Jimmy Gardner - Fighting to make an impact on screen

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A DESPERATE tussle in a graveyard between a grieving widow and a young homeless woman caught up in a tangled web of murder and family secrets. A wily detective with a troubled personal life, a politician who puts her career before her family and a con artist whose tricks are about to catch up with her. It's not an everyday tale of Morningside folk.

Edinburgh-born scriptwriter Jimmy Gardner can safely say that the story of TV drama Missing, due to hit our screens tomorrow night, was not inspired by his childhood in the city suburb.

Unlike the string of other small-screen hits he has penned over the last decade, this one is an adaptation of a novel – in this case, the international bestseller of the same name by Swedish author Karin Alvtegen.

"I'd never done an adaptation before. I enjoyed it," says the 51-year-old writer, speaking from his home in London.

He says it brought its own challenges, not least having to invent extra characters. "The novel is written from Sybil's point of view in flashbacks. Flashbacks are great in the novel but that's more difficult on TV so we had to make changes."

Luckily, he adds, Alvtegen liked the results. "No-one likes to see their work mangled but she seemed very pleased with everything."

The extra characters did mean a part for Rab C Nesbitt star Gregor Fisher, playing it straight for a change as investigating cop DS Doug Duvall.

The new drama follows a string of TV hits for Jimmy, from his early days writing for The Bill and penning two episodes of the cult show This Life – the ones where Milly slept with O'Donnell and where Anna's mother dies – through to the critically acclaimed series The Cops, as well as gritty Channel 4 prison drama Buried, and the

'I loved telly when I was a kid and I didn't really enjoy school much'

glossy Goldplated, set among the Cheshire rich set.

Not bad for someone who, by his own admission, more or lessbummed around in London for years after leaving the University of Kent with a degree in English, picking up work labouring and mini-cabbing. He only settled on writing as a career in his mid-30s.

Perhaps TV was always going to be his destiny. As a child his education was more BBC than abc. A congenital heart condition often left the youngster short of breath or turning blue, and that, along with numerous hospital visits, meant he missed large chunks of his schooling at George Watson's. Instead he stayed at home, curled up on the sofa watching TV classics such as Crown Court.

Not that he really minded. "I loved telly when I was a kid," he confesses. "And I didn't really enjoy school very much, it just bored me."

The future writer grew up in Morningside, the oldest of four brothers born to Ricky, a civil engineer, and Anne, a teacher at Donaldson's School for the Deaf. His mother – his parents, now in their 70s, still live in Morningside – contracted German measles while pregnant with Jimmy, which led to his heart condition. "I was what they called a blue baby," he says. "I was in hospital quite a lot, but other than that I had a normal childhood."

The abnormal part of it saw him in and out of hospital until the problem was solved with open heart surgery at the National Heart Hospital in London when he was 18.

After the operation, Jimmy completed his A levels at Napier College, headed off to university and then went to London, drifting from job to job, "enjoying myself" and living in squats. "A lot of people squatted in the 1980s," he says. "It was fairly common."

Although writing was always an interest – "it was the only thing I was any good at at school, writing stories" – it was when he was back home in Edinburgh that he spotted an advert for the Northern School of Film and Television in Leeds and decided to go for it.

"I sent in a film script which I'd written which was terrible," he laughs. "I think it was about a serial killer going around mutilating cattle. It was rubbish. I never expected to hear back."

Of course, he did, but the hardest slog came trying to get on to that first rung of the career ladder after graduating. His break came in the form of a short film called Borderland, which won a student award. One of the judges was Chariots of Fire and Killing Fields film producer David Puttnam, who gave Jimmy an all-important endorsement.

From there came The Bill, This Life and then ratings sensation The Cops. Jimmy co-created and wrote the BBC2 series, which ran for three series from 1998.

It was no accident that many viewers thought they were watching a documentary rather than a drama. "We spent three weeks in Blackburn shadowing the police – we had access all areas. The reason why The Cops was so successful is that it was so well researched," says Jimmy.

Following the police left Jimmy with a huge sense of sympathy for their task, not because of the dangers and dramas they faced, but because of the frustration of a daily diet of what he calls "lippy kids and radar traps".

"What really struck us was the futility of it," he says. "Most of the villains were just hopeless. One of the officers said to me 'if it wasn't for drugs – if you count alcohol as a drug – we wouldn't have a job'."

After The Cops came Buried, critically acclaimed for the same attention to detail, born out of Jimmy and the team's careful research speaking to prisoners. For Jimmy, however, it was another lesson in abject futility – this time because it left him with the sense that prisons only exist because no politician is brave enough to tell the truth.

"Anyone who knows much about prisons knows they don't work," he bemoans. "It's basically an expensive way of making bad people worse. Politicians know this but they can't act on it. The whole thing is completely hypocritical."

In more than a decade of writing for TV, he's only had one work deemed a turkey by critics and viewers – Goldplated, a glamorous drama set among wealthy Cheshire folk – but he still found the experience "devastating".

He has now moved on to more familiar hard-hitting territory with a planned BBC series in conjunction with ex-SAS hard man turned author, Andy McNab, on soldiers in Afghanistan.

He's hoping for a hit with Missing, but in the unlikely event it's not, it will always hold a position dear to Jimmy's heart – he and the drama's script editor, 42-year-old Claire Russell, met while working on the project, and they got married earlier this year.

Missing is broadcast tomorrow and Sunday, November 9 on STV at 9pm

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