Posted by admin  /   September 30, 2020  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on ROCKS / RED / WRITING

Hi There,

Last week I went to a cinema for the first time since I can’t remember when (March / Feb?). If I’m honest, it felt odd and a bit unsettling rather than wonderful to be back in an actual cinema, but what was great was the film I saw – ROCKS, directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko, from a story by Theresa Ikoko.

This is without doubt one of the best British films of recent years and watching it gave me a great sense of joy and pride. Pride – because Theresa was one of the writers on the Channel 4 screenwriting course in 2016 and it’s wonderful to see her talent there for all to see on the big screen. Theresa wrote a brilliant script on the course, LINES, about three young boys caught up in an adult world of drugs and money. Like LINES, ROCKS burns with love and humanity. It’s a perfect antidote to the sadness and confusion of our current age and I urge you to see it.

Although Theresa is such a talent she would have undoubtedly got there anyway, it made me very happy to be a part of her journey as a writer. I’m delighted that everyone gets a chance to see this film and experience her sensibility, her take on the world.

ROCKS really is the most wonderful expression of her writing voice – a unique, emotionally universal story of family, love, hardship and struggle, beautifully told with warmth but also craft and guile.

The story is deceptively simple but does everything you need to do to tell a character-led story effectively. What is at stake is very simple but very clear – and of fundamental importance to the characters. It’s a broadly relatable story about a very specific and under-represented UK community. It’s a film imbued with love and affection, a film that should be compulsory viewing for all bigots and racists, to remind them that we all have a story to tell, that even the most inarticulate, under-represented stories are worthy of our time and charged with a quiet dignity and grace.

For me, seeing this film reminded me why we run the Channel 4 screenwriting course – to give new talent like Theresa the chance to get their voice heard in the industry, to make their mark in a fiercely competitive world. The characters in the film are characters we don’t often see portrayed positively as they are by ROCKS – in fact we don’t often see these sorts of characters in fiction at all. This is another thing that we pride ourselves on with 4screenwriting – trying to find writers who tell these sorts of stories that feel different – fresh, surprising and for that reason important.

The film reminded me of so many of the other success stories from the course in recent years – and, with entries closing later today (Friday Oct 2nd) it excites me for the weeks of reading ahead, knowing that we are undoubtedly going to be discovering and unearthing more gems like Theresa.

(I started writing a list of the names of the really exciting writers who have been on 4screenwriting in the last few years but it got too long.)

For the 12 graduates from the 2020 course, things are already starting to happen – but the industry climate is without doubt more difficult now than it has been in the last few years. And this year’s writers are at the moment missing the all-important opportunity to meet up face-to-face with potential employers. There are some advantages to zoom and online meetings – the ease with which they can be organised, how it levels the playing field for writers who don’t live in or near London – but we are all undoubtedly missing that face-to-face contact as well. But this year’s 12 writers are one of the most outstanding group of writers from all of the 10 years of the course so far and I know they will all have similar successes to Theresa Ikoko’s in the years to come if they approach their writing and the industry with the same positivity and creativity as Theresa.


I see this week that Nicola Shindler is leaving Red Productions to start a new company. As a TV drama producer, Nicola Shindler and the company she founded, Red, is unsurpassed – she has been a flag bearer for the absolute best of UK TV drama over the last 20 years or so, with the most amazing CV.  She is a reminder of how vital brilliant creative producers are in finding and supporting writing talent and in generating and creating outstanding drama and telling important stories. She is a lesson to all writers that finding outstanding producers to work with is key to your success. Her CV is extraordinary – working with Russell T Davies on shows from ‘Queer As Folk’ to ‘Years & Years’; with Sally Wainwright on shows from ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Scott & Bailey’ to ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Last Tango In Halifax’; with Daniel Brocklehurst on shows like ‘The Driver’ and ‘Exile’ and currently with writers like Simon Nye, Sarah Solemani and Amelia Bulmore,


You may have seen two weeks ago, I included a quote from Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens because it seemed to sum up so brilliantly the bigotry and stupidity  of our current government in their rapid race to the bottom – holding up values of insularity and ignorant self-importance in their justifications for Brexit etc, And then shortly afterwards, Boris Johnson said this in Parliament, ‘There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country. If we look at the history of this country over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country. It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.’ Johnson is like the broadest Dickensian caricature of bigotry, stupidity and hatefulness.

The next newsletter will be on Friday Oct 16th,

All the best




October 2nd 2020


Posted by admin  /   September 17, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on 4SCREENWRITING 2021 Q&A FOLLOW-UP

Hi There,

Last week I held a zoom Q&A to answer any questions about the 2021 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE. In this newsletter I will answer some of the questions I didn’t have time to get to, and answer some of the ones I did a bit more fully and coherently!

Entries for the course are now open until 5pm on Friday October 2nd.

Since entries opened, I have been sent quite a few questions, 90% of which are answered on the FAQs section of the webpage. So please make sure you have read this page thoroughly before sending me questions. If the information you’re looking for is on the web page, I won’t respond to your message – I have to prioritise my time and focus on reading the scripts. To be blunt, I have deleted quite a few emails over the last few days without responding – because the questions asked are either answered in the FAQs or show a lack of initiative.

Please can I also ask you to make sure you submit your script before the final day for submissions (Oct 5th). In the past few years, so many people have tried to submit on the last day that the website has slowed or crashed and then I get a lot of messages from writers fearing they’ve missed the deadline. Please try to avoid a stressful day by submitting your script ASAP. Avoid the last minute rush!

You used the term ‘subversive’ several times. Can you expand on what you mean by that? Thanks!

I mean, if you’re going to write in a conventional genre (eg crime, medical) it makes sense to go for a more C4 version of the genre, to ‘subvert’ the genre as a C4 police show like NO OFFENCE did.

I have a question about the type of writing that should be submitted: Should we take factors like budget, corona virus restrictions and ease of casting into account to show we understand the limitations of what can practically be produced, or is the sky the limit with creativity?

The latter – ‘the sky is the limit with creativity.’ We are primarily interested in your unique voice and point of view as a writer. At this stage, issues like budget and a script that is ready for production are less important.

With such a vast amount of entries, how does the reading process work? And – really hope it’s okay to ask this – what is the fee paid to writers who are successful?

I have a team of 7 script readers (although it may be 8 or 9, depending on the number of scripts we receive). Each reader is allocated 1/7 of the scripts and writes short reports for me on each script. They also grade each script. I read all of the scripts that are given the higher grades – and any others that look promising. We also have a weekly meeting to discuss the scripts read that week. This process goes on for 6 weeks.

Yes, the writers are paid a fee for coming onto the course but I’d prefer to keep the amount confidential.

How many applicants are long listed/short listed for interview? What are the interviewers looking for from the interviews vs the written applications? What criteria are applied when selecting course participants?

About 35-40 writers are short-listed for interview. In the interviews we discuss the ideas the writers are interested in writing if they get on the course; their interest in screenwriting in general and C4 drama in particular; their other writing work and life experience.

What proportion of course participants have got representation since the course?

Particularly in the recent years of the course, almost everyone who gets onto the course gains representation by a literary agent either during the course or soon afterwards.

Is a writer’s age a barrier to being a successful candidate?

Absolutely not. We try to have as broad a range of voices on the course every year – in terms of – gender, age, ethnicity, where the writers are from / live, sexuality / gender politics, theatre / screen background, disability, writing experience, etc.

Channel 4 has a remit to deliver ‘high quality, alternative content that challenges the status quo’ – is there interest at Ch 4 for dramas that tick all of those boxes and may include  older protagonists? Does CH4 ’s understanding of diversity include age of characters portrayed as well as gender, race, disability, LGBTQ?

