Ipswich to Emmerdale, writing for TV

A former Ipswich teacher now dreaming up storylines for ITV soap Emmerdale tells Steven Russell what it's like in telly's ideas factory - and how some of his classroom experiences inspired his new book

Steven Russell

A former Ipswich teacher now dreaming up storylines for ITV soap Emmerdale tells Steven Russell what it's like in telly's ideas factory - and how some of his classroom experiences inspired his new book

STEPHEN May had barely started his new job as a soap-opera storywriter when he was caught up in a drama of his own near the Emmerdale studio. Strolling down the road with his mobile phone in one hand and laptop in the other, he was jumped by a would-be mugger with designs on his computer.

“If he'd have threatened me or something I might have given it to him, but he pulled it and I pulled it back. There were two of them, so they really should have done better! They ran off a little way and I could see them lurking, but by that time I was on the phone to the police. I did find myself shouting 'I've called the cops!' in a ludicrous kind of way.”

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He can laugh about it now. “I wasn't hurt. I got into the office and said 'God, someone tried to mug me' and they said 'Did they get the storylines? If they did, we'd have to change them all!' But, no, they didn't.”

Stephen has been part of the 400-strong Emmerdale family (actors, make-up artists, props people and so on) since mid October. He works from a top-floor office in the production centre - a former car dealership in Leeds transformed into an aircraft hanger-like building where most of the indoor scenes are filmed on a floor below.

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He and a couple of colleagues spend their days writing the broad storylines - plotting twists and turns for tragic priest Ashley Thomas, gawky vet Paddy Kirk and the rest of the fictional Yorkshire community. “Honestly, it's like a soap factory,” he laughs. “Today was quite nice; we were just chucking ideas around of what might happen: who might come in, what they might do, who they might sleep with - those kinds of things.”

The team's ideas are then discussed, pulled apart and adapted by lots of different people. A story producer might suggest changes. A series producer will add an opinion. And then the plots go off to another team of writers “who stick words in the mouths of the characters, because essentially what we do is write short stories and these other writers turn them into dialogue”.

Plots he's been working on won't see the light of day until about the end of May, as there's a six-month lead-in time between idea and execution.

The job came about because a woman who in the past had seen some of Stephen's plays this year became Emmerdale's producer. After about six months, out of the blue, she contacted Stephen and asked him if he fancied working in the story office.

He and wife Caron were running the Arvon Foundation's creative writing course residential centre in the Pennines, but were both ready for a fresh challenge. Lumb Bank was an 18th Century mill owner's house that once belonged to novelist and poet Ted Hughes and was set in a striking landscape.

While he was reasonably familiar in the past with EastEnders, Coronation Street and Brookside, the Arvon house didn't have a TV, and he got out of the habit of watching during his five years there. “So I'm learning to watch telly again!”

He admits Emmerdale had hardly registered on his radar. “My granny liked it! I keep getting that now from people: 'My granny likes that show.' It's a very warm-hearted drama. It's got some nice comic characters; it's got some good dramatic characters; the storylines are strong. We're at the beginning of a love affair, Emmerdale and me.”

What about the opposition?

“I think Coronation Street has some great characters and some great comedy. EastEnders less so. It prides itself on gritty drama. It seems to be more issue-based and has lost its sense of humour somewhere along the line. Emmerdale I think has got the potential - and they'll kill me for saying this - to be The Archers meets Hollyoaks. It's still a rural northern soap and it's still got those farming elements to it.

“Soaps are essentially Shakespearean when they're done well. In Emmerdale you've got your big families at the top - your dukes and your lords - and then your comic characters at the bottom. Think of Emmerdale as the show Shakespeare would be writing if he was around now; that's what you've got to always be aware of in your head.”

Is there pressure on the writers to come up with a stream of dramatic blockbusters - fires, crashes, tug-of-love babies, torrid love triangles - because they need to a) hold the modern viewer's attention or b) win the ratings war?

“Well, I agree with the new producer, who says the stories should come from character, rather than just being big events. They should be grounded in an emotional truth.”

Stephen, 42, had always been keen on writing but for donkey's years never managed to finish anything.

He studied English literature at the University of Essex - where he became a dad during his second year! - and then trained as a journalist. But his heart wasn't in it and he drifted through some fairly mundane jobs until deciding to pursue a teaching qualification at Nottingham.

His first job, in 1995, was at St Alban's Catholic High School in Ipswich, where he taught English and drama. In 2001 he moved across town to Chantry High School, where he stayed until 2004. Then his eye was caught by an advert for that Arvon job. He and his wife, whom he'd met when she was teaching at St Albans and married in 2000, decided to change tack. For Caron, it meant giving up a job as head of drama.

“Our youngest, Herbie was only young - not even two - and I said 'We could go for this . . .' fully expecting her to say 'Don't be ridiculous. Our friends are here, our children are growing up here,' but she said yes. Hannah [his daughter] by that time was just going into the sixth-form and she came up every holiday. It actually turned out to be a good time. Caron was ready for a change, I was ready for a change. It felt like a real adventure, though a sensible one, because we were actually going to do a job.”

Stephen knew a lot about Arvon. During his time at St Albans school he'd taken pupils on a writing course at its Devon centre and - hang out the bunting - actually completed a short story there!

