At the age of 53, Liverpool-based writer Tony Schumacher's debut script The Responder is being made for the BBC with Sherlock and The Hobbit star Martin Freeman. Tony credits his success to the ScreenSkills New Writers Programme which paired him with mentor Jimmy McGovern, best known for hit dramas including Broken, Cracker and The Street.
As part of the programme, nine up-and-coming writers received mentoring support, crucial networking introductions and a bursary. Funded by the High-end TV Skills Fund and delivered by the production company Dancing Ledge, the established writers chose who they wanted to support.
By chance, Jimmy was approached to take part two days before Tony’s script arrived on his desk, forwarded on by the Liverpool-based production company LA Productions. His choice was made.
“I didn’t know how the system worked,” Tony laughs. “There are certain ways of doing things. I didn’t realise that, so I just sent a script to LA Productions and luckily enough they liked it and handed it to Jimmy.”
They met for a pint and then spent several days brainstorming in Jimmy McGovern’s kitchen. “Jimmy said: ‘Ok tell me about yourself,’” recalls Tony, who has worked as a binman, bouncer, jeweller and perfume salesman, as well as spending time in the police force. “I took him through my writing ideas and Jimmy said: ‘You are your first script. As good as your other ideas are, that’s the one that’s going to get you on the ladder.’”
For 11 years, Tony had witnessed the extremes of life on the front line of British policing and regaled his mentor with hair-raising stories of this time as a police responder. “You got all the 999 calls, kicking in doors,” he says. “Every time you opened the car door, you didn’t know what you were going to find. It’s brilliantly exciting at the start but eventually it becomes a bit monotonous and then it becomes a bit too much.”
The relentless night shifts ultimately contributed to Tony having a nervous breakdown. After a period of homelessness, he found himself back circling the night-time streets of Liverpool, this time as a taxi driver.
“My dream when I was a kid was always to be a writer,” says Tony, who left school aged 16 with no qualifications. “And when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing left to lose.”
He wrote a column about his experiences driving the cab for an online magazine, then started contributing pieces to newspapers and magazines. Later he had three novels published by HarperCollins in the USA, including The Darkest Hour, the first in a series of historical thrillers set in a German-occupied London at the close of World War Two.
But he longed to be a screenwriter and began writing TV scripts. In 2018, he was invited to take part in the BBC Writersroom Northern Voices Scheme. Then in March 2019 he was picked for the ScreenSkills New Writers Programme.
He was blown away by the calibre of the writers involved. Alongside McGovern, Paul Abbott, Lucy Prebble and Sally Wainwright were among the other mentors - basically, the royalty of British television writing.”
He was paid a bursary of around £8,000 while he took part. “Basically, it bought you eight months to say, I’m going to be a full-time writer. And the great thing about ScreenSkills was they set deadlines, and if you met them, you got paid immediately, which is very rare in this industry.”
The scheme wasn’t just set up just to help with developing scripts. It was about industry introductions and – the biggest hurdle – getting commissions. The huge sums of money involved in producing prime-time TV mean producers are often nervous about the gamble of investing in new talent such as Tony.
The mentors didn’t set out to teach their mentees how to write. Instead they helped them take their writing projects from idea and concept to second draft scripts, focused on helping them overcome common hurdles faced by aspiring screenwriters and answered questions about the industry to help them get commissions.
Jimmy McGovern encouraged Tony to make his script a character study rather than a slick 9pm BBC cop drama, so he had a calling card to show production companies. “He’d say: ‘You need to turn down that bit, turn up that bit. And spend more time on that.’ And it was invaluable.
“The thing about Jimmy is you can tell he was a teacher before he was a writer, and that shone out. He kept saying, ‘You need to show them that you’re a good writer before you show them you can write a plot. Anyone can come up with a great plot but not everyone’s a great writer.’”
The ScreenSkills New Writers Programme received national attention including a feature in The Observer. ‘It created a little bit of buzz,” Tony recalls. Once the programme finished, Jimmy helped Tony to get an agent. And Dancing Ledge Productions, who had administered the course, invited him to a meeting in London to give him a taste of how a pitch meeting goes.
He had already discovered the company have a development deal with Martin Freeman and look out for scripts for him. So he wrote the lead role of The Responder with Martin in mind.
At the meeting with Dancing Ledge he was invited to pitch a script. So he gave them an early draft of The Responder. “They said: ‘Ok, we’ll give it to Martin’. And luckily, he loved it. So a week later they optioned me.”
The series follows Tony’s morally-compromised urgent response officer through six chaotic night shifts. “He’s an amalgam of people I have worked with and the circumstances I used to find myself in,” Tony says. “I can’t believe Martin Freeman is starring in the story of my life."
Five years ago he was driving a taxi, now he’s talking to Hollywood executives. The ScreenSkills New Writers Programme gave him “a platform to put my heart out there, and explore issues”, he says.
“When I was submitting the script, just having Jimmy McGovern’s name on it as my mentor meant the BBC were happy to read it. It’s like a little seal of approval. It absolutely, totally changed my life.”