As above, absolutely yes. One of the main reasons the course exists is to encourage and foster unique, diverse voices in every category.

Asking for a friend but if a person had applied for the scheme several times previously, would that count against them?

Absolutely not. One of the writers on this year’s course had applied every year since 2011 before he finally got onto the course in 2020. One of the most persuasive things is a writer who applies for 3 or 4 years in a row with different but equally impressive scripts. We take note of as many writers as possible every year – not just the 35-40 whom we shortlist for interview.

Should the writing sample ideally be the sort of thing that could appear on Channel 4? If so, realistically, how often are writers selected whose writing sample was for radio or stage? 

We are looking, ideally, for voices that have some connection to a Channel 4 sensibility – but this is very hard to define and we often take a chance on scripts that are brilliant but only very loosely connected to a C4 sensibility. Numerous writers have got onto the course with theatre scripts; and several with radio scripts.

What CAN’T you teach someone on the C4 screenwriting course?

Good question! Well, we select the 12 writers from a huge pool so we are very lucky to be so spoilt for choice. And every year we love the scripts by the writers we choose and we know that we’re working with 12 writers of real talent.

I suppose the one thing we can’t teach (although we very much encourage it and talk about it a lot on the course) is the initiative and self-starting motivation you need to make a successful career as a dramatic writer. You don’t just need to be able to write, you need to develop a knowledge and awareness of how the industry works, of where you fit into the industry, seek out potential employers, the right agent and make sure that you can do justice to your ideas and your identity as a writer in meetings and pitch documents. As I say, we talk about this a lot but I’m not sure that we can ‘teach’ this.

Are there any specific genres / styles Ch 4 is looking, or have a preference, for? (Or any genres that should definitely not be sent in?)

That’s for you to research – watch C4 drama, read up about what they’re looking for. BUT one of the joys of the course is that writers often write ‘what they think should be on C4, not what is actually on C4’ (to quote C4’s head of drama). We are looking for something fresh, original, distinctive, ground-breaking. But I wouldn’t say there are any genres that you shouldn’t send in. Just be sure that your script is doing something interesting and distinctive within that genre.

Do the scripts submitted need to have a UK setting?

No – but think carefully before submitting a script not set in or about the UK – how much UK / C4 TV drama is not set in the UK? (Indian Summers is a rare example – but this was a series that had a lot to say about the UK.)

Is the CV used as part of the application process to whittle down to the final writers or is the decision solely based on your view of script quality and voice?

Initially the script is the only thing we read. We look at the CV when thinking about the short-list for interview – we try to have as wide a range of experienced and as many inexperienced writers as possible on the interview short-list.

Would you be able to tell us a little more about who the readers are that will be sifting through submissions this year? A decade’s experience of submitting has led me to the hypothesis that understanding who the gate keepers are is integral to opening the gates!

Good question! We receive a lot of applications to be one of the course script readers. The selected script readers are usually aiming to become TV drama script editors and normally already have extensive experience as script readers / dramaturgs in TV and / or theatre. We select 3 or 4 of the team of script readers to go onto become trainee script editors on the course, shadowing more experienced script editors. These shadow script editor roles are of great interest as one of very few formal script editor training / entry schemes in the UK TV drama industry. So the calibre of the readers (arrived at through applications that include CVs and sample script reports, then sending the interviewees a test script to write a report on, then an interview) is very strong. Over the 10 years of the course, many script readers on the course have gone onto become successful and respected script editors, producers and executive producers in UK TV drama.

Will submitted scripts need our names/details on or are they being read anonymously?

They will need your names on.

Is the aim for submitted scripts to have them read in their entirety or will it only be the first 10-15 pages of each?

I advise my readers to read a minimum of 20 pages of each script. Each reader needs to get through 200+ scripts – so I encourage them not to finish scripts if by p.20 they are clearly not top-12 contenders. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or resources to give feedback to applicants. The readers’ brief is to find the 50 or so most exciting scripts. But I make sure that the readers have read enough of each script to be sure that they’re not missing something outstanding.

Do scripts need a logline/short synopsis upon submittal?




I run a script mentoring service through my script consultancy (nothing to do with the C4 screenwriting course) and we currently have capacity to take on one or two more writers.


Finally this week, a quote about the state of the nation –

‘It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of enquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from diverse parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

They believed that foreigners were always badly off, and though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection…they believed that foreigners were always immoral…that foreigners had no independent spirit…’

No, not a critique from this week’s New Statesman about the state of the conservative party – but Charles Dickens from LITTE DORRIT, published in 1857. Plus ca change…

The next newsletter will be on Friday Oct 2nd

All the best




September 18th 2020

4SCREENWRITING Q&A Sept 10th 1-2

Posted by admin  /   September 03, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses  /   Comments Off on 4SCREENWRITING Q&A Sept 10th 1-2

Hi There,

I hope you have all (like me) had the chance of a short summer break even if it wasn’t far from home (I haven’t left home at all!) with your batteries creatively recharged for September and the new academic year. Let’s hope the f***ing virus starts to recede and that we can all meet up again in person sometime soon.


I’ve been enjoying the positive response from Channel 4 Drama and the wider TV drama industry to the 12 excellent scripts that came off the 2020 Channel 4 Screenwriting course – and am now gearing up for the 2021course.

NB My website will be open for entries from Sept 14th to Oct 2nd. Everything you need to know about entry criteria and the course should be on the webpage. But I will be holding a one hour online Q&A on Microsoft teams this coming Thursday Sept 10th from 1-2. I haven’t quite finalised all the details yet – but will be posting the link on Twitter very soon – @PhilipShelley1 – so if this is of interest and you have questions you need to ask, you can ask me on Twitter in advance (or by email if you prefer) and then I will answer them in person on the day.


I’ve been thinking about this recently about what makes for a standout script and then what it takes to initiate and then sustain life as a working screenwriter.

I received a script through my script consultancy website recently by a first time writer – and from page one to page 40 (the end) I was pretty much blown way by it. It was charming, beautifully observed, funny, poignant, distinctive, utterly original and just one of the best things I’d read for some time.

I arranged to talk on the phone to the writer and offer to help, and to send it to some suitable potential employers. I discovered it was the first script this writer had ever attempted – which surprised me. But my enthusiasm for the script surprised him even more!

I know that people in the industry will read this script and enjoy it, will want to meet this writer, find out more and talk about working with him. So that was very exciting.

But it also made me think about where he goes from here. Writing one excellent script is fantastic – but capitalising on the script and then following up on it with more equally good scripts is another whole set of challenges.

We also had some very inexperienced writers on this year’s Channel 4 course – one exceptional writer who was still at uni while she was on the course, to whom the world of screenwriting is very new. Since the course ended a few short weeks ago, she has had offers for representation from a number of agents, which is obviously a great position to be in. But now the real work of making this count, starts.

It makes me think about writers at the other end of the scale in terms of experience – and how you need to constantly keep moving forward as a writer, challenging yourself and keeping in touch with the realities of the industry and the wider world around you.

You may have seen that the last Inspector Morse film – The Remorseful Day – was repeated on ITV recently, a show I script-edited. Watching it, I was reminded of some of the things I really liked about it, but also some of the things that I found creatively frustrating about it. Pretty much the whole creative production team from Colin Dexter down were white men of a certain age and a certain socio-political outlook. It’s a very monolithic drama that played successfully to the ITV audience of the time – but even by the end of the Morse era, the attitudes of the show seemed outdated and a little stale. In THE REMORSEFUL DAY, women are largely seen as sex objects and supporting characters, and most of the men they look up to are in their 50’s, 60’s – ie the same profile of much of the creative team on the show. The show really needed a shake-up.

