Hi there,

Thank you so much to everyone who emailed in answers to last week’s poll. The response has been fantastic – in terms of both quality and quantity. It’s made for a really interesting week reading all your different thoughts – and has given me a lot of viewing to catch up on!

At the risk of tantalising all those who have already entered – I will give the rest of you one more week to enter –

(see  for details)

and I will be announcing the winner of this ‘competition’ next FRIDAY MAY 18th. It’s proving to be a very hard task to pick one person out of so many outstanding entries.

It’s certainly made writing this newsletter \ blog very easy for me the next few weeks – as I will be going through each of the 4 questions in turn, giving you a sample of the more interesting responses to each question. I’m sure you’ll find the responses as fascinating and enjoyable as I have; and the ‘screenwriting tips’ ( are going to be a screenwriting master-class in themselves.

I should warn you, because there were so many great answers, that this week’s newsletter is more like a small book than a newsletter \ blog – but it’s a great overview of the stars of UK screenwriting. And if you think there’s someone who’s been shamefully overlooked, please let me know!


Before we get down to it –

The Authoritative Guide To Writing And Selling A Great Screenplay’ London June 16-17

I’m delighted to announce that our special guest on this course will be top London literary agent Tanya Tillett. Tanya works at the highly reputed Knight Hall Agency and represents an exciting mix of very talented writers. Knight Hall represent some of the top screenwriters in the UK – writers like Simon Beaufoy, Simon Nye, Jeremy Brock, Martin McDonagh and many, many others – Tanya will be able to offer some real insights into the current market and work possibilities for UK screenwriters.

There are still a few places left if you’d like to book –

OK – so onto the BIG QUESTION of the week –

 Who (do you think) are the TWO most interesting screenwriters currently working in the UK and why?

 ‘Toby Whithouse (Being Human) and Paul Cornell (Doctor Who), for exactly the same reason: They tell brilliant, coherent stories and they both know the strengths and weaknesses of the television medium incredibly well.’

‘Jack Thorne (The Fades, Cast-Offs, The Scouting Book For Boys) is one of the most amazingly talented, unique and versatile writers in the country, without a doubt. Whether it’s for TV, radio, theatre or film, he writes with such heart and truth and emotional resonance. I’ve been lucky enough to read a few of his scripts and his voice just leaps off the page. His work is a genuine inspiration, and he’s already created something special for every medium. He makes it look effortless, when of course it’s anything but. Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, Millennium, Night Stalker) has the distinction of being a highly-established American writer working in the UK. With his new show HUNTED for Kudos/BBC1 he has set-up a US-style writers’ room which we very rarely see over here. He has spoken about his efforts to change the way the payment system is set-up to incentivise more series creators to work this way, and it sounds like a really exciting, positive thing for writers. If successful, it could reinvigorate the industry over here and maybe one day put British TV writers on a par with our US counterparts.’

 ‘Hugo Blick for his strange, flawed masterpiece ‘The Shadow Line’. Nathan Parker for Moon. Don’t you dare leave us for Hollywood, Nathan!’

‘Steven Moffat – I would choose Steven when it comes to television because of what he’s done with ‘Sherlock’. It’s been a long time since there was such a buzz about a TV show and while a lot of credit needs to go to Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman it’s the writing that makes it so compelling. The other reason why ‘Sherlock’ proves that Moffat is the best TV screenwriter in the UK (ahead of Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies) is shown through the collaboration with Mark Gatiss, unfortunately to the latter’s detriment. Gatiss wrote ‘The Hound of the baskervilles’ in the last three episode series and it wasn’t a patch on the other two. Take a bow, Mr Moffat … and please, please write more things more often.

Abi Morgan – Abi must get the nod when it comes to features (Yes, I’m unashamedly defining ‘interesting’ as ‘prolific’ and ‘successful’ but why not?). Having penned ‘The Iron Lady’ and ‘Shame’ as well as ‘Birdsong’ (for TV, but clearly a feature in form) she has shown an incredible range of ability, as well as consistently compelling work.’

‘Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. My one true love – sci-fi. Not out there on the moon sci-fi, but the maybe/maybe not sci-fi. It takes a rare breed to be able to bring sci-fi to the screen and make it successful; Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, and in the case of Matthew Graham, Last Train Home remains one of my absolute favourite mini-series. Eternal Law may have missed the mark, but in the spirit of the question, I for one can’t wait to see what comes next.

As MG and AP are a writing team, may I take the liberty of having a second (third) writer? Charlie Brooker for Dead Set and Black Mirror. In the case of the latter, I just know someone somewhere said ‘I don’t get it’ and I love it for that alone. Brave, odd, different, yet you could look at the principle of screenwriting: follow the story. It didn’t matter that the content wasn’t the norm, the basic story could have been transported from each episode, given a different setting, (maybe lost the pig (!)) but at the end, the whole basic story flowed in the same way every other story flows. Writers should try to watch it by simply breaking down the story and watch it with new eyes. It’s a fascinating experience. Again, what comes next?’

