Tag Archives: drama

Where Are All The Heroines On TV?

atlantis with titleI’ve been enjoying Atlantis with my kids and both my son and daughter love it. They like the humour, the emotional drama, the action and the adventure. But I was sitting there wondering, what sort of message does this send my daughter? The female characters are either passive love interest or evil. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against an all male lead cast. It’s great to see male friendships on screen and the stories are fantastic. But when it replaces Merlin (also centred around two male characters) and is followed immediately by a trailer for The Musketeers (need I say more?), it does make you wonder, where the heck is the new Buffy? Have I really got to go back ten years (before my daughter was even born) to find an action heroine on my tv screen?

buffyI know, you’re going to tell me that there are plenty of all-female shows. Call the Midwife is a brilliant show and I’m as big a fan as anyone else, but when it comes to genres other than drama (action, adventure, fantasy, science-fiction, thriller) the women are almost absent.  Valuing caring is hugely important; it’s a trait massively undervalued in our society, but that’s for another time. But not every girl wants to be a nurse. Where are the role models on screen, those lead characters, driving a show, that offer something different?

I appreciate that the genres I’m talking about only account for a small percentage of our tv drama output. So maybe female protagonists fare better in the genre that dominates our original drama; crime. Whether it’s gentle puzzle-solving or dark thrillers, our appetite for crime drama is huge. But even here, where there is no earthly reason for there not to be a 50/50 split of shows with a female lead and shows with a male lead, the men outnumber the woman 2:1. Here are the original crime dramas from the main UK broadcasters in 2013:

Male led crime dramas: Sherlock, Ripper Street, Luther, Death in Paradise, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Poirot, Endeavour, Lewis, Shetland, Whitechapel, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Jonathan Creek, By Any Means, Murder on the Homefront. 

Female led crime dramas: Vera, Scott & Bailey, Marple, Silent Witness, Field of Blood , The Guilty

I’ve not included the brilliant Broadchurch because I honestly felt that the lead was split between the two detectives; one male, one female.

So where’s it all going wrong? Are female-led shows being developed but just not getting the green light? It’s possible, though in my experience producers aren’t being offered those shows. Whether I’m part of an in-house development team getting scripts from the most experienced writers, or through Script Angel reading spec scripts from the next generation of screenwriters, the vast majority of scripts I see conform to the stereotype – the dramas (emotional) are dominated by female characters and the genre shows are dominated by male characters.

So what’s the answer? Maybe producers need to get more pro-active; seeking out or specifically asking for shows that challenge that. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to you guys, the screenwriters.  We need to change the diet on offer to producers and commissioners to force them to redress the balance. 

The under-representation of woman in genre television isn’t of course the only problem. Our representations of  minority groups (sexual orientation, religion, colour) are woeful. It’s often argued that audiences prefer to see white heterosexual male leads  but that, quite frankly, is bs. As Scott & Bailey has proved for female lead characters, Luther proves that a black lead doesn’t cause the world to end or even audiences to switch off in horror. If you encounter that argument – ignore it! Audiences predominantly watch white male leads because THAT’S ALL THEY’RE BEING OFFERED.

Since woman make up half the population, why on earth are they not also the lead in half the genre shows on television?  Whenever questions of under-representation arise, one of the suggested solutions is to write ‘blind’. By that I mean, create a rounded character that is defined by their personality and then decide their gender, ethnic background and sexual orientation. Whatever the means by which screenwriters create their original shows, my plea is for more female characters in genre shows now.

Writing Drama With Ambition and the Rise of the Co-Production

breaking badWe’ve long had a love-affair with American television drama and the list of US shows we Brits love to watch is long. Whether you were there twenty years ago with The Sopranos, E.R and Grey’s Anatomy, or ten years ago with House and Dexter, or are just discovering the joys of The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Blood, The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie, Under the Dome, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D or Nashville, chances are you’ve seen and fallen a bit in love with a US drama series. Heck, we even watch US remakes of our own shows – House of Cards on Netflix anyone? And the Americans aren’t averse to a bit of UK drama themselves, whether watching our original show (Doctor Who) or producing their own version (Shameless).

sherlockThat symbiotic relationship has also created a production partnership which, particularly between the BBC and WGBH/Masterpiece, has a very long history; many a period BBC Drama has been a co-production with Masterpiece; Bleak House, Cranford, The Lost Prince, Little Dorrit to name a few. In a climate where few UK broadcasters can fully fund the high-end dramas, many of today’s UK originated shows are hugely dependant on co-production money from the US. Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge (ITV Studios,  WGBH/Masterpiece), Sherlock (BBC, Hartwood Films, WGBH/Masterpiece), Parade’s End (BBC, Mammoth Screen, HBO), Dracula (Sky, NBC), Top of the Lake (BBC, Sundance Channel), The White Queen (BBC, Starz).