So, even with the example of the success enjoyed by producers, writers, director of this show, it’s important that as creatives we don’t stand still, that we all keep moving forward, challenging ourselves, confronting and exploring the new political realities and attitudes of the day. The world changes rapidly and if, as writers, we don’t keep up, we become irrelevant. As a writer friend a while ago, in a maudlin bout of self-reflection said, the industry saw the likes of him as male, stale and pale.

It’s so important for writers at any stage of their careers that they don’t get culturally, politically, socially left behind; it’s tough as you get older but it’s important that whatever age you are, that you have a passion and excitement for what you’re saying and for the industry in which you’re working, and that you have something unique to say through your work.

This new writer who I referred to earlier has written something that is clearly deeply personal and meaningful to him – and this makes it universally relatable. But there’s something refreshing to me in the fact that he has no idea just how good his script is! Whether he will capatalise on the strength of this script remains to be seen, and whether he has more good scripts in him, whether he will be able to thrive within the collaborative and sometimes challenging environment that is TV comedy and drama. But all writers need to move forward, to be constantly pushing the boundaries of their work, looking outwards at what is happening in the outside world and how it sparks them as writers. The world doesn’t stand still and neither can you as writers.

Everyone can improve – you are never the finished article, you have to keep moving with the times. End of lecture.

The next newsletter will be on Friday Sept 18th.

All the best



TWITTER: @PhilipShelley1

Sept 4th 2020


Posted by admin  /   August 05, 2020  /   Posted in screenwriting & script-editing courses  /   Comments Off on CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2021

Hi There,

TITLES blog – 2 excellent responses

‘Great to have a post about this because I’ve always agonised over titles! I went through a phase a few years ago of loving really simple show names like “Girls” and “Friends” but now I’ve gone the opposite way – I struggle to remember names due to how generic they all are and interchangeable. The amount of times I’ve heard people mixing up “back to life” and “afterlife” alone is unbelievable!

Show titles I think are strong/memorable :


Gentleman Jack

Desperate Housewives

Stath lets flats 


Breaking Bad 

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

A mixture of all the things you said makes a good title.

None of them can be mistaken for anything else!’

‘One of the (few) advantages of being a poet is that we do spend ages workshopping titles, which almost lead a different life to the poem itself. The title changes our entire approach to the poem as well as our understanding of its meaning.

Of the football club takeover titles, I really like ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doing!’ because it does absolutely speak to the target audience. 

I agree ‘Normal People’ must be ironic in a gentle Irish ribbing kind of way.

Another I really liked in recent years was ‘A Very English Scandal’.’


Every couple of years or so, a seminal show comes along and IMDY is it. Absolutely stunning. The series was at times not easy viewing – disturbing, challenging, the characters’ actions sometimes alienating. But it felt so real, raw, so full of integrity and heart. The way it built over the series, some of the story twists and in particular the wonderful last episode which was a brilliant illustration of the intricacies of storytelling (if you haven’t watched it, I don’t wish to spoil it for you so will say no more).

One of the things that really struck a chord with me was the lack of an easy or clear resolution. It felt like the whole series was a struggle by Michaela Coel to find answers to some very difficult questions. But the fact that she didn’t find clear, easy answers didn’t spoil the show – on the contrary, it gave it added depth, complexity and value.

If any were needed it was the most emphatic statement of the value of diverse storytelling, of the importance of voices from all corners and cultures of the UK and beyond. This felt fresh, challenging and exciting in a way so little TV drama does; but it was also accessible. To this aging white middle class man, it felt absolutely inclusive and was speaking to me, giving me powerful, important and emotionally resonant messages.


This week we finally came to an end of this year’s course, with the 12 wonderful scripts going out to the industry (the annual drinks evening, usually scheduled for late June normally marks the end of the course but this year, sadly, this very enjoyable get-together couldn’t happen for obvious reasons). For the writers, it’s been tough focusing their creative energies in these strange and unsettling times – particularly to those two writers locked down at home with young children. So the fact that all the writers have managed to deliver their scripts, and to such a high standard is a real compliment to their professionalism and determination. I know this will pay off hugely in their dealings with producers, literary agents, etc.

Strangely, in some ways, I have enjoyed this year’s course more than any other year. The fact that we have all been physically separated since the first weekend back in the different era that was January has concentrated our minds on how to make the course work for everyone. And the fact that everyone in the industry has been stuck at home has meant that the course writers have been able to enjoy a number of zoom meetings / seminars with producers, literary agents and writers who have previously been on the course, that will prove invaluable – so a huge thanks to the likes of writers Anna Symon, Karen Cogan, Archie Maddocks, literary agents Nish Panchal, Sam Greenwood, Jessi Stewart, Jonathan Kinnersley and Frances Arnold, script editors / producers Hilary Norrish and Ben Hough (and others who I apologise for forgetting) for so generously giving their time and wisdom to this year’s writers and script editors.

The culture of social distancing has also focused the energies of us script editors on keeping the communication lines open with the writers we have been working with. Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams – or whatever other means we have been using – are clearly not the same as face to face meetings but they have worked – the work writers have done with the support of their script editors has been superb. And the current restrictions have been weirdly bonding. I feel very emotionally invested in all this year’s course writers but in particular the three with whom I’ve been working. I hope we will be able to look back with some perverse fondness in a year or two’s time at this weird time and the scripts and working relationships that came out of it.

For me, the whole process was topped off with an evening of ‘virtual’ drinks and a silly but very enjoyable quiz game with my three writers and shadow script editor on zoom. When we eventually are able to hold it, the annual drinks evening will have added meaning for all of us, I think.


I’d also like to thank Gemma Boswell, Caroline Hollick and everyone in the drama department and at Channel 4 who understand particularly at this time how important it is to support new talent trying to break into the industry, with their continued encouragement and support of the course.

All the dates for the 2021 course are now up on my website and the 4talent website –

Entries for the 2021 course will open on Sept 24th and close on Oct 2nd. There is an FAQ section that should provide an answer to any question you may have about entries and the course in general. Obviously what we don’t know at this point is how much of the course will be in person and how much online.

One thing we have decided to waive for the 2021 entrants is the stipulation that the script you enter has to be a different script to the one you have submitted previously. It’s probably still in your best interests to enter a new or different script if you have one; but with the year we’ve all had, it seemed overly harsh to demand that you entered a new script.


Thank you so much to all of you that have contributed to this newsletter over the last few months and for the nice feedback – it’s really appreciated and helps me find the mental energy to keep this going. I’m going to take a (very short) August break so there will be no newsletter now until Friday Sept 4th.

Stay safe,

All the best



Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

August 7th 2020

RAY MCBRIDE on Story Structure

Posted by admin  /   July 22, 2020  /   Posted in Screenwriters and Industry Interviews  /   Comments Off on RAY MCBRIDE on Story Structure

Hi There,

This week, another guest article – this time from RAY MCBRIDE. Ray did an outstanding job as script editor on last year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course, has worked in the past on EASTENDERS and is now script editor on HOLBY CITY.

