Hi There, 

Last week I mentioned character ideas pitched to me by my CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS course at the Actors Centre, London. This week I was asked by my MA Scriptwriting students at the Central St Martins \ University of the Arts London (at the wonderful new building by the canal at Kings Cross – well worth a visit if you haven’t been there) – why I hadn’t mentioned their characters!

So this week my opportunity to redress the balance!

In the last of my 4 weeks working with these 8 students on creating their own TV drama series, I really put the onus on them to entertain me, and they came up trumps.

First, they each did presentations on TV series they’d watched that worked for them. These included:-


This new police series has just started on Sky Atlantic. Apologies if you don’t have access to the channel.

(A sidenote – it seems that more and more people are illegally ‘streaming’ shows like this. Now I absolutely don’t condone this practice but it seems to be almost accepted practice, and if you’re under 30 (ageist I know), then to a lot of people the illegality of it isn’t even an issue. I don’t know what the answer is to this – but it needs to be acknowledged as part of our changing viewing habits, and addressed.)

Back to the show. Strictly speaking, in terms of content and format, this is quite conventional – two mis-matched cops working together as partners, a gruesome murder of a woman with ritual \ religious connotations – we’ve seen all of this before. What stood out for me was the sheer flair of the film-making and story-telling, and the wonderful characterization. Like many of the best cop shows, this worked because of the brilliant central relationship between the two investigating police officers, Hart and Cohle (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – outstanding performances). Both are intriguingly complex, damaged, characters, but there’s a lovely vein of dark humour to the relationship too.

There’s a real ambition to the show  – some of the dialogue is almost poetic, it’s hugely atmospheric and it looks fantastic – the rural, small-town Louisiana setting is a key element of the story.

What also intrigued me about the show (as pointed out by my student Kritika in her excellent presentation!) was the structure. The action cuts between Kohle and Hart being interviewd about the case 17 years later – and the case itself. This playing with time, cutting between past and present, is a feature of the story-telling. It energises the narrative, posing questions about how and why the two police officers have changed, why they’re no longer working together – and providing a powerful end of episode hook. I’m already looking forward to episode two this Saturday!

Hats off to scriptwriter Nic Pizzolato – as you can see I really do recommend this as an object lesson in screenwriting at its best.

This excellent review by Sam Wollaston in The Guardian tells you more about the show –

(Sidenote #2 – if you’re looking for another good Woody Harrelson film, may I recommend THE MESSENGER, written by Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, nominated – deservedly!-  for Best Original Screenplay at the 2010 Oscars.)


I mentioned this in passing a couple of weeks ago – this is a really interesting show that is definitely worth catching – to quote from the Channel 5 website – ‘Shot in the style of a fly on-the-wall documentary, Suspects is unscripted, with the cast devising their own dialogue based on a detailed plot description.’

Showrunner PAUL MARQUESS has a great track record in TV drama – but has also worked on THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX – and this article (link below) really interestingly explains how different work he has done in TV influenced the making of SUSPECTS.

Clearly part of the rationale for the way this show is run is financial – they shot 2 x 45’ episodes A WEEK! But the quality of the show is impressive. Apparently this coming week’s episode 3 is a series highlight – Channel 5 , 10pm Wednesday – straight after BBC2’s Line Of Duty if you can handle two straight hours of police drama!

To quote Marquess, ‘“It would be wrong to say it is not scripted. But it would be correct to say that we don’t write the dialogue.”

I think this is a bold, innovative, very interesting and actually pretty successful re-thinking of how TV drama is created.


Another of our presentations was about these two shows – in particular looking at how both shows bring powerful elements of the non-naturalistic, the epic and the magical to the story-telling, and how this raises them above the norm, and brings a freshness and excitement to the stories.


This 2nd series goes from strength to strength, keeping me and many others hooked through the brilliance of its story-telling. Again, this is really worth analyzing and dissecting (the ep1 script is on the BBC writers room website script library) to think about what it is that makes it such a successful piece of story-telling. For me, it’s about the characterization – all the characters are deeply flawed and therefore all the more engaging and empathetic – and the story keeps you guessing throughout with its twists and turns – all the main characters have fascinating dilemmas, the writer puts them all under enormous pressure. When there are multiple people on Twitter speculating about what is going to happen in the story, (as with BROADCHURCH) you know you’re onto a winner.


On the subject of our changing viewing habits…this week it was announced that RIPPER STREET, the BBC series that had been de-commissioned by the BBC after 2 series, has now been re-commissioned – thanks to the intervention of Amazon studios. This follows on from the previous instance of The White Queen – de-commissioned by the BBC after one series – being re-commissioned and developed by Company Pictures for  its US co-production partner, Starz for the international market.

This seems to herald a real sea-change in the way TV drama is commissioned in this country. At the risk of coming over like an old fart, when I first started working as a script editor \ development executive in a golden age of TV drama at Granada, at a time when they were making shows such as CRACKER, PRIME SUSPECT and BAND OF GOLD, (mind you I was working on MEDICS – a little-remembered medical shows that ran to 5 series, and not a bad show at that), there were only the BBC and ITV, and in a much more minor way, Channel 4 commissioning drama. And working at Granada at the time, our only commissioning outlet was ITV1.

So it’s instructive to realize how much the drama production landscape has changed in the last 15 years, how many more possibilities there are nowadays for drama producers – even if the possibility of one broadcaster stumping up the cash for a major new series, without any co-production partners, is now much more rare.


These Central St Martins MA students \ writers also created their own new TV drama series – and it was hugely exciting to see the quality, ambition and originality of these ideas, which included –

A delightfully human comic take on an MI5 \ Spying series – what worked about this idea was the warmth and texture of the characterisation and the juxtaposition of a realistically domestic, middle-class, middle-aged female character – with the contrastingly exotic world of international espionage.

A hard-hitting series about the immigration service with another wonderfully vivid central female character, and some hugely powerful images and detail that brought the political and human side of this subject-matter to life.

A more comic, intriguingly idiosyncratic view of the world of refugees and immigration, centering around a second generation Vietnamese immigrant, a girl in her 20’s with hard-line right-wing views, and her spiky relationship with her racist male boss.

A really distinctive childrens comedy drama series about an adolescent girl growing up in the ‘60’s in deepest rural Dorset, against a backdrop of the music of the time – the hook being that the girl connects with rural folklore and secrets, becomes part of an ancient witches coven – and realizes she has amazing powers – ‘Heartbeat’ meets ‘Carrie’!

And a Chinese-language idea specifically designed for the BBC’s soon-to-be-launched new Chinese TV channel – about a Chinese woman who had given her son away for adoption in China many years previously – and has now travelled to London to search for him.

It’s been really exciting observing the development of these series ideas over the last few weeks.

Until next week

All the best


Philip Shelley

Twitter: @philipshelley1

Feb 28th 2014