Fleur Tashjain and Daisy May Cooper as Iris
and Costello Jones in Rain Dogs. Image: BBC/Sid Gentle Films/HBO/James Pardon
Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate was a stylish, funny, eye-popping exploration of a life on the margins. Subtitled ‘A Memoir of Poverty, Motherhood and Survival’, it created quite a stir, winning praise from Kathy Burke and Ken Loach among many others when it was published in 2019. Her new television series, Rain Dogs, is not an adaptation of Skint Estate.
But that was the original plan. And that is what the BBC, HBO and Sid Gentle Films (makers of Killing Eve) signed up to. Billie Piper was all set to star. Then Carraway changed her mind. She was prepared to walk away. Which takes some serious courage when you are in a room with the producers of some of the greatest television of all time.
“The book wasn’t a commercial success. It was quite under the radar. But there was this bidding war,” says Carraway. “I started work on the adaptation. But the reaction to the book was horrible. It was not all journalists because you were really lovely to me, and The Times and the Morning Star. But lots of journalists spoke to me like I’d sold my story to a tabloid or won a competition to write a book. The book was never really judged on any kind of literary merit.
“I would have loved for someone to have said ‘You are a shit writer.’ Because at least they would have been calling me a writer. They literally just treated me like a woman who had gone on This Morning and said, ‘This is my sad life in poverty.’ They really misunderstood the book. It was a jaunt through the gutter. And it was funny. But lots of people read it in their pitying voices.”
Skint Estate painted a picture of poverty as chaos. Carraway and her young daughter had to move homes (and schools) often, were in and out of hostels. She worked minimum wage jobs and in a peep show. Her writing was brutally frank and brutally funny.
Rain Dogs is the result of Carraway’s screeching U-turn. HBO agreed to read her idea for a fictional comedy. The BBC said that if she could get This Country’s Daisy May Cooper to sign on the dotted line to star, they would commission it. Hey presto, within two days of receiving the script, Cooper was on board and all the lights turned green.
There are parallels with Carraway’s own story – of leaving home at 16, living in 43 different places in the next 13 years, “hopping from bed to bed, from trauma to trouble”. But do not be fooled. Rain Dogs, which takes its name from Tom Waits’ song of displaced and disenfranchised people seeking shelter, is a feat of imagination set in a recognisable world. A story told with authenticity and insider knowledge.
“I think it was a bit of a Trojan horse, really, because people thought it was a show about poverty,” says Carraway. “And it’s not really. It’s a show about messed up people trying to form a family. Poverty is just the landscape they live within. It’s just the backdrop.
“In the same way Succession has a backdrop of the super-rich and the media. But really it is about family.
“There’s not very many shows where working-class characters exist and thrive. So you can slip really dark stories in there and people go, ‘Oh, well, that must be what it’s like.’ You get away with a little bit more. So that was quite lucky.
“I wanted to make a very dark British comedy in the vein of Nathan Barley and The Royle Family. Chris Morris was always a huge inspiration for me as a teenager, so it seems natural to go to those places. I feel we haven’t been able to go there for such a long time. Would BrassEye even be made now?”
So what’s the story? It begins with Costello Jones (Cooper) being evicted from her flat at a moment’s notice, her daughter Iris (Fleur Tashjian) peeling her Sopranos poster (she’s obsessed) from the damp walls in a well-practiced routine.
An offer of accommodation comes with sleazy strings attached. Costello picks up work a Soho peep show, mirroring Carraway’s journey. Like Carraway, she also continues to write, through everything.
Rain Dogs takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the graft and the grift, with Costello’s wider chosen family – particularly well-to-do, deliciously droll and decadent dropout Selby (Jack Farthing, channelling Richard E Grant in Withnail and I), equally chaotic funeral home worker Gloria (Ronkę Adékoluęjo) and a gleeful star-turn from Adrian Edmondson as sleazy artist Lenny – bringing vibrancy and further chaos to proceedings as the story diverges further from Carraway’s own life.
“Almost all of the characters are just awful to each other and everyone they meet – they just do terrible things,” says Carraway. “Seinfeld was like a really big inspiration for that. But you always remain on their side, I hope, because they are magnetic. We got really amazing stars – I really cared about making all of the characters full of life.”
Politics is everywhere in this story. It is there in Costello’s wealthy friend’s seemingly unbreachable safety net – his ability to find a soft landing, no matter how calamitous the fall.
“Costello ends up in a pervert’s cupboard, whereas Selby gets sent to a big house in Somerset. He is never going to run out of chances,” says Carraway.
And it could not be more clear in the opening eviction scene. But Carraway wants us to know this is not a political piece.
“I was really mindful that I don’t want to make a state of the nation address,” continues Carraway. “But as writers, the personal is always political. It always seeps in there. And it is there in the sense that Rain Dogs shows that no matter how much you try and do the right thing, you’re always one mistake away from losing everything. And when I say mistake, it’s that you’re often forced into mistakes.
“But it’s so sad that if you’re writing something containing working-class characters, we start dissecting them personally, the choices that they make, the world that they live in, how much of this is their fault and how much of it is everyone else’s fault. Rather than just saying, oh, let’s enjoy a story.
“We have a long way to go until we get to the stage where you can just tell a working-class story without it being considered a political statement.”
And such is the structure of film and television commissioning in this country that stories like these do not have a smooth path to the screen.
“We’re always seeing working-class stories through a middle-class gaze,” says Carraway. “And that’s what I was trying to put a stop to with Rain Dogs.
“But sometimes I can still see the middle-class hand. Episode one and two do linger on the beauty of brutalist poverty a bit too much for my liking. It’s a constant battle for a working-class writer or creator working with a whole room of people who went to boarding school.”
Watch Rain Dogs as a boxset on BBC iPlayer from Tuesday April 4
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