters and the plot. After that it’s about writing endless amounts of words that I know will never see the light of day. I like writing every thought, every joke that I think the character will have on the subject matter in the scene and then I love paring it down. Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than getting a two page speech down to two lines (something I’ve struggled to do whilst answering these questions).
I like getting to my desk as early as possible. I find I don’t get in my own way early in the morning. When things are going well and on schedule I spend the first part of my day reviewing what I did the previous day and the second part writing new stuff. When things aren’t going so smoothly I do the same but usually with a lot more pacing and working a lot later into the night.
RED: What TV are you currently watching and enjoying as a viewer?
LEE: Well, Cucumber last year was extraordinary. It was the Rites of Spring for TV; one the best pieces of television that I have ever seen… but because that’s one of RED’s I wont talk too much about that (similarly Sally’s amazing Happy Valley/Last Tango in Halifax).
I thought the BBC2 documentary series Employable Me was beautiful, dignified, powerful, and presented a narrative we haven’t seen before. Similarly, I found The Murder Detectives shocking without being tabloid. I loved Penny Dreadful on Sky. I’d love to work on a show like that with such a rich palate to work with. I binge watched all of the Marvel superhero shows. I’ve just started watching Line of Duty (I loved the previous series) and I’m really excited to see what Chris Chibnall is about do with Doctor Who.
The final episode of Scott & Bailey will broadcast on ITV on Wednesday 27th April at 9pm.