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!