Dramatist Jack Thorne discusses the truth of storytelling

Dramatist Jack Thorne discusses the truth of storytelling

By Steve Clarke,
Friday, 20th November 2015
The Last Panthers
The Last Panthers
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Here he reveals the concept behind the new Sky drama series The Last Panthers 

As a child, Jack Thorne was a devoted TV viewer who’d some-­times risk compromising his personal hygiene – all for the sake of his favourite programmes. He was reluctant to leave the box’s magical embrace and delayed taking a shower until the commercial break rolled round.

“That’s fine when you’re eight, but less good when you’re 14,” says Thorne. He has a wide, open face, which lights up like a Belisha beacon when he recalls his childhood and adolescent TV addiction.

Spending a lot of time as a couch potato turned out to be an investment. Thorne, now 36, is one of TV’s most in-demand screenwriters and in the fortunate position of being able to choose the shows he writes.

Three years ago, he won two Baftas: the Mini Series Award for Channel 4’s This Is England ’88, and the Drama Series Award for BBC Three’s supernatural drama The Fades, axed after one series due to cost cutting.

This month sees the debut of what is perhaps Thorne’s most ambitious TV project yet: Sky Atlantic’s flagship autumn drama, The Last Panthers.

The stylish, six-part film takes a robbery by a gang of Serbian jewel thieves as the starting point for a tense exploration of Central Europe’s dark, criminal underbelly and its links to big business. It stars John Hurt, Samantha Morton, French actor Tahar Rahim and Croatian Goran Bogdan.

“Would Cathy Come Home work as well now or would it be on BBC Four and seen by 20 people? We live in a really exciting age when lots of things are possible.

It is not a traditional action thriller. The Last Panthers is a troubling, dark delight, the result of extensive research that Thorne undertook in places such as Serbia, alongside French investigative journalist Jérôme Pierrat. The Frenchman had originally conceived the idea for The Last Panthers as a feature film.

“We met policemen, criminals and all sorts of people who were useful in building this portrait,” says Thorne. He is a shy, nervous, talkative man  who obviously loves his work. His career as a dramatist began in the theatre not that long after graduating from Cambridge. Thorne read social and political sciences.

Not that there is anything remotely Oxbridge about him, despite his intellectual face. He lacks that kind of smooth or seemingly innate self-confidence – a by-product, ­perhaps, of having attended a comprehensive school in Newbury.

At Cambridge, he was laid low by Cholinergic urticaria, a disease of the immune system that makes sufferers allergic to their own body heat.

His symptoms are controlled by medication. “It’s related to anxiety. When it first occurred, I spent six months bed-bound and still struggle with it now… I don’t have serious attacks any more. The last time I got properly ill was on my honeymoon. Since then, it’s been sort of OK.

The Last Panthers is fiction inspired by real people,” Thorne explains. “We don’t shy away from the genre elements of it.… It is not a po-faced drama that develops out of something quite exciting. The show is a character piece held within a genre.”

In writing the series, Thorne was influenced by Paul Abbott’s gripping BBC political thriller, State of Play, unhappily reworked for the big screen.

“I wanted to try and recreate that tension,” says Thorne, casually dressed in expensive trainers, jeans and a CND hoodie. He’s been a member of the Labour Party for 20 years. And, yes, after a lot of soul-searching, he voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the recent leader­ship election.

Unusually for a Thorne collaboration, The Last Panthers is an Anglo-French co-production; the producers are Haut et Court (famous for The Returned, shown by Channel 4 in the UK) and Warp Films, maker of This Is England.

Did the production process involve a high degree of compromise because of the need to appeal to audiences in different countries?

“I probably had fewer channel notes on this than anything I’ve ever done, from Sky and Canal+. They trusted everyone involved.… There were quite a few producers and we worked incredibly hard on the scripts.

