Thanks to lockdown we’ve become a nation of telly addicts – what else is there left to do? So when I speak to Jack Thorne, the multi-award-winning writer of His Dark Materials, This Is England and new Netflix drama The Eddy, I’m keen to know which prestige TV shows he’s bingeing on.
“Anything with Keith Lemon in it,” he says. “Me and my wife get an hour to watch TV at night, otherwise we’re not going to be able to cope with Elliott” – their four-year-old son.
Being cooped up at home is nothing new for the writer – who admits to a period of “about seven and a half years when I didn’t really leave the house” due to a mixture of dedication to his work and social anxiety (“I’m very, very awkward”). But watching so little television is certainly novel for Thorne. The 41-year-old grew up in Bristol and Berkshire, and would spend five or six hours a day in front of the TV – mostly on the sofa next to his mum – running straight through from EastEnders to Tim Piggott-Smith in The Chief before the news kicked in at 10.
And it didn’t stop there. “My mate lived near the school, so we’d go over at lunchtime and watch Neighbours,” Thorne says. “And then I’d watch it again in the evening. I’d watch the same show twice. In one day. I was a relatively clever kid – what was I doing? I could tell you the entire story of Tony Stamp in The Bill from the moment he started to the moment he left the force.”
These might not be the viewing habits you’d expect of someone who has won Bafta and Olivier awards, but Thorne always had his sights set on the small screen. “I remember when I was on work experience at the Royal Court telling Max Stafford-Clark that what I really wanted was to write TV. And he said, ‘What the fuck are you doing here then?’”
Whatever it was, it worked. Thorne has managed to combine a prolific screenwriting career with high-profile theatrical endeavours, from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of Let the Right One In. “I love making theatre,” says Thorne, “but I understand TV because I’ve watched an awful lot of it.”
It’s this voracious appetite that perhaps prepared him for the breadth of subject matter he has covered, from interracial adoption in Kiri to the murderous teens of Glue. Thorne moved quickly from theatre into screenwriting, working on Skins in his 20s. It was there that he met a 17-year-old Daniel Kaluuya, long before Hollywood came calling. Despite their differences – “he’d watched Fresh Prince of Bel-Air 400 times, but he’d never seen the Bill” – they hit it off and would later work together again on his apocalyptic teen drama, The Fades. That was Thorne’s first solo TV commission and, despite being cancelled after one series, it won the Bafta for best drama. Its world of angels, the risen dead and apocalypse, could have been offputting to the academy but whatever fantastical scenario Thorne plots out, he manages to make it accessible and grounded.
With The Eddy, his new show set around a jazz club in Paris, Thorne has set himself an altogether harder challenge. “The rhythm is very different from conventional TV, which I think makes it a strange viewing experience for some,” he explains. “We’re trying to emulate a sort of jazz rhythm, of languidness at times. It’s not going to appeal to everyone. It doesn’t consume you, you’re supposed to be involved within it. And I think that’s only really possible on Netflix – multilingual, jazz rhythm – they knew this was a show for some [people], not for lots.”
While Netflix has been keen to talk up the involvement of Damien Chazelle, Oscar winning writer-director of La La Land and Whiplash, Thorne says the show was “a massive collaborative effort”. It originated from an idea by acclaimed music producer Glen Ballard and, along with Alan Ball (the creator of Six Feet Under), Chazelle was brought on board to direct before he had hit the big time, while Thorne was the last to join. But it was Thorne who was tasked with crafting the story. The protagonist even shares a name with his son. “We’d just failed our third round of IVF having decided that we’d definitely call him Elliott if he was a boy,” Thorne tells me later over email. “I stole his name for a TV character, essentially.”
Which must make it all the more frustrating that some have framed the show as Chazelle’s response to accusations of racial insensitivity in his past projects. La La Land prompted a backlash due to the way it framed a white protagonist as the true spirit of jazz, counterposed with John Legend playing a commercial sell-out. The Eddy also has jazz at its heart, but this time there is a black leading man: Moonlight’s André Holland as club owner Elliot. And that had nothing to do with Chazelle.
