It’s been a busy and enjoyable last couple of working weeks. We finished this year’s CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE with the annual drinks evening at Channel 4 where we invite people from the industry – literary agents, producers, development executives, script editors – to meet the year’s 12 writers.
The following morning it was up to Manchester for Sky Drama’s 2nd Script Editor’s Forum – a chance to meet and swap notes with fellow script editors and listen to a load of excellent guest speakers. Along with their monthly table reads, this is another brilliant initiative from Sky Drama – and just the sort of thing that all the broadcasters and leading drama-producing indies should be doing to encourage new talent and get drama practitioners together to discuss how working practices, creativity and the quality of ideas hitting our screens can be improved.
With these two events straight after each other, it felt like about a year’s worth of networking was crammed into 36 hours!
It’s been very exciting seeing this year’s 4screenwriting alumni already starting to have some significant successes – the morning after the drinks evening one of the writers told me she’d got a gig in a writing room on a prestigious new Sky Atlantic Show; another has had her course script optioned by a leading drama indie and has also been asked to write an episode on one of their series. Several of the unrepresented writers have had offers from literary agents. The end of the course and the annual drinks evening reminds me every year just how hungry the TV drama industry is for new writing talent (even though it may not look like that from the outside!).
BBC Writers Room Scottish Writers Festival, May 31st
This was a really enjoyable day spent in Glasgow. There was a fantastic turnout – several hundred screenwriters. I did a talk and a filmed interview for BBC writers room (now available on their website!)
One of the things that we have discussed about the Channel 4 Screenwriting course is the need to try to work with more writers from outside of London – something we haven’t done very well on in the last few years, despite our best intentions. And the importance of doing so was brought home to me by the huge sea of faces that confronted me in Glasgow!
The TV drama industry in the UK has gone on an odd and circular, dysfunctional journey in this regard over the last few years. When I first started working at Granada TV drama, then at London Weekend Television and Carlton, there was at that time (late 90’s, early 2000’s) a relatively thriving diversity in terms of the regions and nations. When I joined Granada, all their drama was produced in and around Manchester – I worked on an excellent long-running medical drama series, MEDICS, on which many of the writers (eg Neil McKay, Paul Abbott) were based in the North. The show’s production office was in Manchester and that’s where the show was shot. The shot had a definite and distinctive Northern flavour. The same was true of other, more high-profile Granada / ITV shows of the time – CRACKER, PRIME SUSPECT, BAND OF GOLD.
And when I first joined Carlton, which had grown out of Central TV, it still clung onto a strong regional identity in the Midlands. Crossroads was revived and run out of Nottingham while I was at Carlton; and, for example, I was on the judging panel for the excellent annual Eileen Anderson award (long since defunct) – a substantial prize for the writer of the best new play performed at a Midlands theatre, a prize that helped launch the career of writers like Lucy Gannon.
But once ITV had become one big company operating out of London, so much of the industry became centralised around London.
Things are slowly beginning to turn back in the other direction – it’s to the credit of the BBC writers rooms that they now have hubs and writer initiatives in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the North. There are now ever-growing production bases in Cardiff and Belfast. And Channel 4 has committed to moving much of their operation to Leeds, with other creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow.
Distinctive regional and national voices need to be an important element in the increasing diversity of TV drama – as it was in the past.
I met up with legendary producer Ruth Caleb last week (If you don’t know about her, look her up – the quality of her work over 60 years is extraordinary – and she still has a hugely exciting list of projects in development). She was talking about how, with the increased budgets and enhanced production values of all TV drama now, there seem to be great opportunities (as ever) for the A-List writers – who are generally booked-up and busy for months / years ahead AND for the new, exciting writers breaking into the industry (and my experience with writers from the Channel 4 course reflects this). But where things are tricky for writers is with that 80% of writers who are not ‘star’ / A-List writers but who are also not brand new. At the moment there don’t seem to be the same opportunities for this large group of writers in the middle. There are fewer series like THE BILL, fewer mid-range, long-running series like NEW TRICKS or WAKING THE DEAD, where proven writers can tell their own stories within established formats, and make a decent living on episodes on other people’s shows while simultaneously developing their own distinctive, ‘passion’ projects. And this is particularly true for these mid-level writers who live out of London. The industry has become more and more London-centric over the last 20 years – but the tide does seem to be turning, slowly, back the other way.
Some other quotes / observations form the last couple of weeks –
The Sky script editor’s forum reminded me of just how important / helpful the energy a script editor brings into the room can be.
Whether you’re a writer or script editor, make sure you read for pleasure every day.
Ego is often the enemy of creativity – make sure it doesn’t get in the way.
The most important of the whole production process is what happens in the development of the script ie tackle problems at script stage.
Producer Nicola Larder gave an excellent talk – and talked about how, whether we’re producers, script editors or writers – we are all trying to find a way to express ourselves through story telling.
As mentioned above, Sky Drama has also been running, for the last couple of years, a series of monthly table reads of new screenplays by BAME writers, each reading organised by the production company backing and working with these particular writers. I have been to a few of them – and they have been without exception outstanding – and a brilliant opportunity for these writers to showcase their work to a wider audience, in the hope that this will eventually lead to production.
As writers, this sort of table read, whether it’s for a broader industry audience or if it’s just for you the writer and selected friends, getting a group of actors to come together to bring your script alive off the page, is enormously powerful and affirming – and it will also teach you a lot about what works in your script, what doesn’t and what work you need to do on the script.
The most exciting and enjoyable day on the Channel 4 screenwriting course is the day in June when we get a group of 10 actors together to perform / read 15 minute sections of each of the 12 course scripts. We get outstanding actors every year (largely thanks to the brilliant brains and connections of actors Joe Sims and Patrick Brennan). There is nothing more exciting and vindicating than hearing actors bring scripts alive and realising that what you thought was brilliant on the page is indeed brilliant in the flesh.
The next newsletter will be on Friday July 26th.
All the best
July 12th 2019