“I felt so chuffed I'd actually finished something that I joined the writers' group at the New Wolsey Theatre (in Ipswich). They put on some short plays of mine and suddenly it started to snowball.”

Once in Yorkshire, he signed up for a part-time masters degree in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Producing a novel was a requirement of graduation and TAG was born. It has just been brought out by Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press after being rejected by about eight others. “I'd resigned myself to it not coming out,” the author admits of his debut offering.

The book is partly a bleakly comic confession and partly a twisted romance. It tells the story of Mistyann Rutherford, an unpredictable, unreliable and violent 15-year-old who also happens to be gifted and is bound for a residential course in Wales. An American psychologist wants her and some other strange but talented children to “unlock their potential”.

Mistyann is an amalgam of various kids he came across. “The worst kind of trouble when you're teaching, particularly if you're a bloke, is the very good-looking, very clever, very naughty 15-year-old girl. I wanted to take one of them and put her in a situation where she is surrounded by other gifted kids and then light the blue touchpaper and see what happens.”

Readers can see one of his drawn-from-experience episodes on the very first page.

“I'm giving it away a bit here; you're meant to think a kid has punched a baby in the face, but it's one of these realistic fake babies that pupils take home to learn what it's like to be responsible for another life.

“The idea is that it's meant to put kids off having babies, because they take this fake infant home and it cries and needs feeding and changing and it's really difficult. What happens of course is that some children are brilliant at looking after it and think 'Oh, I could do that. It's easy.' The incident at the beginning of the book is more or less something that happened at Chantry.”

There are also nuggets from Stephen's own childhood. In 1977, when he was 11, his PE teacher made him do a lesson in his underwear. “But the underpants I was wearing were silver jubilee Union Jack ones, with a picture of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on the crotch! I'd only just started at the school, so that was very humiliating.”

Stephen's in the middle of writing another novel but, naturally, his job with Emmerdale is currently taking up a lot of energy. Not that he minds, for he's enjoying it.

And he's going to spill the beans about what will be happening on-screen early next summer, isn't he?

“I could tell you, but then I'd have to track you down and kill you! Revealing the storylines is instant dismissal . . .”

TAG is available from bookshops or can be ordered from the publishers at www.cinnamonpress.com, priced £8.99. ISBN 978-1-905614-37-0

STEPHEN May grew up in Bedford, where a scholarship scheme whisked him from the comprehensive route to a private school “where there weren't any girls and I had to go on Saturday mornings, and it was about rugby and rowing. I had an absolutely miserable time. I was saved by punk rock, essentially. There was a little group of us who liked the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Jam, and I got a lot of my education from those records, really. I failed quite a lot of exams, and the ones I passed were all about writing, like English and history.”

Off he went to Essex to study English literature. “Partly through my own laziness, partly through how dry the course was, partly through having a baby, partly by being a bit of a tearaway - I got really into drinking (and girls and drugs) - I wasted a lot of time and didn't have much direction.”

Daughter Hannah, now 22 and at university herself, arrived during Stephen's second year. It was “a bit difficult - more for my partner than me - but at 20, 21, you just think 'Oh, I don't have to think about a career now; we're having a baby!'” They got a council flat in Shrub End, Colchester.

University over, he trained as a journalist and worked for a while in Colchester. But he found it formulaic, “and I wasn't very good at it, because I didn't have the instincts for it. My heart would sink when the phone went; I used to hope it wasn't a bank robbery and that it really was a lost cat story”.

There followed a period of drifting. A job as an attendant at Colchester Castle Museum, for about nine months, was OK. “I got so bored, though. I learned all the information on the notices for the artefacts. If people lingered too long by a piece of broken pottery, I'd suddenly appear behind them and start telling them all about it!”

There were spells as a barman, in a warehouse, youth work, and a job in Colchester as “a council flunkey, essentially, working in an arts office”. It was mainly photocopying and filing, and penning the odd press release.

Time to try for a proper career. Off to Nottingham to gain a teaching qualification. By that stage Stephen had split up with his partner, so he returned to Essex every other weekend for Hannah. At the end of the course he got a job at St Albans Catholic High School in Ipswich in 1995, later moving to Chantry High.

His own writing ambitions were on hold, “because I didn't have the time or the guts”, but completing a short story during that school trip to Devon rekindled the fire and he returned to Suffolk to join the writers' group at the New Wolsey Theatre.

He's got two plays to his credit. Back The World, billed as “an uncompromising black comedy of dreams that rot before they die”, is about a punk band trying to reform after the death of its obnoxious lead singer. It “toured successfully on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets in 2003 and 2004”.

Still Waiting For Everything, “a comedy from the world of failed hopes, lost faith and broken promises”, was first staged in Yorkshire in 2005 and had a national tour late that year.

The next project was the novel. The job with the Arvon Foundation, and the environment that came with it, helped Stephen's own creative output.

“It was idyllic,” he says. “Not very well paid, but a lovely thing to be doing. And I could write now. All the time I'd put writing at the margins, writing at the end of the school day or at weekends. I could suddenly write in the mornings. There was enough flexibility between the two of us - and if you're not going to write in Ted Hughes's house, where are you going to write?! There were no excuses, so I got down to it.”

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