‘Paul Abbot and Stephen Poliakoff.
Paul Abbot: essentially because of the range of his work and its gritty
realism. Each piece seems different to what came before but the sense of realism & authenticity is never lost. Also seems to be one of the few screenwriters today taking risks in the subject matter.
Stephen Poliakoff: I have chosen this screenwriter for all the wrong reasons: I have watched all of his work (read the scripts when I could get them) but have never managed any one of them in a single sitting. I find his work tedious, dull, incomprehensible and unbelievable – try as I might I could never ‘enter’ the world I was watching. However, Stephen Poliakoff generally gets two or three big, prime time commissions every year and his work is always featured in the ‘must see’ recommendations in the television guides. I therefore think it must be me at fault so I will go on trying to learn from this obviously highly successful screenwriter.’

‘MATTHEW GRAHAM and ASHLEY PHARAOH – because LIFE ON MARS was so utterly innovative (going back to the past) and yet familiar – cops/and seventies!. Because it re-created a classic unorthodox good guy whom everybody loves – SWEENEY’s JACK REGAN in Phil Glenister’s shoes. Yet also managed to make his antithesis – PC Sam Tyler (John Simm) credible too.’

 ‘Stephen Poliakoff. The way he sets up a seemingly mundane situation and gradually reveals the labyrinthine true nature of things – the hidden horror and passion of timid, secretive British people – is magical without being sentimental and extraordinary while still being believable. Like Stephen Poliakoff with blockbuster budgets, Christopher Nolan sets up intricate, mensa-mind plotlines, drawing the viewer in to his cinematic puzzles. Even if you wander off and get lost in them, the way he involves the audience in the worlds he creates by throwing us into the story regardless of the narrative timeline and giving us the evidence to piece together is much more exciting than sitting slumped and semi-unconscious at the cinema going “I knew he was going to do that” through a mouthful of popcorn.’

‘Danny Brocklehurst and Paul Abbott. Paul Abbott is the best script writer in this country – he takes diverse ideas and melts the concepts together – look at ‘ Hit and Miss’ – a transvestite hit man. Brilliant. Also with his writers studio he is giving something to new writers to aim for. Danny Brocklehurst – fantastic – look at his work on Exile and The Accused. Read one of his scripts – they are works of arts.’

‘1. Johnathan Harvey (Coronation Street). Pitch perfect camp northern whimsy interspersed with strong character based storylines, Harvey captures the essence of the Street in every line of dialogue. Like all great artists or sportsmen, the knack is to make the difficult look easy, and Harvey manages this with every episode. It is popular to dismiss soap as an inferior stepping stone to greater things, but writing for ten million people every week is for me the pinnacle of tv scripting.
2. Sally Wainwright. (Scott and Bailey) Admittedly assisted by the best actress ensemble on telly right now, what makes this series stand out above any other derivative cop drama, is the way Wainwright shifts the mood from the incident room to the bed and living rooms of the main characters. Fully rounded and complex, Scott and Bailey, together with DCI Gill Murray, embark on each case with ultimate professionalism whilst carrying around their own feminine foibles, just hidden under the surface. Popular tv at its best.’

‘— I’ve gone for a veteran from TV and a relative newcomer in film. In my opinion comedy is the strongest sector of British TV production, and Graham Linehan has consistently performed in this sector for two decades now. The IT Crowd was the funniest show to come out of the UK in the new millennium. In film, Paddy Considine has set the bar very high for feature writing debuts with Tyrannosaur. Nuanced characters and complex emotions in a tale that resonates with current social concerns, all building to an ending that is both surprising and consistent with the characters’ journeys.’

‘Martin McDonagh, blurring theatre and film.Paul Greengrass, blurring film and reality.’

‘Abi Morgan’s just had the sort of year that happens rarely in the life of any creative artist, where everything she touched seemed to turn gold, much as Peter Morgan did a while back [note to self, change surname to Morgan]. She co-wrote the stunning Shame with Steve McQueen, made Thatcher almost human in The Iron Lady, and created one of my favourite British TV drama series of 2011, The Hour. Plus she had a new play on stage in Edinburgh and who knows what else. I’d happily maim for a fraction of her talent, versatility and discipline. Hugo Blick not only wrote but also directed and produced another stunning British TV drama first broadcast last year, The Shadow Line. Intelligent, shocking, thought-provoking, funny, moving and more [in my humble opinion]. Blick’s background may be comedies such as Operation Good Guys or Marion and Geoff, but The Shadow Line was TV drama at its finest. How he didn’t get a writing nomination from the BAFTAs – albeit in a year spoilt for choice – still baffles me. If you haven’t seen The Shadow Line yet, you’ve missed a treat.’

‘David Wolstencroft. Jed Mercurio. I’m not sure if these two writers count as “currently working in the UK” but Wolstencroft’s Spooks and Mercurio’s Bodies was for me, the epitome of great series drama.Their writing doesn’t treat the audience with contempt, dumb down or fall off the pace. You can really hear the writers’ voices in both of these dramas, they are uncompromising and remain true to themselves.’

