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Ivory, William (1964-)

Writer, Actor

Main image of Ivory, William (1964-)

Like Jack Rosenthal and Alan Plater, William Ivory excels at popular drama with a comic touch which can lead critics to underestimate its richness. Ivory combines comedy, tragedy and emotional intensity, creating nuanced characters who, in Edward Woodward's phrase, are "all heroes in a way, and all bastards; there's astonishing range in every one". Such range makes Ivory one of contemporary television's most accomplished writers.

Ivory was born in Nottingham in 1964. After dropping out of the University of London, he worked as binman and at Nottingham Playhouse, where he started acting in Me Mam Sez. Early roles ranged from a Do It All advert to All Creatures Great and Small (BBC, 1978-80;1988-90), Boon (ITV, 1986-92), and Nottingham-set work including Resnick (BBC, 1992-93), and 'The Merrihill Millionaires' (Screenplay, BBC, tx. 29/9/1993). An actor of warmth and adept comic timing, Ivory enjoyed a regular role in Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) as Eddie Ramsden between 1989 and 1990 (sadly too late for his Street fan mother, who had recently died). Ivory still occasionally acts, including cameos in his own work, but has always prioritised writing.

His first writing credit was Journey to Knock (BBC, tx. 18/9/1991), about the pilgrimage of three wheelchair-bound men in a Nottingham hospice, one of whom has Motor Neurone disease, from which Ivory's mother suffered for her last 15 years. His talent for character comedy is evident in Minder (ITV, 1979-94) episodes including 'I'll Never Forget Whats'ername' (tx. 7/1/1993) and 'On the Autofront' (tx. 24/2/1994), which also contain recurring Ivory themes such as the limits of nostalgia and generational tensions in family and work.

A landmark drama and ratings success, Common as Muck (BBC, 1994-97) mined Ivory's experiences as a binman for comic set-pieces, but Ivory criticised the BBC's promotion tactics as "Carry On Up The Bins". The 'shit-shifters' are contrasted with corrupt employment practices as Ivory explored a major theme of his work, "the difference between being physically mucky and spiritually corroded". There are shades of D.H. Lawrence in the self-destructive acts that characters use to provoke change (factory worker Denice has an affair but wants an education, and like Women in Love, student Sunil is assaulted by her husband after advising her) and question unconscious forces, including Foxy's paternal advice (revisited with variations in other Ivory scripts) that men "never understand" how the penis affects the brain. The second series is about adapting to change: different jobs and changing styles, including a bittersweet pensioner love story and a church-based episode which underlines Ivory's interest in faith and belief (religious and secular) and playfully uses metaphor - Bernard becoming an increasingly literal 'blessing' and Ken finding creative expression in ceiling painting, with a complaint that "They've got to have more, like bloody vultures" parallelling Ivory's statement that the BBC pushed him ("knackered") into a second season. Ivory's work often gives complex roles to older actors cast against type (here, Roy Hudd and Edward Woodward), and Woodward's Nev gets the final words - those who aren't "filthy" are "on the side of the bloody angels". Earth and angels crop up in several dramas.

King Leek (tx. 30/12/1997) was under-promoted by ITV - who considered dubbing its Geordie accents - but is a memorable, leek-cultivation reworking of King Lear. It shares Common as Muck's interest in the indignities of redundancy, the value of education, fighting for breathing space and the belief that "if you're gonna have regrets, make sure it's for things you've done, not what you haven't done". For the cinema, Ivory worked from another writer's story for The Closer You Get (d. Aileen Ritchie, 1999), with mixed results.

If any drama epitomises Ivory's belief in popular, entertaining drama as a platform for multi-layered, thought-provoking work, it is The Sins (BBC, 2000). The familiar concept of an ex-con (Pete Postlethwaite's Len) going straight, in a comic gangland reminiscent of late Minder, interacts with the serial's thematic structure (one sin for each of the seven episodes). Through Len, his wife and daughters, the series explores class identity, sexuality, marriage, mortality, emptiness and masculinity, shown in playful references to gender models like Westerns.

A change of pace, Night Flight (BBC, 2002) was inspired by his father's war service (and father's brother's death) on Lancaster bombers, and the psychological problems faced by Bomber Command veterans, including Ivory's journalist father, who became "quite a fiery character", "very left-wing", "banned from certain pubs in Nottingham". Night Flight intercuts the present lives of veterans Christopher Plummer and Edward Woodward with bomber raids on Germany and young Harry's affair with a colleague's wife who epitomises Ivory's theme of living for the moment. Love, class, the impact of war and limiting wartime nostalgia are stressed by parallels in the transitions between past and present: as young Harry says, "None of it's separate, it's all tied up".

Filmed in Nottingham, A Thing Called Love (BBC, 2004) returned to The Sins' interest in "what the words 'I love you' actually mean". A romantic, Gary criticises sex-obsessed stereotypes of Byron and masculinity and thinks about love and death via the note that "stretches for an eternity" in Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Such moments drew vitriol from critics, which Ivory attributed to their preference for "naturalistic" dialogue spoken by soap characters being "plucky" against "terrible odds", whereas he prefers "very written" dialogue through which working-class characters, as in Arthur Miller's work, have "big thoughts".

Real-life proof of that eloquence inspired Faith (BBC, tx. 28/2/2005), on the impact on communities of the 1984-85 miners strike Ivory moved closer to drama-documentary techniques to relate two couples' relationships to the events around them. Sometimes brutal uses of archive footage underline a political reading of the Conservative government's actions, but Ivory and producer Antonia Bird focus on positives within the defeated campaign, resulting in some of Ivory's most powerful work on articulacy, family, love and the distinction between 'belief' and 'faith'. More recent work includes his first stage play, The Retirement of Tom Stevens, in Nottingham in 2006; the creation of The Invisibles (BBC, 2008), an entertaining crime caper framework for discussions of ageing, masculinity and family; and the screenplay for Made in Dagenham (d. Nigel Cole, 2010) on equal-pay for women factory workers.

Ivory can powerfully "tell it like it actually is" (A Thing Called Love), but comparisons with esteemed Nottinghamshire forebears D.H. Lawrence (whose Women in Love and The Rainbow Ivory is presently adapting) and Alan Sillitoe illustrate that he does so through combining observation and poetry, warmth and anger, and comedy and tragedy. As he advised a young writer: "if you want to pull the rug from under people, you've got to get them on the rug first". Achieving that difficult combination helps explain how Ivory maintains a space in contemporary primetime drama for working-class voices and 'authored' drama.

Dave Rolinson

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Faith (2005)Faith (2005)

Powerful drama exploring the impact of the 1980s miners strike on two families

Thumbnail image of Minder (1979-94)Minder (1979-94)

A nice little earner for George Cole and Dennis Waterman

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Thumbnail image of TV Drama in the 2000sTV Drama in the 2000s

A decade of restless change for small-screen drama

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