This fortnight I’m delighted to share with you a piece by screenwriter CELIA MORGAN, who was on the 2020 Channel 4 screenwriting course.
Celia said, ‘I first felt the need to explain who I am and how I got here. So I ended up just doing that – with tips and advice based on my experience smattered in along the way. I’ve found that people really enjoy hearing that I made a career change later in life (I didn’t think mid thirties counted as later in life – thought I was still young – but apparently it does) and especially to hear that it actually worked out. So I’ve just written about what happened and how. Hope it’s ok.’
As you’ll see, it’s very much more than OK – it’s an incredibly helpful, interesting insight into how she navigated her way to becoming a professional screenwriter.
‘At the time that I’m writing this, I’m an agented writer with six script commissions and two development deals under my belt. That all happened over the last 18 months, but has been 15 years in the making. There is no single route to becoming a career TV writer, but I thought it might be useful to tell you about how it happened for me. Not as a guide, but maybe as inspiration to keep striving toward what you love, even if the path is long and bumpy.
At the time that I applied for the 4Screenwriting 2020 course, I had completed a Masters in Writing for Stage & Broadcast in 2006, then worked a few years writing content for dating websites, moved on to create TV subtitles for four years, catalogued BBC News content for about two years, spent a short stint as a runner on Newsnight, planned continuity links for a broadcaster for a couple more years, then got a coordinator role in development at the BBC. After a long slog of moving around the giant machine of television, in varied and often low paying jobs, I decided to leave London, find affordable rent and pack it all in, firm in the knowledge that just being a part of the industry was never going to give me any special access to a career in writing for TV.
One thing that remained true throughout that journey was that writing competitions have always been a great way for new writers to gain recognition in the industry. So I wrote a few terrible plays (having never wanted to be a playwright, but knowing it was the primary route into TV when I started out) that, rightly, made no headway on the theatre submission circuit. I eventually started getting long and shortlisted for competitions, but ran out of steam and stopped writing entirely (unless you count a weird blog of poetry and tuba playing – but let’s not count the blog).
I never really stopped being a writer though, despite giving up on trying to make a career out of it, because I loved telling stories. I loved entertaining friends with tales of the latest stupidness situations that I’d gotten myself into. I love to make people laugh and I’ve always found that I make the most meaningful relationships when I’m conveying emotion in a pure and sensitive way. I knew that if I applied this to my writing and started to put myself on the page – not just what I thought the industry was looking for – then I’d be able to write a decent script.
The next step, after quitting my job, was to take a short course at the NFTS Scotland in pilot writing. I initially rejected the idea of this course because I simply could not afford it and hated the fact that my economic status ruled me out of access to something that could be so useful to my career. There were, however, bursaries available and I was encouraged to apply by the warm and lovely team there, and gained a place. The course was incredibly useful for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was the access to peer critique. Each day we read out new pages of our scripts and discussed them immediately after. If you are unable to do such a course, but have access to a peer group of writers, I would highly recommend doing this as it enables you to quickly hone your craft. First of all, you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your peers so you try to impress with every page, second of all, the ability to instantly see how your words connect (or don’t connect) in the way that you intend saves you a lot of time on redrafts.
With this completed script, I started submitting to competitions and became a joint winner on the Triforce Writerslam and gained a place on the 4Screenwriting 2020 Course. When I think about this script, compared to the previously longlisted/shortlisted scripts earlier in my career, I believe that this one resonated with readers so much more because it was the first time I put my authentic self on the page. I know this sounds cheesy, and I hated hearing writers say things like this when I was sat there not cutting through in competitions, but this was the first time I stopped writing what I thought I was supposed to write and instead wrote about what passionately meant something to me. I can say, honestly, that it wasn’t the most technically refined script you’ll ever read, but it told the reader exactly who I am and what I care about, and there’s only one me, so it felt fresh and unique (so I’ve been told).
The next part of my journey was getting an agent. This felt relatively easy because I was now on their radar, but in truth, my agent was the only agent that spoke to me at the competition finale event. There were others there, but they weren’t interested in me, even after being announced a winner, so it was a quick lesson in the fact that winning offers no guarantees. After doing some research on the agency and a meeting with the agent that was interested, I was fortunate to find that we were a great fit. The relationship between client and agent is a personal one, so even if all of those in the room that night had wanted to speak to me, I believe I still would have signed with my current agent. From hearing my work and requesting further samples, he knew that we had a shared vision of the type of work we want to put out in the industry and he knew that he had the right contacts to benefit my career progression. So it worked. If you are in the position of looking for/getting an agent, I would strongly recommend finding a personal match to your needs, not just someone you’ve heard is good, or your friend signed with, or has a higher profile than others. Take the time to ensure you are suited to each other.
The 4Screenwriting course itself was a brilliantly warm and nurturing experience. Here, I had the opportunity to push the boundaries and write a much more ambitious script than my first one. It was scary, but this was the perfect environment to take that risk as you have people by your side (and on your side) every step of the way. As a result, I had my second spec script ready to showcase a broader range of what I am capable of in my writing. Off the back of this I have had meetings with execs from some of the biggest indies in the business, more still are being requested, and I’ve had expressions of interest about rooms on a variety of projects and shows coming up in the pipeline.
I’ll finish with a little bit about those commissions that I mentioned at the top and how they came about. My first two commissions happened off the back of both networking and the competition wins. Someone that I had previously connected with heard about the wins and put me in contact with script editors looking for new writers – I interviewed, got invited to story conferences, contributed ideas, then gained a commission on the two shows.
The third and fourth commissions came directly through my agent. The companies contacted him looking for new writers, requested my sample scripts, and then requested to meet/interview me. One interview actually didn’t go well for the project originally intended, but they really liked me and felt that I would be a good fit for something else they were working on and commissioned me for that instead. The other interview landed me the chance to write a shadow script on a continuing drama. That went well, so I was next invited to contribute to short-term and long-term story conferences, pitch storylines, and now I am working on my episode commission.
The fifth and sixth commissions came off the back of recommendations from the second and third. I had proven my ability on those projects and got offered more work as a result – with those offers all coming through and being negotiated by my agent.
My agent receives many requests to read my work, sometimes for consideration onto new writing schemes, other times for consideration to write in rooms on existing or upcoming shows. Many times I’ll meet with execs and they’ll decide that, actually, I’m not what they are looking for, or they’ll simply read my sample and decide not to meet with me at all. Rejection is a huge part of the process, but if you keep learning through every project and stay passionate about the stories you tell, something else always tends to come along.
I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be sat here speaking as a full time television writer, and I’ve had some major blows to my confidence along the way, but I always wanted to keep learning and keep telling stories, so I did. There will never be any guarantee that you’ll get work or make a long-term career, but if it’s important to you, and you are able to, then you owe it to yourself to try.
My Quick Tips: Watch lots of TV and film. Listen to podcasts. Know what’s popular on TV. Read books. Network. Go outside and meet non-industry people. Listen to people. Visit places. Have hobbies. Have an open mind. Be a nice person.’
A huge thank you to Celia for her generosity in taking the time to write this and for allowing me to share it with you. (Celia is @paperpartybag on Twitter).
This week the 2nd and final selection from your wonderful, fascinating responses to my newsletter of March 19th on a year of living with the pandemic –
‘I hope you’re well. I’ve only just got round to reading this newsletter and must admit it made me tear up a little.
I too have to pinch myself as a reminder of what’s happened. At times I’ve even forgotten and somehow believed that all the offices and meeting rooms and exciting things are all still going on out there (without me) and have to remind myself that we’re all stuck in the same wretched boat, drifting towards a vague horizon of hope.
I’ve actually really enjoyed the general meetings and scripts chats I’ve had over Zoom. I get sucked into the moment, and even though (as you just made me realise) I’ve never seen these people standing up (!) it somehow feels intimate and sparky, like a really good chat when you lose sense of everything else going around you.
The worst bit for me is when you close the window and the silence hits, and you realise it’s just been you all along, sitting alone in your smart top and slippers, gurning at a screen for an hour.
Things that have made a pandemic bearable:
My parents’ reincarnation from covid-denying rebels into antibac wipe-wielding lockdown sticklers.
My husband. Turns out I chose really well.
My children, and seeing them tackle distance learning and not seeing their friends with such bravery and resilience.
My sister and my new lockdown niece (who turns one next month and has never seen another baby!)
My darling, brainless dog and our miserable cat who hates everything.
Work. I’m really lucky that lockdown has been the busiest time of my fledgling career. With the business has come every +/- emotion under the sun, but it’s never been boring.
Charity work. I’ve sat on interview panels, helped write EOIs and project funding applications for millions of pounds, and spent hours and hours and hours in virtual ‘town hall’ meetings, and learnt so much about other people and myself. Good and bad!
From the absurd (Tiger King) to the bonkers (Schitts Creek), via overseas fabulousness (Call My Agent) and homegrown brilliance (Ghosts), to the Disney+ onslaught of shmaltz and kids’ movies, all the way through to guiltless re-watching of the full series of The American Office sandwiched between the grey-faced doomongering of the daily government briefings, television has been my lifeboat.
KATE TRAILL PRICE
Hope you and your family are all well.
It’s really a blessing to see one’s grandchildren. My Dad, who died at 56, never got to see my kids and my mum only got to see one of them – my daughter.
This time last year my daughter was on the verge of taking her GCSES. She was at a very low ebb to the point where she was suicidal! (This last bit was unknown to me till only a few weeks ago). She wasn’t revising and would bunk off school. She wouldn’t/couldn’t talk to us. It was terrible. We didn’t know what to do.
Guess what saved her and us? Lockdown! Somehow just being locked away from all the madness she was going through did wonders for her mental health.
Now, she’s in college doing her A levels, managed to get herself a weekend job and is enjoying life.
I can honestly say Phil that if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would be writing a different kind of email or perhaps not writing at all.
Many people have suffered and lost loved ones over these past 12 months and I really feel for them. But sometimes, when I’m alone at night and I do feel guilty for saying this, I say thank God for lockdown!
Take care and keep safe.’
‘Thanks for the opportunity to share experiences from a weird year. The mood music had been playing louder and louder in the run up to Johnson’s announcement but it was still a shock. Lockdown. Our younger daughter, after a hurried consultation, decided to move in with her boyfriend. We waved her off, into that dark night, the unknown. I found I enjoyed this time with my husband; the house to ourselves, no travelling for work, day time walks, shared coffee breaks. It was only on trips to the supermarket that the zombie movie quality of the times crept in. It felt like the ideal time to get on with some writing. I watched more film and TV, guilt free and stumbled upon excellent on line courses, feeling part of a supportive community with shared interests. And, I have been able to virtually attend shows and events that just would not have been possible from East Yorkshire. Rejection isn’t great but there is an excitement, a sense of achievement to getting a piece ready for submission. I hope persistence will pay off and that I’ve learnt from my daughter it’s worth taking a risk.’
‘The first lockdown honestly came at the perfect time for me: a few weeks into a new job I loved, off the back of a year of great networking and opportunities, and following two years of what I would best describe as a non-stop work-hard-play-hard lifestyle. The first lockdown gave me time to rest, recalibrate, and collaborate. Also, interestingly, I had started journaling in January 2020, which meant I captured this eventful year in real time, and has been amazing processing my thoughts through the tougher moments. I personally haven’t felt inspired to dwell too much on the pandemic in my writing work, so it’s nice to have a separate body of writing that reflects this period. Such divine timing!
