UK TV Drama 2011

Posted by admin  /   August 03, 2011  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting  /   11 Comments

Watching the turgid ‘THE HOUR’ on BBC2 last night made me think about the state of current UK TV drama – I find myself in so many conversations these days with writers, script development people, producers, who say things like, ‘I don’t watch much TV drama – not British TV drama anyway.’ People only ever seem to want to talk about US TV drama – or increasingly European TV drama (The Killing, for instance) and movies. People have to struggle to think of British TV shows they’ve liked recently.

For me the best UK TV drama in the last few months (years) have been shows like EXILE (Danny Brocklehurst) and THE ACCUSED (Jimmy McGovern) – but these shows, while excellent, don’t feel like pioneering, cutting-edge shows – they feel like the vanguard of a movement that was at its peak 20 years ago when Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott were making a real splash.

So where is most of the good new dramatic writing to be found at the moment? Well, for me, a lot of it is in the theatre. When I used to work in development at the BBC, Carlton, Granada, etc, I used to go to a lot of theatre. And my main response to it was how so much of the writing wasn’t on the same level as so much TV drama. Now I’m not so sure. Shows like TACTICAL QUESTIONING (Tricycle Theatre), CYLBOURNE PARK, POSH (Royal Court), MOGADISHU (Lyric Hammersmith) and LITTLE PLATOONS (Bush Theatre) all felt fresh, exciting and like they all had something pressing to say, whether it was about the Tories and the establishment (POSH), the British army’s role in Iraq (TACTICAL QUESTIONING) or education (LITTLE PLATOONS, MOGADISHU).

And last week I saw THE VILLAGE BIKE at the Royal Court Upstairs. This was funny, dark and original – really top quality writing. And a fantastic central performance from the same Romola Garai who is given so little to work with in THE HOUR.

So where’s all the top-notch TV screenwriting in the UK?? Please tell me!

Philip Shelley


Aug 3rd 2011


  1. Laurence Timms August 10, 2011 8:37 am

    Theatres seem anxious to make investment in new writers. There are great schemes at Red Ladder, Theatre503, Royal Court, Old Vic and loads more aimed at getting original and creative new writing in front of an audience. Television, on the other hand, is locked in a cycle of cutbacks and cost reduction and it’s easier, cheaper and safer to roll out more reality soaps than to take a risk on original drama.

    I’ve got nothing against reality soaps – it’s just another form of storytelling. But commissioning broadcasters should get even more creative with dramatic formats – ultra short dramas, web drama, filmed stage productions, fixed set/fixed camera dramas, more team-written drama with secondment opportunities, side-by-side shadow schemes that make new writers work hard to show their mettle.

    Where’s all the top-notch TV screenwriting in the UK? Out here, punching the wall trying to break in.

  2. admin August 10, 2011 9:17 am

    Wise words, Laurence. There does seem to be a much more pro-active and positive approach to new writing initiatives in theatre than in TV (and film) – and it pays dividends. Audiences respond to the quality of the new work they’re being offered.

    Without wishing to sing my own praises unduly (!), I think I can say I write this from a position of strength as I run one of the very few TV new writing initiatives – the Channel 4 screenwriting course, which will soon be open for new entires for 2012 – watch this space…

  3. Ian Pring August 25, 2011 3:31 pm

    I’ll tell you where that top-notch screenwriting is. It’s sitting outside the vicious circle that the industry seems to perpetuate in order to keep its darlings in work – the one whereby agents won’t read you unless you’ve got a producer and vice versa. Which is probably why the US gets Mad Men and we get The Hour.

  4. admin August 25, 2011 3:42 pm

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for that. I think there’s truth in what you say. But at the same time I am a strong believer in the idea that if you have a really outstanding script, it WILL get recognition. The people who run film and TV are always interested in the exciting new writing voices – even though it may not seem like it sometimes. Persist and you’ll get there!

  5. John Storey September 13, 2011 5:33 am

    I suspect that a lot of the real writing talent has moved to LA.

    The problem with THE HOUR was it was trying too hard. There were three love stories, a broadcasting saga, the murder, the rather moody investigation of that murder and the Suez crisis – all to be delivered on sets vaguely pitched between MADMEN and a Bovril ad from the 50’s.