‘The other week I received a solicitous email from Pip asking if I may be vaguely interested in writing something vaguely related to screenwriting or something. And I immediately thought NO. F**k off. Then, in the absence of Shelley’s presence, I resorted to punching myself in the face, wrastling a little on the floor, then falling asleep…

Damnit, I thought this was one of those “working from home” diaries. Let me try again…


Hello. I script edit a 60-minute TV show and a couple of thoughts have been syrupping me noodle recently. Not new thoughts. Not monkey-exploding-from-a-rock thoughts. But ones that have been pressing on me lobes nonetheless:

  1. Good scripts can produce bad episodes. Bad scripts can produce good episodes. WTF?!
  2. In this day and age, a full hour of TV can be a motherf**ker.


Our screenwriting toolbox has nicked much from literary criticism, i.e. strategies that regard a text as a finished product rather than a stepping-stone to a finished product. Now, don’t get me wrong! I think those tools can be useful. I have nothing against them tools. But perhaps they’re only half the toolbox.

The problem is this: the application of literary theory to an event cannot recognise that which exceeds the knowledge of the text.

See, the spectator doesn’t read TV or film, a spectator experiences them.


Stakes – their development, characterisation and enunciation – will be the most effective ingredients in how well a show elicits, exercises and exorcises emotion across an episode. But, given the competition for our eyeballs, how do we ensure that viewers stick around long enough to let us set up stakes, to care about characters and be moved?


Allow me this detour…

Shot length is a unit of measurement in cinemetrics. In post-classical mainstream movie making average shot length has progressively decreased to barely a couple of seconds. Within such movies, filmmakers will often shorten shot lengths as they build toward a climax. Some suggest this trend mimics the natural fluctuations of human attention. Shot shortening is an expressive technique that evokes visual energy, fixes attention through intensified continuity, and elicits excitement by increasing event density that influences audience perceptions of time. At a cognitive level, short shot length = rapid pace = you risk missing new information if you look away for even a second! At a physiological level, if each shot conveys an event then this intensifies watchfulness.

Still awake? Well, in many ways this is intuitively obvious. But it made me think two things:

  1. We are our brains. We perceive first. Then use those perceptual inputs to inform how we feel (yes, it’s more complicated and iterative than that but for the purposes of this word count that’ll do). Writing a script is only half the job of making a show. How it is rendered into a percept will determine how it affects (or not) whichever perceiving brains are tuning in. So, if we begin – even only in small ways – to understand the brains that we want to experience our scripts then maybe we can begin to put a thumb on the scale and take back some control over the magic and loss we feel in the transition from script to broadcast episode.
  • Instead of the quickening to a climax of film (described above) I have observed that sometimes the opposite is true of TV scripts. As writers or script editors, we have no influence over shot-length, but we do have influence over scene-length. Anecdotally, I’ve found those shows with shorter scenes in the first half of an episode are more effective at hooking me in. Quickly setting out their store and developing their stakes in that first half-hour brings me to a point where I can relish a slowing down in the second half, taking time to explore character and play out consequences in longer (perhaps more writerly/performative) sequences. Pace is not simply a tick-box for structural variety, but the principal means to fasten attention (i.e. increase the chances that viewers won’t flip channel) and as attention increases, so will emotional absorption, which means the hour passes more quickly as your viewer feels themselves transported.

Thought for the Day

I cannot emphasise enough how little effort I have put into writing this piece (Ed: cut out the humblebrag, Ray). I genuinely hope that Shelbo sees through its sophistry and refrains from including it in his superb newsletters. These are just musings and provocations.

All I’m really saying is that awareness of both perceptual and textual considerations may allow writers to better merge attention with character, to arouse and elicit, and ultimately transport viewers into an experiential involvement with their narratives. Then you got them beautiful suckers.’

Thank you very much Ray! I’m suitably provoked.


The lovely folks at C21 have asked me to let you know about this opportunity, which has been won in previous years by two writers I know well (Philip Lawrence and Jan Smith). Although there is an entry fee, the prize is prestigious and significant and this is well worth entering. They are now open for entries and the entry period runs until September 30th.

The next newsletter – which will contain information about the 2021 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE – will be on Friday August 7th.

Until then,

All the best




July 24th 2020


Posted by admin  /   July 08, 2020  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting  /   Comments Off on SCREENPLAY TITLES

Hi There,

This week, some thoughts on TITLES.

As with so many aspects of screenwriting, opinions about titles are always subjective and I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of what I say but I hope it stimulates you to think about the title of your script and what makes for a memorable, attention-grabbing title.

Titles are so difficult but so important. FLEABAG is a good title, BACK TO LIFE is a bad title. FLEABAG feels specific, memorable, reflective of the show. BACK TO LIFE (which by the way is a show I love) feels unspecific and unmemorable.

Titles need to be specific, to be narratively, thematically apposite, interestingly odd and attention-grabbing, without being on the nose (SNAKES ON A PLANE). THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION & THE GREEN MILE are good titles. BETTER THINGS is a great show with a completely forgettable title. THE DAY TODAY was a great title – it told you everything about what sort of show this was and it makes me smile every time I think of it because it’s just slightly silly as a title.

I MAY DESTROY YOU is an excellent title – it perfectly captures the essence and tone of this wonderful show (in its hints of power / submission / violence / ambiguity).


Here is a list of random titles to be debated over (a combination of real titles and titles I’ve invented) all of which I think are pretty good – 



FUCKWIT (swearing in titles is a cheap and easy way to grab audience attention while at the same time demonstrating street smarts!)






THE DUMPING GROUND (it tells you so much of what the show is about)


HATE CRIME (interestingly ambiguous?)


FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS – very specific and it evokes what the series is about.

IMO all of the above are good, interesting titles. I think these titles would pique my interest in these shows / books.

Then there are quite simple titles, almost challenging in their straightforwardness – NORMAL PEOPLE, for instance or MARRIAGE STORY. Perhaps I’m biased because I liked both of these shows – but with NORMAL PEOPLE there seems to be an interesting, ironic question implied by the title – are these in fact NORMAL PEOPLE? Similarly MARRIAGE STORY feels like a statement in itself – this is the story of one particular marriage, even if it’s possible to read from the title that this is a film about marriage in general (and ironically the film is actually about separation rather than marriage). But I like the clarity, simplicity and confidence of this as a title.

Title with names often work well because they feel distinctive and specific (THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED, THE RISE AND FALL OF JOHN STONEHOUSE, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST).


MISBEHAVIOUR – I watched a BAFTA discussion about the film, knowing nothing about it. It’s based around a Miss World contest from the 1970’s, about gender politics (a really interesting story area). But unless you know this, you won’t understand the pun (‘Miss Behaviour’) The title doesn’t do its job of telling you what the film is about. As a title, it feels unoriginal, generic and ultimately unhelpful in telling you what this is about.

COME AGAIN – Robert Webb novel.

There is a whole genre of generally rather excellent low-key, relationship-based, US indie films with terrible, unmemorable titles – WHAT IF, ENOUGH SAID, BEGIN AGAIN, OUTSIDE IN, OTHER PEOPLE. These are all good films but I can never recommend them to anyone (until now!) because I struggle to remember the titles – none of which tell you anything useful about what they are.  

THE WAY WAY BACK is another great film with a poor title (annoyingly easy to confuse with THE WAY BACK).

The GODMOTHER – its antecedents are too obvious – and the first thing you absolutely know about this book is that it isn’t going to be a patch on THE GODFATHER.

METROPOLIS – this is a 2019 book – could they really not think of something more original? Personally I would be entirely uninspired by a new project with this title that has been used so many times before.