Despite all this, I must admit I am very much ready to go back to a life of commutes to work in central London, meeting new people, going to concerts, and actually networking in real life. Despite my love of storytelling through the written word, my networking skills are strengthened through face to face exchanges. This pandemic has taught us that a lot can be achieved virtually, but for many reasons, I crave freedom more than ever.
It can be draining that my main access to other humans right now is through social media. Social media can be great, however, particularly over the past year, the shocking polarity on things like #BLM and #NotAllMen, has the power to lead to more anxiety going back out into the world than the pandemic itself, for black women like me. Yet, before the pandemic, when I would consistently cross paths with a diverse range of people in real life, I was easily reminded of the many good people out there, and felt happy and confident navigating the world. This has such an impact on my writing, as well as my productivity. I guess because, in a sense, right now my lens of the world has been reduced to the conversations on social media, rather than my own experiences.
I gain so much inspiration for my writing through experience, which is a reason why I live life so fully and honestly enjoy a fast-paced lifestyle. One of the impulsive holidays I went on in 2019, led to the premise of a film pitch competition I won a few months ago! I’m constantly inspired by the people I meet and the places I go, so I’m excited for the privilege of great experiences again when we’re free. I can’t wait to get back into the world and regain a stronger sense of agency.
I’m optimistic for what the near future holds, and I feel that busy lifestyles will find their place much sooner than we all think – it’s easy to get mentally trapped in our current experience, but the only thing guaranteed is change. Thanks!’
‘I have to say so far we have been untouched and have even flourished in many ways with the slowing down. More time for reading, poetry, slow dinners and walks with family. Something that our externally driven schedules didn’t allow for before.
I must admit in some ways it was the pause we personally needed and only wish that every single person had not suffered or at least got to experience some of the beauty. Such is life. A great mystery.
Today on my 6 am walk I saw five women in their fifties/sixties paddle boarding and chatting on the flattest sea we’ve had in weeks. I just thought wow, what a choice to make! Life continues and if we are blessed to be able to choose how to fill our day we are very rich indeed!
‘This has certainly been a year we‘ll never forget – when everything was turned upside down and inside out. It’s been a time of enforced change and adjustment, loss, pain and fear. It’s something none of us would have chosen but has taught us so much about ourselves and our society, what matters, what’s irrelevant, what’s bullshit. It’s been a time of re-evaluation and reassessment.
Six months before lockdown, I had left a highly pressurised intensive job – and my employer of 24 years – to become a fulltime writer. This was an enormous adjustment but one I’ve embraced with a full heart. I’ve learnt to apply discipline and structure to days now owned by me. Days are devoted to learning, reading, writing, walking, talking, cooking, dividing my time between commercial, academic and creative writing. There are no more wasted days or hours and even though I’m in my mid-fifties with two whole professional careers behind me, I’m starting all over again and am energised by the possibilities of story-telling in all its forms.
Time is one of the most valuable gifts we can have as writers; time to observe, dream, create; time to listen to birds, look at plants or the bark of trees, to watch and listen to people, to learn about buildings, read and think, watch stuff, be with those we love, to think what if? and ask why not? And the daily breath of our lived time, has become even more precious when set against the desperate toll of those whose time has been cut short.
Watching a film in my local independent cinema, going to a theatre, swimming at the local pool, going on a train ride or taking a flight to somewhere else are inspirational activities I really look forward to – but in all honesty, I feel a great fondness for locked down life because it’s the time I was able to climb back into my skin and ‘became’ a writer in a holistic and integral way. I appreciate this is a privileged position but the last year has illustrated how fleeting life is and that we must make the most of what talent & time we have. What is life for? What matters?
Weirdly enough, the last play I saw was also a matinee of Leopoldstadt! It seems like years ago. I really hope a renewed sense of appreciation will enhance all the many things we may have become complacent about. Life is full of riches but hopefully we can now sus out the precious gems from the fool’s gold.
Thanks for the conversation!’
‘My eldest son has left the nest (well, gone to Uni) which has affected us deeply and has got us thinking more about what may be around the corner for him and his brother (especially regarding relationships and family).
I have been in London throughout the pandemic and have been lucky enough to enjoy the benefits of the cleaner air and emptier streets and the small growing sense of community that I’ve seen in our part of town, without the anxiety of not knowing where our next meal was coming from, or if we would still a roof over our heads.
The thing I have missed the most is theatre. Books and TV have been life-savers but what I really want is to be transported by real living people, in the same room, taking me into another world. I’d even go and see the second half of Leopoldstadt!’
‘You asked for responses about how lockdown has impacted us. Since I’ve been pregnant for three months and then on maternity leave in the various lockdowns, it’s been both an emotional struggle and a (mixed) blessing.
The rosy idea I had of swanning around in the sun with the pram, drinking tea in cute cafes with mum friends and finally finding time to write outside of my day job as a journalist – that did not go as planned. And suffice to say about the birth, I feel lucky to have had my husband with me for it, and grateful it was just the one night I had to spend alone at hospital with the baby. Running out of snacks in a boiling hot ward when you’re bawling your eyes out from the hormones was the least of it!
The blessings have been there though – lots of time to focus on our baby, and to work out how to parent without the pressure of carting him around for everyone to see.
And though it was delusional to think I’d spend so much time writing, actually the lockdown HAS left time to write during baby’s naps (like now!) or when he’s gone to bed at night. And, perhaps more crucially, the mental space to allow so many ideas to pour out. The 30 day script challenge during LSF helped get past the feeling that writing has to be perfect first time. And no way could I have attended a whole festival in person with a baby.
I hope your daughter is getting lots of rest and that you’re able to spend plenty of time with her and your granddaughter – that really was tough in lockdown 1.0, the first baby cuddle with grandparents was outside in the cold for just a few minutes.’
‘Oh What A Lovely Lockdown
For those of us on the slightly bashful spectrum – the natural introverts, the would-be-hermits who find the demands of a regular life somewhat brusque and harsh, who find leaving the house for any reason takes a herculean expenditure of courage and energy, the ‘Pros’ list is easy: I have loved every moment of Lockdown; every calm, quiet, carefree, dolly-daydream, delicious moment. I have taken to it like a cold, old lady takes to a warm blanket and a cuppa soup. Lockdown to me has felt like one long, fireside hug on a dank November evening; the premium, super-deluxe, five-star, mother of all hibernations. I feel rested, nurtured, restored.
Being, amongst other things, a shy, warty-chinned, barren spinster of this parish, I have worked full-time for thirty years and never experienced a maternity leave, raised a family, been a kept woman, or experienced any kind of stay-at-home pause in proceedings. I have been gifted a year of time. I have come alive in Lockdown. I have un-cowered, gotten braver. This enforced hiatus in an otherwise speeding whirlwind of existence has afforded me such pleasure in simple things. Over the last year, I have organised my drawers, cupboards, bookshelves, and entire kitchen to a level of ergonomic perfection I hardly knew existed. I’ve had time to catch-up with friends and family, albeit via one technological portal or other. I have had time to write and read and paint and smooth my feathers. I finally got round to watching The Joker – The Sopranos is next. I’ve even successfully grown an actual water-sucking, life-affirming, room oxygenating gosh-darn plant, a feat never before achieved. I have chlorophyll in my living room. And yes, I bloody well talk to it.
I have luxuriated in a whole year of not commuting to work wedged halfway up somebody’s armpit in an airless freight pipe. I have wallowed in a whole year of not having to wear any kind of pinching, wired support garment (I live in the earnest hope that pyjama bottoms will become an acceptable item of office-wear when we return). I have had twelve months of not having to spend my hard-earned time in the company of takers or grabbers, or anyone who has completely disappeared up their own asshole.
I have had the time to cook every evening, I sleep better, have more energy, I hum and sing to myself again, I have better thoughts, better daydreams, better daylight, less anxiety, less biting my tongue, less behaving.
I have loved every one of my daily permitted Shawshank-Redemption-esque outdoor exercises. I go for walks. I must have walked every residential street in the borough of Wandsworth by now, inspecting front gardens, deciding which dream house I’ll move into next week, and, joy of all joys, looking through people’s windows and imagining what goes on beyond the pane, and of course, smugly judging the state of their bookshelves.
The Commons soon became a Mecca for even bigger swarms of kamikaze joggers, so I packed up my teepee and moved on. I have discovered Wandsworth Cemetery; a beautiful haven of quietude and history where I can spend an hour or two dawdling up and down its winding paths, wondering who Violet and Florence and Maud and Authur were and what they witnessed, marvelling at its huge green field of human grief, where nothing grows out of the ground but love, each stone etched in words like ‘only goodnight beloved, not farewell’, each tree standing sentry marking time through its branches, each bird carrying secret messages.
The ‘Cons’ list is something I try not to dwell on, but the things I have found tough, like everyone, are not seeing my family, not seeing my dearest friends around their huge any-Waltons-episode dining table, not seeing art (living without Pieter de Hooch and all of the Bruegels has been spirit-sapping), realising I can’t hear anyone properly if I can’t lipread what they’re saying behind their masks, wearing masks, smiling at people and realising they can’t see it behind my mask, forgetting how to keep a coherent thought in my head, forgetting words, forgetting what day it is, drifting, doing everything on-line, not being cuddled, not sharing a meal, not wrapping my arms around my nephew or my godchildren, and the keenest of all deprivation – not going to the theatre, ugh! Woe is me and my culture-famished heart! I was however lucky enough to see the always-divine Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s ‘Beat the Devil’ at the Bridge last summer when a few brave theatres momentarily re-opened; a timely production about his own battle with the virus which was both moving and sobering in equal measure. Plus, a David Hare rant is always wonderfully cathartic; he has a searingly insightful way of saying all the words I want to put on a sandwich board and parade up and down Downing Street. This brief, precious, vivifying contact with the musings of Messers Hare and Fiennes has had to sustain me through the long, dark months since. I have of course snapped up all the wonderful virtual theatre, but it’s not the same as being holed up in a dark room with a troupe of throbbing corporeal creatives burning to tell you a story so intimately that your heart melts, your brain purrs, and your very essence takes flight.
Also on the ‘Cons’ list are the video WhatsApp calls with the top of my 74-year old mum’s head, or worse, her living room ceiling. She can’t quite seem to grasp the fact that the camera on her phone needs to be pointed at her face in order to properly nail the shared experience.
I won’t miss: queuing three miles around the block to buy groceries or having to get up at the break of day to search the empty shelves of ten or more supermarkets and corner shops before finding the last pack of over-priced loo roll that no-one else wants.
Turning 50 with a whimper rather than a long-planned-once-in-a-lifetime-something-or-other. Watching a goddaughter turn 18 on a Zoom call rather than at a party with a herd of her beer-cheering friends to baptise her. Sending a video message to my godmother when she turned 70 in isolation.
Wondering why so many people don’t think the rules apply to them.
Not ever seeing again the people once in my life now lost to this stampeding plague. Not being able to console in person, with a hug and a cup of tea, my friends and relations who have endured so much more than me.
