Currently on CBBC is screenwriter ALISON HUME’s new 13 part series, THE SPARTICLE MYSTERY. This is a really excellent new series from one of British TV’s most exciting and original writers. ALISON trained at what was then the Northern Film School and the Carlton new writers course before getting her first broadcast credit with a memorably and characteristically hard-hitting story about paedophilia on ‘The Vice’ (Carlton\ITV).
Work since includes the award-winning BEATEN (BBC1) about domestic violence; feature film PURE (dir. Gilles MacKinnon) about drug addiction, her own BBC1 primetime series, ROCKET MAN, starring Robson Green; the much-praised SUMMERHILL (CBBC\BBC3) and much else besides. I talked to ALISON about the particular challenges of THE SPARTICLE MYSTERY which she executive-produced as well as wrote, and more generally about her career as a screenwriter and advice she has for aspiring screenwriters. There is so much in here that is of real value and insight to writers, both new and more experienced. Read and enjoy!
Alison Hume – The Sparticle Mystery + A Screenwriter’s Career
You’ve written a lot of both adult and childrens drama. Do you see a distinction between the two? Do you approach each differently?
No, I approach every new project in the same way – with great excitement slowly turning to self doubt and finally, blind panic. Seriously, good drama is good drama and children are the hardest audience to please.
What was the idea behind the show? What inspired you to write it?
The idea came from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which is the biggest experiment in the world. There was a lot of media speculation about what might happen when they switched the LHC on and that got me thinking. What would children like to happen? For their parents, carers and the world’s adults to disappear off the face of the earth of course!
How would you describe the show?
William Golding on acid.
You are also part of the production company behind the show. How did you get it commissioned? What is the process you had to go through to get it green-lit by the BBC?
After the success of SUMMERHILL, Stephen Smallwood and I decided to seize the day and pitch the idea ourselves. I was in the bizarre position of being in competition with myself. I was also in contention with a SUMMERHILL spin-off series through Tiger Aspect. The process is treatment, script, bible. I was simultaneously doing both. Tiger Aspect obviously had resources and staff, whereas Sparticles Productions was just Stephen and I. While Tiger were producing glossy submissions, Stephen was running around looking for a photocopier. When we got the phonecall – mine was a one word response beginning with “s” and ending with “t”. Now we had to make it.
Have you enjoyed the experience of being a writer and producer simultaneously? What are the pros and cons of being a producer on a show you’ve also written?
Now I have had three months to scrape myself off the ceiling I can honestly say I have enjoyed the whole experience. It was good to be able to contribute to key areas such as casting, hiring, the look of the show, filming itself and post production. It made a change to be immediately offered a chair on set! The only con I think of is that when I was writing I was self-editing thinking “we can’t afford to do that”, and I had to remind myself that a writer’s job is to push, push, push the ideas.
You share writing credits with two other writers. How did you scout these other writers? Did you read a lot of scripts? How did you find the experience of having other writers working on your show? What qualities were you looking for in writers to write for the show?
Stephen and I read a lot of scripts by children’s writers and got depressed. There’s a lot of dross. I was quite shocked. Debbie Moon’s script stood out as it was obvious she understood children and used humour well. She is also a sci-fi buff, I wanted to mentor a new uncredited female writer. Jonny Kurzman was a proven writer on MI High. Stephen and I liked his writing – he’s a great “big ideas” person.
How closely did you work with them? Did you enjoy this process?
The three of us worked closely as a team and I ran a series summit in York to kick off the process. During the scripting process we talked weekly by video conference as I wanted Debbie and Jonny to feed into the whole series and not just feel like “guns for hire” on an authored series. We talked through our episodes, asked for help and offered solutions. Jonny also brought one of his many dogs onscreen to cheer us up. In order to make the series a completely unified “story of the week” plus a complex serial arc-ed “work of art” I ‘overwrote’ Debbie’s and Jonny’s scripts. I didn’t want to at first, but I bit the bullet, and was respectful and brutal at the same time, if that is possible. It felt very lonely sometimes as I was definitely the “keeper of the flame”.
Was the content of the show governed by the budget? How conscious did you have to be of budgetary restrictions when writing?
We had the license fee plus a bit more from our distributor Cake – about three million pounds. I know Stephen had sleepless nights over whether we could actually make this very ambitious series, with an all child cast and shot at various locations in a world where all the adults have disappeared, for the money we had. It is only because he is such an experienced and exceptional producer that we did. He always found a way to deliver the vision.
Do you think differently when writing scenes for children than adults?
When I write for children I try to imagine myself back to the ten year old girl in the garden shed dreaming up weird and wacky worlds. Yes, I had a tragic childhood!
