Socialist Worker

Interview with Donna Franceschild, writer of TV's The Key

Issue No. 1868

The Key is a major new drama about three generations of working class women in Glasgow. Their story reveals an inspiring history of political activism and working class militancy rarely seen on TV. Donna Franceschild wrote The Key. She spoke to Socialist Worker about why political drama is back in fashion.

Do you think dramas like The Key can win a big audience?

The time is right to swim against the tide. Once, politics were an accepted part of TV drama. Then we were told that any political commitment was anachronistic. I am willing to be attacked for what I believe. I am not willing to have them dismissed as unfashionable. The conditions under which people live and work haven't changed. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, they are still working long hours and some get killed at work.

In The Key I wanted to show the parallels with the past. We are still fighting for something better. The call centre, like the one where Jessie works in the programme, is really the present day sweat shop.

Did you face any obstacles in making such a politically committed programme?

Most British historical dramas get funding from US companies. But, surprise, surprise, no big US company was interested in The Key.

I had to do a lot of research and it's not easy. Think of something like the rent strikes in Glasgow during the First World War. You can read books about it but you can't find out what people actually did when they went to stop evictions.

Luckily, I found a video of oral working class histories made in the 1970s. If things like that aren't made, all this brilliant history would be lost. Working class history is so important. How can it be possible for us to know where we are going if we don't know where we came from? Getting rid of child labour, equal pay for women, health and safety legislation-all these were fought for.

Epic dramas like The Key usually have 60 or 70 percent male characters. I just thought it would be nice to skew it the other way. It isn't a 'women's piece'. For example, Mary learns about the power workers have when they withdraw their labour, but it could easily have been a male character. I just thought, why not make it a woman?

Some scenes are critical of New Labour, especially when the aspiring New Labour MP, Maggie, clashes with her trade union activist mother.

Grassroots Labour members were fed up with losing to the Tories so were willing to make compromises to get elected. But the crucial line is when the mother says, you can get power, but what will you do with it? I believe that when change comes for the better it has always come from below. It happens when people at the top give in because they can't resist the pressure any longer. The story is not about political leaders, it's about people like us, caught up in a wider power struggle.

What impact would you like The Key to have?

We have already had great support. South Yorkshire miners helped us on the scene of the big picket at Orgreave in 1984. We filmed in Scotland and, because we had no money, we couldn't pay for the miners to come up. They just made their own way up and were extras and ended up teaching all the cast songs from their strike. It was brilliant. I was so delighted to see all the young people out on the streets against the Iraq war. I marched against Vietnam.

I think The Key is about asking young people to take up the gauntlet, to carry on fighting for the things their parents and grandparents fought for. I passionately believe we could have a better world, where people are not obscenely wealthy at one end and ground into the dust at the other. If I stopped being angry, I would stop writing.

The Key starts on Tuesday 16 September, 9pm, BBC2

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Sat 13 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1868
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