Stacey Gregg: 'I did not know that a working class girl could be a screenwriter'
Nominated by Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee as a screenwriter to watch, Stacey Gregg tells Eleanor Bley Griffiths about forging a career in television – and fighting the trope of the cold dead female body
As part of our Women’s Words campaign, RadioTimes.com has approached established screenwriters and asked them to nominate up-and-coming female writers they believe have a bright and exciting future in television.
Here, Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee explains why she wanted to highlight Stacey Gregg:
Stacey is an exciting but more importantly fearless writer, constantly breaking new ground. I think we could do with more fearlessness in television
Eleanor Bley Griffiths sat down with Stacey Gregg to discuss how the "fearless" playwright and screenwriter has taken on the TV industry as a queer working-class Northern Irishwoman...
"The number of dramas we watch at the minute that start with a cold dead female body is absolutely mind-bending,” says screenwriter Stacey Gregg, setting the world to rights over tea and porridge as she dissects the TV industry’s overdone clichés.
What if all those other untold stories and unheard writers got their shot at the small screen, instead? “All you need is a few different voices in the room and suddenly you're challenging those quite tired tropes."
Gregg is one of those voices, and she’s worked hard for her seat in that room. Already under her belt are episodes of The Innocents, Riviera and The Frankenstein Chronicles, as well as plays and short films that deal with everything from biohacking to fertility to pornography. And now she’s hard at work on a bunch of original TV shows and movies – including a drama we may soon see on the BBC.
Spoiler alert: it does not begin with a cold dead female body.
One reason why tired tropes have flourished becomes clear when you look at the people writing the shows that reach our screens. Just 28% of TV over the last decade was written predominantly by women, according to a recent Writers’ Guild report, and when it comes to primetime slots that figure halves to 14%. Look at class, look at race, look at educational background; you won’t see society reflected back at you.
Why does that matter? “You see it all the time when people create shows about worlds, and you just know that nobody has ever been in that environment,” Gregg says. “If we don't have people from working-class backgrounds creating work, and any other marginal voice or unheard voice, then you're not going to see an authentic portrayal of those characters and those worlds. It’s a no-brainer.”
Gregg does not fit into the classic profile of the TV screenwriter. From the early days of her career, she knew it, and others knew it too. “When I went into rooms I often was aware of my femaleness, of my working-class-ness, of my queerness,” she says. “That order sometimes changed, but I think I was probably more aware of my working-class-ness at first than my gender.”
Born in Belfast, Gregg crossed the Irish sea to take up a place at Cambridge, where she broke university rules by holding down three jobs (“I didn’t have a financial safety net. What are you going to do?”). In her early twenties she moved between Dublin, London and Belfast, working as a personal assistant and hurrying home in the evenings to write. It was discouraging at times, Gregg admits; but then her work started to attract attention, and the BBC Writers’ Academy came knocking on her door.
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It’s now been eight years since Gregg went full-time as a writer, a job that was never on her radar even as a headstrong TV-watching poetry-writing kid. “I did not know that a working-class girl could do that,” she says. But breaking into the industry without the typical background was nerve-wracking.
“The whole time, to be honest, I did not know what I was doing – because again if you don't have any models of, ‘How the hell do you get into this industry, can I really do this?’ – and the whole Impostor Syndrome. It's such a real thing."
Perhaps that’s why Gregg is so touched to have been nominated for this Women’s Words profile by fellow Northern Irish writer Lisa McGee, creator of Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls, who she worked with on RTÉ drama Raw. McGee is full of praise for Gregg's "fearless" approach to breaking new ground.
At the moment, Gregg is doing just that, working on a screenplay that’s bound to touch a nerve if it gets greenlit. First performed as a play in 2015 and now in development with production company Kudos and the BBC as a TV drama, Scorch explores the contested legal issue of (so-called) gender fraud through the eyes of a gender-curious teen.
Her inspiration came from real-life court cases, in which (for example) a woman had thought she was having sex with a man, but discovered that her partner was actually a woman – or had been born physically female.
Although Gregg is delighted by the prospect of writing her first original drama, she’s prepared to pull the plug if she feels the issue is not being treated sensitively: “If that story isn't told properly and in consultation with the right people then it shouldn't be told.”
But – she adds – “the way the conversation has moved even in the last couple of years, around consent and gender, is really hopeful. And it's always in conversation – because the way that I think of myself and how I fit into those conversations has also changed.”
What does she mean by that?
“Well,” she says. There’s a rare pause in our conversation, which otherwise has rattled along so intensely that both the half-eaten porridge and the breakfast tea have become tepid. “I'm just trying to work out how much to share. Um, I've never felt, I've never strongly identified with being female.”
Writing Scorch, premiering it in Belfast, taking it on the road to Edinburgh and London and Adelaide, adapting it for television – that process has been eye-opening, says Gregg.
“I've been on a journey as well with [Scorch]. I had questions about my gender growing up, but I didn't have the language for it. And to revisit that as an adult has been a really strange, rewarding, enlightening experience. So of course I'm going to come at this piece in particular with a huge sense of duty to tell it properly.”
The conversation moves on, but she later circles back to add: “I would consider myself agender now and it's taken me a long time to get to that point, and I'm still very private about it.”