During each long day of this last year, I have counted my huge, huge blessings, every single one of them. I have not had to home school wall-bouncing children. I have not been furloughed and have loved every hour of the privilege of being able to work from home. I have not lost a business I had loved or grown with my own two bare, red-raw hands. I have not had so much as a cold. I have had my first jab. I live in a country with a free national health service. I live in a country where I don’t have to walk seven miles for a bucket of water every day. I live in a decade that has electricity every hour of every day. Buying books on the internet. I have kept warm and dry and fed and a roof over my head. I have not had sick or ageing relatives in a care home who I haven’t been able to visit. I have not had to arrange a funeral or tried to decide which fifteen people can come. I have not had to postpone my wedding. I have not had to work in PPE. I have not had to risk my life because my job tells me I must.
On balance and all in all, I have had a lovely lockdown, and I wish it had been so for everyone else. But even I, queen of the hermit people am now looking forward to re-entry, in all its post-Covid, brusque, technicolour, liberating, Boris-bashing glory. What will that be like?
Once again, thank you so much to all of you who took the time to send me your brilliant responses to my piece of a month ago. I have enjoyed reading this so much and I hope you have too.
I’ve been blown away by the responses I got to my last newsletter about the year of lockdown we’ve just gone through. So many brilliant, thought-provoking, powerful pieces of writing. SO this week and April 16th’s newsletters are 2 bumper editions with some of these responses!
A massive thank you to all of you who took the time to respond and to those of you whose pieces I haven’t been able include – apologies.
‘I wanted to say thanks on two accounts –
Firstly for your ever-insightful newsletter. I always really enjoy reading them!
Secondly, for the pitching sessions you delivered to the BBC Comedy Writersroom group a couple of weeks back. I know I speak for the whole group when I say that your expertise on the topic was incredibly useful and very much appreciated.
I thought I’d take your PS seriously and get back to you with how the pandemic has affected my life. It almost seems perverse to talk about any positive impact of such a crisis year, especially since so many people have struggled so much, but I can’t deny that for me, the global shutdown has had significant upsides.
I’ve been freelance in the film industry for several years now, working as a floor runner / director’s assistant. Being on set is a great way to experience first-hand how stuff actually gets made…plus I get to live and breathe film and television, which I really enjoy! The downside is that you’re usually working such long hours as a runner that any hopes/thoughts of actually writing scripts tend to remain as pipe-dreams.
At the end of February 2020 I was looking for my next role on set, after taking a winter break. Cue COVID outbreak. Pandemic. Global lockdown. The world explodes. Like so many freelancers, I missed out on any government financial support (don’t get me started on this!!) and found myself stuck at home, jobless and unable to see my partner, who works on the other side of the country.
I realised I couldn’t do much at all with my time…apart from write.
I submitted a TV pilot to the BBC Comedy Room in April 2020, mainly because I’d run out of excuses not to. I wrote my first, full-length play whilst the theatre industry was in shutdown to avoid spending the whole day staring at the mould on my window frame. I actually felt a bizarre sense of urgency in those early months of the pandemic – as soon as the film industry restarted I knew (or at least hoped!) to be back out there working, so this period of focussing on my own on my work felt like a strangely precious time.
Four months later, I got an email saying I’d got an interview with the Writersroom development team…and then a place in the Comedy Room. As an ‘aspiring writer’, I’ve always felt a duty to apply to these schemes but never actually believed I could get on, so I can’t really articulate how it felt to get that email, apart from ‘!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’.. This was off the back of a script I would never have got round to writing, had 2020 been like any other year.
Now, in March 2021, the film industry has started to open up again (with all the necessary COVID measures in place). I’m back at work as an Exec/Writer’s Assistant on Ted Lasso 2, and developing another pilot with the Comedy Room at the same time. Seeing myself as a writer, rather than just someone who aspires to write, has made it much easier to juggle work commitments with my own projects and for this reason (and so many others!) I am incredibly grateful to the Writersroom team.
I know I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in 2020, and my heart goes out to everyone who has found the past twelve months to be wholly bleak and uninspiring, but I wanted to share my small ‘good-news’ pandemic story along with the most important lesson I learnt this year: BACK YOURSELF.
In a way, I cheated. The pandemic forced me to write…and keep writing, since there was literallynothing else going on. But my advice anyone in a similar position to me one year ago would be:
Step 1 – Believe that you can do it (or pretend to, for however long it takes to complete…)
Step 2 – Write that script.
I have to apologise for sending you such a lengthy ramble (it’s been a quiet day at the office). But thanks again for giving up your time and wisdom, it’s really appreciated.
All the best,
Philip: So refreshing to hear a pandemic success story!
‘Thanks for the open and honest newsletter – it has been a tough 12 months for sure! And we do still have ways to go. I think for me the shift away from London is going to be the most interesting change, personally and creatively. We already know that writers feel a pressure to live in London so they are nearer opportunities and can be part of a network etc, but this has also been true of those who work in script development. Before this happened, I was trying to imagine how I might keep my career but leave London. I knew there were opportunities in Manchester but this felt too far from friends and family and truth be told I wasn’t all that keen on moving to Cardiff. I had been talking to execs who live and work in Bristol hoping I myself might one day find a way to move back home to Bristol or Bath but there were really only a couple of production companies based there. Yet now I have proven that I can do my job completely remotely (read-throughs aside) and I wonder what this means for me. That said London property prices are dropping so this means I actually might be able to afford a lifestyle here that I never thought possible – either way there are more opportunities and I do feel like the whole industry has been given a shake-up. However, I also miss the buzz of central London desperately and I now realise how much I got from being with other creative people most of the time. In the last few weeks, I’ve realised how much I miss fringe and new theatre and how my knowledge of new writers is now lagging behind. I also miss the slightly more personal relationships I used to develop with my writers – the social element has completely disappeared and zoom meetings are kept short and efficient. I have started a new job during the pandemic and barely know my co-workers – will the close bonds I used to have with those I work with be something of the past?
I am interested to see how far our industry has changed, and where we will all be living, in a few years’ time.’
Philip: So many interesting questions there about whether the industry will embrace the positive changes of the last year, particularly the increased opportunities of doing everything online for those who live outside London.
‘Like you, I haven’t been to London since last February/March and I wonder when I’ll be able to start going back again. Whether or not I even want to start going back again (it was bloody expensive). I wonder if the industry will ever go back to ‘normal’ (why pay for office space when we’ve seen how effective zoom meetings can be?) I wonder how long it’ll be until we can film things without all the crazy, but necessary, COVID protocols… I’m pleased that they are now starting to talk about the importance of filming shows outside of London but I wonder if all this talk of championing Northern writers is just talk… Or maybe they’re going to finally realise that diversity applies to writers from all around England.
Like you I’ve retreated into a lot of imaginary worlds over the last year, reading a lot more, and revisiting books from my childhood. As well as working on my screenwriting, I’ve written two children’s/YA novels during lockdown, something I’ve not done since I was a kid. It’s been immensely therapeutic, and it’s helped me while I’ve gone through a few medical issues. Writing has always been something I’ve turned to when I’ve been unwell or feeling low and this time more than ever I feel it’s got me through the uncertainty of the pandemic. I wouldn’t have believed last year that I would have written a novel (let alone two) but now I’m in the process of trying to find an agent for my novel.
I’m also working with a filmmaker in Manchester who I met online during the pandemic, have become good friends with him, and we’re shooting our first short film next month (we haven’t even met in person yet). I’m grateful that during all this I’ve had my girlfriend (who’s a nurse and has had a million times harder year than me) and my new cat, Nuala, who’s become a welcome companion while writing. As much as I want things to return to some level of normal, I have really enjoyed being able to write full time whilst being on furlough. It feels strange to say, but I think I might miss lockdown… Just a bit.’
‘My personal reflections on this year is that it started on a weird note. I didn’t know how to respond to the pandemic as, like everyone else, I feared it but couldn’t believe that me (or my family) would be affected by COVID 19 in anyway despite how quickly it was spreading.
I feel a bit bad about admitting this but when I was told we had to work from home for those first few months, I was excited by the prospect of writing and reading whilst exploring more creative outlets. I also enjoyed spending more time with my wife and discovering picturesque areas of Staines, which despite being tainted by Ali G, is actually prettier and indeed, MASSIVE! So overall, I tried to look at it in a positive light, probably still blinded by the fact that Covid 19 couldn’t and wouldn’t affect me.
As I saw the infection and death rates go up in our area, I naturally was scared for my wife and my family catching it. My parents are approaching mid 70s and my wife is asthmatic. But I still continued writing scripts, plays and even started a children’s book to keep my mind occupied whilst still remaining positive and enjoying my time at home.
My wife was then made redundant from her early-years teaching role. That was the first hit of reality. The second was a few months later when my wife and I caught Covid. All I’ll say is, we’re lucky it was mild but even in its mildest form it was truly unpleasant and distressing. Thirdly, my job is now at risk of redundancy (I have yet to hear the outcome). I was anxious before but probably feel worse now due to the certainty of my future. My wife and I were hoping to buy our first house and start a family but that may have to be put on hold. So, the reality of Covid has definitely dawned on me and I kick myself for being selfish and foolish to think it would never affect my life in anyway, or the people around me.
Still keeping positive, I found that whenever my head felt like it was swelling with negativity and I couldn’t stop talking to myself about upsetting things, writing really did save the day for me. It relieved the anxiety and took away all those negative thoughts – by the way, writing a children’s story really puts you in a safe-haven! But even writing something like a horror or thriller kept me happy and distracted. Thanks to that I was in the semi-finals for a few competitions and have had positive feedback from other professionals as I still continue my journey into becoming a full-time writer.
I guess what I’m saying is I’m still keeping positive but compared to the beginning I’m less naive to the bigger picture and definitely wearier. It may be a cliche amongst our writing circles but writing is still a greatest form of escapism, catharism and general well-being. It certainly kept going throughout this year.
From what I read in your newsletter, it sounds like writing has done the same for many others who have been inspired by the pandemic. It’s exciting and reassuring to know writing is a great motivator even at the bleakest of times.
Thanks as always for your newsletters.’
‘A lovely thoughtful and evocative newsletter, thank you.
For me lockdown has had a very significant impact on my career. I’d longed believed that my age was an issue – and this is something I’ve been making a lot of noise about recently because it’s wrong on so many levels – but I do think that not living in London is also a disadvantage for creatives. This year – largely because of lockdown and the networking opportunities zoom has given me – I now have a London producer for my latest play, I’ve been approached by an award-winning theatre company about the possibility of adapting one of the most important novels of our time to the London stage and I’ve been collaborating with Arts and Homelessness International on a project which – with AHI’s support – will employ people who are currently or who have recently been homeless. To that end, I’ve been able to take part in forums and meetings with homeless people from all over the world. This has been a privilege and pleasure and will inform and inspire the project which I’m sure will be a life changing experience. I’ve also been approached by a film producer who wants to work with me on a short film. I’m actually beginning to wonder if I might need an agent after all! But I’m in no rush for that as I’m doing just fine without one. Oh, and I still have a couple of radio ideas being considered for radio 4.’
Thank you so much to all – and there are more excellent responses in 2 weeks time.
I don’t know about you but I’m still in a low-level state of disbelief and shock about what we’ve been through over the last year. I keep thinking about the idea of someone in February 2020 predicting all of what has happened to us; and how absurd and incredible we would have thought it.
