Interview with Tony Schumacher - Ex-Cop, Creator, Writer & Executive Producer on The Responder



What is The Responder about?

The Responder covers five nights in Chris Carson’s life – a guy who is struggling to adjust to the modern world. He wants to adjust and be a better person but he is falling apart inside his head whilst trying to deal with what’s going on in his job. His marriage is breaking under the strain of his mental health issues and the way he’s behaving. He hasn’t got any real friends and the one friend he does have is using him. Everything is bubbling up and over in his life and yet he is expected as a copper to go out and do the job, but he is in real danger of being sucked under.

What is a Responder?

A responder is someone who never gives you good news, somebody who kicks in doors, races round town centres and who fights literal and sometimes metaphorical fires. When I first joined the police, I remember on my second or third night, an old bobby called Colin said to me, "you will never knock on someone’s door and tell them they’ve won the lottery". You are only ever going to deliver bad news in this job, so it’s a big responsibility to take on - but conversely it’s incredibly exciting. Occasionally, you do things that change people's lives be it saving someone’s life or locking up a criminal - you and your colleagues are working all night, every night and living constantly on your wits.

Where did the idea for The Responder come from?

In some way I feel that I am The Responder to a degree and that this is my story. I was a police responder who was out in the rain at one o’clock in the morning, two in the morning, three in the morning, chasing people up and down alleyways and running over rats. The Responder is in me, it's in my writing and in my script.

When did you start to put the story down on the paper and why?

I quit the police because, and there’s no getting away from it, I was cracking up in the police force and I had this overwhelming urge to write. I was really struggling mentally and I needed to get away and find myself, but I also needed to buy dog food during that period so I became a taxi driver. It was during that time that I learnt to become a writer. I wrote three books, sold them to Harper Collins and they did okay. That allowed me to step out of the cab, with a slight detour via a garbage dump, to become a full-time writer on the back of the books.

What was the process of taking the idea of The Responder from page to screen?

I wrote three books over the course of three years but I’d always dreamed of writing for television ever since I was a kid. Initially I wrote 30 pages of a speculative script and was introduced to Jimmy McGovern, who advised me to forget about the unfinished script and instead encouraged me to write my story. That was brilliant advice.

I then got involved with an amazing organisation called Screen Skills who mentored me and introduced me to Laurence Bowen at Dancing Ledge Productions. Laurence read the first episode and fell in love with the story right away. For the last 20 years or so he’d had a great working relationship with Martin Freeman and wanted to give the script to Martin to read. What Laurence didn’t know was that I had written the script with Martin in mind. I knew there was something in Martin that I wanted to bring to the fore, and so I wrote The Responder by dipping my pen into the inkwell of my own darkness but painting Martin’s face on the pages when I was writing.

How did it feel to see Martin inhabit the character of Chris?

Seeing Martin playing Chris - driving round the streets that I once drove around, sitting in a police car I had once driven with the streetlamps strobing on the glass was incredible to watch. Even though the story is inspired by my story, not everything that happens to Chris happened to me, but seeing Martin bringing him to life, totally inhabiting the character that I've created, talking like Chris and moving like Chris was just incredible and very emotional.

I remember during production I’d be watching the dailies and I would literally punch the air at something Martin would do and have a real rush of emotion and think, I am the luckiest man alive that I get to do this for a living now.

What's more stressful - being a responder, or being a writer of a primetime TV series?

I think being a responder brings a very different kind of stress from that of being a writer, but I used to love the old responding stress. Some people cope with it better than others, and some responders are more resilient than others. Being a responder takes a little bit more out of you each day you do it. It's like when you get a new phone, the battery charge is brilliant at first, then 12 months later it’s gone dead by eight o’clock in the morning. That's what it's like being a responder - the battery runs out a little bit at a time.

I was really good at being in the moment as a first responder, at a car accident or a pub fight, but it was the stress that follows all those incidents that wore me down and broke me as a person. The stress associated with being a writer is the deadlines we have to meet, but even that’s not too bad. The stress I put myself under was more that I found myself looking at that amazing cast and thinking to myself, don’t blow this. I’ve been given this amazing palette of paints to work with in Martin, Adelayo, MyAnna, Ian, David etc and that’s what kept me awake at night - being able to deliver the words to them, but I’m less likely to get PTSD from writing.

What makes The Responder different from other shows?

I wanted The Responder to be a cop show that was different, because I didn't particularly want it to be all about police. Coming from a place of knowing that world completely I really wanted it to be as real as it could possibly be. I've still got a lot of really great mates who are bobbies and who are out there still working as responders. I didn't want it to just be about Chris, so I drew in all these amazing characters who I'd meet every single night and give them a story.

I came from a place where I wanted to be able to walk around these characters and show they're not paper thin. People are three-dimensional and it’s not enough to say people are good or bad. It’s not all about blue flashing lights and running down alleyways - that’s not what it’s about. It’s about real people, going through real issues and just trying to get by in the reality they are living in.

Tell us about Chris and Rachel's relationship?

