Writers, actors and crews are campaigning against swingeing cuts to Pobol y Cwm, the soap produced by BBC Wales in Cardiff and screened on the Welsh-language channel S4C.
In a surprise move the BBC and S4C announced that the show would be cut from five to four episodes a week, would take an annual two-week holiday, and would have its omnibus edition scrapped.
The broadcasters blamed a 36% cut in S4C’s funding – a loss of £40 million over four years, which has already led to staff redundancies. They also cited a “change in viewing habits”, and scheduling changes following S4C’s loss of a contract to televise rugby matches.
Following an angry meeting attended by Pobol workers, at which executives sought to explain the changes, the unions representing them have organised talks with the BBC and S4C. The Writers’ Guild will be in talks in Cardiff on 31 March.
Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett said the combined cuts would result in 60 fewer episodes a year. “This has impacts on all areas – on writers, performers and crew, as well as the whole status of the Welsh language. We will meet with the BBC and S4C, and we will express our concerns and ask them to reconsider their decisions.”
Corbett also said the cuts were the result of the BBC licence-fee settlement agreed between the BBC and the government in 2010, which saw the BBC take responsibility for funding S4C: “Pobol y Cwm is the victim of the ridiculous decision to make the BBC fund S4C, which we were very much against at the time. This has proved us right, as we said at the time it would be the start of a slippery slope for Welsh-language broadcasting.”
In a more positive development, S4C has suggested that it would like to screen more varied drama – when the channel opened there were two new drama nights a week.
The Writers’ Guild deplores the latest cuts announced by the BBC and the impact they could have on writers’ livelihoods.
There has been a double-whammy this week with the announcement that BBC3 is to move online and that the long-established Welsh soap Pobol y Cwm is to suffer a big reduction in the number of episodes commissioned and the scrapping of the weekly omnibus edition .
All these developments could have a devastating effect on writers’ earnings.
Guild negotiators and committee members will be in key meetings with the BBC in London and Cardiff over the next few days to establish the facts about the cuts and to discuss the impact on writers.
Writers’ Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett said: 'This is the fallout from the terrible deal former BBC director-general Mark Thompson made with the incoming coalition government in 2010, to freeze licence fees for six years. Of course he is now an ocean away and doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of his crazy secret pact with the coalition.
'We welcome the new D-G’s statement that he will abandon "salami-slicing" cuts that only deliver equality of misery on all parts of the BBC. Instead, bold and difficult cuts will be made. But the end of BBC3 is a shock to the system. We will be meeting BBC executives over the next few days and weeks, and we will try to ensure that the pledge to reinvest £30 million of savings in BBC1 and BBC2 drama actually comes about.'
Guild negotiators will be meeting BBC Wales in the next few days to discuss the implications of the drastic cuts to Pobol y Cwm.
Writers owed £250,000 for series screened in Europe
The Writers’ Guild has accused two European broadcasters of 'effectively rewarding criminal behaviour' after they screened a major children’s TV drama series for which the writers are still owed £250,000.
The writers, who are all Guild members, claim the move sets a 'bizarre precedent' that could have wider ramifications for creatives across the entertainment industry.
The five UK-based writers of the 26-part series Which is Witch (dubbed into French and broadcast under the title Sorcières Mais Pas Trop!) say producer Phil Ox, of company I Love Television, owes them £250,000 collectively, despite the fact the scripts were completed around a year ago and the series is now being broadcast in France and Belgium.
The writers have spent the last year requesting the money owed to them, and had hoped broadcasters Radio Television Belge Francophone (RTBF) in Belgium and Canal J in France would agree not to broadcast the series until they had been paid for their work. The writers believe they were duped into signing contracts based on Ox’s promises that all the finance for the series was in place.
However, both broadcasters have started showing the drama, with the writers claiming this sets an unwelcome precedent that could see other TV channels follow the broadcasters’ example.
The Writers’ Guild has made a formal protest to both broadcasters, but despite this the drama is still being screened. Requests for the broadcasters’ assistance in obtaining payment from the producer have also been ignored. The broadcasters claim that the producer has supplied them with all the necessary paperwork to enable them to have the legal right to broadcast the show, regarding the situation as a dispute among 'suppliers' and not their concern.
The Guild’s lawyer said: 'Both broadcasters are content to exploit the writers work in full knowledge that they have not been paid while washing their hands of any responsibility. From the writers’ point of view it is little better than theft'.
Minimum fees for BBC TV writers are going up by 2% with effect from 1 November 2013, bringing the flagship rate for a one-hour teleplay to £11,040 – the second increase this year. The new rate for series/serials is £10,020 per hour.
Children’s drama and comedy, and any scripts under 15 minutes, will be commissioned at a minimum of £184 per minute, with online-only commissions at £92 for teleplays and £84 for series/serials. The minimum for television sketch material is £103 per minute, or £83 for children’s sketch material.
Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett said: “This is another example of the Guild’s determination that even at a time of large BBC cuts, writers should not get left behind. These increases are fairly close to the latest inflation figure of 2.2% and compare with a pay rise of 1% or £800 for BBC staff.”
A full list of all new minimum rates is available to download. These rates are negotiated under three separate collective agreements by the BBC, Writers’ Guild and Personal Managers’ Association (representing writers’ agents). They were last increased by 1% on 1 January 2013, and will next be revised with effect from 1 November 2014.
Lend your support to the new campaign from the Writers' Guild
'We really like your loaf of bread but we haven't got any money to pay for it.'
If that doesn't work in Sainsbury's why should it work with writers' ideas?
The past few years have seen a disturbing increase in the amount of work that writers are being asked and expected to do for free. While this has long been a problem with small, new or simply unscrupulous companies, it is fast becoming the industry standard even for large, well-resourced production companies dealing with established writers with significant credits to their name.
More and more, writers are being offered ‘shopping options’, asked to do ‘sweepstake pitching’, bake-offs’, free rewrites and ‘pre-writes’ – all for no money. It is becoming the norm to ask even established writers to write a trial script before they are even considered as a writer on a long running show – in some cases when they have previously written for that very same show.
The unpaid commitment now routinely expected of a writer constitutes weeks of work and time consuming, expensive research. If it is unacceptable to ask other professionals to work for free then it is unacceptable to expect writers to work for nothing. How are writers to feed their children and pay the mortgage?
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is launching a campaign ‘Free Is NOT An Option’ to address the problem of writers being expected to work for free. The campaign will highlight the scale of the problem and challenge production companies and broadcasters to address indefensible practices that are in no one’s best interests.
To give statistical weight to the campaign two online surveys have been published, ‘Free Is NOT An Option’ and ‘Free Trials’. The findings of the surveys will be confidential and anonymous and only used as statistical evidence in publicity campaigns and negotiations with major production companies and broadcasters. The surveys are open to all writers (whether Guild members or not) and can be accessed via the following links.
Free is NOT an Option https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/X8L8F2R
Free Trials https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XL8H6KP
Closing date of survey 1st January 2014.
Christopher Reason on how his family's experience of mental health problems have shaped his life and his writing. The article is based on a speech he gave to the 'Time to Change' Mental Health Conference at the Royal Medical Society.
I've been invited to share my experiences of 'writing about mental health'. But as soon as I started to think about this, I realised that virtually everything I write is about mental health. That's because my work is almost always character centred. Whether it's soap opera – I've been on the EastEnders writing team on and off for nearly 20 years – or any of the adventure stories, political thrillers, comedies, domestic dramas that I've written, I always begin with the character. The reason for which will become plain.
So how do I create a character? My starting off point is: 'We're all nutters but some of us are nuttier than others'. For there's a continuum that stretches from relative mental health (I'm not sure if I've ever met the person who was entirely sane) right through to psychosis, and all of us dwell somewhere on that continuum. Nor is it a static point we occupy. One day we might be feeling fine, then something happens – a bereavement, a separation, an illness - and we find ourselves struggling to cope. How we handle or mishandle this crisis is what teachers of creative writing like to call a character's journey or their arc. A leading character's arc is often congruent with the plot – in many cases it is the plot – so understanding the psychopathology that underlies a person's character has always been crucial to me. Other writers, and I'm not knocking them, take a completely different approach. They think of the big concept – Independence Day or Avatar say - and only then create the characters that will fit into it. One approach is not better than the other, they're just different.
So why do I take this character driven, psychology centred approach? That's entirely bound up in my own personal history.
WGGB supporting the WGA: (left to right) former WGGB Chair Robert Taylor, Anne Hogben and Roger Willams
A response from the Writers' Guild on pay and scheduling
The Writers’ Guild is resisting BBC proposals that would cut many children’s writers’ upfront pay by 20% - just as the BBC Trust praises children’s output but calls for both higher productivity and fewer programmes.
The pay issue has its roots in the decision a year ago to take all children's programming off BBC1 and BBC2 and concentrate it on the daytime channels Cbeebies and CBBC. Until now writers of drama and scripted comedy shows for children (over 15 minutes) have been paid their fee plus a subsequent use advance of 100%, recognising that most such programmes would be broadcast on both the network and the specialist channels. This is in line with the principle that 'primary' channels pay the advance while 'secondary' channels don’t.
Although Cbeebies and CBBC are now the BBC’s only television services for children, the corporation still regards them as 'secondary' and wants to cut the advance from 100% to 60% - equivalent to a cut of 20% in the upfront payment. To sweeten the pill, the BBC has offered to keep the advance at 100% for current writers for three years – at which point the cut would be imposed. New writers would go straight on to the 60% advance.