We are living through a sci-fi movie (albeit an extremely boring one). When I think about all of the people I know who are, like me, stuck at home, when I think of all the office blocks, of Channel 4 and the BBC, having stood empty for the last year, of the fact I haven’t been to central London since last March, I still have to metaphorically pinch myself that all this has happened.
My last encounter with the West End of London was in early March sitting in the front row of a matinee of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt.’ I was sat next to a chatty, charming lady of about 85 who launched into a monologue about how she was going to ignore all the hysteria about coronavirus and carry on regardless, how she had limited time anyway and she certainly wasn’t going to waste it being scared of being out and about in the world. I wonder if she’s still alive. I do hope so. The theatre was packed out and I felt uncomfortable in that setting and left at the first interval (the play wasn’t great either!). I couldn’t have imagined that that would be the last time I was in central London, the last time I used the tube.
An overriding emotion alongside the disbelief has been anger. Anger at the knowledge that this was all avoidable, that people on the other side of the world dealt with this like the intelligent (female) adults they are; there is an alternative universe, where the story took a different, more positive turn. I need help turning this anger into positive action (or perhaps just staying away from Twitter?).
ZOOM – living & working online
The last year has involved discovering a new way of living and working – largely through zoom and its variants (‘Teams’, ‘Blue Jeans’, etc – it’s funny how Skype has faded out of the picture).
I remember when having first conversations about the idea of running a course on zoom rather than in person, referring to it as BOOM (I’d never heard of it before). How quickly life changes, and how quickly we have to learn to adapt.
I’m hugely impressed and inspired by writers’ ingenuity and creativity. There have been many conversations about the creative community’s response to the events of the last year, how to incorporate what has happened into the stories you tell.
I have read a number of brilliant scripts that tackled the issue head-on – a romantic comedy about an unlikely couple forcibly locked down together; a TV comedy drama about a mid-life crisis dramatized solely through the medium of zoom; a script that chronicles this year in the life of a family artificially brought together. Not only are these brilliant projects in their own right. They are works of art that will be really valuable in helping us remember what life has been like in the past year, helping us to process and make sense of what has happened; and when we view these stories with the perspective of time and distance I suspect they will be even more valuable. Some of these writers’ responses have brought home to me the primal importance of art and creativity.
During this last year of lockdown I have developed rich, enjoyable working relationships with people I’ve never met. I feel I know some of these people well; I have to remind myself that I’ve never met these people – including nearly everyone – writers and script editors – involved in the 2021 C4 screenwriting course. So many people I’ve never seen standing up!
The anticipation and excitement about meeting so many of these people – and meeting up again with so many other people who I haven’t seen for so long and have missed, is exciting and, frankly, a bit emotionally overwhelming. I hope it’s not all going to be a big anti-climax!
Alongside this excitement is a developing low-level anxiety at the prospect of going back to living how we did pre-pandemic – commuting, mixing in confined spaces with multiple strangers, just being really busy. Do I want that? I’m not sure I do.
This forced adaptation teaches us to value both the things we’re missing and the things we still have (on the one hand – theatre, live music, cinema on the big screen, live sport with a crowd of partisan, impassioned, noisy supporters, meeting new people face-to-face, the energy of busy city life; being in the same room as other people whose company you enjoy; my grown-up children; on the other hand – so many wonderful scripts that I’ve read, TV shows, films, the countryside, nature, walking by the sea, cycling through beautiful country lanes, the company of my wonderful wife. And above all, meeting my beautiful granddaughter, born on Feb 16th. Seeing my daughter’s joy and love for her new daughter.
And a discovery that – for me personally – living out of London has many more pros than cons. I’ve realised how my sub-conscious (unthinking really) bias that London was the centre of everything in the UK and the only place to live if you want to be at the cutting edge of life – was an extremely stupid opinion.
The peace and quiet in which I’ve been able to read and work, the lack of physical clutter, has made work and creativity easier. I’ve run so many enjoyable (for me at least!) online courses, met so many brilliant, interesting writers on these courses, been pitched so many great ideas.
It’s been a rare and valuable chance to take stock, to think about what’s important, what I want to do, a chance to focus on ambitions and aims – rather than just getting through the work I have in front of me day to day. It’s so important for all of us to stand back from the daily rush through life from time to time, to really consider our longer-term aims and ambitions, what we want to do that will be truly fulfilling. And then we need to work hard to make space for these priorities.
Thinking about how life will have changed when we come out of this – I hope it will be a big help for creatives who live outside of London – that will be a big plus for the industry as a whole. We are all looking for new voices, new stories. And stories that don’t come from London and the ‘Home Counites’ need to be much more prominent.
I recently had a minor (email) spat with a high-profile industry person who taught me this valuable lesson – assume the best unless you have very tangible reasons for not doing so – it’s a lot less tiring and disruptive. Before you wade in with criticism, put yourself in their shoes. Try and focus on the negative things they may be going through, the troubles they may be having before you start an argument or judge them. Everyone’s trying to do their best and we all fall short. If you want someone to do something differently and better, put yourselves in their shoes first and think about how to communicate this in a way that feels positive, affirmative and constructive rather than judgemental. Have empathy basically. Life has become much tougher for a lot of people in different ways and different walks of life.
…have been another real plus of the last year. Alongside the many hundreds of scripts I’ve read, I’ve read more books this year than ever before. I have loved escaping into some amazing story worlds. Some of the highlights, the stories with which I’ve really connected emotionally –
English Monsters by James Scudamore – if you were interested in what I wrote a year or two ago about public schools, privilege and dysfunction, this is a book that will speak to you.
Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel is a wonderful writer. The stories she tells are both epic and highly personal.
Just Like You by Nick Hornby – NH is not everyone’s cup of tea; but for me, the acuteness of his observations about North London metropolitan life, the excellence of his comic dialogue, his affection for his characters (and humanity in general) shine through this brilliantly told story.
Come On Tonbridge by Mark Hookway. (Volume 1 of 2). This is a book I can confidently say none of you will want to read! So why am I mentioning it? Because I love its passion. This 1st volume is 671 pages long (and Volume 2 that I haven’t read yet is the same sort of length.) It’s the diary of an athletics coach over 20 or so years, charting the rise in success of his club, Tonbridge AC as they start to win national competitions and produce international-class athletes. It’s an account of one man’s madly obsessive, self-sacrificing ambition for the athletes he coaches, the trials and tribulations he went through, the many times he felt like giving up, the shit he had to take from athletes who lose interest and young athletes’ parents who take him for granted, and the ultimate success he achieves – success largely for others rather than himself. The book was largely written during lockdown and is a testament to one man’s very particular niche interest, the way he has pursued it, and how much it has benefitted the lives of those he has coached (all, by the way, for free). The fact that it is self-published is also a lesson in initiative and the get-up-and-go we all need to make a success of our work.
The End Of Time by Gavin Extence – a wonderfully empathetic dramatization of the worldwide refugee crisis.
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming – a beautiful, complex and very human family mystery story.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford – like so many of the best works of fiction and drama, the thing that grabbed me about this book was the combination of story and form. I loved the way the structure of the book made it so rich and compelling
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld – a brilliant, alternative fiction about how things could have worked out very differently for Hilary (and Bill) Clinton, that has so much to say about modern US politics and human nature in general.
Finally, the title of this blog – Unhappy Anniversary – references (a brilliant) Loudon Wainwright iii song, Enjoy!
PS Please do get back to me with your own thoughts about the impact of the last pandemic year and how it has affected your (working) lives – I would love to do a follow-up blog of your own personal responses.
This week a guest newsletter from playwright and screenwriter, EMMA PRITCHARD. Emma was on the Channel 4 screenwriting course in 2019. She has a number of commissions for both theatre and TV projects and you can enjoy her writing on the brilliant HOLY SH!T podcast series – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/holy-sh-t/id1544416779
‘When Philip asked if I wanted to write a blog for his newsletter, my initial excitement at receiving an email that wasn’t a) a rejection or b) from the stag beetle charity I once drunkenly donated to, turned into a wave of nausea and panic in about 11 seconds.
Oh my God HELP. You can’t write a blog about writing; you don’t know anything! Maybe it’s fine though, because only your dad will read it anyway? No, you’ll just have to share a pasta recipe or something. But which pasta recipe?
You’re probably thinking, why didn’t you just say no, Emma? And I hear you. Now I’ve started to write the thing, I’m thinking the same. That and:
You over-use italics. Everyone will notice and lose respect for you. Also, it won’t just be your dad reading it, Philip actually has followers. Just share a bolognese, everyone loves a bolognese. Remember when you wanted to be a vet, hey?
Then I realised: this is the blog. The fear of rejection… the worry about not being good enough… the strange food-based procrastination… that is writing to me. I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. But it also scares me, hurts my feelings and drives me mad. Writing, and everything that comes with it, isn’t just a creative battle; it’s a mental, emotional and sometimes (when I get so nervous before meetings I bite my nails and then all the skin around them until it hurts to open tins) a physical one.
Screenwriting didn’t make me an anxious person. It’s probably not the idealcareer for someone who’s made this way but unfortunately, some of us were lonely teenagers who poured their hearts out into Casualty fan fiction and now have lifelong dreams to fulfil. The beginning of the first lockdown, for me, coincided with a long-awaited course of NHS CBT, which means my levels of introspection have been intense over the last year, resulting in a lot of new pasta dishes, and – more importantly – some helpful realisations…
I still count myself as new to screenwriting. When I applied to 4Screenwriting in 2018 I had no experience in writing for television. I was writing and performing theatre alongside working full-time as a PA. Hungry for a deadline, I sent in a play, never imagining I’d get an interview. It’s no secret that this course is a game-changer and I count my lucky stars every day that I got to do it. The spec script I wrote opened up a lot of doors. I signed with an agent who I adore and within the first year had a number of my own original television projects in development. Also I now (v.a.g.u.e.l.y.) know how to use Final Draft (okay, like 10%). I feel very grateful to get to do this thing I love and will be eternally grateful for Philip for reading my script about hockey and giving me a chance.
However. I find many aspects of writing, and the industry, very anxiety-inducing and I struggled especially during the first six months after completing the course. Looking back at the summer 4Screenwriting ended, I was experiencing a strange combination of endorphins/adrenaline and burn-out at the same time. In the same fortnight as finishing the course, I got married and completed two theatre projects. Amongst the excitement of getting to meet some of my favourite TV companies and feeling simultaneous joy and relief at being busy, I was frazzled. Meeting agents was like a very terrifying form of dating except I couldn’t get through it with wine. Networking events stressed me out even with wine. When I signed with my agent I was convinced for the first two months she would realise I’m terrible and drop me. I had more than one panic attack on my way to a general meeting. It feels inappropriate to write an entire blog about screenwriting-induced IBS but I could do it.
I still doubt myself most days. In my darkest moments, when I can’t open my pack of spaghetti because I still chew my nails, I wonder if I can call myself a screenwriter when I don’t have a credit yet but I think I can, because laptops have screens, don’t they? I find social media overwhelming. I compare myself to other writers a lot. I’ve never done a writers’ room and feel like I’m failing when I see screenshots of people’s zoom rooms online. I ask myself why I’m not doing better or why I didn’t pick another career (answer: because I’d cry every time an animal died.) I feel guilty because I’m married to a primary school teacher who works 12 hour days. I think of my mum who works in a care home, or all those ICU nurses and surgeons and and and… I berate myself for feeling this way when the closest I’ve come to performing emergency surgery this week is trying to resurrect my dying basil plant.
