Q&A with Tony Jordan

Tony Jordan is a British screenwriter. In the early 1980s, he sent a script on-spec to the BBC, who invited him in for a chat, told him they were working on a new soap opera and asked him to write an episode. The soap opera was called EastEnders and thus his career was launched. More recently, he has been the series creator and main writer for Hustle and has also been closely involved in the making of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

We asked him if he would be able to spare some time, and his PA said Tony would gladly answer our questions. Knowing he’s a busy man, we kept it short, and this is what he said.

PB: Have you ever tried to write a novel instead of a screenplay? If so, how did it turn out?

TJ: No, never thought about writing a novel, that’s what grown-ups do isn’t it?

PB: You said on the BBC Writers' Room that character is everything. All of us at Plot Bunnies approach the writing process differently, but agree that characters drive the plot forward. For Hustle, all you started with was a theme - a gang of con artists - so how did you tackle that brief?

TJ: Character IS everything, you can have the best story in the world, but if you don’t care about who’s in that story, you won’t care. If you have a crap story with a brilliant character, I think it can still work. As for my Hustle brief, I read about 30 books about confidence tricks and con men, it seemed to me that the con men from the turn of the Century, with a rather strict “moral” code were far more interesting. It’s why Hustle has lots of “moral” guidelines such as “You can’t cheat an honest man”… Once I’d settled on the world, I set about creating characters. I didn’t want any domestic elements in the show, I mean seeing someone con a banker out of half a million quid then going home to hoover and put the cat out didn’t work for me. So I created a family; Mickey as Dad, Stacie as Mum, Albert as Paternal grandfather, Ash as kindly uncle and Danny as wayward teenager. So for me it became about a family struggling to survive and fighting the establishment. It’s what gave it an attitude.

PB: A screenplay timescale is roughly one minute per page of script, so is there a typical length of time it takes you to write a single page, and does it vary from project to project?

TJ: Yeah, it varies, a single page of a script can take me anywhere between 30 seconds and eight weeks. Welcome to my world…

PB: Before you have actors to bring your characters to life, do you have a clear image of what they look like or do you deliberately not visualise them until you know who will be playing the parts?

TJ: A face usually pops up about ten pages in. Not that it matters much… For Mickey Bricks it was George Clooney, a suave, white, fifty something in [a] tuxedo, but Mickey was eventually played by Adrian Lester, a smooth, 30 year old black guy…

PB: Have you ever been commissioned to write a series and thought, 'No, can't be done, mate, sorry'?

TJ: No. I’d have had that conversation long before a commission. I’ve turned down loads of stuff over the years, I’d hate to become a hack or a whore…

PB: Do you listen to music while you write, or do you prefer silence?

TJ: I listen to music…. Loads of old stuff, Al Jolson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday… When I was writing EastEnders Christmas episodes, I used to listen to Christmas Carols in August! I’ve just finished writing Noah and listened to a CD of rain and thunderstorms…

PB: It's been said writers need to write quarter of a million words before they can write anything that isn't shit. Do you think that's true?

TJ: I don’t know exactly who “says” this stuff… but like most things I’ve read about writers and writing, it’s moronic. Who’s the judge of what isn’t shit anyway?

PB: We set monthly writing challenges to get our brains working hard and to expand our writing skills. Do you have a challenge to set us for an upcoming meeting? (Feel free to make it as awkward as possible!)

TJ: Hell, writing’s tough enough as it is… write an original sixty minute television drama and send it to a broadcaster… that’s challenging enough.

PB: What's your take on the concept of 'genre' in drama?

TJ: The notion of genre is cool, as long as you’re allowed to subvert it if you wish, to surprise and innovate. I hate an attitude towards genre which is reverential, rigid and prescriptive.

And finally:

PB: We'd like to invite you to become an honorary Plot Bunny. Do you accept?

TJ: I’ve just bought a flat in Brighton, so yeah, count me in!

Thanks very much to Tony for taking the time to answer our questions, and to his PA Garry Tyler for being a dude! For more details about Tony’s work, visit his website here. Season 8 of Hustle has recently aired, and seasons 1—7 are available on DVD. If you want to have a look at the script for the first episode of Hustle, click here, and here is his guest script for EastEnders.