We’ve all seen those films and shows with a grizzled cop and a new young trainee but I wanted to explore the reality of that sort of partnership. After a while in the business you realise that not everyone who commits a crime is going to be arrested or locked up and not everyone’s going to get a hug, because you’ve just not got the time to give everyone a hug. You’ve got to do the best you can whether that means you have to cut a few corners in order to do so. At the beginning of the show Rachel can’t believe that Chris is not off work and sat in bed with a bottle of Lucozade. She doesn’t believe he should be on the streets fighting crime because in her mind he’s not up to it. However, she soon starts thinking that she’s got to be a bit more like him.

How does Liverpool fit into the story as a character?

I've been all around the world in my life doing various jobs, some good and some bad. I did stand-up comedy for a few years and I travelled a lot, but to me Liverpool is unique. I love the city, however the stories I'm trying to tell, could be set in Lagos, Kabul, Sydney or New York because they’re universal. They're stories about people who are doing their best to be better and to be happy.

Why did you decide to set The Responder at night?

I set the story at night-time in Liverpool because there’s a real peace about the night that I love. I worked for ten years as a copper and I drove a taxi for five years working nights in both jobs. I also write at night and I love the stillness of it. I love taking the dog out for a walk at three in the morning. Unless you’ve consistently worked night shifts you won’t know the hangover that comes with working at night. I wanted Chris to really feel the hangover that a response bobby feels.

I used to work six 12-hour night shifts on the trot and on the final night you always felt like you were walking through mud. Occasionally, you'd have these little spikes of adrenaline, which would just push you on a little bit further. It was like running the marathon. That’s what I wanted it to feel like for Chris. When you're that tired, that's when you're at your weakest, that's when the most vulnerable, and that's when you're not thinking straight which exacerbates Chris’ mental health even more. Also, in every night job I've ever done I've invariably met many more interesting people. The real characters come out of the night, like bats that the sensible people with sensible jobs never get to meet.

Our director, Tim Mielants, really understands Liverpool - he knows it like the back of his hand because of his work on Peaky Blinders, and really gets the ‘darkness’ of the night. He has a real eye for the darkness and mood that the can only be found at night-time. It’s far more interesting.

Why is the theme of mental health important to write into the character of Chris?

The Responder doesn’t just focus on the physical darkness of working at night; it also looks at Chris' own struggle with his mental darkness. He feels like he has a black hole inside of him, burning its way right out of his forehead. Martin really does such great work with the fear of hopelessness and helplessness that comes from having that sense of darkness inside. When I wrote that element in the script it was like having paid therapy, because it was in me. I got to write it down on the page and see Martin play it out on screen.

When I was a cab driver, I’d get to about six in the morning and having dealt with people’s lives all night long I couldn’t cope with it and would find myself crying. I’d drive home and cry all the way home. The darkness eats you from the inside and I didn’t deal with it well. Martin captures it beautifully in that we see him consumed but there’s that little glimmer of light, like the diamond ring effect that you see on an eclipse that signifies that he’s not all lost. The humour is still there.

What is Chris' home life like?

Chris' home life is one of the things that he hates himself for more than anything else he does in his life. Chris does terrible things as a copper, but he hates himself most of all for the way he treats his wife and child. He just lacks the ability to communicate with his wife Kate, played brilliantly by MyAnna Buring who brings such an understanding of pain, anger and love all in one look. She feels for Chris and loves him dearly, yet she hates him at the same time because he’s horrible to live with.

Kate is intelligent and beautiful; she's clever and independent with a great job. She used to have a great husband but doesn’t any longer. As well as being this amazing woman who's trying to get him back to health, she’s also keeping a secret from him, so theirs is a complex relationship.

Who are Casey and Marco?

Sometimes we shy away from these sorts of characters because they have to be prickly because that’s the only way they can survive on the streets. They don’t want to live the way they live. Casey doesn’t want to be homeless living amongst binbags. They just want to get through and get by, like everyone else. Chris likes Marco and Casey and really empathises with them. She’s as wily as a fox and Chris really admires that in her - he has more in common with this pair than anyone else in the series. I really enjoyed writing their scenes and Emily and Josh, who play Casey and Marco, are two magic-making, charismatic young people who bring so much life to these characters, they’re such fine, talented young actors.

What is Chris and Carl's relationship history?

Chris joined the police force and Carl became a drug dealer. In terms of their relationship Chris looked up to Carl, probably because Carl was the cool kid who would walk around the estate and be a leader. For reasons that will be revealed, Chris ends up becoming a copper and Carl ends up becoming a drug dealer but they're still old mates and still close. Theirs is such a strong relationship and yet Carl is using Chris. Like Chris, Carl loves his wife and his kids and he loves Chris. Like everyone else he's doing his best to just get through to the end of the week every week. Ian Hart, who plays Carl, grew up about two miles away from where I grew up in Huyton, so Ian knows Carl and Chris just as much as I know them. Every time I watched Ian act on set I was blown away because he’s totally got the character of Carl.

Why should people watch The Responder?

It’s funny, it's dramatic, it's exciting. It is beautifully acted and it's something that you probably haven't seen before and you will really enjoy it.


The Responder starts on Monday, January 24 on BBC One. It will also be available on iPlayer.

Source BBC One

January 20, 2022 6:28am ET by BBC One  


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