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Charlot speaks with writer Jeff Povey

When I worked for BBC Drama, I was lucky enough to meet and work with Jeff Povey while doing a stint at EastEnders. He was one of my favourite writers there because he could inject not only drama but humour in equal measure... no mean feat.

I am very glad to introduce you to Jeff, as not only is he both a funny and intelligent man, he is an extremely talented writer. Over the years, I've watched a number of TV shows and thought how good the writing, and then blow me down looked at the credits and seen Jeff's written the script. He's written hundreds of hours of television, including episodes of Minder, Grange Hill, Wire in the Blood, Wild at Heart, Casualty, Holby City, EastEnders, Hooten and the Lady, The Muskateers, Silent Witness, Kingdom, Midsomer Murders and much more. But, Jeff doesn't only write for television. He's also an accomplished novelist, screenwriter and director. Welcome, Jeff..

Charlot: What do you think made you start writing and why do you write? 

Jeff: An absolute love of books, films, poetry, TV – I was inspired without even realising it.  I had a dream to be a great poet or one of those Nobel winning authors people treat with complete reverence. The ones that nod sagely on chat shows or you see them in a black & white clip sitting beside Ginsberg at some reading.  I wanted leather patches on the elbows of my jacket while I cycled around Harvard campus on my way to give another outstanding lecture.
So I really liked the fantasy but have since found out that the reality is even better. I started writing in my teens and would spend hours and hours on my own having the best time ever.  I still write because no one has ever taken away that sheer enjoyment from me.
Charlot: Why do you think we all like to read stories? 

Jeff: Because they end. There’s a fictional world that usually fixes all its problems and a character who ends up doing the right thing and making their life work at the last moment. The story may have been a roller coaster but most times it comes to a satisfying end. ‘And they all lived happily ever’ after is probably what we always wanted to hear when being read to as kids. I don’t think that changes too much as you get older.
I also think it’s about being invited into a world that consumes you and takes you out of our hare-brained scattergun existence where, let’s face it, we’re not really heroes or people who come up with the right answers. We can read about lives that reflect us or inspire us, but there’s a control to it and I think knowing the world is thrilling, emotional and dangerous yet completely solvable must be attractive on some subliminal level.

Charlot: We all remember the first record we bought. Can you remember the first book you bought?
Jeff: I wish I could. When I was younger I used to go to the library all the time and not have to buy books. But I do remember being on a long journey and for some inexplicable reason, I bought a second hand Jackie Collins novel and read the entire thing on the trip. It was great, a total page-turner. Can’t remember the title now but I definitely remember buying it at the train station kiosk for about 30p.

Charlot: Can you tell us about your favourite library you used as a child? And also, can you tell us your favourite place where do you like to read now?
Jeff: It was Bridge of Allan Public Library and it was awesome. Small, very quiet, very reverential to the reader and I found loads of books just from browsing. I read the whole of James Bond one summer, I think you could borrow a book for a week but I was always going back for another one. There were other books but it was a while ago now and that’s the series that sticks out for obvious reasons.

Charlot: You’ve written a lot of books! Shift, Delete, Serial Killers Club. For those who have never read your work, can you sum it up?
Jeff: The Serial Killers Club is probably the best book ever written. Ha. I was reading a lot of thrillers one year, I do that, I get into a genre and then exhaust it, and I started reading one particular book about serial killers and I thought, man that’s sick. The serial killer is the HERO!? No matter what you say about Hannibal Lecter he’s no hero, but he’s passed into folklore, Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for playing him, and I thought that’s so weird.  Why do we love that character so much?
Then I thought the whole serial killer genre needed to be addressed so I invented a story whereby ALL of the serial killers get killed off. That’s it, they’re done, no more killers. It’s a black comedy but a lot of readers didn’t realise that.  They were hoping for more serial killer fiction but I wanted to take an absurd look at the genre. It’s about more than that but it’s my humour and my take on that world, and I had a riot writing it.
A film company in Hollywood wanted to make it – and they said everything about it was great apart from the humour.  They wanted to make a serious version of a killer killing serial killers.  I bade them farewell.
(Above, two other novels by Jeff, 'ESCAPE' and 'DELETE' available on Amazon)

