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Milne, Paula (1947-)


Main image of Milne, Paula (1947-)

Paula Milne is Britain's most accomplished female screenwriter. That she has received far less critical attention than her male counterparts may be because she spent much of her early career writing for popular drama series, soap opera and children's drama. It was ten years before she began writing original drama for anthology series such as Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) and Screen Two (BBC, 1985-97), and 20 years before the serials Die Kinder (BBC, 1990), The Politician's Wife (Channel 4, 1995) and The Fragile Heart (Channel 4, 1996) brought critical recognition and awards. The 1990s saw her extending her canvas to embrace Hollywood movies such as Mad Love (US, d. Antonia Bird, 1995). Since then there has been no let-up in her work for television and the cinema, with original dramas for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, adaptations of Andrea Levy's Small Island (BBC, 2009) and Sarah Waters' The Night Watch (BBC, 2011), and several screenplays, including an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel for Fox 2000.

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1947, one of four children (her twin sister is the TV producer Claudia Milne), she left school without qualifications just before her 15th birthday. She went to secretarial college before going to art college, where she specialised in painting, followed by a film course at the Royal College of Art. The short film she made there led to a script-reading attachment at ATV in 1972, working on Crossroads (ITV, 1964-88). She wrote several episodes of the Midlands soap in 1972-73. While at ATV she also wrote two episodes for the schools series Exploration Man (ITV, 1974), the first of several children's series she contributed to or devised, providing an interesting counterpart to her adult-oriented drama.

In 1975 she won a contract as a script reader at the BBC, and it was here that she created Angels (1975-83), the hospital soap that, as its title suggests, focused on the nurses rather than the doctors. Initially credited as story editor, then script editor, she wrote nine episodes in 1976-78 before leaving to pursue other projects. Meanwhile, she also began writing for Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-). Her first episode for the UK's most popular drama serial was screened in May 1976 (shortly after her first episode for Angels) and she contributed 12 more over the next three years.

Having learnt the craft of scriptwriting on soaps, she went on, in the late 1970s, to write 12 episodes for daytime drama Rooms (ITV, 1974-77), an episode focusing on a policewoman for the final series of Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78), the final seven episodes for The Foundation (ITV, 1977-78), and two three-part stories for Crown Court (ITV, 1972-84), with a third in 1983. With episodes for Juliet Bravo (BBC, 1980-85), Shoestring (BBC, 1979-80) and the children's series A Bunch of Fives (ITV, 1977-78), Grange Hill (BBC, 1978-2008) and The Squad (ITV, 1980), by the early 1980s Milne had more than served her apprenticeship on popular series and children's drama and was ready to start writing her own original drama.

Before doing so she adapted Kathleen Conlon's novel about a young girl's coming of age, My Father's House (ITV, 1981). Produced by June Howson (much of Milne's work has been produced by women), the serial marked the beginning of a new phase in her writing career. It was followed by 'A Sudden Wrench' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 23/3/1982), an original drama about a bored housewife and mother who decides to get herself out of her depressed state by taking up plumbing. She learns how to install a new central heating system in her house before getting a job on a building site, where she is eventually accepted by the men after she proves her worth.

Over the following few weeks there followed the four-part 'Love is Old, Love is New' (Love Story, BBC, 1982), about a couple's infertility problems, and 'The Sidmouth Letters' (Playhouse, BBC, tx. 2/4/1982), based on a book by Jane Gardam about a novelist's obsession with Jane Austen. Later the same year came 'John David' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 23/11/1982), about a woman who, discovering her baby is a 'mongol', resists the attempts by a nurse and social worker to persuade her to keep the baby, insisting on putting him into care. The play dramatised the dilemma Milne faced when she put her own Down's syndrome baby into care: "it was a battle for survival between the baby and me. My quality of life or his quality of life", she told a journalist in 1982.

She made a similar transition to original work in her children's dramas, devising the six-part teenage serial S.W.A.L.K. (Channel 4, 1983), and the supernatural drama 'The Exorcism of Amy' (Dramarama, ITV, tx. 25/4/83). Further original drama followed with Driving Ambition (BBC, 1984), an eight-part series about a woman's determination to be a successful racing driver, the single dramas CQ (Channel 4, tx. 11/10/1984), Queen of Hearts (BBC, tx. 11/8/1985), 'Frankie and Johnnie' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 2/2/1986) and The Green Eyed Monster (ITV, tx. 1/9/1989), contributions to period female detective series Ladies in Charge (ITV, 1986) and murder anthology Unnatural Causes (Central, 1986), and seven-part futuristic children's drama The Gemini Factor (ITV, 1987). There was also an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story, 'Ginger and the Kingsmarkham Chalk Circle', retitled 'No Crying He Makes' (The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, ITV, 1987-2000).

After the apprentice years of the 1970s, the prolific Milne had 22 dramas transmitted in the 1980s, including original single dramas and serials, adaptations, episodes for popular series, children's dramas, and an English-language teaching film, Family Affair (1984), about a successful woman architect who is separated from her husband and living with her teenage son.

