Home Books John Yorke discusses ‘Into The Woods’, EastEnders, Shameless – Exclusive Interview

John Yorke discusses ‘Into The Woods’, EastEnders, Shameless – Exclusive Interview

by Conor O'Brien
John Yorke

Although not necessarily a familiar name to the casual UK television viewer, John Yorke is among the country’s most successful writer-producers. Most notably, he has served as Executive Producer of BBC soap opera EastEnders across three separate stints, most recently from 2017 to 2019. One of John’s most memorable contributions to the show was Kat and Zoe Slater’s infamous “You’re Not My Mother!” scene from the early 2000s.

Additionally, John has also worked on the original UK versions of Shameless and Life on Mars, as well as Waterloo Road, Hustle and New Tricks.

Away from his television career, John Yorke also authored Into The Woods, a popular screenwriting book. Published in 2013, The Guardian described the book as taking a “scalpel to narrative structure – dissecting protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, crisis and so on – before asking how and why this underlying shape still holds audiences spellbound like a fairytale witch.”

Thank you to John for taking the time to speak with Courageous Nerd.

Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to do this.

John Yorke (JY): That’s okay, it’s fun.

How have you been finding life in the pandemic?

JY: [Laughs] Well, it’s not too bad actually. I realise that I actually like not moving from a seat all day and staring at a screen, being maybe antisocial. It’s quite a good way of getting a lot of work done. I’m very fortunate in that I can do that. So, I’m not going to grumble too much. I’ve done twice the amount of work I’d normally do, can’t complain about that.

You initially worked in radio when you joined the BBC. What inspired you to pursue that direction?

JY: Yeah, a very long time ago. I wrote to the BBC… I can remember this, it was in 1986 and said: “Dear BBC, I will do anything if you pay me £5000 a year.” The BBC wrote back and said: “Dear John, if you come and be a clerk in radio, we’ll pay you £5500 a year!” So, it was really surreal, really but rather fun.

I went in and met the Personnel Officer and she said: “What do you want to do?” I said: “I want to work in drama.” She said: “Well, okay, do radio drama and work your way up from that.” So, that’s exactly what I did. It’s unlikely that would happen nowadays. I loved radio, that wasn’t the problem but it wasn’t a specific choice. They sort of said: “If you wanna do it, here’s a job.”

You’re probably more well-known for television – you’ve done EastEnders, Waterloo Road, Life on Mars. How did you get started in that industry?

JY: Basically, I started doing radio drama. Initially, as a sound engineer, which is how I learned my trade. I was just watching radio drama all the time – I’d worked in the theatre before that. Then, I just wrote endless letters to people in television and finally, my letter landed on the desk of the Exec. Producer of EastEnders about an hour after a script editor had handed in their notice. So, they said: “Come and be a script editor.” I really started in EastEnders in about 1994, doing that.

In terms of EastEnders, you’ve worked there across three separate stints. Given the ‘revolving door’ nature of soap, was it difficult when coming back to adjust to new characters that had been introduced since you were last there?

JY: Yeah, EastEnders is an ever changing canvas. Nothing ever stays the same. You’re using up material, you’re using up characters at a hideous rate. Just everyday, there’s a whole new sea of challenges. It’s not like doing a six part series. In a way, it was always interesting to go back and see what people had done, if you could build on that. Where were the problems? There are always problems. Can I come up with any solutions? It’s fascinating.

In 2017, you made your most recent EastEnders return as ‘Executive Consultant’. How different was this role compared to previous stints on the show?

JY: It was kind of a strange job. The BBC asked me to come back, which was very nice. For various reasons, I had a very young child, I couldn’t really be back full-time. So, I said: “Call me a consultant, rather than a producer.” Then, I delegated a lot of the tasks around that while I looked for a new producer to take over. So, in some ways, it was quite nice because you have an overview. In other ways, to do that job properly, you’ve got to do it all day, every day, it’s got to be your life. I first did that job when I was 30. It’s a lot easier to do when you’re 30.

As already mentioned briefly, you worked on the original BBC Life on Mars with John Simm and Philip Glenister. To what extent were you involved with the development of that show?

JY: There’s a long history to that. It was created by three friends of mine – Ashley Pharaoh, Matthew Graham, and Tony Jordan, I was a Commissioning Editor. I wasn’t behind it – it was developed by Kudos [a production company] initially. They told me the story and I thought: “Oh my God, that’s a brilliant idea.” And so, everywhere I went as Commissioning Editor, the first show I pitched was that one. It got turned down by all broadcasters before I got involved.

Everywhere I went, I took it with me and developed it. I ended up as Head of Drama at Channel 4. I spent two years developing it there, with them. Which was great, because it evolved massively. I think Matthew Graham, who was writing the first episode, wrote 35 drafts. Then, it sort of found what we thought was great – and then Channel 4 said no. Hugely frustrating. But at that point, I got a job offer from the BBC and said: “Well, look. If I can come over with this show, then I’ll come.” They said yes and that’s what happened. So, we made it at the BBC. I changed my job to do that.

Television – or the wider entertainment industry – is not the most reliable profession to enter. Did you ever consider another career to pursue?

