Tag Archives: television drama

Creating An Original TV Drama Series

We all know that writing a killer feature film script is hard but how about creating a pilot script for a drama series; something that will be compelling not just over an hour, or a series of hours, but over years?

downton abbey

I’ve been working a lot recently with a couple of talented Script Angel clients who are creating original tv series on spec. Developing a new series is an ambitious undertaking and not something I’d usually recommend early-stage writers to attempt. After all, creating a single protagonist story over ninety minutes is challenge enough. But my writers love television drama; they are avid viewers, know the medium and envisage a career writing for it. In the UK you can’t impress a television exec with a spec of their own show, so writers have to create something original in order to demonstrate their abilities both to create original shows and to write on existing shows.

It’s reminded me of the challenges we face in developing that pilot episode script, which must do so much more than just entertain in its own right.

1) Be consistent. You might only be expected to write the script for episode one on spec (please don’t waste time writing the others) but in order to write the pilot you have to know your show inside and out. The pilot script must look and feel just like any other episode in the show. Having sat on the other side of the fence I can tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a pilot script that feels like one kind of show and then reading the series proposal which is pitching something entirely different! You need to have a clear vision for the series and the pilot episode must sell that vision.

2) Where to start? So how do you begin to shape your original Drama Series? The characters and setting will play a major role in the success or otherwise of your series. However, knowing what story form your show will take will help you to begin envisioning what your episodes will look and feel like.

3) The episodic series. Drama series can take two distinct forms. The first is the ‘episodic’ series, sometimes referred to as ‘story of the week’, whereby there is a new story each week and it concludes at the end of the episode. There are regular characters who return each week and often a recurring setting but the primary plot driving each episode is set-up and paid-off within one episode. One advantage is that viewers can miss episodes and still enjoy the show – you don’t need to have seen last week in order to enjoy this week. Most crime dramas take this form whereby the crime is investigated and ‘solved’ at the end of the episode; CSI, Sherlock, Castle, NCIS, Death in Paradise and also Call the Midwife.

4) The serialised series. In this form we tell stories over multiple episodes. These shows usually have a central character but also a significant ensemble cast around them in order to spread the story weight over multiple hours. Most episodes will move stories on for a number of regular characters. This is where a whole new skill-set comes into play as you develop multi-protagonist storylining. Examples include Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Breaking Bad.

5) The best of both? Of course you can combine the two and it’s typical for even episodic series to have a serialised element for their regular characters. Many of the UK’s long-running one-hour shows (Casualty, Holby City) started as almost purely episodic but became more serialised over the years in order to give the regular characters more rewarding material, thus also rewarding long-term viewers. Indeed, in the current climate it would be unusual for an episodic series to have no serialised element for its regular characters.

6) The story engine. Figuring out where your show will sit on this story form spectrum will help to determine where the drama will come from in your episodes. What is the central conflict at the heart of your show? Deciding how much screen-time is spent on the story of the week (if there is one) and how much on unfolding series-long story arcs will help you know what your pilot episode and all subsequent episodes will look like and where to focus your attention in developing the show. Of course, both your characters and your stories need to be awesome but in a serialised series the characters are even more important because they are your story engine.

7) Have a central character. Even with an ensemble cast we almost always come in to the show through one main character. Over time the show might expand out to give more weight to other characters but you can bet your bottom dollar the show didn’t start like that. If you go back to the pilot episodes of any long-running show it’s very clear who the focus of that episode is. Casualty today might look like an ensemble show with no lead character but the pilot episode was entirely focused on male nurse Charlie Fairhead. Downton Abbey began life focused on Lord Grantham, The Paradise centred on shop girl Denise, Orange Is The New Black focuses on Piper, Mr Selfridge might have a great ensemble cast but the title of the show tells you who is at its heart. You might have lots of great characters but we need to watch that first episode and know ‘whose story is this?’ The answer should be the same for the rest of the series.

8) Make them flawed. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than a boring central character whose most apt description is ‘nice’. While in a long-running series you may never complete your characters’ journeys as you would in a feature film story, you still need to know what that ending would be. Knowing your character’s flaws allows you to exploit them dramatically. The theme of the show (what it’s really about) is usually dramatised through your central character’s flaw. Your central character also needs to be in opposition to something / somebody and preferably to lots of things to give you an abundance of story riches to choose from.

