Interview: Frank Deasy, scriptwriter

I'M WRITING this article at a small wooden table, sitting on a wooden bench with a green baize seat in Beanscene, a cafe offering "food, coffee and music" in Skirving Street in the Southside of Glasgow.

I'm here in tribute to a friend, Frank Deasy, whose picture now hangs on the wall. He's smiling a big broad smile, sharply dressed in a black Armani suit, a crisp white shirt, black tie and cradling a heavy gold statue: an Emmy.

A caption tells me what I wish wasn't true: "Frank Deasy 1959-2009. Sadly missed at Beanscene."

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Frank was a world-class screenwriter. He liked to come here to work, sitting in this very spot, laptop open, BlackBerry on, fuelling his career with pot after pot of tea. Jesus of Nazareth strolled through Beanscene, while Frank worked on The Passion (BBC1, 2008) – the tables dissolved to be replaced by the deserts of Judea.

DCI Jane Tennison developed a drinking problem here, made peace with her lonely life and danced in an empty flat, all while students squabbled at the Beanscene counter and Frank wrestled with the plot knots of the final Prime Suspect.

It was here that Frank imagined a grown man in a nappy wielding a handgun, a startling, unused, image that became the starting point for Father and Son, his brilliant new drama, which begins tonight on STV.

Frank had an unusual way of working. He would start with an image or a line of dialogue out of which, like a seed planted in the fertile soil of his imagination, a great drama would grow. His scripts were organic, action growing out of character, and so rendered utterly authentic. As Dougray Scott – who gives a career best performance as a Mancunian gangster struggling to reform in Father and Son – told me this week: "Frank was James Joyce, not the Daily Mail. He went beneath the bombast and touched the depths."

Yet the intelligence and determination that Frank brought to his work was generously laid at the service of his many friends. If your world collapsed, Frank would be the man to call.

When I try to write how much Frank meant to all of us, words fail me – which would have annoyed him, as he could bend them to his will. We would meet at Beanscene in Shawlands on a Sunday night, always the same back corner table, where problems would be carefully unpicked, plans put in place, advice sought and traded.

"I'm thinking of doing a film about Gazza."


"What do you mean: why? It's important."

"A fat, drunk footballer?"

"No – fookin' GAZA!"

Frank was a superb swearer, an elegant dresser and I loved the way he said: "thanks". His Irish accent viewed "h" as an unnecessary distraction so it sounded like "tanks". He said it in a humble, sincere way that elevated you. Whatever you had done, it had added to his life and he was grateful.

HE BEGAN his career almost by accident. Born in Dublin, he graduated from Trinity College and, despite harbouring ambitions to write, instead became a social worker assisting children, whose fragility would echo throughout his later work.

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When a friend asked him to contribute dialogue to a movie, Frank knew he had found his vocation. He co-directed his first film, The Courier (1988), a thriller starring Gabriel Byrne, but the reviews were mixed. He decided to stick with writing.

In 1991, he adapted The Grass Arena, the autobiography of John Healy, an alcoholic vagrant who sought redemption in prison through chess. Jane Tranter, the BBC's controller of fiction, described it as "one of the best television scripts that the BBC has done for a single film" and it went on to win the Best Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Then there was Captives (1994), directed by Angela Pope, a taut erotic thriller in which a dentist – played by Julia Ormond – who works part-time in Wandsworth prison, has a torrid affair with a prisoner, played by Tim Roth.

Edinburgh was to become the setting for his break-out work, Looking After Jo Jo, (BBC1, 1998) which acted as the dark negative to the white light surrounding Trainspotting. An uncompromising drama chronicled on the heroin trade during the 1980s, it starred Robert Carlyle and introduced Frank to his future wife, Marie.

The plot involved a female lawyer and, being a stickler for authenticity, Frank wanted to talk to one. "We met for dinner and he was so charming and so intelligent," she recalled. "I asked him if he had written anything I had seen and he said The Grass Arena, which I had loved."

Frank's steely determination to defend his vision led to the departure of the drama's original director but created a strong relationship with his successor, John Mackenzie, who had directed The Long Good Friday.

Andrea Calderwood, then head of drama at BBC Scotland, explained how the pair planned to work again on Frank's script, Benny Lynch, about the Scottish world champion boxer who died of alcoholism: "It was a great script but we just couldn't raise the money to make it. Scottish Screen considered it a throwback to an image of Scotland they didn't wish to project. But it wasn't. It was a universal story. It was Raging Bull."

