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From Footballers' Wives and Coronation Street to TOWIE and new show Suspects, Belfast writer Paul Marquess on his life of TV drama

Una Brankin meets the producer who has killed off so many leading characters, he's been dubbed 'The Axeman'

A Belfast version of Coronation Street is not beyond the realms of possibility, according to Paul Marquess, but the award-winning Belfast-born writer/producer is a little busy for that at the moment.

If you're a soap fan, Marquess would be an ideal dinner guest for behind-the-scenes chit-chat and revealing insights into the melodramatic storylines. He's good fun anyway, but, having worked on Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, The Bill, Family Affairs and Footballers' Wives, he is most definitely a telly addict's dream date.

Marquess (50) is also the brains behind Channel 5's hit series Suspects, the innovative police procedural drama starring Fay Ripley (Cold Feet; Reggie Perrin), which returns next Tuesday, January 13. He came up with the idea for the gritty, unscripted crime series after writing two episodes of the BAFTA-winning scripted reality ITV2 series The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE), featuring beauty therapist and Jordan wannabe Amy Childs. Suspects is very different.

"Everybody thought I was mad at first - Suspects was unscripted, unglamorous, untested waters," he says. "I remember, at our first production meeting, I could just see the fear - people thinking I'd lost the plot; but after working on TOWIE I'd begun to think there were different ways of making a drama.

"We give the Suspects actors their background stories, which are very detailed and factual, but no script, so it's entirely up to them what they say in their scenes. Damien Moloney (DS Jack Weston) is so brilliant, he'll go through everything with the actor playing the suspect, then go into the interview and do it all in a different order to unsettle him, just like a real detective would. It's great fun to make; there's great freedom."

Channel 5 took the risk on this Woody Allen-like approach and Suspects got rave reviews for its first series last January, with the Daily Telegraph describing it as "unnervingly true to life," and The Guardian hailing Marquess for revolutionising crime drama - plaudits unimaginable to the St Malachy's schoolboy who would run home from lessons to watch Grange Hill, the comprehensive-school soap disapproved of by nervous mothers wary of the cheeky characters' bad influence on their young viewers.

"Mum was a bit stern when it was on at home - she sent me to elocution lessons," recalls Marquess, down the line from London where he lives with his partner, Steve. "I loved it and I was absolutely glued to it, and I told Phil Redmond (Grange Hill's groundbreaking producer) that when I met him on Brookside."

The Marquess family name has its origins in the French Huguenots, who were closely linked to the old linen industry here. Paul is the eldest child of James Marquess, a retired Housing Executive rent collector, and Mary, a former nurse. He attended Park Lodge primary school and then St Malachy's and grew up in Fortwilliam, off Belfast's Antrim Road, with his three brothers and one sister, Jacqui Dixon, who is now the chief executive of the new Antrim and Newtownabbey District Council.

"She's a very scary woman but they all love her; she has met all the members of the Royal family," remarks the proud big brother in a jumble of accents more English than north Belfast. He's been away from home for over three decades, having left at 18 to study English literature and drama at Manchester University in 1982.

"When I told my careers teacher at school that I wanted to do drama, I was told to wise up," he recalls. "I was always very good at English at school - I was always a reader but I was more interested in acting. Me and me and my friend Robert Patterson were in a play when were 15 at the Lyric. We'd only been to panto before and this play was really out there, so we caught the theatre bug and started sneaking out to Crescent Arts Centre around 1979. That changed our lives forever."

A stint of street theatre as a Pierrot clown in Belfast's Fountain Square landed the teenagers on BBC Northern Ireland news ("we thought we were great"). Marquess added drama to his university application and never looked back. Manchester in the early 1980s was only a mild culture shock for the teenager.

"My name was quite a handle to have in the 1970s in Belfast - with the elocution lessons I sounded like a very posh boy at St Malachy's, but the minute I arrived in Manchester, I was a Paddy," he says.

"It wasn't racism as such at that stage; around then most people there were ignorant about Northern Ireland. It was seen as really dull, a bit of a turn-off. That's completely changed now."

Stage-struck, Marquess joined a touring theatre company while at university and began directing in his third academic year.

"I would love to have been an actor but I was really awful," he admits. "I just can't be other people - I'm just a bad, bad actor."

After graduating at 21 he continued directing in the theatre until he was 30, when he got into TV by fluke after a drinking session with a friend who told him about a story editor job going in Granada Television. He applied and started off on a two-week contract in 1993, and went on to work on Coronation Street from 1995 to 1998, when the legendary soap began transmitting four episodes a week, with ratings hitting 16 million.

"We brought in the Battersbys - Bruce Jones who played Les was great - and I worked on the Deirdre-Raschid storyline, and Racquel's leaving," he rattles off.

"It's strange, you're so excited to work on it then when you come off it, you can't watch it. It took me a while to get back into it.

"Roy is a brilliant character - he's a great actor. Mary's great too. I think that partnership has legs."

