Paul Abbott: ‘I don’t think you need damage to be a good writer but you have more experience of extremities'

Paul Abbott’s brilliant new series No Offence is a ‘comedy for a crime-addicted audience’. He talks to Simon Hattenstone about writing Shameless, his family and his battle with bipolar disorder

Paul Abbott is in danger of having created a new character every bit as monstrous as Shameless’s Frank Gallagher, and he is so excited that the words can’t tumble out fast enough. Detective inspector Vivienne Deering (played by Joanna Scanlan from The Thick of It) is not shy of squirting vaginal deodorant in public meetings, occasionally confuses it with her mouth spray, takes the longest (singing) pisses in TV history, will do anything to protect herself, is pretty good at looking after others too, and is not to be messed with. No Offence is the first original UK TV series Abbott has written in more than a decade.

He has been working in television for 30 years, and in the 80s and 90s made his name writing for Coronation Street and Cracker, and co-creating the medical series Ward Four with Kay Mellor. But it was in the noughties that he established himself as one of the TV greats, with an astonishing run that included Linda Green, Clocking Off and most memorably State of Play and Shameless, two series that couldn’t have been more different.

Shameless focused on feckless Frank Gallagher and his army of kids. Gallagher was the workshy alcoholic, forever running from police and responsibilities, happily stealing child benefit and headbutting his son Ian to express his disappointment. Somehow, Abbott managed to make Frank likable, and turn Shameless into a triumphant tale of survival rather than a parody of the Manchester underclass. Meanwhile, State of Play was a tightly written political drama about a newspaper investigation that showed off Abbott’s phenomenal grasp of detail and process. State of Play became a successful Hollywood movie, starring Russell Crowe, and Ben Affleck, while Shameless was adapted for the US and became just as successful stateside.

Joanna Scanlan as DI Vivienne Deering in No Offence.
Joanna Scanlan as DI Vivienne Deering in No Offence. Photograph: Phil Fisk

Now Abbott is back with No Offence, where you can see the influence of both dramas: there is the sense of police procedural from State of Play, the pantomime grotesquery of Shameless, and as always that brilliant ear for the individual voice.

Eight years ago, Abbott started the Writers’ Studio in Manchester, which encourages more of a US-style team approach to writing. No Offence is a product of this, with episodes written by five different writers, all of whom had helping hands in every episode.

We meet at his apartment in central London – one of four homes he now has (the others being in Manchester, France and Los Angeles). Abbott is pacing up and down, smoking away, fizzing with energy. He recently brought himself a device that measures how far he walks in a day: “Even if I haven’t left my house, I do 16km in circles round the house. It’s not like I’m doing it to get healthy, it’s just what I do.” He is skinny and tiny, a Matchbox man, with shocking blue eyes. He talks fast, invariably juggling a handful of stories at once. He says his 23-year-old son, now a police officer, had to warn a friend who had not previously met Abbott that it is hard to keep pace with him, that his stories all land – but not when and where you might expect them to.

Abbott first dreamed up No Offence in 2006. “I wanted to do a comedy for a crime-addicted audience who love The Bill. It’s The Bill, tilted. Jet-black comedy show is the way I describe it. But the word comedy trips me up every time.”

His work has always been funny – but never really comedy. And when he started writing No Offence as a comedy, it didn’t work. The jokes were add-ons, he says. “It was way off beam. We got the writing wrong. You can’t just do a gag then do the police stuff – the gag has to roll with the police stuff.” In the end, he realised what he always does – the humour has to come out of the drama.

Abbott’s success is remarkable by any standards, but all the more so when you consider his backstory. Shameless was largely autobiographical. His family were the Gallaghers, only more dysfunctional – eight children living in a tiny house in Burnley. “Six sons in one room, and no bathroom, it fucking stank.” His father complained when he saw Shameless that they had never lived on a council estate, and that he hadn’t had long hair. Abbott says he dreamed of living on an estate and having a bathroom. His father was smaller, smarter (he wore a suit and tie) and more violent than Frank. Most of his brothers and sisters were illiterate. As in Shameless, his older sister, eight months pregnant at 16, became the mother to the children when their real mother abandoned them. Of all the characters, Abbott says he most resembled the “gobshite” Lip, and Debbie, who was mature beyond her years because she had to be.

