Screenwriter Jeff Pope, creator of hit dramas based on real people including serial killer Fred West, Cilla Black and Laurel and Hardy, has revealed how success changed his working life.
Speaking to the RTS he said: “It meant that people came to me with their ideas. Steve Coogan came to me with Philomena (Coogan and Pope’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and won best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival).
“Success gets you meetings, but it still doesn’t get something past the finishing line if it’s not good enough…It also means you can be more ambitious and more expansive.”
In a wide-ranging interview Pope, whose latest TV series, A Confession starring Martin Freeman as Detective Steve Fulcher, is broadcast on ITV, looked back on his career that began as a journalist on the Ealing Gazette.
A Confession tells the story of detective Fulcher’s mission to find a missing young woman – an investigation which leads him to a dangerous murderer, and which ultimately destroys his own career.
Pope’s technique involves spending a lot of time with the story’s protagonists. A Confession was no exception, with Pope talking to Fulcher for many hours.
He said: “My process is to go deeper and deeper into what actually happened. Therein lies the avoidance of cliché. We’re all unique and tell stories in a slightly different way. That’s the material and then my job is finding the way through it.”
Martin Freeman was cast in the lead role because of his ability to play “everyman characters,” Pope said.
“He has the ability to play someone you can relate to as a normal, average guy. I wrote A Confession with him in mind.”
It was working as a reporter in West London where Pope began to acquire the skills that would lead to a succession of award-winning shows and feature films.
“As a journalist you take a lot of information and process it into a story with a beginning, a middle and an end,” said the prolific Pope who in 1983 left the Gazette to join ITV station, London Weekend Television, as a researcher on the pioneering Six O’Clock Show.
Making short, three-to-four-minute films on quirky subjects such as couples lingering “too long on goodbye kisses” in London car parks, he worked alongside presenter Danny Baker.
Decades later the pair would collaborate on Cradle to Grave, a BBC Two comedy based on Baker’s 1970s childhood starring Peter Kay as Baker’s work-shy father, Fred.
At LWT Pope was part of the team that created Crime Monthly, “a sexy Crimewatch,” featuring the re-enactment of crime scenes. “I built it from the ground upwards,” he recalled.
This experience was to prove vital in his later role writing and producing series based on real life crimes.
At LWT he would bump into Cilla Black, then presenting Blind Date, in the lifts and was told stories of how the star had a lavatory designed by her husband, Bobby, in her dressing room.
Pope’s ITV biopic, Cilla, won a Bafta nomination for Sheridan Smith’s portrayal of the Liverpudlian singer.
Pope’s first full-length TV drama was Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s Mat Robbery, in which thieves stole gold bullion worth £26 million from a trading estate near Heathrow.
Asked to identify his favourite crime shows and writers he mentioned Thames Television’s influential The Sweeney and Law and Order, penned by G F Newman.
“Law and Order was a brilliant series,” said Pope. “The dialogue was magical. I still didn’t quite trust that I could do it. (As a writer) I was half putting my toe in the water…I co-wrote with (director) Terry Winsor and I found it easy.
“People have different skills. I am not a frustrated actor or director. I love writing.”
Pope revealed that many of his dramas were inspired by his reading. This was the case with Appropriate Adult, the story of Gloucester murderer Fred West starring Dominic West as the serial killer and Emily Watson as Janet Leach, the social worker present during West’s police interrogations.
He produced Appropriate Adult, which was written by Neil McKay.
“I remember coming across Janet and being intrigued by her story,” he said. “West was semi-literate and the police didn’t want him to say further down the line that he couldn’t read and write and so didn’t understand the interview process. They put an appropriate adult in with him during their interviews.
“They normally put appropriate adults in with children. That’s why Janet – a housewife trained as a social worker – is there.
“We didn’t want to see any of the murders, or be on Fred’s shoulder, and I didn’t want to get into his head other than how he interacted with Janet.
“It’s the proximity of evil, not evil itself that interests me.”
On a lighter note, Pope said that reading had also been the inspiration for Stan and Ollie, the 2018 biopic based on the sunset years of the comedy double act starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly.
He’d had it in his mind to write Stan and Ollie for years, long before Coogan approached him to co-write Philomena.
“The truth is I thought Steve was too obvious to play Stan Laurel…In my mind I resisted it until I woke up one day and thought ‘This is nonsense.’ …I was worried that he would say ‘No, it’s too obvious.’ But he didn’t. He instantly knew how to play it.”
Asked if there was one story he’d still like to write, Pope said: “The drawer is quite cluttered (with ideas)…The film that I would love to have made is Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.”
In Conversation with Jeff Pope was an RTS early evening event held at King’s Place, King’s Cross, London, on August 29. The interviewer was journalist and broadcaster Caroline Frost. The producers were Caroline Frost, ITV and Jamie O’Neill. A full report will be published in the October edition of Television.
All photography by Phil Lewis/Media24