Tag Archives: EastEnders

Screenwriter Interview – Daisy Coulam

Daisy Coulam is a British screenwriter who has written for ‘EastEnders’ and ‘Casualty’ (BBC) and last year wrote the new hit ITV show ‘Grantchester’. Here she shares with Script Angel’s Hayley McKenzie her screenwriting journey.

Hayley: Huge congratulations on the success of your drama Grantchester (ITV) which has been recommissioned for a second series. Can you tell me a bit about the project and its journey from idea to production?

daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDaisy: Thank you! Diederick Santer and Dom Treadwell-Collins who were working at Lovely Day approached me with the book. I knew Diederick from EastEnders days and he thought I’d like the sad gentleness of James Runcie’s writing and characters. He was totally right. I read the book in 2 hours on a train journey and fell in love with Sidney, Geordie, Amanda, Leonard, Mrs M and Dickens.

We expanded a couple of ideas in the book to make serial strands – like Sidney’s wartime past and his love triangle with Amanda and Hildegard. But basically the blue print of the series was all there in the novel.

It took 2 years from acquiring the book to getting the commission. I was on honeymoon when I heard that we’d got the green light. My husband and I celebrated with beers in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest which was pretty surreal…

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise that you wanted to be a screenwriter and that it could be a career?

DC: I used to write stories when I was little – they were always pretty ropey and I never finished a single one of them. I was a procrastinator even then… I’ve always loved films and TV and reading though so maybe that set me in good stead.

I never considered writing as a career until I became a script editor in my twenties. I loved working with writers and it seemed such an appealing way of life. Being freelance, having control over your own working day etc.

I applied for the BBC Writers Academy using a script I’d re-written at The Bill (ITV). I never considered that I’d get on the course – there was so much competition and I didn’t feel like a ‘real writer’ – but when I did, it was like everything clicked into place.

HM: What was the first script you finished and what made you write it?

DC: I have a confession to make – I’ve never written my own spec script. The first script I wrote properly was my EastEnders commission via the Writers Academy. What made me write it? Fear of being sacked! To be honest, that fuels every script I ever write – I’m not sure the anxiety of being hoisted off a project ever goes away.

HM: How did you get people in the industry to notice your writing?

DC: I worked my way up from the inside – first as a runner then a script editor and storyliner. There are a multitude of ways in to writing but this route worked for me. You learn so much working on a production and you meet a lot of lovely people (people like you Hayley!). These people then go on to work on other shows and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a network. Without having to do one of those scary networking events where you get nervously drunk and can’t remember what you’ve said.

I was lucky. I had friends who trusted that, even when my first drafts were dodgy, it would all work out. I think writers need that space to make mistakes. Because – let’s face it – no one writes a perfect first draft.

If you do, I salute you – you’re my hero!

HM: How did you get an agent?

DC: My way of getting an agent was a little topsy-turvy. I didn’t find one until I’d finished the  BBC Writers Academy. Bianca Lawson who worked at Casualty at the time put me in touch with Hugo Young at Independent. He’s a dude and has been my agent ever since.

My advice about agents would be – don’t worry about it too much at first. I know that’s easy to say but there seems to be this horrible Catch 22 – you can’t get a job without an agent – you can’t get an agent without a professional piece of work.

Try and be relaxed about it – focus on writing something you’re proud of. The agent will follow…

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just get their first screenwriting credit then the work will start flooding in and they’ll be able to sit back and pick the opportunities. Is it really like that?

DC: Yes and no. There’s no doubt about it, once you get a credit on IMDB  people sit up and take notice.

But that’s not to say you can take your foot off the pedal. ‘You’re only as good as your last script’ is horribly accurate. In my experience, you have to keep proving yourself script after script.

There will be bumps along the road – I’ve been sacked – most writers I know have at some point. It’s an ego-bruising experience. But you have to learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back to work.

On a positive note, you inevitably improve as you write more. My latest scripts are miles better than my first ones. And you get tougher – the knocks hurt but not quite so much.

HM: How many projects are you actively working on at any one time?

grantchester - daisy coulam - screenwriter interviewDC: I must admit, I struggle with this. At the moment, I’m working on Grantchester Series 2. But I have three other projects on the go which have had to take a back seat for the moment. In my experience there’s a very fine line – take on too much and you burn out, take on too little and there’s a risk that in a year’s time, you’ll still have nothing off the ground.

I think you just have to work on instinct. If you’re weeping at your laptop at 10 at night whilst consuming a family pack of Jelly Babies, then you’ve probably got too much on your plate…

Learning to say no is bloody hard. But it’s absolutely necessary.

HM: Are you focused on television drama or writing for other platforms, like feature films?

DC: There’s so much going on in Television at the moment – and so many wonderful shows being produced – that I’m very happy where I am. I’d love to write a film one day but the right idea hasn’t shown itself to me yet. I’m ever hopeful that it’ll pop into my head one day fully formed…

Do you always have to write a spec script to pitch a project to a producer or are you pitching with a two-line idea or a treatment?

DC: If you can boil your idea down to two lines, then I think you’re onto a winner. If you’re itching to write the script, that’s fine. But be aware that people in those (generally terrifying!) meetings want you to be able to sell your idea succinctly.

HM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

DC: Don’t be discouraged. You will experience knockbacks and rejections. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Keep the faith – you are great!

Conversely, have the humility to realise that you’re not ALWAYS great. If someone gives you notes on a script, listen to what they say. If the notes make you angry, it’s probably because deep down you know they’re right. Or it could be that they’re wrong and haven’t read your script properly. But mostly it’s the former. Damn them…

I’ve found that sometimes it takes just one person to believe in you before everyone else follows suit. If you can find that one person – be that a producer or script editor – stay in contact with them. Not in a stalkery way. But if you have a genuine connection with someone, you never know where they’ll end up and where that will lead you.

Hayley: Thanks Daisy!

Daisy: No worries!

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.