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Tony Jordan interview

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In the market for talent

The former fruit and veg salesman was the creative force behind EastEnders, Life on Mars and Hustle. He tells Owen Gibson about his innovative project for ITV and his mission to discover fresh writers Monday July 16, 2007

The Guardian

The man who made his name orchestrating the high drama and kitchen-sink minutiae of the customers of Walford's Bridge Street market is getting a little misty-eyed as he poses to have his picture taken in London's Berwick Street equivalent among the fruit and veg.Tony Jordan, who had a hand in several of the pivotal television dramas of the past 20 years, from EastEnders to Hustle and Life on Mars, is reminiscing over his formative years as a market-stall holder partly because he has just launched a competition to find new writers for his recently formed production company Red Planet.

But the nostalgic patter is also because the very first idea he had for a new show, a year after he started work at EastEnders, has just gone into production in Cornwall. An ambitious concept that is one of ITV's great hopes in its mission to redefine its drama output, Moving Wallpaper is a 12-part series going behind the scenes of The OC-style soap opera Echo Beach, which will also be aired as a concurrent standalone series.

"Echo Beach is played absolutely straight, but you'll laugh because you recognise things you've seen in Moving Wallpaper," he says. A few characters will pop up in both, but either can be watched separately. Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon, who play former lovers, have already been signed up for Echo Beach, a straight high-octane drama. Moving Wallpaper, more of a comedy, will star Ben Miller as obsessive producer Jonathan Pope, trying to get the programme made amid the feuding cast and crew.

At a time when broadcasters are finding it hard to get viewers to stick with series, Jordan is asking them to watch two. But he points to Life on Mars and Hustle as evidence that audiences are there for things that capture their imagination: "I think people are ready for it. But you have to work so much harder. I like to flick [through programmes] until my thumb bleeds. It is really tough."

Jordan was 32 when he sent off his first unsolicited script to the BBC and he recalls being invited to a writing workshop, hosted by Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan and Carla Lane. "I was still on the markets then and I saw John Sullivan and realised he was just a normal bloke. I always thought writers wore a felt hat and carried a cane. He was sitting there in his jeans and shirt and talking like I do, and I realised it wasn't an exclusive club and I could join."

The trawl for fresh talent is the first undertaken by Red Planet, a production company he launched last year backed by his long-time partners at Kudos. Judges of the competition include BBC Wales chief Julie Gardner and Stephen Fry, and the winner will be awarded a commission and £5,000.

"For me, it is about new writers. I want to create a kind of United Artists for writers," says Jordan. "Instead of me going away and creating a show and then trying to find writers, what happens is I go away for a few days and brainstorm with them."

He recently took a team, including Sarah Phelps, the EastEnders writer who has scripted the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist, to Spain for four days and came back, he says, with five ideas for new shows. Not a bad return - and he found time to work on his tan.

It was on one of these writing breaks, in the slightly cooler climes of Blackpool, that he co-created Life on Mars with Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. The trio later came up with Hustle, now in its fourth series on BBC1, which Jordan is adapting for a Hollywood movie.

One of the key lessons to learn as a writer, says Jordan, who once admitted Shane Richie's Alfie Moon was largely based on him, is to accept rejection. "The collective noun for a group of writers should be an insecurity," he quips. Life on Mars was knocked back by the BBC and Channel 4, and remained unmade for seven years. And Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper passed through several hands at both broadcasters before languishing in Jordan's desk drawer for 12 years.

The idea for those new ITV1 shows came to him early on in his EastEnders career. "I'd done my first year on EastEnders and it was hilarious, so I wanted to write about what was around me," he says.

"When Martin Kemp joined I wrote half a page of dialogue that included every song title from Spandau Ballet. If you had an actor who couldn't say his r's you'd give him raspberry ripple for pudding."

When Laura Mackie took the job as ITV's head of drama last year, she remembered Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper from her time at the BBC. Sometimes, says Jordan, you have to wait for the climate to change before a show can get made. "I was born for this era. I'm 50 next week, but I wish I was 25 again. Because I was born for this era of high-concept, bold ideas. The six ideas I pitched this week I would never have got made or even got through the door before," he enthuses.

Jordan says he likes to have several different projects on the go and there have been misses to go with the hits - Eldorado being a notable example. He has just delivered a 90-minute script for BBC1 telling the "definitive story of the nativity", which he has been researching for two years. "People try to pigeonhole you. I had that with EastEnders for a long time," he says of the serial that made his reputation, on which he was responsible for some of the best-remembered storylines and characters.

He is passionate about soaps as the training ground for the best of British television drama. "Paul Abbott (Clocking Off, Shameless) came through Coronation Street, Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, Hillsborough, The Street) came through Brookside. With EastEnders, I would write something and see it onscreen almost instantly. It's writing, then seeing. Writing, then seeing. You can visualise how things will work out."

And he is unforgiving towards those who display any sign of snobbery towards soap writers.

"There's this popular misconception that writers on soaps are somehow second or third tier writers. The people who say that are morons. Soap writers don't have to be stroked and loved, but stop treating them like second-class citizens, like they're somehow the dirty end of our industry. There are some directors who wouldn't dirty their hands directing EastEnders. Well [!@#$%^&*] you, I wouldn't dirty my hands writing for you."

After claiming to have been misquoted last time he did so, he is wary of discussing the current state of EastEnders, which he left for a second time at the beginning of the year after returning as a story consultant in 2005 when the show was at one of its lowest ebbs. But on the question of whether going five nights a week would affect the quality, he says: "To me it's a really stupid question. Can you make two and a half hours of television a week and make it as good as if you were producing an hour?" You can't is the clear unspoken answer.

Jordan would rather talk about the new wave of drama coming across the pond in the wake of Six Feet Under, Lost and so on. "Those shows are genuinely moving us forward as an industry, they are dragging the rest of us behind," he says. "You have to be prepared to fail, otherwise by definition you're not being bold. I still want to set the world on fire with every new idea."

Curriculum Vitae

Age 49

Education Broadlands Comprehensive in Keynsham near Bristol


1971-89 factories/building sites/fairgrounds/market trader

1989-2006 EastEnders (writer and chief storyline consultant)

1992 Boon (writer)

1992 Eldorado (writer)

2004-2006 Hustle (associate producer)

2006 EastEnders (series consultant)

2006-2007 Life on Mars (co-creator)

2007 Holby Blue (executive producer)

2007 Echo Beach (writer)

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I'm glad you liked it. This part I liked especially:

"There's this popular misconception that writers on soaps are somehow second or third tier writers. The people who say that are morons. Soap writers don't have to be stroked and loved, but stop treating them like second-class citizens, like they're somehow the dirty end of our industry. There are some directors who wouldn't dirty their hands directing EastEnders. Well [!@#$%^&*] you, I wouldn't dirty my hands writing for you."

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