TAKE IT BACK – another 2019 book, this title tells you nothing about the story and is instantly forgettable

THE CHAIN – ditto 

Recently I was developing a series with two writers about the community of people around a lower league football club. One was very keen on THE TRUST as a title (because the key element of the premise is that the football club is taken over by a supporter’s trust). I don’t like this title – to me it feels like the ultimate vague, generic, dull title. It tells you nothing of the tone or what this series is about. I think if I saw a show called The Trust, I’d assume it was about a dull aspect of finance. An alternative suggestion was THE TAKEOVER – which is better but still, I’d say, a little non-specific. Or ‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING’ which feels to me more interesting and engaging, more fun, although again possibly (to non-football followers) not clear enough in what it’s about. I think, THE FIRST TEAM, the new BBC football comedy written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, is another weak title.

SO – are there any conclusions to be drawn? Only that the best / most striking titles feel specific rather than generic, in the same way as the best screenwriting is specific rather than general. But also that a weak title is no indicator of weak content – plenty of brilliant shows have poor titles. But a memorable title can really help make your project stand out.

If I receive a script to read and the title engages me, I’m more likely to read it and more likely to start the read with enthusiasm.

The next newsletter on Friday July 24th will be another excellent (IMO!) guest blog by HOLBY CITY script editor Ray McBride.

Until then, look after yourselves,




July 10th 2020

GILLIAN CLARKE – The way forward for screenwriters

Posted by admin  /   June 24, 2020  /   Posted in Screenwriters and Industry Interviews, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on GILLIAN CLARKE – The way forward for screenwriters

Hi There,

This week I’m delighted to share with you a guest blog by development producer GILLIAN CLARKE. Gillian is one of the best script producers in the UK, with script-editing credits on brilliant shows like UTOPIA and FANNY HILL.

‘In the last few years, the international marketplace has become saturated with multi-million dollar shows and high-profile casting to capture an audience’s attention and/or new subscribers. I’ve spent over a decade in the industry and there have been some phenomenal changes, especially in how the way we watch TV has evolved. We’ve never had so many places to house ideas and have access to so many shows from around the world. However, it’s also clear to methat TV is flawed; our domestic industry remains London-centric, exclusive (financially, ableist, class… the list goes on) and racist, which inhibits the phenomenally rich and diverse voices of the whole of the UK. At C21’s Drama Summit in December last year, the global players talked of their expansion into new territories announcing shows from India, The Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Africa. It was clear that the SVODs had realised that specificity of voice sells.

When COVID-19 struck and our productions were universally shut down, UK commissioners and producers turned their full attention to development. Good ideas are the lifeblood of our industry and focusing on the future was a pragmatic and hopeful temporary solution. Filming is slowly beginning again in the UK and lessons are being shared from European sets, but this will be baby steps rather than a sprint. As Piers Wenger, Controller, BBC Drama Commissioning, described recently, the need for co-pros will be greater as worldwide broadcasters come out of the pandemic and international filming will remain a complicated proposition. So how do these two things – specificity of voice and international co-productions – marry up? The answer is the writer and the universal truths you want to tell. 

During lockdown, our daily lives have become smaller. Isolation might seem a counter-intuitive place from which to find inspiration for stories about the human condition, but this is a good time to pause and consider the ideas, stories and worlds that you’re truly passionate about. Because before the idea there is the writer.

When we look at the UK’s standout talent, it’s no surprise that these successes originate from truly distinctive voices – Michaela Coel’s CHEWING GUM, Malorie Blackman’s NOUGHTS + CROSSES, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s KILLING EVE, Jesse Armstrong’s SUCCESSION. The coming of age, love story, investigative thriller and family saga are all familiar genres, but each one is made fresh by the daring, emotive, playful and satirically unique perspective of these writers and all of their shows captured a universal truth about the human condition.

There has been a lot of lockdown guilt expressed online – if you’ve not been learning three new languages, exercising every hour on the hour, repainting walls while cooking up a storm, that’s ok. The world has turned upside down and many have lost someone they love or at the very least have been kept apart from them. To go on as normal would be odd. It’s come as no surprise to me to see so many writers reaching out and helping others like Luke Barnes’s initiative Liverpool Artists Coronavirus Fund, Sabrina Mahfouz’s Artists Fund Artists, Chinonyerem Odimba’s #Play Sessions or Camilla Whitehill’s Online Writer’s Programme. Writers are tapped into the world in a unique way – you are built with empathy and imagination and while the future is uncertain, seeing your response to it makes the challenges feel surmountable.

Uncertainty can also bring opportunity. While our industry adapts to new challenges, there is a chance to rewrite some of the rules and embrace more inventive ways to tell stories. Short-form doesn’t have to be the poorer cousin of the traditional TV hour and development to production doesn’t have to take years. ITV’s ISOLATION STORIES and the BBC’s TALKING HEADS are all experimenting with form and production models. I MAY DESTROY YOU and NORMAL PEOPLE shows the overwhelming appetite for 30-minute dramas. Not every great idea fits neatly around ad breaks or a BBC hour.

So as you craft your next project to share with the world, know this. The scripts that rise head and shoulders above the rest are the ones that speak the truth – the truth as seen from the writer’s unique perspective of the world. This truth is concealed in who your protagonist is, the tone of their voice, their choices and the time and place it’s set. Each decision you make that adds to the authenticity of your protagonist and their fictional world, keeps the reader wanting more and drives them to discover what truths the writer has to impart. So if you haven’t been able to write during lockdown, don’t panic. Great ideas rarely suddenly appear; they’re nearly always percolated. If all you’ve been able to do during lockdown is think about the things that are important to you, fed yourself creatively by watching, reading or listening to something new or beloved, you’ll be in a strong position to build from that when the world starts to creak back to ‘normality’.

The arts will play an important role in how we process the events and trauma of the past few months, so to tap into your truth, ask yourself:

What do you see that others don’t?

What do you want to say that others can’t?

Who do you want to see onscreen?

Who do you want to say it to?

How will you tell it differently?

This time in isolation has allowed us to recalibrate and ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our lives and our work. The personal is universal. Your story will find a home. If not here, there is a wider world out there where UK talent is lauded.

I’m hoping that the conversations that our industry is having about race and exclusion are moving things forward, but I’m aware that change has been promised numerous times before and not materialised. We are a creative industry and yet, for decades, we’ve lacked the imagination to tackle this head-on. It’s very clear what has to be done. The time has passed where Producers, Commissioners and Controllers have to be persuaded that your worldview isn’t a “risk”, “too niche” or “too urban”. If a story is well told and authentic, an audience will come. As you explore your next idea, know that the industry is defined by and depends on you, so don’t try and fit in, but ask yourself how will I stand out?

Thank you so much Gillian for those inspiring words.

The next newsletter will be on Friday July 10th

All the best



June 26th 2020  


Posted by admin  /   June 11, 2020  /   Posted in Thoughts on Screenwriting, Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on SCREENWRITING Q&A

Hi There,

This week, more answers to the questions I didn’t have a chance to get to on my BFI Academy session a few weeks ago.

What advice would you give early career writers on how to approach scale?

Go for it! This is one time in your writing career when you should have no limitations or inhibitions about writing a story of real scale. Without wishing to be unduly pessimistic, your initial calling card scripts are unlikely to get made. So you shouldn’t worry about being production-savvy. But readers of your script are likely to respond to a script that feels ambitious and cinematic. You have an opportunity at this point to write your passion project, to write something that really expresses your identity as a writer. So don’t hold back!

Are there any genres you would recommend sticking to (or avoiding) at the early stages of your career?

Absolutely not. As above, write what you are burning to write and don’t start pre-empting yourself with non-creative considerations about which genres are more likely to sell. Write the script that you’re excited to write even if it’s ‘niche’.

What kinds of stories do you think will be popular post quarantine?

