Screenwriter Ben Tagoe learned his trade in Leeds and is now writing big TV dramas. Nick Ahad reports.
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 and 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. 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. 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 came runner up in the contest and was given some money and mentoring by the BBC.
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 theatre. 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. An episode for Casualty followed his Doctors episode and then TV’s biggest British soap came along: Coronation Street. He wrote dozens of episodes of Coronation Street over the next two years.
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.
“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.
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 (2010) at Leeds Carriageworks, the story of Terry, who escaped England to run a bar in Spain, finds his past catches up with him, and The Thing About Psychopaths (2013) also at Leeds Carriageworks, an examination of a prison as a corporate entity.
Ben Tagoe’s Lucky Man on Sky 1, 9pm August 31.