Isabelle Grey is a novelist and screenwriter. With Jimmy McGovern she has co-written ‘Tina’s Story’, the final episode of Accused, due to be shown on BBC1 9pm 4 September. Her first novel of psychological suspense, Out of Sight, is published by Quercus.
When Jimmy McGovern spots something he likes in an idea, he never lets it go. Re-reading the proposal I first submitted for ‘Tina’s Story’, it’s amazing how many of the central building blocks of my original one-page pitch remain in place. Which is not to say that we didn’t write several drafts before arriving at the final script, but every change was made in order to deepen the characters and to both streamline and get the most out of the story.
I’d visited prisons many times as a volunteer with a charity called the New Bridge, and wanted to write about the chronic bureaucratic abuse that stems from under-funding, staff shortages and rigid work practices, hardened by media attitudes that led one Home Secretary to confide in his diary that he poured himself a drink after hearing of yet another death in custody. We let children – young offenders – die at the hands of the state because we as a country are not willing to pay enough attention to our prison system to make things change.
Hitting an issue head-on seldom makes for good drama, so I never wanted to tell a straightforward story about conditions in a Young Offender Institution. Besides, when I visited prisons – most often, in fact, maximum-security establishments like Long Lartin and Whitemoor – the characters about whom I was always most curious were the officers. It seemed to me that the other victims of a neglected bureaucracy are the many people who work in the prison system because they hope to make a difference – dramatized in Accused by the protagonist, Tina Dakin, and played with great integrity by Anna Maxwell Martin.
Tina is an experienced prison officer so stifled by the prevailing culture that, even when faced with tragedy, she finds it impossible to speak out. As Anna Maxwell Martin expresses it in the BBC press release: ‘This story is partly about allegiances – where your loyalties lie … It’s a very knotty story filled with moral and emotional dilemmas.’
I’ve written more than thirty television crime dramas, but what I learnt from working so closely with Jimmy McGovern was the importance of being clear-sighted and courageous enough to take a story to its furthest possible emotional point – why a character ends up in the dock – and then make the story work to catch up with where you’ve taken it.
I also love Jimmy’s incredible instinct for the telling detail. During the course of long script meetings, he’d discover tiny moments or insights that turned events around – a man looking at his watch, or a broken boiler to pay for - moments that, as soon as he found them, felt totally authentic and, although simple, lent huge weight to the story. I suspect this is why all four scripts in this series – the others co-written by Jimmy with Shaun Duggan, Carol Cullington and Danny Brocklehurst – attracted such wonderful actors. Right from the start, the parent of a young offender played a vital role in my story, but I never imagined crying every time I saw comedian John Bishop’s tragic face on screen.