Interview with CERI MEYRICK, BBC Writers Academy

CERI MEYRICK is a producer \ script editor with whom I worked at Carlton  TV Drama. Ceri now runs, with John Yorke, the BBC Writers Academy. Here are some answers to questions you may have about BBC Drama in general and the Writers Academy in particular. If you have any questions about the BBC Writers Academy not answered here, let me know and I can forward them to Ceri, and post them here at a later date.

Who are you and what is your experience / background in the business? What are your favourite TV shows / films? And why?

I started my career as a radio trainee for BBC Wales. Since moving to television, have worked as a Script Editor, Producer and Development Exec for the BBC, ITV, various independents, as well as RTE in Ireland. I’ve worked a lot with new writers (with Philip Shelley on the Carlton writers course, for instance) and on series, serials as well as single films.

TV- um- recently-ish – The Street, The Wire, The West Wing, Gavin & Stacey, Holby – when they separated the twins (sob), Spooks, Life on Mars, Battlestar Galatica, Doctor Who – anything with heart really.

Favourite Film – Some Like it Hot – need I say more?

How did you get involved in the writers academy?

I was offered the job of running it when it was in its second year. Didn’t know much about it, but as it meant working with eight new writers every year, I jumped at the chance. It is the most brilliant job and I love it.

How does the writers academy work? What is the process by which writers get chosen for it? How do you find the writers? Is there a link on the BBC website about it?

We advertise for writers to apply – to fill out an application form and submit an original piece of work.  Look out for the ads in Media Guardian, The Stage, Broadcast and on the BBC Jobs Website. There’s also information year round about us (including writers blogs and interviews) on the BBC Writersroom website.

Entry requirements are at least one professional drama commisison – either in TV, radio, theatre or film.

We got about 500 entries this year. Scripts are put through a first sift during which I and a team of readers read the first ten pages of each script – either pass through for a full read or reject. Those that make it through (around 200) are then given two full reads by members of the drama department. We then shortlist that down to thirty people, who I workshop for a day. From there we choose 15 to interview, with a panel consisting of all four Executive Producers from Doctors, Holby, Casualty and EastEnders, John Yorke (Controller of Drama ) and me. We choose eight writers for the course. The whole process takes two and a half months. It’s very thorough, and has to be as I’m always worried a really good piece of work might slip through the net.

What is the profile of the writers you are looking for? What qualities do you look for in the writers you choose?

Above all we’re looking for writers with a strong original voice. It’s not a writers course in the sense that we’re teaching anyone to write – they will already be able to do that better than most. We’re teaching them to free up their voice and use it to create something strong and original within Continuing Drama. They don’t need to be experienced television writers – several theatre and radio writers have done very well on the course. They need to be able to write very strong dialogue, with believable characters, be able to write emotion on the page, and have stories to tell.

What about the good writers who don’t quite make it? Are there any other BBC possibilities for them? What advise would you give them?

We run a mentoring scheme whereby we pair them up with a Script Editor in the Series & Serials side of the department, who will meet them and talk them through their original work. One person got a project off the ground that way last year. In Continuing Drama we also run shorter Shadow Schemes/courses for all four shows and some are given places on those. I try to keep in touch with as many of those shortlisted as possible, and encourage them to apply again the following year. Keep trying – I’d say to them – definitely.

How does the Writers Academy work? What is the process for writers over the duration of the course?
The course itself is thirteen weeks. It consists of lectures in structure from John Yorke, detailed lectures on Continuing shows from the production teams, lectures and talks from writers, directors, producers, actors, casting directors from all over the industry (e.g. Jimmy McGovern, Tony Jordan, Alan Plater, Sarah Phelps, Dearbhla Walsh, Tony McHale, Jed Mercurio, Dominic Minghella, Paul Bradley), practical workshops in script formatting, scheduling, medical research etc… and above all, lots of practical writing exercises. They get an hour’s one-to-one tutorial every week with John Yorke and I. During those weeks they will also write two episodes of Doctors – one of which will be made.

What happens to writers when they come out the other end of the course?

After the thirteen week course, the writers will then go on to write an episode of EastEnders, Casualty and Holby which will take up most of thefollowing nine months. If they do well, they will then get more commissions from those shows. If they do well they will get more work than they can handle.

Can you give some examples of success stories of writers from the first Writers Academy courses?

Twenty four writers so far have graduated. Of those, 22 are still writing for the department, pretty much full time. One graduate from the first year – Mark Catley – is now lead writer on Casualty. 10 graduates have been put on core deals for one or more of the shows, e.g. Matt Evans and Rachel Flowerday are core writers on EastEnders. Daisy Coulam is writing the pilot for the new BBC3 teen show. Ian Kershaw is a corewriter on Holby, but is also writing for Shameless.

AND more generally…

When you read scripts by new writers \ writers you don’t know, what do you look for in a script? Generally what qualities is a script editor looking for in a writer?
To be surprised. To be moved. To be told a story. Wanting to read on to the end to see what happens. Dialogue that sparkles. Characters that you can love. To lose yourself in the script and forget where you are.

What qualities / abilities do writers need to flourish in the world of TV drama?

Self belief. Resiliance. Knowing that your vision is the most important thing. Writing what you want to write and not what you think other people want. A genuine love for television drama.

Who are the writers you rate? Why have they done so well?

Jimmy McGovern, Tony Jordan, David Simon, Aaron Sorkin, Russell T Davies, Paul Haggis. They know what they want to say and they know how to get their own way so they can say it. They know how to get you hooked on their characters so you absolutely can’t leave anything they’ve written until the end.

What are the BBC looking for?

More long running series I believe at the moment.

Could you tell new writers something about the process they will go through in terms of no. of drafts, meetings etc. on an episode of a BBC show like ‘Eastenders ’ or ‘Casualty’?

The EastEnders script process takes about six weeks. You attend a commissioning meeting with the other writers on your block where you are asked to talk about how you will write you episodes and pitch ideas based around the story document you have been given. You then go to first draft and are given notes by your Script Editor. Second draft notes are given from Script editor and Series Producer. Third draft goes to the Executive Producer, and with changes, becomes the production draft.

Thank you very much CERI!


Philip Shelley