“Northern voices are always my go-to place.” Age Before Beauty and Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield talks to Northern Soul
You’d have to be allergic to magazine racks to miss the new series by Debbie Horsfield on BBC1. Front covers of TV listings mags are festooned with mentions of Age Before Beauty and pictures of cast members including Robson Green, Sue Johnston and Polly Walker.
“It made me very, very nervous,” Horsfield admits. “The same listings also featured the Poldark finale and I worried people would think overkill. Even though the shows are very different, I was extremely glad they didn’t overlap in case people got sick of me.”
After a string of TV hits including Making Out, Cutting It, and Sex, Chip & Rock ‘n’ Roll, the popularity of Horsfield’s work reached new heights in recent years after her adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels.
The success of the series is something that BAFTA-nominated Horsfield is extremely proud of. “It’s been wonderful, and I’ve adored doing it. I didn’t realise how loved the original series was and the massive expectations people had for the new version until I’d already written a few episodes. Otherwise I would’ve worried about what I’d taken on. I completely understand that, for fans of the original, nothing could top it. It’s a terrific show and I can understand the loyalty. That’s why it’s been great that our version has also been so well received. It’s what you dream about really. There’s also a generation of people under 30 who weren’t aware of it first time round so we’ve brought it to that new audience as well.”
After working in the 18th century Cornish world of Poldark, Age Before Beauty is a return to a more familiar setting for Urmston-born Horsfield. The Manchester-based series revolves around a family-run beauty salon set in the city’s Northern Quarter.
“It’s territory I’ve always covered, right from my first series Making Out, set in an electronics factory with an almost all-women cast of characters. I’ve returned to this type of setting again and again because it’s something I really love and am familiar with. You can deal with similar territory without ever repeating the stories. Northern voices are always my go-to place. I’m one of five sisters and grew up in the midst of loud, raucous female voices. It’s perhaps a cliché but you write what you know. There’s also pros and cons to working in a family business and that’s been really interesting to explore from a dramatic point of view.”
With its aerial shots of the city, Age Before Beauty shows Manchester off magnificently. Add in a top-class cast portraying a family loaded with secrets, frustrations and betrayal and some punchy incidental music and you’ve got a series that will have viewers instantly hooked. The characters’ lives and complex histories are uncovered with each episode, but I wonder how difficult it was for Horsfield to piece such a series together?
“I used to do a mind map to plan things out but the longer I’ve been writing the more it’s just become an instinctive thing. It’s about understanding what the main story is and how everybody is woven into it. It’s an ensemble piece so there’s lots of subsidiary characters with their own subplots that are fed into the main narrative.”
As executive producer as well as writer, Horsfield had total control over her script.
“The cast are not allowed to change it,” she confesses. “Just as I wouldn’t tell them how to say a line, they can’t alter a single comma of the script. If an actor has trouble with a line, however, and I can’t explain it to them and justify it, it’s absolutely worth considering why it’s not working and giving an alternative. I didn’t have that confidence when I was starting out though. In my early theatre days, I’d often have an actor come up to me in the rehearsal process and say, ‘I don’t really like that line, I’m going to say something else’. Being young and inexperienced I’d go along with it then, inevitably, a couple of weeks later they would revert back to the original line. I love working with actors though and really enjoyed directing theatre.”
She continues: “Ultimately, you’ve got to hand a script over absolutely to the director and actors to bring their own skills to it and Age Before Beauty has the most amazing cast. It’s my own contribution that I sometimes worry about not being good enough.”
The beauty business and our endless preoccupation with how we’re ‘supposed’ to look is one of the themes that runs through Age Before Beauty. Horsfield has previously stated that social media has made narcissists of us all. The selfie obsession is of concern to her.
“When I think back to my teens, I didn’t really take many photos and I certainly wasn’t sharing them or asking for opinions. Photographs went into an album and you never saw them again. Now it’s all about how you look and smartphones enabling the younger generation to take photos all the time. Posting pics online for other people to look at invites a response, often not a kind one and that’s really dangerous. Kids growing up in their teens know they’re going to be judged and if you don’t participate you’re thought of as slightly weird anyway.