    I can’t believe that was the vision of a writer.

    It was constructed by development people, producers and rights distributors to be everything all of them wanted. It therefore became forced, losing any natural shape the story once had.

    I gather they’ll be a second series. Perhaps, they’ll calm down. The success of MADMEN is its incredibly slow pace. As so little happens, the only force left to fill the void is character.

    Anyway, I think Phil is right. A great script in this country will find a home. The problem is we all think that our scripts are great, and they’re not. Then we pitch them appallingly. Then we get grumpy because no one understands us. You have to really do the work (structure, rewrite, work the hook, rewrite, develop new characters, rewrite, make it matter, rewrite and then rewrite it)

    I pitched a script (probably badly) to Peter Fincham last week. He runs ITV programming. I was actually inspired to do so because he said they were looking for ambitious, fresh, British stories.

    I believe him. On every commercial level ITV need exactly what he’s asking for. I just think we’re not very good at giving it to him.

    We get lost in the power (to us) of our own ideas.

    Anyway, I’ve got a rewrite to grind out.

  6. John Storey September 16, 2011 3:18 pm

    I missed an important bit out of my little diatribe, above.

    The most powerful way to make your scripts better is to have them read and not just by your mates.

    Listening to and learning from people who know what they are doing is the only way to get past your thoughts of how brilliant your script is.

    In a way it moves you to a place where you are not alone pounding away on your laptop thinking how difficult it is be a writer. You have someone there with you. Someone who gets the story and wants it to work. You just have to listen to the bits they say about where it doesn’t work. And have the will to fix those flaws.

    Phil’s notes on one of my much loved scripts were exactly that. Tough to take but essential to incorporate. You make so many thousands of decisions when you create a script and each one takes you in a specific direction. The culmination of those often takes the script to the wrong destination, the wrong tone, even the wrong story. It’s difficult to admit that sometimes.

    So you need trusted, experienced readers that you rate. The best, highest paid, most successful screenwriters pay to have their scripts read. We, at the bottom of that pile, have to learn to do the same. There’s quite a strong argument to suggest that it’s actually more important for us to do it.

    “Writing is rewriting” so sayeth the Lord.

  7. admin September 16, 2011 3:26 pm

    Thank you John, wise words!



  8. John Storey October 7, 2011 6:36 am

    Having been so rude about THE HOURS above, I feel duty bound to comment on HIDDEN last night on BBC1.

    I thought it was excellent. In fact, I’ll watch it again later to learn from how good it is. It knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do. The dialogue is fresh (funny) and surprising. There’s a pace and momentum that I really admire. Another great cast and a director who knows how (like a great referee in a football match) to let the action, script and actors take precedence by fading into the background.

    It’s complex but good, bold but involving.

    I looked up the writers, Ronan Bennett and Walter Bernstein, and can only imagine that it’s their collaboration that has made this/these scripts so strong. Mr. Bernstein is definitely old school. I mean that in the best possible way. He’s been thinking about scripts and how they work for a very long time.

    Anyway, I thought it was great. We should celebrate that when we find it. And learn from it.

  9. admin October 7, 2011 9:09 am

    Absolutely John – we should recognise, enjoy and be inspired by all good stuff out there. Completely different – but I’ve been really enjoying FRESH MEAT on Channel 4 recently as well. Sharp, well-observed and very, very funny. The value of a writer being able to make you laugh should never be under-estimated!

  10. John Storey October 13, 2011 8:58 am

    I watched FRESH MEAT for the first time last night.

    You’re right Phil, I laughed out loud several times.

    Strong characters, risks taken that worked.

    A format we’ve seen many times before but fresh and bold.

    I thought the use of the c-word towards the end was too heavy, not needed, didn’t add much. Apart from that, very good indeed.

    Is it one of yours?

  11. admin October 14, 2011 9:32 am

    Afraid I can’t claim any responsibility for it John but I think it demonstartes the range of the C4 drama department – ‘The Promise’ and ‘Fresh Meat’ are about as different as two shows can be, and both equally good!