Ashley Pharoah is one of the rare screenwriters who write genuinely great as well as he exemplifies something I’ve seen again and again: a career is shaped by talent, luck and very hard work. Ashley has a fantastic track record in UK TV drama. He co-created and wrote the hit BBC sci-fi series “Life On Mars”, which was remade for ABC, starring Harvey Keitel, and “Ashes To Ashes”, as well as family drama “Wild At Heart”. He has won two International Emmys for “Life on Mars” in recognition of his excellent work. Pharoah was born in Somerset, England. After studying at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield in the 1980s, he began his television writing career on the BBC soap opera “EastEnders” in 1991 and he formed Monastic Productions with scriptwriter Matthew Graham in 2006. Ashley Pharoah makes amazing creative work, his scripts are stunning and he has a tremendous inherent sense of enthusiasm and optimism for life. He is exceedingly intelligent, full of brilliant ideas and highly versatile and talented. We discovered a person very passionate about his job and family.
– What is the most difficult thing about screenwriting?
I’d like to flip this question and say what I love about writing for the screen. And that’s writing. Turning the computer on in the morning. Mug of coffee. Music. Dog asleep. A day ahead of dreaming dreams… I could probably learn to live without the notes and the read-throughs and the Skype calls and the set arguments and reviews and the ratings and the broadcasters. But we’re screenwriters, not poets, and the two states of mind are intrinsically linked.
– Do you think there’s a lack of creativity on television and on the big screen? Do you think there’s an over-reliance on sequels, remakes and adaptations to bring in audiences and make profit?
I honestly can’t remember a time when television – across the world – was more vibrant and challenging and imaginative. Especially long-form series, there are a staggering amount of wonderful shows. And they’re often adult, emotionally and intellectually sophisticated, witty, visual. Cinema, on the other hand, has become like a fairground ride. Big and noisy and flash – but about nothing.
"I honestly can’t remember a time when television - across the world -
was more vibrant and challenging and imaginative.
Cinema, on the other hand, has become like a fairground ride.
Big and noisy and flash - but about nothing."
– What is the best and worst thing about working with Matthew Graham?
The best thing is Matt’s imagination. It truly knows no bounds, never stops or rests, never gets tired. Endless pours out new ideas and characters and dialogue. He taught me to move away from my comfort zone of realism and embrace the high concept – for which I’ll be forever grateful. The worst is probably his dress sense.
"The best thing is Matt’s imagination"
– What do you think of the UK TV market for new writers?
The British market is booming, both for UK product and – since the govt put in place a tax break – for mercian productions filming here. There is a lot of work for directors and actors and some more for writers. The BBC has shows like “Doctors” and “The Coroner” where newer writers can cut their teeth. And there are the soaps, too. I would say it’s harder now to climb the ladder. With budgets so large broadcasters tend to turn to same, trusted group of writers so it’s harder to break in. But far from impossible.
Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham
"The British market is booming, both for UK product and
-since the govt put in place a tax break- for mercian productions filming here. There is a lot of work for directors and actors and some more for writers."
– What experiences from your life influence your characters? How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create?
All my characters are a mixture of me, the people around me, my friends and family. I can’t imagine how it could be any other way. I always try and understand my characters. Not like them, necessarily, but try and understand their motives. We are all of us on a journey, trying to survive and battle through and look for little shards of beauty and meaning – as true for me as my characters.
"All my characters are a mixture of me, the people around me,
my friends and family. We are all of us on a journey, trying to survive and battle through and look for little shards of beauty and meaning
- as true for me as my characters."
– You have worked on several successful series with different directors. Which project were you most excited about and why, and which director did you enjoy working with the most?
I’m really enjoying working with Alice Troughton on my latest series for the BBC, “The Living and The Dead”. She is very generous, very open, and I enjoy being on set with her and talking through scenes and images. She makes me feel like I’m back at Film School again, with roles a bit looser, everyone feeling confident to offer ideas and suggestions.
– You once said that you were all very excited about your new project “The Living and The Dead” in the same way you once were about “Life On Mars” and “Ashes To Ashes”. How is this series going to differ from other television ideas that are also based on supernatural phenomena and the horror genre?
“The Living and The Dead” isn’t really a horror series. It’s more ghostly, atmospheric, eerie. It’s really a love story, about this young couple who leave Victorian London to make a new start for themselves in an isolated valley in Somerset, in the west of England. This is the area I grew up in and where I live again, so writing about the people and landscapes and myths of my home has been wonderful. And I get to sleep in my own bed.
"The industry that has sprung up, feeding on wannabe writers,
alarms me sometimes. The festivals and gurus and books and reading schemes and competitions. If I was starting out now
I’d definitely go the short film route."
– What should the film/ tv industry be doing for screenwriters that it isn’t?
The question of how you educate screenwriters has always fascinated me. When I started out I think Syd Fields was the only book on screenwriting you could buy in an English bookshop – now there are hundreds! The industry that has sprung up, feeding on wannabe writers, alarms me sometimes. The festivals and gurus and books and reading schemes and competitions. If I was starting out now I’d definitely go the short film route.
– And finally- one surprising (non-writing related) fact about you.
I’m allergic to seafood. Spain is tricky for me!
Film/ TV/ Awards
2016–The Living and The Dead – BBC One
2013- MoonFlet – Sky 1
2012- Eternal Law – ITV
2011- Case Histories – BBC One
2008-2010- Ashes to Ashes – BBC One
Nominated: Best TV Drama Series, Writers Guild Awards 2010 (Series III)
Nominated: Best TV Drama Series, Writers Guild Awards 2008
2007-2008– Bonekickers– BBC One
2006-2011- Wild at Heart– ITV
2006-2007- Life On Mars– BBC One
Nominated: BAFTA for Best Drama Series 2008
Winner: BAFTA Pioneer Audience Award for Best Drama 2007
Nominated: 3 BAFTA Awards 2007
Winner: BANFF Award for Best Continuing Series 2006
Winner: Broadcasting Press Guild Best Drama Series Award 2007
Winner: Broadcasting Press Guild Writer’s Award 2007
Winner: International Emmy for Best Drama Series 2007
Winner: Edgar Allan Poe Award Best Drama Series 2007
2004- Hustle– BBC One
2003- Eustace Brothers– BBC One
2002- Paradise Heights– BBC One
2001- Down to Earth– BBC One
2000- Anchor Me– ITV
1997-1998- Life Support– BBC Scotland
1997-2000- Where the Heart Is – ITV
1996- Silent Witness– BBC One
1994-1995- Casualty– BBC One
1991-1994- Eastenders– BBC One
1988- Water’s Edge– BBC Two
Winner: Gold Award, Best Fiction Film at Bilbao Film Festival 1988
Nominated: BAFTA for Best Short Film 1989
Winner: Basque Television Award 1988
Winner: Prix du Public award, Angers Film Festival 1989
Winner: Best Foreign Film, Budapest Student Film Festival 1989
Winner: Silver Hugo, Chicago Film Festival 1989
1984- White Elephant
Feature film, co-written with director and producer Werner Grusch
With Peter Firth. Shown at the Edinburgh, London and Chicago Film Festivals