Exclusive ASHLEY PHAROAH screenwriter interview

This week’s interviewee is the British screen writer ASHLEY PHAROAH. Ashley has a fantastic track record in UK TV drama and is originator of some of the best and most successful TV drama of recent years – not least LIFE ON MARS and  ASHES TO ASHES.

Here Ashley talks about many of the shows he has worked on with many invaluable tips for screenwriters at any stage of their careers…

– What inspired you? How did you first get into screen-writing?

I was one of those strange children who always knew what they wanted to do. I remember when I was 8 and writing in my diary that I was going to be a writer when I grew up – either that or play rugby for England. To be honest, the latter was looking far more likely for a time.

– Where \ How did you learn the craft of screen-writing? Is this something you picked up instinctively or was there someone \ something in particular that taught you a lot?

I sort of stumbled into screenwriting. I always assumed I’d be a novelist or a poet or a journalist. I’m from a small town in Somerset and the idea of writing films or TV just never entered my head. Then, when I was at University, I listened to a lot of Radio 4 plays and thought I’d give it a go. I knew nothing about scripts or how to format them. But I obviously had some sort of instinct for story structure. I sold that play to the BBC. And then a friend was reading a movie magazine and pointed out there was a place called The National Film School where you could train to be a screenwriter. I’d found my place in the world.

Am I right in thinking your first TV job was on Eastenders? What did you learn and gain from writing on the show? What are the pros and cons of writing on continuing series like Eastenders?

After a few years writing low-budget movies that never got made I found myself at Elstree, writing for EASTENDERS. I think I was there, on and off, for about three years in the end. I learnt a lot about writing in a team, about story-lining, about actors. It was a very happy time in my life. I know there remains a residual snobbery about writing for soaps but it’s not shared by me. I sometimes come across new writers who say they only want to write their own stuff or movies or whatever. And I say – Tony Jordan; Russell T Davies; Jimmy McGovern; Matthew Graham; Paul Abbott…
Of course, writing soaps is a specific sort of screenwriting and some of the habits picked up there need to be “unlearnt” when you leave. Like characters not being in consecutive scenes; like remembering it’s “show, not tell”, rather than the other way around!

It would be good to touch on a career progression from writing episodes on continuing series to writing on new series and then creating your own series and original shows.

I suppose my writing career has a very traditional curve. I started on EASTENDERS, then wrote for CASUALTY. Then crossed from multi-cam to film, quite a big gap in the 1990’s, to write the first series of SILENT WITNESS. Then I got to create my own show – WHERE THE HEART IS – for ITV. That was a long-running hit and meant that I was in demand to create long-running series. DOWN TO EARTH; PARADISE HEIGHTS; LIFE SUPPORT; LIFE ON MARS; BONEKICKERS; ASHES TO ASHES; WILD AT HEART… I feel tired just reading the list! I’ve also done some adaptations – TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS and UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE, both of which were wonderful to write.

How do you feel about the whole process of redrafting, responding to notes?

Notes never get easier, alas. When I was starting out I was so grateful to have a job that I did EVERY note, good, bad or indifferent! I’m a bit more confident now and will fight my corner if I need to. But I also know it’s a collaborative process and I’m never too proud to incorporate good ideas from other people. But there are a lot of notes these days – script-editors; producers; executive producers; directors; broadcasters; actors. It just comes with the job.

What is your experience of working with script editors, producers, directors, executive producers etc?

On the whole it’s been very enriching and I feel I’ve been lucky to work with some brilliant people. Every now and again it can get frustrating, obviously, which is why it’s so important that you all share the vision for the show. That way it should always be about quality and not ego.

How did you get an agent? What expectations should a writer have of their agent?

I’ve been with the same agent all my career. She saw my graduation film from The National Film School and liked it. It’s been a very important relationship in my life. In the early days my agent steered my career, towards good people. She was never interested in making a quick buck, but always saw the career as a thing in itself.

Do you often have more than one project on the go? How do you find juggling more than one project at a time?

I’m a terror for having a lot of things on the go at one time – I’ve always been a bit like that. At the moment I’m in pre-production on a new ITV series; I’m in post-production on a BBC show; watching edits of WILD AT HEART episodes; I owe a movie script; there’s this novel idea that keeps murmuring to me; I’ve been sent several novels with a view to adapt etc etc. I like a little chaos and fear, it keeps me on my toes.

When you’re thinking about new ideas, in particular new series ideas, are there elements you are always looking for? What sort of ideas appeal to you as a writer?

When I’m considering a new series the prime question is… has it got legs? Is there enough conflict in the pitch that it could still be sparking in 3 years, or 6 or 10. So WILD AT HEART is about a slightly dysfunctional family trying to survive in the African bush. That could go on for ever, as all families generate endless story. LIFE ON MARS… a rough, instinctive cop forced together with a smooth, techno cop. Endless conflict.

How much do you look at the market, what broadcasters may be looking for? Or do you just pitch \ write what you feel passionately about writing?

I tend to develop ideas that I’m really interested in, rather than chase markets or slots. But I’ve been doing this a long time so I’ve probably got commercial instincts, now. Writers can waste a lot of time and energy trying to double-guess broadcasters and audiences. I just write what I want to write and hope to hell I can persuade someone to make it. But I’m also in the fortunate position of broadcasters telling me the areas they might be looking at, the gaps they perceive in their output.

And particularly, based on things you have talked about on the BBC script editing courses, it sounds like you like to do a  lot of prep work in terms of treatments, structuring etc before writing the script – please could you tell us something about this, how you like to work and why you like to work this way.

I’m a very lazy writer and I can’t stand doing lots of drafts so I tend to work very hard on treatments etc. I spend a lot of time moving cards around on my kitchen table, finding the structure. In some ways it’s my favourite part of the creative process. Then I’ll write up a treatment, which I’ll do several drafts off, until everyone is happy. In some ways the script is just about adding dialogue. I know some writers love the terror of just starting with a blank page but I’m not built that way. I like the safety-net of a structure that I know works. Doesn’t mean I don’t go off on tangents or change things but I know the net is always there!

AND it would be really good to know something about your trip to the US last year, about the meetings you had, the projects you worked on, how the business is different over there, how you found the screenwriting culture over there as someone used to the UK TV and film culture??

I spent a very happy summer in Los Angeles last year, pitching and finally writing a pilot, for ABC. It’s very different from the UK. More pressurised, more serious. But the writer is given a lot of respect as they are also meant to “show-run” – to produce. The biggest difference was that it felt a little less collaborative, at least in development. The network would tell you what they didn’t like but there was no real dialogue as there is with the best of the British commissioners, like Ben Stephenson and Laura Mackie. But I suspect it’s just different, not better or worse, and it’s exciting being in a city where THE industry is your industry. And the sun shines.

A big THANK YOU to Ashley for taking the time to answer these questions!

Philip Shelley


Jan 31st 2011