But – unlike that plant, may it RIP – there is hope. Two years on from starting 4Screenwriting, I’ve learned a lot.
I left my full-time job at the start of the course; I had several freelance projects lined up, knew I could get by for six months and was ready to take a leap of faith. I don’t like not being in control and a job where it feels like my future (and income) is in other people’s hands is scary. So six months later, at the end of “the summer of flailing around like a baby bird” I started two part-time, non-writing jobs. Sometimes it feels like you aren’t a “proper writer” unless you’re earning all your money from it. I don’t earn enough money from screenwriting to get by without these jobs, but more importantly, my brain likes routine and distraction. These jobs put pressure on the time I have to write which I find energising. They get me out of my head. They give my weeks structure. And it’s nice to have work friends that aren’t a cactus.
Speaking of distractions, last year I fell for reality television. I adore television drama but it doesn’t relax me like it used to because I watch so much of it for work. Enter Little Mix: The Search, my 2020 highlight. As disappointed as 8 year-old me would be to hear it (she wanted to be a pop star and wrote a song called “Anytime, Anywhere, We Can Make Love” not knowing what ‘make love’ meant, and sang it to an audience of one: her dad), I don’t want to be in a girl band, however much I dream of being able to pull off a pair of sequined cycling shorts. Watching TV shows that I can’t over-analyse and can properly switch off to are bliss.
Alongside the sequins, I have another dream, that even when the world returns to normal more general meetings can take place over Zoom. Not only is it a very nice dollar-saver for anyone not living in zone two, since remote working became a thing, I haven’t felt half as nervous. I feel so much more at home, weirdly enough, at home. Who knew?
If one blindingly obvious statement wasn’t enough, I’ve discovered this great thing called walking. For so long I’d sit at my computer agonising, punishing myself, until I lose all feeling in my neck (my next blog will be on the direct correlation between screenwriting and health anxiety). Now, every time I get writer’s block and feel my pulse quickening, before I have time for an act of self-sabotage I like to call “googling all the writers I can think of to see how much better than me they’re doing”, I leave my laptop immediately, get outside, then come back to have another stab. It works more often than it doesn’t.
And the final thing I wanted to share (it’s a bit of a curveball): take an improv class. Check out my bae the Free Association. It’s probably the best (and most fun) thing you can do for your anxiety and your writing. Improv celebrates fear and failure, demands believability, teaches you originality in character, world and premise, and introduces you to a world of play and possibility. And you can definitely claim it back on tax.
I am a work in progress. I hope, if nothing else, this blog is a reminder, to anyone else who feels plagued by similar feelings from time to time, that you’re not alone. In spite of what social media proclaims, not everyone’s lives are as glowy as Anya Taylor Joy’s skin. To anyone reading this who didn’t get onto 4Screenwriting this year, or any other programme for that matter, don’t sweat it. I’ve never been interviewed for any of the BBC Writersroom programmes. I find donuts help.
If you’ve read this and got absolutely nothing from it, then may I point you in the direction of my favourite pastea recipe, Jack Monroe’s Spaghetti “Come to Bed Parmigiana.” You’re welcome.
At the end of January we had three days on zoom with a number of industry guests for the 1st ‘weekend’ of the 2021 CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE. This is an opportunity for the writers and script editors to learn more about TV drama – both the craft and the industry – from some of the people making the best work – writers, producers, script editors, a literary agent, a director…
Below are some quotes and thoughts from the three days that I hope will be helpful and inspiring. They are a slightly random selection of quotes that I hope you will useful and interestingly provocative. Please realise that these were said by a lot of different people – so there may be contradictions and inconsistencies – but I hope they will still prove interesting.
This covers less than half of the sessions so I will return to this at a later date.
(NB Huge thanks to Tamar Saphra for writing up the notes of the sessions)
Different cultures / practices of UK vs US writers rooms – question of role of script editor, how the writing cultures in both industries is so different. In USA, being a writer is a full-time staff job. You cannot work on more than one project at once. You’re contracted to one show and it is ‘a job’ with a pension and healthcare etc.
In the UK, being a writer is much more about ‘having something to say’ and a viewpoint on the word, than it is about being a company guy or gal.
What the US system does, is you start off as a writer’s assistant, then become a staff writer, then associate producer…etc. It is a career path. It’s getting a promotion.
Because in UK we’re focused on ‘voice’ means that some but not all writers don’t necessarily have the ‘craft’ of story structure, especially as many come from theatre and structure is a different thing in theatre. (Which is often where script editors – a role that doesn’t exist in the US – come into their own in the UK)
Rewriting in the edit. Charting character arcs over the series as a whole.
Character is story.
‘All art is political’, and we’re living through the biggest crisis of our lifetimes, even after that we’ll live in a period of extreme austerity.
We’re therefore losing swathes of writers who were just at the point of reaching security (financially).
You’ll be amazed at how many people in TV act as if it isn’t political.
We know that people make good art when there’s strong, state-support in place.
There are ways you have power, even as people entering this system
Please join a union! Give yourself the best possible backing that you can. Make that a part of your working environment.
Join or form a writer’s groups. Share work and critiques, based around shared political values, or even just a space for insight and solidarity. It can be really lonely and we need each other.
It’s a collaborative job- remember this. Be part of the team, even if you’re the creative lead. Think about what that leadership means.
Don’t underestimate your power.Think about what jobs you want. If you have the power to say no, say no.
eg if you’re an able-bodied writer and you’re offered a role as a writer for a series with a lead character who is disabled, you can say no – give them a list of brilliant disabled writers that you know.
How do you sustain a career?
A trap that happens, is that you may have a voice that others don’t have and that’s what people really respond to, but often the ups and downs aren’t related to how good your writing is – a way to mitigate this, is to constantly improve your own work and not just rely solely on this idea of having a ‘unique’ voice. Trust that you have it, and hone your craft.
Know that you trust whoever you’re working with editorially. This trust takes time to build up.
Main two things that stop people progressing are fear and ego.
Constantly be prepared to improve and improve and deepen and deepen.
And then, conversely, really understand what you want to say and notice when a note is working against that – try to understand it, but don’t let it throw you.
How careful do you have to be about being pigeonholed?
It’s hard, because you need to make a living off your writing.
Most professional experience writing is worth it at this point – if you get the chance to write on Holby, write on Holby. That’s a good training ground.
Your spec script is a really good way to avoid this – if you get stuck somewhere, your spec script being your ‘voice’ can stop you getting stuck somewhere.
As writers, you have to go on writing spec scripts. Often writer’s trajectory stalls because they’ve not written a spec script and they’ve been working on everyone’s shows. Don’t let your only spec script be 5 years old.
Question about ‘General’ meetings – what kinds of questions are you asked?
It can be quite awkward, but they’ve likely already read your script, they’ll ask about that.
They’ll ask you what you like to watch, make sure to have some things to say here
Look up what the company has done, find a show that they’ve made that you like
They ask about your interests, talk about your interests in the world in general as well as in TV/scripts/arts. Books, comics, social justice, twitter…this can be a great way to connect and work out if you get on.
If you don’t feel comfortable pitching then, you can say that and that you’ll send them something later.
‘Script editors need to be creative, writers need to be technical.’ Cross-fertilisation of skills.
We are all portals for ideas. All the ideas exist, are out there – we just need to be in a state where we are receptive to them.
Don’t tell us things we have already seen.
Make every word count in dialogue and directions. No padding. No ‘What?!’ ‘What do you mean?!’ Why?!’
What you don’t show is as important as what you do show. The power of significant action happening off-screen.
Storytelling is about choices – what you show and what you don’t show.
Hone your instinct for those key story moments.
Screenwriters are ‘madman, carpenter, architect and judge.’
‘Writing for a TV show that is going to get made, you learn so much. eg soaps, continuing series – but don’t stay too long.
You’ll gain so much from talking to all the writers, and helping each other and talking about your work so far and where you want to go.
Writing is lonely – you need a network to moan and celebrate with!
Thank you very much to Tamar for writing these notes and to all of our brilliant, generous guest speakers.
This week, I’m delighted to share with you JOE WILLIAMS’s selection of the best films of the last year. This has become a bit of an annual tradition and I’m so grateful to Joe for taking the time to write this. So many brilliant recommendations!
I’d also like to take a moment to steer you in the direction of Joe’s own work. Joe is script executive on two Netflix shows written by GEORGE KAY – the 2nd series of CRIMINAL; and the huge smash hit series, LUPIN. Both are really excellent and very deserving of your time.
Joe Williams is a Development Producer at ITV Studios. Before joining ITV, Joe worked as Script Executive on the new Netflix series, LUPIN. Created by George Kay and starring Omar Sy, the hit series attracted 70-million viewers in its opening month – a record for an international drama. Previously, Joe script edited the second series of CRIMINAL (also for Netflix) and all three series’ of the BBC drama, KEEPING FAITH, starring Eve Myles. Joe has also held development roles at Channel 4, Vox Pictures, Sprout Pictures, and Scott Free, and has worked as a script editor for the BBC Writers’ Room and on the 2019 Channel 4 Screenwriting Course.
Towards the end of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, Tarrou, one of the book’s protagonists, muses on a return to normal life now that the disease that has gripped the city is in its dying days. His friend, Cottard, asks him, “But what do you mean by ‘a return to normal life’?”. Tarrou responds, “New films at the picture-houses”.
While the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t quite pulled the plug on all new films, Camus’ words chimed all too well with me when I (somewhat masochistically) read the book during the first lockdown. Appropriately, it was the cancellation of my ticket to see the new James Bond film, NO TIME TO DIE, that was the very first piece of ‘disruption’ to my 2020 plans. Still, while Hollywood has mostly played it safe by going straight to streaming (WW84, SOUL) or withholding big releases until the pandemic has eased, 2020 still delivered a number of strong films – many of which were smaller titles that gained prominence by being the only things showing in the cinemas that briefly remained open. It showed that even in the ‘golden era of TV’, film remains a vital medium.
The start of 2020 – coming on the back of a strong previous year – saw a slew of brilliant titles lined up for award season (note – all titles are 2020 UK cinema releases). Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 for me was his strongest film to date, utterly gripping from start to finish and held together by a compelling and underrated performance from George McKay. Armando Iannucci’s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD was a hilarious and lively new take on the endlessly adapted Dickens novel. THE LIGHTHOUSE (which I actually saw at the London Film Festival the previous year) from director David Eggers was horrifyingly intense and driven by a powerhouse performance from a never-better Willem Dafoe that begged to be seen on a big screen. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, the latest film from the excellent Marielle Heller, was a low-key but emotionally blindsiding work featuring a signature performance from Tom Hanks as the beloved entertainer, Fred Rogers. ONWARD offered reliable Pixar charms with a strong emotional core and dizzying visuals. Then, of course, there was PARASITE: Bong Joon-Ho’s truly original and unpredictable tragicomic masterwork that was surely one of the most deserving Oscar-winners of recent years.
For me, however, the best film I saw in 2020 has to be the Safdie Brothers’ darkly comic thriller UNCUT GEMS, starring a blistering Adam Sandler in one of the finest acting performances of recent years. Centred on a desperate hustler who embarks on a series of increasingly calamitous schemes, it takes place in a retro version of New York in which it seems to be permanent night-time. The film pulsates with a wild, dizzying, and even stress-inducing energy (driven by Oneohtrix Point Never’s frantic score) that builds and builds to an electrifying climax. I saw it at a sold-out showing on 35mm at the Prince Charles Cinema in January – and it was a perfect example of how a shoulder-to-shoulder, packed and appreciative crowd can add to the enjoyment of a film.