David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher in Shameless.
David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher in Shameless. Photograph: Channel 4

The young Abbott rarely went to school, but he was a swot. He went to the reference library to research medicine. “From the age of five I was going to be a surgeon, working on cataracts in Africa … but not for God.” He giggles. “The not for God came in after about 11.”

Back then writing was an escape; a sanctuary, because his brothers couldn’t read. “They’re all still fairly illiterate … you’ve got to read a letter for them. I would sit there and write around the edges of the newspaper that my brother was a big fat cunt because he was and because he beat me up.” He pauses. “I was quite ill by then … I went off like a Roman candle when it did happen.”

He is talking about his breakdown. At 11, he was raped by a stranger, and jumped off the roof of a multi-storey car park. At 15, he attempted suicide again, overdosing on pills and slashing his wrists. I ask if he still has scars. He lifts the sleeves of his shirt. “Sometimes if it gets cold they come up purple. It was a dark time.” He was sectioned in the psychiatric ward of Burnley general for 28 days, then stayed through the year as a day patient. “It was a really effective intervention by the state,” he smiles.

Did he feel different when he came out? “Yes, I didn’t feel I was such a cunt. I thought against the measure of the rest of the world, I’m doing all right.” He realised how strong he was to have pulled through, and how determined he was to write. He wrote a play that Alan Bennett sponsored, and by his late 20s he was earning £200,000 a year writing for Coronation Street. He became obsessed with TV drama. He watched everything, analysed it, dismantled it, examined the mechanics. He mentions the great GF Newman TV dramas, Law And Order and The Nation’s Heath. “You watch it and go wow! That really rips your fucking spleen out. The muscularity of it. It’s the closest you can get to the truth while it’s fiction.”

Abbott was diagnosed as bipolar when he was sectioned, and he still hears voices in his head. This January he was presented with a doctorate at Keele (he has got a handful of them, and is a visiting professor at the University of Salford). When he went up to receive the award, they drowned out everything else. “The bad voices are on the left, and the good ones are on the right. And as I went to get up on stage, the voice on the left said: ‘Who the fuck are you pretending to be?’ If you let that voice come out you’re dead on stage, so you have to talk while it’s talking … talk it out. And that’s what I did.”

Does he often hear that voice? “Yeah. ‘What kind of cunt are you for not finishing that script?’” At times, the voices have been crippling, but they have also been part of the creative process. “You learn to control the flooding. That’s what I feel I’ve been doing since I was 15.”

As a young man, Abbott was desperate to get away from Burnley. For a long time, he says, he would be sick when he went home. Today, he is distant from most of the family. Sometimes, he says, they will get in touch, but often they’re on the cadge. He mentions one brother who gave him a call after getting out of prison and the first thing he said was: “Hiya kid, can you lend us 67,000 quid?” The last time he had been in touch was seven years previously when Abbott lent him £10,000.

Clocking Off.
Clocking Off. Photograph: Nick Wall

Abbott’s father died a couple of years ago. “I didn’t go to the funeral.” Did he feel anything? “No.” After Shameless first aired, he was briefly reunited with him. “I found out a bit more than I wanted to know.”


“I’m not talking about it. He was not a nice man. I just found the information out about him. It was a single thing. And I thought: ‘That’s the end.’ When I didn’t go to the funeral my brothers said it’s a good job you didn’t turn up because it would have made it a double.”


“They would have done me.”

They liked him?

“They loved him. Everybody did.”

And you?


Did you like Frank more than your dad? “Oh yeah, I loved Frank.”

I ask Abbott if he thinks he would have been as good a writer if he had come from a more conventional background. “I certainly don’t think you need damage to be a good writer. But I think you’ve got more experience of extremities so you’re just a few years ahead.”