“[The character] was black from the beginning,” Thorne explains. “Because of the history of black Americans in Paris, if you’re telling the story of an American jazz club, you tell the story about an African American doing that. I set up a very diverse writing team – Rebecca Lenkiewicz has lived in eastern Europe, Rachel De-Lahay is one of the most articulate people about race I’ve ever come across in my life. Then Hamid Hiloua because we wanted to talk about the French-Algerian experience.”
But still there were gaps, and Thorne is all too aware of the pitfalls of a white man trying to write about a world outside of his experience. “When André and Amandla [Stenberg, who plays Elliot’s daughter] started talking about identity I felt increasingly like I could do a tourist view of that, but I would fall on my arse if I attempted to write anything specific about it.” And so Phillip Howze, the African American playwright, was brought on board. “It’s a show where we were trying to tell a complicated story, and we need a lot of different people to tell that story properly.”
One advantage of having a successful track record is that Thorne is able to bring such voices on board, and elevate talented writers who might not have had the opportunity yet. “There’s degrees to which I’m trying to bring forward people,” Thorne admits, “but I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’m Father Christmas.”
What interested Thorne in The Eddy was not, as one might assume, the music – “I’ve got to be honest, jazz wasn’t really the thing”. He spends far more time talking about city infrastructure (his dad was a town planner), Grenfell and the exclusion of working-class urban communities than he does five/four rhythms or Louis Armstrong. What really drew him to this story, he says, was the version of Paris it would allow him to examine. This isn’t the picture postcard view, all pretty bridges and the Eiffel Tower. It’s life in the grittier arrondissements.
“There’s something about Paris, because of the ring road,” he says. “The exclusivity it creates. I’d spent a lot of time there, I hung out in those places, mostly talking to dealers. I’d seen the lack of infrastructure. There are these incredible high-rise blocks, and then there’s just one shop serving the community. It’s really exciting to explore the melting pot of Paris, with the melting pot of jazz.”
Thorne might predominantly write crowdpleasing work but political messages lurk under the surface. He brooks no argument about TV as the opiate of the masses and has been gratified to see the medium garner more respect at a time when it is one of the only forms of culture left to us. “I follow a few famous people on Twitter, who normally talk slightly disparagingly about TV. And it’s been really interesting to see them being so enthusiastic about Quiz or Normal People.”
Thorne knows his colourful shows are not exactly Ken Loach – “I’m not as clever or as brilliant as he is” – but doesn’t believe there’s only one way to put forward progressive ideas in entertainment. “I think fantasy allows you to ask the big questions: what’s the point of life, what are we trying to challenge, what are we trying to protect?”
And so he worries about what will be left of the arts once the coronavirus crisis has passed. Thorne has been a passionate advocate for a more inclusive attitude towards disability in the industry – and believes things had started to improve. But with money bound to be tight it would be all too easy for things to slip backwards. “I could feel the landscape changing and I’m petrified that when I go back, the theatres won’t have the resources or the energy to support that,” he says. “Because the Arts Council isn’t going to be able to support them all.”
Thorne’s next project was set to be a lavish retelling of A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic theatre – which is still due later this year. It’s another adaptation for a writer who is perhaps best known for taking on others’ work.
“I love doing other people’s stuff,” he admits. “I learn so much. I’ve spent about four or five years trying to think Philip Pullman’s thoughts. He is one of the cleverest, most soulful writers I’ve ever encountered. And I hope that by spending time with him, I’m making myself into a better writer. If I just wrote my own stuff, I would probably go down that cul-de-sac of being a slightly tormented, anxious, weird man.”
And yet that is what he plans to do in the next phase of what he somewhat bashfully calls his career next. “I’m trying to self-generate a bit more,” he says. “I’m trying to be a more conscious about my choices. I feel like I’ve been given a lot of stories, and now I need to work out what stories I want to tell.”