London July 6-7. Suitable for writers and script editors / script readers / script development people.




Hi There,

This week, notes from a very interesting event I went to a couple of weeks ago at the excellent SOHO CREATE festival –


SOHO CREATE : BROADCAST TV – The Secret Agent (BBC / World Productions)


From Truman Capote and Alfred Hitchcock to Dobby, Olivier award-winner Toby Jones has been at the centre of our screens and stages for 20 years. Alongside multi-award winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Marchant, and Simon Heath, creative director at World Productions, they discuss their collaboration on the new BBC adapation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. In the days of Netflix and Amazon, we hear their thoughts on changing times for broadcast drama.

Simon Heath (Exec producer, World Productions) Toby Jones, actor, Tony Marchant, screenwriter

Q: Tell us about a recent difficult working experience…

TJ: Highlight of his recent work – MARVELLOUS – it was tricky because it was the only time he has played someone who was on set the whole time (Neil Baldwin). An example of how it worked – the sequence of Neil’s mother’s funeral was shot in the actual hall where the real funeral took place, and many of the extras were people who had been at the actual funeral. And attended by Neil, and his friend Malcolm, who was also a prominent character in the film.

‘I felt a huge responsibility towards Neil – and was constantly surprised by how resilient he was.’

TM: You take a lot of knocks…writing telly, the pain comes through the politics and the money…you’re not as free as you think you are writing in your room. And you never get used to that.

THE SECRET AGENT, 3 x 60’ serial for BBC.

SH: It’s a novel I’ve always loved. I arrived at World Productions in ’97. Mentioned that I’d like to develop it to Tony Garnett – who said a version had only been made 5 years ago, we were in for a long wait.19 years later… If anything the novel has become more prescient – about terrorism and curtailing civil liberties. I thought we could bring more of a thriller veracity – and the political nature of TM’s writing really suited the story.

TM: It was originally commissioned as a 2 x 90’ serial but then changed. Had to find new episode end-points.

TJ: I take a job if I think it’s going to stretch me in some way – I’m not worried if it’s particularly politically relevant. THE SECRET AGENT deals with a political cell, run by revolutionaries, but they’re chaotic, hard to monitor.

SH: Most of it was filmed in Scotland – using the Victorian architecture of Edinburgh and Glasgow. It stood in for Greenwich Observatory, which plays a key part in the story.

TM: Re Adaptation – in a way you have to be deliberately cavalier – have to write with as much freedom and ambition as possible – and initially don’t worry about cost or whether it’s achievable on the day.

About a proto-suicide bomber – what happened in the book reflects what happened in a real-life incident. Most important resonance (Adam Curtis – The Power of Nightmares) about how in the book and film Winnie (played by Vicky McClure) and Stevie, reflect how ordinary working-class lives are impacted by the fear passed down by geo-political manoeuvrings. Winnie is that rare thing in fiction and drama –  working class female heroine.

Q: Do you always read the book if you’re acting in an adaptation?

TJ: Yes. I read TSA and CAPITAL when I was doing that. It’s valuable for back-story. I didn’t find reading The Secret Agent as useful as reading Capital. Strength of Tony’s script was that he allowed space within the characterisation to find other elements – Verloc is not wholly taken up by villainy. Similarly, he would ask with virtuous characters – where’s also the sin and hypocrisy? And, for example, if you’re playing ‘the idiot’, you look for his wisdom. So Verloc is not just crazy, deluded – he’s a trapped man. I have to empathise with who I play. For the audience to enjoy the drama, their sympathies have to be jeopardised – moral values have to be challenged.

SH: I watched two old adaptations of THE SECRET AGENT. I don’t think the book distilled into feature film length. Any adaptation bears the imprint of the time when it’s done. Tony’s adaptation bears the hallmarks of his approach. And we wanted to keep Winnie at the forefront of the story.

Stage or Screen?

