How soon is too soon to tackle a subject like Operation Yewtree?
“We all knew the gravity of what we were taking on,” says Jack Thorne, the screenwriter of Channel 4’s powerful drama National Treasure.
The show follows fictional light entertainment star Paul Finchley (RTS Award nominee Robbie Coltrane), who is accused of raping a 15-year-old girl many years earlier.
The show, coming from Finchley’s perspective, looks at the impact of the accusation, not only on the victim, but also on the accused and their family.
Speaking to The Guardian at the time, Coltrane said, “I think it’s important to do this on behalf of the women who were raped, on behalf of the people who were abused.”
Thorne echoes those sentiments, speaking ahead of the RTS Programme Awards where the show has been nominated in four categories including Writer – Drama and Mini-Series, he says “it’s quite rare for me to feel a responsibility towards something so personal to so many people.”
“When you’re talking to people that have been abused, that have got things in their past that have left such deep scars that defined their lives, you go ‘OK, if we get this wrong then we have let down people who we really shouldn’t have let down.”
While writing the show, he spoke to victims, lawyers, police officer and support workers to get as full a picture as he could.
The original iteration of the show, he says, which came from an idea by television producer George Faber, was to have each of the episodes from a different character’s perspective: the accused’s, the police officers’, the complainant, the accused’s daughter, and the accused’s wife.
“You slowly realise where the interesting story is,” Thorne says, and that was to explore the story from the perpetrator’s perspective.
“With these things”, he says cautiously, “there’s always… the fear that you’ll take on something quite serious and then you’ll realise that you are gently being nudged towards something you don’t want to make.”
On the contrary, he says, National Treasure benefited from a team who shared Thorne’s vision. “Instead of the pencil being blunted, it was actually sharpened by a series of absolutely brilliant people; from the producers to the channel to the actors. It was absolutely amazing.”
Starring alongside Coltrane were Julie Walters, who is also nominated for an RTS award for her role as Finchley’s wife, Andrea Riseborough and Tim McInnerny.
“When you’re working with that cast,” Thorne gushes, “you learn a huge amount about authenticity and about being true to character. I have tried to do my own bit well enough that I am not letting those people down.”
“I have always been very grateful and a bit awestruck that they want to be involved with me in the first place really,” he admits.
However Thorne is being modest. National Treasure is far from his first successful project, with four Baftas and an RTS Award already under his belt, and writing credits on shows from Skins and This is England to, The Fades and The Last Panthers.
He is also currently adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books for the BBC and his Harry Potter stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently playing to sold-out audiences in the West End.
“We were very aware of the banana skins we were walking over,” Thorne remembers of writing the Potter show. “John Tiffany, the director, said at the start of the process, ‘this show will probably define us whether it is good or shit, so we had better try and make it good.’”
“Luckily there is a living author who was available to guide us, and she did, very gently and very beautifully through the process. I am the only other person that has got to write Harry Potter on the page than her,” he says, faintly awestruck by the admission.
Did the Harry Potter author sit him down and warn him not to mess it up? Thorne laughs. “No, she’s far too kind for that. She is one of those people who is just a bit too good to be true.”
He is similarly the glowing about Philip Pullman.
“I only ever work off novels I am completely 100% in love with,” the screenwriter says. “I think that His Dark Materials was absolutely made for television because of the size of the story that Philip tells.”
Thorne is not the first person to adapt Pullman’s work, which has spawned a Hollywood film, a radio version and a successful theatrical adaptation.
“I try to keep my eyes away” from previous adaptations, says Thorne. “I have the most amazing source material in the world. I don’t need to see how someone else did it.”
However the complexity of Pullman’s famously allegorical series, make for some heavy lifting from Thorne’s end. “There’s so many ideas in it,” exclaims Thorne, delighted. “You’re just trying desperately to do justice to them all without bamboozling the viewer with too many ideas.”
He regularly turns to Pullman for advice on unpacking some of the writer’s more cryptic passages. “I am a nerd first and foremost, and the opportunity to talk to these people is really exciting.”
When BBC Executive Jane Tranter announced the show, she said that the new series aimed to “sound every note” of Pullman’s series.
“There’s a real thing within Philip’s work that sounding every note is quite essential to the story” says Thorne. “That ability to sound every note in a cord, every phrase, every page of his book that are these incredible and intricate cords, is a real honour.”
Thirteen has been nominated alongside London Spy and National Treasure at the RTS Programme Awards 2017 in the Mini-Series category, The writers of each of the nominated shows have been approached for an interview.
Click to read an interview with Thirteen writer Marnie Dickens.