He then landed a job as series producer working alongside his hero Phil Redmond on Brookside, another soap scorned by sensible mothers. Marquess says: "That was my favourite job - Phil Redmond's always on the zeitgeist. And Liverpool and Belfast people have a lot in common, especially humour. The whole texture and DNA of the two cities are alike; you could even see that in the Liver Birds.

"Liverpool always reminded me of home. My mum was like Sheila Grant in Brookside; she went back to school in her late 30s. It felt very real at the time."

Since then, Marquess has earned a reputation in television circles as the "axe man" for his culls of non-colourful characters, a task his former casual job as a shop manager prepared him for: "I learned how to sack people".

When he took over as executive producer of The Bill in 2002, he fired a number of veteran characters and introduced more sensational storylines, exploring issues such as serial murder, gang rape and domestic violence.

For the first time, the ITV drama focused on the regulars' private lives, including the screening of a gay kiss between two uniformed officers, drug addiction and corruption within the police service.

Marquess believed in giving the show a "kick up the a***", and when he re-introduced its original over-the-shoulder shooting style, ratings climbed from five million to a regular audience of eight million, and earned the series a Television Bafta and Rose d'Or nomination in 2003. By that stage, Marquess had already conceived the idea that was to become Footballers' Wives.

"I'd originally thought of it as Cheshire Wives but I'd seen this documentary on BBC2 about these very rich and pampered women, and how their lives had utterly changed through their husbands' success," he explains. "I wrote a treatment for it, then I saw Victoria Beckham on the telly and realised it had to be Footballers' Wives.

"A lot of these women had come from council estates and the next thing they're WAGs. I don't know if I'm responsible for that term but it was all part of it. It was a kind of forecast of that whole culture."

Promoted to head of drama at TalkbackThames in 2003, Marquess took over as executive producer of Channel 5's teatime soap, Family Affairs, but left in 2005 to develop new projects for Endemol (Big Brother's creators) and BBC Worldwide. When he took over as series producer on Channel 4's Hollyoaks in 2010, he immediately set about firing 11 cast members as part of a major revamp, and building up family circles around Belfast actress Bronagh Waugh, most recently seen in smash-hit Belfast-filmed crime drama The Fall.

Says Marquess: "I told her I thought she was brilliant and very warm and I'd love to give her more to do, so we had her winning £100,000 on the lottery. Then we cast Emmet Scanlan as her brother and he was brilliant, as were Gerard McCarthy and Karen Hassan." So what did he think of his protegees in The Fall?

"I thought Bronagh was the best thing in it, so grounded. Karen Hassan too (the hospitalised Annie Brawley in the second series). I saw the first series and thought some scenes were really brilliant, but some of the violence was just a bit too pornographic. That's my only criticism; but the production values and the ambition were great.

"I haven't seen the second series - my other half, Steve, won't watch it, or anything unpleasant - he prefers Michael Palin's travels or something about railways. I have to watch Breaking Bad on my own."

He gets home to Belfast four or five times a year to see his family and nieces but is unable to entice his mother over to London.

"She uses the bad weather to justify her attitude," he says. "I don't get away on holiday that often. Steve is in corporate travel but I never get the time. In fact if I had the time I'd like to go home and make something about Belfast. The Fall, good as it is, could be about anywhere. I tried with (local playwright) Marie Jones but her heart is in the theatre. I love her."

So, how about an Ulster version of the cobbles in Weatherfield?

He says: "You'd have to start off small but that would be brilliant. A drama based in Northern Ireland would have been a hard sell five or six years ago. The accent isn't a problem now - I suppose you have The Fall to thank for that."

Series 3 of Suspects begins on Channel 5 next Tuesday, January 13, at 10pm.

Paul's best things

Writer: Iain Banks

TV Show: Breaking Bad

Film: Dallas Buyers' Club

Politician: Alan Johnson

Person: Julie Walters (inset)

Food: Chocolate Hobnobs

Drink: Mint tea

Way to relax: Watching television

Motto: Confront your fears!

Giving hit shows new life ...

Some of the big changes Paul has overseen in well-known TV shows include:

The Bill - the popular ITV cop show had largely been confined to one-off stand-alone shows, mostly based around single cases and police procedure, with little emphasis on the characters' personal lives. After taking over in 2002, however, Paul shifted the series towards a more serialised format in an attempt to attract a younger demographic. This involved getting rid of several popular characters and bringing in more sensational storylines, including the contentious screening of a gay kiss between two uniformed officers, which prompted complaints from some viewers

Family Affairs - under Paul's watch as executive producer, the Channel 5 soap enjoyed steady viewing figures and won best storyline at The British Soap Awards in 2005 for a gripping plot featuring sexual abuse

Hollyoaks - after getting rid of 11 cast members, Paul introduced a number of new characters, including the show's first mixed-race family, as well as giving more prominence to the character of Belfast-born actress Bronagh Waugh, who has since gone on to star in hit serial drama The Fall

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