What inspired you initially? What were the film \ TV scripts that you aspired to? How did you first get into screen-writing?
I watched “Band of Gold” by Kay Mellor and finally decided I had to get out of journalism and realise my ambition to be a screenwriter. In 1995 I did a two year Masters in Scriptwriting for Television at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Where \ How did you learn the craft of screen-writing? Is this something you picked up instinctively or was there someone \ something in particular that taught you a lot?
My tutor Brian Dunnigan pushed me to dig deeper and to stop relying on laughs. That’s probably where it all went wrong! I’d write comedy full time if only I was good enough. There isn’t enough laughter in the world, let alone on television
What advice can you give writers starting out about learning the craft?
Become an expert in your chosen field. It’s a profession like any other. I learnt most from being a sad, film geek and watching everything, and I mean everything, new on television. When writers tell me they don’t watch much TV I know they won’t make it. I dissect great television and try to learn from it. Once a week I see a film with my girlfriends and we discuss it over a drink. It doesn’t matter what film it is. It made it to the big screen and there’s always something I learn, even how to survive in the Bolivian jungle with a bunch of donkeys and a headscarf (CHE 2). I fed that film right back into THE SPARTICLE MYSTERY (Episode 8 “The Unsuitables”)
How did you first break into film \ television? What were your first experiences of contact with industry professionals?
After my Masters degree I was accepted onto the Carlton New Writers course. From this I got my first idea into development, but it wasn’t picked up by the Network. Neither was the second or the third but I kept at it, and finally got hired to write an episode of THE VICE. My first experiences with industry professionals were good. People wanted me to succeed. It’s a hard, shitty industry at times, but some of the people in it are diamonds.
How do you feel about the whole process of redrafting, responding to notes?
I don’t think there is enough redrafting. Too much television is made from scripts that need to go through more drafts in my opinion. I hate hearing laziness on screen. Great writing arrives in the redrafting. Good notes get you there quicker. Prescriptive notes with no solutions mire you in the mud of self-doubt and general despair where being a check-out operator is the new job of choice, but there is only ever one solution, to write yourself out of it and back into the daylight. What
is your experience of working with script editors, producers, directors, executive producers etc?
I have only had one bad experience. This was with a script editor who had no sense of humour on a comedy drama. I have turned down a lot of work “in the bearpits” to concentrate on developing original work. This has protected me from the darker side of the profession.
How did you get an agent? What does your agent do for you? What should a writer look for in an agent? What expectations should a writer have of their agent?
My agent was recommended to me by a script editor who liked my work. Before that I was turned down by at least five, so I gave up, and negotiated my first contract myself. A writer needs an experienced, savvy agent who loves their writing, understands their ambitions and lifestyle, and is prepared to go into battle on their behalf. My agent Rochelle Stevens has been instrumental in developing my career path and earning potential. She’s a friend too. I’m lucky.
What have you learnt over your professional experiences, script commissions? What do you do differently now to when you started writing?
If you put in the hours, the weeks, the months and the years you get better. I am ruthless with my time. I have to be. I have three young children. I don’t have time for writer’s block. I pay too much in childcare to waste time. I sit down and I write. Sometimes it’s rubbish but at least I’m writing. I have always done my own research and lots of it. After THE SPARTICLE MYSTERY I am a mini expert in particle physics. If anything I do more research for children’s drama. Children smell a fake in a jiffy. These days I can afford a warm blanket for my knees when writing through the night and a better bottle of wine to celebrate when the first draft is finished
Do you often have more than one project on the go? How do you find juggling more than one project at a time?
I only ever have one greenlit project on the go at a time because I can’t do more than one to the standard I demand of myself and be a good enough mum at the same time. I do have several projects in development though. I have more ideas than I can develop. I keep them all in a shoebox under the bed.
What tips do you have for writers trying to sell new ideas and scripts?
If it’s a film – would you pay to see it at the cinema when it’s cold and raining ? I wrote one of those once and a man and a dog saw it. If it’s telly, how tight is the premise? Does it have a clear concept? Calling card scripts should be personally handed over if at all possible by someone who knows you and likes your work. Very hard when you are just starting out but networking is really important. In every town in the UK will be someone who works in the industry who will know someone who knows someone. You need to find them and get them to read your work. My main advice is to never give up. Most people do, and if you don’t and you’ve got a modicum of talent, you’re already on your way to success. Then work your arse off. And then some.
Thank you so much Alison – great stuff!
Philip Shelley script-consultant.co.uk
** Find out more about Alison and her production company at