Damian Wayling interview


Damian is a writer whom I first met when he was on the Carlton new writers course some years ago. It was clear then that he had real talent – a highly original, distinctive voice, and strong story-telling instinct. He has gone on to have the success his talents and dedication deserve and here are his thoughts on various matters connected to screenwriting…

Why did you want to write for the screen originally? What films \ TV shows inspired you?

I wanted to write for the screen because… I’m not sure I know. I loved the dialogue heavy films of Billy Wilder, all those sharp pulp-noir movies, and Preston Sturges and Ben Hecht screwball comedies – so I suppose I wanted to write that kind of crackling dialogue delivered by smart people. I still do, but now I also know that the most powerful moments in movies usually have no dialogue.

How did you get into the TV drama business?

By degrees. I worked as a graphic designer doing record sleeves for pop bands before getting a job working on a TV show. The show was Network 7 – a youth current-affairs show produced by Janet Street-Porter. Lots of people in TV started there. One of them, Eric Harwood, formed a documentary company and my first writing work was on programme proposals for him. Then he was surprised to find himself a producer on a TV drama for Channel Television. It was set on Jersey – lots of kids arrive and get jobs for the summer. The scripts were by a very experienced Coronation Street writer and were very bad. Lots of Famous Five style plotting. Eric knew I was ‘trying to write’ and asked me to help him rewrite them. We locked ourselves in a room and produced six half-hours in about three weeks. The Exec Producer weighed them in his hand and said ‘yeah, they feel about right’. What we wrote got shot, and that’s the way I thought it went. It’s never happened that way since. One of the cast was Tom Ward in his first role. I’m currently writing for him on Silent Witness.
After that I found an agent, who I still have. There were a number of false starts on shows like Casualty and Peak Practice before I finally got my first screen credit on The Bill.

What sort of shows have you worked on?

Lots of crime shows – The Bill, Waking The Dead, Trial & Retribution, Silent Witness. I suppose you get known for something and get approached for more of the same. But that’s ok, crime shows are not really about crime they’re about the things that led to the crime: love, hate, revenge, fear, lust, greed – all the universals.

What have been your most enjoyable shows to work on and why?

More recently I’ve done more non-crime scripts. One was for a BBC series that was about to be made when the US co-production money fell away. It’s a contemporary remake of Vanity Fair. Nobody gets murdered and it was a pleasure to write. It was a semi-adaptation and there was always the book to lean on when things got tricky. I hope it will get made. Another is Garrow’s Law – an 18th century legal drama. It’s ‘law’ rather than ‘crime’ and the legal and period language was a pleasure to play with. The story was based on an actual treason trial and there were hundreds of pages of transcript to read. I think I managed to do it justice, fit in a B story and keep the love interest going – all in a fifty-seven minute script!

What scripts are you proudest of and why?

The Garrow’s law script came out pretty well. There were three writers on the series and we were all cautioned by a very good script executive, Hilary Norrish, to be careful not to write ‘period drama scenes’. An excellent warning.
I also developed a project some time ago with a producer who has since become a friend. The notion was ‘the English MASH’ set in 1940 when it seemed inevitable that German troops would sweep across the Channel. Lots of the country houses of England were requisitioned and turned into Emergency Medical Services Hospitals. The lady of the house would look after the interests of the nursing staff, the army would run the place and between them treat the flow of wounded.
It’s a period that’s always interested me and I did a lot reading before sitting down to write a pilot episode. It came out very well and it always gets a very positive response when it’s sent out as a writing sample. Nobody’s yet done anything so rash as say they want to make the series!

What have you been working on most recently and what are you working on next?

Currently writing for Silent Witness. It’s a death in custody story and has a go at the IPCC. After that I have to write a draft of a film script that I seem to have been working on since I was a teenager. It’s a revenge thriller with a backstory set twenty years ago. It’s been picked up more times than Amy Winehouse. I’m swapping lots of emails with the producers about the ending, but it’s a great story and the script is in the best shape it’s ever been – so I will deliver the best draft I can and they’ll go out and try and sell it.
Apart from that I’m trying to get ‘a number of original projects’ made.

What advice would you have for budding writers starting out in the business now?

Be patient, but not too patient. Remember you’re involved in a trade – you’re trading what you can do – write – for what the producer has – money. That should put you on an equal footing. Don’t walk away from a script meeting with a story you’re not excited by. Don’t assume your script editor is either always right or always wrong.

Is it important to have a good agent? What qualities should you look for in an agent?

Yes it is, but the problem is defining ‘good’. I only have experience of my agent, who is terrific, and stories from other writers about theirs. I’m with a relatively small agency and quite happy about that. I would worry about getting lost in the list in some of the bigger outfits.

What qualities do you need to succeed as a writer in TV drama?

Hmmm. An absence of preciousness about your scripts is a good start. Build them with love and care, but be prepared to rebuild them – a lot.
An ability to empathise with all the characters in your stories – even, possibly especially, the bad guys, losers and monsters.
I know some very sociable people who are successful screenwriters, but not many. My appetite for socialising is satisfied fairly easily. Which is just as well because the job involves spending long hours in your own company. I envy writing teams, but don’t think I could make that work.
If you have curiosity you’ll find story possibilities in lots of places.
You need persistence in the face of apparently irrational and ill-considered rejection.
An enthusiasm for watching good TV drama.
Some talent…

Philip Shelley
Oct 7th 2009