29 January, 2007

Micheál Jacob, "Thieves Like Us", interview

Following its excellent debut last week, I asked the BBC's Micheál Jacob, who is Creative Head, Mainstream Comedy, some questions about Danny King's Thieves Like Us.

Robin: What were the main issues with adapting it from the book?

Micheál: The main issues were ruling out domestic/threatening burglaries (addressed in the alarm episode as a sort of manifesto when Ollie says they don't do houses), and striking a balance between character and plot. What works in a book doesn't necessarily work in a script, and as we edited the series, it tended to be the banter which disappeared in service of the plot. Banter works best when something is going on, my new mantra!

Robin: Do you mean make sure the characters are doing something while bantering, that there is 'business'?

I mean funny chat while the plot is moving forward rather than funny chat with business - though business is essential too. It's all about keeping up forward momentum rather than taking a breather for some banter. Writers and producers tend to fall in love with characters and allow them more leeway than an audience which wants to find out what happens next.

Robin: Did the characters have to change, as it changed genre, to try and get more conflicts and gags - for instance - or were they fine as they were?

Micheál: The characters changed to an extent between book and screen, partly because of thoughts Pete (Thornton, producer) and I had, partly because of writing for a cast. Belinda, for example (Bell End'er) in the book is always up for it. To create a quartet of characters at the centre of the show, she couldn't be that if we were to believe that she and Ollie were a proper item.

Robin: How long did Danny take to write the whole series?

Micheál: Since he has worked as a journalist, Danny is a very quick writer, so it took him around a fortnight to write each first draft, and rewrites came in overnight, which enabled us to do a number of drafts of each script after working through several drafts of initial storylines. The time-scale was that the pilot script was commissioned in July 2005, it was pitched in December 2005, commissioned in February last year, and storylines written in two sets of three, followed by scripts, allowing a month to achieve a first draft. We started shooting in October, since we needed dark nights.

Mirroring the Smoking Room process, we gave Danny a writing schedule, to which he adhered admirably. In the end, we had eight stories to consider, and went with the six which form the series.

Robin: I thought the film rights were sold, doesn't that affect a TV comedy adaptation?

Micheál: Rights aren't sold in perpetuity - there's always a period where they revert to the (in this case) author, so that wasn't a problem.

Robin: How was the show commissioned? Did Danny adapt the book himself on spec or was he asked to by the Beeb?

Micheál: The show came about due to one of our occasional exercises of getting everyone to come to a meeting with a comic novel. Both my old boss Sophie, and Peter Thornton, arrived with The Burglar Diaries. I took over the project, and the first thought was to get someone else to do the adaptation. But Danny's agent said he'd love to be considered, and sent me some sample movie scenes he had written, which convinced me that he should write the show himself.

The show was commissioned on the basis of a read-through, although for various reasons none of the four leads at the read appear in the show. We made it quite physical, having recruited a 'physical' director.

Robin: Was the series planned with an overall story arc?

Micheál: The series wasn't planned with an arc, because it's preferable to have transmission flexibility. If an episode works less well (ahem), then being able to schedule it later in the run is preferable to being stuck with an order.

Thieves Like Us, BBC3

Monday, 8:30pm
Tuesday, 10:30pm
Saturday, 12:20am
and online at the official website

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