The artists' artist TV drama writers

Five leading TV drama writers choose their favourite peer

Ashley Pharoah on Paul Abbott

I first noticed Paul Abbott's name on the credits of Cracker in 1994. What immediately excited me was that his dark, sharp insights existed so brilliantly within a genre setting. Back then, series writers were on the bottom rungs of the television industry – the kudos tended to go to one-off dramas. Paul changed all that.

Some writers write the same thing all their lives. Paul has moved from the dark thrillers of Touching Evil to the gloomy strangeness of The Secret World of Michael Fry, to Shameless. Watching the News Corp saga unfold, it's been hard not to think of State of Play, perhaps his greatest work to date: a dark and emotional take on our newspapers and the society they feed.

His love of storytelling is ever-present, and he plies his talent in the brutal world of the ratings-obsessed mainstream, not the arthouse margins. His voice is sometimes angry but never polemical: it's brave and loving, incredibly personal and yet universal.

Ashley Pharoah co-created Life on Mars

Kay Mellor on Alan Bleasdale

Watching Alan Bleasdale's 1982 series Boys from the Blackstuff was probably the only time in a television drama when I have been laughing through my tears. Yosser Hughes goes to confession and says, "I'm desperate, Father." The priest goes, "Call me Dan." Yosser says, "I'm desperate, Dan." I felt so deeply for him, and then in that moment of rock-bottom despair, he made me laugh. Only Bleasdale would dare do that.

It was about five men who had worked on the roads – tar is the "black stuff" – and each episode was a study of each character. That changed British television – a lot of people, including myself, have used that technique.

You didn't always realise at the time what a huge political punch the series had because Bleasdale didn't bash you on the head with it. It gave us the saying "gissa job", showing these unemployed men at a time when there was high unemployment and the working classes were really struggling.

He creates extraordinary characters. In GBH, they were hysterically funny but again very political. Some people think drama shouldn't have humour in it, they see it as lightweight, but I fight for it. If you can make someone laugh, they can't second guess where you are going. And Bleasdale is always full of surprises.

Kay Mellor's shows include Band of Gold

Russell T Davies on Sally Wainwright

I first met Sally Wainwright in the 1990s, when Granada used to make wonderful, barmy daytime soaps, such as Families and Revelations. She'd sit and listen to ideas for storylines about sex-mad bishops and gay baby-swaps, then go home and somehow make all this stuff real. That's her greatest skill – her scripts can have wild flights of fancy, but the characters always stay grounded, salty, vivid, immediate.

You can never tell what she's going to do next, whether it's bus drivers in Jane Hall or soap star ghosts in Bonkers. But there's always a radical stance in her stuff, coupled with a sense of humour. Even now, in 2011, Scott and Bailey is remarkable, just for being a cop show led by three women. By the sheer existence of that show, Sally quietly shames the rest of us.

I think Unforgiven has been her masterpiece, so far. I remember people were disappointed that ITV didn't commission a second series but, for me, it ended at night, in the cold, in the north, in tears, in hope. That's a perfect place to stop. Brilliant and bold and pure Sally.

Russell T Davis wrote Doctor Who

Peter Moffat on Abi Morgan

I read somewhere that Abi Morgan said: "I'm a writer of fiction," which I take to mean – and I love this – that she writes about things she doesn't know about. So she writes Sex Traffic and The Hour and they couldn't be more different. She has scope and ambition, while being really grounded and truthful. She is not parochial.

It's obvious that the research she does is very serious but, on screen, she wears it very lightly. She writes about big, important subjects, and makes you, on your sofa, feel intelligent. That's a massive headstart in any relationship between a writer and an audience.

In The Hour, it's interesting that there is more talking than in some of her other work, which made me think about the economy with which she writes normally. But there is also space between the lines. The director is happy to let the camera linger on Ben Whishaw or Dominic West at the end of every scene – that's set up by the writing. She seems to really like and trust actors, so she gets really good performances.

Peter Moffat's work includes Silk

Amanda Coe on Paul Abbott

I would always tune into anything with Paul Abbott's name on it. I became aware of his work when he did Reckless, which was a fantastically enjoyable twist on a familiar romantic genre. His glory year was the one in which the first series of Shameless went out along with State of Play. He almost simultaneously managed to write two state of the nation pieces – one that humanised the political infrastructure of the country (while also being a cracking thriller), and another that humanised the apolitical "underclass" in a surprising, hilarious way.

Abbott's work is always recognisable by its humanity – if someone is handing out a parking ticket, they will have a backstory and a pithy line. That's the thing I've taken away from his work and tried to use in mine – that everyone in a story is important. That, and the pleasure of surprise.

Amanda Coe's work includes As If


Interviews by Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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