Screenwriter and novelist

pages in this section

Eleventh Hour

The story behind the new ITV series starring Patrick Stewart.

So there I was, in a meeting room on the sixteenth floor of the London Television Centre. We weren't exactly cloistered away, as the drama department is one of those open-plan newspaper-style workspaces and the meeting rooms are glass-sided. And besides, we had the door open. Across the office, I could hear Granada's Controller of Drama talking to a journalist on the phone.

"It's called Eleventh Hour," he was saying. "It's a thriller series set in the world of science. The main character's Professor Hood. He's the government's Science Tsar."

He stopped to spell it.

"He deals with disasters and crises that have a science element. Him and his glamorous assistant. No, we're not actually doing anthrax. No, it's not a Doctor Who for the new millennium, it's entirely contemporary. Hang on, the writer's right here, he's the one to ask." He half-covered the phone. "Stephen! He wants to know if it's science fiction."

There's a useful little expression we have in the North. Roughly translated, it means Allow me to correct your mistaken impression.

"Is it buggery," I called back.

"He says, is it buggery."

A couple of days later, the trade journal broke the news of our new commission. The piece read, ITV is ploughing 4.5m into a science fiction thriller series about a government scientist who is called in to tackle disasters caused by modern science…

Well, near enough, I suppose.

The fact is that I'm treading with enormous care. For my broadcaster and the network I have to deliver on the promise of a show that will sit right in the mainstream of popular drama. But at the same time, what drives me is the idea that we're actually living in the world that science fiction mapped out for us. Science fiction and our everyday reality have all but merged, and it's time someone tried to achieve a form of drama where the distinction disappears.

Let me just backwind twelve months or so to explain how all this came about.

It started with one of those development-exec meetings. My agent sets these up and I do about three or four of them a year. All film and TV companies have Development Executives, most of them producers-in-training, whose task it is to meet established writers and to ferret out new ones, to explain the company's current needs, and generally to ensure that contacts are made and pitches aren't missed.

Most of the time, nothing comes of them. You send in some follow-up material and you keep your antennae alert for a while, but nine times out of ten you hear nothing back and your antennae gradually wilt. It's no big deal. It's just the game we're in.

This one was at Granada, my alma mater. Although I worked for the company for five years at the beginning of my career, I'd never sold them anything as a freelance. In the years since my departure, almost everything had changed. Like a dark star, Granada had sucked in all the other regional companies to become one megabroadcaster which would, after its final merger with Carlton, come to be branded simply as ITV.

What did we talk about at the meeting? I remember expressing my enthusiasm for American series like CSI and Law and Order, shows that upset many of the received wisdoms of '90s TV drama by eschewing relationship-driven storylines and rediscovering the self-contained, standalone One Big Story. Somehow from there we got onto the subject of science… probably by discussing how CSI foregrounds its forensics procedures, instead of assuming that its audience won't care for the detail.

I recalled how, some four or five years before, I'd been part of a public debate organised by The Wellcome Trust and titled Monster Myths: Do Writers Demonise the New Genetics? I was there as the representative demoniser thanks to my monster/slasher miniseries Chimera. The other speakers included a pre-knighthood, pre-Nobel prizewinning Professor Paul Nurse, at that time Director of Imperial Cancer Research.

The debate went well, and a few of us carried it to the pub afterwards. Paul Nurse's parting words to me were that if I ever wanted to tackle a drama with actual contemporary science content, then I should get in touch. After that, of course, his career went stratospheric, and now he's in the US (although he did spare the time to set me up with some contacts just before he went).

Anyway, the thought was planted.

I'd carried it around for a long time, and now I started to see a way forward with it. I didn't follow up the Granada meeting by sending in the usual unsold outlines, but instead began to develop my thinking in a series of emails that started out as a bit of a rant about what not to do in a science show.

Slowly, I began to uncover the form of a series which would treat science in the same way that other dramas are expected to handle their subject matter. I wanted it to be pacy and adventurous, with stunts and chases and tense situations. But just as you can't make up new ailments in Casualty or turn a courtroom drama on some nonexistent legal principle, this would be a drama in which you wouldn't be able to make up the science.

For my main character I turned to Alan Hood, an emeritus physics professor who features in a story that I wrote for Ellen Datlow's award-winning ghost anthology The Dark. The story hinges on a moment in Hood's life where he uses his professional skills to investigate the phenomena surrounding his wife's recent death. He contains a dash of Professor Challenger, a soupçon of Bernard Quatermass, a whiff of Peter Brock (Michael Bryant's character in The Stone Tape)… and, I now realize, more than a touch of my dad, picking himself up and re-integrating his life in the months after my mother died.

What I did was to move Hood forward a couple of years into his new life, and send him on the road with an official remit. Hood's job, basically, is to spot a crisis in the making and to get to it before the politicians do.

Out of the memos came a script commission. This didn't mean that the show was going to get made, only that I'd get to write it and be paid for the work. The Network Centre, the central scheduling body for all of ITV, would decide if the show was to be greenlit for production.

Several factors were in play, here. We had to hope that the Drama Commissioner would be grabbed by the underlying idea and the blueprint that we'd made. At the same time, we were in direct competition with drama submissions from every other broadcaster and production company in the country.

It's never plain sailing. As I've already indicated, in a broadcast culture that sees science fiction and fantasy as marginal I was trying to create something with all the thrill and the feel of sf, but in a form that could lay claim to a peak-time slot and a mainstream audience.

It took six months, three titles and seven rewrites, but on March 1 this year we got our green light.

So Eleventh Hour is going ahead. Four ninety-minute dramas, for peak-hour broadcast in 2005. No, there's no casting in place yet. We've been bandying a few names around from the very beginning and we've even talked to a few people, but nobody's going to be nailed down until the scripts are mostly written. Be assured that when there's something to tell, I'll be telling it here.

First published in Dreamwatch magazine issue number 118.