CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS 1 day course London June 21st.
A course for scriptwriters in all media – TV, film, radio, theatre – designed to help you generate exciting ideas and characters, and give your creativity a boost with a day of fun, stimulating writing exercises. Run by TV drama script editor, producer and script consultant PHILIP SHELLEY with guest speaker writer ANDERS LUSTGARTEN
HAPPY VALLEY Episode 4
This was quite simply one of the best bits of television drama story-telling I’ve seen for a long time. With scene after scene I was thinking – wow, what a brilliant scene, this scene is just an absolute object-lesson in dramatic story-telling at its absolute best.
I caught up with the episode on BBC i-player a day late. I’d watched the rest of the series and been absolutely gripped. Had to miss it live on Tuesday night but saw the ravings on twitter – person after person describing how they’d shouted at their TV sets, so I knew it was good. But, for me, this series is beginning to match if not exceed the best of the American shows we’re so keen to put on a pedestal.
When I held interviews for this year’s Channel 4 screenwriting course and asked writers what they watched, what TV drama inspired them, I got bored of writer after writer talking about BREAKING BAD. Now don’t get me wrong, BREAKING BAD was remarkably good, and I’ve watched and enjoyed every episode in all 5 series, so I’m a fellow devotee. And I’m a huge fan of Orange Is The New Black (very excited by the release of series 2 on Netflix on June 6), House Of Cards, Six Feet Under and many, many more American shows. But in my opinion HAPPY VALLEY is as good as all of those shows. And it seemed odd to me that writer after writer was coming in to be interviewed for a C4 course and wanting to talk about an American show – when we make so much outstanding drama in the UK. You may have seen this week at the TV BAFTAs that a Channel 4 show called COMPLICIT won best single drama. This barely caused a murmur when it was first transmitted but it is truly outstanding – not just a great piece of writing and story-telling by the brilliant GUY HIBBERT, but it was about something hugely important as well, something really worth dramatising – the vexed question of British government collusion in state-sponsored torture. For Channel 4 Drama, there were also awards and nominations for SOUTHCLIFFE (written by Tony Grisoni), MY MAD FAT DIARY (Tom Bidwell), THE MILL (John Fay), BLACK MIRROR:BE RIGHT BACK (Charlie Brooker) – which I think was my absolute TV drama highlight of last year. And this in a year when they also broadcast such excellent, innovative shows as TOP BOY (Ronan Bennett), RUN (Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan & Marlon Smith), UTOPIA (Dennis Kelly), FRESH MEAT (Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain), YOUNGERS (Levi David Addai & Benjamin Kuffour), BABYLON (Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain – again!), EVERYDAY (Laurence Coriat\ Michael Winterbottom) and COMING UP. And yet, even with this remarkably impressive track record – on a par with anything achieved by HBO, AMC or Netflix – most of the writers interviewed for a Channel 4 course wanted to talk about an American show!
I do think there’s an inverted snobbery in this country – there is so much outstanding drama available to us now from so many countries around the world – THE BRIDGE, THE RETURNED, WALLANDER, etc etc, not to mention this legion of brilliant US shows, and it’s right that we should be appreciating them all to the full. But I do think that it’s incumbent on us as British screenwriters, script editors, producers etc to enjoy what seems to me like – if not a golden age then certainly a very good one – and also find our inspiration in shows like HAPPY VALLEY, which are at least on a par with the best US shows.
What is very exciting and fascinating to me is that there does seem to be an – albeit slow – movement in UK TV drama towards the writers running their own shows, slowly catching up with the US model. One of the most encouraging things about Happy Valley ep4 was that it was not only written but also directed by SALLY WAINWRIGHT. And what a vindication it was of the executive decision to let a writer – with no previous experience of TV drama directing – direct this episode.
It seems to me that executive producers and commissioning editors are wising up to the not-coincidental fact that so much of the best recent UK TV drama has been made on productions where the writer has a greater level of creative control than has been the case up until recently.
SALLY WAINWRIGHT is a prime example of a writer absolutely at the top of her game who has produced top-quality show after top-quality show. And this work has been in tandem with the excellent Red Productions, run by writer’s champion, Nicola Shindler – from SCOTT & BAILEY, to LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX, to HAPPY VALLEY.
Other recent writer-led shows that have really stood out have been –
THE FALL – and on series 2, writer ALAN CUBITT is also directing – again because of the writer-led vision of producer Gub Neal and his Artists Studio company.
BROADCHURCH – which deservedly cleaned up at the BAFTAs, and which was a testament to the creative vision of writer \ producer Chris Chibnall and his team.
LINE OF DUTY – 2 brilliant series, now commissioned for 2 more series, and run again by a writer \ producer JED MERCURIO.
SHERLOCK – which has made stars of its two leads, and again demonstrates the power of a writer \ producer’s vision (STEVEN MOFFAT & MARK GATISS)
With every episode of HAPPY VALLEY, the story intensity ratchets up another level. Ep 4 was almost unbearably tense and gruelling and completely gripping. Virtually every scene had a richness – a wonderful sub-text where, because of the way the story has been unfolded, there were layers and layers of meaning and sub-text, so much tension beneath the surface of every scene.
The way the series has been plotted is really impressive. For instance, a key bit of character back-story was revealed about the lead character Catherine Cawood (the very brilliant Sarah Lancashire) in this episode as we\she is confronted by a new character, a senior police officer, a character from her past. And through him we learn something very important about her background, something that explains a lot about her character and her past. What is brilliant about this plotting is that in most scripts this information would have been revealed in the first half of episode one as something that would probably have been considered as key character back-story. But here it comes out at the right time – the moment in the story where it has maximum meaning, maximum narrative and emotional meaning. Just a great example of WITHOLDING exposition until the right moment in the story where it needs to come out – exposition as ammunition (Robert McKee). And the story is given much of its intensity by the part played by another brilliantly memorable antagonist – after Paul Spector in The Fall, and Lindsay Denton in Line Of Duty.
The story-telling holds the audience in a vice-like grip. Founded on a rock-like foundation in the central characterisation of Catherine Cawood, but it was the questions and demands the situation made of this central character that made this so effective and powerful.
On face value the plot was essentially conventional – but Sally Wainwright had examined the circumstances of the story in deep detail, asking such searching questions of all the characters involved, so that the compelling cause-and-effect logical drive of the story was so effective.
And if you outrage the Daily Mail you’ve got to be doing something right!
Any budding UK screenwriters should buy the box-set of this series when it comes out and examine the way the stories work – the combination of characters, they way the story is driven by the character’s action, the strength of the underlying back-story, the seemingly insoluble dilemmas so many of the characters face – to learn and take inspiration from it.
If I’ve observed one thing from running the C4 screenwriting course, it’s that – if you have written a brilliant script, it WILL open doors for you. And we should all take inspiration from the fact that there is a growing number of screenwriters in the UK who are proving themselves the equal of any screenwriters in the world in the brilliance of their story-telling craft. We should seek out the best UK TV drama – because there is so much of it – and not just look up to the likes of BREAKING BAD – which in my opinion – although wonderful – was over-rated in this country.
Until next week
All the best
May 23rd 2014