TM: The idea that you have a huge audience (on TV) is exciting. I haven’t written for theatre for years. As a writer in theatre you have that much more freedom. But theatre audiences are a particular kind of people – it doesn’t have a broad enough demographic. The good thing about telly is that it’s watched by the sort of people it’s about, which often isn’t true of theatre.

TJ: Sometimes in long-form TV (13-21 episode runs), I find – although there is a rich texture to the characters – in a lot, you lose the pulse of the drama, and you sense that nothing relevant to the plot will happen until (say) episode 17. Story is the way you unlock character. Character is about what decisions you make under narrative pressure. I’ve been offered jobs in lots of different areas (film, TV, theatre), I’ve been very lucky.

SH: Line Of Duty. Very conscious of that week we get between transmitted episodes – we’ve benefitted from word of mouth. With THE SECRET AGENT, each of the three episodes has a slightly different identity.

TM: Authorship is disappearing, receding, even though there’s more material out there. It’s more about genre now. You can make Line Of Duty – make genre work for you – authorship + genre. But the last truly authored TV piece I saw was MARVELLOUS (Peter Bowker). Singles and 3-parters are disappearing – and with it authorship. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me – but the less heralded writers don’t get heard. Younger writers don’t get their own show. For established writers, it’s a good time, but I worry for new writers. Have to find space for them in the broadcasting spectrum.

SH: Broadcasters are open to all kinds of different ideas. But if you go in with a known title and writer, your chances of a commission are improved. We try to have a range of writers and propositions for broadcasters.

TJ: currently filming SHERLOCK. A show that challenged itself to re-interpret a classic. Extrapolated into the modern world. Very clever, witty adaptation. Reading the script, I kept thinking, ‘There will be a reason why this is happening that I don’t yet understand.’

Favourite dramas of the past and currently?


SH: From the past: OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH – epic, political drama from a particular corner of the UK. Now: HALT & CATCH FIRE (AMC / Amazon)

TJ: From the past: ‘I remember the huge impact of two dramas. From an Alan Bennett season – THE CHINESE WAITER’S AFTERNOON OFF. It’s stuck with me in a way that good TV does when you’re young. OUT by Trevor Preston. Brilliant performance by Tom Bell. Like you were seeing a new kind of experience. Now: LINE OF DUTY.

TJ: Drama goes in cycles. We gravitate towards certain legends, ideas of the world. Eg there’s something in the air at the moment about spying and surveillance. Great for drama, acting, to play a spy. In TINKER SOLDIER SAILR SPY, we did scenes in which every character round a table was a potential spy / traitor. All of us being a spy / pretending to be a spy – gave scenes texture and intrigue.

TM: THE SECRET AGENT suited a three x one hour adaptation. Production companies would prefer longer serials, would have preferred the adaptation to be 5 hours.

TJ: Looking at the shape of CAPITAL, what worked in the book was a potential problem in the TV adaptation. There’s a big ‘MacGuffin’ – about the cards that are anonymously circulated in the street. Which makes it seems like a thriller. But it’s not really about that. During production, I wondered, are we foregrounding the thriller element too much? It’s really a state of the nation piece.

TM: changes in THE SECRET AGENT drafts – we went through several coloured page changes. Script development doesn’t end at the read-through. As writer, you have to be on the end of the phone during the shooting period.

SH: It’s a dynamic process that is on-going. You realise that the script is going to continue to evolve through the shooting period.

TJ: Sometimes I’m aware when reading a script that it’s been written to get commissioned – that there’s more in it than needs to be in it. I’d like to be telling a lot of the story wordlessly.

TM: THE SERET AGENT was a very different adaptation. It’s not a linear story; many events are reported, not seen; and events are told from different points of view. We had to make it linear, and limit the POV’s to Verloc and Winnie.

Do bad books make good adaptations?

TM: Yes, sometimes. I have adapted a bad book with a very good premise.

SH: Good books are often too reverential in the adaptation.


The next newsletter will be out on Friday July 15th

All the best




July 1st 2016