Tony Schumacher: A life stranger than fiction

Tony Schumacher: A life stranger than fiction

Tuesday, 29th August 2023
Tony Schumacher
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Tony Schumacher, creator of acclaimed police series The Responder, tells Matthew Bell how writing saved him

Tony Schumacher is following in the footsteps of fellow Liverpool TV dramatists Alan Bleasdale and Jimmy McGovern – literally so in the case of the Boys from the Blackstuff writer.

Schumacher, who enjoyed huge success with BBC One cop series The Responder last year, grew up in Huyton on the outskirts of Liverpool.

He recalls running a childhood errand with his father: “Dad pointed across the road and said, ‘That programme we watched last night? The guy who wrote it lived there when he was a kid.’ That was Alan Bleasdale’s house. It wasn’t a great area back then and it was like a physical jolt – someone from round here did that great thing on the telly, and that is why I wrote The Responder.”

The Responder was a breath of fresh air – a cop show that didn’t feature maverick detectives, serial killers and head-scratching plots. It starred Martin Freeman as Chris Carson, a lowly response officer working the night shift, dealing with drunks, domestics and drug addicts. “Every night, there’s spit on my face and blood on my boots, and it never stops,” Carson tells his therapist. It’s dark and frequently harrowing, but also funny and profound.

Filming on series two of The Responder is due to start in Liverpool this month. Is writing a follow-up to a critical and audience hit akin to penning that difficult second album in pop music? “I’m the king of the anecdote – there’s a load of stuff,” says Schumacher, who won a Scriptwriter award from RTS North West for series one.

Schumacher, who is talking earlier this summer at the North Kensington office of series producers Dancing Ledge, says the writing “is going surprisingly well. Last time, we were pulling our hair out. It was a complete nightmare because of Covid…. This time, it feels like it’s going a bit too smoothly – when I was a cop, you were always worried when the job was going well.”

Like Carson, Schumacher was a Merseyside response officer. He loved being a copper and it marked a rare period of stability in his life before he left the force, burnt out.

Pre-police, Schumacher had worked on the bins, as a bouncer and even on a cruise ship selling underpants. Life post-police was, if anything, more chaotic. He tried stand-up to replicate the adrenaline rush of the police and even acting, landing small parts in Channel 4 comedy drama Shameless and Ken Loach film Route Irish.

Schumacher’s life, though, was unravelling. He was diagnosed with PTSD, the result of cumulative incidents during his time on the beat, one of which involved “the death of child, which fucked me up quite a bit”. A breakdown followed, homelessness and even a suicide attempt. “Everything stopped,” he recalls.

Now, in his mid-fifties, Schumacher is comfortable talking about a difficult time in his life. “It’s about being honest – with myself and other people. I don’t feel embarrassed about talking about trying to kill myself,” he says.

Martin Freeman in The Responder (credit: BBC)

It’s a cliché but nonetheless true – writing saved Schumacher. “I got to a point in my life when I thought, ‘I’m never going to write [The Responder]’. Then I lost everything and I realised that I could actually do it. I had nothing to lose – I didn’t have to be sensible,” he recalls.

By now working as a taxi driver, he started writing columns for local publication Liverpool Confidential after fortuitously picking up its editor in his cab. Three popular thrillers, alternate histories set in a Nazi-occupied London, followed, proving that Schumacher’s life has always been stranger than fiction.

Next came a BBC Radio 4 play, Fare, and an episode of Channel 5 prison drama Clink, which was made by LA Productions, where Schumacher was mentored by Jimmy McGovern, the creator of Cracker, The Street and Time.

Finally, Schumacher felt ready to write about his time as a copper. “I’d got to a point where I could talk about what went wrong in my head – I was far enough away… to go back and deal with it,” he says.

Schumacher’s reference points were ITV cop series Liverpool 1, seminal 1980s US cop show Hill Street Blues and Paul Newman movie Fort Apache, The Bronx. “It’s not a great film… but the chaos, muckiness and the dirt, and the snow piled up at the side of the street captured the kind of New York beat thing,” he says.

Realism is important to Schumacher, who recalls the derision real-life coppers reserved for telly police dramas. “The lads used to watch stuff only to moan about it – we’d sit in the canteen and think, ‘That doesn’t happen.’”

The Responder imposes a ban on TV cop clichés: “No whiteboards and no pictures on the wall – every noticeboard I knew in the police was ripped. It was only in the major incident room that there’d be a whiteboard. In the police, the place was a fucking shambles – you were lucky if you found a kettle that worked.”

Though important, realism takes second place to his characters’ internal struggles. “I’m more interested in what’s happening in people’s heads than in the police station,” says Schumacher.

Nevertheless, he adds, “I wouldn’t want to read about what’s going on in my head all the time; you’d have to be a complete narcissist if that’s all you were interested in. I want to know what happens next.

“When the show came out, Jimmy McGovern said to me: ‘Why did you let them put all that plot in?’ But I like the plot – that’s why I wrote thrillers. And, it’s got to be funny – it can’t be just misery.”

Publicising The Responder, though, left him “exposed in a way I’ve never felt before. Interview after interview after interview, talking about stuff, and I thought, ‘Fuck, have I given too much of myself away? But now I’m reconciled with that – it’s all right.”

For Schumacher, writing is therapeutic: “It is good for the soul. And even if nobody sees it, even if it’s terrible, you will feel better for having written.

“[Writing] has been harder than I thought it would be, but… emotionally, for me, it’s been the most rewarding job I’ve ever done in my life.

“If you’d said to me 20 years ago, did I think I was going to be here? No. I thought I’d be limping to the end of a police career, looking for a knee replacement.”

Constrained by a class corset

‘I stumbled across the story of the first football club who were not posh – it was a public school game then. They were called Blackburn Olympic… and they won the FA Cup… I thought, “That’s a brilliant story, there’s got to be a show in it.”… and then I found out that Julian Fellowes had a written a show [The English Game] about it.

‘I’m sure it’s amazing, and this is not in any way, shape or form a dig at Lord Fellowes, but I thought, if I went into a television office and said I want to write Downton Abbey, they would literally throw me out the fucking window… They’d say, “Tony, go away and write something gritty and northern.”

‘And I’d go away and write it because I’ve got to pay my bills and for a two-year-old. I’d love to get to a point where working-class writers don’t just have to write stuff that’s working class and can say, ‘I’ve got this idea about Lord Fauntleroy who wants to go and, say, vanquish the hunt.’

‘I didn’t set out to write about what I know but I ended up writing about what I know and… it has given me a platform. But… when a working-class person goes into a room they are definitely treated differently to someone who doesn’t sound like me.’