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Now in her 30s, Gregg is relaxed about pronouns, whether it’s “she” or “they”, explaining: “I've been perceived as female for so long – if I was 20 and I was really into my own identity I might be experimenting differently now. But I'm not. I'm quite relaxed, but I never really - like I say - identified very much with ideas of femaleness, and that's kind of where I'm at.”
Is she prepared for the media conversations around TV shows that cover gender fraud? “Yes and no, is the truth. Like I say, this is really complicated territory and very sensitive.” But as McGee told us, Gregg is “fearless” and refuses to be “intimidated” out of creating what she feels is important work. “People who are just looking for controversy, those people are never going to go away,” she says.
She’s also well aware of the power of good storytelling. “Never underestimate your audience, you know? With good TV you get people at their most honest, I think, in their front rooms.”
Praising Nicole Taylor’s BBC1 drama Three Girls, about the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, she points out: “It's not something that a lot of people maybe would have brought up in the pub with their mates. But if you're sitting there and you find yourself watching a piece like that, you will have a very human response.”
Gregg is passionate about progress for female writers. In February, she was one of 76 of female screenwriters to sign a letter asking: “Why won’t you work with us?”
And on publication of that Writers’ Guild report, she tweeted: "This reflects how it feels out there, as opposed to the cognitive dissonance of being repeatedly told to be patient, it's getting better."
Despite all the “lip service” paid to gender equality, Gregg says, change has been slow in coming over the past decade, and female writers don't get enough chances to create primetime telly.
“Women stay writing children's TV or continuing drama, and aren't being given the next step, the primetime slots, the traditionally male or muscular or state-of-the-nation,” she says.
So what can be done? “We need to see more women being commissioned, we need to see that work being greenlit. We need to see it actually being brought through into production. And we need to be more proactive about going out and getting women and maybe boosting them."
Gregg is already putting that approach into practice: “I've been in rooms where people have gone, ‘Oh there are no women directors,’ and I go home and email them 20 names. They're not on your go-to list – but just look a bit harder.”
Without women’s scripts making it past the commissioner’s desk, she says, we risk missing out on more interesting and intriguing TV. “There's a really obvious thing to me, which is you've got to surprise an audience. Give them what they don't know they want,” she tells us. “You won't know, until you make more interesting content, what an audience will respond to.
“It's not just about benefitting a couple of individual women who could do with a bigger paycheck and a bit more exposure! It's about enriching the industry and telling more, better stories.”
The success of Derry Girls, she says, “shows that there's a real appetite for something else.” McGee’s unconventional sitcom premiered in January 2018 and defied expectations, attracting a passionate fanbase with its story of 16-year-old Erin (Saoirse Monica Jackson) and her schoolfriends and family in 1990s Northern Ireland.
“Derry Girls, I cannot tell you – the vicarious sense of triumph was intense, because you want to see people who look like you did. Or do,” Gregg says, praising the way McGee uses the Troubles as a backdrop for the characters and their distinct Northern Irish humour. “It united people. And that was such a beautiful thing. And I really believe in that, in these times with Brexit and so on. We need that.”
Gregg and her wife now live mainly in London, where she writes her scripts in the local library near her 16-month-old son’s nursery. But Belfast is still “home” and – to a degree – so is Dublin, a “dual nationality” which been complicated by the arrival of Brexit.
In 2017, Gregg wrote the short film Your Ma’s A Hard Brexit – channelling the big political issues into a personal monologue starring Bronagh Gallagher as she walks along next to a peace wall in Belfast mulling over the implications of the Leave vote.
Looking back at that piece, which now seems “prophetic,” Gregg tells us: “It's very close to my heart that there are physical walls that still divide communities in Belfast, and nobody's really talking about them, and they're not coming down any time fast. And a lot of people in England don't even know they exist.
“Meanwhile all this conversation's going on about a hard or a soft border, and it's like, we're still trying to work through the Troubles, you know? And it's been really hard to hear again the national conversation that has at times been very dismissive of Northern Ireland.”
Home is always on the mind, both in terms of her country (she'll continue to write about Belfast) and her family.
“The audience at the back of my head and in my heart is my family, and I think a lot of writers are like that,” she admits. “You want to tell stories that you can sit around with your family, you know. Like my first play was called Perve and my mum couldn't get over it, she was like: ‘What are people going to think of us?’
“I've come from a background where my parents worked all their lives so they still think that I'm on a jolly half the time. For them, getting their heads around how I work and the idea of freelance – I think they get it now, but for a while they were quite worried.”
But are they proud? “Ach yeah,” Gregg says, looking a bit bashful. “They don't say it to me because then I'd get a big head, but they are proud of me.
“I think I've been very independent and it wasn't easy. I definitely really struggled in my twenties and there's been massive setbacks and disappointments. Everybody knows a writer who's been in development for ever, and it's really hard to sustain, and you ask, why am I even doing this? What's important? But they have been supportive of me through all of that.”
Initially Gregg seems inclined to minimise the sheer effort and persistence that has characterised her life and career so far, putting her first break down to “a really genuinely lucky set of events.” But surely it must be luck plus talent, I insist.
And on second thought she agrees – adding in a third criteria for success: “Luck, talent, and then an endurance, if you’re going to stick at it.” Gregg has plenty of talent and endurance, and with any luck we’ll soon be seeing a lot more of her voice on screen soon.
Main image: Nina Sologubenko