But he hated it when people suggested he was simply transferring his life to the screen. After Clocking Off, a series of stories about the lives of workers in a northern factory, critics suggested this was his niche. “Some journalist called me the laureate of white sliced bread. I thought: ‘You cheeky cunt. D’you think it’s easier to write working class?’ I thought that was so fucking rude. That’s why I wrote State of Play, to wipe the smile off his face.”

Despite the fact that No Offence is a writing comeback of sorts, Abbott, 55, has been as busy as ever in recent years – developing the Writers’ Studio, mentoring, creating and producing – including the fine Alzheimer’s thriller Exile (another unlikely Abbott mix) and Hit & Miss about a transsexual contract killer starring Chloe Sevigny (ditto). At times, life has got in the way of work. He got divorced from his third wife after 25 years together, suffered with his mental health and was hospitalised three times, moved to Venice Beach in Los Angeles to recover his karma, met his fourth wife, had a vasectomy reversed and last year had his third child, Ellis. He shows me a photograph of a gorgeous baby with blue eyes every bit as piercing as his.

Now he is juggling so many projects he doesn’t know where to start – a second series of No Offence, a new State of Play (which he is reluctant to talk about), a television series with Tommy Schlamme (co-creator of The West Wing) about reality TV, an animation about obesity called Patsy Clinger’s Near Death Cookery Course, and still he’s going …

You know, he says, for the fidgety type, the kind of fella who finds it hard to sit in one place and hears voices in his head, he couldn’t have chosen a more suitable career. “Being absorbed in all those different worlds … Best job in the world.”

No Offence starts on Channel 4 in May.


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paul Abbott: ‘I have written two scenes I can’t bear to watch’
Shameless plundered his bleak childhood for comedy. Now, he’s written a ‘funny forensics’ show, Wolfe, informed by his own bipolar diagnosis. The hit writer talks therapy, all-nighters and why his seven-year-old adores gore

Stuart Jeffries

23, Aug, 2021 @11:05 AM

Article image
Paul Abbott: ‘Shameless became too hysterical. I was glad to see it off’
As No Offence returns to Channel 4, the award-winning scriptwriter talks about former hits, problems with pitching, and State of Play 2

Andrew Anthony

01, Jan, 2017 @6:59 AM

Article image
Paul Abbott's Exile: The prodigal returns

Shameless sent him to the States – but now Paul Abbott is back with Exile. On set, Amy Raphael hears about Alzheimer's, how to get an all-star cast, and where British TV should head next

Amy Raphael

18, Apr, 2011 @8:29 PM

The Monday interview: Paul Abbott

Shameless, State of Play and Clocking Off have made Paul Abbott the most feted TV writer of his generation - not bad for someone who was abandoned at 11, sectioned at 15 and divorced by 21. By Stuart Jeffries.

Stuart Jeffries

07, Feb, 2005 @7:33 AM

Article image
Shameless creator Paul Abbott talks about his new Channel 4 series
As the US version prepares to premiere, he reveals he still has thousands of story ideas. By Ian Wylie

Ian Wylie

29, Nov, 2010 @7:01 AM

Article image
My TV hero: Russell T Davies on Paul Abbott
Screenwriter Paul Abbott injects real life into everything he touches, from Coronation Street to Shameless

As told to Vicky Frost

20, Jun, 2011 @8:00 PM

Shameless | Doctors and Nurses | Revolver: last night’s television by Nancy Banks-Smith.


14, Jan, 2004 @9:08 AM

Article image
Estate of play

How did Paul Abbott escape his dysfunctional family to become the most sought-after writer in British TV? Decca Aitkenhead finds out

Decca Aitkenhead

11, Jul, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Shameless | Your next box set
Don’t for a minute look at it as a serious comment on “Broken Britain”, but as comedy Shameless is a fallabout joy, says Phil Daoust

Phil Daoust

22, Oct, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
TV review: Shameless US; Planet of the Apemen
The American remake of Paul Abbott's family drama is OK – but all it really does is remind us how great the original was

Sam Wollaston

23, Jun, 2011 @10:15 PM