Esther Springer – BBC script editor – interview

This week – an interview with script editor ESTHER SPRINGER. Esther is without doubt one of the best and most successful script editors working in UK TV drama today. What’s great about Esther is her huge enthusiasm for good writing, an enthusiasm matched by her abilities and her unrivalled knowledge of films and TV. Esther is a walking encyclopedia of film and TV drama and is the ultimate example of what she says in this interview – to work in this industry it doesn’t half help if you LOVE it. So many of the most successful writers and script editors are TV and film anoraks! There are a lot of great insights here so I hope you enjoy this – if you have any follow-up questions for Esther please send them to me and I’ll forward them on to her.

What is your background and how did you first get interested in TV drama? 

Before working in television, I worked in both theatre and film but in fact started work in the industry as a film editor, a picture editor in post -production which is where I learned a lot about storytelling. I’ve always watched television avidly and love it, not just drama but most genres.

What shows \ scripts were your formative influences?

Quite a lot! For me formative means going back to my childhood. As a kid I loved Tomorrow People, The Time Tunnel, Coronation Street and Crossroads, Magpie, How, Star Trek, Lost in Space, Dr Who (Jon Pertwee era, I’m that old). We loved all forms of Saturday night entertainment, comedy and sitcoms in our house. Later, I became a huge fan of Euston Films dramas like Widows, The Sweeney, Out, Fox, Minder etc.

Do you think it’s important for script editors to have a background in writing or to have written themselves?

Not necessarily. But to have made the attempt helps though, just to know how difficult it is.

How did you get into the business of TV drama? How would you advise people wanting to break into TV drama as script editors?

I became a script reader for various film and television companies as well as for the literary managers of a number of theatres. I would advise people wanting to break into TV drama to try to get gigs as readers. I would also advise those wanting a career in TV drama to watch a lot of TV drama, genuinely to love it – not all of it of course but the drama you do love to have it in your heart.

Please can you tell us something about the shows you have worked on, the writers you have worked with, the companies you have worked for – particularly some of the scripts you have worked on of which you’re most proud?

I’ve worked on so many shows and am proud even of those that haven’t worked out so well. I’ve worked mainly for Carlton, which was an ITV franchise that was taken over by Granada. I’ve worked for BBC Drama in-house since 2003 with a stint in between working for RTE. I’ve worked with so many brilliant writers both new and experienced. Most recently I developed and worked on The Fades by Jack Thorne. That really is an amazing show; it’s bold, brave, it feels different. It has a fantastically original concept at its heart and is both funny and heart-rending. Jack is a truly beautiful writer. I also worked on One Night which airs next week on BBC1 by a writer new to prime time BBC1 called Paul Smith. He wrote four magnificent scripts, the characters had such clarity they just burst off the page, the dialogue is amazing. I worked on E20, the EastEnders online spin-off drama when it started 3 years ago. I loved that to bits. All new writers, all aged between 17 and 22. All of them fantastic, bright, enthusiastic and we really put them through it and got a fabulous show.

When you’re reading a script from a writer you don’t know, what are you looking for? What qualities in a script attract you?

The first thing I’m aware of as I read is: can this writer write? By that I mean, can someone write really engaging prose as the opener to their script rather than dry instrumental stage direction. As I read I want to see the world in my mind. Overall, I want to see if a writer can tell a story, if a writer is also a good storyteller then that writer is probably already quite good at structure even though s/he might not be aware of that fact. I want to see if the characters and the dialogue in a script are convincing. The qualities in a script that attract me are: well-shaped story; well written prose in stage directions; convincing characters and dialogue. These don’t all have to be brilliant all at the same time; sometimes the shape of a story in a script might be all over the place but there’s something in the script that you just know is working.

Can you give screenwriters trying to break into TV or film some tips and hints – some DO’s and DON’T’s.