 ‘I think TWO of the most interesting screenwriters working in the UK today are Mike Leigh and Abi Morgan. Mike Leigh because he writes British characters brilliantly, he understands everyday people and everyday concerns. He manages to capture idiosyncracies perfectly, he also sets his characters in a real Britain with real British people that we are familiar with and can relate to. Nuts in May, Grown Ups and High Hopes are my favourite. I aspire to write characters like Leigh, to be able to gage the balance between humour and drama, I’d consider that a rare talent, like he is. I would definitely consider him one of the most interesting screenwriters we have today.
Abi Morgan is my second choice, she first came to my attention through The Hour. I admire the fact that she usually chooses difficult and challenging subject matter, she also writes within a British environment and tackles modern-day Britain very well. It’s inspiring to have more British female screenwriters on the horizon, and to have had Abi Morgan’s work receive such critical acclaim. Like Leigh, she has made the transition from TV to film screenwriting with success and I find this inspiring also. Plus regardless of Mad Men fever, The Hour was an exciting, new and bold piece of British television. I find what Abi chooses to write about very interesting.’

‘Only two? I can only pick two? This is hard, but I have to narrow it down to Jason Arnopp and James Moran because they both keep very interesting blogs full of what to do and what not to do from a practical been-there-done-that perspective and they’ve both been very nice to me on twitter. Also their nightly posts about horrible things to ponder just before bed make me laugh… and have nightmares. It’s all good.’

‘Tony Grisoni ( Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, Red Riding trilogy): I love TG’s work because he has both a brilliant imagination which he deploys for directors like Terry Gilliam and the best take on the noir genre in Britain today. His adaptations of the difficult David Peace ‘Red Riding’ novels for me broke new ground for British television, showing us a grim contemporary thriller story with all the savagery and authentic ugliness uncomfortably close to home that American TV series so often do much better. RED RIDING is one of the few recent British TV productions I’ve bought on DVD for that reason. And – Charles Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited, Longitude, Shackleton): CS has been in the business a long time but he still writes and directs incomparable TV, the kind the Americans wish they could do. The recent SHACKLETON showed he’s still top of his form for me and I remember being blown away (pun sort-of intended) by LONGITUDE. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED is still the benchmark for quality drama and adaptation more than thirty years after it was made.’

‘OK, for services to British drama – and TV in general – I’d have to say Russell T Davies. His work on reviving “Doctor Who” (with the fantastic and versatile Mr Eccleston), for me, not only showcased the potential for TV to be more cinematic – bolder! – but also provided great drama. Read any of Russell’s scripts from the first series and it’s a master class in great drama, coupled with spectacle and vision. His legacy, if you like, has spawned other great series – like “The Sarah Jane Chronicles” (a gleaming diamond amongst a bit of rough – evidence great children’s TV isn’t dead). It’s thanks, in part, to Russell that other writers get to be involved with ideas and shows that might of been seen as “too high concept” before, such as “Being Human” (another great show). My next choice, and someone more recent and actively writing today, would be Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Their two stand out shows, “The Office” and “Extras”, not only stand up as great comedy, but also great drama. There are moments there that are at once funny, cringe worthy, horrid, but also poigniant. Moving. And when David Brent tells Finchy to “FUCK OFF” in the final episode, there’s an active sense of getting behind a character we laughed at, hated, and ultimately felt sorry for. In one expletive, we understand David Brent at a deeper level. So before I go all mushy, I will say “Life’s Too Short” was shit. It really was. It felt very much like lazy, lazy writing. And lacked heart. Relying on only one gag. He’s short! OK, what else?’

‘Abi Morgan and Mark Gattis. Abi has a wide breadth of work and a career path to die for. Her credits range from Peak Practice to Shame and she is wonderful at developing character driven drama – which is the best drama. Mark has also had a varied career (what does that tell you about screenwriters??) Sherlock is wonderful, his Dr Who episodes stand out and I will never forget the very small low budget The First Men In The Moon. Again someone who is character driven but is effortlessly able to put his characters into the throws of any action. Both of these writers have a common thread through their success – they started small and grew and developed their writing skills. They honed their craft and are capable of producing fantastic stand-out work.’

‘1. I’m going to be predictable and say Steven Moffat, not only for the revamp of Sherlock which I was ever so sceptical about but I love it, to turn such well known classic stories into something current and exciting is a gift. Also there is his work on Dr Who, I was never a fan of DR WHO until the David Tennant years and Steven Moffat’s episodes were both light and deep with the right mix of funny and tension in them. Hi scripts are exciting to read, too. 2. Neil Cross for the Luther series, short, sharp and exciting writing, also did great work on spooks (the few episodes I saw of his)’

‘a) Julie Gearey who penned ‘Prisoners’ Wives’ on BBC one recently. Every episode had me in tears, and it was usually Harriet’s story that did it for me. b) Ronan Bennett who wrote ‘Hidden’ – again, another BBC one hit. A sexy, stylish, contemporary, multi-layered thriller. The last episode, I barely dared to take a breath.’

‘Ronan Bennett – Top Boy (Channel Four) The way he sets the pace of story was so eloquent and his subject matter heartbreaking with a unique twist. Sam McBain/Jesse Armtrong (Fresh Meat) A strong comibination of great humour and fantastic story telling, the perfect balance of drama and comedy.’

Happy Writing!


Phil Shelley

May 11th 2012