Now you see her

Now you see her

You don't need to be in front of the camera to shine. Liza Marshall is adding glamour to the notoriously gritty business of TV production. By Naomi West

Anna Friel in the controversial new drama Fields of Gold

The one thing Liza Marshall's mother told her was 'Never be an actress.' This was advice coming from someone who should know: not only was her mother, Denise, once an actress, but for the past 20 years she and her husband Scott have run the high-powered actors agency Scott Marshall. The nearest their daughter came to acting was in a Coke commercial at 15, but 'I'm far too shy,' she says with a wry smile. 'When it came to my close-up, I was so nervous, it was horrendous.'

But, as she admits now, she couldn't keep away from the world her parents worked in. 'I was always going to work in TV or film, I never even thought about anything else.' During every holiday from St Paul's Girls' School in London, Marshall would be roped into working in their hectic home office: 'I grew up with actors, always meeting them backstage or when they came to our house.'

She chose to work behind the camera, as a producer, and aged only 30, has already won a Bafta nomination for producing the BBC series The Sins, last year's critically acclaimed seven-part drama about a career-criminal's (Pete Postlethwaite) eventful quest to go straight.

She started producing at university, putting on plays during her first year studying history at Wadham College, Oxford. This included a Richard III in the college garden, but she soon decided it was 'all a bit thespy. I'd rather go out and have a good time, like everyone else.'

And it worked. Her university friends are high-achievers to rival even Marshall; there's Jess (Cartner-Morley, fashion editor of the Guardian), Andy (Cato, one half of award-winning dance music duo Groove Armada) and Martha (Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com). Lane Fox, in particular, has proved indispensable in putting Marshall's workload into perspective. 'I'd get home from a day working harder than I thought humanly possible on The Sins, then I'd ring Martha up and she'd still be at her desk. Very comforting,' she admits.

Marshall's route into producing was fairly conventional; she was a freelance script reader then editor before joining Carlton as a script editor on the (now defunct) soap, London Bridge.

It was the show's executive producer, Jane Tranter, who offered her a career break as producer on The Sins. 'It was an amazing thing for her to do,' says Marshall, 'because it was a huge risk. Quite a big show.' Marshall was involved at every stage in the eight months it took to finish the series; from perfecting the scripts to choosing the directors, designer, casting director, actors, right up hto when the titles were put on at the end of the editing process. 'You've just got to work really hard,' she says, 'especially when everyone in the filming unit thinks you're the runner or something.'

Her work on The Sins and her second project, Fields of Gold (a thriller about GM crops starring Anna Friel), taught her a thing or two about crisis management. 'Every single day comes with a different set of problems,' she says brightly. When they were filming at night on an Oxfordshire farm, using huge stadium lights, the neighbouring farmer's ducks took it as their cue to leave, and it was down to Marshall to exercise her diplomacy with the irate farmer.

As co-writer of Fields of Gold (and Guardian editor) Alan Rusbridger observes, 'When I went down on the first night of filming, there were about 150 people, along with lights, catering trucks and ambulances in a field turning to mud. And there was Liza, this quiet figure in the middle of everything, pulling all the strings. It was very impressive.'

But Marshall laughs off the suggestion that she is a little bit formidable: 'I'm definitely not one of those scary-dragon women, yet. I'm sure people see me as rather silly.' Well, no, actually: her readiness to embrace 'serious' subject matter for TV dramas has won the respect of her (often older, male) peers. (The vegetarian Marshall mentions that her concern with genetic modification goes back five years to when her brother, a Newbury road-protester, first alerted her to the issues.)

William Ivory, writer of The Sins, admits, 'She's very different to me - quite posh and very young. My work tends to be very male, white and working class, so Liza is an extremely valuable counterpoint to have. Our meetings are always great fun.' The pair are presently developing a serial for the BBC about one man's search for the perfect orgasm. Other ambitious projects that Marshall is brewing include an adaptation of Jake Arnott's bestseller, The Long Firm, by Joe Penhall (who wrote the acclaimed play Blue/Orange), a drama based on the Hatfield rail crash and a film of Howard Marks's autobiography, Mr Nice. But while she is itching to get one of these on to the small screen, in the meantime she is savouring the sensation of 'having a life'.

She has just returned from a trip to LA to watch the terrifyingly driven writer-producers of shows such as Smallville at work, and while there, managed to squeeze in an evening with 'David and Anna' (Thewlis and Friel). 'I used to think I'd like to work there, but now I'm not so sure. It's just a factory town,' she sighs. Bad luck, Hollywood.

  • 'Fields of Gold' is on BBC1 tonight and tomorrow