“You can’t stop it now unless the whole internet breaks down. There are also loads of magazines now that basically rip celebrity appearances to shreds. If the celebs have any sense they won’t read them, but it’s still awful.”
We’re all affected by outside pressures to conform and our self-esteem is often battered if we dare to strike out and do our own thing. The notion of being endlessly critiqued was clearly an influence on the new series.
“There’s such pressure to look a certain way and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write Age Before Beauty,” Horsfield explains. “I read an article that said what you can and can’t wear at various ages. No long hair after 40, no shorts after 32, no converse trainers after 30. It was so arbitrary, and I just wondered ‘who’s deciding all this?’ The series looks at who dictates what age appropriate behaviour is and questions what you do if you don’t conform to it. One character has a midlife crisis and there’s a great scene where he goes clubbing with a bunch of 20-year olds. We can laugh at it and yet it doesn’t invalidate his experience or prevent him having a great night out.”
In a recent interview, one of the show’s stars Sue Johnston told me that you should absolutely grow old disgracefully. This is something Horsfield that agrees with.
“You should grow old the way you want to. People are so shocked if you do anything outside the perceived norm. I decided that I wanted to learn to snowboard at the age of 50. People were going ‘really?’ Perhaps it was crazy, but I loved it so that’s all that matters.”
After the glut of noir thrillers and grim detective series filling the schedules, more relationship-based shows are beginning to come back in vogue. For a period though, Horsfield thought her run of TV success might be over.
“About seven or eight years ago, I had three separate commissions for relationship dramas but none of them ended up going into production. I remember thinking ‘if no one is doing these shows anymore and that’s what I write, maybe that’s it for me’. I appreciated that I’d enjoyed a really great career but felt it was a pity that no one had asked me to do an adaptation as I’d always fancied doing one. Literally a week later, I got sent the Poldark books. If any of the other shows had gone into production, I would never have been able to do that series. The universe knows things.”
Despite being one of the UK’s most prolific scriptwriters of TV drama, Horsfield wasn’t a follower of the genre growing up or particularly influenced by other writers.
She says: “I didn’t really watch television as a child because I was encouraged to be outside. I used to play a lot of sport and watch Manchester Utd, so TV wasn’t a big thing. I remember being terrified by Dr Who though and hiding behind the sofa. I don’t know if I had influences. My dad always told me stories and I went to a school where the teachers were particularly inspiring and keen to take us to the theatre. Studying other people’s drama doesn’t necessarily make you a writer though.”
A big dread for writers is empty page syndrome. If Horsfield ever has a day when inspiration or ideas are hard to come by, it isn’t something she is particularly worried about.
“I’m always thinking ahead and I have notebooks and files full of ideas. I can go to my laptop and see which ideas are already buzzing in there. I have a story that first suggested itself to me 30 years ago that I still haven’t done anything with. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if I ever do get stuck, it’s just part of the process and it passes. Another big thing is that I have a walking desk, so I write while I’m on the move. Moving gives oxygen to the brain and is a foolproof way of shifting any block. My main advice to anyone looking to be a writer is ‘just start writing’. It’ll be crap when you begin, it always is, but just write anything as that’s better than nothing. It has to exist to be able to show other people.”
With Poldark just ended and Age Before Beauty underway, what are the ideas buzzing around that are likely to be next on Horsfield’s to-do list?
“The 30-year-old idea is still something I want to do. I’m also writing series five of Poldark at the moment. We were all contracted to do five then everyone will move on to other projects. There are still five more books though so, in a few years time, we could revisit it if we all want to do it. It would be great if Age Before Beauty got a second series as I feel I’m only just scratching the surface with these characters and their stories.”
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Sue Johnston, click here.
Age Before Beauty is on BBC One on Tuesdays at 9pm
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