Andrew Billen meets the intensely private drama producer Nicola Shindler and discovers what makes her tick
Nicola Shindler is not a great one for giving interviews, possibly because, as the founder and Chief Executive of one of Britain’s most successful drama producers, she sees her job as telling other people’s stories, not her own. As I say to her, her Who’s Who entry is the least personal I have ever read, absent of parents, partners and children. “Good,” she says, “I don’t want people to know anything about me.”
In those interviews that she does give, however, there is always one theme: that she is the writer’s friend. Now that I am in her office at MediaCity in Salford – a quarter of Greater Manchester populated by the young, the smart and the personable – I can imagine that these passionate, protective, hermetic writers, happiest when probing their subconscious in their garrets, are not every executive’s cup of tea. Perhaps her rivals generally find them a little scary?
“Oh, I find writers scary as well. Of course, I do. They’re scary because it’s a really weird way of thinking, writing. Without saying they are all tortured, I think that there is an element of trickiness to what they’re trying to do. So, I’m always scared of upsetting them, having upset them, being about to upset them. All of those things.”
A small, dark-haired woman with a proper northern accent, she is slightly scary herself: quick as you like but, always, I fear, about to take offence at one of my questions. I play it safe and ask, yes, about her writers.
We need to start with Russell T Davies, because it is with him that Red’s story began in 1998. She set up her indie without a loan, and without backers, from the front room of her home in Manchester. She did have a development deal from Channel 4’s then-head of drama, Gub Neal, with whom she had worked on Cracker at Granada.
“He said: ‘Bring me three projects over the year.’ I think it was for about £10,000,” she recalls. She had met Davies the year before at the International Emmys in New York (they both lost). “He had this idea. He had had it for ages.”
It did not occur to her that this idea of his – a story of unrequited love on Canal Street, Manchester – might be controversial: “I was too young to think it through properly. Also, I don’t have a filter. To me, a good story is a good story and if they’re gay, straight or from Mars, it just doesn’t matter. It’s about a relationship. I suppose I knew there’d be a bit of a fuss but I didn’t realise there’d be quite as much fuss.”
And so, within four months of setting up on her own, Queer as Folk was greenlit and Shindler moved into offices in Granada, from where, under another development agreement with Tessa Ross at the BBC, she produced Paul Abbott’s series Clocking Off.
Davies, she says, is not as sociable as he appears – “I think he enjoys sitting by himself, but they all do”. Nevertheless, he introduced her to Sally Wainwright, at the time known for toiling at Corrie and for her comedy drama At Home with the Braithwaites.
Together, they made a contemporary Wuthering Heights, Sparkhouse. It was, however, with Unforgiven in 2009 that Red and Wainwright had their breakthrough. Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley followed – three Red series that will help define the 2010s for historians of television.
I remark that, in an industry in which only 10% of lead writers are women, Shindler discovered a writing star who was not only a woman but nearly 40. “It is not like that,” she responds, almost crossly. “I really don’t look at someone’s age. She had a brilliant idea.”
But doesn’t she feel that, in a tough, male industry, she must champion women writers and give them a voice?
“No, because I wouldn’t ever push someone who I didn’t think was really brilliant. So you’re not ‘giving someone a voice’. You’re very lucky to get their work and be able to produce their work. I wouldn’t work with someone just because they were a woman.”
We look out of her glass office. My God, are there any men working here? She points to one and gestures to the office next door of her MD, Andrew Critchley. “We have a man executive producer as well.” That makes three out of, she thinks, 26. The rest are women.
“It just happened that way and now that’s how it is.”
To me, a good story is a good story and if they’re gay, straight or from Mars, it just doesn’t matter. It’s about a relationship
Does she find it harder working with men? “No, not at all. The men who work here are all great and I work very well with male writers.”
This, of course, is true, from Jimmy McGovern on Cracker (“he was brilliant because he had no rules”), through Ordinary Lies’ Danny Brocklehurst (“he’s just writing better and better every time we work with him”) to, now, Harlan Coben, with whom she has just set up a company to make the successor to Sky’s The Five (The Four).
“Working with Harlan is astonishing,” she says. “You give him a story problem and he comes up with 10 brilliant solutions right away!”
She really does love writers, I say, and, on a hunch (for her PR would not tell me), I ask if she is married to one.
“I am married to a writer,” she admits. He is Matt Greenhalgh, author of Sam Taylor-Wood’s movie Nowhere Boy, about the young John Lennon. They have two girls and a boy, aged between eight and 13. I immediately regret our conversation about the weirdness of writers.
“We tend not to work together, much,” she explains. “We made BBC Three’s first drama, Burn It. He wrote all 21 episodes of that.”
She says she enjoys doing the school run in the mornings and leaves the office early to see her children when they return. She then works all evening. It strikes me, and I think she agrees that, if there is a common thread to Red’s dramas, it may be their grounding in humble, domestic reality.
