Interview: TV Writer Paul Abbott’s Childhood was “Shameless”

There is an old writing adage that says writers should write
about what they know. But successfully following that advice first means
knowing something worth writing about. Fortunately for British television writer
Paul Abbott, the creator of the hit UK drama Shameless (successfully remade this year for the U.S.), that was the
easy part.

As horrifying as it might sound to some, the alcoholic,
abusive and frequently criminal shenanigans the Gallagher clan gets up to week in and week out on the hit Showtime
dramedy aren’t all that different from how Abbott actually grew up.

On Shameless, the Gallaghers
are a large dysfunctional family with absentee parents and kids who disregard
all authority as they raise themselves. Plus, they have access to copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and sex.

Abbott’s own family was large as well, totaling eight
children, with Abbott being the second youngest. His mother abandoned the
family when he was nine-years-old, leaving his ne’er-do-well father in charge
of the brood. Even that was temporary, however, as two years later, his father also
left, leaving Abbott’s pregnant sixteen-year-old sister to take charge of the

If you’re a fan of the show, all of this sounds familiar.

One difference between Abbott’s family and the fictional Gallaghers
is that Abbott didn’t have a gay brother (although Abbott and three of his
brothers did have some same-sex experiences, not uncommon for teenage boys).
Instead, the character of Ian (Cameron Monaghan, in the U.S. version) was inspired by one of Abbott’s nephews, while the affair with a
married shopkeeper came from Abbott’s own life.

So how did Abbott go from poor kid in the estates of
Burnley, Lancashire in the United
Kingdom to award-winning television creator?

Circumstances that might have destroyed another man by
turning him into, well, the drunken, irresponsible Frank Gallagher, only inspired Abbott to become something
different. recently spoke with Abbot about the circumstances in
which he grew up, how he escaped, and how that nephew became an inspiration for Ian.

Asked how he turned out so differently from his racist,
anti-education family, Abbott says “I’m not sure. I don’t know because I think
it’s fair to say out of 10, I’m the only literate one. And I wasn’t mega
bright, just brighter than the average.”

But being brighter than average, as well as the second
youngest of eight in a dysfunctional family, also meant Abbott had to find
different ways of coping with his chaotic family life. “I was the second from
the bottom,” says Abbott. “So I would say I learned how to write as a means of
talking without being contradicted. Because in a big family it’s, ‘Shut up!
Shut up!’ So I would write, ‘F*ck you!’”

But Abbot did more than just tell his family to shut up. He
actually dreamed of being something more than what they believed him capable of.
“I would just sit and type and pretend I wanted to be a journalist. [But] just
wanting to be a writer was crucifiable as well.”

But that didn’t stop Abbott from becoming a keen observer of
humanity – and by extension, a successful writer. Says Abbott, “Learning how to
navigate things made me a really good writer. I was writing by the time I was
15, and I think my first radio play was when I was 19. I realized how I’d
learned to observe human behavior without opening my mouth. I did not dare open
my mouth until I was getting paid for it.”

Abbott isn’t just getting paid for his writing these days.
He’s also received a great deal of success and critical acclaim. Abbott
received two BAFTA TV Awards, an Emmy and a host of other honors  and
the remake has pulled off the difficult feat of jumping across the Atlantic and
finding an audience in the U.S.. Even better for Abbott, Showtime just announced it was picking up a second season of the series.

Actor Cameron Monaghan plays Ian in the American version.

One of the most popular characters in both the British and
U.S. versions has been fourteen-year-old Ian, the gay teen who, like Abbott did in real life,
must navigate the treacherous waters of a family who aren’t well-equipped to
understand his differences.

Abbott has especially enjoyed writing about Ian’s being gay,
which is drawn from several different real life sources in Abbott’s past.
“[Ian’s] not a direct link to my family,” says Abbot. “It was a nephew of mine
who, when he got to the age of 18… and I’ve got to be careful because my
family still doesn’t know about him.”

Abbott describes his nephew, but in order to not inadvertently out him, let’s just say he doesn’t have a “stereotypical” gay job, is tall and beefy and not what Abbott’s family typically thinks of as “gay.” Abbott says, “And he just came to me, and with a family like that, he couldn’t tell
them. He couldn’t tell. And he still can’t come out. They’d kill him. Stone
dead. They’d kill him stone dead, socially at least. They’re a tough bunch.”

Asked how his nephew knew he could trust him, Abbott says,
“Because I’d written already two radio plays that involved gay characters. They
were written with equal standards. I’ve always done that with my family. The
minute I think they don’t like something – I find them racist as well – so I
deliberately write speeches for Frank that are racist, just to wind them up.”

As for Ian, Abbott explains he drew on two different
experiences to create the character. “I mixed two stories,” he says. “One was
an affair with a grocer’s wife [I had] and I just switched them around. It was
a grocer that used to employ me and his wife used to tamper with me when I was
14. And I switched it around for my nephew’s benefit and made it an Asian
grocer and I slammed my family between the eyes and said, ‘It’s not f*cking,
this is a love story.’ It’s not just fucking. I wanted it to grow as a love

Ian and Kash (played by actor Pej Vahdat)

Asked if he’d expected any backlash from the storyline in
the original UK
storyline, which aired back in 2004, Abbott is emphatic that he had. “I thought
and expected to get a hammering for it. Not just from my family, but from
around the country.”

“I’m so proud of this,” says Abbott. “And we’ve worked so hard on that
relationship and the humanizing of that relationship we didn’t get a complaint.
It was stunning. I was amazed. I was so proud that we didn’t get complaints
from the fascist society. We didn’t get a single complaint. They kept talking
about the underage sex. You got a dad like that and you’re worried about underage
sex? I think they’ve got bigger problems to cope with there.”

It was incredibly important to Abbott that the relationship
between Ian and Kash was seen as
being a love story and not just about sex. “It does take engineering because
the way we were shooting it, it’s quite delicate between Ian and Kash. I was
determined to make it look like a love story so nobody could make it look like
somebody f*cking an underage kid. In the first episode where Lip finds out Ian warns him to leave
Kash alone saying, ‘Don’t you dare, he’s done nothing wrong!’ No it’s a love
story, it’s reciprocal and it’s taken the edge off the fascist complaint lobby.”

Asked if any of his family has said anything negative about
the character, Abbott is pleased that they haven’t. “None of my family
complained about it,” he says laughing. “I snuck that one past them and
eventually you educate them by millimeters.”

For more about Shameless, including our weekly recaps, visit our Shameless resource page!