Lately we’ve discovered that there is a world of great drama beyond the US. We’ve been enjoying The Bridge, Inspector Montalbano, Borgen, Spiral, The Killing and The Returned. And where there is a willingness to watch each other’s drama productions, there seems to follow an appetite for co-producing. Red Planet Pictures’ hugely successful Death in Paradise is a co-production with Atlantique Production and France Télévisions. While Sky’s new drama The Tunnel, a Shine/Kudos/Canal+ co-production, is doing great numbers for them on Sky Atlantic.

But an apthe tunnelpetite for drama from other countries doesn’t always translate into successful co-productions on new projects. Zen, a co-production between the UK, US, Germany and Italy, didn’t take off in the UK and was cancelled after its first series. Will Gould (Tiger Aspect) has commented “sometimes a script comes to your desk and it has four or five different nationalities and a note saying ‘these nationalities will change depending on who is financing the project’. I worry about creating drama purely by the funding.”

At the annual Totally Serialized conference in London, organised by the Institut Francais, there are public screenings of the best of European dramas. The event runs 16-19 January with one day (16th January) given to an industry event discussing the topic. This year it includes a panel discussion of the challenges and opportunities of writing for co-production dramas.

As budgets get squeezed and our storytelling ambitions get bigger, co-productions feel like a natural solution. And with French film producer and distributer Studio Canal taking a majority stake in Nicola Shindler’s hugely successful UK indie Red Productions last year, it seems that developing partnerships beyond our own shores is set to continue. So if you’ve got a compelling story to tell that straddles countries, there is definitely the will to make it happen.

Hooking Your Audience – The First Ten Pages

Everyone knows that the opening ten pages of your script are the most important because whoever is reading your script, be it a gate-keeping script reader at a production company, a potential director or a Hollywood A-lister, they are making judgements and having an instant reaction to the material.

I recently ran a competition in association with the London Screenwriters Festival for which applicants had to submit the opening ten-pages of a script. It was a real joy to read well over a hundred entries, right across the genre board and each with a different tone and style. However, the problem that seemed to occur most frequently was that those ten pages didn’t raise any questions or propel me in any way to keep reading.

You might think that unless you’re writing a thriller you don’t need to worry about hooking your audience but nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever genre your script is, it’s your job to keep your reader hooked, just as the finished film must keep its audience engaged from one scene to the next. How you do it will vary enormously from genre to genre and will depend upon your style of writing but if want to keep your reader/audience you need to find a way to make them want to know what happens next.

Of course, in the traditional hero myth this early hook is a fundamental part of the story structure and is what makes us want to know the rest of the story. We meet a flawed hero, s/he is called to action – even before we set off on the quest we are made to ask the question, will our hero accept this call to arms? When they do decide to take on the challenge we’re propelled forward by seeing the hero face an obstacle to their goal, making us ask both ‘will they overcome this?’ and ‘how will they overcome this?’. In overcoming the obstacle in front of them (answering that immediate question), a new obstacle emerges/is created, posing another question. And so on…

Thriller, Action, Adventure and Mystery are all genres that are obviously structured in this way, clearly raising questions and in answering them posing another.  Recent thriller box-office hit ‘Jack Reacher’ is a great example of an opening ten minutes that raises question after question, propelling us forward and keeping us engaged. Someone (his face unseen) positions himself with his sniper rifle and kills a number of people. Right off the bat we’re asking ‘Who is he?’ and ‘why has he done this?’.  The police quickly arrest James Barr and we wonder ‘have they got the right man?’. Then instead of confessing as they expect him to, Barr says only ‘Get Jack Reacher’. More questions – who is Jack Reacher and why does Barr want him? Then as soon as we answer the question ‘who is Jack Reacher?’ we pose a new question, ‘can the police find Reacher?’.  TV crime series work in exactly the same way – someone has been murdered and urgent questions are posed – who did it, how did they do it and why did they do it?

