This week – a few more thoughts about drama series formats, in preparation for my CREATING DRAMA SERIES script lab at the London Screenwriters Festival at the end of October.
I’ve worked – as script editor and producer – on a lot of series and spent a lot of time analyzing what makes a successful series. Series such as INSPECTOR MORSE, KAVANAGH QC and WAKING THE DEAD. Also medical series such as MEDICS (which ran on ITV for 5 series) and STAYING ALIVE (an ITV series about nurses that made it through two seasons – and which starred Jessica Hynes and Sophie Okonedo among others).
I’ve also worked on my fair share of flops! At Carlton I worked on a new series about a family-run pottery business in the Midlands – the family saga side of it was OK – but the pottery business was not the stuff of drama!
Funnily enough I was working on this at roughly the same time as the first episode of SIX FEET UNDER was broadcast. Our pilot episode and the SIX FEET UNDER episode were amazingly similar in structure and indeed story – both first episodes including the death of the patriarch, the crisis that followed, and the family having to pull together to keep the business running.
But while Alan Ball’s wonderful, seminal series was about LIFE and DEATH, ours was about…crockery.
In many ways I think I’ve learnt more from the less successful series I’ve worked on than the successful ones.
WAKING THE DEAD was a great format – an endless supply of stories from any time or place within the last 100 years, introduced as cold cases, dealt with by a team who all brought different fields of expertise to the table.
The one ‘format’ difficulty with WTD was the fact that the cold cases had obviously all happened in the past – they were essentially BACK-STORY – and this necessitated a lot of expositional unpacking of this back-story. So the investigation of the cold case always had to work alongside an investigation in the present – usually a new murder committed in an attempt to cover up the truth of the cold case murder!
But this format was very attractive to writers who could bring original, ‘authored’ (I hate that word) ideas to the show and write their own mini feature films. At 2 x BBC hours, these were weighty shows.
A hugely successful show like DOWNTON ABBEY is interesting in that it is very much more serial than series. It’s debatable how long this show could run – it’s not a show like CASUALTY where the format is endlessly repeatable. It’s less easy to replace the characters within the ‘precinct’ (Downton Abbey).
And then there are the shows like SILENT WITNESS which defy all sensible analysis. Objectively this is a terrible format. The central characters are pathologists whose work, in reality, should very rarely take them out of their labs.
Episode after episode you have pathologists basically taking over the police’s job and running the investigation for them in a way that is wildly inaccurate – and yet this is one of the BBC’s flagship drama series, consistently successful after very many years, now I think in its 16th (?) series.
So it’s a mysterious business!
One of the landmark series of the last 20 years was ITV’s COLD FEET, written by Mike Bullen. In many ways this bucked the series trends – determinedly low-concept, this was about the relationship between a group of friends and…well that was about it really. And it was a huge success. Since its demise broadcasters have constantly sought its equivalent – without success. The latest incarnation was MARRIED SINGLE OTHER which wasn’t bad (I thought) but it didn’t take off.
Which is why production companies and broadcasters so often come back to crime and medical shows – the potential for stories where the dramatic stakes are high is enormous – universal stories about life and death…
A bit off the screenwriting message – but have you had a look at this? –
Nick Clegg’s tuition fees apology set to music – very, very funny. It’s gone very viral in the last couple of days and I’m not surprised.
There’s something mind-boggingly cynical and misjudged about this. You can see his thinking oh so clearly – he looked at David Cameron’s ‘sincere’ apology about the Hillsborough tragedy and thought, ‘Hmm, that worked, let’s see if I can get a piece of that.’ His ham-fisted politician’s autocue performance deserves the response it’s got.
It’s funny how – whether you like his poltics or not – one of the few politicians (if you can call him that) that people seem to respond to at the moment is Boris – because he makes people laugh! (His performance at the Olympic \ Paralympic parade was hilarious.)
Perhaps comedy’s the way to go for politicians – not a bad starting point for a pitch for a satirical political drama is it? The politician as comedian?
Just preparing for this weekend’s ‘Authoritative Guide to Screenwriting‘ course in London.
In the coming week, I will be posting more information about forthcoming courses that Phil and I will be running.
We are looking to branch out a bit and offer some different courses. For instance we did a one day Pitching course earlier this year which went down very well and we are thinking of doing a script-editing course in the future.
Please do let me know if there are any courses in particular that you would be interested in – whether it’s courses about a particular genre – horror, rom-com, TV crime series etc or, for instance, a one day course about marketing yourself as a writer.
Until next week
Sept 21st 2012