The consequence of running both a business and a family is that she no longer gets to the theatre, which, growing up in Bury and Rochdale, she did a lot. At the Royal Exchange, she says, they saw everything.
Nor was there parental censorship over what she read – a classic one night, Harold Robbins the next. The family was “obsessed” by television, although Shindler never imagined working in it.
She was good at exams at school and made it to her father’s old Cambridge college, Gonville and Caius, where she read history and directed plays. “I was a real anomaly and kind of interesting. I was from Rochdale. I had never been exotic before, so I used it to my advantage.”
Leaving with the 2:1 that she wanted, she found a job as a publicist at the Royal Court Theatre, where she was allowed to read scripts and report back on promising work on the fringe. She thought that she might want to be a literary agent and asked advice from a couple of them. She wanted to work with writers. “They said: ‘Oh, that’s script editing. It’s a job, too.’”
The BBC took her on as a trainee doing just that. From London, she moved to Granada in Manchester, which was not only nearer to where she was brought up but somewhere that felt like home. At last, she was working with writers.
She felt lucky, but they must have felt lucky, too. Here was an executive who wanted to give writers their heads, who was pleased, not exasperated, when their scripts came in with scenes worked out to the last detail, who wanted their help in casting their pieces and who would, as in the case of Wainwright on Happy Valley, encourage them to direct them.
Does this make Red’s writers showrunners? “In my mind, they are, definitely. It’s a different process to in America. They’re not on set. They’re not in the edit all the time, but they’re in touch with all those things, all the time.”
Yet, at the same time, it is pretty clear that it is Shindler who runs the show and does it by her own set of rules. There will never, she says, be a naked breast in a Red drama. “It has been very one-sided for many years. Men get naked and women don’t.”
And if a writer said he needed that shot to make the scene real? “We’ve had that conversation a lot, but you’d be surprised how you can make something feel very real without having blatant nudity.” There is, she says, no blanket ban on young women being murdered in her series, but producers and writers need to take responsibility for how they actually depict it. She does not approve of Allan Cubitt’s The Fall. “That man was a serial killer but you didn’t need to show a woman getting very scared for so long.”
In the 18 years since she founded Red, the business has changed. Production values and costs have risen. Having been brought up by parents who lived within their means, rather than borrow money, she preferred to sell a controlling stake in Red to France’s StudioCanal in 2013.
“I considered it really carefully but, because of the way Studio Canal works, I don’t feel that I lost my independence. It wants products to sell, and it wants good-quality products, but, other than that, I run my company how I need to run it.”
The executives who buy her products have changed, too – perhaps more over the past year than they ever have, with drama commissioners bouncing from the BBC to ITV and from Channel 4 to the BBC.
In Edinburgh this summer, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s director of television, said that he wanted the best writers in the country working for ITV and name-checked both Wainwright and Davies. To me, that sounded like good news for Red until he added: “We’re not in the experimental game, and our dramas need to get large audiences, and that suggests experience and people who know what writing dramas is all about.”
“Yes,” says Shindler, “he wants the big-name writers but big-name writers don’t always bring success. Everyone has failures. He also says that he wants mainstream, authored drama. That doesn’t mean that it has to be the blandest piece of work in the world. That just means that it has to try and appeal to a big audience. Most people don’t want to do something that’s bland or been done before.
“Most people want to do their best work and they want to push things. So you find something that is mainstream that attracts a big audience, such as Scott & Bailey, and, within that, you tackle hundreds of subjects that are really edgy and niche.”
Mainstream but edgy, that sounds like Nicola Shindler. It is almost 3:00pm. In the corner of her office, I notice a shopping bag of Halloween outfits. It is time to take them home. She has children back there – and a writer she can call her own, too.
Nicola Shindler, founder and Chief Executive, Red Production Company
Born: 8 October 1968, second of three daughters, brought up in Rochdale and Bury
Parents: Mother, Gay Shindler, nurse turned secondary school teacher; father, Geoffrey Shindler OBE, solicitor
Family: Married to writer Matt Greenhalgh; they have three children
Education: Bury Grammar School, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge (2:1 in history)
1993- Script editor on Cracker at Granada
1996- Producer, Hillsborough
1998- Sets up Red, aged 29
1999- Executive producer, Queer as Folk
2000- Clocking Off
2010- Single Father
2011- Scott & Bailey
2012- Last Tango in Halifax
2013- Sells controlling stake in Red to StudioCanal. The deal values the company at £30m
2014- Happy Valley
2015- Ordinary Lies
2016- The Five
Hits: Queer as Folk, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley
Misses: Comedies Heading Out and Cabbage and Pat; and Paranoid, which lost more than 1.5 million overnight viewers in a week for ITV this autumn
Watching: Stranger Things, The Nick, The Night Of
Not watching: Game of Thrones, The Fall
Reading: Books about writers, including Peter Biskind’s Difficult Men and Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow
Hobbies: Sleeping, children, work