9) Where are we? The story world, precinct or setting can have a major influence on your show, particularly on its tone and style. DCI Banks and Death In Paradise might both be cop shows but with one set in Yorkshire and the other on a Caribbean island they couldn’t be more different.

10) Establishing tone. Be consistent and make sure that your stories, characters, setting and writing style all work together to create a show that has a clear tone. Is it light and warm, easily consumable like Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife, Castle or NCIS, or tough and challenging but rewarding like Peaky Blinders, The Wire, True Detective or The Americans.

Putting all that together is hard. You need a story engine that can run for years. Your characters need to be flawed enough to be interesting but with enough redeeming qualities that we’ll keep watching them. But if you get it right, and the pilot script is executed well enough to sell that coherent vision, then you could really impress and, who knows, even get your show commissioned!

What Writers Can Learn from 4Screenwriting by Xandria Horton

One of the things that I love about Script Angel is its focus on opportunities for new writers, so the blog seemed an obvious place to summarise my recent experience as a Shadow Script Editor on Channel 4’s talent initiative 4Screenwriting – with some thoughts other writers can take from it.

4sw logoWhat is 4Screenwriting and why is it brilliant?

4Screenwriting is a broadcaster-affiliated talent scheme run by highly experienced script editor Philip Shelley, currently in its 4th year. For each year’s twelve selected writers, they are given six months to take an idea through two drafts of a commercial hour (46’) script, creating the first episode of a series or serial (ideally with Channel 4 in mind). The course also has a script editor training element; allowing shadow script editors a chance to develop their skills by working to industry-proven script editors.

The writers get a “sandbox” version of a script commission, with a small amount of funding, set deadlines and opportunities for notes from their script editor team at each stage – as close as you can get to a real script commission, without the production element.

Once the course is completed, writers can use their spec script as a calling card in the industry, creating a buzz with literary agents and production companies who are keen to be across talent coming through and hopefully resulting in meetings that further their careers. Success stories are numerous, most recently with alumni Anna Symon and Cat Jones, who have both gone on to write for primetime TV series.

So, with insights from me and my excellent fellow shadow script editors Carissa Hope Lynch, Harriet Davis and Joe Williams, I’ve pooled some tips writers can take from our 4Screenwriting experience:

Working with the professionals

The scheme introduces writers to the process of working with a script editor, which can be strange for writers used to working alone. It also introduces to writers the concept of the dreaded deadline!

What can you learn from this?: whilst you may have in place trusted feedback-givers, there’s really nothing like the impartial and constructive notes you will get from a good script editor or industry-proven consultant. In terms of meeting deadlines, it’s important that you make all and any writing deadlines you agree to. However, if something happens that is beyond your control, the best way to handle it is:

1/ to flag this as soon as possible to the appropriate person;

2/ tell them realistically what you can deliver and when; if one element is more urgent than the others, can you prioritise this and deliver within the original time frame?;

3/ agree a new deadline and move heaven and Earth to make it!

Network a.k.a. ‘it’s good to talk’

The scheme provides opportunities for writers to talk to others at similar points in their career, which can be greatly useful, both personally and professionally.

What can you learn from this?: Meet with your writer peers! Find or start a writer’s group on Meetup (they are all around the country) or attend events such as The London Screenwriter’s Festival or BAFTA Rocliffe and seek out friendly faces in the opportunities to mingle.

What’s in a TV idea?

Unsurprisingly, some ideas will only really reveal whether they will work in a series or serial format – if at all – after some exploration, so some writers had to use backup ideas or go back to the drawing board to find the right idea to progress to script stage.

What can you learn from this?: If you want to work in the industry, it’s essential you’re across British output; it’s as simple as that. Whilst it won’t ensure that every idea you come up with is a bona fide TV idea, you’ll get industry knowledge as to who is making what, and watching TV widely (UK, US, internationally) will develop your instincts on which stories intrinsically work in a TV format and which may be more suited to film or theatre. Even if it’s just the opening episode of every new series, it’s really useful to watch TV as broadly as you can.

Also, if you’re ever in a pitching situation (e.g. pitching to a producer for an episode commission on an existing series or pitching to a production company your own series ideas), however married you are to your favourite idea, it’s always useful to have a couple you’ve worked up a little as well in your back pocket, just in case you need them!