The 1990s finally saw Milne achieve critical recognition and awards for her original serials: Die Kinder, which gave a personal dimension to the politics of terrorism with a story about a mother's search for her children who have been abducted by their father, a former member of a German terrorist group; the BAFTA-winning The Politician's Wife, about the wife of a philandering Conservative politician who proves to be ruthless in her own right when she takes on his political mantle; and The Fragile Heart, a three-part drama about medical ethics. Meanwhile she created Chandler and Co. (BBC, 1994-95), a series about a pair of female private investigators which proved popular enough to win a second series; Milne wrote seven of the 12 episodes.

She also wrote screenplays for three feature films: Mad Love, about a teenage couple on the run; Hollow Reed (UK/Germany, d. Angela Pope, 1996), about the fight for custody of a nine-year-old boy by his father, who is in a gay relationship; and I Dreamed of Africa (US/Germany, d. Hugh Hudson, 1999), about a young woman's fascination with the continent and based on the memoirs of Kuki Gallmann; as well as a US TV movie, Mind Games (ABC, tx. 19/4/1998). As a sign of her continuing versatility, Milne also wrote a two-part schools drama, Off Limits: A Life of Ecstasy? (Channel 4, 1997), about a 17-year-old boy who dies after taking the drug in a nightclub.

Like many writers, Milne was critical of the BBC's increasing bureaucracy under director general John Birt in the 1990s and of the detrimental effect of his policies on original drama. Unhappy with the way in which the corporation treated Chandler and Co., she switched allegiance to Channel 4 in the mid-1990s. But when head of drama Peter Ansorge left after Michael Jackson became chief executive in 1997 and her four-part thriller Thursday the 12th was axed, she also lost faith with Channel 4. Thursday the 12th was eventually picked up by Carlton TV and twice scheduled for transmission before being pulled. It has still not been transmitted.

Milne eventually returned to the BBC with Second Sight (2000-01), an unconventional crime drama starring Clive Owen as a police detective who is losing his sight. The original two-part story in 2000 was followed by a second series of three two-part dramas, not all written by Milne. State of Mind (ITV, 2003) was a two-part psychological thriller, while The Virgin Queen (BBC, 2006) was a highly-praised four-part drama about Elizabeth I, starring Anne-Marie Duff.

She returned to Channel 4 after more than a decade with Endgame (tx. 4/5/2009), about the secret discussions that led to the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. By contrast, Whatever it Takes (ITV, tx. 26/7/2009) was a not very successful attempt to make a statement about celebrity culture. Better received were her adaptations of Andrea Levy's Small Island (2009) and Sarah Waters' The Night Watch (tx. 12/7/2011) for the BBC, though the latter was half the length of Small Island (co-adapted with Sarah Williams) and suffered a little from the compression.

Milne's achievement as a screenwriter is evident, 40 years after her first scripts for Crossroads, from the ambition of White Heat (BBC, 2012). Like Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North (BBC, 1996), but with a longer time span, this six-part serial considers how the lives of the central characters have been shaped by the social and political events of the last five decades. With Red Room (BBC, 2012), a vampire take on Jane Eyre, and an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel among other screenplays, there seems to be no let-up in Milne's creative energies.

From early on she established a reputation as a 'feminist' writer because of her concern for dealing with 'women's issues' in soaps, popular series and original dramas such as 'A Sudden Wrench', Driving Ambition, Queen of Hearts, The Politician's Wife and The Virgin Queen, as well as the adaptations of Small Island and The Night Watch. Now in her fifth decade as a screenwriter, she has outlasted many of the male writers in whose shadow she spent the first two decades of her career, creating a body of work that is generically diverse but thematically consistent in placing women at the centre of the narratives and showing their ability to succeed in traditionally male roles.

Lez Cooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Angels (1975-83)Angels (1975-83)

Groundbreakingly realistic portrayal of the lives of NHS nurses

Thumbnail image of Coronation Street (1960- )Coronation Street (1960- )

Britain's longest-running soap opera marked its half-century in 2010

Thumbnail image of Crossroads (1964-88, 2001-03)Crossroads (1964-88, 2001-03)

Motel-based soap, much-mocked but hugely popular in its day

Thumbnail image of John David (1982)John David (1982)

Provocative drama about the mother of a Down's Syndrome baby

Thumbnail image of Juliet Bravo (1980-85)Juliet Bravo (1980-85)

Drama featuring a female police inspector in an all-male police station

Thumbnail image of Politician's Wife, The (1995)Politician's Wife, The (1995)

Juliet Stevenson proves that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned

Thumbnail image of Shoestring (1979-80)Shoestring (1979-80)

Trevor Eve stars as a computer analyst turned private detective

Thumbnail image of Sudden Wrench, A (1982)Sudden Wrench, A (1982)

A bored housewife retrains as a plumber in this feminist Play for Today

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