See previous answers really. I’d say watch a lot of TV and film. It might seem daunting because there appears to be much more on today than the mere three channels I had growing up! But as I said earlier, if you pay a lot of attention to the shows you love, you should buy them on dvd and watch them again and again. I always get annoyed that it’s OK to re-read novels we love but somehow frowned upon to watch certain dramas over and over. I’ve watched all 7 series of The West Wing about 3 times, OK maybe 4! The BBC drama called The Cops that came out in 1998, I watched series one of that show at least 3 times. It’s so utterly brilliant. And now with all the viewing on demand, there’s no excuse not to watch really. Do try to get hold of scripts writers have written and read them, especially for the shows you love. Do keep writing and do not stop. Never ever second guess TV executives by writing what you think we might like. Write what you’re passionate about. Write because you need to write it. For you. Do research (but don’t let it lead the story)

What TV shows and films have you liked best in the last few years and why?

I totally loved Prisoners’ Wives. It was so surprising. It was all about character and the storytelling was so delicately paced – there was one character we didn’t even get to know until episode 3! I love Scott and Bailey because the dialogue is superb and it’s so witty and intelligent and has learned the lessons of the best American storytelling in a British vernacular. I loved The Fades (and not just because I worked on it) because it was truly epic and surprising storytelling. It was huge. I love Masterchef and The Apprentice and have been very much enjoying the documentary about the Tube on BBC2. I really loved Inside Men that was on recently because the characterisation was amazing and the storytelling was very brave.

What qualities do you need to be a successful TV drama writer?

I can’t answer that. Successful TV writers have so many varied and different qualities which is what makes the writing varied and different.

What should budding screenwriters be watching? Are there any books that you would recommend for budding screenwriters?

Budding screenwriters should be watching as much current television drama as they can and also paying attention to some older shows as well and discovering our rich and beautiful history of TV drama. I’m afraid I’m not up-to-date with the books on the market for new writers. But I would recommend The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell Stories by Christopher Booker; A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays by David Mamet; Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman; Easy Riders Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

How has the industry changed in the years you have worked in it? How is it different for writers now?

In some respects it hasn’t changed at all. I recently found an article by Peter Ansorge written in the Observer or the Guardian in October 1997 as he was leaving the drama department at Channel Four and to be honest it feels as if the same things are being talked about: are there too many cops and docs on telly? How can new writers get a break without the single strand? Do writers have to work on ‘soaps’? Etc. Etc. In terms of commissioners and controllers, it hasn’t changed that much to be honest – as far as I’m concerned they’ll always want the very best of any genre they’re buying, they want it surprising i.e. something you feel you know but in a way you didn’t quite realise you knew it in. Sometimes it feels as if there’s less long running series where writers can be given an episode of a show to tell a story, but having said that, there are still a fair amount of dramas for new writers to get a foothold in the business. It is tough, it is exhausting and at times unforgiving bit it’s also the biggest rush ever.

Can you define the job of a script editor? What does the job involve?

Being a script editor involves working very closely with writers during the development of their original scripts. It means being the point person between executive producers, producers and production when a script is shooting. There’s loads more of course, but those are the best bits.

Do you have any tips for people wanting to become script editors?

Please watch a lot of TV drama and not just the American stuff. Please acquaint yourself with the history of our TV drama. I’d be a little upset to meet a prospective script editor who had never heard of Edge of Darkness let alone not seen it, for example. Make it your business to watch all drama. I also think if you want to be a script editor then know what works in the storytelling of the TV drama you like and what doesn’t work in the drama you’re not keen on. I’d also say be interested in television output generally.

Who do you think are the best writers working in UK film and TV today? What can new writers learn from these writers?

I don’t think there are best writers to be honest. It’s because each and every writer is different and has a unique voice that means it’d be hard if not impossible to think about writers in that way. What new writers can learn from experienced writers is to keep their voice as true and honest as possible, and however hard it gets, keep going.

Huge thanks to Esther for this – fascinating and full of really valuable insights for writers, script editors and anyone interested in good writing,

Until next week…



March 23rd 2012