“The producers were not all English. Instead of meeting for half a day, you’d meet for three-day stretches and do an incredible amount in those three days.… It made it very intense for those days…

“Anne Mensah [Sky’s Head of Drama] always says her big thing is not to create a show that lots of people like, but to create a show that some people love.”

Thorne is no stranger to shows that have cult followings. His big break in television came on Skins, E4’s raunchy take on teenage life in the early 21st century. He credits its creator, Bryan Elsley, with helping him to understand and master the grammar of TV screenwriting.

“On Skins, Bryan was incredible with all of us writers. There’s an awful lot of people who’ve got Bryan to thank for their careers in TV,” Thorne says.

Working more or less full-time for Elsley for two years, the fledgling screenwriter was impressed by how much freedom Elsley gave Thorne and the other scribes on the Skins team.

“I would get more exasperated with him than he would with me. He really did teach me about camera path – learning the story that you want to tell and how to use the camera when you’re telling your story.”

Thorne is reputed to be a workaholic, labouring non-stop from 10:00am to 8:00pm on his laptop, mainly at a library near his north London home. Away from his computer, he likes to read screenplays.

Currently, he is devouring Troy Kennedy Martin’s era-defining Edge of Darkness. “The script is absolutely beautiful, the way he uses directions…”

For Thorne, the mark of an outstanding drama is that it must be truthful to its subject: “The times when I think I’ve failed have been because I haven’t been truthful enough. Above all else, I think it’s got to be truthful. If it’s truthful, then people will feel it.…

“As soon as you descend into artifice, you not only lose viewers, you also betray a lot of people who need to have their story told properly.”

Having their stories told accurately is something very much in Thorne’s mind at the moment, as he works on the script for National Treasure. It is the story of a celebrity alleged sex offender, inspired by Operation Yewtree.

“I have spoken to a lot of people who have had a lot of horrible things happen to them. That sense of responsibility is massive on this show,” Thorne says. “It is a story that needs to be told. It is something that drama can do. The news can only tell one story and can’t take you inside someone’s head.”

“The story possibilities on TV are probably greater and the ability to move through a story fast is probably greater. The danger in TV is that you end up in a world of text, particularly as your work gets cut for the edit.”

Alongside National Treasure (commissioned by Channel 4 and due for broadcast in 2016), he is working on JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Due to the tight security involved in the Potter project, he is unable to talk about the script in any detail. He does, however, say that working with Rowling is a good antidote to writing something as potentially disturbing as National Treasure.

What are the main differences between writing for the stage and writing for TV? “The theatre allows you complexity. But it is a different form of complexity. Theatre probably is more comfortable with subtext. Often [on TV], fast cutting means you are increasingly in a world of text, rather than subtext.

“But you try and resist that where possible. In theatre, you are not able to cut around, so, therefore, you are in a story. You can’t have a lot of plates spinning. The Last Panthers wouldn’t work on stage because you are all over the place, including flashbacks.… There are three stories being told.

“The story possibilities on TV are probably greater and the ability to move through a story fast is probably greater. The danger in TV is that you end up in a world of text, particularly as your work gets cut for the edit.”

Screenwriters with form, such as Thorne, are apparently in a seller’s market. Is he making a lot of money? “I am doing all right. [But] the thing is: never take a job simply because it pays well.”

Does he agree that we are experiencing a golden age of TV drama? “There was a lot of good drama made previously so, if we are living a golden age.… As I have said, I read Edge of Darkness and I think, ‘This is just supreme.’ I read a lot of Dennis Potter. The ability he had to tell those stories. In the 1970s, to have a mainstream show such as Z Cars.…

“I’ve got a lot of those scripts and that was a show getting millions of viewers for dark and interesting subject matter.

“Would Cathy Come Home work as well now or would it be on BBC Four and seen by 20 people? We live in a really exciting age when lots of things are possible.

“I am really grateful to live in this age but.… I watch a lot of TV. I am inspired by it, but I also enjoy watching crap.”