Adventure stories can work in the same way but sometimes you don’t want to get your protagonist onto their quest too quickly, you want to spend some time setting up their world first. You might think that if you’re not introducing your driving narrative question yet (how will our protagonist react to this adventure?) then you don’t need to worry about those opening ten pages. As long as you raise that big question in the first twenty pages you’ll be ok won’t you? No, you won’t. Scenes that simply establish a status quo are dull and do nothing to keep a reader reading or a viewer watching.

wizard of oz poster

‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a brilliant example of how, even when you’re not stating what your quest adventure is within the first ten pages, you still need to be raising questions. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ opens with Dorothy upset that Miss Gulch has hurt Toto and wants to call the sheriff. Immediately we’re asking, who is Miss Gulch and can Dorothy stop her taking Toto? Dorothy even says on page 3 “what am I going to do about Miss Gulch?”. Dorothy says she’s not afraid of Miss Gulch. Zeke tells Dorothy that the next time she sees Miss Gulch she should walk right up to her and spit in her eye (p5) thus raising another question – when Dorothy next sees Miss Gulch will she ‘spit in her eye?’! By page eight we’ve got ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and the first hint of the real question that will provide the narrative arc of the film – will Dorothy get to the place of her dreams and if she does will it be all she dreamed of? Then Miss Gulch arrives (p10) with an order to take Toto raising the same question but now much more urgently, ‘can Dorothy stop Miss Gulch taking Toto right now and if so how?’ Next we bring into play the questions ‘what will Aunt Em do?’ and ‘what will Uncle Henry do?’. The questions keep coming right up until we get to Oz and start asking new but related questions which will keep us hooked right to the end.

I’ve written before about the demands of writing in the genre of Drama and the task of hooking your audience is just as vital in this genre as it is in any other. Looking at the opening ten pages of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ you can clearly see that each scene is designed to both establish character and situation AND crucially to raise questions. We open with Pat (Bradley Cooper) stating that he wants Nikki back – right away we’re asking, can Pat get Nikki back and what went wrong here? Then we discover he’s in a psychiatric facility so while this might answer the ‘what went wrong for Pat and Nikki’ question is poses many more questions – why is Pat here, is he coming out, how can he get Nikki back? Then we meet Pat’s mum Dolores and discover she’s taking him out against the recommendations of the doctors, which raises the question – what will the consequence be of doing this and is it wise? Now Dolores discovers that Pat has lied about Danny. Now we’re asking, how will she react and will she take Pat back to the facility? Then we go to Pat’s family home and meet his dad. We see a picture of Pat’s brother hanging on the wall and a space where another photo used to hang. We’re wondering if in that space there used to be a photo of Pat and we wonder who took it down. If it was, as we suspect, his dad, how will his dad react to Pat coming home?

As with ‘The Wizard of Oz’, what on first glance look like establisher scenes (Dorothy on the farm, Pat’s family circumstances) are actually scenes that raise questions and make us want to keep watching in order to answer those questions. In neither case have we got to the meat of the story – Dorothy isn’t in Oz, Pat hasn’t met Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – yet within those first ten pages the writers have kept us hooked by raising question after question. If you can do the same in a way that works for your genre, your story and your characters then at the very least you’ll keep your reader reading and that, quite frankly, is half the battle!

Don’t Denigrate Mainstream Drama Writers – Peter Bowker

Here’s the brilliant, insipring speech that Peter Bowker gave to open this year’s BBC TV Writers’ Festival:

Before I begin, before we begin what I hope will be two days of discovery and support and inspiration, I want to name the elephant in the room. When I’m faced with a room full of hungry, ambitious writers who are starting to make an impact with their work I am reminded of a Frank Skinner gag. He said that he never liked presenting the ‘Best Newcomer Award’  because he hated the part of him that wanted them to be shit.

Now I have got that out of the way I think we can proceed in the spirit of false bonhomie and solidarity and that such gatherings demand …

First I would like to show some clips. (Clips shown as follows : Z Cars, Rising Damp, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads,  Brass, Coronation Street,  London’s Burning,  Minder,  Auf Weidersein Pet,  Soldier, Soldier and  Beiderbecke Affair.)

I chose those particular clips because I wanted to celebrate ambition in a strand of British drama I regard as every bit as significant and valuable as the social realist tradition that began with Cathy Come Home, continued through Boys From the Blackstuff, Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday, and thrives today in the work of Tony Marchant and Neil McKay to name but two.

I am not in any way denigrating this tradition, not least because Tony Marchant is involved in this very conference and he’s bigger and younger than me, although I have more hair.  In part, I am talking about ambition in mainstream drama in response to an article written by Mark Lawson last year in which he highlighted what he saw as wrong with British television drama. Amongst other things, was the fact that I had somehow strayed from the true path by attempting to write a medical series.