Diligent research lay at the heart of all his scripts. Real Men (BBC2, 2003) a two-part drama that dealt with child abuse in the setting of a police procedural, was the result of four years of research and dozens of interviews.

England Expects (BBC1, 2004) about the rise of the far-right involved numerous meetings in back rooms with the BNP. Even what appears to be the most incongruous title on his CV, The Rats (20th Century Fox, 2002), a horror film set in New York, evolved from a single line in a newspaper on the city's rodent population and involved a week roaming the sewers with its sanitation department.

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Frank seldom worked on fewer than four projects at once, switching focus and applying pressure on whichever deadline was most imminent. One day Alice, his daughter, then six, asked why he worked so hard, then answered her own question: "Is it to buy us socks?" Afterwards his e-mail read "thesockfactory".

His life fractured in the winter of 2004 with the diagnosis of liver cancer. He almost died during surgery in January 2005, and slumped for a spell as physical weakness robbed him of the ability to write. Yet there was to be a resurrection. By the following winter, physically recuperating, he grasped at a great opportunity.

Prime Suspect was in crisis. In December Helen Mirren had rejected the latest script and filming had to begin in February. In just two weeks, Frank produced the first episode, a two-hour script that delighted Mirren for its intimacy. She called him her "Messiah". I remember his calls from the hotel in Camden where he was camped out, writing and rewriting through the night.

At the same time he had written a five-minute play, to be performed in a toilet cubicle for the Arches. Former artistic director Andy Arnold recalled: "He was never off the phone, wanting to check how it was being directed, how the actor's reading went. But that was Frank – total dedication to the work."

When the BBC announced an adaptation of The Passion, he wanted to write the screenplay. He was not perceived as an obvious choice: a chronicler of violent men scripting the "Prince of Peace"? Yet Frank had a deep spirituality and, through illness, knew the agonising view from a cross. His text to friends on securing the commission read: "Ye shall know him by his word." Later, when Joseph Mawle, the actor who would play Jesus questioned a couple of scenes, Frank said: "Joe, I have thought about every single word".

LIKE every screenwriter, Frank had a fascination with Hollywood, but planned to arrive on his own terms. "Frank could have gone to LA and made a fortune as a script doctor," said Marie. "But he wanted to do his own work, to create his own body of original, quality drama, of which he could be proud." He had enjoyed his moments; discussing depression with Christina Ricci over a sun-dappled lunch at Chateau Marmont when he scripted Prozac Nation (2002), or standing at the urinal with Clint Eastwood after the Emmys. But in January, 2009, his moment appeared to have arrived. Father and Son was being edited, and already gathering acclaim, the success of The Passion had led to an invitation to write an epic drama on the Medicis, while his script, Gaza, was on the Black List, an annual shortlist of the best unproduced scripts in town.

In the weeks before the Oscars he and Marie flew over to LA for a few days of positive meetings with film studios and happy plans. Ridley Scott met Frank and asked him to write a script based on The Man In The High Castle, a novel by Philip K Dick, while there was a second offer to write an adaptation of John Grisham's The Appeal. Over dinner at a restaurant in Venice Beach, the couple decided to move the family over for a couple of years.

It was not to be.

Instead, Frank returned home to be told the liver cancer had returned, that a transplant was the only solution and that his blood type made a match rare. There followed seven months of waiting for a call while the enemy within grew stronger. One afternoon the call came. A donor liver was available. Under police escort, he was driven from Shawlands to Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, only to be told, when gowned and on a gurney, that the liver was unusable. In September, he and Marie took the decision to publicise his plight and, through him, that of the many thousands on transplant lists. The article, published in The Observer and The Scotsman, led to an invitation to talk on a call-in show on RTE radio in Ireland. His eloquence, compassion and courage stunned a nation, with thousands signing up for donor cards. People are now alive today because of Frank Deasy.

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We last met on Sunday, 13 September, at Beanscene. Though pale and drawn, he appeared energised by the campaign and pleased with the reaction to the article. I walked him home. We hugged and agreed to meet up the following Sunday. Four days later he was wheeled off to the operating theatre after a viable liver had been found. As Marie later explained: "He was the happiest man in the world." He died on the table.

Watching Father and Son conjures mixed emotions. It is a brilliant work, tense, gripping, and deeply moving, but when two sinister characters arrive at an isolated farmhouse and one introduces himself as "Detective McGinty", I couldn't help but smile, then bite my lip.