Monday 18 April 2011: 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

When Paul Abbott was in his early 20s, he would regularly do a 10-hour day as a scriptwriter on Coronation Street, spend 90 minutes driving home, and then visit his grandmother. She was in a nursing home and suffering from Alzheimer’s; he was, by his own admission, exhausted and bored. “I used to lay different objects down in front of her and see how many sentences I could get out of her. The smell of lavender, for example, would stimulate an anecdote. I wanted to see if something like a clothes peg would force her to make sense. Otherwise our conversations were dominated by her random amnesia.”

Abbott is playful, but not without compassion – this we know, of course, from Shameless, the long-running comedy-drama series drawn from his own childhood as one of eight kids growing up on an estate in Burnley with absent parents. He says that his grandmother’s illness wasn’t life-changing for him, but those odd, one-sided conversations stuck at the back of his mind. Then, more recently, he watched a couple trading insults in a row. “It was the epitome of social deafness. It gave me the idea of writing about a character wanting to unpick a monumental event that happened many years earlier. But it’s a unilateral argument – the other character hasn’t got the capacity to argue because he’s got Alzheimer’s. I thought it would be interesting for a 40-year-old British male to return home and instead of it being the typical story in which the problem is fixed, he finds it’s not fixable.”

Initially Abbott was thinking of locating the story in America and writing it as an indie film. But then he talked about the idea with Danny Brocklehurst, a writer he mentored and who won a Bafta for his work on Shameless. Eventually, the story moved to Lancashire and was sold to the BBC as a three-part psychological drama called Exile, written by Brocklehurst with Abbott as executive producer. Exile casts Jim Broadbent as a retired campaigning journalist called Sam, now consumed by the ebb and flow of Alzheimer’s; John Simm as his frustrated son Tom, back from a failed career on a lads’ mag in London; and Olivia Colman as his worn-out younger sister, Nancy, still living at home. Tom attempts to piece together a major investigative case that Sam was forced to abandon decades earlier and that caused a devastating family rift. Hard as he pushes, however, Tom is faced with an angry, bewildered father who insists he did nothing but sell carpets.

Exile is heartbreaking – from the moment Tom arrives home to find his father barely recognises him, to the scene in which Sam goes jogging in the snow in his vest, pants and socks, to the one in which he reaches absently for a shirt to dry the dishes. It’s also brilliantly acted. “John Simm, who I worked with on State of Play and Clocking Off, is easily one of my top five actors ever,” says Abbott. “He can walk on and look like a walnut and then his eyes suddenly become magnetic. We talked to Pete Postlethwaite about playing the father, but he was too ill. Then we asked Jim. I thought I’d had a stroke when he confirmed. These days you can’t afford actors at this level as a matter of course, but with a good script you can get them.”

While Abbott, now 51, is widely acknowledged as one of the best TV writers of his generation, 39-year-old Brocklehurst is proving himself to be an equally exhilarating one. Broadbent tells me that, “Danny is to Paul Abbott what Paul Abbott is to Jimmy McGovern” – suggesting a kind of dynasty of British TV writers. Brocklehurst is currently working on an HBO crime drama called Dirty with Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold; he and Abbott go back a decade, co-writing the second series of Shameless. “Paul’s almost become a brand, with the movie of State of Play and Shameless going to America,” says Brocklehurst. “But I try to be me rather than the new Paul Abbott.”

Brocklehurst has also worked with McGovern, most recently writing an episode of the intense courtroom drama Accused. “It was pretty much a laugh-free zone,” he concedes. “There’s something about working with Jimmy that sucks the laughs away. I keep telling him to put more jokes in! The Lakes was very funny and now he’s very serious. It’s possible to be both serious and funny. It can work.” Brocklehurst has achieved the balance with Exile; one minute Tom is wiping his father’s bottom and wishing out loud that he had “something quick like heart disease or cancer”, the next there’s a diverting, comical duologue between Tom and Nancy.

On the set of Exile in Ramsbottom, on a chilly January afternoon, Simm is full of cold and doped up on Lemsip. He boasts that he’s never had a day off work and then stifles a sneeze. Last seen in blokey Sky1 thriller Mad Dogs, he is in almost every scene in Exile, and, as the shoot comes to an end, is shattered. “I turned 40 last summer and I haven’t even had time to have a mid-life crisis,” he says. “Mad Dogs was one of those jobs you do for yourself – we shot it in Mallorca in spring and not on a council estate in Manchester in the middle of winter [unlike Shameless] – and I followed it straight away with Hamlet at the Sheffield Crucible. When I was approached about Exile, I initially said no way, I don’t want to do anything.”

He rubs his eyes and smiles. “But then I read it and thought, ‘If I don’t do this, some other fucker is going to do it.’ I haven’t read anything this good since State of Play or Abi Morgan’s [2004 drama] Sex Traffic. It’s that good. And then at the read-through, there were moments when I’d look up and see Jim across the table and think, ‘Wow.’ I am in awe of him; he is –” he pauses, embarrassed “– godlike. I knew I couldn’t wing it in Exile. I’ve had to make sure I’m really on it.”

‘You remember the pain’

Simm did no research into Alzheimer’s because his character is not supposed to know anything about it. Broadbent, however, played Iris Murdoch’s husband John Bayley in the film Iris, in which the writer’s memory slowly but relentlessly dissolves as Alzheimer’s sets in. Broadbent’s own mother also had the disease. Did that make it distressing to play a character with it? “It was upsetting when mother was ill; in a way that was more upsetting than any acting will be,” he says. “But you know, you just use all that. You remember what was painful about it. But it’s not a disease-of-the-week drama, it’s a thriller with Alzheimer’s as the backdrop.”

Exile is everything Brocklehurst wanted it to be: authentic, sad and funny, propelled by the motor of a thriller. I expect Brocklehurst to complain, as writers do, that he had to squeeze the story into three episodes, but in fact he immediately says he didn’t want any more screen time that that. “I think some things can outstay their welcome. I didn’t want that.” Abbott, meanwhile, appears to be free and easy about producing rather than writing Exile. He doesn’t even seem to mind that it never became an indie film. “I don’t aspire to writing movies for their own sake. I’d rather write really good television because it’s more powerful. And it’s more satisfying when you actually write, or commission somebody to write, the kind of drama you actually want to see.”

Perhaps Abbott’s generosity is due, in part, to his new-found success in America. He now spends part of the year there, co-writing US Shameless and not quite believing the monumental budgets. “We’ll never have those resources, which makes me so proud of what we’ve got in this country,” he says. “I encountered nothing in LA that has made me feel in any way amateur. I just don’t think we get enough practice at writing, we don’t have enough opportunities. British writers underperform and are underused.” He smiles. “Which is why a writer like Danny is so special. He’s never bought me a fucking drink in his life, but his writing takes me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to go.”