“It seems almost obligatory for UK drama series to involve either cops or docs: even Peter Bowker, one of our most original writers, has succumbed to the surgical-procedural with Monroe.”  Buried in this back handed complement was, I think, a common attitude: That writing genre or mainstream drama is automatically evidence of a lack of ambition.

So when Kate Rowland and Danny Brocklehurst tricked me into Chairing this event for the price of a pint of lager I decided it would be worth briefly bearing witness to the existence of genuine ambition in television works that form a parallel, maybe less celebrated tradition.

How brave, for instance, is the clip from Rising Damp. The conversation between Richard Beckinsdale and Don Warrington on Rigbsy’s couch about the fact that Richard Beckinsdale’s character has never had a black friend before and doesn’t have the language to express that to his black friend. A masterclass in how to use the unsayable in order to say everything. And it’s funny.

In the Likely Lads how poignant and real is Terry’s despairing line to Bob that if he goes down to London he might “catch the tail end” of the permissive society?  ‘Brass’ was deconstructing costume drama as far back as 1983. A masterful example of a drama that existed both as a comedic parody of the form and a compelling drama in its own right. Mad Men eat your heart out. You aren’t the first drama to have your cake and eat it.

These mainstream shows were dealing with race, class, social mobility, gender politics, family dynamic, and, in the case of Minder, deconstructing the values of the 1980s with an astonishingly forensic satire. In the case of Brass and the under-rated Lost in Austen, two comedy dramas take on the subject of storytelling itself.

Coronation Street, at its best, portrays the raw humour of family emotions with wit and dialogue that is on a par with Alan Ackybourn and Alan Bennett. Sally Wainwright’s Braithwaites dramatised the false hope of the lottery culture and Lucy Gannon’s Soldier, Soldier dealt with the politics of masculinity and class in a 9pm Monday night ITV show watched by millions.

I am making what may be considered grandiose claims for these dramas because I feel their popularity and humour has served to mask the ambition that sits at the heart of them. In fact, I would claim that Alan Plater and Jack Rosenthal are the two most influential television writers of the Golden generation that produced Alan Bleasdale, Troy Kennedy Martin and Dennis Potter.

I would argue that the latter three are such one-offs that although we have much to learn from them in terms of boldness, we have more to learn from Plater, Rosenthal and Clement and Le Frenais, about the template for returning series which, whatever anybody tells you, remains the absolute bedrock of television drama.

Alan Plater’s ‘Beiderbecke Affair’ was, on the surface, a gentle Sunday night caper serial about a man obsessed with the first great white jazz trumpet player, Bix Beiderbecke. But what Alan Plater managed to achieve over six hours on ITV in 1985 was a celebration of an alternative Britain. A Britain where teachers – one generation on from their working class forebears – struggled with good humour to educate working class children in a large Leeds comprehensive known as San Quentin High. Where the Police were befuddled by local allotment holders, where the Big Society was already at work, and it was called solidarity. Where the establishment was slyly undermined by those who knew that they were despised by Thatcherism. It is a masterpiece in its celebration of ordinary people who rebel in small ways against the dominant values of the age. A celebration of the drop outs and the non-achievers, and whisper it, public servants.

Nobody talks about these issues in Plater’s gentle, slow paced, funny, serial but it nevertheless skewered the values of the day just as effectively as Blackstuff’s Yosser Hughes. I would argue that it is actually more subversive in that nobody saw it coming. I am not saying that television wouldn’t be poorer without the anguished headbutt of Yosser Hughes or the open wounds of Dennis Potter’s Philip Marlowe but that there is a neglected mainstream tradition where the ambition is all the greater for being more subtly deployed.

All are a prime example of the kind of ambition I am choosing to celebrate here. The mainstream drama with a depth of feeling and a point of view.

Which brings me back to  Z Cars. The black and white clip at the beginning. Z Cars is everything that is most commonly criticised about television drama. It’s genre, it’s high volume, it’s cheaply made. It’s storylines and sets sometimes creak . And it’s a masterpiece. It shows what is possible.  I would argue therefore that not only does Z Cars remain the single most significant British television drama, but it demonstrates most eloquently that ambition is not to be confused with scale, or adventurous form, or plot or even setting. It demonstrates that ambition in television drama is fundamentally about character and characterisation.