Writing to act breaks – a punctuation metaphor

For 4Screenwriting the brief was a script that would fit within a Channel 4 schedule, rather than a BBC full hour slot, so it was a new experience for many writers to write to ‘act breaks’.

What can you learn from this?: how this works this will vary depending on your story (and your broadcaster). However, we came up with a useful way of thinking about the shape of the story with act breaks:

If your story is a paragraph and each scene is a sentence, how you utilise punctuation is a great metaphor of writing to act breaks; ending those sentences before a break to ensure that the viewers’ interest is piqued. What’s the screenwriting equivalent of scene ending with a ‘?’, an ‘!’ or a ‘…’?

Many thanks again to the input from my fellow shadow script editors on this article; to the very brilliant and experienced script editor I worked to, Jamie Hewitt; to the three brilliant writers I was lucky to work with; and of course to Philip, for tirelessly working to make the course go as smoothly as it does each year. If you ever see him at a 4Screenwriting networking event, he won’t miss a moment to connect a writer to agents and production companies that might be useful to them. 4Screenwriting is a brilliant experience for writers and script editors coming through – long may it continue!

 

 

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.

Screenwriter Interview – Jamie Crichton

Ripper-StreetHayley: First of all, congratulations on being commissioned on Law&Order:UK (ITV) and on Ripper Street (BBC) this year.  Can I take you back and ask what was the first spec you wrote and how did you know what to do next with it?

Jamie: I was working at Really Useful Films and we’d optioned Michael Morpurgo’s book The Butterfly Lion. We had Richard Attenborough onboard to direct but the screenplay just wasn’t quite working. It looked like the project had derailed.  I knew the direction we wanted to go in with it so I went to my boss and said, ‘give me 2 weeks off and I’ll write it.’ He agreed and I wrote a new draft. My boss liked it, the director liked it.  Although the stars didn’t quite align for the project at that time, it was the script that crystalised in my mind that I wanted to be a writer. I knew that the script I wanted to write was what would become Bogland so as soon as I finished working at Really Useful Films I started researching and then writing Bogland, which was my first original script. I’ve redrafted it periodically since then but it’s still the spec that goes out as a writing sample.

H: Before the Michael Morpurgo project had you been writing in your spare time but just not taking it seriously?

J: Not really, I’d harboured ambitions to write but not really done much about it.  

H: Did you have notebooks full of ideas but just weren’t pursuing them?

J:. Everyone’s got half baked ideas that you spew to your friends after a few drinks but I had never really put them into any kind of coherent pitch type documents or treatments. Developing ideas seriously only really came about subsequent to Bogland and getting an agent.  

H: How did you know who to send your spec script to?

J: I didn’t have a clue is the short answer. So I did what most writers do; I got a list of the top 50 literary agencies and sent it to them all. 45 never responded at all, 5 wrote back saying thanks but no thanks. That’s a path well trodden by new writers. I guess what I learnt from it though is that nobody knows anything. So don’t take to heart the fact that 50 people didn’t like your script.  So then I went round everyone I knew telling them I had a script and took up any offer from anyone to pass it to someone they knew. I did have one friend who said she knew an American producer, Neda Armian (Rachel Getting Married) who was just starting her own production company, did I want her to pass it on to her. I said yes, as I did to everyone who offered, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it. Then Neda called me from New York and said she was really interested in producing it. It’s all about little steps, momentum, something leading to something else. Neda got me some meetings in L.A and I signed with an L.A agent before I had a London agent.  

H: So you’ve got a London agent, an L.A agent and your spec script’s been optioned by an L.A Producer, how did writing for Holby City (BBC) come about as your next step?

J: If you want to work in UK you either get lucky with your film script or you look towards tv. As it happens I think we’re in a golden age of tv and I think that there are great opportunities in UK tv. When I got an agent he quite rightly suggested we should look at tv but you’d have to be incredibly lucky to get any tv work from just a spec film script. He advised me to write a spec tv script – something that I was passionate about. So I wrote Obedience which is the first part of a four-part serial for television.  That was the script that got me Holby City.  

H: Did you do a trial script for Holby City before getting the episode commission?

J: Yes. I’d had a meeting with Simon Harper at Holby City after he’d read Bogland and he’d said I should send him a spec tv script. So after I’d written Obedience I sent it to him and he liked it and got me on the Holby City Shadow Scheme. I was really pleased that from that I did manage to secure an episode commission on the show – it was a real champagne moment.

