Gaby Chiappe is an experienced TV writer, who has written extensively for long-running series such as Family Affairs, Doctors, EastEnders, Casualty, Survivors and many more. She also wrote for the series Lark Rise to Candleford, Shetland, Vera and recently created and wrote (with Alexander Perrin) the series The Level for ITV. Her first feature film, Their Finest (directed by Lone Scherfig), premiered at the London Film Festival and will be out in cinemas in the UK in April 2017.
You have written for many long-running series and soaps, serials and now, your first feature film, Their Finest (premiering April 2017): was childcare/elder care something you had to work around at all while developing this film? And were there any noticeable differences between writing for film and TV?
Broadly speaking I’d say the deadlines in film are less punishing – mainly because your in development for so long and by the time you’re shooting it, it’s written – unlike TV when you’re often writing to production deadlines that are tight from the start. In my experience, the tighter the deadlines, the more pressure on time and therefore the greater the need for childcare.
But probably the thing that has had the biggest impact on childcare for me, hasn’t been whether it’s film or TV, but the age of my children. They are now older teenagers and the difference it made when suddenly they didn’t need an adult with them at all times was huge – it changed everything. When they were small I was their primary carer. I had part-time childcare when they were tiny and would also stitch together as much working time as I could in the evenings. When they went to school, I’d work a school day and then start again when they went to bed.
Hitting the deadlines was always a challenge, but it was the one-offs that were really hard to handle. I live in Leeds, so getting to London meetings would involve an awful lot lot of planning, favours – a real patchwork of cover. My partner was incredibly supportive and worked hard to try and be flexible with his own work, but his job involved travel and he wasn’t always around. The decision that I would be the primary carer was mine, and I never regretted it, but I did envy him his freedom. If he had a meeting in London, he just had to let me know he’d be back late; whereas if I had a meeting in London I often had to work pretty hard just to replace my own labour.
More recently the situation has reversed and he’s been the one running the family which is what enabled me to take on much bigger projects (Their Finest, and The Level, a six part show for ITV). I would never, ever have managed that when the children were smaller.
You started out as an actress then moved into writing; could you talk a little about why and how you made that shift?
The question makes it sound much more planned and purposeful than it was! It wasn’t so much a decision as luck. I spent a few years working on the fringe, writing plays as part of a feminist theatre company called Trouble and Strife – we wrote everything together, by consensus. I also tried (unsuccessfully) to write a novel. I earned my money by selling secondhand leather coats, teaching English as a foreign language, reviewing plays, reading scripts… Somehow all this lurching about in the arts resulted in an opportunity that led me to write my first script for TV (for a day time soap on Channel Five called Family Affairs). Writing that made sense of everything I’d done before, I loved it – and I got paid. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Has your relationship with your writing and your family life changed over the years?
My career is exactly as old as my eldest child (he’s nineteen next week). The jobs I’m being offered now I probably wouldn’t have had the experience to do when the boys were smaller, but also – I just wouldn’t have been able to put in the hours. I’m in my early fifties and I still find myself working all night sometimes, or at least most of the night, to hit deadlines. It’s not great, but I can do it because my nights are my own now. If you have children small enough to still be waking, that kind of working pattern is pretty brutal – though I know people do it.
Has being a parent affected any specific projects you worked on in the past – and if so, in what way?
This is a deadline-driven career – and I’m not the world’s fastest writer. That means I have missed family time – often. I feel sad about that. And it’s caused tensions too.
What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming a scriptwriter and wanting to have a family life as well?
Get as much support around you as you possibly can.
Did anyone become a role model for you as you were coming up – and why? Any inspirational work practices?
There were lots of writers whose work I admired, but I never saw how they lived or how they managed their personal lives, so I didn’t have a blueprint or a road map. It’s quite isolated being a writer anyway, you work alone so much of the time – on top of which I’d just moved to a new city when I first started. If I was doing it all again now I think I’d try and find other writers – particularly women – in the same position and try and learn from them. Or at least know that I wasn’t the only one going through the hard stuff.
What good/bad attitudes have you encountered in the industry?
I honestly think not living in London has been as much of a problem for me as being a parent. Leeds is almost two and a half hours from London, and people expect you to be very available. Mostly, they also try and make that as easy for you as possible. But the London-centricity of the industry is really pronounced. The assumption is that you’re local and available.
What would you most like to see change about the industry? What changes do you think would have helped you in the past – or would help you in the future when it comes to pursuing your practice sustainably?
I think this is always going to be an industry that’s deadline-driven for writers and that’s always going to be hard with small kids. But for all the difficulties, being a screenwriter means you can do your work whenever you want – and that is a real positive when you have dependents. The jobs in this industry that don’t allow you to work to your own rhythm are the ones that I think must be really hard to combine with motherhood – cast and crew jobs.
If there’d been on-site childcare available on some of the shows I worked on in the early days when the kids were small (EastEnders, Casualty, Holby… ) I might have spent more time on sets learning about shooting – which I think would have been good for me, and good for my career.
Will you continue to move between TV and film? And if so, are you working on any new film projects?
Yes, I hope very much to keep doing both. At the moment I’m working on a film adaptation of a really fantastic novel – a ghost story called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.