Emilia di Girolamo (‘Law & Order: UK’) interview

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Law & Order: UK returns to ITV1 for a new six-part series at 9pm on Monday 7th March, starring Bradley Walsh, Jamie Bamber, Harriet Walter, Ben Daniels, Freema Agyeman and Bill Paterson.

> Buy the Series 3 DVD on Amazon.

Series 4 sees DS Ronnie Brooks (Walsh) and DS Matt Devlin (Bamber) investigating the death of an ex-Premier League Footballer and the witness intimidation which follows; the murder of a junior doctor which unravels into a conspiracy involving senior level government officials and the attempted murder of a high court judge. Meanwhile, Senior Prosecutor James Steel (Daniels) is accused of tampering with evidence and perverting the course of justice after an old case is reopened.

CultBox caught up with the show’s lead writer, Emilia di Girolamo, to find out more…

How did you first get involved with Law & Order: UK?

“Chris Chibnall was looking for a writer to fill a slot on Series 2 and liked my writing and my take on the show, so he gave me a chance. I’m very glad he did. I used to fantasise about getting a job on Law & Order, but I didn’t want to move to the US so when the show came to me it really was a dream come true.”

Had you been a fan of the American franchise before your involvement?

“I was a huge fan of the mothership and it was impossible to hide my enormous enthusiasm for the show. Everyone on team Law & Order: UK thinks I’m just the biggest geek, but when you immerse yourself in a show for twenty years, it’s hard not to become a bit geeky about it.

“I’ve spent more than half my life in love with the format, stories and characters which makes writing the show feel as easy as breathing. Those rules have literally seeped into my veins. I joined the core team for Series 3 & 4, writing four episodes and was promoted to Lead Writer/Co-Producer for Series 5 & 6. In my new role I’ve written 5 episodes this series and been able to have a real influence on the sort of stories the other writers cover.”

Can you tell us a bit about your previous work in UK prisons?

“I worked in prison for eight years using drama-based techniques to rehabilitate offenders. It was an incredible time and brought me into contact with some pretty unique characters. Over the eight years the work I did varied, but ultimately it was about examining an offender’s story: what brought them to prison, what they did, why they did it, what they could have done differently and rehearsing for change so they were equipped with the skills to recognize trigger points and stop themselves re-offending.

“It was challenging work and after eight years I reached burn out. Around the same time I was starting to get some success with my playwriting and had my first novel published. Clerkenwell Films optioned my novel Freaky and developed it for TV.

“I read the scripts and just knew it was what I wanted to do – I wanted to tell stories with dialogue and pictures. It felt more real and immediate than sitting in a room writing a character’s thoughts.”

Has this prison work influenced your writing and how did you make the transition to writing?

“Inevitably my work in prison has had a profound affect on my writing. I spent a lot of time working with people who had done terrible things and getting to the heart of why they did what they did.  I stepped into some very dark territory and got a glimpse of a side of humanity most writers probably never see.

“It’s left me with a need to tell stories in a very honest, open and emotional way. I like to be as truthful as possible when I write about offending behaviour because there are a whole stack of clichés that TV crime writers rely on time and again, and they just become accepted as real.

“I think in terms of my episodes of Law & Order: UK we’ve made some brave decisions in our representation of offenders and their behavior and we strive to avoid those UK crime show clichés. Prison also taught me a whole new language and gave me some fantastic dialogue!”

Who is your favourite Law & Order: UK character to write for and why?

“I genuinely don’t have a favourite character. I loved exploring Matt’s ability to relate to children in ‘Broken’ and Alesha’s sympathy for victims of sex crimes in ‘Survivor’.

“Ronnie is always a dream to write for because you give Bradley gold and he turns it into diamonds. He’s such an exceptional actor – he can do almost nothing on screen and it says everything. I loved writing for James Steel in ‘ID’ – he’s faced with such an impossible situation and I wanted to push that as far as possible. But we are truly blessed with the most wonderful cast and a whole host of talented guest actors who are equally wonderful to write for.”

When you’re watching/reading the news, do you find yourself considering story possibilities for Law & Order: UK?

“I love it when our show feels as ripped from the headlines as the US. ‘Bitter Fruit’, which became ‘Hidden’, was such a gift because it was about a mum who arranged her daughter’s kidnap and we had the whole Shannon Matthews case going on at the time. It made ‘Hidden’ feel incredibly relevant.

