Explain a little bit about Not Safe for Work. What’s it all about?
It’s a comedy drama, and it’s about a generation that feels lost. I’ve tried to concentrate those big generational issues into a few characters. So the two main characters are Katherine, who’s been kicked out of her job in London and relocated to Northampton, and Danny, who has been in Northampton for a little while now, but who’s not really been paying much attention to his work or his life. It’s sort of about a clash of these two very different people suddenly having to work together. A lot of the drama springs out of that.
Where did the inspiration for the series come from?
I suppose really from family and friends. A lot of the big stuff at the moment is in there – housing, austerity, cuts... My main friendship groups are from university, school and the theatre world, and these issues have affected all of them. The only people I know who have managed to bypass a lot of these problems are people who work in the private sector and earn a lot of money. Everyone I know is struggling to buy a house, or struggling to settle down, or is struggling in some other way in their life. A huge number of people of my age have had counselling, and I know many people who have developed a sort of generational nihilism. But at the same time, they’re aware that we live in an incredible time of plenty. So there’s this paradox at the heart of most of our lives. If you look at the history of mankind, we’re doing pretty well, but at the same time we’re not doing as well as our parents, which is pretty much the first time that’s ever happened. Katherine is my way of trying to sum that up, really. She’s someone who’s good at her job, and that’s the only part of her life that makes sense, and then she has that pulled out from beneath her. Generally, as a rule, there are three parts of your life – work, life and love – and if two of them are bad, and you’ve got the other one, then you’re okay, but if all three are in trouble, you really have problems. And this series is about Katherine seeing that final third of her life whipped away from her.
The storyline indicates that being sent to Northampton is a fate worse than death. You’re from Northampton. Is that how you see it?
I’ve got a sort of love-hate relationship with Northampton, the same way I’ve got a love-hate relationship with London. It gives you some things, but it takes others away. I owe Northampton a huge amount. I got some of my breaks in theatre from working at a theatre in Northampton. I worked under Rupert Goold, who now runs the Almeida. I’ve got a lot of affection for the town, but I’m also aware that it’s not so great in other ways and it’s had a tricky history. Alan Moore is our most famous export, and he talks about the fact that for pretty much 1000 years we’ve been on the wrong side of history. It’s the third or fourth-largest town that isn’t a city – it’s been perennially ignored because it doesn’t have a cathedral.
Most of the characters are a bit lost. Did you do that because it makes them potentially funnier, or more interesting, or more sympathetic?
I think there’s something usefully dramatic about people who don’t know their place and are trying to find it. I work a lot in theatre, and Beckett and Chekhov are the two best playwrights at that – at examining the human experience through feeling lost. I should point out that I’m not comparing myself to Beckett and Chekhov – I am really, really not! I think lost characters are dramatically and comedically useful. I think it’s the opposite of American stuff, too – we focus a lot on failure, they tend to focus on success. British television is usually about people on the margins, looking in. Maybe it’s because we’re on the periphery of a world we used to dominate. So I’ve just compared myself to Beckett and Chekhov, and said this series examines all of world history, but other than that, I’m very down to earth…!
Another thing about this script is that it’s notable for its strong women. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah. Occasionally, when I’ve done male-centric plays with the odd female part which maybe isn’t as central, you audition for them, and I always get an incredible sadness because there are so many talented female performers out there we can’t cast. And I get pretty mad about all-male Shakespeare! So it was definitely a conscious thing on some level. I have written plays that have only got men in them, in the past, but for this show it just felt right to have some really strong and central women characters, and I think that has really paid off.
Did you have Zawe in mind for the role when you wrote it?
I’m a big fan of hers. She was absolutely brilliant in This Wide Night, the Chloe Moss play, and that’s always stayed with me. And then when she auditioned for Not Safe for Work she was absolutely perfect. We are incredibly lucky to have her.
Before this, you tended to have written for theatre. How does writing for TV differ? Does it free you up to do more?
Yes, you can move about a lot more easily, and you can establish a whole world in a quick shot. There are different rules, of course. Sometimes you can be a bit more evasive in theatre, but in TV you have to be clearer and more structured. In theatre you can be a bit more noncommittal, but in TV you have to have quite bold, strong ideas. There’s a different rhythm to it.
Why did you decide to do something for TV?
Clerkenwell Films are the production company, and they approached me because they saw one of my plays (The Empire, at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010). Generally, in TV, you have to write a lot of treatments and do a lot of development documents, but I just said to them, “If you give me a little bit of money I’ll just write something, and have a bit of a play with it, and we’ll see how we go.” And the brilliant thing was, they let me do that, and it all sort of went from there. They just gave me a lot of trust and let me get on with it.
You started off acting and directing. Why didn’t you stick with either of those?
Because I was rubbish at them! I did National Youth Theatre, and I was surrounded by very, very talented people. I felt like a child. Acting-wise, I can’t sing, dance, move, do accents or remember my lines. Some actors have struggled on despite those problems, but I thought it probably wasn’t for me. I did a bit of assistant directing, but I think you’ve got to have a very different brain for directing than for writing. You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re capable of, and I think directing isn’t core to my character. I’m much better off being stuck in a room on my own with a laptop.
Is it true you do your best writing between 11pm and 3am?
Yes, unfortunately. I’m trying to change it, but there’s just something I like about that time. I feel a bit more alive. And there’s something about everyone else having gone to bed, and you’re on your own. It’s a twilight period where things just click in my brain and it all comes together. I probably need to change that in order to have a normal life though…
Is it possible to make a decent living as a writer these days?
It is possible, but it’s hard. It’s not like anything else. You can write a good script at any age. The hardest thing is trying to make a living. But you don’t have to write to make a living, you can do it in your spare time. It’s hard, but there are so many theatres around now, and so many television channels. Austerity hasn’t hit our hunger for entertainment, if anything it’s increased it, as we want more escapism. But it’s still hard to make a living, and you have to be able to deal with a huge amount of rejection. Even the very best writers deal with rejection on an almost daily basis.