Most people find seeing themselves on screen distinctly squirm-inducing. Even an unintended glance in the mirror can trigger a minor identity crisis, as we glimpse the gulf between how others see us and how we imagine ourselves. But for writers whose life stories are adapted for television – their flawed personalities painstakingly recreated by actors – the experience can be even more bewildering.
“Bizarre is the only way to describe it,” reflects Adam Kay, whose 2017 bestseller This Is Going to Hurt, a memoir of his hellish and hilarious years as a junior doctor, lands in 2022 on BBC One. On TV, Kay is played by Ben Whishaw, who evidently took his research seriously. “I watched an early cut with my husband,” Kay recalls, “and he said: ‘It’s amazing how he’s got all of your weird mannerisms.’ I didn’t even realise I had weird mannerisms!”
Dolly Alderton, whose acclaimed account of her “roaring 20s” in London, Everything I Know About Love, also hits the BBC this year, found seeing her life reconstructed on screen disconcerting. “It was really, really trippy,” she says. “Some of the argument scenes were verbatim conversations that happened in my life 10 years ago, and watching them felt very strange.”
For Alderton, the creative team’s obsessive attention to detail made visiting the set uncanny. “There were all these tiny details that were a carbon copy of the house I lived in,” she explains. “I sent the art director a picture of a drunken letter I had written my friend, promising that if she came out with me that night, I would wake her up early the next morning for work. And there was that letter, from one of the fictional housemates to the other, stuck on the fridge.”
Eerie moments of deja vu notwithstanding, Kay and Alderton have both kept a tight grip on the reins of their stories by adapting the memoirs themselves. But Stephanie Land, whose book Maid spawned a hit Netflix series last year – garnering audience figures second only to the streamer’s other huge success story, Squid Game – gave control to screenwriters working under John Wells, former showrunner of ER and The West Wing.
“When I learned they planned to fictionalise the characters, I felt relief,” she tells me. “It’s one thing to write a story about your kid’s life. It’s another thing to have it played out as a series.”
But while Maid’s writers crafted a story that was part true and part fiction, recasting Land as a young woman called Alex and her daughter Story as Maddy, there were moments lifted straight from real life that hit close to home, particularly when it came to the scenes of abuse. “There were definitely aspects of the show that surprised me in my body’s reaction to them,” Land tells me. “A few times, when it cut to a shot of [Alex’s boyfriend] bending over to yell in her face, it made me flinch. “Those parts were a little too real, and I wasn’t prepared for them.”
Like Land, Alderton’s on-screen alter ego goes by a different name – Maggie – but telling them apart is not always easy. “It would be a lie to say that I can completely depersonalise it,” she admits. “There were certainly moments in the process of hashing out stories where I realised that when I was defending Maggie, I was actually defending myself.”
For Kay, the distinction between Adam the writer and Adam the character was also a tricky one. “It was always ‘him’ rather than ‘me’ when I was talking to producers,” he explains, “to give myself the necessary distance, and also so I didn’t implode during the many discussions of how dislikable he is – I am – throughout. The truth is that he started as me in every way, and as the writing continued he became his own person, albeit one who constantly says and does things that I did in my actual life.”
Alderton also struggled with ambivalent feelings towards her character. “I’m much harder on Maggie than the other creatives on the show,’ she admits. “I will say, ‘I think Maggie is too unlikable here’, or ‘I don’t understand why she’s doing this.’ And it’s obviously because I recognise myself in her, and we are our harshest critics, as the cliche goes. But I also have to be truthful about how much it’s defensive self-preservation. I’m trying to make her a more palatable version of me.”
Sometimes, autobiographical shows can even outlast the characters whose experiences are at their heart. Call the Midwife was adapted from the memoirs of author Jennifer Worth, but when Jessica Raine, who played the show’s lead Jenny, announced she wanted to leave the series, the character was written out but the story continued.
For showrunner Heidi Thomas, who has delivered more than 80 episodes (with at least two more series confirmed), losing her star was a blessing in disguise. “I realised the drama could open up and expand,” she tells me, “because we would have more time to spend with our other characters.” Having used up the majority of the material in the books by the end of season one, Thomas had already begun supplementing Worth’s stories with accounts sent in by the show’s legions of fans from the nursing and midwifery professions.
Worth herself, sadly, never got a chance to see herself on screen since she died during the show’s development period, and Thomas attended her funeral the week before filming began. “There was a lot of trust between us, there was friendship, and I have to say there was love,” she recalls. After her death, any storylines involving the character were sent to her family for approval. “They were entitled to read them and to comment,” explains Thomas, “because I loved and respected Jennifer and I didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t germane to her experience.”
In fact, even after Raine left the series, Thomas kept Vanessa Redgrave on as narrator, reasoning that since Worth had stayed in touch with the nuns she had worked with right up to the end of her life, she could continue to tell their stories. In the 2014 Christmas Special she even put Redgrave on screen as old Jenny, wearing some of Worth’s jewellery supplied by her daughters. “It was a way of keeping Jennifer alive,” she tells me.
For any long-running series, change is a means of survival, and in the case of shows adapted from true stories, this generally means an increasingly loose relationship to the source material. This Is Going to Hurt was a publishing phenomenon, spending a record-breaking 52 weeks in the charts and shifting more than 2.5m copies. Kay’s one-man show based on the book had sell-out runs throughout the UK. Does he expect the TV show to run and run as well?
The answer, surprisingly, appears to be a resolute no. “I wrote it as a self-contained series, with a beginning, middle and end,” he tells me. “Never say never, but at the same time, probably never.”