Monthly Archives: May 2010

In Conversation with Hilary Salmon and Tony Garnett

Thanks to David Edgar and WGGB (West Midlands) I was very lucky to hear two legends of British television drama Hilary Salmon and Tony Garnett debating the state of television drama.  You won’t be surprised to hear that although Tony had recently criticised the BBC and Hilary is one of its Executive Producers, there was a lot they agreed about.
 
Firstly I should start, as Tony did, by referring to THAT now infamous email in which he criticised UK television drama in general and the BBC in particular.  Tony wanted "An honest, open and grown up discussion across the industry about the problems in television drama".  What he got instead, he says, was a denial by the BBC that there were any problems and then whispers put about denegrating him as the source (old, disgruntled, etc). 
 
What Tony has and continues to argue for is a balanced drama output covering the whole spectrum of drama types, from soaps to authored single plays.  Over the last 20 years the balance has shifted too far towards high-volume drama ("The BBC needs to lose it’s obsession with this fictional place with Holby"!) leaving almost no room in the schedules or budgets for short-run serials or singles.
 
Tony also argued for greater delegation of responsibility from management and channel controllers down to Producers.  There are, he argues, too many examples of writers getting contradictory notes from numerous layers of management.  Although Hilary doesn’t recognise that as her own experience she did acknowledge that is an issue for colleagues and "there are projects that have suffered because of that kind of problem".
 
Tony and Hilary also agreed on the importance of a right to fail, something which both felt had disappeared from our drama commissioning culture.  Both argued for a strand of single dramas, regularly scheduled, where producers felt able to take risks on writers’ voices.  Both acknowledged that with drama resources scarce, it’s no surprise that the most cost-effective, high-volume dramas continue to dominate the schedules. 
 
So where does that leave writers trying to get their voices heard? Hilary is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the BBC Writersroom and the BBC Drama Writers Academy.  Both are legitimate ways of getting your work read by people within the BBC and that’s no bad thing.  While Tony raised concerns about writers’ voices being lost on the soaps he did acknowledge that they can be a great training ground for new writers, turning them into pro’s and getting them used to writing to deadlines.  While both recognise that some writers are happy to stay writing on the continuing drama series, for those that want to move on Hilary recommends getting out before you begin to feel you’re being subsumed by the show.
 
Their final words of advice to new writers in particular? Hilary recommends writing a spec script that is very much your own, unique style and voice, then using that to get noticed by BBC Writersroom.  Tony reckons new writers should be experimenting with writing for the internet – no one knows how to do it yet and that makes it accessible and very exciting!
 
Whatever you decide to do, good luck!
 
 
 
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Something’s gotta change

I’ve read a few scripts recently that made me realise that the thing that was missing was change.  The characters might be interesting, lots of events happened, but in the end, no one seemed remotely affected by all that plot that was being thrown at them.  John Yorke (Head of BBC Drama Production & New Talent) used this analogy: ‘The King dies, then the Queen dies’ is plot and not very interesting.  ‘The King dies then the Queen dies of a broken heart’ is story, it’s grabbed my attention already because the King dying has changed things for another character. 

As audiences we want to see our characters go on a journey, to be affected, challenged, changed by what happens.  To be faced with choices and dilemmas and in the decisions they make so show us who they are.  We need to be drawn into the story and the characters, we need to be made to care, and as the writer that’s your job. So make sure that cracking plot is really a great story and is there because it’s doing something to your character, creating a change that will take your character on a journey.  Of course, that’s all easy enough in a feature film, the tricky thing about writing for continuing drama is that you need to take your characters on a journey without fundamentally changing them – once you complete their journey their story is over and it’s time for them to go – but that’s for another day!

It’s the Fairy Dust, Stupid!

It’s been my absolute pleasure to read some really magical scripts lately and it got me thinking about what makes a script stand out.  It isn’t the neatly told story or the perfectly tied up characer journey that make me excited when I read a script, though goodness knows those things are hugely important and often lacking.  No, those aren’t the things that make it memorable and anyway, I can help fix those things.  It’s the magic that makes a good script great.  That sprinkling of fairy dust that only YOU the writer can bring to the party. 

I can help with story structure and deepening those characters and making the dialogue sound true and all the other things that are taught in courses and books, but it’s that image that kept you awake at night when you thought of it, that moment of the script that came to you maybe before you even knew what the story was.  THAT’s what makes it special.  Those images, those moments that come from deep inside a writer’s mad, brilliant creative mind and leap onto the page without you even thinking about it – that’s what’s magic and makes me not only remember your script and you but makes me excited and want to see your work developed and made. 

You bring the magic and I’ll bring everything else.

Let’s go!