If you’ve been glued to BBC1 on Monday nights at 9pm for the last few weeks, chances are you’ve seen Ashley Pharoah’s name flash up on screen during the credits of the instant classic Life on Mars.
He’s one of the co-creators and co-writers along with legendary TV scribe Tony Jordan and the so-talented-it-hurts Matthew Graham. But that’s not all, Ashley has created no fewer than five successful returning drama series, including Where the Heart Is, the criminally underrated Life Support, Down to Earth and Paradise Heights, as well as recently adapting Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Under the Greenwood Tree for ITV.
He seems to never stop working and he’s a darn nice bloke to boot. So how does he do it? Let’s ask him…
How did the idea for Life on Mars come about with co-creators Tony Jordan and Matthew Graham?
About eight years ago the production company KUDOS sent the three of us off to a hotel in Blackpool for a long weekend with the brief to come up with some series ideas. We had all just written on CITY CENTRAL and didn't fancy doing another cop show but somehow we got talking about THE SWEENEY and thought it would be amusing to see a techno modern cop in the seventies. It all mushroomed from that core idea.
How long did it take to get off the ground and was it always intended for the Beeb or was it taken to Kudos first?
Kudos put the three of us together. We pitched it to then controller of BBC1 who had some reservations but commissioned Matthew to write a script. After a few drafts the BBC decided to pass on the project. But a BBC producer called John Yorke always liked the idea and when he went to C4 he took the project with him. Matthew wrote dozens of versions of the first episode and we were just about to get a green light when C4 got cold feet and rejected it. By now, though, Julie Gardner was at BBC Wales so Kudos took it to her and she loved it and managed to persuade the powers that be that it was worth making.
How did you divide up the writing duties - did you have a writers’ room, or was it more of an organic meeting process between you, Kudos and the Beeb?
The three writers storylined it with Jane Featherstone and Claire Parker from Kudos. That was a lot of fun. Because C4 had turned it down I'd got myself booked up and could only write one episode, so Matthew became lead writer and executive producer. It's an interesting series in that it can accommodate different writers' voices so we chose the episodes closest to our hearts and went from there.
Can you give us any hints at what might happen to Sam and the Gene Genie in series two of Life on Mars?
If I knew I would! We're only just starting the writing period now. Suffice to say there will be lots of homo-erotic bonding in grim Manchester pubs.
As a creator of a number of returning TV series, what tips would you give to writers who think they’ve got a cracking idea for a new drama?
One way is to think to yourself what would episode 8 of series 3 be like. In other words, does your idea have "legs"? Is there enough conflict in the premise to throw up endless future storylines? Otherwise it might work better as a serial or movie.
What do you think of the UK TV market for new writers?
I think it's pretty exciting. A lot of drama on a lot of channels, all looking for new talent. It's always difficult to break in but I think it's easier now than it's ever been. IF you're good!
Do you write spec feature scripts or are you having too much fun writing for TV?
Haven't written a spec one in years. I've got a commissioned one floating around the place trying to attract money. But I'm so busy at the moment in television that I simply don't have time for spec movies. Maybe one day. Also, you have so much more influence as a writer in TV than you do in film - it would be hard to give that up.
Would you/have you ever consider Hollywood?
Only if invited! Never fancied being one of those taxi driver-writers who infest LA, desperate for a break. I've spoken to some Hollywood writers and they rather envy us our ability to write lots of different stuff - adaptations; thrillers; serials; series etc. I'm pretty happy where I am. And they don't have cider in LA.
Are you attached to a particular production company or do you prefer to be a freelance writer available to anyone?
I love being freelance. Recently I've worked mostly with Kudos, Company Pictures and Ecosse because I admire the people there. But I'm idea led, and will go anywhere.
How difficult was it getting your career off the ground?
It was both easy and difficult! The first script I ever wrote when I was 20 (a radio play) got bought by the BBC. I went to film school and my graduation film got nominated for a Bafta. I got movie commissions and then... nothing! For years. On the dole, confidence seeping away. Then I got myself a gig on EASTENDERS and it all started again.
If you weren’t a screenwriter, what else would you be?
Absolutely no idea! I'd probably be wearing a crumpled linen suit and teaching English in Bulawayo or something. I'm unemployable as I've only ever wanted to be a writer.
What’s your favourite TV shows (that you don’t write)?
I'm really enjoying BOSTON LEGAL at the moment. THE WEST WING. I was a very big fan of an Australian series from a few years back, SECRET LIFE OF US. If I was being honest it's probably the RUGBY CLUB on Sky!
And finally: dinner at the Ivy or quiet night in with a pizza?
There is something to be said for the Ivy's corned beef hash and a glass of Merlot but I'm a home bod, really.
***UPDATE***: You can read an extended Q&A session with Ashley, pre-Life on Mars, with the BBC Writers’ Room.