That is how a drama becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Everything is secondary to character. It is as evident in Paul Abbot’s ‘Reckless’,  as it is in Toby Whithouse’s Being Human. It is as evident in Debbie Horsfield’s ‘Riff Raff Element’ as it is in Jack Thorne’s ‘This is England’.  It is as evident in Heidi Thomas’ ‘Call the Midwife’ as it is in Billy Ivory’s ‘Common as Muck’.

I think that drama has to be about something, and I think an audience can tell pretty quickly if it isn’t. I have seen enough prestigious shows that are about nothing at all, and episodes of Coronation Street that are about everything that is important in the world to know that ambition is not the preserve of the shows which receive the critical acclaim and the high budgets.

In short, the main ambition of any drama should be that it is about something and that it knows what it is about and that the characters should carry those ideas through their action and dialogue. A statement of the bleeding obvious but then I’m not being paid for this, so if you want genuine profundity I refer you to my DVD collection which can be bought on the way out.

BBC TV Writers’ Festival 2012

This year’s festival kicked off with an inspiring opening speech from the brilliant Peter Bowker about ambition in television drama.

I then headed to a session with Lucy Gannon titled ‘Get Real’. Lucy’s list of television credits is awe-inspiring but I could also recollect a period when her name seemed to disappear from the authored television drama landscape so I was interested to hear her thoughts on sustaining a career over such a long period of time.

Lucy was honest and frank about the highs and lows of writing for television.  She’s worked with some brilliant producers, directors and script editors over the years, and some not so brilliant. Lucy was adamant that a good script editor can make you run, rather than plod and that their job is a hard and valuable one which should be respected.  She said being a successful writers brings you into the spotlight but that the spotlight could just as quickly move off you and onto others. But even when she wasn’t being commissioned she never stopped writing. At the time it felt like everyone else was wrong but looking back she wonders if perhaps what she was writing during that period was not quite as brilliant as she might have thought it was.  In a later session on making disability visible in television drama, Lucy felt strongly that successful writers are privileged to have a voice that will be heard and that they have a responsibility to use that opportunity wisely. Her passion for writing was clear as she said that she would not live long enough to tell all the stories she has to tell and that is “really annoying”.

The brilliant Ashley Pharoah did a session on the art of pitching with some great tips and very funny anecdotes. While in the U.S pitching is a very polished process, in the UK his experience was that it didn’t matter how much you mumbled and laughed and struggled (though I wouldn’t recommend the mumbling bit!), as long as your passion for the project came through. Interrogate your idea before you pitch it and then have faith in it. Most importantly, you have to know why you want to write that project, what the truth is you want to tell and why only you can tell it.

There was an interesting session on Comedy Drama – a term that everyone concluded was reductive but was a useful way into the conversation. The panel was chaired by the lovely and talented James Wood and included Danny Brocklehurst, Sally Wainwright and Ben Stephenson who, to his credit, was there for the whole 2 days of the festival. All of the panel agreed that the shows we would classify as comedy dramas are really dramas with a sprinkling of comedy and a lightness of touch in the execution. Ben felt particularly strongly that a sixty-minute comedy drama couldn’t just be situational (as a thirty-minute sitcom might) but had to have a strong story motor. In a later session Toby Whithouse remarked that ‘Being Human’ is often referred to as a comedy drama but while his twenty gags in an hour of drama is considered funny, twenty gags in just half an hour of a sitcom but make it a spectacular failure.

To round off day 1 there was a keynote debate titled ‘Changing The Face of Drama’ in which a talented and passionate panel made a plea for the industry to represent the 10 million disabled people in this country in the dramas we write and commission. Lucy Gannon and Jack Thorne have both written television dramas that were about characters with disabilities but felt strongly that it was the responsibility of all writers to do more. Also on the panel was actress Lisa Hammond who gave a brilliant, articulate speech which really pinpointed many of the obstacles that appear to be in our way and offered solutions to each and every one of them. From my experience it is a fear of getting it wrong that most hampers us from even attempting it. Lisa also felt strongly that writers should just write brilliant characters and then advocate that those characters could be played by an actor with a disability.

Day two started with a fast, articulate and insightful masterclass from John Yorke on Storytelling Physics. Here are the titbits I tweeted on the day:

“Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric, out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry” – WB Yeats, in other words, from the conflict within ourselves we make art.  Conflict lies at the heart of us – we are all animals (with primal urges, needs and desires) but capable of rational thought and trying to moderate our behaviour to live in a group/society. Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for an overview of this.

