Exclusive TONY McHALE interview

Hugely successful TV screenwriter TONY MCHALE, who has written on so many of the top UK TV drama shows of the last 20 years, answers my questions about his career, the state of the industry and tips for new writers. Tony is passionate about the industry and writing and I’m sure you’ll agree his passion shines through in what he has to say here. Thank you very much Tony! And I hope you all enjoy this interview… Why did you want to write for the screen originally? What films \ TV shows inspired you? I started life as an actor, although I always did write. This was in the 60’s and there wasn’t the plethora of media degrees, writing courses etc. The idea of earning a living out of acting seemed a crazy notion to relatives and the majority of my friends. It was the era of –  you should get a steady job – being an actor was just pie in the sky.  Being a writer … there was more chance of being an astronaut, or at least that’s what was drummed into me.  So despite being part of the first real generation of TV viewers, it was the stage that I was trained for and therefore what I knew most about. I was from my early teens an avid reader of plays and I believe, although I have never formally trained as a writer, this is where I subconsciously learnt about structure, character and dialogue.  As an actor in the early 70’s I worked, as most young actors did at the time primarily in theatre, so I wrote plays for the stage. Then when I started acting on television, a few years into my acting career, I started reading more and more TV scripts and started to understand the nature of TV writing, so I decided to try and write for the television. So basically I believe I have always been a writer and my move to wanting to write for the screen was when I started to appreciate and understand what that entailed.  Not necessarily the art of selling TV scripts, but the actual art of writing them. I have always believed that story is the ‘god’ of writing. If the story isn’t strong enough, then for me you have nothing. The art of telling story on the TV is different to the art of telling a story on the stage or radio or even film. But primarily the main thing is to have a good story in the first place. The TV that inspired and certainly made me want to write for the small screen were the early Dennis Potter plays, Tony Garnett and Ken Loach’s work on The Wednesday Play, but I also loved Z Cars, Softly Softly, The Avengers, The Prisoner (the original series) then into the 70’s Trevor Preston’s Out and Fox.  As for films … the first film I ever saw was Moby Dick … and I thought it amazing … I was five or six it made a huge expression on me. Much later the films that have had a lasting impression on me are Godfather 1 and 2, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Blade Runner, Casablanca, Psycho and more recently The Usual Suspects. As you see my taste is very mainstream. How did you get into writing and then the TV drama business? As I mentioned above I always did write, but when I started working as an actor on TV I started writing TV scripts on spec. I was always a lover of thrillers, so I did tend to write that genre, although I did have a go at series ideas … a couple of cop shows I remember. None of these were snapped up, in fact they were mainly returned with polite letters.  What I didn’t realise was that although these were being rejected I was actually building up some kind of relationship with various people at various TV companies, albeit a relationship built on rejected scripts. Eventually I received a phone call and was asked to go in for a meeting about one of my thrillers called Dog In The Dark.  This led to a commission and a huge learning curve. But it was the start of my career as a screenwriter. It gave me an agent and also paid me, even though the script was never made. What sort of shows have you worked on? Over the years I have worked on practically every type of drama show on TV.  From EastEnders to Silent Witness, from The Bill to Dalziel and Pascoe.  But I’ve also done shows like Perfect Scoundrels, All Change (a comedy drama for kids) Boon and my own serials like Headless and Resort To Murder. What have been your most enjoyable shows to work on and why? It’s always nice to work on original shows, but I think each show probably has it high and low points.  EastEnders at the very beginning was a terrific show to work on, but I’ve had some great times on shows like Waking The Dead, Silent Witness and Holby, plus lots more. It’s really to do with the set up of the show, the material that is on offer and the people you’re working with. Naturally being a writer you have your own ideas, so if those somehow match up to the ideas of the producer/script editor, then it really helps.  But it’s not always the case.  Compromise is something you have to learn to handle … but it’s not always easy. What scripts are you proudest of and why? I was very proud of the scripts I wrote for Resort To Murder.  I thought they were inventive and the world was new and seriously on the edge.  My agent at the time said they were director proof, but that unfortunately was proved not to be the case.  It turned out to be quite a saga, which I think I should save for another day. There was a radio play I wrote a trillion years ago called No Get Out Clause, which I also loved. It was about a father and his daughter and how he was trying to deal with her drug problem. It played with time and I loved the way the piece wasn’t clear-cut. It wasn’t neat and tidy. More recently I did a Christmas episode for Holby called ‘Elliot’s Wonderful Life.’ It was an idea I had years ago that I couldn’t persuade anybody to go with, which was to take a regular character from an on going drama and give them the Frank Capra treatment. I thought Elliot was the perfect character for the idea and I was really thrilled with the outcome.  