‘Working-class people haven’t got a voice. That’s horrifying’
Jack Thorne's searing TV dramas tackle class, justice and real-life tragedies
The Accident: Eiry Thomas, Sarah Lancashire and Joanna Scanlan in Jack Thorne’s new drama
Halfway through chatting with Jack Thorne in homely lounge in a London hotel, he looks behind me and addresses a passerby.
“Hello. I was just talking about you. I love your show very much. Very, very, very much. It’s brilliant.”
He apologises for the interruption. “That was Jesse Armstrong, ” he explains, of the writer behind the Emmy-winning show Succession. “He’s a genius.”
We melt into fan mode momentarily, before I remember who I’m spending time with. Jack Thorne’s own TV contributions include Skins, This Is England and Kiri, and we’re about to see his adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy on the BBC. He has also brought Nick Hornby’s book A Long Way Down to the silver screen, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to the West End. (The play was the fastest-selling playscript ever, with 850,000 print copies sold in its first week in the UK alone.)
Evidently, I’ve bought into Thorne’s modesty a little too much. “The worst stuff I’ve done I’ve originated, and the best stuff I’ve done has come from other people, so I don’t know that I’m necessarily brilliant at originating my own ideas,” he’d been saying.
That’s easy to refute. He credits the producer George Faber for the idea for National Treasure, the drama series about a television personality accused of paedophilia, but the story was constructed by his own hand. Kiri – its televisual cousin, centring on the abduction of a young black girl in foster care – is all his. And he has just hosted a screening of The Accident, the last in what he calls “the blame trilogy”, centred on the idea of class. It’s powerful stuff.
Based in a scenic Welsh village, the first episode sees the rebellious daughter (played by Jade Croot) of a local councillor and his wife (Sarah Lancashire, also in Kiri) lead a group of teens into a building site, which collapses, trapping them inside. The drama continues from there: relationships within the community fracture; the parents demand justice, and the idea of corporate responsibility – embodied by Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen – is brought to the fore.
Very intentionally, the premise holds parallels with both Aberfan, the 1966 mining accident in Wales that’s also depicted in The Crown’s upcoming third series, and Grenfell, the June 2017 council-block fire in London still under investigation. Three production companies approached Thorne to dramatise this latter tragedy, but he “didn’t feel like there were the facts in place to look at it properly without hurting an awful lot of people, and doing a TV thing of trampling over people’s lives”, he explains.
Instead he went back over time to find their commonalities with other UK tragedies – the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and Hillsborough – and found that a fraught quest for justice followed them all. In Dublin, the Stardust fire is yet another case in point; the families of the 48 people who died in the nightclub are still fighting for answers, 38 years on.
“When you list all these tragedies that we know about, they’ve all had elements of successful things resulting from them, but no one has ended up in jail for what was clearly, in some cases, quite severe negligence,” Thorne says. “It’s always about access to resources, and some people are given access to resources, and some people are told that those resources are not for them. That’s class. Grenfell exposed it most of all, where you’ve got this horror that was very preventable.
I discovered that writing was much better than directing. So I wrote a lot of bad plays
“Even now, they say that if they keep on taking down the cladding [in similar blocks] at the same rate as they’re taking it down at the moment, it will take them until 2050 to remove it all. They’re taking that long when it’s clearly been exposed as a danger, because the working-class people living in those properties haven’t got a voice. That is horrifying that that’s happening in our supposedly advanced western society.”
At 40 years of age, and living in London with his wife and three-year-old son, Thorne has a mixed relationship with class. He grew up middle class in Bristol but dropped in ranking when he became a student at Cambridge University. “That has always fascinated me and always left me in a bit of a mess,” he says.
After university he dabbled first in acting, then in directing, eventually writing his own plays to avoid the nightly £65 fee to buy in scripts. “Then I discovered that writing was much better than directing. So I wrote a lot of bad plays. The Bush Theatre read one and said that they thought it had something in it. That was the 22nd play I’d written.”
At this point Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, who created Skins, got wind of this new talent, and brought him into the world of television. Despite continuing with stage shows, such as Sunday, currently showing off Broadway, and writing films such as Wonder, the tearjerker starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, television remains Thorne’s mainstay.
Indeed, just as The Accident’s four parts conclude, Thorne’s adaptation of His Dark Materials begins on the BBC, bringing Philip Pullman’s magical world to life. It’s anticipated, though, with trepidation given its 2007 Hollywood movie version, The Golden Compass, fell short of the mark.
“I always felt like telly was the natural place for it,” he says. “It’s that thing of having to cram that much plot into a film. We had it with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is why we did it in two parts. If it had been one part, we’d have gone from one thing to the next, and it would have just been a ride all the way through. You’d have never got a chance to breathe and spend time with the characters.
“Northern Lights [the first novel in the trilogy] is full of incidents, so it feels much more natural to tell it over eight hours, where you get the opportunity to spend time with people and cope with the instant.”
While that’s airing, he’ll pay Dublin a visit to see The Gate’s production of his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, first aired at the Old Vic in London. He’s especially looking forward to the visit, on his birthday no less, after the positive response for The Virtues, his latest collaboration with Shane Meadows. It told the story of a troubled man (played by Stephen Graham) returning to Ireland to reunite with his sister (Helen Behan) and confront his abusive past.
“The reason why it was set in Ireland was because there was a story to be told, but mainly it was because Helen Behan is from Ireland, and Shane wanted to do a story about her character,” he explains. “There was a worry... We got briefing notes about the fact that it wasn’t a show that set out to have a go at the Catholic Church. That was a worry at some points. But I always knew it was going to be about, it was about the kids abusing the lead character.”
We could end up in a situation where dramas are not being made any more, because everyone wants Fleabag and no one wants Downton
There’s more telly to come next year, with The Eddy, the Netflix show from the La La Land director, Damien Chazelle, on the horizon.
For Thorne, the abundance of work is partly to do with the expansion of channels ready to air great TV, but also the renewed interest in drama that’s continued since Downton Abbey.
“Before Downton the trailers on TV were for The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, then Downton happened and got 12 million viewers,” he says. “And suddenly drama became part of the trailers. But comedies are on the up now after being barren for years, so we could end up in a situation where dramas are not being made any more, because everyone wants Fleabag and no one wants Downton. Then suddenly, we’ll be in trouble.”
But there’s no sign of slowdown. He explains that he writes wherever and whenever, tapping his laptop next to him as proof.
“I think a lot of screenwriters are like that. We’re the ones that are on the side of sets, going, ‘This scene doesn’t work, I’m going to go away and sort it out.’ It’s a profession that requires you to be able to do it wherever you can. If a toilet’s the only place available, then I put the seat down.”
The Accident is on Channel 4 on Thursday, October 24th, at 9pm. His Dark Materials begins on BBC One on Sunday, November 3rd