The Guild and the Personal Managers’ Association (representing writers’ agents) have rejected the proposals and have called instead for Cbeebies and CBBC to be re-categorised as primary channels, to recognise the importance of children’s programming as one of the basic pillars of the BBC. Negotiations are continuing.
Meanwhile the BBC Trust, red-faced after the row over executive pay-offs, this week issued a comprehensive review of BBC children’s services, described by Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett as 'baffling, confusing, and pointing in all directions at once'.
Having recently left his development producer role at BBC Writersroom, Paul Ashton has joined Creative England as Senior Film Executive – Talent Development. Richard Bevan talks to him about working with writers and his book The Calling Card Script (2011) exploring the challenges writers must overcome.
Richard Bevan: What led you to write The Calling Card Script?
Paul Ashton: What the publisher really liked about my idea was that it was cross-media, it wasn’t about how to write a film or a play, it was about what the universal characteristics might be across different kinds of writing, where the similarities are and where the differences break in. The unique thing about the book I think is that it takes in theatre, radio, television and film in one go and don’t separate them out. This is partly because of a consequence that I’ve been working across for many years.
Was there one particular thing that you were particularly keen for the book to say to writers?
Yes, I had a strong feeling that in the current climate writers should not close off opportunities. Some of the best writers are moving between different mediums, forms and formats and graduating from one and then going back. Some of my favourite writers like Dennis Kelly and Jack Thorne are theatre writers, they’re radio writers and they’re TV and film writers. They do all of them differently at different times but don’t have an artificial distinction between them.
Martin Day on nine years of writing for Doctors
I’ve been writing for Doctors, BBC One’s daytime serial-drama-not-soap-unless-we’re-up-for-the-UK-Soap-Awards, for a little over nine year. I’ve never been a contract writer, guaranteed a certain number of commissions, but even so have managed to write 13 episodes in that time. That’s about one every eight months (maths never was my strong point). Or, to put it another way, each one was like a baby in script form (neither was biology).
So it’s pretty obvious that there are far better writers than me out there, who have written more episodes of various soaps and dramas, much more quickly. Still, with the creative life being as precarious as it is, I remain grateful for these ports in the freelance storm. And, however you slice and dice it, nine years is quite a long time to devote to anything. I’ve watched pretty much every episode during that time. I’ve lived with the characters almost as much as I’ve shared time and insight with friends and family. I’m used to writing for it. Never confident, but I think I have some sort of understanding.
It’s got me thinking about what benefits can come from such a longstanding commitment to a single series. First off, let’s look at this selfishly, from my perspective as a jobbing writer. I think I’ve learned a bit about writing in general, and scriptwriting in particular. I’ve always considered myself a slow learner (you should read my first TV tie-in novel… On second thoughts, no, really, don’t – it’s like a black hole of compacted awfulness). So I can confidently state, hand on heart, that I’m better (or less bad) than I was. Usually less ‘on the nose’, often crisper. I’m better at getting to the point, and getting out again. I know when to do subtle, and when to state the bleedin’ obvious. (This is TV, not Chekhov.)
I’ve even reached that stage where sometimes I hear a script editorial voice at the back of my mind warning me of the heffalump trap I’m just about to blunder into. Much better to avoid said traps than to ignore the shouted warning and desperately reposition yourself on the map later.
William Gallagher on what to write between the dialogue
Alan Plater used to read my scripts and you know that he was tremendously useful, you know he was kind. But let me say it anyway: he was terrifically useful and he was really kind, most especially on the very first one. The Strawberry Thief – I still like the title – got the full Plater treatment in the 1990s and I've remembered every word he wrote me.
The key part, I think, was what you'd now call a praise sandwich or at least a criticism with a bit of a praise topping. He told me that my stage directions had regularly made him laugh aloud, but that my job was to get that life and humour into the dialogue instead. Because, after all, the audience never sees the stage descriptions.
I also remember that when I next did a script, his key comment was that I'd done this, I'd got the energy into where it could be seen. He said it was 'a great step for writer-kind'.
I've only recently realised quite how much he shaped me in how I write descriptions in scripts. I'm a dialogue man, I'm a dialogue fan, that's where I would've said I put my attention and effort and – however much it is – my talent. No, I'm hesitating over that word. Can I go again? I'm a dialogue fan, that's where I would've said I put my attention and effort and – however fast it is – my typing.
But I wrote a book about Alan's The Beiderbecke Affair and he has great descriptions in there. What's more, he wrote them with a very canny eye toward getting cast and crew to read them where usually they, well, don't.
'That’s right, actors don’t,' said James Bolam in my book. 'You go yeah, yeah, but his you read. I mean, his stage directions are worth a read in themselves. They’re so funny, some of them, and they’re so evocative. They create the mood that he wants, that he feels, that he thinks. They’re all done in the same way, not sort of stuck in there but part of the narrative.'
