Tony Marchant, the acclaimed writer of Holding On, tells Tina Ogle about his gritty new drama, Never Never, which tackles life on a London council estate
The prospect of spending three hours on a grim London housing estate immersing yourself in the problems of its debt-ridden residents does not sound an inviting one. But when it is dramatist Tony Marchant issuing the invitation one should not refuse.
In Never Never, his latest two-parter for Channel 4, Marchant has created a savagely funny, beguiling drama that presents a working-class world without a hint of patronage. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that Marchant has made so many unpromising subjects so eminently watchable. Goodbye Cruel World starred Sue Johnston as a woman dying of a mystery illness, and achieved high ratings for the BBC while also winning an Royal Television Society award. Holding On, his sprawling eight-parter about the horrors of contemporary London, played out amid huge critical acclaim and picked up a Bafta. His last drama for Channel 4 was Kid In The Corner about a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was partly based on his own experiences with his autistic son. What in heavier hands could have been a tub-thumbing exercise in sentimentality was an intelligent take on the horrors we all have to face within ourselves.
In Never Never, Marchant shows us how easy it is to become indebted to loan companies which charge exorbitant rates of interest. But he tempers our knee-jerk horror to such situations by presenting us with a 'villain' who is nigh on impossible to resist. John Simm plays John Parlour, a charming wide-boy who plays on his close relationship with his customers to draw them further into crippling debt. Over the course of the three-hour drama he falls in love with single mother Jo (Sophie Okonedo), gets his comeuppance, achieves a kind of redemption, but falters once more. Viewers in search of a feel-good conclusion should look elsewhere.
The product of an east London council estate, 41-year-old Marchant knows the world that he writes about. He is the first to admit that his projects are sometimes difficult to pitch. 'The problem I always had with this was that if I wasn't careful it could be an essay, a treatise on the poor. But I just wrote about where I came from because if that's not true then you can't buy what comes after.
'Estates have changed since I grew up on one because there wasn't a drug problem then. But poverty is still the same and it hasn't gone away. Blair is exhorting us that we're all middle class now and I want to remind people that that's not true and this thing won't go away.'
His original notion was not to write about poverty but to produce something that tackled the modern idea of benign entrepreneurs. 'In a curious kind of way Richard Branson was the starting point. I was interested in this idea of could businesses be ethical? What exactly was the bottom line?'
He has tackled this indirectly through an exploration of credit unions, financial institutions that are set up by a group of local people to support themselves. Thus, the residents of the fictional council estate form their own company as a means of escaping the loan sharks but then encounter problems of their own.
'It seemed quite timely to explore the difference between setting things up that are supposed to be for the social good but in turn the conflict between that and the need to be a financially successful entity.'
Marchant is all too aware that this latter explanation will not have people switching on in droves. 'That's in the script, but people won't watch what I've just described, of course they won't. I always knew that how this worked out as a social phenomenon was no good to anyone. If people take away from it that it's a big love story that's great; but if they also look at it and say great, this is about people whom television seems to be slightly embarrassed about these days then even better. I'd love people to say that's a fucking remarkable story that takes place on a council estate and what it goes to prove is that you can be ambitious emotionally and ethically and morally in stories and it can all take place in south London.'
There is a complex morality to all of Marchant's work, a sense that though all of his characters are deeply flawed we collectively need to, and should, strive to be better. Says Gub Neal, who commissioned Never Never when he was head of drama at Channel 4:
'He doesn't let the viewer off at all and you're left with painful realisations. But when Tony's writing is working at that level you feel like you're engaging in a strong moral dialogue - which would have been more apparent in a whimsical way in a Frank Capra movie, but he's far cleverer at manipulating the whimsy out of it.'
Creating accessible characters with whom viewers can instantly identify is the toughest challenge for a dramatist but, with John and Jo, Marchant has succeeded. The trick he feels is to avoid passing judgment.
'One of the great things to avoid when you're doing something like this is to be judgmental. The thing about Sophie's character is that she has no money and that makes her extremely pragmatic. She's not amoral exactly but she's not boringly didactic about how she conducts her life. Her choices are stark and her character is as pragmatic as John's except that hers comes out of a desperation.'
Thus we see her doing reprehensible things, as we do John, but Marchant makes it impossible for us to condemn them. His talent lies in making us complicit with his characters, whatever their actions.
Producer David Snodin, who worked with Marchant on Holding On and other projects, claims to be continually surprised at his accessibility: 'He'll say, "I've got this really great idea, it's about an insurance investigator", and you go, "Oh yeah." And then he tells you the story and you think, "Why not?" He manages to put the ordinary into extraordinary situations, which is why the audience can identify. He has an ability to write about all kinds and creeds and classes of people without being cliched.'
Such qualities make Marchant in permanent demand, but some projects are more suitable than others. He has just completed an adaptation of Crime and Punishment for the BBC that will air next autumn and is working on a C4 series about the pharmaceutical industry. He recently felt compelled to turn down an offer to dramatise the life Tom Jones. 'I'm waiting for the Dusty Springfield story.'
If he is forced to analyse his work he says this: 'I'm drawn to certain subjects which are raw and uncompromising and edgy. I am a sort of a moralist, I suppose. I don't know how to describe it. I'm a fancy chocolate in a world of Minstrels. Will that do?'
Actor with attitude: John Simm, the star of Never Never
It's the swagger you most remember about John Simm. Heavily evident in the actor's breakthrough role as Danny Kavanagh in The Lakes, it also appeared in ITV's gay/straight love story Forgive and Forget, and movies Human Traffic and Wonderland. His movie characters were lesser men, but he still couldn't quite hide that confident gait.
He's also earned something of a reputation as a cocky git, which his opening comments on writer Tony Marchant do nothing to dispel. 'I just knew that Tony was this big-shot fantastic writer because Holding On had gone head to head with The Lakes and everyone said it was as good as The Lakes. And I said, "Fuck off, no way is it." I had the arse 'cos it was beating us to all these awards then I saw it and thought, "Wow, absolutely fantastic."'
Just as well then, as Marchant saw fit to cast Simm as John Parlour, the central character in Never Never. All actors bang on about the enormous 'journey' their characters make, but in this case the claim is justified. The loathsome yet charming loan shark is forced into a series of situations which turn his personality on its head, and almost back again.
'He's a great character,' enthuses Simm, 'a nasty piece of work but there is a glimmer of goodness there somewhere.' The extraordinary feat that Simm achieves is to make us care deeply for this little oik, a compliment that reduces him to the point of blushing. 'Oh good. Is he likeable? Oh brilliant, I never get any feedback so it's great to hear that. He could so easily be a wanker. Did I look too young, do you think? I worried a lot about that.'
He's not so cocky then, this 30-year-old native of Nelson, Lancashire, who made a break for drama school in Blackpool at the age of 16. He did a musical double act with his dad in working men's clubs, but then realised acting gave him far more scope and helped him overcome his natural shyness.
After a small role in Rumpole of the Bailey, he has only suffered three months' unemployment in a career that has seen him work with Britain's leading writers and directors, Jimmy McGovern and Michael Winterbottom among them. Next stop is a role opposite Matthew Modine in a film to be shot in Canada. 'I think I've done everything that I've ever wanted to do. Maybe I'll just have to ask for more money.'
Small screen, big stories: Marchant's striking dramas
Cruel World (1992)
the corner (1999)
• Never Never is on Channel 4 on Sunday and Monday, 5 and 6 November