GILLIAN CLARKE – The way forward for screenwriters

Hi There,

This week I’m delighted to share with you a guest blog by development producer GILLIAN CLARKE. Gillian is one of the best script producers in the UK, with script-editing credits on brilliant shows like UTOPIA and FANNY HILL.

‘In the last few years, the international marketplace has become saturated with multi-million dollar shows and high-profile casting to capture an audience’s attention and/or new subscribers. I’ve spent over a decade in the industry and there have been some phenomenal changes, especially in how the way we watch TV has evolved. We’ve never had so many places to house ideas and have access to so many shows from around the world. However, it’s also clear to methat TV is flawed; our domestic industry remains London-centric, exclusive (financially, ableist, class… the list goes on) and racist, which inhibits the phenomenally rich and diverse voices of the whole of the UK. At C21’s Drama Summit in December last year, the global players talked of their expansion into new territories announcing shows from India, The Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Africa. It was clear that the SVODs had realised that specificity of voice sells.

When COVID-19 struck and our productions were universally shut down, UK commissioners and producers turned their full attention to development. Good ideas are the lifeblood of our industry and focusing on the future was a pragmatic and hopeful temporary solution. Filming is slowly beginning again in the UK and lessons are being shared from European sets, but this will be baby steps rather than a sprint. As Piers Wenger, Controller, BBC Drama Commissioning, described recently, the need for co-pros will be greater as worldwide broadcasters come out of the pandemic and international filming will remain a complicated proposition. So how do these two things – specificity of voice and international co-productions – marry up? The answer is the writer and the universal truths you want to tell. 

During lockdown, our daily lives have become smaller. Isolation might seem a counter-intuitive place from which to find inspiration for stories about the human condition, but this is a good time to pause and consider the ideas, stories and worlds that you’re truly passionate about. Because before the idea there is the writer.

When we look at the UK’s standout talent, it’s no surprise that these successes originate from truly distinctive voices – Michaela Coel’s CHEWING GUM, Malorie Blackman’s NOUGHTS + CROSSES, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s KILLING EVE, Jesse Armstrong’s SUCCESSION. The coming of age, love story, investigative thriller and family saga are all familiar genres, but each one is made fresh by the daring, emotive, playful and satirically unique perspective of these writers and all of their shows captured a universal truth about the human condition.

There has been a lot of lockdown guilt expressed online – if you’ve not been learning three new languages, exercising every hour on the hour, repainting walls while cooking up a storm, that’s ok. The world has turned upside down and many have lost someone they love or at the very least have been kept apart from them. To go on as normal would be odd. It’s come as no surprise to me to see so many writers reaching out and helping others like Luke Barnes’s initiative Liverpool Artists Coronavirus Fund, Sabrina Mahfouz’s Artists Fund Artists, Chinonyerem Odimba’s #Play Sessions or Camilla Whitehill’s Online Writer’s Programme. Writers are tapped into the world in a unique way – you are built with empathy and imagination and while the future is uncertain, seeing your response to it makes the challenges feel surmountable.

Uncertainty can also bring opportunity. While our industry adapts to new challenges, there is a chance to rewrite some of the rules and embrace more inventive ways to tell stories. Short-form doesn’t have to be the poorer cousin of the traditional TV hour and development to production doesn’t have to take years. ITV’s ISOLATION STORIES and the BBC’s TALKING HEADS are all experimenting with form and production models. I MAY DESTROY YOU and NORMAL PEOPLE shows the overwhelming appetite for 30-minute dramas. Not every great idea fits neatly around ad breaks or a BBC hour.

So as you craft your next project to share with the world, know this. The scripts that rise head and shoulders above the rest are the ones that speak the truth – the truth as seen from the writer’s unique perspective of the world. This truth is concealed in who your protagonist is, the tone of their voice, their choices and the time and place it’s set. Each decision you make that adds to the authenticity of your protagonist and their fictional world, keeps the reader wanting more and drives them to discover what truths the writer has to impart. So if you haven’t been able to write during lockdown, don’t panic. Great ideas rarely suddenly appear; they’re nearly always percolated. If all you’ve been able to do during lockdown is think about the things that are important to you, fed yourself creatively by watching, reading or listening to something new or beloved, you’ll be in a strong position to build from that when the world starts to creak back to ‘normality’.

The arts will play an important role in how we process the events and trauma of the past few months, so to tap into your truth, ask yourself:

What do you see that others don’t?

What do you want to say that others can’t?

Who do you want to see onscreen?

Who do you want to say it to?

How will you tell it differently?

This time in isolation has allowed us to recalibrate and ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our lives and our work. The personal is universal. Your story will find a home. If not here, there is a wider world out there where UK talent is lauded.

I’m hoping that the conversations that our industry is having about race and exclusion are moving things forward, but I’m aware that change has been promised numerous times before and not materialised. We are a creative industry and yet, for decades, we’ve lacked the imagination to tackle this head-on. It’s very clear what has to be done. The time has passed where Producers, Commissioners and Controllers have to be persuaded that your worldview isn’t a “risk”, “too niche” or “too urban”. If a story is well told and authentic, an audience will come. As you explore your next idea, know that the industry is defined by and depends on you, so don’t try and fit in, but ask yourself how will I stand out?

Thank you so much Gillian for those inspiring words.

The next newsletter will be on Friday July 10th

All the best



June 26th 2020