Anything that’s not about Covid-19! I think people will be sick of talking and hearing about it and will be keen to move on.

But it’s not an issue that can be addressed simply. Of the three writers I’m working with on this year’s 4screenwriting, 2 slipped quarantine / social distancing references into their scripts. I suggested that they both remove the references because I think you either have to dramatise a world in which it is an all-encompassing reality (which has huge narrative implications) or ignore it altogether.

What are the main structural differences between a feature and a short film?

Short films are often used as testing grounds for feature film ideas; and there are plenty of examples of short films that have then inspired or been the basis of feature films (eg THUNDER ROAD).

Sometimes (and if you can pull this off, it’s very impressive) a short film is structurally intricate with a sophisticated three act structure and story of real scale told in ten or so minutes. Conversely, sometimes a short film is a single scene with a single character in a single, interior location. The form needs to complement the idea.

But a short film is undoubtedly a less daunting place to start out as a writer than a full-length feature.

Are there any script concepts that you read a lot and you would say to avoid as a new writer?

This is a tricky one because it’s at least as much to do with personal, subjective taste as it is to do with, more broadly and objectively, what works and what doesn’t work.

One area that I think has become over-familiar is dystopian story worlds set in a non-specific future in which the world has gone to shit as a result of all the terrible things that are happening now. For me, too often, trying to tell a story set in a futuristic, dystopian, fictional society that is trying to address current problems (whether it’s the climate crisis, the refugee crisis, growing economic equality, global pandemics, etc etc) actually takes the edge off the idea and becomes more about slightly cliché, over-familiar dystopian tropes and less about the huge, burning issues that the script purports to be about.

As above though I encourage scale and ambition and ideas that feel inherently dramatic and that are plucked from the headlines.

Other concepts I read a lot and I would suggest avoiding – ensemble, low-concept comedy dramas about young millennials making their way in the big city; glossy US-set thrillers written by British writers who have no first-hand experience of the US – these will inevitably feel derivative.

I would also say – think long and hard about period stories and why you want to write a period rather than a contemporary story. I’m not saying don’t write a period story. But I would say you need to think about why your period story feels like a timely and important story for a contemporary audience. Why are you telling this period story now? What is its relevance for a contemporary audience?

Philip how did you get into the industry? What was your first big break?

There is no one, recognised way of getting into the industry but if you want to work as a script editor or are interested in dramatic writing, the most common route in is as a script reader. I was an unsuccessful actor and started writing. I wrote a stage adaptation of a novel, sent it to Paines Plough theatre company. Their very kind and excellent literary manager at the time (Robin Hooper) contacted me. They didn’t like the play enough to do anything with it but he offered me reading work at Paines Plough which led onto a little bit of dramaturgical work, meeting and talking to a couple of writers about their scripts. I enjoyed this so then started looking for more reading work. Over the next year or two, I spent most of my time at home reading huge amounts of scripts for quite a few different companies (Theatre, TV, film). One of my favourite reading jobs was for an acting agency, reading the scripts that had been sent in as offers for Anthony Hopkins. For him, I remember reading and being inspired by Dennis Potter’s adaptation of Dickens’ ‘The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.’

Eventually one of my script reading contacts, the wonderful Gwenda Bagshaw at Granada TV Drama, gave me a 2 week contract as researcher on a Paul Abbott series about missing people (that was never made). This contract kept getting extended and I worked for Gwenda and her boss Sally Head at Granada, London Weekend Television and Sally Head Productions for quite a few years of my career (as a team they were responsible for iconic TV dramas like Cracker, Prime Suspect & Band Of Gold, not that I worked on any of those shows!)

Would you recommend setting short term (daily?) goals for writing? Or is it better to think more long term?

Absolutely. You need to do both. To make any impact as a writer, you have to put the hours in. There is no getting round the fact that it is hugely time-consuming. So you need to get into the daily discipline of finding space and time for yourself to write.

But I also think you need to have longer-term aims. You need to strategize and think about why you write and what you want from it. From time to time you need to stand back from the daily slog of writing and think about where you want to be in three years time and how you’re going to achieve this; and to make sure that you aren’t going down unproductive forks in the road. You need to keep reminding yourself of your strengths as a writer and what you are trying to achieve.

Do you have any tips for navigating the minefield that is networking?

I think the answer is in the question! Try not to see it as a negative. One of the things I enjoy about this industry is that I get to talk about films and TV shows with like-minded people. That’s actually fun. Networking has become a pejorative word but you need to find ways to embrace and enjoy the social aspect of the industry – because it is a significant part of it. And there are a lot of nice, smart people and if you’re interested in screenwriting, TV, film etc you will have a lot in common with them. It’s a small world and there is a lot of sharing of information about scripts and writers. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice. In general, people are happy to help.

FOLLOW-UP to my newsletter of 2 weeks ago, THE SOCIOPATH TEST

I had so many fascinating, heartfelt responses – thank you so much – and it motivated a thread on one of my facebook pages. Originally I’d intended to title the blog, IMPOTENT FURY and one of the main questions that came out of the collective fury and frustration at the way we’re all being mugged off was – what can we do about it? The first and obvious thing to do is make sure we write to our MPs expressing our feelings and asking them what they’re going to do about it.

Then I mentioned a tweet which struck a chord with me, ‘DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT VIOLENT PROTESTS WHEN YOU DIDN’T LISTEN TO THE PEACEFUL ONES.’

Which elicited this response, ‘The poll tax was introduced in Scotland one year earlier than the rest of the UK by Margaret Thatcher. There were protests, many protests – all peaceful. And nothing changed. When it was due to be introduced in England a year later, there were violent riots south of the border. This led to the abolition of the tax. As a young man at the time, the lesson to me seemed obvious. Still does.’

And then this very pertinent question, ‘So what is the suggestion? At the moment, we all seem to be commenting as we watch the inevitable unfold.’

This (difficult!) question seemed to bring the conversation to a bit of an abrupt full stop. That is the important question – but not an easy one to answer.

And then the protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis followed, which very much fed into this debate.

The bottom line is, it’s all very well being politely middle-class and going on protest marches. But in the last few decades, even when literally millions have turned out, as they did both to protest the Iraq war and then to protest Brexit, the uncomfortable reality is they have achieved pretty much f*** all. Would you disagree with that? Is the only worthwhile form of protest something more akin to the Extinction Rebellion model of disruption and direct action? (The act of the pulling-down of the Colston statue in Bristol also feeds into this debate).

Another connected thought was triggered by a book I’ve just read – ‘Talking Theatre’ in which Richard Eyre interviews notable theatre people. One of the recurring themes that keeps coming out in conversations with the likes of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and David Hare is a discussion of political theatre – from Shaw to Brecht and then Arthur Miller, and British writers who first made a splash in  the ‘70’s like Hare himself, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, Caryl Churchill.

But where are the politically-committed writers today when we need them? Will the crap that’s happened in the UK over the last few years motivate a new breed of British political writers? (Anders Lustgarten and Beth Steel are excellent examples and exceptional in this regard).

Whether it’s in the theatre, cinema or on TV, I would love to see more impassioned, angry, humanitarian, political writing.

Finally this week I’d like to draw your attention to a short documentary film made by Tallulah Self, who has been a runner on the Channel 4 screenwriting course for the last couple of years. It’s a lovely and excellent piece of storytelling –

NB From now on, this newsletter is reverting to its fortnightly schedule, so the next newsletter will be on Friday June 26th

All the best



June 12th 2020


Posted by admin  /   June 04, 2020  /   Posted in Screenwriters and Industry Interviews  /   Comments Off on ANNA SYMON INTERVIEWS RICHARD LAXTON

Hi There,

This week I am so delighted to share with you this guest blog – screenwriter ANNA SYMON, a C4 screenwriting course alumna, writer of MRS WILSON and DEEP WATER, interviewing director RICHARD LAXTON.