JY: Not really. I think from a very early age…. living opposite me when I was a child, was the producer of Z-Cars, which was a huge show at the time. I was best friends with his children. And I thought he had the most glamourous life in the world because I’d see people from the cast go into his house. In those days, that show got 20 million viewers and I was 8 or 9 years old. I think at that point, I fell in love with that idea of being a TV producer. Plus, my Dad made films in his spare time so I spent a lot of time on film sets. I never really thought of anything else, it was what I always wanted to do.

From your time at Channel 4, a big show that came out of that was Shameless, that you commissioned. Comparing Shameless and Life on Mars, which both got adapted for the US, did you know at the start of Shameless that it could have such longevity?

JY: No! In fact, when we finished filming Series 2, I said to George and Charlie who ran Company Pictures that made Shameless: “Let’s stop, because this is fantastic. If you stop now, you’ll be always considered as the next Fawlty Towers or The Office.” We were doing incredibly well. They looked at me as if I was mad. I completely get it, they were absolutely right. It ran in the UK for about 8 or 9 years, didn’t it? In the US, it’s still running.

It evolved and became a slightly different beast, which is what you have to if it’s going to run. They did it incredibly well and it’s amazing to see there’s still life in the old dog yet. I’m very proud of it, a real high point.

Between all these series and projects you’ve worked on, do you have a favourite?

JY: Ah, you know, “Who’s your favourite child?” It’s a tricky one. Loved Shameless, loved Life on Mars. There was an extraordinary film I got involved with called Omagh, about the Omagh bombings that Paul Greengrass did. It was probably the show I learned the most on. Also, I worked with Jed Mercurio doing Bodies and that was a fantastic education, for me.

Jed and Paul – they’re geniuses. You just watch and learn from them. If there’s a Desert Island Disc, there’s a couple of them. When I went back to EastEnders this last time, there’s a couple of episodes I did. Individual episodes that I’m incredibly proud of. There’s one we did with Shakil’s (Shaheen Jafargholi) funeral where we used real people. You try and do something new and different with the form. We did an episode shot entirely in real time in the Vic, all about Ruby Allen (Louisa Lytton) and her sexual assault. Again, it’s about doing new stuff all the time. I’m always saying: “What’s exciting? What barriers have we broken?”

I say that but one of the things I find absolutely fascinating… one of the shows I worked on that I am incredibly proud of is Waterloo Road. Which I’m thrilled to see, I think is still the number one show on iPlayer, at the moment. That taps into also being brave and new, but also the thing about Waterloo Road is it’s serving an audience that doesn’t often get served on terrestrial TV. A very young, not broadsheet reading audience. Big, bold entertainment but packed with relatable issues as well. That was a huge thing for me, Waterloo Road. It was crazy, but I loved that.

Aside from your television career, you also wrote Into The Woods, which could be considered a leading screenwriting book. What was the genesis for putting those ideas on paper?

JY: Thank you. I was running Channel 4 drama and came back to the BBC, where I got a much bigger job. Part of it was running Continuing Drama, as well as commissioning independents. The amount of hours being made had increased massively. EastEnders went from 3 times a week to 4 times a week, Casualty and Holby went from being 16 episodes to all year round.

There was a massive deficit in writers, so, I had this idea. We were going to have to train these writers. So really, I just started off doing that and by reading Syd Field, Robert McKee. I was in this really lucky environment where we were making stuff on time. So, I could test my ideas all the time and see them actually played out. Very slowly, it evolved from those beginnings into something… this how I developed my own theory of structure, which seemed to work.

One of my students had worked in publishing – they said: “You should write this down.” That student was Rob Williams, who went on to do Victims and Man In The High Castle. Amazing, amazing writer. But, he was the guy who said: “Write it down.” So, I did and amazingly, there seemed to be a market for it. It’s a real labour of love – I find more and more as I get older, that’s the stuff I love. I find structure absolutely fascinating.

Who would you say your influences were, as a writer or producer?

JY: Early on in the industry, it was people like Jed Mercurio and Paul Greengrass. Tony Jordan was a massive influence on me. He taught me a huge amount. Paul Abbott. I was very, very lucky to work with all these people at quite a young age. Also, I’d watched a lot of telly. I’d watched The Singing Detective by Dennis Potter, which I still think is the greatest work of television drama, ever. Edge of Darkness, which I suspect is probably dated slightly now, a Troy Kennedy Martin thriller. They were profoundly influential – “Wow! Telly can be that.” I was a telly geek, basically.

We’re all living through this pandemic and it’s a tough time. What kind of advice would you offer to people who might be struggling through it?

JY: Well, I don’t feel qualified to offer any advice outside of working in television. I think the general advice is: “Keep busy, have a purpose.” One of the things that screenwriting taught me was that the rules of screenwriting are really applicable to the rules of real life. Which is, if a character has a desire, they have a reason to live, a purpose, which seems to be really smart advice.

If you’re working in telly, you have to watch everything. At least one episode of everything. You need to write – and I appreciate that it’s easy for me to say, because I get paid to do that. I think it’s very tough for a lot of people. If you can find the time to do that and you want to work in television, you’ve got to write all the time, if you want to be a writer. It’s like learning a musical instrument, no one’s going to come to you.

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