Jeff: The other novels are YA fiction and I just had an idea and wrote it. I’ve got four kids and at the time they were teenagers and we had tons of their friends coming in and out of the house. They were all mad, lost, chaotic, vulnerable, loud, confused, funny, you name it, we had the whole spectrum. But they were all teens, just like I’d been, and I suddenly saw all these characters that I could write about. It was so lively that I knew I could turn versions of them into characters in a book.
One of them even snuck into my office to see if she could read more of the first few chapters, so I figured maybe I had hit on something.
They were great fun, and again possibly the best YA fiction ever written. And if you don’t believe that about your work, you need to change your attitude.
Jeff wrote for Kingdom, which is a secret favourite of mine...
Charlot: Can you tell us what you are writing now?
Jeff: Mainly TV and spec scripts for films and TV. I’m gearing up for another novel hopefully this year. I’ve got a great idea but I’m torn between writing what I want to write or offering up a thriller that sells all around the world. I’m stuck between the mercenary and the real me.  I doubt I’m alone in that dilemma, but I know I’ll settle for the real me. I just have to pretend that I’m having a mighty creative tussle about it.  No idea why that is.
Charlot: What is your latest book, and can you tell us a bit more about it? 
Jeff: If I go for the great idea then I’m not telling you the precise idea because I think it’s cool and it’s got a great title already. It’s going to be about the things that are important to me at the age I am, and probably a blackly ironic look at it. It could speak to a lot of people. I have gained some wisdom over the years and feel now is the time to tell people that I might have finally gotten a decent if twisted perspective on life. Not sure if anyone’s going to be interested but I know I’ll amuse myself no end writing it. And that’s the real deal for me – enjoying what I do as I do it.
Charlot: What is it about the script form that you love so much, over the novel? And what do novels give you that scripts can’t?
Jeff: TV is just immediate. You hit the ground running and you don’t stop. I don’t have to write anything but the bare minimum because often less is more and simple is the best every time. Characters come to life very, very quickly and you also get to paint a picture with an image. I can write: “We end on Bob’s face, he is distraught.” And when you watch that on TV you know everything about Bob in that moment. In a book, it’s going to be a lot of writing and descriptive prose to get the same impact.
Scripts are obviously quicker to write so there’s a much speedier feeling of accomplishment. I can think in images and know someone will film those images so I don’t need to offer too much word-wise on the page. Then again you need to verbalise someone’s thoughts without writing on the nose so subtext is hugely important and not always easy to solve first time out. In books, the characters can say everything up front, and if they don’t do that we are often treated to their inner monologue so we know exactly what they are thinking, often in quite a bold and direct way.
Novels give you an unlimited budget of course. You can imagine anything. TV can’t afford to do that. Novels also make more of a pact with their readers.  It’s not just a half-hour or one hour contract, it could go on for weeks. It could become part of someone’s life for a while. TV is 24/7 and as soon as you’re done watching one thing you hit the remote for the next thing. It’s a temporary bond at best. Novels can live with you for years. I don’t think TV does that.  You can go back to an old favourite programme but suddenly it looks out of date or wooden because TV moves so quickly, even just technology-wise.  I think a book is always whatever it is. Timeless in some ways.
Novels don’t have actors, directors, producers or commissioning editors telling you where it could be better. There’s no other input apart from your book editor and it’s more about pleasing myself then pleasing everyone else.
Both worlds for me are solitary but I like that. Though I also like going to meetings with script editors and stealing all of their great ideas, so TV is very much collaboration up to a point.  With novels, you’re sort of on your own, and it’s beautiful and scary at the same time.
I think sitting down to write a book is daunting, but sitting down to write a script is much less so.  I know how many pages I can write in a day etc, I’ve got a plan and I stick to it. With a novel the best I have come up with so far is 10 pages a day for 30 days equals 300 pages.  That’s my formula. Though once I tried to write 50 pages in a day once and got to 43 before I couldn’t remember my own name. But targets. You need targets. Then you need to keep hitting them.
Charlot: Can you talk about the extent that TV writing is a collaboration, as compared to writing novels...
Jeff: I’m not about me and my ego and that I have to be the only creative force in the room; I get inspired by others and I welcome it. With books, it’s a much more generalised creative criticism and there seems to be a reverence for authors that I don’t particularly enjoy. I want the absolute bare bones of honesty from people. I can’t make things better if you don’t sit down and tell me the truth. Even if you can’t articulate it I need to know when your instinct is telling you something isn’t quite right about a script or a novel. I have no time for flannel. Writers forget that they’ll get all the glory regardless; I don’t need it when I’m writing, I’ll hopefully get it when it’s due down the line.
Charlot: Finally, if you had to choose… scripts or novels?
Jeff: Scripts because I love writing them and it’s what I do best. Novels because I love writing them and it’s what I do best. To be honest I’m happy writing either. Though I do still occasionally dream of leather elbow patches and Harvard.
Copyright © 2019  Charlot King. Published by Beautiful Day Cambridge Ltd. All rights reserved.

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