On 12th March, I went to see PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE at my local cinema in North London. I initially thought the feted film was a bit of a slow-burner but as it went on and I settled into its mood I found myself entranced by its central romance between the two lead characters, which earns a sucker-punch of an emotional payoff at the end. I’m not sure I would have responded the same way if I watched the film at home with ease of distractions. As I left the cinema, I turned on my phone and looked at the news: the coronavirus outbreak that had been building slowly since January had just been declared a pandemic. The cinemas closed five days later and I did not see another film on the big screen for five months: the longest gap in my cinema-going life.
In spite of this, however, film refused to die and I saw a good number of strong releases at home during the original lockdown. LYNN + LUCY was a devastating depiction of friendship and the passage of time, marking its writer/director, Fyzal Boulifa, as a major new talent to watch. Appearing on Netflix, THE PLATFORM, which underneath its horrifying exterior was a smart and genuinely thought-provoking thriller. THE ASSISTANT was a very different but equally unsettling low-key and nuanced ‘MeToo drama’ that somehow succeeded in making the noise of photocopiers sound tense. Disney’s film of HAMILTON, despite being a ‘filmed play’ was a joyous depiction of the famed show – arriving with worryingly perfect timing with the theatres closed. Spike Lee’s DA 5 BLOODS, while at times scattershot, was for me his strongest film in years made all the more poignant by the late Chadwick Boseman’s performance.
CALM WITH HORSES was a vivid and powerful Irish crime thriller with a star-making performance from Cosmo Jarvis, paired with an intense turn from Barry Keoghan, who I continuously believe is one of the most best actors of his generation. Released during lockdown (though I watched it later), NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS was a compellingly directed abortion drama from Eliza Hittman featuring two powerful performances from its two leads, Sidney Flanigan (in a remarkable debut) and Talia Ryder. Drawing on similar subject matter – though very different in its approach – was the beguiling SAINT FRANCES, which dramatizes occasionally tough material with playfulness, warmth and insight. THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND, while at times overlong, was a hilarious and often moving comedy anchored by a charismatic performance from its writer/star Pete Davidson. And the time-loop comedy PALM SPRINGS, while not boasting the most original premise, was a joyous and hilarious piece of escapist fun with a great soundtrack that resulted in me doing a deep dive into the discography of electo-pioneer Patrick Cowley over the summer.
I also took the opportunity to catch up with a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ 80s/90s hits that I had somehow never seen before. These included: FATAL ATTRACTION (which has not dated well), PRETTY WOMAN (which has really not dated well), MOONSTRUCK (which I didn’t quite ‘get’), SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (poor Bill Pullman!), GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (how I miss Robin Williams), FLASHDANCE (possibly the most plotless non-art film I’ve seen), and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (which I really loved and totally earns its famously sentimental ending).
Lockdown finally ended in July but it wasn’t until August that the cinemas slowly started to reopen. Into this uncertain climate came Christopher Nolan’s TENET, arriving like a celluloid vaccine to give a shot in the arm to the troubled industry. Slightly wary of packed screens, I waited a couple of weeks to watch it in a quiet daytime showing. It was a strange experience: before the film, the cinema played trailers for films that even now have yet to see a release. Cards saying these titles would come ‘in April’ elicited quiet laughter from the audience, unsure if it referred April this year or next. As for TENET itself, while my feelings on it are mixed it is still undeniably a work of ‘cinema’ and I actually went to see it twice in the hope a second viewing might be able to unwrap its mysteries and its sound mixing (it didn’t).
I managed a further fifteen visits to the cinema before Lockdown 2.0 (the least welcome sequel since SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) reared its ugly head. Most of these visits were to catch older films, such as: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (the closest I got to a holiday this year); AKIRA (stunning on the big screen); and PSYCHO (seen around Halloween, just before the cinemas closed again). Yet there remained a host of varied and original films that stood out in a more open marketplace. These included: ROCKS, a joyous coming-of-age British film from director Sarah Gavron and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson; SAINT MAUD and MAKE UP, two darkly unsettling offbeat British horror films with great central performances from Morfydd Clark and Molly Windsor respectively; THE KID DETECTIVE, a bizarrely dark crime/comedy film with Adam Brody as an unlikely sleuth; and LES MISERABLES, an arresting French film that harks back favourably to the classic LA HAINE.
There was also a string of excellent non-fiction films released in 2020. COUP ’53 (now, sadly, the subject of its own legal battle) weaved the fascinating story of the British/American-engineered 1953 Iranian coup. Alex Gibney’s TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL was an urgent and damning expose of Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic. Spike Jonze’s THE BEASTIE BOYS STORY was a riotous journey through the group’s career that had me reaching for my Paul’s Boutique vinyl as soon as it ended. Lastly, there was Spike Lee’s euphoric film of David Byrne’s AMERICAN UTOPIA, in which the erstwhile Talking Head plays to a captivated Broadway audience. It’s a film that begs to be seen on the big screen and in these times, it serves as an equally bittersweet ode to the joy of a live concert experience.
At the time of writing, we’re now well into Lockdown 3.0 and there’s no sign as to when the cinemas might reopen. The last time I saw a film in the cinema was during the two-week period in early December when I caught a socially-distant sold out Christmas showing of DIE HARD. Although everyone in the audience must have seen the film many times before, like the UNCUT GEMS screening it was a great reminder that there’s no substitute for an appreciative audience riffing of a good film in a communal setting. This was further brought home by watching the delightful SOUL on Christmas Day and how suited its vivid imagery and universal story would be to the big screen. It therefore keeps me hopeful that the cinema experience will endure and that in 2021 we will see both ‘a return to normal life’ and ‘new films at the picture houses’.
Thanks again to Philip for letting me write this up!
And THANK YOU very much Joe for writing it. The next newsletter will be in two weeks time on Friday February 19th.
This week, the 2nd part of the readers’ feedback about the script submissions for the 2021 Channel 4 screenwriting course.
The Originality Myth
This year, each reader leapt headfirst into five-hundred of your scripts. Although we all – by the very nature of the work – had different experiences, in our meetings it quickly became evident just how much of our reading experience was shared. Mike and Issy gave such insightful, sensitive and detailed advice and feedback to writers in the last newsletter, I wasn’t sure I had anything further to add.
This got me thinking about how astonishing it is (especially considering the reading group never actually met ‘in real life’ this year) that our responses to the process coincided as they did.
And following on from that, isn’t it totally remarkable that over three-thousand-eight-hundred writers sat in over three-thousand-eight-hundred different spaces, and that many of them encountered exactly the same challenges? Desperately tried to understand the same emotions? Made the same mistakes, and probably felt the same kind of elation when they landed on that perfect line? Grappled with the same subtext? Sometimes, quite literally wrote the same story, albeit from a slightly different perspective. There’s something so humbling about that, and of course, profoundly unifying too.
Yet, as a writer, all that you are told time and time again is to ‘be original’. I’m continually fascinated by that as a provocation. So many of my most memorable moments of script-reading have been when I find connection or similarity between what I’m reading and something else I’ve read or experienced.
What does ‘be original’ actually mean? How can it, truly, ever be useful to be told to be original? Is there a single writer out there who is not somewhat intimidated, angered, or at worst completely deterred, by those dreaded words?
So, I thought it might be useful to use this space to unpick what people might mean when they drop the ‘O’ bomb.
First, here’s what I think they don’t mean:
To seek originality, you don’t need to take a reader to [insert planet name here]
You don’t need to invent your own language, an entirely new dramatic structure or the existence of a unique non-human life-form
You don’t need to shock us with epic injections of plot that send our heads spinning
You don’t actually even need to take us beyond a school assembly hall; a house; a community garden; a Morrison’s car park.
I think there’s a huge release to be found in taking the pressure off yourself to somehow re-invent the wheel. Honestly, keep us in your protagonist’s bathroom for 75% of your script if that’s what your story needs.
Much of the best art is praised for its ‘originality’, but if you take a moment to look at it closely you’ll often find that what makes it sing is rarely based on its utterly innovative concept on its own. It’s always much more to do with the questions, ideas or metaphors at its heart. The framing device you give me might offer access to your story, but what really hits me is what it’s showing me about myself, that guy down the road, and the world around me right now.
“You’re wrong”, I hear you say, “Black Mirror basically did all the of the things you said that writers don’t need to do”.
True, but the real secret there is that its power wasn’t actually a result of its innovative concepts. Yes, some of them were very, very cool and clever. But they were, of course, just the containers for its ideas. When we watch Maxine Peake being chased by robot dogs, we aren’t gripped simply because of the idea of the robot dogs – we connect with it because of the feelings it allows us to tap into through a surprisingly simple story and metaphor.
Some of the most exciting scripts I read for C4 Screenwriting this year were those that took everyday objects, settings, conflicts, and recognisable characters and stories, and added just a tiny pinch of new perspective. What ‘originality’ really is, is showing us the same things we see everyday, but offering us the opportunity to see them afresh.
Lastly, a piece of advice that I really feel deserves to be continually reiterated: keep watching stuff. This likely being the year we’ve all watched more TV than we ever have before, I am more certain than ever that the best possible training ground for any writer is in experiencing the work of others. I can’t tell you how many writers have expressed the anxiety that watching other’s work might stunt their own ‘originality’, suggesting that by somehow ignoring the whole canon of exceptional, catastrophic, or indeed very average writing that everyone else is doing will somehow make you more original. I promise you, it’s not true. Watch, read, listen, digest, imitate, learn, look out the window. Let yourself stop searching for that elusive ‘originality’ and I promise you, you’re far more likely to find it.
A few thoughts from this year –
Do you want to read it?
It seems quite basic, and that’s because it is but you’d be surprised how many scripts are hard to break down. Making your script a page turner right from the start is paramount to success. As a reader, you want each script you consider to be a winner (you really do), however if you struggle to follow narrative from the beginning then your initial enthusiasm can melt, quite rapidly, to apathy.
It’s tempting to include a snazzy technique – such as a jump between different timeframes – at the beginning but it’s always worth considering whether this actually adds anything to the mix or rather ends up disorientating the reader.
Some of my favourite scripts this year had a linear structure. It gives you the opportunity, especially if you have been reading a lot, to get comfortable with a new world and characters quickly and ultimately makes converting casual intrigue to sustained interest all the easier.
Emphasis on the First Five (or Ten) Pages
As readers, in our last session, the question was asked whether anyone had read a script they’d recommend even though the first ten pages weren’t great. The answer was a resounding no. This is pretty striking and our group all agreed on the disproportionate value of nailing those first few pages, because if you don’t win the reader round from the off it’s going to be a real uphill battle.
Can you pitch it?
Some of the best scripts I read could be explained easily – or at least teased easily.
Does it excite you to talk about the story? Does it feel smooth or do you find yourself stumbling through an explanation? If you do find a simple explanation difficult then it might be worth considering what you can do to make your story more straightforward. I know as a reader it’s much better to be presented with one good idea, well-executed, rather than loads of things thrown onto the page and left for you to decipher.
