Jeff Pope has carved a career from TV drama honed from real life, and now on the big screen too. Jon Creamer reports
He’s built a career on writing and producing TV dramas based on real life stories with surprising twists.
But Jeff Pope is unsure right now which way his own story will lead.
After 18 years running ITV’s ‘factual drama’ department in which he’s produced and written a long line of successful TV dramas based on famous figures or infamous crimes, he co wrote Philomena with Steve Coogan, picking up Oscar nominations and international acclaim in the process.
Philomena’s profile has inevitably produced a fair few movie based offers, but he’s content to play things by ear for now: “I’m not looking too far forward, you can trip yourself up,” he says.
What he’s sure of is he’d like to “keep going on both fronts” of TV and film and to stick to what he can do and not drift into what he can’t. “I’m 52 so this level of success has come to me later in life. So I know what I’m good at. I think if I’d had that success at 32 I would have jumped on the first big thing that came my way. There are people who can do a new Batman movie better than me.”
On Philomena Pope simply took a writing role. His modus operandi until now has always been to act more as ‘showrunner’, producing and writing or often just producing. And he’s been doing that long before the phrase was coined.
But Pope’s showrunning role was originally borne of necessity, he says. “As a young producer one of the biggest problems you face is getting a writer. I was ambitious. I wanted to go for good writers but at any given time they’re six months to a year away from being free to write anything for you. So I was impatient and I thought I know a writer available, which was me.”
He found he had an “aptitude.” “It was just something I found I was able to do.” But writing and producing is where the showrunning ends, he says. “I’ve never been a frustrated director or actor. I’ve always enjoyed working with brilliant directors and them bringing another level to my work. The most exciting thing for me is to watch something back and not even remember the lines. There are very few brilliant writer/directors. Sometimes it can be a curse. You’re not going to ask questions of it because you’ve written it. Someone else needs to be in that process.”
But despite being a producer/writer ahead of his time, his work has been focused heavily on single films and short serials, very different from the current vogue for long running returning series.
That’s not been a conscious choice though. “I would dearly love to do series,” he says. “The nearest I came to it was City Lights and Northern Lights and Bob Martin. I would happily still be writing those now.” And he’s currently writing a comedy series with Danny Baker for BBC2 based on the broadcaster’s memoirs but, he admits, “my mind probably works in a slightly different way. I love the turnover of a different situation and story and people.”
And ITV and its viewers seem to as well. “I’ve been very lucky. ITV has supported the films that I make ever since I started doing them. And that kind of piece has never really gone out of fashion.” The recent The Widower, Appropriate Adult (written by Neil McKay), Lucan, Mrs Biggs and plenty more generate both audience numbers and column inches. “The public appetite has never dimmed. Though it takes some courage. Appropriate Adult was expensive to make and there was no guarantee that you were going to get a big audience. It’s a safer bet with Doc Martin. But if you get it right, it’s something talked about and the perception of the channel is raised.”
What’s crucial, says Pope is he always makes drama that is “accessible to a mass audience. I’ve never really been interested in narrow gauge pieces.” And that means telling a story and not hiding “behind the factual element of a factual drama. It has to work as a drama with a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to have plot and a narrative.”
But that doesn’t mean skipping around the facts. Pope began his career as a journalist “and those disciplines never leave you.” All his films begin with a long period of research and interviews. “The skill is finding the line through it.” And the detail is crucial “In a true story the deeper you go into the minutiae of that story the more fascinating it is. The more material you uncover the more unique the story becomes. That is my impulse.”
Although absolute accuracy is impractical. “You have to be true to the essence of what happened rather than the undiscoverable literal detail.” And factual dramas, particularly those based on a crime, are kept honest by one detail. “I always have in the back of my mind that I’m going to be showing this to perhaps the relatives of a murder victim or the actual police officer in the case. That’s a great discipline.”
Jeff Pope will be speaking at the Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival in August www.geitf.co.uk
Jeff Pope has been head of ITV’s factual drama department since 1996.
He began his career as a journalist, first for the Ealing Gazette then for LWT’s Six O’clock Show before moving into factual drama by producing Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brinks Mat Robbery.
Since then he has been producer, writer or writer/producer on TV dramas including the upcoming Cilla, The Widower, Lucan, Mrs Biggs, City Lights, Pierrepoint, Dirty Filthy Love, Bob Martin and the Oscar nominated movie Philomena that he wrote with Steve Coogan.