Interview: Tony Jordan. Think Life on Mars, Hustle, Minder, Eastenders …

Tony Jordan is the mind and the pen behind many of our most popular TV shows.. In this exclusive interview, he passes on some wisdom to,aspiring writers. And he should know!

Who remembers the actor “Robert Vaughn?” Older readers may recollect him as Napoleon Solo in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E. along with David McCallum who played Illya Kuryakin. The TV show ran between 1964 and 1968 and was about a super-secret organisation involved in secret international espionage and law-enforcement.

It was a sort of US version of the BBCs ‘Avengers’ I suppose, and in my research, I also discovered that James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, had a hand in the development and scriptwriting of The Man From UNCLE.)

Cast of Hustle50 years on, most people however would now remember the (now sadly, late) Vaughn as ‘the roper’ in the BBC series ‘Hustle’, a show about a group of con artists who ‘ethically’ relieve rich and often nasty or unscrupulous people of their money.

Hustle ran for 8 years – a good run for a drama-cum-comedy (or maybe light hearted might be a better description) and focuses very much on the group’s ingenuity, planning and downright cheek in reaching their goals.

So if you haven’t watched the program, I urge you to as it is entertaining TV at its best don’t be too surprised to see shameless ’grifting’ as it known to sell the Houses of Parliament in London, attempts to steal the crown jewels, or return the Ashes to Australia by somewhat nefarious means.

Sadly, the final series was put to bed by the BBC in February 2012.

Or was it?

I have long admired the work put out by writer and show runner for Hustle Tony Jordan, so, when the opportunity came to have a chat, I grabbed it with both hands.

As a primer, Jordan started his writing career at the age of 32 when he submitted his first unsolicited script to the BBC.

He became a scriptwriter for BBC 1‘s EastEnders, writing almost two hundred episodes.  He became lead writer and series consultant in the series heyday when it constantly hit audiences in excess of 20 million.

During his tEast Endersime at EastEnders, Jordan was not only responsible for some of the most successful storylines in the show’s history, he also created many of its most iconic and well-loved characters including the Slater family and Alfie Moon.

Since then Jordan’s career progressed with such iconic shows as MinderLife on Mars (which in my opinion has the best ever ending in the finale of Series 1), Holby Blue, Moving Wallpaper and By Any Means. There are many, many other titles to Jordan’s credit, but sadly, to the best of my knowledge, none have as yet been seen in Australia. (Are you listening Aunty ABC?)

For a complete biography and his works, a good place to start is Jordan’s Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Jordan.

But back to our chat …

I was curious initially as to his modus operandi with his writing so I asked did he have a complete storyline worked out in its entirely when it’s a series such as Life on Mars, or episode by episode as in Hustle and By Any Means?

I don’t think you can start telling a story unless you know where you’re going; it’s a bit like the North Star for sailors, it gives you a point to aim for, to guide you through the journey” was his reply and continued with, “This applies both episodically and a series arc. I’m not saying you can’t change or adapt it as you go along, as new ways of telling the story emerge, but without an end point, how do you know where the beginning is?

I also wanted to know if, out of the plethora of material he had created, he had a favourite. By any stretch of imagination, Jordan’s output is prodigious and ranks him up there with the late Enid Blyton, famous for The Famous Five, Secret Seven and hundreds of children’s novels, and Agatha Christie so this had to be a toughie I thought.

“I think EastEnders represents a huge body of work for me, a hundred hours of drama, it may not all be brilliant, but taken as a whole, it’s hard not to feel proud of it.  But I’m equally proud of everything I’ve done I think, if I wasn’t I would never have allowed it to be aired with my name on and there are plenty of things I’ve taken my name off in the past.   I think the thing I’m most proud of is the range of material I tackle.  That I can write a comedy like Moving Wallpaper, but also write The Passing Bells, a five part mini-series about young men of the first world war due to air in the UK in November.  That I can write Hustle, but then write The Nativity about the birth of Christ.

A few weeks back I wrote a small piece on the general lack of penetration overseas shows had gained in the US, with many UK shows (and indeed a number of home-grown Aussie shows not seeing their way to a second season. Just recently, we saw Australian Rove McManus’ TV show in the US being axed (but then again, so was that pap about some women thinking they were dating Prince Harry, so maybe that’s not exactly a good example).

By Any MeansI was keen to know of Jordan’s experiences in this area, and his thoughts. He was suitably neutral as would be expected, reminding me that the US version of Hustle did very well, and the ABC (US not Australian) did a remake of Life on Mars. Jordan told me “For me, the secret to making it work is to not to just copy a format, that’s lazy and unimaginative.   You need to take the essence of an idea, the soul of it and use that to make a version that fits your culture perfectly”.

And as to that question of Hustle now dead and buried?

We’ve flirted with the idea of a Hustle movie.  Maybe one day.   I think I have so many TV projects waiting in the wings, I’ll think of movies for when I retire.    Just sit in my garden shed and write a movie a year.

That’s all very well, and that would be fantastic, but closer to now? Any hints, clues?

“I think of Hustle as “resting”, it’s a format you could always bring back”.    

Fair enough.

The last show we saw in Australia from the pen of Tony Jordan was By Any Means, a series following the escapades of a clandestine unit that exists in the grey area between law and justice. Living on the edge, they play the criminal elite at their own game. If not, would he give us any insight into projects in the gestation stage or even a little further down the track.

(I have since discovered he also has a hand in the very popular “Death in Paradise“.)

When asked about the possibility of a second series, Jordan replied, “The BBC cancelled By Any Means, I don’t think it was the smartest decision they’ve ever made, but there’s not much I can do about it.”

PersonlIy I’d love to see an episode of Dr Who penned by Jordan (A body of work completed by Jordan and aired in 2010 on the BBC is The Nativity, a new version of the nativity of Jesus story starring Peter Capaldi, the new Dr, who is to have his first episode screened in late August of this year). What are the odds?

“I’ve been offered Dr Who a couple of times in the past, but it never happened and they stopped asking. Maybe one day. I’m currently working on a Musical Drama idea called Stop! In The Name of Love, a story about a group of women trying to find their place in the world and using the music of Motown to tell the story, then I move on to Dickensian, a BBC1 project where I bring all of Dickens’ characters together in one place”.

I was also interested in his thoughts on piracy. Australia was recently singled out as a major player in the illegal downloading of TV shows and movies, so with being the creator of such popular titles, had he been affected?

“People are always going to nick stuff.  Do I think they should?  No.  It’s a problem that will only get worse for our industry as more content is streamed online. It’s tough to protect material once it’s out there”.  

My last question was about that art of writing. As a publisher, I have seen words on paper from a multitude of people, some of it good, some of it bad. I also am aware that getting published in any shape or form can be a soul destroying past time, with the risk of rejection after rejection. A famous example of this is J. K. Rowling who was overlooked 12 times before a small publisher picked up, taking her from being on social welfare to billionaire status in a matter of years.

Jordan’s reply to this question seems a good way to end an interview, giving some wisdom to be mulled over.

“Keep writing.  Don’t be put off by rejection.  Life on Mars was rejected for seven years before it was made, Moving Wallpaper took twelve years to get made. There’s a quote by screenwriter William Goldman in his book, “Adventures in The Screen Trade”, where he says that “Nobody Knows Anything”, that’s the biggest truth I can pass on.

Wise words from someone who has been there and done that.

(I first published this story in Australian Videocamera in 2014. I have just started watching Hustle again on video – legit purchased BBC ones I hasten to add – and once again admire the writing techniques and story lines, and felt it was worth re-telling here).

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