This week – notes from an interview with screenwriter JACK THORNE from last month’s Radio Times TV festival at the BFI –
Started in theatre.
Instinctively a lieutenant not a captain. Try to give power to others so that I’m not responsible.
In theatre, pressure on the 1st draft – not quite the same in TV.
‘Cursed Child’ very producer-led. For somewhere like the Bush Theatre, the pressure is much less intense.
In TV don’t tend to start with such a blank page. In theatre often if a world ‘sounds interesting’, the content of the 1st draft left open to you.
With Shane Meadows (THIS IS ENGLAND) we sit in a hotel room in Nottingham, and talk about it all. Jack will write a first draft, Shane rewrites it. Every time we learn different ways to do it, every time we re-invent how to do it. Shane has profoundly changed me as a writer and a human being. Shane – our duty is to be 20% better than the people who preceded us. I feel very lucky to have him in my life.
I like to cede power to people. Authorship can be shared eg working with Marc Munden on NATIONAL TREASURE – he’s an artist. He had a sense of how he wanted it to look. We kept talking. Authorship is constantly a process of sharing. The death of drama is when you think only you can hold the pen.
There are a lot of very strong voices coming through in television at the moment eg Mike Bartlett, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Dennis Kelly – theatre writers who have then come through in TV. Dennis would disagree with everything I’ve said about shared authorship – but it takes lots of different attitudes.
CAST-OFFS was made for £600k – £100k per ep – which is tiny in today’s terms. BBC3 going online producing lots of work by writers new to TV – CLIQUE, THIRTEEN, THIS COUNTRY. BBC3 thriving with new writers.
Politics – the politics of disability in particular – is very important to me. Disability is one issue that is left out of the diversity debate.
I felt at home at Graeae Theatre company when I didn’t feel at home anywhere else. ‘Don’t take My Baby’ (made thru BBC documentaries). Based on a number of different, real cases. Sometimes disabled drama can simplify the issues – in this film, they weren’t particularly great parents. But the state investigates cases unfairly – the film was trying to tell a truth, but that truth is quite complicated. So it’s real and interesting.
How does TV serve a younger audience? There’s an under-served age gap between shows like WOOLFBLOOD and CLIQUE – the trouble is none of this age group watch TV.
Hard being a young person – what you’re exposed to on the internet – porn – got to find a way to tell their stories – so they know they’re talked about, so that they feel important. What’s on TV, what is talked about in TV drama, is important.
Genre – Damilola Taylor TV drama, OUR LOVED BOY, only got an audience of 1.6m. We have to find ways for the industry to support stories like this.
I always try to write about people. That’s all. I have no plan. I’m trying to get a plan now but it’s eluding me.
I’m always telling the same sort of story, whatever the genre. Always being led by the characters. Eg, NATIONAL TREASURE, at its heart, was about doubt. So you build a story that explains that. What’s the theme and how do the characters best interrogate that?
TV is in a golden age because of DOWNTON ABBEY and BROADCHURCH. (not because of Netflix etc). These two shows became the shows that branded ITV- rather than reality shows ie progress towards TV’s ‘golden age’ was writer-led.
But if everything is a co-production, then shows like THIS IS ENGLAND and NATIONAL TREASURE won’t get made. Big international shows work as co-productions. DOWNTON ABBEY, THE CROWN – but more working-class shows wouldn’t get made eg THE BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF – greatest TV show ever made – might not get made in this ‘golden age’ because it’s so specifically English.
THE LAST PANTHERS – I’d never had an experience like it. We were dealing with so many execs, that they almost cancelled each other out – the writer and producer were the strong voices on the show.
NATIONAL TREASURE – George Faber said this is the moment to tell this story. We researched the hell out of it, tried to fathom a story from that. Marc Munden was on the project before me. I knew I had to write something that Marc believed in. Very long scenes and a very slow pace. We got very lucky with casting – the script got amazing responses – that gave us confidence. We shared authorship, and then shared nerve. We felt it important that the audience felt like a jury – what would they know? And in historical sex abuse cases, they know nothing. Really hard to make these crimes stick – it felt important to reflect that.
Decided to tell the story of a person who’s accused, and see the evidence presented from their perspective, rather than evidence from the POV of the victim, the complainant.
I don’t have a process – everything is different.
Characters – I like to write a lot of dialogue, discover characters that way. Plunge in – this is what they sound like. But this means I have to be prepared to throw a lot away.
A writer like Laura Wade (Posh) is the opposite – she has to work everything out about the character before she starts writing.
JT’s favourite TV dramas –
Boys From The Blackstuff
Holding On by Tony Marchant – best written TV drama of the last 30 years.
Shameless – the early series – the architecture of ep.1 is shatteringly good.
State Of Play – also by Paul Abbott
Clocking Off – another Paul Abbott show.
Queer As Folk by Russell T Davies – the first 2 series. So interesting to see why Russell made the story decisions he did in series 2.
JT work coming up – adaptation of Philip K Dick short story for C4 – ‘The Commuter’. A chance to write something about his grandfather. This has now wrapped.
I want to recommend two outstanding theatre shows that I’ve seen recently –
From ‘Inspector Sands’ theatre company, the show is co-written and co-directed by 4Screenwriting alumnus Ben Lewis. Set in the lounge of a care home, it’s an examination of the care of old people in the UK – but if this makes it sound a bit dry and worthy, that’s absolutely not the case. The show is funny, wry, touching and brilliantly produced, staged and performed by the three actors, two of whom play multiple roles. It’s at the Soho Theatre until May 20th.
MY FAMILY NOT THE SITCOM
David Baddiel’s one man / stand-up at the Playhouse in London, in which he talks about his parents – his recently deceased mother, and his father who has a very particular form of dementia. Again, this may sound a bit bleak – but I haven’t laughed as much in the theatre for a long time. It’s also in paces deeply moving and it’s really thought-provoking. If you’ve been enjoying the tribute podcast series, you will definitely enjoy this!
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 19th,
All the best
May 5th 2017