Great characters are at war with themselves – there is a battle between who they really are and the facade they wish/choose to project to the world. There is a clear relationship between a character’s want and their facade and between their need and their flaw/true self. The traits that prop up their illusory self are what create their problems and the traits that they suppress are those which will allow them to overcome the obstacles, heal them and make them whole. Inciting incidents are explosions of opposites – the protagonist is confronted by the embodiment of everything they are not. In archetypal stories characters go on a journey to get not what they want but what they need and the ego-driven goal is abandoned.

John ended this tour-de-force with the bombshell that “none of this will make you a better writer”! I’d argue that it should never be used to at the beginning of the writing process but that understanding how archetypal stories are structured will give you the tools to fix stories and make them more powerful and more satisfying to an audience. As a script editor, they’re invaluable!

Next up was ‘The Reality of Film’ with the very talented and approachable Joe Oppenheimer. Joe’s opening statement was a brilliantly honest one that in film “you’ll earn less money, have less influence in the project and fewer people will see your work than anything you do in television”. It’s the director (not the writer) whose name will attract other talent and finance and drive the project forward.  Joe pointed out that the maximum production budget for a UK film that was unlikely to export well would be roughly £5million and that audiences have to spend just as much to see a low-budget film as they do to see an expensive, shiny, Hollywood blockbuster. Writers (via their agent) can approach BBC Films directly but they are not producers so they prefer to receive projects from production companies.  BBC Films are looking for films which embrace the specificity of being set in Britain but which have a universality that will allow them to export well. You also have to remember that because of the finance involved and the number of production partners required, the number of people who have to say ‘yes’ to a film is far greater than it is in television. I would also add that everyone who’s putting money into your film will want (and have a right to have) a say in your script. Expect a lot of notes!

Next up was ‘Meet the Commissioners’ with  Ben Stephenson (BBC), Laurie Mackie (ITV), Sophie Gardiner (Channel Four/E4) and Huw Kennair-Jones. (Sky).  All made clear that projects reach them via their in-house development teams or via independent production companies. Laura Mackie stressing the importance of finding the right production company for you and your project. All the commissioners are looking for a range of projects and all were adamant that a project needed to really feel like it fitted their channel and that the writer/producer understood their channel’s output. Chair Peter Bowker asked how they felt about projects that had already been rejected by other channels and none seemed to have a problem with this. Huw Kennair-Jones stressed that he wanted a Sky project to feel like it couldn’t work on any other channel but all agreed that if their channel felt like the right home, it didn’t matter if it had been turned down elsewhere.

Last up for me was a very funny and informative session with Jack Thorne and Toby Whithouse talking about ‘The Rules of Reinventing the World’. Both felt strongly that you must have a really strong vision for your piece and that establishing the rules of the world are a key part of the development process. Jack had to evolve the mythology of his world as the production budget restraints became apparent – from a character disposing of bodies by turning a lake to acid (shimmering gold) to setting fire to them in a caravan. Both found that the necessity of working on very low budgets made them better writers, forcing them to be creative in the solutions to production problems and constraints.

The BBC TV Writers’ Festival was a great opportunity to hear from those at the top of their field, to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Thanks to BBC Writersroom for organising it and see you there next year!

Why Nice Characters Are Boring

We’ve all done it – fallen in love with the characters we’ve created. Then comes the temptation to make them ‘nice’, to make sure that the audience will love them as much as we do. After all, what’s the point in creating a character that no one wants to watch?

It’s one of the worst things we can do to our characters. They need some redeeming qualities, sure, but if you sand down the rough edges too far they become unbelievable and uninteresting.

The best characters have just the right balance of qualities we admire and those we don’t. They need strengths, yes, lots of them, redeeming qualities, things about them that make us want to see them overcome their struggles. But they also need flaws. No one is perfect and if your character has no flaws I don’t believe in them.  It also means you can’t create any conflict or drama from them.

Make your characters intersting. Don’t let them always do the ‘right’ thing. I shouted at the telly when I watched Don Draper flatly deny Betty’s accusation that he was having an affair (Mad Men). I desperately wanted him to confess, to do the right thing, but Don is fascinating because he’s a car crash, not in spite of it.

We need to glimpse inside your character’s head, to feel we’re starting to understand them. Nice is fine, just as long as there’s a hint that underneath they might not be quite as nice as we first thought.

Emotional Truth

The recent furore over the current EastEnders storyline has got me thinking about what it is that we want from a drama and why this story has caused such uproar. For me the power of great drama lies in its emotional truth and I wonder if that is where the problem lies in this particular instance.

