‘Shameless opened up all kinds of scabs in my family’: Paul Abbott on writing from life and his latest show No Offence
The screenwriter opens up about revisiting his childhood for hit show Shameless – and the impact it had on his mental health
Talking to Paul Abbott is like trying to pin down a moth. He can be wildly inattentive and elliptical, he’ll settle for a few minutes then he’s up and off again, making coffee, fetching water or taking off his jumper because he’s hot. But I forgive him anything, because once you harness his restlessness, Abbott is a terrific, skin-strippingly honest, hugely funny and unguarded interviewee.
We have spoken on and off over the years and first met in 2004 just after the brilliant State of Play and as Shameless was about to launch. But between Shameless, to which he eventually contributed only the odd episode and which by his own admission went on too long (it ended in 2013), and No Offence — which starts its third series on Channel 4 this week — he’d been very quiet.
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When I ask Abbott (58) why — did he have writer’s block? — he’s brutally frank. It was because the doors he had to open on to his dreadful childhood and painfully complicated family background for Shameless let out too much horror, and his already fragile mental health suffered acutely.
“No, I wasn’t blocked, I never stopped writing, I just wasn’t handing it over. I think what happened with Shameless — and I have to be careful what I say here [Abbott’s relationships with some of his relatives are rocky] — I spent a lot of time running away from [my family] history. That had its consequences in mental-health terms. It didn’t stop me writing, I just wasn’t handing it over and that’s as toxifying as not writing.”
Abbott’s upbringing is well documented; abandoned by his mother when he was nine and brought up by his sister, with just occasional appearances from his feckless father, portrayed as Frank Gallagher in Shameless. Abbott’s creation of this infamous drunk infuriated his dad, and the pair stopped speaking.
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“The truth about Shameless is that it opened all kinds of scabs in my family. It was horrible, my family was pissed off, my dad hated Frank… There are so many nice people in my family, I have to be careful…” It’s at this point that Abbott, tellingly, is at his most restless.
“I didn’t attend my dad’s funeral and my family hate me for that. I loved having written Shameless but using the family archive was perilous.”
Abbott says he had a “bad time psychiatrically” after Shameless; “But like every other time you have a dip, you come out much more knowledgeable about yourself. You just wish you didn’t have to do it that way.”
He was treated, more than once, at The Priory Hospital. “We were on first-name terms, I went in a few times for, like, six weeks. The last time I was there was six years ago and it was voluntary. I went there saying, ‘I don’t feel safe’. I was cold. I was going through a divorce [from his previous wife Saskia]… I came out after six weeks… Now I feel back on form.”
So what was behind this writing but not submitting? What was going on there? “I’m really good at memorising new scripts that I haven’t typed up, I can tell you every scene to the nearest comma. I’ve typed it up in my head, it’s a tool I’ve sharpened. But when I put things on paper people think it’s the finished product. This is why I went quiet, because anything I wrote would have been made. I would say, ‘It’s not ready.’ But that wouldn’t matter. It had my name on the front and it was a two-inch script so it was a movie.
“But I knew better than them. I wanted to get things right before I got behind them.” Now, he says, he has seven “active projects” on the go.
While working on No Offence Abbott and the show’s team of writers were on lockdown at the huge house he shares with his American wife Larkin and their daughter Ellis (four) in Cheshire. It has vast rooms looking out on to a fabulous garden, but such lovely views are distracting, so Abbott writes in his garage.
“They [the writers] stay here and we talk it to death. No one gets it right first time. We often do eight drafts of a script, maybe more. We did 12 on one script.”
Abbott also has trenchant views on the current “homogenised” state of British television. “If commissioners see anything good on another channel they will copy it instead of bettering it. We are so terrified of ratings that people want to be all things to all men. But that’s not your job [as a writer], your job is to take people to a place they didn’t know they wanted to go.”
No Offence airs on Thursdays on Channel 4 at 9pm