Sam Vincent & Jonathan Brackley (‘Spooks’) interview

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Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley joined the Spooks writing team in 2009, writing five episodes of the spy drama’s ninth series, which was released on DVD last week.

> Order the Series 9 boxset on Amazon.

The pair are currently working on scripts for Series 10, which will air on BBC One later this year.

CultBox caught up with Sam and Jon to find out more…

 

How did you both first get involved with Spooks?

“We sent in an original thriller script we’d written to hawk ourselves for another Kudos show. Unexpectedly and brilliantly, they asked if we wanted to talk about Spooks instead. At that point, we didn’t think we had a chance of getting on the show – and we’d been big fans since the beginning, so it was a bit of a dream job really.”

Spooks reaches its milestone 10th series this year. Aside from the cast changes, do you think the show has evolved over the decade?

“Definitely. In the early days it focused a lot on the characters’ home lives and the toll their work took on their personal relationships. As it’s grown, it’s become a bigger, more political show. The stories have higher stakes, are more complex and fast-moving – but the characters are still at the centre of everything.”

Who is your all-time favourite Spooks character and why?

“It’s got to be Harry. Ruth’s wonderful too. In smaller roles, we have major soft spots for Connie James and Jools Siviter too. Maybe we could get Hugh Laurie back, he’s not doing anything.”

Do you think Spooks could survive without Harry, the show’s sole original cast member?

“It’s almost impossible to imagine Spooks without Harry…”

How early on in the planning of Series 9 did you decide on the Lucas North story arc?

“The basic shape was decided very early on in the initial meetings with all the writers, producers, script editors and execs. Then it was just a matter of working through a bazillion different versions.

“For example, at one point, the finale took place on an airliner heading for London… in another it was something to do with Lucas releasing the Albany weapon on the Grid.”

When you found out that Richard Armitage would be leaving, what other exit storylines did you consider for the character?

“The execs were adamant that, if Richard was leaving, we all had to find a fresh, different way for him to go (i.e. we couldn’t just blow yet another spook up!). Lucas not being Lucas, and where that takes him, was something they hadn’t done before.

“Everyone felt that the darkness and mystery of both character and actor suited it, so we can’t recall that many viable alternatives being pitched around the table.”

Were you concerned about how the audience would react to turning a lead character bad?

“Not half! We knew there was dedicated core of Lucas and/or Richard fans who would want our heads on sticks. But you have to balance that against the desire to deliver a big, unexpected, shocking story and do something really ambitious – like turning your alpha male hero into someone else entirely.

“Giving Lucas a heroic exit would have been the safer thing to do, and Kudos are admirably rigorous about not taking the easy option. We just hope the Peter Firth fans don’t react in the same way in Series 10 when we reveal that Harry has always actually been a cross-dressing quintuple agent and deranged serial arsonist working for North Korea.”

How does your writing partnership work?

“Our stock comedy answer is that Sam does the consonants and Jon the vowels, though that’s not very funny so we wouldn’t dream of putting it down here. No, we both like doing everything, so split it all equally.”

Do you take turns with a script, passing it between each other, or do you write together in the same room?

“We’ve tried various ways, but what works for us is to pass the script back and forth – one writes five pages, the other edits that and writes the next five. That way it keeps “our” voice consistent and lets us script-edit and rewrite as we go.

“We probably talk on Skype about ten times a day. In the early stages of working out what the story is though, we like to do that in the pub.”

How do you compromise when you both want a story to go in different directions?

“There’s no ego between us because we’ve been friends since school, so it’s okay to back down – we’re not trying to prove anything. That said, we do have disagreements and can argue for half an hour over a tiny, silly joke – or a single word – but eventually one of us will give in, because he recognises the other feels that little bit more strongly, even if it’s just 51% to 49.

“When the perfect 50/50 arrives, it’ll be interesting. Until then, our rivalry is limited to constantly changing whose initials come first on the header at the top of our scripts.”

Which TV dramas have you enjoyed watching lately and which TV series have influenced you most as writers over the years?

“We both think The Killing, Mad Men and Sherlock have all been pretty amazing recently. In terms of influences, Joss Whedon is probably the biggest (we realise that may not come across in our Spooks work…).

The Wire is the greatest show ever made… Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: TNG, The Sopranos, comedies like Arrested Development and Peep Show… as for films, way too many to name.”

Do you think BBC One’s Outcasts, by former Spooks writer Ben Richards, was moved into a late night slot too quickly?

“Yes. Ben is hugely talented (a crucial part of Spooks’ success, of course) and if you’re watching Outcasts, you know it’s getting better all the time. New, ambitious, original shows need support and patience.

“At the same time we don’t envy the BBC, who are under unrelenting pressure and scrutiny. They’re in a can’t-win situation – but it’s undeniably a shame.”

How do you think this reaction to Outcasts’ performance will affect future cult/genre commissions?

“It will definitely make people even more nervous about commissioning science fiction. And they were pretty nervous in the first place…”

You’ve both written for several comedy shows (The Wrong Door, The Wall, Balls Of Steel) – how do you feel about humour’s role in Spooks? For instance, Harry and Ros have both had some great cutting one-liners in the past…

“We can’t overstate the importance of humour in Spooks. Without those light touches, the life-or-death stakes can feel oppressive and po-faced. It’s not the presence but the lack of humour that makes serious things feel silly.

“Of course, you can’t just have Dimitri suddenly reeling off puns while thousands of people are about to die… but whenever it is right and emotionally truthful, we try to put humour in. Standalone jokes are the first thing to get cut if the episode needs trimming, so we try to make key lines of dialogue and bits of information funny – so they earn their place and survive the cut.”

Is it tough deciding what tone suits Spooks?

“The tone was already in place when we joined for the ninth series, so we didn’t have to decide anything! After all these years, it’s got a clear identity – brilliantly maintained by the top people at Kudos who launched the show and still work on it very closely – so thankfully, we know if we ever stray too far off the path, we’ll be gently herded back towards it.”

When you’re watching the news, do you find yourself constantly considering story possibilities for Spooks?

“All the time. The tough part is predicting what’s going to happen in six months’ time, as Spooks famously has done in the past. Happily, we managed it in Series 9 – Episode 6 was trailed with Harry talking about the ‘cyber-war’, then we went straight into the News At Ten, with a headline about the ‘cyber-war’… which made us look quite clever, but we’re worried again now about getting our predictions right. Any clairvoyants reading, get in touch.”

Presumably Series 10 will see a new lead agent introduced and in the last series Beth and Dimitri were introduced. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating a brand new regular? Is it hard coming up with someone different to what’s come before?

“It’s very difficult – for precisely the reason you suggest. A well-established show like Spooks has its own archetypes after ten years, who you then avoid trying to recreate – is this person too much like Tom, or Ros, or Jo?

“However, you mustn’t try to artificially create the exact opposite just for the sake of freshness, as this can feel dishonest and jarring. So it’s finding that balance, making them feel real and rounded – then, of course, the actor is hugely important.”

Can you give us any hints about what to expect from Series 10?

“Berlin corners…”

How many episodes will Series 10 be?”

“We can’t tell you. Sorry!”

There have been rumours about the show ending after Series 10 – do you foresee the show continuing?

“We really don’t know – those decisions are usually taken much later in the year.”

Aside from Spooks, what else have you been working on recently?

“It’s been mainly Spooks for the last eighteen months – it doesn’t leave much time to take on other work. But we’ve got one very exciting TV thing that we’re going to do with Kudos, and a comedy film script we want to spec… a bunch of things, really. Including a P.G. Wodehouse adaptation, which is about as far away from Spooks as you can get.”