A massive thank you to both Anna and Richard for taking the time to do this and for their generosity in sharing it.


Hope everyone is coping with lock down as best they can. So many friends have said to me how lucky I am that, as a writer, my work life goes on as normal, and while it’s true in some ways, in most ways of course it’s not. For one, there is the existential anxiety which makes it tough to focus on sitting down and making things up, and then there are all the new ways of working, getting notes and having creative conversations via Zoom, and, by no means least, there is the issue of motivating oneself to write scripts with no clear production start date. One thing is for sure, once this is over, and filming is able to start up again, there is going to be a mini production boom. Actors, crew, directors are all going to be hugely in demand and there’ll be a proper bun fight to get the best collaborators attached to your project. All that led me to think that it might be useful to write this guest blog about how to entice a director to your script and more generally about the relationship between the writer and the director in TV drama.

I spoke to Richard Laxton whom I worked with on MRS WILSON, a mini-series I wrote for BBC One in 2018. Richard is an award-winning director who has worked with a diverse and high calibre list of writers including Abi Morgan, Emma Thompson, Neil McKay, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Jed Mercurio, Brian Fillis, Simon Donald. The list goes on and on. In recent years, he has collaborated extensively with Stefan Golaszewski, directing the brilliant shows HIM AND HER and MUM. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was over the moon when he agreed to direct MRS WILSON.

How do scripts land on your desk? And what do you look for in a script?

I don’t have time to read when I’m in the middle of a job. So I start to look at scripts when I am coming towards the end of post-production on the job I’m currently working on – or soon after. My agent sends me ones she thinks I’ll enjoy (perhaps weeding a few out as she knows my taste) and I will generally read at least twenty to find one that really touches me. The first consideration is always: am I compelled to keep reading? After that its – am I intrigued enough about the world that I’m in, do I care enough about the characters? Do I believe the world of the characters is emotionally resonant and complex enough to hold an audience? Where is the humanity within the script? What does the script say about us all that is interesting and possibly confronting? This last point can be quite subtle, it doesn’t have to be something writ large in the script. Perhaps there is a theme or resonance that I can see in the script that I’d want to bring out further.

What I find really interesting about what you’ve just said is that your primary thoughts are about story-telling, not your ‘vision’ for the show.

Before I take on a project, I have to have to have a deep connection with the story. The first reading of a script is the most important one I will ever have. It is the closest I will ever get to the audience’s experience of this world.

That’s really interesting. Can you remember your first read of RIVER by Abi Morgan, for example?

Yes, I can vividly remember my first read of every script I’ve ever worked on! I was on holiday and I was exhausted from work and I really didn’t want to read any scripts at all. I knew that RIVER was a cop show and I really didn’t want to make a cop show – but my agent said “look, it’s Abi Morgan, you should read it” so I got off my teenage high horse and I can clearly remember where I was, sitting on a sun lounger on the beach. I found I just couldn’t stop reading and I was so moved and drawn into the world of this incredibly tender human being and this private and tortured condition that he lived with, all I can says is I just couldn’t stop reading it. I decided instantly that I wanted to go and meet her to talk about it.

What happens then?

I prepare for the pitch with the writer and producer. Producers often need broad brush references so they can understand what I want to achieve with the piece. For example, for MRS WILSON, I talked about CATHY COME HOME for its visceral emotion and TODD HAYNES for the suburban palette. Of course, in reality it is much more subtle and complex than that but it gives people a frame of reference. The stakes feel really, really high. If I don’t get a job I love it’s very painful because by the time I haven’t got it I’ve normally engaged a lot of myself in it to try and get the job. You end up bringing so much of your brain and thought and imagination that if you don’t get it there’s a period of withdrawal or mourning. I always connect with stories from an emotional perspective.

How about comedy? When you first read MUM, did you respond to it from an emotional/ character or a ‘laughs’ point of view?

I knew Stefan very well already because of directing HIM AND HER but MUM was a very different tone to that so, in some ways, it was like a new read. I remember being moved emotionally and I giggled. That combination is gold dust. I found the main characters incredibly touching but there was also a chorus of characters around them that were real but also extraordinary. By the end of the read, I felt like I’d been on a hell of a journey. Also the first ep is incredibly raw as it is the morning of the funeral of the lead character’s husband. As much as there were many nerves about that from a commissioning point of view, it shows you can start a comedy anywhere as long as you are truthful to that environment. That is such a big thing for me: do I believe this would happen?

Leading on from that, are there any red flags in a script, like this lack of truthfulness, that lead you to pass?

If I can see the work that the writer has had to put in to get to the joke, I see the archness of it, then I’ve no interest in that as a director. Similarly, in drama, if I can see the ‘scaffolding rig’ of the script behind the work it is a turn off. If I start to think that the genre is leading the story rather than it coming from the heart. I think it’s because if I can see the mechanics of the script, I can’t be drawn in and seduced by the world. Sometimes, I have to be honest, I get sent things that I just don’t think are ready to be made. I don’t think the writer and producer have thought hard enough about the story.

On the other hand, there are some scripts that I read that I can see are very well written but they aren’t of interest to me. You have to love something so much to invest your emotional energy and time into it.

Once you take on a job, how does that relationship with the writer work?

I see my job in those early script meetings to look at the script from the audience’s point of view. What is it that I don’t understand in this scene? Why am I not interested in this bit and always skip over it in the read? Could the audience need more back story here to help them understand the character? I guess it’s about truth and clarity.

Trust is so important between writer and director as both creatives are making themselves vulnerable by talking about the work. The director may be thinking deep down inside: I don’t want to be the one to fuck up this brilliant script. The writer will be thinking: Don’t fuck up my script! So it’s a very careful conversation that can be tense. It’s so important to try and work out when there is a difference of opinion whether it’s because the script does not fulfil the writer’s intention or whether the director or other creatives just don’t get what the script is saying. It’s very useful to have other script execs or producers in the room who can steer and help make sense of this process.

So you give a lot of notes?

[said tongue in cheek… I know he does! We sat down together for two days on MRS WILSON. It was tough but worth it, as his notes hugely improved the scripts.]

Some writers hate taking notes but not the good ones. Even the most high profile writers will listen carefully and make time for notes. Due to their busy schedules, both Emma Thompson and Abi Morgan re-wrote scripts then and there in the room as we talked into the night.

At the same time as working on the script with the writer, I start internalising the story, my thoughts constantly evolving so that I can bring the piece to screen. The work then starts in practical terms with hiring the Heads of Dept (production designer, DOP etc) with the right sensibilities for the piece and, of course, casting. By the time we start shooting, everyone in the crew has to be of one voice in the interpretation of the script. In this way, the writer and director should be completely inter-dependent. Everything, everything, must always come back to the script.

Thanks Richard, very thought-provoking and hopefully will inspire us writers to make our scripts as director-ready as possible.

Thank you both!

The next newsletter will be next Friday June 12th.

