TBI talks to Life on Mars creator Tony Jordan

Tony Jordan is one of the UK’s most respected scriptwriters. As part of the long running London-based soap Eastenders, he wrote nearly 500 episodes of the series. He also created retro cop drama Life on Mars, which has been a big hit on the BBC and is currently being remade locally in the United States for ABC and in Spain on Antena3. He has since launched his own production company, Red Planet Pictures, part of Kudos Film & Television, and produced a number of shows including Moving Wallpaper for ITV.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on 14 scripts at the moment and I only have one typing finger. I’ve just written the first two episodes of Hustle season five and I am repurposing some scripts for series two of Moving Wallpaper. I’ve got a pilot script for BBC Wales. They had a show called Belonging, 10 episodes of 30mins and we’re going to do something similar. I’m just about to do a new draft of Hustle the movie.

As a writer I’ve got two things on the agenda. I’m doing a primetime show for BBC1 – a show for that Dr. Who slot – called The Ministry, which is a rip roaring sci fi adventure. I’m doing something called Valley Knights – which is similar to the Full Monty.

I’m now doing comedy with Julia Davis and Mark Gattiss who created Nighty Nite. Comedy’s new for me. Red Planet has also produced a trailer for a kids animation project.

Why did you launch Red Planet Pictures?

I just became aware that I was writing shows that were doing quite well. When you switch from an episodic writer – a pen for hire – and then you become more a showrunner you understand that there’s a whole world out there away from your computer and the 47 post it notes on it.

It’s not about control, because I had control and it’s not about money. It was really the opportunity to work with other writers. 90% of our shows in development have come from traditional brainstorming sessions.

How do come up with ideas? How was Life on Mars created?
We imagine we ran the world and then ask what we’d put on the telly. Life on Mars started because we wanted to work on [‘70s cop drama] Sweeney and we couldn’t.

Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper was a project that I had in a drawer for ten years. When I was on Eastenders I was living the world of Moving Wallpaper. No one else found it funny, but I found it hilarious. Then things like Larry Sanders, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras came along and made it easier to commission. People have always done behind the scenes shows but no one has ever aired the show they are working on.

If we come up with a great show it’s up to the broadcaster to come up with the right slot, not the other way around.

What do you make of the current indie production sector in the UK?
There’s kind of huge monster whales floating around and eating everything and we’re trying to grab what they miss. It’s in quite a healthy state if you look at the shows that are working and how many of those are independently made.

Are you working on anything internationally?
I’m taking four writers over to LA to brainstorm ideas for Sony Pictures, as part of a first look deal. I’ve always flirted with the US. Simon Fuller took me over a few years ago and we tried to crack that with something like Eastenders, a 30mins soap in the States. But that didn’t happen.

There is a US remake of Life on Mars currently in development at ABC. What do you make of that?

Life on Mars had to be done by an American writer. We were so ensconced in the culture of Britain in the 1970s that you’d have to have a handle on the mood in the US. David Kelley has done a good job, of what I’ve seen so far.

What is Dirty Lives of Rich Teens? According to the Internet, it’s a series that you are writing for the BBC, but nobody there has ever heard of it.

Dirty Lives of Rich Teens? I don’t know. It’s on my Wikipedia page but I’ve never heard of it. I’ve kept it there because I’m hoping a broadcaster reads that and it turns into an auction. I’ll write it then.