Tag Archives: television

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.

Screenwriting Books

An updated list following some great suggestions from screenwriters of books that they’ve found particularly useful.

Poetics by Aristotle

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J Michael Straczynski

Making A Good Script Great by Linda Seger

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter

Inside Story by Dara Marks

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

The Tools of Screenwriting by Howard & Mabley

Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hague

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

The Soul of Screenwriting by Keith Cunningham

On Filmmaking by Alexander Mackendrick (about directing but with great sections on screenwriting)

Alternative Scriptwriting by Ken Dancyger & Jeff Rush

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapeter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (an insight into the creative processes and pressures of showrunning)

The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker (UK focused)

Writing Television Drama by Nicholas Gibbs (UK focused)

Happy reading!

Screenwriting Podcasts

Want to immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting? Listen to screenwriting chat and words of wisdom in these fab podcasts:

UK Scriptwriters Podcast – http://dannystack.blogspot.co.uk/p/uk-scriptwriters-podcast.html

Nerdist Writers’ Panel – http://www.nerdist.com/podcast/nerdist-writers-panel

What Are You Laughing At – http://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/british_comedy_podcast/

Script Magazine TV Writer Podcast – http://www.scriptmag.com/multimedia/podcasts/

John August Script Notes Podcast – http://johnaugust.com/podcast

Jeff Goldsmith Q&A – http://www.theqandapodcast.com/

BAFTA Podcast – http://www.bafta.org/

The Empire Film Podcast – http://www.empireonline.com/podcast/

On The Page Screenwriting Podcast – http://onthepagepodcast.com/

If you know of any others worth a listen share in the comments below.

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!

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.

 

 

Funny People

I was lucky enough to go to the Sitcom Mission Grand Finale earlier this week.  All five finalists showed flashes of comedy-writing talent but one sitcom (Thunderer) was head and shoulders above the rest.  It got me asking, why?  What did they do right that others didn’t?
 
Of course the obvious answer is, it was funny – every line was a gag, or at the very least the set-up for a gag.  But more than that, it was brilliantly crafted and the characters were pitched spot on.  Many of the pieces that night fell down because the characters were either so ordinary as to be impossible to laugh at or so big and monstrous that they didn’t feel real.  Great sitcom characters sit somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  They are almost always monstrous and ridiculous but only every slightly so.  Get it right and you’ve got Miranda, get it wrong and you’ve got Eric Slatt from Chalk (sorry Steven Moffat and David Bamber).
 
We want to believe that our sitcom characters could exist in the real world, could actually get by and function.  They should be characters we recognise, although never as ourselves, only ever as other people we know – ask any comedy writer and they’ll tell you that the people they’ve based characters on never recognised themselves! But if they are too ordinary they just aren’t funny.  They need to be slightly larger than life (David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Hyacinth Bucket, Father Jack or Maurice Moss) with traits that we recognise but that are exaggerated for comic effect.
 
I recently observed at a great sit-com workshop led by Green Green Grass writer Keith R Lindsay.  Everyone loved creating new comedy characters but to begin with no-one was thinking big enough, their characters were believable but just too nice.  It took the group a while to get the hang of just how exaggerated the characters needed to be in order to get any comedy out of them.
 
Of course, there will always be the more understated comedy styles, exemplified currently by the brilliant Outnumbered, but for a studio sit-com the characters need to be exaggerated for comic effect and the gags need to come thick and fast. 
 
So when you’re creating your comedy character make sure you’ve pitched them just right so we want to spend time in their company, but just not too much time or they’d drive us mad!