Also on Holby we did an assisted suicide story, way before anybody did one, it was Elliot’s wife who went to Switzerland … just thought it was done really well and I was pleased with the script … it was one of those that just wrote itself. What have you been working on most recently and what are you working on next? I’ve just finished a Holby script, but I’m normally working on a number of projects at a time.  So here goes  – there’s Bloodbath The Musical (check out the website www.bloodbaththemusical.com), Siphonheads, a new project for the internet, The Little Black Fat Pussy Cat a new stage play, Network, a new radio play commissioned for Radio 4, Adam Adamant a revamped version of the 60’s cult classic and a further half dozen or so treatments that are out there trying to tickle someone’s interest. What advice would you have for budding writers starting out in the business now? I know it’s a cliché … but writers write. What this will do is help you improve and also hone your skills and if you seriously believe you have a talent, then perseverance is the name of the game. You must keep going and try to get enjoyment out of the process of writing.  Also don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep coming up with new ideas … and keep writing. Is it important to have a good agent? What qualities should you look for in an agent? A good agent can open doors for you, but they can’t write scripts for you. Yes it’s important to have an agent who believes in you. As for what you should look for in an agent it’s difficult to pin point.  Firstly if you’re starting out just get an agent, it’s always better to have someone else in your camp than nobody. Then it’s about developing a relationship with that agent. Personally I need to like the people that are involved in my career, so that’s something I would look for. Then if they’re getting you meetings, it’s really down to you. What qualities do you need to succeed as a writer in TV drama? If I might just look at this question in a slightly different way, what I think is lacking a lot in new writers today is passion.  They say they have passion because they get upset when someone changes a word or a comma, that’s being precious, not passionate. I believe the problem with degree courses and media courses is it gives people an outlook on the industry similar to the outlook someone joining the civil service has.  This isn’t helped by the way the industry is now structured. You start at this point, then you move up to the next grade.  It’s like some progression through a factory – very wrong and not very creative. Writing should not be about achieving grades or how much cash you earn. The cash is a great by-product, don’t get me wrong I love it, but it shouldn’t be your driving force.  If it comes great … if it doesn’t do what you want to do which should be to write. Which brings me back to perseverance and compromise … both are essential if you want to succeed. What tips do you have for writers trying to sell new ideas and scripts? It seems obvious, but make sure the treatment or the script is the best it can be.  If you’re a totally new writer then I would send scripts. People will need to see if you can write or not.   Treatments are hard to sell even for established writers, which is why book adaptations are quite a good bet. They know what they’re getting. Other than that, listen to what the criticisms are and use them to fire off your next idea. What tips do you have for writers to survive and flourish in the industry? Try and enjoy writing and try not to take things personally. I know that’s difficult because the work is and should be personal, but there are so many factors involved in why things are or are not made.  If you do write on the continuing shows, then remember we can’t all write everything.  Not every show will be suitable for you. Try and find the ones that are.  Whoever you are there will be good times and bad times, you will work with people you respect and people who you believe to be idiots … again it’s not personal, it’s the way it is. When you fight your corner, make sure it’s a fight that’s worth having. Don’t close your mind to other people’s ideas, they could be good ones.  And remember in British TV the Producer calls the shots … again it’s just the way it is. Perhaps you could us a little about your spell as executive producer of HOLBY, how you enjoyed it, what the job involved, and more broadly how you see writer’s roles changing in the future in terms of the showrunner or exec prod roles. The four years I spent on Holby as exec were both fantastic and fascinating. I learnt so much and enjoyed the process. It was the nearest I believe the UK has come to the American showrunner.  I was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the show, because I also held the title of story consultant.  Therefore I had final say on everything from storyline to casting, from set design to editing, from directing to make up.  Of course the Americans are not doing fifty-two hours a year, so I think you can only carry on in that capacity for so long before you need a break. It literally was 24/7.  The only thing I didn’t do, which is what the American showrunners do is re-write. It would certainly have been easier at times if I could have done, but that’s not how we operate in this country and until that changes then I can’t ever see us adopting fully the American style showrunner.  Also I think the idea appeals to a lot of writers, but I’m not sure if they were to actually do the job it would be as appealing.  Along with the nice side of the job, come quite unpleasant tasks and also some quite boring tasks. I personally would love to run another show, for me it was a great opportunity and a terrific experience, but I think we’ve got quite a way to go before it becomes the norm in this country. TONY MCHALE ——– Philip Shelley script-consultant Dec 8th 2010