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Shameless – Executive producers Paul Abbott and John Wells on bringing the British series to the US

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William H Macy
Frank (William H Macy) © Showtime 2010

Emmy award-winning producer John Wells (ER, The West Wing) has brought an adaptation of Shameless, the long-running British series, to Showtime.

The original series was inspired by executive producer Paul Abbott’s own complicated life growing up in a working-class family with 10 children. For the US version, the sprawling Gallagher family has been transplanted to working-class Chicago during the challenging times of today’s recession.

William H Macy portrays Frank Gallagher, an alcoholic patriarch who usually ends up passed out on the living room floor. Emmy Rossum plays his daughter Fiona, who is left to keep her five younger brothers and sisters on track, which usually proves impossible.

Did the original series have some autobiographical aspects to it?

Shameless
Lip (Jeremy White), Debbie (Emma Kenney), Kev (Steve Howey), Veronica (Shanola Hampton), Frank (William H Macy), Fiona (Emmy Rossum), Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and Steve (Justin Chatwin). (Front row:) Liam (Blake/Brennan Johnson) and Carl (Ethan Cutkosky) © Showtime 2010

Paul Abbott It’s a composite of about three different people in my family: a brother, an uncle and my dad. There’s no single person attached to my autobiography, even the Fiona character was culled from different personalities I knew.

From the age of 13 I was a bit of an adult. We all were, we were all made to behave like little adults, and you had to have jobs. We had to raise money for the ‘kitty,’ or you didn’t keep the electricity on. It was that kind of upbringing.

This is an unusual project for you. How did you come to it?

John Wells Andrew Stearn, who is another executive producer on the show, had wanted me to meet Paul in London, and we got together and we started talking about things. He started telling me about this series he had just started shooting. I said it sounded fabulous.

It took us two years to negotiate the underlying rights. Then we tried a number of times to set up different places, and fortunately Showtime came through and said they would make it.

I greatly admire the quality of the writing, and what Paul was doing and the satirical nature in which he was taking taboo subjects and holding them up to the light for a lot of the hypocrisy that’s involved in it. It made me laugh and made me cry, and he was kind enough to let us do it here.

Your projects in the past have always had a moral center to them. Who’s the moral center in this?

Shameless
Steve (Justin Chatwin) and Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum) © Showtime 2010

John Wells Emmy’s character. And what’s wonderful, and I know Paul won’t say this about his own work, is that this is really about a loving family and the way in which no matter how difficult circumstances are, people find ways to survive, and not only survive but that they love each other, care for each other, have tremendous empathy and sympathy for each other in the family and that’s what comes through it.

Paul Abbott Part of the construct of the family and the way I created it in the first place was because nobody wants to look at that kind of dysfunction. And once you invest the kids with the role of parents and the parents as children, it’s easy to write, and it’s a lot of families, and they don’t just live in places like this.

Showtime has another new series, Episodes about a pair of British writers who take their beloved series to America where it becomes incredibly corrupted. Have you had any Episodes-like moments in Hollywood?

Paul Abbott No. Not one. And I think because John was so in tune with [the British version]. I had no idea what he was going to do. I had no idea what it would come out looking like.

John was the first to say we must not set it in the South because it will make it look like a pastiche. We’ve had no disagreements on content. It’s been a lot of fun making it and trying to find out the extremities we can go to, because that’s what real life is, and television polishes it up just a little bit too much. And I think when you get a bit of the spleen, that’s when the audience knows you’re looking after them.

The sex scenes are pretty wild in this. A couple of them are jaw-dropping. Were you trying to push the envelope, or do you have an edict from Showtime to go crazy?

John Wells No, there is no edict. We are genuinely trying to show healthy sexuality, without being too revealing, energetic sexuality in homes in which there’s not a whole lot of money to do other things is a big part of life.

Paul Abbott And I think highly populated homes like that, like the one I lived in, there were 10 of us, and eventually we had no parents. The sister who brought us up was 16, and she was about nine months pregnant then. So you were introduced to sex by proximity because the bedrooms weren’t that far apart. There were only two bedrooms with 10 of us. So it was pretty explicit. You learned. It was like watching the Internet now.

But love stories, gentle sex, and extreme sex came within the same framework. We were all sexually active very early on, but we knew how to treat a girl. There are a lot of fine love stories that came out of my family and sadly some more extreme versions of sex that you wouldn’t like, but they sit side by side. And it’s being honest about those things. That’s what Shameless is intended to do.