Friday, 29 July 2011

TV Drama: The Writers’ Festival - Day 1

Launching a new series discussion. Photo by Jason Arnopp
Is there a better way to spend two days than in the company of over two hundred talented writers? I’m not sure there is. Earlier this month, I was thrilled to gain an industry place and head to Leeds to attend the second festival of its kind, organised “by writers, for writers”, through the BBC’s Writersroom

This is an excellent forum and an opportunity to discuss where the industry is currently at. Kate Rowland, the BBC’s Creative Director for New Writing, described the event as “a conversation” for writers – one that I found equally as useful, enlightening and galvanising, as a drama developer. 

Last year’s event was an inspiring occasion; this year’s felt even more so. Maybe this is a personal thing, or maybe something’s shifted socially and politically. Paula Milne gave a rousing keynote address (which you can read in full, here), during which she urged the room to “have a talent for your talent”, and to “give the audience not what they want, but what they need”. The opening panel session built on this, and seemed to sum up the mood and theme of the two days (and, I would imagine, resonate with most of the festival’s attendees, as the key reason they wanted to create drama in the first place), asking, "is it the writer’s responsibility to change the world?”

For this session (covered in more detail by Cath Bore, here), Paula Milne was joined by Tony Marchant, Hugo Blick, Jack Thorne, Roy Williams and Gwyneth Hughes.

Hugo Blick argued that we should “provoke by surprise” and “use polemic (only) when there’s real outrage… or you burn it”. 

Tony Marchant said that we need to examine the past politically, and gave the example of a drama about the setting up the NHS – how it came about, and the need to be reminded why it came into existence, and what went before.

The discussion set the mood for later in the day, when we were treated to Jimmy McGovern in conversation with Kate Rowland. “Passion” is an overused term, but his shone through. His opinions were effectively a call to arms for writers to engage their “brain and heart”. I will be compiling his many words of wit and wisdom into a separate post.

Here are potted notes of the sessions I attended. I hope I’ve attributed quotes to the right people – any corrections from attendees, please let me know. The schedule for the event was packed, so if anyone has notes on the ones that clashed with these, please get in touch and I’ll add links to these posts.

Developing different voices – representing modern Britain
Panel: Roy Williams, Hilary Salmon, Steve November and Madonna Baptiste.

The discussion focused on the representation of black and ethnic minority voices on television. Hilary Salmon said there have been big changes in policy at the top of the BBC, since Greg Dyke’s “hideously white” speech, and there have been onscreen talent changes, led by Mal Young, but what about behind the camera?

Questions raised included: Is the industry not providing a context for writers from minorities to work in? Is the stronger diversity of onscreen talent taking the onus off broadcasters, for example, to look at wider industry talent representation? Or are the writers just not out there?

Roy Williams said that the UK's successful black actors did well in America (making a name for themselves), and then came back to the UK. He believes that the trouble with writing is that it is hidden from view, so would-be writers from some backgrounds do not see it as an area that they can get into. He believes that more cultural stories onscreen will attract minority writers – in the same way that the rise of successful black actors in the UK has led to a rise in drama school applications from black talent.

We were told that Babyfather did well, but didn’t get recommissioned after its second series, and that Moses Jones was written by a white writer. An audience member remarked that they found it daunting writing characters from different cultures. Roy Williams (politely!) said that they should just “get over it” and “we shouldn’t be afraid of cultural specifics”.

Steve November said that “we need a diversity of voices”, that “producers need to actively look”, and “it has to come from the industry”. He said that there are socio-economic factors at work, as to why some sections of society can’t currently get a foot into the industry.

Broadening out the discussion to gender, in the Q&A we were told by an audience member that out of all the entries for Channel 4’s Coming Up scheme (which were read blind), nine women had been selected, and three men. It would be interesting to find out the percentages of male and female submissions to this.            

That it is 2011 and we still need to tackle inequality in terms of the backgrounds, ethnicities and genders of writing talent, and that there is still debate as to whether the talent is actually “out there”, is pretty depressing.

The biopic: – the fallback position?
Panel: Brian Fillis, Amanda Coe, Gwyneth Hughes and Madonna Baptiste

At last year’s festival, Tony Marchant said that the “BBC4 biopics of the famous eschew examination of the lives of ordinary people. Good drama tells you something about yourself. Biopics don’t do that.“ (Thanks to David Bishop for a reminder of that session, here). He argued that they were the fallback position for commissioners.

Amanda Coe, writer of Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story (and Roy Williams, in the Is it a writer’s responsibility to change the world session, earlier), said that drama is finding out how people, characters “got like that”. Mary Whitehouse; fascists… Drama is about uncovering the “crisis point” in their lives.

Fear of Fanny and The Curse of Steptoe writer, Brian Fillis argued that biopics may be a “fallback position” for commissioners, but are an “open goal” for writers, giving you the freedom to focus on character. He gave the example of Peter Morgan focusing on two to three weeks of a subject’s life.

He said that The Curse of Steptoe, transcended being a film about Harry being typecast; becoming a film about the journey from youthful optimism, to ageing and your options becoming limited - and so was relevant to a wider audience.

Gwyneth Hughes, writer of Miss Austen Regrets, “felt the pressure of a great writer in the room.” (She is now doing Dickens – and feels the same.) She has a film greenlit about the relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, and believes that biopics should be about the “key relationship in a person’s life” – whether that is with a person or a faith – and that writers need some perspective (that is, they can’t be a “total fan”), or “the film will become a love letter”.

Brian Fillis suggested that since the Steptoe film - and the ensuing legal issues that meant it has not been shown on television again - biopics are harder to get made, and so may no longer be the “fallback position” – because they are judged by standards of documentary production and drama production.

This session was particularly of interest to me, having recently script edited a successful biopic – and given that a large proportion of the projects I am hired to look at are also biopics. I’d be interested to know if other script editors and readers experience this high percentage, too.

Writer training: can it be taught?

Danny Brocklehurst, who started out as a journalist, and had no formal screenwriting training, was sceptical about the merits of it.

Rachel Flowerday, a BBC Writers’ Academy graduate, and advocate of the scheme, discussed how it was beneficial, stating that it provides a “lexicon” when discussing scripts, and that it is useful to be taught it. They watched films, read scripts and immersed themselves in structure. The Academy has a focus on the five-act structure (see notes in the Day 2 post, on John Yorke’s session, The curse of the scriptwriting guru?).

Esther Wilson’s route into screenwriting was through the play Ten Tiny Toes – which Jimmy McGovern saw and said was the best he had seen. (There’ll be more of his thoughts on theatre in my post coming soon.) Both she and Danny Brocklehurst have worked with him, and he is known for his mentoring of new writers.

All agreed that reading scripts, and watching other things, was a great education, while writing competitions provide a focus and a deadline.

Toby Whithouse said his most successful scripts were the ones he wrote never thinking they’d get made. He said, “Don’t write for an audience” (he expanded on this in the Launching a new series session - to follow, in my Day 2 post). They agreed that Writing is rewriting, and that you should never take the easy route in a script – as it won’t provide the most interesting solution. (Jimmy McGovern expands on this, too, in my forthcoming post.)

The quote of the session (although I don’t seem to have noted who said it...) was:

“Work with people you like, on projects you are passionate about, that raise questions you want to know the answers to.”


  1. Thank you for linking up with my blog post! Cath