Liverpool-born screenwriter spent ten years as a Merseyside police officer
From jobs as a police officer, taxi driver and even a stand-up comic, Tony Schumacher could well find himself with a writer’s award from BAFTA this time next year. The 54-year-old from Huyton wrote the script for The Responder, the hit BBC television series which exploded onto our screens in January.
To start with, it was great fun and it was exciting. You get to drive cars and run around and get in fights at the weekend.
Starring Martin Freeman as PC Chris Carson, a Merseyside Police officer trying to hold his life together while working five days of night shifts, the story behind The Responder is loosely inspired by Tony’s time as a bobby on the beat.
“I loved being a copper,” Tony says. “I never set out to be a police officer, but there was an advert in the Echo and I just joined.
“To start with, it was great fun and it was exciting. You get to drive cars and run around and get in fights at the weekend, it was brilliant. But after a while it was just 999 jobs constantly, that was all I did, for ten, eleven years and it just wore me out mentally.”
Suffering from burnout, Tony quit the police and ended up homeless. It was a job as a taxi driver and chance encounter with Angie Sammons, then editor of Liverpool Confidential, that got him his first writing opportunity.
“Angie got in my cab and we got talking about what she did,” Tony says.
“I said, ‘I’m a writer!’ I don’t know why I said it but it was the best lie I ever told. She said, ‘what do you write about?’ I said, 'stuff that happens in my taxi'. I was just making it up on the hoof."
Tony went away and wrote his first story for Angie, becoming a regular contributor for Liverpool Confidential with his “Rear View Mirror” columns. After that, he published three successful novels with Harper Collins, but his dream was always to write TV scripts.
“I was on a break from writing books and just walking back from the pub and I thought, I’m gonna write a television script,” Tony says.
“I downloaded a free scriptwriting programme and wrote a script on the weekend, and sent it to LA Productions.”
The Liverpool production company liked the script and invited Tony into the office. Before he’d even made it into the meeting, the award-winning screenwriter Jimmy McGovern just happened to walk past and pick it up. The following week Jimmy asked Tony to go for a pint and a chat.
That first script was called The Estate, based on a “nihilistic scally” who had got in Tony’s taxi.
“When I met with Jimmy, we talked about different ideas that I had. Jimmy said, ‘well that’s all well and good, but you should write about your breakdown when you were in the police. That’s more interesting.' And that was what The Responder was.
“I'm just incredibly lucky. If Angie hadn’t got in my cab; if Jimmy hadn’t picked that script up. I don't know what would have happened."
Without giving away any spoilers, we can say that PC Chris Carson is a complex character with a lot of moral conflict. But is he Tony?
“Aspects of the character are based on me, but I wasn’t a corrupt copper," Tony says.
"The corruption part of it is loosely based on two bobbies who I worked with who I didn't know at the time were corrupt. It was only when I was driving about two, three years after I left, I bought the Echo one night and there was the bobby on the front page and he’d been arrested.
“The backstory; why Chris is corrupt and the things he gets into, are different. It’s more about someone who got out of his depth. Little things that turn into big things that you can’t control."
Tony says he was lucky to have been heavily involved with a lot of the production of his script for The Responder, including the casting.
“Probably because I’m such a nark that I forced my way into the room,” Tony laughs. “I literally demanded certain things that probably, as a new writer, I wouldn’t have got if I hadn’t been so pushy. But the way I work is on the basis that if you don’t ask you don’t yet."
The first series of The Responder got rave reviews although there were a few grumbles about the casting of a non-scouser in the lead role.
“I got a tiny, tiny little bit of criticism before the show went out,” says Tony.
“When it went out, for the first five minutes you could see people on social media saying, ‘they should have asked Stephen Graham.’ But then that criticism just went. A few newspapers tried to make something of it but most people were just on board with it.
“The thing is with Martin - when you use an actor that big, who’s that good - they transcend those petty little things. His season of Fargo was one of the reasons why I wrote the show with him in mind. He was so good and so dark and so evil. I think he's proven that he is one of the best actors in the country, probably the world.”
But it wasn’t just Freeman who impressed, and the characters of Casey and Marco, played by Emily Fairn and Josh Finan, quite often managed to steal the show.
“They’re my favourite characters,” says Tony. “I was a Marco. That conversation in episode one with Chris in the front and Marco in the backseat of the police car was essentially me talking to me thirty years apart. I was a scally from Huyton. Marco is very much derived from me and the people who I know.
“I absolutely love Casey. I'm so happy that I've managed to not make her a chocolate box homeless heroin addict. I think I made her three dimensional. Emily Fairn who played her brought so much vulnerability and yet hardness to her.
"I like to think that maybe it might make people look at those people slightly differently. I’ve been homeless, I know what it’s like.”
The first series of The Responder launched with nearly 10 million viewers across 30-days, and a second series has been confirmed, with filming hopefully to commence towards the end of the year. Tony is very much a man in demand at the moment. Could he be tempted to move to the bright lights of LA?
Marco is very much derived from me and the people who I know.
“I’m more likely to move to L8,” Tony laughs. “Writing is good for the soul, and even if you don’t end up doing it for a living, it’s good for the soul. I’m so lucky, and I still feel like a fraud.
“Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago, what do you do for a living? And I told them I was a taxi driver because I couldn’t face telling them that I was a writer.
“I’m working on something now that, if it takes off, I’ll have to go to the States. But I don’t doubt that I‘ll come back to Liverpool. It’s just an adventure at the moment. I’m just looking at it like, let’s see where it takes us.”
The Responder is available to watch in BBC iPlayer. Tony Schumacher joins this year’s line up at literature festival ‘WowFest’ - catch him at FACT Liverpool on Friday 6 May. Tickets available from Writing on the Wall.
Follow Vicky Andrews on Twitter: @planetvicster