EastEnders has a great tradition of tackling difficult stories and doing so with sensitivity and integrity and no one is criticising the show for tackling the deeply tragic Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Cot Death).  As a mother of young children there was nothing more frightening than the idea of looking in on them wrapped safely in their cots when they were newborn babies and finding them dead. It is surely the most shocking and harrowing experience imaginable and EastEnders has every right to play such a story.

I don’t have any problem with harrowing stories about babies and my understanding about the majority of complaints is that they too don’t have a problem with the Cot Death story. I vividly remember watching the superb ‘This Little Life’ when expecting my first baby and although I wept through almost all of it I had nothing but admiration for those who produced it and for the BBC for showing it.

What some people (and it’s by no means certain what percentage of the audience those complaining represent) are finding unpalatable and unbelievable is the decision to use this story as a spring board for the much more rare baby-swap.

I wonder if there are two issues causing this reaction to the baby-swap element of the story.  The first is the emotional truth of the story. Having worked on returning drama series (medical and crime) and developing original dramas I firmly believe that drama should not be confined to the probable.  As long as it’s possible then it’s fine by me. What follows, particularly when tackling rarer types of behaviour (murder, stealing someone’s baby), is the tricky job of getting the psychology right so that you take the audience with you and they absolutely believe that this character would have behaved in this way in these particular circumstances.  In ‘Blue Murder’ we were telling the stories of ordinary people (not psychopaths) who were driven to murder. The hardest bit for me was always making sure that we believed that our character who had committed the murder would have done so in those circumstances. A huge amount of work went into character psychology and backstory in order to create the circumstances that would make the act of murder believable.

I am in no doubt that the hard-working team at ‘EastEnders’  did the research and tried hard to create those circumstances. For some reason (and not having not seen every episode that Ronnie has appeared in I can’t be sure either way) it feels as if they haven’t quite managed to carry all of their audience with them on Ronnie’s journey from bereaved mother to baby-stealer. I am sure that many in the audience have absolutely been carried and firmly believe the truth of Ronnie’s behaviour but clearly for some her behaviour has broken that bond of emotional truth and consequently feels contrived and implausible.

I also wonder if the other element causing such unease is the slight feeling that the show is using the Cot Death story simply as a means to play the baby-swap story. On a personal level, the combination of these two stories gives the impression that the show doesn’t feel that the Cot Death on its own is emotionally dramatic enough and so feels the need to ratchet up the drama.

We should be applauding EastEnders for tacking Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and I’m sure the story will have helped to raise awareness of this tragic occurence.  For me the furore reminds us of two important things. First that our audiences don’t watch our dramas passively but rather are emotionally invested and this is particularly true of returning drama series. The success of our dramas is down to that intense level of engagement.  Second that as storytellers we have a responsibility to tell stories that at their heart have an emotional truth to them. It’s a tricky balancing act – too much insight into a character’s unhinged state and we signal where our story is going, too little and we won’t believe their behaviour.

We should always remind ourselves that we make an emotional bond with our audience and if we play stories which break that bond we risk alienating the very people we seek to engage. However, self-censorship is a dangerous thing, we cannot please all of the people all of the time and we should never be afraid to tackle difficult and challenging stories. Be bold, be brave and be truthful.



Portrait of a Serial Copper

With crime drama perenially popular with television audiences it’s a genre that many writers will find themselves dipping into at some point in their career. Crime drama gives you a narrative drive and high stakes that are almost unmatched in other genres and, as Barbara Machin noted at the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, writers can use that format and structure to tell their own stories.

Having script edited ITV’s crime drama ‘Blue Murder’ and read more crime scripts than you can shake a stick out I’ve noticed some recurring problems at the early stage of the development process. For me it’s the investigating characters that lie at the heart of any good crime drama.  When you think of ‘Prime Suspect’ you think of Jane Tennison, think of ‘Inspector Morse’ and it’s Morse and Lewis that you remember and it’s those characters that keep us coming back. If they care about uncovering the truth, then so will we.

In many of the spec scripts I read there is a tendency for the investigating characters, most often police, to be there simply as plot functions, ciphers for the story which leads us to uncover the truth.  What’s almost always lacking is an understanding of who those characters are and what makes them tick.

Think about your character but then apply those traits to how they function at work.  What kind of copper are they? I’ve listed some questions you and the audience should be able to answer about any police characters.