“I can’t say I watch the news looking out for ideas for the show, but I do love the show to feel topical. My years of immersing myself in criminal behaviour have left me with a pretty thorough knowledge of UK crime cases – I’m like the crime encyclopedia at work!”

How closely do episodes follow the scripts of the American Law & Order episodes on which they’re based?

“I personally take my episodes a very long way from the originals. If you watched my episode ‘ID’ and the episode it’s based on, ‘Promises To Keep’, you would struggle to find much in common. In fact both my Series 4 episodes change the killer, the method of murder – in fact pretty much everything!

“Some of the other writers are truer to the structure and story of the US scripts, but I don’t think we’ve ever done an episode which could be called a straight adaptation.

“When you’re adapting an episode from fifteen years ago, pretty much everything has to change – it’s not just our legal system that radically differs from the US system but policing has come a long way in the past 15-20 years. It drives us all nuts when we read some comment about how we just change the place names! If that was all we did I could get a holiday and I haven’t had one since before I joined the show in 2008!”

Are there plans to feature any completely original stories in the future?

“With twenty years of the mothership, we have a wealth of incredible gems to draw on and there’s a real liberation in adapting, so right now I’d say no. The writers are free to take their adaptations as far from the original as they wish so it certainly never feels like a restriction.”

Can you give us any hints about what to expect from Series 4?

“Oooh, conspiracy theories, betrayal and intrigue! Let’s just say James Steel finds himself in deep and dirty waters and the series ends with a bang!”

Which is your personal favourite episode from Series 4?

“If you’d asked me about any other series I’d be picking out one of Debbie O’Malley or Terry Cafolla’s brilliant episodes, but my Series 4 favourite is actually one of my own. ‘ID’ is a remarkable episode, brilliantly directed by Andy Goddard with some real stand out performances by our regulars and guest stars Nicola Walker (Spooks) and Matthew McNulty.

“It takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride and what starts as a very ordinary murder escalates into something quite extraordinary.”

Does Law & Order: UK exist within the same fictional universe as the American Law & Order franchise?

“Absolutely! And Matt Devlin would definitely find Olivia Benson seriously hot if they ever met.”

Would you like to see a crossover with Law & Order: UK and one of the American shows one day?

“I would love it – Dick Wolf talked about a crossover way back when the show launched and America’s reception to our show has been nothing short of amazing, so a crossover is a real possibility. It wouldn’t be the first time for the Law & Order franchise. ‘Baby It’s You’ back in Season 8 crossed with Homicide: Life On The Street very successfully.

“My ideal scenario would be a crossover with SVU. In fact, give Dick a call right now because I have the perfect ‘ripped from the headlines’ case to inspire us. In the nineties there was an American guy who I actually worked with briefly in prison over here. He became obsessed with a British student and followed her back to the UK, murdered her, leaving her body in a hire car at the airport before flying back to the States.

“In my version, Ronnie and Matt would find the mutilated body dumped in London, but the hunt for the killer would take them stateside where Benson and Stabler would track the killer to extradite him to the UK so Alesha could prosecute him here!”

What did you think of CSI’s three-part crossover in 2009, where a story was told across episodes of all three CSI shows?

“I love the scale and ambition of crossover episodes, but for me the original CSI is far and away the best of the franchise, so it was the finale that felt most successful. The writing and performances were just infinitely better.”

Which TV dramas have you enjoyed watching lately?

“Right now I’m watching Mad Men, Misfits, Dexter and 30 Rock. I usually watch a lot more crime so 30 Rock is my escape, it’s like detoxing from all the crime. It makes me laugh so hard and after watching it I feel light again.”

Which TV series and films have influenced you most as a writer over the years?

The Sopranos, The Wire, Six feet Under, The West Wing and, from the UK, Conviction, North Square, Funland, Red Riding… I love scale, beauty and ambition in TV drama and think great writing doesn’t need a huge budget to look good, though of course it helps.

“The films that have really stayed with me and I find myself drawn to as inspiration are Old Boy, Ordinary People, Volver, Accatone, Bad Education, Irreversible and Decalogue – that’s a lot of sex, death and revenge, but then what more does a crime writer need!”

Follow Emilia on Twitter @EmiliaDG.