Being part of this process was a challenging and humbling experience. I felt like I was living a month in each day – existing in so many varied and detailed fictional worlds. It was absorbing and exhausting in equal measure. Imagine watching 18 hours of totally different TV pilots every day for 6 weeks – an inspiring but disorientating, mammoth challenge! When I let go of the pressure of reaching my script-tally each day, I was able to tap into what a privilege it was to be one of the readers on this course. To be exposed to hundreds of writers finding and refining their voice was nothing short of awe-inspiring. It takes tremendous guts to spill your soul onto a page, and then enormous discipline to work and re-work that material and share it with others. This awareness also helped me remain humble and curious rather than jaded as a reader.
For me, the best scripts were a little out of the ordinary, with a strong sense of vision and voice and a lightness of touch that meant it was easy for me to lose myself in the story and forget the page count. They were also authentic stories where the worlds felt real and I felt something reading them.
The less good scripts for me were ones that were less self-aware, didn’t explore anything new, or tried to explore something in a similar way to popular material that already exists.
Tips for writers
First impressions count – It’s worth making sure that you get a reader’s attention in the first 5-10 pages.
Think tactically – While it may be that your story feels like the length of a film (which it may well be!) bear in mind that there can be more room for error over more pages. Market wise, broadcasters are actively seeking out shorter format material so it may also be savvy to prove you can write something well-structured and original with a lightness of touch in 30 pages.
Trust your voice -Being able to write in a certain style or follow a certain trend is skillful, but C4 are looking for what YOU have to say, and how you see the world in a new, fresh light.
Rhiannon Grace Allen
The first thing I’d like to say is a big thank you for the effort of all the 500 writers whose scripts I read for this year’s course. There were some truly beautiful, challenging and touching stories that I had the privilege of reporting on and fighting for in this process. Well done.
Now that’s been said, I’d like to focus on some of the things I think were missing or misjudged in my batch…
I only read two scripts (out of 500) that mentioned COVID-19. This is a staggeringly small ratio. It’s understandable that, for many, it would be the last thing you’d want to think about, but I think this reflects a deeper issue of writers shying away from immediate, real life issues. TV can be a powerful form of collective therapy, allowing us to process and understand trauma. Be brave. Tackle big issues.
Detail, not detailed
What specifically defines your protagonist? What small detail makes this character different? Without wishing to sound like a screenwriting manual, these questions weren’t answered enough. Everyone has intriguing quirks. Don’t drown us in description, but be economical, specific and intriguing with your characterisation.
If your story goes INT. BEDROOM —> INT. KITCHEN —> INT. CAR —> INT. OFFICE, you may need to rethink. It’s a visual medium – show us somewhere interesting. How do your characters interact with their surroundings and what does that say about them? Whose domain are we in? If it is an office scene, how can you make it active, specific and interesting?
If your plot is at all predictable or prescriptive to C4, chuck a grenade in there and see what happens. As a reader, more than anything, I want to be surprised. Early. Uproot expectations at least once in the first ten pages (please, no more teasers though). Rather than relying on convention, go out swinging in your own original way and make your story urgent – it’ll help you stand out from the crowd.
Finally, make sure your script is proofread and formatted correctly. I had the early bird batch this year and it was still an issue. Clarity is underrated.
Be wise with what you put in the first 5-10 pages. As a reader I want the protagonist to be the first person I see or hear and if not, why? You need to draw us into the story world within those pages and feed us enough information about the world and characters to keep us there. Don’t waste it on characters that have no ability to propel your story or ones that we may never see again. It’s hard for us as readers to immerse ourselves in a world when after 5 pages, the protagonist isn’t who we thought it was due to having not met them soon enough.
I would also suggest that you ask yourself, then ask yourself again, is this original? What is the USP of my script? Following that, watch lots of TV and read lots of scripts, from doing so I’m sure you’ll find your answer.
Thank you so much to my team of brilliant, generous readers for taking the time to commit their thoughts to paper and share these incredibly valuable insights.
But (at the risk of coming on like an Oscar acceptance speech) I want to reserve the biggest thanks to you the writers for taking the time and having the commitment and courage to not only complete your scripts but to send them out into the big bad world.
As several of the readers have said, it really is a privilege and the most excellent script-editing education for us to be able to read this huge number of scripts in such a short space of time. At times it is mentally exhausting but on the better days, it’s like being at your own, personal London / Sundance Film Festival, enjoying an exclusive and highly privileged glimpse at the future writing talent of the UK TV and film industry.
In other news, this week the emails went out to the 31 short-listed writers, pairing them up with industry mentors on the new CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE MENTORING SCHEME. These mentoring partnerships will run concurrently with the 4screenwriting course and will introduce these further 31 writers to industry contacts who will, I hope be able to open even more doors for them.
I am hugely indebted to the 31 producers, script editors, development executives, agents and screenwriters who have so kindly agreed to mentor these short-listed writers.
I want to wish you all a very HAPPY NEW YEAR and let’s hope it’s a big improvement on 2020 (despite rather unpromising first impressions!).
This week and in the next newsletter on Jan 22nd I’m sharing with you feedback from the script readers on 4screenwriting 2021. I had some brilliant readers this year and I’m really pleased to be able to share their responses to the reading process with you – I think they have some hugely valuable, insightful things to say. And I want to say a huge thank you to them for taking the time and trouble to write these notes and agree to let me share them with you –
Reflections on reading for the 2021 course & advice for writers:
Indisputably, 2020 has been a hard year for creatives. Although for many writers – seasoned and aspiring alike – a period of time stripped of the usual distractions may have seemed like a gift, a sign from the universe to grab this opportunity to finally write up that idea that’s been rattling around your head for months. Historically, being forcibly sequestered has produced some of the greatest works of literature; Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein when inclement weather confined her to Byron’s villa in Geneva one summer…Samuel Pepys wrote a pretty good diary during the bubonic plague I hear…and the framing story for Boccaccio’s Decameron is a group of youngsters telling tales to amuse themselves during an epidemic.
Nevertheless, collaboration is a huge part of the creative process, and many of us have been starved of regular contact with human beings –this, along with everything else this crazy year has served up, undoubtedly impacts the work produced. Reading five hundred scripts in just over five weeks has been a fascinating (and surprisingly exhausting) insight into what has inspired writers to put pen to paper this year. Loss was a common theme; I read a lot of moving stories about working through grief, or trying to run away from it, and a lot of pieces about feeling lost in life and struggling to find direction….and a lot of people had been inspired to write about the apocalypse – I wonder why! An overwhelming number of scripts opened either in sweaty nightclubs or looking out over the sea with waves crashing dramatically. Are these the places where people have their most profound thoughts, I wonder, or is this a symptom of hundreds of writers with cabin fever, longing for escape? It isn’t easy to be original, especially when you want to tap into the zeitgeist and draw out something universal that the reader can connect with. The standout scripts were those with memorable characters and which were full of heart. More often than not it was the honesty and warmth in the story telling which engaged me and took me on a journey – far away from my living room.
My advice for writers submitting next year would be to really think about tailoring your submission for this competition – your script has to stand out from hundreds of others, and there are simple ways to ensure your script is seriously considered. Having said that, these are things you should be doing with your spec/pilot anyway. Firstly, please go back to basics, add page numbers, number your scenes, get a friend to check your spelling and grammar. It surprised me how many scripts were poorly formatted and filled with typos.
Secondly, consider whether you really need a large number of characters. You shouldn’t need a long character list with descriptions – you should be using dialogue and action to paint a picture of the character. When you’re reading so many scripts in such an intense amount of time, every character introduced means more brain energy, and I often found myself getting confused or frustrated when time was spent flitting between a large cast of characters, spending time introducing them, instead of getting into the story.
This leads me to my next recommendation; within your first ten pages, you need to invite the reader in. Something needs to happen to kick off the story and engage the audience. Show (don’t tell!) us something that only YOUR protagonist would do. Or if you want to throw us into the deep end and let us catch up, something interesting and surprising needs to happen, I would say, in the first five pages. There were a lot of scripts where nothing really happened within the first ten to twenty pages. Pilots are tricky at the best of times: it’s a balancing act between ensuring scenes are working hard to earn their place in story terms, and also giving the emotional core of the story time and space to develop. Think about light and shade – whether or not your script is a comedy in genre, humour is a great way to help us connect with your writing. Just make sure the comedy is grounded in truth and isn’t gratuitous.
Lastly, really spend time thinking about the Channel 4 brand. Think about the different broadcasters and their audiences – watch, watch, watch! Before you write, look at the shows that are out there. If your idea is similar to a show that’s already been made, what’s your spin on it? Can you subvert it? Use it as a jumping off point to then make it your own. Be aware of what’s out there, so that you can ensure your script can mark itself out as original and different. When you think about Channel 4 – what words come to mind? For me it’s words like irreverent, topical, challenging. How does the tone of your script meet the criteria?
So many of the submissions I read were full of passion and I really do applaud the creativity, determination, and discipline it takes to create a piece of work and get it to a place that’s ready to submit, especially on your own, and especially, in 2020. It’s been a wonderful experience to be part of the process, and I can’t wait to see which writers make the shortlist!
I’ve been making these notes as I’ve been going. There is nothing ground-breaking in here (we spoke in the meetings about energy-sapping prologues and scripts that start with people waking up), but I’ve tried to expand on my notes to provide some stuff that may be helpful. I’m really aware of the balance between guidance/reflections and being prescriptive – I’m aware how straightjacketing bad advice can be!
My headlines are:
The first 10 pages is so important. When you have to get through up to 17 scripts a day, if you haven’t grabbed me within the first 10 pages, it’s really not looking good. So, writers should really try to hit the ground running.
I have a gut feeling (which I’m struggling to articulate) around the idea of ‘having something to say’. I felt like lots of the scripts I read wanted to bang a drum rather than explore a story/idea/character (especially true of the plays). The scripts that worked best for me had a multiplicity of world views which collided to either comedic or dramatic effect. If there is a singular right answer to the conundrum your story sets up, perhaps drama isn’t the best way to express it…? Although I’m a little stumped about how to express this in a way that doesn’t discourage people from being provocative.
I felt a dearth of joy. Please bring me joy. I’m not even saying “we live in dark times, we need something to lift our spirits yada yada yada”, I’m saying; the scripts I responded to most felt like they had been written with joy; they had energy and life (even if they weren’t ‘upbeat’). If you are able to bring some joy to the stories you tell and the way you tell them, please do!
Here’s some expansions on the notes I was making as I read. These are the things that I wanted to say to the writers:
Dramatic prologues: this relates to that phrase ‘get the hooks in early’; it’s great advice, but make sure you really think about what will hook your audience’s attention. So many scripts I read began with a prologue which contained an explosion, a car chase or a dead body – which on the surface sounds highly dramatic and exciting. Sometimes this worked a treat…but often I was left feeling indifferent by these ‘dramatic’ openings, and I started to question why. I think it was because I had been given no reason to care. It’s not enough just to have something ‘big’ (like an explosion) happen in the opening pages, especially when you then flash immediately forward/back, and we have to reengage with a whole new situation and set of characters. The key is to find a way to make me invest in what’s happening; if you’re going to open with a piece of action, make sure there is tension and conflict in this scene and we care about the characters involved, so that we want to find out more. One of your main jobs as a storyteller is to make me care about the characters and this is never more important that in the opening pages. If you can open a script in an exciting way, whilst also making us care about the characters/what happens, you’ll certainly hook me in.