Until then look after yourselves

All the best



Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

June 5th 2020


Posted by admin  /   May 27, 2020  /   Posted in Uncategorized  /   Comments Off on THE SOCIOPATH TEST

Hi There,

I’m really sorry that there is so little about screenwriting in this week’s blog. I’d meant for this to be a tiny footnote at the bottom of the blog, but…I got carried away. I do try to stick to screenwriting (and there are a couple of – hopefully – useful connections to screenwriting and storytelling in here). And I will be back to writing exclusively about screenwriting from next week. But I think this is important and it’s taken over my week and got in the way of work…


I couldn’t let this week’s blog go by without saying something about the huge and demoralising frustrations I’m (we’re?) feeling, having to live through Johnson and Cummings’s arrogance and dishonesty over the last week. I don’t know about you but I’ve been coping OK in lockdown up until recently – and then observing Johnson and Cummings and their utter contempt for us over the last week really knocked me back and demoralised me. Day after day we have been taken for mugs as they insult us with their lies. A 60 mile round trip to a local beauty spot on his wife’s birthday with both wife and son in the car, ‘to test his eyesight.’ If it took 60 miles of driving to decide whether his eyesight was up to driving, then it clearly wasn’t! And then suddenly the cabinet decided to agree that eyesight problems are a recognised covid symptom (which they’re not).

The fact is that his actions were exactly what the government advice was designed to stop – people from one area of the country with a high rate of infection (London) – who suspect they’re infected –  taking the disease to another area of the country with a low rate of infection (Durham). We all knew that if we were showing symptoms, the worst possible thing we could do was travel with those symptoms to another part of the country. To really put the cap on this, he even took his son to a hospital in Durham!

The idea that the most important government advisor, at a time when he potentially had even more responsibility because his sidekick, sorry boss, was ill, couldn’t get access to childcare in one of the biggest first-world cities on the planet is palpable crap.

And yet there was not one iota of remorse or apology from either him or the PM, despite the fact that millions of other people have brilliantly and quite rightly taken the rules as gospel and made no attempt to ‘interpret’ them to their own advantage. And the way other cabinet members are then wheeled out to support the party lines (lies) using exactly the same language as each other doesn’t even attempt to hide the transparency that this is propaganda rather than sincerely-held opinion.

When thinking about all the people who have suffered in silence and shown such forbearance, it really twists my guts in fury seeing their sociopathic behaviour. My own uncle died three weeks ago. I wasn’t close to him, but his three children and five grandchildren weren’t able to go to his funeral – just one example of many, many thousands who will be feeling hugely slighted by Johnson and Cummings’ complete lack of remorse or apology for Cummings’ crystal-clear flouting of the lockdown regulations at the time – however he (extraordinarily incompetently) tries to spin it.

As a matter of interest, I checked online the qualities that you need to be defined as a sociopath. They are –

1 Glibness and Superficial Charm.

2 Manipulative and Conning. They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviours as permissible.

3 Grandiose Sense of Self.

4 Pathological Lying.

5 Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt.  

6 Shallow Emotions.

7 Incapacity for Love(?)

8 Need for Stimulation.’

From what I’ve seen of him, that list seems to pretty accurately sum up Cummings! (I’ve crossed out the only one that doesn’t seem to apply.)

It’s an important facet of screenwriting that one tiny image can get to the nub of a scene when pages of dialogue don’t quite do it. And so it was with Cummings, caught on Sky News cameras with a nasty little smirk on his face as he walked away from his press conference, that spoke volumes about his contempt for everyone who isn’t as ‘smart’ as he is.

I’ve taken this directly from a Twitter thread by @RussInCheshire which sums up the story clearly and excellently. (Twitter has been both a comfort and a curse this last week – a comfort for its brilliant writing and being able to share in the generalised outrage; but also a curse in that it has ratcheted up my fury even further).

 1. Dominic Cummings, one of the few men to have ever been found in contempt of Parliament, moved onto contempt for everything

2. When the story broke, and he was accused of doing things that look bad, he said he didn’t

3. Then ministers said press outrage meant nothing, only the opinion of the people mattered 

4. Then polls showed 52% of people wanted Cummings to resign

5. So Cummings decided to show the public some respect, by turning up 30 minutes late to make his explanation

6. He began by saying he wasn’t speaking for the govt, which must be why he was in the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street 

7. Then the self-styled “enemy of the Islington media elite” said his wife, who works in the media, had been ill in their house in Islington

8. But she was only a bit ill, so he popped home, got himself nice and infected, then went back to Downing Street for meetings with lots of vitally important people in the middle of a national crisis

9. But then he got ill too, so then it was suddenly important

10. Sadly he couldn’t get childcare in London, even though 3 immediate relatives live within 3 miles of his London home

11. So because he was carrying a virus that can cross a 2 metre distance and kill, he immediately locked himself in a car with his wife and child for 5 hours

12. He then drove 264 miles without stopping in a Land Rover that gets maybe 25 MPG

13. Then the scourge of the metropolitan elites made himself extra-relatable by describing his family’s sprawling country estate, multiple houses and idyllic woodlands

14. He explained that he’d warned about a coronavirus years ago in his blog

15. Then it was revealed he actually secretly amended old blogs after he’d returned from Durham

16. And anyway, if he’d warned years ago, why was he so massively unprepared and slow to react?

17. Then he said he was too ill to move for a week

18. But in the middle of that week, presumably with “wonky eyes”, he drove his child to hospital

19. Then he said that to test his “wonky eyes” he put his wife and child in a car and drove 30 miles on public roads

20. Then it was revealed his wife drives, so there was no reason for the “eye test”, cos she could have driven them back to London

21. Then it was revealed the “eye test” trip to a local tourist spot took place on his wife’s birthday

22. Then cameras filmed as he threw a cup onto the table, smirked and left

23. And then it emerged his wife had written an article during the time in Dunham, describing their experience of being in lockdown in London, which you’d definitely do if you weren’t hiding anything

24. A govt scientific advisor said “more people will die” as a result of what Cummings had done.

25. Boris Johnson said he “wouldn’t mark Cummings ” down for what he’d done.

26. The Attorney General said it was ok to break the law if you were acting on instinct

27. The Health Minister said it was OK to endanger public health if you meant well

28. Johnson said Cummings’ “story rings true” because his own eyesight was fine before coronavirus, but now he needs glasses

29. But in an interview with The Telegraph 5 years ago, Johnson said he needed glasses cos he was “blind as a bat”

30. Michael Gove went on TV and said it was “wise” to drive 30 miles on public roads with your family in the car to test your eyesight

31. The DVLA tweeted that you should never, ever do this

32. Then ministers started claiming Cummings had to go to Durham because he feared crowds attacking his home. The streets were empty because we were observing the lockdown.

33. And then a minister finally resigned

34. Steve Baker, Richard Littlejohn, Isabel Oakeshott, Tim Montgomerie, Jan Moir, Ian Dale, Julia Hartley Brewer, 30 Tory MPs, half a dozen bishops and the actual Daily Mail said Cummings should go

35. The govt suggested we can ignore them, because they’re all left-wingers

36. Then a vicar asked Matt Hancock if other people who had been fined for doing exactly what Cummings did would get their fine dropped. Matt Hancock said he’d suggest it to the govt

37. The govt said no within an hour. Cummings’ statement had lasted longer than that

38. And if the guidelines were so clear, why were people being stopped and fined for driving to find childcare in the first place?

39. Then a new poll found people who wanted Cummings sacked had risen from 52% to 57%

40. Cummings is considered the smartest man in the govt

41. And in the middle of all this, in case we take our eye off it: we reached 60,000 deaths. One of the highest per capita death rates worldwide.

42. We still face Brexit under this lot.

43. It’s 4 years until an election

As I said, it’s back to screenwriting next week with a brilliant guest blog from director RICHARD LAXTON and screenwriter ANNA SYMON.

Until then, stay safe and positive,

All the best



Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

May 29th 2020