I recently got the chance to Accused co-writer Isabelle Grey. Grey has previously worked on series like Silent Witness and The Bill and co-wrote the fourth and final episode of the second series alongside series creator Jimmy McGovern. This final episode revolves around troubled prison officer Tina. Tina is a well meaning prison officer who becomes disillusioned by her colleagues when she meets Stephen. Viewers met Stephen in episode three of the series and Tina recognizes Stephen is a damaged and vulnerable young man. I spoke with Isabelle about her inspiration for the story, working with Jimmy McGovern and the challenges of writing Accused.
How did you become involved with Accused?
I originally pitched a story for The Street and went up for a meeting with Jimmy (McGovern) and Sita Williams the Producer and it was felt for the story to work it would have to take place too much away from The Street. So although Jimmy said he loved the story it just wasn’t going to work. I went away somewhat disappointed but he said don’t worry it’s a great story and someday I’ll do it. A couple of years later I get a call saying see! So we had more meetings and it’s now episode four of Accused!
Where did the idea of Tina’s Story come from?
For about ten years I was a volunteer for a charity called The New Bridge which was founded by Lord Longford and it’s a charity that befriends prisoners. I have been in and out as a visitor of quite a few prisons in this country and have known quite a few different inmates. I also have a brother who is a psychiatrist in the American prison system, so I know a lot about the differences between the two systems. It always seem to me that where violence is very real in the American system, for me the worst thing about the British system is the kind of bureaucratic abuse that goes on. It’s nobody’s fault in a way. People are underpaid, the prisoners are understaffed and I think the way we treat our prisoners in this country is not good. When you look at the number of deaths of young offenders in this country it’s appalling. These are children who are dying at the hands of the state and I wanted to look at what actually causes it. It’s not a big dramatic story of corruption, violence or conspiracy. It’s more a story of human nature and not doing your job well enough. That’s what Jimmy loved about the story.
How did the writing process work? How much contact did you have with Jimmy McGovern?
I’d go up for script meetings but until pretty much the third draft of the script it was still very much my project and I wrote it alone. Jimmy said this is fantastic, we’re all happy with this, we could make this tomorrow but I’m going to go away and do another draft. It was fascinating. He did about two drafts. I’ll tell you a story about the very meeting I had with him about the story. I was on the train back from Manchester and I get a call from Sita Williams the executive producer who is in all the script meetings saying “Just an Idea Isabelle from Jimmy. You don’t have to take it up but I’ll leave it with you, have a think and get back to us. How would it change the story if the prisoner officer was a woman? Would there be more mileage in the story that way?”. I was kind of taken aback. The whole point was it’s a big butch bloke who the kids are kind of intimidated by who’s firm but fair. It seemed to me a very sort of male idea but I said I’d think about it and hung up. So I sat on the train and thought, hang on this is Jimmy McGovern saying this I’d better think about this one! Once I started to think about what I could get out of it if the prison officer was a women I realised he was one hundred percent right. We never had a moment’s thought after that and she became Tina.
Tina is a really like able character but everyone around her seems nasty and mysterious. Is it easier to write a nastier character than to write a nicer character?
They’re both difficult. The nasty characters here don’t think they’re being nasty, they think they’re doing the best thing. So you have to try and make a nasty person good in their own eyes and in some cases good in the eyes of one or two people around them. To write somebody good is always more difficult because goodness is not necessarily dramatic. An important thing with Tina was to show her home life and to show that she has a really nice husband who loves and believes in her.
Did you always know what she was going to be accused of?
That was the big difficulty in making it a story for Accused. We sat around the table for three or four hours coming up with various ideas and working out what to do. I think that was when I really saw what makes Jimmy McGovern such a wonderful storyteller. He had tremendous courage to go with what’s in the story and it kept coming back to the fact that if this is the story that has to be the ending so how we get there we can go away and play with and work it out.
This episode is the first time in the history of Accused that characters from the previous episode have followed on to the next. Was that a deliberate thing or was it something that presented itself?
It wasn’t deliberate I think it grew organically. Jimmy and the team will only take a story if they like it. The story has to work and Jimmy has to really want to do it. They’d got their four stories for the series, at which point they realised that in the previous stories they were sending young men to jail and since my story is about whether jail is a safe place to send young men it would be more powerful we follow one of the young men the audience have already met.
Did you learn anything from Jimmy that you think is unique to him?
The courage to take the story absolutely to the bitter end of what that story is. He’s full of humility. When he went off and did his drafts he sent me his drafts to read whereas before I’d be sending mine to read so it was great to see that all that matters to him is the story. It’s not about ego or whose name is on the script, it’s about the story.
How did Anna Maxwell-Martin compare to the Tina in your mind while you were writing?
Unless it’s for an ongoing series where you know who is playing who I don’t tend to write with anybody in mind. I think it can limit you quite a lot to have someone in mind so I hadn’t really thought about casting at all. She is just absolutely perfect I couldn’t think of anybody better.
Isabelle’s latest Novel Out of Sight was recently released in paperback.