13 November 2011
An edited transcript of a Writers' Guild podcast
I suppose the first thing we’d better check is whether you’re happy with the term ‘soap’ because sometimes people prefer to talk about continuing drama - I know the executives seem to - rather than soap. What do you think?
Chris Thompson: It doesn’t bother me too much. I think I’m not too precious about it really. It is what it is isn’t it. And it is continuing drama but if soap’s a useful shorthand then so be it. It doesn’t offend me.
Dawn Harrison: I’ve always thought of it as a soap.
How did you come to be writing for TV?
Dawn Harrison: I started off as a teacher and then I became a youth worker. When my kids were little I started writing - children’s fiction to start with but I found it a lot easier to get good feedback about the television stuff I was writing. So I wrote a couple of original scripts for kids, teenagers, sent those off and that led to being invited to pitch stories for Doctors, which I did. I was very lucky and got eight episodes in my first year. So it was a fairly easy decision to give up being a teacher, being a youth worker, and do it as my full-time job.
Chris Thompson: I was also a teacher and I became a Deputy Head of a big comprehensive school. Then I realised that I was moving further away from teaching English and Drama, which is what I began doing. I started writing plays for kids and I sent various scripts off to television companies, all of which were rejected. And I entered a competition in the Radio Times to write a half-hour radio drama/comedy with the potential to be a series. That was in 1985. It didn’t win but it was shortlisted and it got me the chance to produce a radio drama at Manchester. I didn’t give up the day job straight away. I had two small children and was the main breadwinner. But over the next three years I sold another five radio plays so I had a bit of a CV. I gave up teaching in 1989 and within two years I got a job on a daytime soap called Families, which was Kay Mellor’s first show. I didn’t have an agent. I blundered in – this is how not to do it by the way. Roy Barraclough (who played Alec Gilroy in Coronation Street) was in my second radio play. And when I decided I’d try and get into television I wrote him a letter asking him to pass on my details to a television producer. Which he did. Granada were having a workshop for writers to work on Coronation Street and though I didn’t get that job, two or three of us were given a job on Families. One of my contemporaries on that was Sally Wainwright, who’s obviously gone on to great things. From then onwards I did a lot of work with Granada over the years. I also fitted in a stint on The Archers and in 1996 I joined Emmerdale.
Could you talk a little bit more about how necessary it is to give up your full-time job, and how difficult a decision that was?
Dawn Harrison: There are a lot of Doctors’ writers who don’t do it as a full-time job. A few of them only have a few episodes a year and it’s perfectly possible. I was doing a jobshare job as a youth worker so for me it was quite easy to give that up and just do Doctors full-time. But I went onto Holby City very early, after just three episodes of Doctors and that was a huge culture shock. I had no idea really of the kind of rigour and the drafting and re-drafting that was required and I really found that very hard.
Chris Thompson: I’d had quite a successful teaching career and I was faced with the prospect that the next move would be to be a Head or an advisor or something like that. I’d got a track record in radio and I decided that in order to break into television, which I wanted to do, I’d have to give it serious attention. So I gave up my secure pension and salary. I did a little bit of part-time teaching, just so I was earning something and I became the house-husband. I was working from home, so I was able to take our kids to school and then after two years I got my breakthrough into television. For the first year when I wasn’t really earning very much, I used to look in the top drawer of my desk see my final salary slip as a teacher. I used to get that every month. Gosh! But I mean once I got into television and got regular work then that ceased to be an issue.
How useful do you think that background as a teacher has been for you as a writer?
Chris Thompson: It’s been useful on two levels I think. You do have a certain amount of life experience. I was in my 30s when I sold my first radio play. So you’ve had children, you’ve got married, you’ve done the job that isn’t just in a nice cosy studio or a theatre, you know some not-so-cosy places. And, secondly, the nature of the job that Dawn and I do involves script conferences where you have to sit round a table and argue your case for a particular story or a particular character. And because teaching by definition involves contact with all sorts of people every day of your working life, that I think gave me a certain confidence in terms of being able to pitch stories, fight my corner, and join in the general merry mayhem that is a script conference.
Dawn, you’re writing for Emmerdale at the moment and you have written for Doctors, as you said - how different are they to work on?
Dawn Harrison: Really different. You know Doctors has I think about ten regular characters as opposed to Emmerdale which has over 60. In Doctors you have your story of the day which is normally about 60% of the episode. And that will always be your spine, so you’re always writing around a story, which is very different to doing your little bit of a story document. Emmerdale at the moment has about 24 writers, so you’re involved every month. You go to a conference every month and discuss the upcoming month’s storylines for days. We also talk about the episodes that we’ve got commissioned that month to just iron out any things that we don’t understand. The contracted writers with Doctors are invited up in a rotation, but in my experience that means you might go every couple of years, so it’s not the same at all.