H: So you’ve had a second episode commission for Holby City and now you’ve been commissioned to write an episode of Ripper Street, is that right?

J: Yes. Tiger Aspect had loved Bogland but I’m sure they wouldn’t have taken a risk on me without me having written an episode of something else. When I went in to meet the team, I made sure I’d watched the four episodes that had aired by then. I had 3 pitches up my sleeve for episode ideas for a Ripper Street episode. I knew they liked Bogland and wanted to play to my strengths. Since it’s yet to air I can’t give away details of the episode but they liked my idea. They then got me back to pitch that episode in more detail a few days later so I had to do a lot more work very quickly. They liked it and they commissioned me to write that episode for the next series.  

H: So between Holby City and Ripper Street were you looking to try to move on from the continuing dramas to the shorter run series?

J: Not consciously but after the first two Holby City episodes there was a sizeable gap before the next commission. It made me realise that I needed other gigs and couldn’t rely on Holby City to support me financially. I did another big wave of networking. You have to be quite media savvy as well. I did a lot of Twitter and LinkedIn networking and I’ve subsequently met a whole bunch of people who I contacted in that period. That’s all in addition to the work my agent was doing for me. The simple truth is that until you’re an established and respected tv writer you’re not going to be picking and choosing your next step – you’re taking the next opportunity that comes to you and doing the best job you can with it.  

H: Are you looking across the current tv landscape, finding shows you’d love to write for and figuring how to get on those shows?

J: Yes to an extent. I think it’s good to do that. One of the commonest questions at general meetings is ‘what other shows do you watch, do you like?’ My mind always goes blank at that point so I’ve had to make a list of my favourite shows and I look at it before I go to meetings! Also if your agent says what do you think about x or y or z, you need to have an idea about what those shows are.  

H: At the same time are you still writing spec material?

J: Not scripts right now, no, but I’ve been doing a lot of brushing up on my portfolio, my treatments. I’m starting to get interest in some of those ideas now. One has been optioned by Clerkenwell Films (Misfits) and I’m writing a bible for an idea I’ve sold to BBC Drama. Although a Treatment might only be 4-5 pages and might only hint at what’s to come it’s usually been distilled from a much more developed, much lengthier document. I’ve got about 12 projects in that early stage; roughly 4 films, 4 tv series, 4 tv serials.  

H: If you’re going in for a general meeting are you going ready to pitch all of those 12 or are you selecting a couple?

J: It’s usually just a couple. I’ve got a bit better at that. I used to be a bit blanket with it which wasn’t great. Sometimes you’ll know what they’re looking for, like they’ll say they want ‘crime series’ which can help, but I’ve got more specialised about what I pitch to whom. But you have to do your research, know their output.  

H: It looks like in a couple of years, since writing one spec screenplay, you’ve had this meteoric rise. Your spec’s been optioned by a US producer, you’ve written for Holby City, then Ripper Street and now Law&Order:UK. Do you have ideas now about what you want to be doing in 5 years?

J: It hasn’t felt meteoric! But yes I am thinking ahead. There’s always a clash of realism and idealism but fingers crossed the next writing project is one of my own original ideas.  

H: You seem quite focused on tv at the moment but are you tempted to go to script on spec with one of your film ideas because obviously the film script is an easier sell than the treatment.

J: If I had another spec film script already written I would now be trying hard to get that made. Bogland is a tough sell and there’s a chance it might never get made but even if that’s the case it will have served its purpose. Your spec still has to be the project that you’re most passionate and excited about, not necessarily the most commercial idea.  

H: If you did have a big enough gap and wrote another film script on spec, would you choose a project that was an easier sell than Bogland?

J: I don’t know. I remember after I’d had a week of stereotypical L.A meetings a few years back, (all hot air, ‘I can get Russell Crowe attached’ kind of thing) and most of them were saying ‘your next script – make it single male protagonist 35-45, box office friendly.’ Then my L.A agent said no, that’s the worst thing you can do. It probably won’t be any good because your heart and soul won’t be in it. Worse, if you get success with something like that you’ll be lost and miserable and people will expect you to keep writing that kind of thing. Obviously it’s a huge pressure for writers, figuring out how to get by. It’s a constant stress and unless you’ve got some other income I think you do have to have one eye on it.   

