The hard work behind Ben Tagoe's success
Playwright and screenwriter Ben Tagoe learned his craft here in Yorkshire and is now making a name for himself writing for big TV dramas. Nick Ahad spoke to him.
There is a deep irony in the fact that Ben Tagoe’s first big hour-long TV credit is for a show called Lucky Man. There is not a lot of luck and whole load of hard work in Tagoe’s story.
Sure, there is serendipity, coincidence, happenstance, but when millions sit around to watch the first hour-long episode Tagoe has written for primetime British TV, next week, it will be the result of an awful lot of hard work.
“Aye, I think it’s going to be pretty special,” says Tagoe of the moment he’s looking forward to on Friday, August 31, when he see his name on screen under ‘Written by’ on the penultimate episode of the current series of the Sky crime drama Lucky Man. Or to give it its full title: Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. When the prefix of the title is the name of the man who created Spiderman, you understand why it is such a huge step up for Tagoe to be writing this episode.
Tagoe’s journey to this moment begins when he was growing up the son of a Ghanian father and Scottish mother in Perth, Scotland, but to go all the way back there would take too long and there is a more significant moment that happened in the early 2000’s which features Yorkshire. Suffice to say, as the only black kid in his school and area, even though he had a relatively middle-class upbringing, Tagoe faced challenges.
But let’s rewind to 2002. We’ve all had nights out where we come up with big plans. Ben Tagoe’s big night out idea was epic.
A single night out in Leeds was all it took to convince him to jack in his job, move to Yorkshire and begin an entirely new career. “Aye, I suppose it does sound a bit mad when you put it like that,” says Tagoe.
The Perth native visited Leeds in 2002. He was working in Edinburgh in recruitment and had a client in the Yorkshire city. “I was back and forth from Edinburgh to Leeds a little bit and there was this one particular night when I couldn’t get back to Edinburgh because the trains had been cancelled due to the weather. I just couldn’t get back, so I booked myself into a hotel and called up a friend of my sister’s who I knew lived in Leeds to see if he fancied getting together for a drink.”
The friend did and Tagoe found himself in a Leeds pub called the Duck and Drake, something of an institution in the city, which holds regular open mic nights. “I had been thinking for a long time that I’d like to do something creative, and that night I met all these people who were artists, poets, writers and that was it. I was convinced that this was what I had to do,” says Tagoe.
“People used to tell me that I had an ability to tell a story and the year before I had seen a piece of theatre set in a playground that was absolutely captivating. It was called Decky Does a Bronco, by Douglas Maxwell. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of theatre, but that just really grabbed me and I had kept thinking about it, thinking that it was something I wanted to do.”
The Maxwell play, the night in Leeds where he met the artists, the cancelled trains – this is the serendipity in the story. The decision within three months to quit his ‘soulless job’ and move to study creative writing at Bretton Hall in Wakefield is the brave and deliberate part of Tagoe’s story.
“I was 26, an adult, thinking ‘this isn’t the sort of thing a responsible adult does’. But I had a bit of money behind me, a flat in Edinburgh and it felt like something I had to do.”
While studying at Bretton Hall, Tagoe entered the prestigious BBC Alfred Bradley Bursary competition. He was runner-up in the contest and was given some money and mentoring by the BBC. “It was a bit of a coup getting that sort of success with my first submission because the industry isn’t really like that.”
After that three years of work, he ended up writing for a copywriting agency – which was not part of the plan. The dream was to write for TV, but to get there he had to write for theatre. It took several years, but in 2010 he joined writing courses with Bradford-based theatre company Freedom Studios and with Leeds theatre company Red Ladder.
Then came the breakthrough when he was commissioned to write his first professional play, Bittersweet Sunshine, for Red Ladder. It played at the Leeds Carriageworks for three nights. “That was massive. Seeing your work on a stage, directed properly with real actors, that was a really special moment,” says Tagoe.
While a three-night run at the Carriageworks, lovely theatre though it is, might not seem like a huge thing, it meant that Tagoe had his first professional commission. What that meant was that he could then apply for a writers scheme run by the BBC called the Writers’ Academy. The scheme trains the TV writers of the future and Tagoe made it on to the hotly-contested course in 2011. Scripts for Doctors and EastEnders followed and he was suddenly a professional screenwriter.
His first credit on screen was EastEnders in 2012. “The first theatre show is great, but when it’s on TV watched by millions, it is incredible. People were taking pictures of their TVs and sending them to me, it was really incredible,” he says.
He had been building towards the moment for some time. In the Perth of the 1990s where Tagoe was raised, you had to be tough. So the fact that he had a ‘wee portable’ television in his bedroom on which he watched his favourite show, Brookside, and this second favourite show, Auf Weidersehn, Pet, wasn’t something he readily shared with his friends. His parents also loved television, particularly the soaps.
“Now it’s different, but then watching television wasn’t something you bragged about. You wouldn’t exactly put it on your CV,” says Tagoe.
An episode for Casualty followed his Doctors episode and then TV’s biggest British soap came along: Coronation Street.
“I really enjoyed it from the moment I started on the show. It’s always been seen as the biggest job in British soap and I was so pleased to get on the team. It was perfect for me, really suited my writing,” says Tagoe.
And then some. He wrote dozens of episodes of Coronation Street over the next two years. He also started writing for a children’s show, Jamie Johnson, one of his episodes being nominated for a Children’s BAFTA, an International Kids’ Emmy and the Children’s RTS Award.
The next thing to tick off the list was a 9pm prime time show. Enter Lucky Man. The show, created by Stan Lee, debuted on Sky in 2016. Starring James Nesbitt it was a smash hit, Sky One’s most successful original drama and a second series was soon commissioned. Series three sees Tagoe enter the fray.
“Going from Corrie to an hour-long drama is a big jump. It’s a fairly unique beast of a show – a cop drama, but also a bit supernatural. Action, twists, turns, a bit of humour.
“It’s good fun. Seeing James Nesbitt saying your script is pretty special.”
It’s fair to say that Tagoe feels pretty lucky, too.
Ben Tagoe’s Lucky Man is on Sky 1, at 9pm on August 31.
A success from stage to screen
While Ben Tagoe’s writing is seen by millions on TV, he says there is nothing to match the terror of watching your work with a theatre audience.
His plays include: Bittersweet Sunshine at Leeds Carriageworks, 2010, the story of Terry, who escaped England to run a bar in Spain and finds his past catches up with him.
Cold Turkey at Nana’s at Oran Mor, Perth, 2012, was a story of drug addiction and grandmas.
The Thing About Psychopaths at Leeds Carriageworks, 2013, was an examination of a prison as a corporate entity.
When We Were Brothers at The Underground, Bradford, 2018, is a story of masculinity and mental health.