With a catalogue of major shows to her name, producer Nicola Shindler is one of British television’s big hitters. Honesty and passion are themes that are explored regularly in her productions – from Queer as Folk and Clocking Off to Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley – but as a producer, she’s pragmatic to the needs of broadcasters, too. At the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards, held on 12 May 2019, Shindler was presented with one of BAFTA’s highest honours, the Special Award. Words by Rich Matthews
After more than 20 years at the top of UK television, Nicola Shindler can’t help being a pragmatist. While talking about her dream to continue making the drama she loves, she quickly interjects, “But while being realistic and knowing it’s a business and that we have to give people what they want. You can’t forget that. You have to be aware of what’s going to get on television.”
Shindler’s brand of practicality, however, stems from a genuine passion for the art form, storytelling and, most of all, writers. “Writing is the hardest job,” she says with clear affection. “Because they can do it in their pyjamas, people sometimes think it’s easy. It so isn’t – writing a really good script is astonishingly difficult. So much so that I don’t like to waste writers’ time. I’ll say, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get that made’, which is a horrible thing to have to say but it’s better than them writing something that never gets made. Everything I do comes from the writer’s voice. You have to understand what the writer’s trying to say, what they want us to do, how it should feel… It’s the best and hardest part of the job.”
Before setting up Red Production Company – named for her beloved Manchester United – from her living room in 1998, aged 29, the fire of Shindler’s professional philosophy was sparked by her first job in television.
“It was on the first series of Cracker,” she says. “Getting to listen to Jimmy McGovern – an incredible writer – was just so lucky. He taught me that you shouldn’t have any fear; that you should go for every single idea you’ve got. And you don’t need to make characters ‘likeable’, they can be much more interesting. I learned a huge amount from him.”
Crucially, that included a devotion to believability. “You have to believe in the characters,” she asserts. “If you do, you can defend or change anything else. We get a lot of really good notes from broadcasters and you have to listen, but you also have to keep the truth of what you’re doing. You can do that if what you have is very truthful and honest.” She pauses. “And hugely entertaining.”
Truth, honesty, passion, pragmatism, entertainment – a compelling roadmap for creative success. And Shindler has the CV to back it up: Queer as Folk, Clocking Off, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley – altogether earning her six BAFTA wins over the years. And now she’s working on a Netflix show with prolific thriller writer Harlan Coben (The Five, Safe).
“Anytime something made a difference has been brilliant,” Shindler says of her prolific career. “Starting with Queer As Folk, which was amazing. Then launching BBC Three with Burn It; I’m very proud of that series. Right now, I love working with Harlan at Netflix – it’s a really different, exciting approach. If you look back at our work, it’s always had elements of serialised storytelling, even when making traditional ‘stories of the week’. That’s what I’ve always been drawn to and, ironically, that’s what television has turned into now.”
As the conversation wraps up, a last, quick question pops up – what does she really want to make, ignoring all the industry pressures and changes? “I should say a massive, huge £5m an episode global show,” she smiles. “But, no – I’d just love to do a returning series where you set up characters that people want to come back again and again. And not just for business reasons. It’s brilliant to be on the fourth, fifth, sixth series with characters that work. I really like that.” After a pause, she adds: “But that’s not what the industry wants right now…” A pragmatist to the end.
Watch Nicola Shindler’s acceptance speech here.
The full feature can be read in the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards 2019 brochure here.