H: So, say I’m a writer with one completed script. I don’t know if it’s any good or what to do with it, what’s your advice?

J: Write to agents, use any connections you have, use social media. Don’t discount any opportunities, any types of approaches.   

H: It’s about getting your work read as widely as possible to get interest?

J: Exactly. You only need one person to like your script and believe in you.  

Thanks Jamie!

Jamie Crichton is represented by Fay Davies at The Agency    

Screenwriter Interview – Robin Mukherjee

lore-uk-quad-movie-posterRobin Mukherjee is the screenwriter of award-winning feature film ‘Lore’ (2012). He’s written ‘Combat Kids’ for CBBC and many UK primetime series such as ‘Casualty’ and ‘The Bill’, as well as numerous radio plays and theatre pieces.

Script Angel caught up with Robin to find out how ‘Lore’ came about and what it’s like as a screenwriter working  in both feature films and television drama.

So Robin, congratulations on ‘Lore’ which is a brilliant film. It feels like there’s quite a buzz about it. 

I think so. It has certainly been very well received, which is a great thing.  Of course it’s not a ‘blockbuster’, nor was it ever meant to be.  But we’re very happy.  And the audiences that I’ve seen – at Q&As for instance – have all been incredibly responsive.  People get it.  Which is all we wanted.  What’s been nice is that the release process is such a long one as the film goes out to the various territories and different festivals.  TV tends to be a momentary explosion, but this long, slow burn is definitely there to be savoured.

How did ‘Lore’ come about?

Paul Welsh, the producer, had read an early draft of Rachel Seiffert’s book and, I think, secured the film rights possibly even before it was published.  Paul had seen my earlier film ‘Dance of the Wind’ at the London Film Festival and we’d met at some point.  I think we understood each other.  I liked his sincerity and he seemed to like the way I tell stories.  ‘Dance of the Wind’ was very art-house, on the spectrum of watching a plant grow for ninety minutes to Spiderman.  Not quite staring at a plant, actually not at all like staring at a plant but, as I said, very art.  However, I’ve also got that discipline from Television of being able to communicate widely.  He sent me the book and I wrote a proposal for the adaptation. Scottish Screen supported the development, though it took about a year from liking our proposal to actually saying yes. Rohr Films came in early and stuck with it right through. Others came on board but disappeared, which seems to be in the nature of raising production finance. Rohr Films are an interesting company with a slate of quite experimental work where people are allowed to be brave and trust their instincts.  So it never felt like a prescriptive environment where I had to tick other people’s boxes. I was given free rein to tell it as I wanted, and then Cate [Shortland, Director] was given the freedom to bring her own vision to the story.

Did you hand over your script when Cate came on board or was it a collaborative process?

Paul and I met Cate in Berlin to talk about the story, to kick around the adaptation, and to ruminate on the themes and ideas we were trying to deal with.  I think we both work in a similar way.  We’re both instinctive rather than formulaic.  What matters is the truth of what we’re saying and finding the most truthful way to say it.  I don’t know much about inciting incidents and all that.  Stories are stories.  We know how they work.  We are stories.  You just have to tell it as you live it.  So we went very deeply into the material with a lot of research and feeling our way around the territory.  Paul was there to make sure we didn’t go insane with it.  Although you have to go a little bit insane.  There came a point when Cate prepared a director’s draft.  Which is exactly what we wanted.  She had to make it her own.  And what she produced, in the end, was an utterly committed piece of cinema.  You believe in the story because there is so much self-belief within it.

Was it a straightforward development process once Cate was on board?

Pretty much. Until we decided we had to do it in German. Then BANG. We lost at least a year. One of our major English funders backed out because they were only able to support English language films.

Presumably there was a point at which you handed the script over to Cate? Was that scary?

Not at all. The worst thing for a writer is if a director just shoots your script.  You want them to bring something to it. You want everyone to bring something to it – the Director, the designer, the DOP, composer, the Actors.  In a way Cate was working with different sources of material.  There was my script, the original book, all of our research, all of our thinking and, of course, her own perspective both personal and as a film-maker.

In television the director pretty much shoots the script that you’ve written. Were you worried that the film that emerged wouldn’t be the film you’d written?

