As a successful comedian, actor, screenwriter and novelist, Will Smith has always had a way with words.
Having started his career in stand-up comedy before moving into screenwriting, his television career levelled up when he started working with legendary Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci in the mid-noughties. This collaboration led to a spot in the writers' room on Iannucci's seminal political comedy The Thick of It, where Smith also ended up on screen as Phil, the geeky and pompous special adviser.
But writing has always been central to Smith’s star. Penning for TV shows such as Damned, Veep, and Back, he also wrote his first novel in 2015, titled Mainlander.
Smith’s most recent project, Slow Horses, was nominated for an RTS Programme Award in the Writer – Drama category earlier this year. Adapted from Mick Herron's Slough House book series, Slow Horses stories a group of disgraced MI5 spies working under the sardonic Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) in Slough House, the career purgatory of fallible secret agents. The spies trapped with Lamb include River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) and Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) who, in series one, clash with the official secret service as they attempt to foil a far-right terrorist plot.
What about the Slough House books really stood out to you and made you want to adapt the story to TV?
I first read it back in 2014 when there were only two books in the series. Mick Herron is about to start work on the ninth. I loved that it was funny as well as thrilling, that the characters felt so real and dimensional, and that it was in the spy genre but doing something new and different.
There’s a moment early on in the first book where Mick follows all the characters home and gives you a glimpse into their personal lives. I’d never come across that in a thriller before and it felt as compelling as the action and plot twists. And also on a line by line basis, Mick is a terrific writer. The dialogue just sings. He can go for page after page without having to tell you who’s talking because the voices are so distinctive. All of that made it a dream to adapt. I was in from the first page.
What were the biggest challenges in adapting the book to television?
Finding a broadcaster who would commit to putting it on screen. A lot of people were confused or intimidated by the tonal mix of laughs and thrills. I never felt that was a challenge, for one, Mick does it seamlessly in the books. But also, all the great dramas have elements of comedy. I have to pay tribute to Jay Hunt [creative director] at Apple because she saw the potential in the show from the beginning and has been a relentless champion of it ever since.
What did your day to day look like writing the series? Was there a lot of referring back to the original novel throughout the writing process?
We always try and keep the broad beats of the novel and expand from there. Mick always gives us some great episode endings so one of the first things we do is work out where they’ll go across the series and start filling in the blanks.
We find we usually go away from the book and then come back to it in a slightly reconfigured form. And we try and include as much of his dialogue as we can. Gary [Oldman] and Saskia [Reeves] will often have lines from the book that they request or are delighted to find we’ve included.
What is your favourite thing about the Slow Horses script?
That Mick Herron loves it. It’s very important to me that he’s happy, and also that fans of the book think we’ve done it justice. Also that the cast enjoyed it enough to want to do it, they’re an absolute dream. But in terms of the script specifically, I like that it (hopefully) is doing a lot of things at once in terms of establishing plot and character, seeding backstories and twists, and engaging the audience with a mix of humour and action.
Some of the blue language is quite inventive! Was there a lot of workshopping to figure out how much swearing could be too much?
At one stage I had to do a “fuck count” and bring that under control, which is no bad thing. And there’s a fart line that Gary loves but has shifted from every season. One day we’ll get it in.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations in terms of your TV writing?
I have a separate list for comedy but in terms of drama the things that really woke me up and inspired me and stayed with me are Edge of Darkness (Troy Kennedy Martin), I, Claudius (Jack Pulman), The Sopranos (David Chase), The Wire (David Simon), The Shield (Shawn Ryan), Deadwood (David Milch) and then Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright).
The opening episode of [Happy Valley] had a massive impact on me. Whenever I write an opening episode myself, I always marvel at how she sets everything up in such an effortless and surprising way and hope I can vaguely approach that level of sophistication.
I should also mention Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson) from the comedy list as for me that is the gold standard of dialogue, it never feels like anyone is doing jokes, it still feels like a drama rooted in character.
How do you think your previous work in stand up and acting affects your writing?
I like to think it gives me some insight into how actors absorb and respond to scripts, and also the pressures of performing. One thing I know from my own experience and apply to the Slow Horses process is that if a line is hard to remember then it needs rewriting, because the words aren’t following in a natural order.
What was it like having Gary Oldman bring Jackson Lamb to life?
Working with Gary is an utter joy. He doesn’t need to hear it from me but he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation, he’s astoundingly transformative. I caught a bit of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the other night and have been so used to seeing him as Lamb that I couldn’t believe it was the same person.
He’s also an incredibly talented director and a brilliant writer. Combined with the fact he’s a really generous collaborator, this made the whole thing really easy. I knew from the start it was something special. I just sat at the monitors watching him do a take and it already felt like I was lost in the show.
Production for series three is reportedly underway. What can fans expect from the next instalment?
The tricky thing with TV is it has to be the same but different. Luckily for us Mick always changes things up in the books – characters die and things move on, there’s always a new setting and a new element. So there’s loads to play with, we just have to make sure we keep up the quality, if not exceed it.
Will Smith was nominated for the Writer - Drama award at the RTS Programme Awards 2023.