Where to start: Conversely, some scripts took a good while to reach the action: your protagonist’s day might begin with an alarm clock going off and teeth being brushed, but ask yourself, is this where their story starts? I don’t mean to sound facetious, but I know what getting out of bed looks like, I do it every day, so unless the beginning of your character’s day is also the beginning of the story, and something about their morning routine is important in their journey through the episode, I’d say find another place to start (we’ll presume they’ve cleaned their teeth).
Make it easy for us to love your script: when there are almost 4000 entries to a competition like this, try your hardest to make it easy for us to engage with your work. Ultimately, of course, it will be your storytelling and the quality of your writing that will mark you out, but it’s worth doing everything you can to make sure that your talent isn’t obscured, by something as irrelevant as dodgy formatting. Researching industry standard formats will help your scripts look the part, but most importantly, they will be easily readable so that we can engage with your script from the moment we pick it up.
This process: On this note, it is worth thinking really hard about whether the specific script your submitting is really suited to this process: bear in mind that the readers might be reading 10’s of scripts a day, so if, for example, your script is a film which takes 30-40 pages to really get going, is it necessarily going to cut through the rest of the pack? I try really hard to approach each script with a fresh brain, and give your work the time and care it deserves, but it is definitely the case that scripts that grab/entice/charm you from page one, and deliver a story which is crisp/punchy/surprising/exciting are, inevitably, the easiest to engage with. Your film script might be finely wrought and slowly burn towards a delicately devastating conclusion, but it also might not be the script which jumps most quickly off the pile. If you have multiple options to choose from, it’s a balance between trying to exhibit your voice as vividly as you can, and also submitting the best script for this specific process.
Directions: In the same way that you might work on dialogue so that it has the biggest impact with the greatest economy, apply the same principle to your directions. Bring the world to life, but don’t feel the need to stuff your directions with description. Overloaded directions can really slow the pace of a script down and, as a consequence, lessen its impact.
Make sure your character wants something (even if they feel like the world is against them): I read a lot of scripts about the predicaments facing twenty/thirty-somethings in a world of precarious work, looming pressures from social media, no prospects of owning a home, and a general sense that they should be achieving more. It’s clearly a feeling shared by many people, and lots of the scripts I read contained sympathetic characters and witty dialogue but they often ran out of steam because, well, nothing really happened. It’s a tricky task to write about a young adult character who feels an overwhelming sense of inertia or ennui, whilst also giving them a strong want to drive them through a story (especially when their feeling of directionlessness is the point!), but remember how important action is. Your character doesn’t have to be involved in some crazy-exciting plot, but make sure that they want to achieve something and they pursue it with energy – even if that something seems small to the outside world, if it feels important them, it will feel important to us and we’ll want to know what happens.
Devices: I read a lot of scripts that used elaborate storytelling devices such as cutting between past, present and future, or using a lot of voice over to guide us through the story. Cutting back and forth between times periods worked best when it was really necessary – i.e. there was something in the fundamentals of the story that required the episode to develop concurrently between different periods. When it worked least well was when it felt like a linear narrative had been carved up and reordered to disguise an otherwise conventional plot. Equally, a device like a voice over really alters the relationship with the audience, so again, the device works best for me when it feels like it is essential to the DNA of this story, and the writer is using the voice over to influence the way the story is being received. By contrast, it worked least well when it was simply a way of getting across exposition. Finding interesting ways to tell a story is great but make sure that the form and content work harmoniously together.
Imagination and Joy: this is personal taste, but I really responded to scripts which, through their force of spirit bought their characters to life with a sense of joy. I’m not trying to suggest that I want to read light-hearted scripts, but the ones which stick out fizz with humanity – even if they are depicting a bleak situation.
Once again a huge thanks to Issy and Mike for sharing their insights. More of the same in a fortnight’s time,
Hey! I’m Sarah Milton and I was on the 2019 4Screenwriting course. Do you remember that year? It’s when we weren’t all drowning in hand sanitiser and could hang out in the same room as our friends. What a world!
Pandemic aside though, Philip has kindly asked me to write a guest blog. When he emailed me, he’d put together a thorough and helpful list of wonderful ideas to inspire what I could write about. However, recently I’d tweeted offering my support to any writer with questions about applying for the course (as the closing date was approaching) and found myself reflecting on what I wish someone had told me before I started… So, I came back with a pitch of writing some of those thoughts up, and well, the course must have worked because my pitch sold!
By the time this blog is published, I think many of you reading this will have received word you didn’t get on the course this year and a handful of you will have been invited to interview. I want to caveat this with the fact that I had three consecutive no’s before I got a “yes”, and that is the general consensus with everyone I’ve spoken to who’s done the course: keep going, keep applying, keep hustling! I’ve jotted some advice down specifically for you too, below.
Unlike a few of my peers in the 2019 cohort, I had never, ever written for TV before… Ever. I didn’t actually know what a treatment was when I started. The script I submitted at the end of 2018 was my first attempt at a television pilot on an illegally downloaded old version of Final Draft (Don’t tell anyone though…). I had only ever written theatre before, and thought I’d have a whack at translating one of my plays into a screen format after trawling through the BBC Writers Room’s catalogue of free scripts. Having applied 4 years in a row, it was a genuine surprise when Philip invited me to interview for 4Screenwriting. It was pure shock when the email dropped inviting me on the actual course…
The next 6 months were truly incredible. Intense, overwhelming, joyous, inspiring and a complete whirlwind. And, as I look back on them, and the journey I’ve had since, there are some things I hope are useful for me to impart… Here goes nothing:
It’s OK to ask questions – Philip invites the most incredible speakers on your first intensive weekend. Really well reputed producers, development executives and writers. It’s fascinating, exhilarating and thus exhausting, so make sure you’re well rested for it. It’s most likely that 2021’s course will start on Zoom, but usually the course takes place in Channel 4’s boardroom. This is very exciting and you feel really special when they give you your branded lanyard for the day at reception, but this also made me really hesitant to ask questions. When I didn’t understand what people meant when they said “TX dates” or “slates”, I nodded along. However, on reflection, there was actually a lot of reluctance to ask questions in the room from all of us at first! If you find yourself nodding along or anxious to ask, I implore you to just go for it rather than frantically googling on your toilet breaks – it’s very likely someone in the room has the same query and is too scared to ask as well.
Your ego will try and get in your way – Similar to my point above about fearing asking questions, your ego and desire to please will try and takeover. It will make you second guess your gut instincts, and it will try and make you write an idea that you think will please Philip, your script editor, and ultimately Channel 4. Do not fall into this trap! You’re on the course because your voice struck a chord with the script readers this year – it’s your voice that they want. Write what you want to write, not what you think the industry wants to read… And that’s a given wherever you are as a writer. Your voice and mind are your USP and I reiterate this point below, as it’s important!
It’s not all about the scripts – Treatments, outlines and pitches are like marmite. You either love them or you loathe them. I used to be the latter, because I wasn’t good at them, because I’d never done one, let alone practised. In theatre, there’s a bit more fluidity and exploration in developing work, but in TV there isn’t as much give when you’re trying to sell an idea. I’ve since grown to enjoy writing pitches much more now I’ve started getting better at them. So, start now!
It’s not a competition – At the end of the course, there’s a wonderful night of drinks where you get to meet loads of industry folk, who are also all there to meet you and your fellow writers (although, the wine measures are very generous so that may also have something to do with the attendance rate…!). But, it’s not a competition, even though it may feel like an intense version of Supermarket Sweep at first when you’re trying to say hello to, and remember*, as many people as possible. Yes, it’s an opportunity to make connections but it’s also about celebrating that you’ve finished.
*I don’t mean to brag but I actually had a great technique for this night, and if you ever find yourself at a networking event, I do recommend it. When introduced, repeat their name and production company to them to help you plant it in your brain, and then every half hour/45 minutes, pop to the loo and write down all the names and their companies you can remember on your notes’ app so you can google their email and follow up the next day! I was so thankful I did this as I got a few generals from this before getting an agent, so try it!
The course never really ends – Philip will champion you forever, and if he liked the script you submitted but you didn’t get on the course, he will remember you. He will talk about you to other writers and industry professionals casually, like a proud guardian. I’ve lost count how many writers from previous years he’s mentioned in conversation and it’s from a genuine place of care and excitement around stories and their tellers. This is usually the same with the script editor you work with too.
Philip will always happily receive an email from you post course, or a tweet that calls on his experience or expertise if you didn’t get on the course. You will also make friends and peers for life that will enrich your understanding of the industry and you will be there for each other through the rejections (which will 100% still happen FYI! Read Annalisa D’Innella’s amazing three-step process for dealing with rejection here!) and the successes.
And finally some thoughts for those who weren’t successful this year:
-Utilise the BBC Writer’s Room script library. Read, read, read as well as write: it will make your scripts better. Particularly scripts you’ve seen on screen first, whether you like them or not, so you can see how the work has translated from the page.
-Get familiar with treatments and pitches and start practising them too! It’s just a great career tool to start mastering, and will serve you on and off this course. These are harder to get hold of, but ask your writing friends to share their successful pitches/treatments and also check out Chris Lang’s (Unforgotten, ITV) generous sharing of pitches, treatments and scripts on his website. I found these so helpful last year!
-Remember, your voice is the only thing that can sell you and help you stand out in submission windows like this. Write what you want to write. Not what you can write, not what you think is palatable or popular, not what you think will impress, but what shows off you and your passion and your voice. I got onto the course with a story I am still pitching to this day. I believe in it, can talk passionately about it, I know I won’t lose faith in it and it is inherently my voice, my dialogue and my style. Stick to your guns and trust your voice.
-However brilliant this course and its reputation is, remember, it is not the be all and end all and it certainly does not determine your worth or talent as a writer – none of these programmes do! So many working writers haven’t done this course. So many working writers haven’t done a BBC writers course. So many working writers do this course and still find their preference to be theatre work. If you love writing and want to be a writer, you will do it with or without courses like these. It’s so easy to lose the faith with every rejection, and it’s so easy to think it’s never going to happen if you don’t get on one of these courses, but that simply isn’t true.
I hope that was helpful – I’m sure many writers have shared similar thoughts over the years, but sometimes you do need to hear things more than once for them to fall into place. I certainly do!
If you’re reading this after the year our industry and our world has just had, you clearly love your work and you still believe in yourself…. Hold on to that – that’s the magic. Keep writing, keep going, keep sharing your voice. It will be worth it.
Thank you so much to Sarah for this brilliant, inspiring and incredibly helpful blog.
NB We will in fact be contacting all 4screenwriting applicants this coming week (the week of Dec 16th).
I will be taking a newsletter break over Christmas and the newsletter will be back on Friday Jan 8th. I hope you all have as good and enjoyable Christmas and New Year as possible, given the circumstances. Let’s all look forward to a very different 2021 and the wonderful prospect of being in rooms with people again!
I also want to say a massive thank you to everyone like Sarah who has contributed to this newsletter this year, to everyone who subscribes to and reads these newsletters and to everyone who has got in touch with me to carry on the discussions or send me kind, positive messages. Your feedback is hugely appreciated, particularly in the last few months. I look forward to resuming the conversation in 2021,