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Leah McLaren’s life turns into TV

Canadian expat and Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic when she wrote about the British dating scene in a magazine feature, referring to men there as drunks, fearful of women and repressed homosexuals.

Nine years later, that infamous article is now the basis of a CBC TV movie, Abroad. Loosely based on McLaren’s own single-in-the-city experiences, the romantic comedy centres around a North American journalist named Amy Pearce (played by Liane Balaban) who makes headlines after writing about her disastrous dating experiences.

So is Abroad basically McLaren’s real life turned into TV?

“It does feel like an ode to my 20’s,” says McLaren, now 33, married (to a Canadian) and living in West London. “I’m nostalgic about it for that reason, but in terms of the nitty gritty details of my life, it’s more impressions than exact characters and exact people.”

McLaren dove into the Abroad project as a screenwriter, later becoming co-executive producer, in between juggling the daily workload of being a staff writer at the Globe and her outside freelance magazine writing work.

Abroad came about accidentally, as these things do,” she says. “Producer Meredith Caplan pitched the idea without telling me and the CBC got back quickly. It was all around the time my novel [The Continuity Girl] was coming out and the contract to develop Abroad was signed, but everything was becoming completely insane, as I was still a staff employee at the Globe.”

McLaren had to quit her staff job and freelance for the Globe instead in order to keep up with her new TV-related demands.

“You definitely have freedom as a freelancer, and the trick of it is to have four or five things on the go speculatively. You have to bank on one or two of them happening, otherwise you’re screwed, but also, if you’re lucky enough to have them all happen at once, you’re screwed too.”

But McLaren was able to maintain her Globe column and keep her byline in high-profile magazines throughout Abroad‘s years-long development process.

“Writing for a newspaper is instantly gratifying, but TV drama is completely the opposite. So is a novel, but TV drama is very much so than writing fiction. The script development process is going through literally an indescribable amount of drafts. Outline drafts have to be signed off on by independent producers, then the broadcasters. As many as 10 people had to sign on to a draft, offering notes and editorial suggestions. It’s much more political. But ultimately, it’s a fascinating process, but going through it the first time was seriously slow. I was very impatient, but my TV agent said it wasn’t any longer than most. ”

McLaren is hoping Abroad will become a regular series and is continuing as the show’s creative producer. While the series production has yet to secure a UK co-producer, she’s working on developing potential scripts and keeping up with her Globe column and other freelance projects.

In the meantime, McLaren’s very happy with the overall results of her first TV collaboration.

“My only criteria before I signed on was that I be played by someone thinner and prettier than I am,” she laughs. “And Liane [Balaban] certainly fit that bill – and is younger too.”

Abroad airs Sunday, March 14 at 8 p.m. on CBC Television.

Content Creator
Robert J. Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star
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