Ambition – How did they end up here and where are they heading? Are they a beat copper or a graduate on a fast-track to the top? Are they happy with their rank or are they trying to get up the ladder? This will have a big impact on how they relate to other members of the team.  Are their colleagues a support network or their rivals?

Instinct – Are they methodical? Are they driven by their head or their gut instinct? Is this about the quick chase or a long game of chess?

Focus – Do they latch onto one theory/suspect and blinkedly pursue that? Do they refuse to rule anything out and try to simultaneously follow every lead?

Morality – Where are the lines in the sand they would not cross? How judgemental are they of those that cross those lines? What is their view on the criminal world in general, on specific known criminals and on murder (is a crime of passion ok but premeditated murder unacceptable)? How squeaky clean are they? What skeletons are in their cupboard and how do they justify those decisions? How do they view misdemeanors among their colleagues? Are rules drawn in stone or there to be bent or broken?

Obsession – How obsessive are they? Are they after the truth at any cost (moral, personal, financial)? Are they measured in their work, do they have a reasonable life outside work?

We need to know who they are, what kind of coppers they are, and then we need to see how their world-view affects how the story unfolds. What conflict is created by these characters’ differing views among themselves and with those they come across during the investigation? How do the strengths and flaws of the main police characters affect what actually happens.  For example, a judgemental copper might send a witness running scared while another copper’s more forgiving view might get them the information the team needs. So if you need to delay revealing something, you’d have the judgemental copper do that interview.

It might seem like stating the bleedin’ obvious but when you’re grappling with a complex murder story plot it’s amazing how easily the stuff we really care about, the characters, gets forgotten.

If you’ve got any other thoughts on creating great police characters I’d love to hear from you.

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!

The demise of authored television drama?

Since Tony Garnett’s article in The Guardian bemoaning the state of drama commissioning at the BBC (and Ben Stephenson’s response to it), there have been numerous articles written taking opposing sides.  Many fear that the lack of authored drama, and indeed in ITV’s case a reduction in the number of hours of original drama across the board, sounds the genre’s death-knell.

Hang-on, haven’t we all got rather short memories?  Rewind to 1998
and there’s uproar –  ITV gives its Wednesday 20:00 slot, traditionally
the home of ‘The Bill’, to ‘Airline’ a new docu-soap designed to help
ITV catch-up with the BBC’s dominant position in this genre.  Indeed,
by 1999 the following docu-soaps are strewn across our television

Airport (1996), Driving School (1997), Hotel (1997), Vets in
Practice (1997), Airline (1998), Cop Shop (1998), The Cruise (1998),
The Clampers (1998), Pleasure Beach (1998), Superstore (1998),
Lakesiders (1998), The Zoo Keepers (1998), Battersea Dogs Home (1998),
The Builders (1998), Paddington Green (1999), Children’s Hospital
(1999), Mersey Blues (1999).

Drama has always been one of the (if not the) most expensive genres
and it’s no great surprise that in tough economic times our television
commissioners cut back on it.  Channel controllers remember (again)
that they can schedule something much cheaper (reality tv) which
delivers ratings that aren’t too far off those achieved by the average
drama.  Of course, as ITV1 is discovering, cheaper, reality-based shows
might not deliver the same demographic (ABC1s are deserting ITV at the
moment) and it won’t win you many awards.

Ten years ago, as quickly as this obsession (audiences’ and
commissioners’) with cheap, reality television came, so it went.  By
2000 BBC1 had a major injection of cash and most of these docu-soaps
disappeared from our screens, to be replaced with…. yes, you’ve guessed
it, drama.

So we’ve been here before and we know that before long audiences
will switch off from great volumes of docu-soaps and channel
controllers will start to invest in great dramas again.  And I don’t
just mean more hours of the soaps and continuing drama series which
deliver good ratings at a fraction of the hourly cost of a one-off or
period costume serial.  No, I mean they’ll invest in bold, brave,
authored dramas, just as they have always done.  The numbers of hours
of such dramas may go up and down as our economy booms and busts but
they’re always there.  In the last twelve months we’ve had ‘The Diary
of Anne Frank’ and ‘Occupation’ (BBC1), ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ and
‘Freefall’ (BBC2) ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Affinity’ (ITV), ‘Red Riding’ and
‘The Devil’s Whore’ (C4), to name just some of my personal favourites.

However tough the commissioning process looks, however despondent I
might be when I look at the current television schedules, I know that
it’ll all come right again (if indeed it’s wrong to begin with?) and
I’ll continue to have the pleasure of watching some great television
dramas and, I hope, the pleasure of making some.