Well, as I’ve said, you don’t just accept the collaborative process, you welcome it.  It is slightly different to television in which everyone is quite compartmentalised.  A film emerges from the energies of everyone involved.  Which is wonderful.  In the end it is the Director’s film.  Depending on the director.  Cate was offered this project for a reason, because of the way she makes films.  She makes it her own.  But then we’re all a part of it.  There’s a lot of fuss, often, in television about who did what.  But it doesn’t matter.  I’ve known producers who tell you ‘I thought of that’.  But the reality is they didn’t, and if they did it was probably wrong!  As a writer, the best ideas, the best lines and all of that, you don’t know where they came from.  They appear on the page and it might be that they’re responding to the way an actor moves his face.  But there it is.  Ego is no help in this process.

It sounds like you had a great experience on that film. You also write radio and theatre and tv. Do you write in all those mediums because different stories demand different platforms or because you feel you need to diversify to sustain a career?

I’m just a tart.  Seriously, I think all of those mediums offer something different, something exciting from a creative point of view.  I love radio because the word is so important, and you plug straight into people’s imaginations to create a mood that is very intense. I love tv because it’s so widely accessible.  You do something and you know that millions of people have been engaged with that.  Also tv gets made quickly. Film allows you to tell a big story with very deep themes, very layered.  You can also be more questioning and enigmatic perhaps, than in television.  Your audience accepts more experimentation, more risk.  With tv, you trade enigma for accessibility.  Which is fair enough.

How do you decide what to work on next? Is it a mixture of commissions and spec work?

Yes, that’s about right.  It’s a mix of things we’re asked for and projects we initiate, although the ones we initiate inevitably get swamped by the things we’re asked for. The trick is to be asked for something you wish you’d initiated. But there’s always stuff bubbling away. You have to find the right person and the right opportunity, the right moment in time to convince someone else of its worth.

Emerging writers often feel that if they could just break in and get that first credit that after that it’ll be a full-time paid job where the work just keeps coming in. Is it really like that, can you ever just sit back and watch the work come in and pick and choose or do you still need to hustle?

Many writers, when they first break in, have a flavour-of-the-month period, which may last a few of years, where every series is asking for an episode, and you’re run off your feet.  I think one has to be careful that it doesn’t become the entirety of one’s creative exploration. Television is great fun but you can learn to compromise too easily. You may have to curtail your creative ideas but at least you get things made. In a way, that’s the trade-off. But yes, the reality is that every project still needs hustle.  Even if a project comes your way and you’ve got a producer doing most of the hustling you still have to be part of that process. And it’s a necessary process. To have a sustained livelihood in the industry you need to be constantly fertile and proactive.  There’s no sitting back on your laurels.

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

There’s always the main focus. For me at the moment that’s a new feature film – we’ve got some production money and a director who is very much a part of the project. Then there’s another adaptation.  I like the book and we’re currently raising development money.  There’s another project in which a company has come to me with a new director they want to develop, which sounds very exciting.  Oh, and I’m also writing a book on screenwriting which I’m due to deliver in October. And then, of course, there’s the notebook, my scribbles, which is always festering with ideas.

Before you were a full-time writer, were you writing stories and did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?

Oddly enough, I was put into the remedial reading set in primary school because my reading was under-developed.  What happened was that the teacher would walk around while we read from the books we were holding.  One day she sat next to me and realised I was just making them up.  I thought that’s what everyone was doing.  Then she explained about all those squiggly things: written words.  I soon caught up but telling stories definitely preceded reading them.  I write for different reasons but mainly it’s to make sense of the world.  Or to try to.  I’m told if I don’t write for any period I become a bit grouchy.  So furthering one’s career was never the impulse.  Neither are prizes or money.  Writing is just wired into me.  In fact I didn’t have an ambition to become a professional writer.  One day my girlfriend sent a script I’d written to the BBC and they wrote back.  I couldn’t think why the BBC had written to me.  But they liked something in what I’d written and gave me a mentor, Tony Dinner, who I’m in touch with to this day.

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

In the early days I did all sorts of jobs, mainly because I couldn’t really commit to any other kind of career.  And of course I was writing.  I remember coming home from a gardening job one day, sitting on a bus, cold, wet, muddy and, frankly, pretty miserable.  I asked myself the question: if my writing only ever gets me to this place here, tired, grubby and broke, would I still do it? And the answer was yes.  I would.  I guess my advice is to ask yourself, do you have that commitment, that conviction?

Thanks Robin!