He also had a way of writing just the right amount. He'd conjure that mood in a very short line and sometimes they'd be funny, always they'd be efficient: you'd get his point immediately and you'd enjoy getting it. So – again, I'm ripping off my own book here, but – take this for an example of apparently simple, short, description. It's from The Beiderbecke Affair:
SC. 11 EXT. TREVOR'S FLAT – NIGHT
Establishing shot of Trevor's flat. The cityscape of Leeds, lights shining like it was LA.
Jill Hyem recalls writing alongside Anne Valery, who died earlier this month
I first met Anne on the BBC TV series Angels which was about a group of student nurses. It was my first television job and an early one of hers. The six writers had been called for a photo call. Five of us arrived looking apprehensive and dressed as we thought serious writers should be dressed. Rather drably. Suddenly a glamorous figure sailed in wearing white and what looked like an Ascot hat. Enter Anne Valery.
Little did I know then that in a few years she and I would be co-writers on the 1980s series Tenko. We worked closely together for almost five years. Anne was one of the most eccentric people I've ever met. She had a very colourful backgound and regaled everyone with extravagant stories of her past adventures. I once worked out that had she done all the things she claimed to have done she would have been about 105. But that didn't matter. She was such a marvellous raconteur.
We always wrote separately but spent endless days together researching or spending weekends at her mother's cottage in the country discussing the characters and storylines nonstop. I had given up smoking shortly before, with the help of hypnosis. Anne used to puff smoke into my face all day, seemingly unaware of my streaming eyes and continual snuffling. We both felt strongly about the feminist aspects of the series and frequently presented a united front against the entirely male production team who often tried to soften or censor things they felt women would not say or do. Having been in the ATS Anne could more than vouch for the authenticity of their language.
During the last series the BBC paid for us both to go out to Singapore while they were filming there. Unfortunately the producer would only let us remain at the company hotel for a week and refused to let us prolong our stay at the Beeb's expense. So Anne and I went and chatted up the manager at Raffles and ended up with a free suite each. However we maliciously told the producer that we had met a very kind lady in China Town who had offered us a room with red lights outside. The poor man nearly had a fit. We had so many laughs along the way, as well as fights.
Anne was flamboyant, funny, fierce, fantastical and enfuriating. I shall never forget her.
An obituary by Nick Yapp
The actress and writer Anne Valery, who has recently died, was a long-time member of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and a key player in the Guild’s unending fight to protect writers from censorship in all its forms.
Her acting career began in 1949 with modest parts in several British films, including that of Clothilde (the girl in the punt) in the Ealing Comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. Over the next ten years she appeared in nine films and two BBC TV Series (BBC’s Sunday-Night Theatre and The Vise). As a writer, her credits included Emmerdale, Crossroads, Angels, Crown Court and, most significantly, Tenko, for which she and fellow Guild member Jill Hyem wrote the bulk of the 30 episodes.
Every decade involves the Guild in at least one battle against censorship, and a Censorship Appeals Committee became part of the Guild’s armoury from its inception in 1962. There were regular protestations from both the BBC and ITA that they were not in favour of censorship. ‘In the normal sense of the word,’ wrote Huw Wheldon (Controller, Programmes, BBC Television in the late 1960s), ‘there is no censorship in BBC Television.’ But Mary Whitehouse had her followers and her friends within the industry, and an attitude of ‘we know best’ was adopted by many producers and commissioning editors. The Guild Censorship Committee was kept busy.
Valery was Chair of the Guild Censorship Committee in the 1990s, at a time when battle was joined on the issue of quotas in the film and television industries. In an article for Writers’ Newsletter, then the Guild’s journal, Valery argued that contemporary writers for British films and television were facing a threat similar to that created by the Cinematograph Films Bill in 1937 – the Bill that led to the creation of the Screen Writers’ Association, the direct ancestor of the Guild. Failure of the British government to withstand US pressure after WW2 had resulted in an almost complete annihilation of the British film industry. Valery believed the threat had returned, some 50 years later. ‘Already,’ she wrote, ‘the US has swamped our television drama slots with programmes undercutting all others. They dominate satellite television; control BskyB and five national newspapers, provide over 90% of videos; and are taking over our publishing houses… Even radio is not immune…’ In Valery’s opinion, the only way to counter this threat was to follow the European example – the EU had recently directed member states to ensure that at least 51% of programmes transmitted by their television stations was of European origin.
Thatcher did not accept Valery’s view, and that particular battle was lost. But all of us, as members of the Guild today, are grateful to Valery for the role that she played and the work she did on the Guild’s behalf in that particular battle and on a day-by-day basis. There is no Guild Censorship Committee at the moment. It lapses from time to time, but is regularly reformed as and when it is needed. The fight goes on.
Nick Yapp is the author of the Writers' Guild official history, The Write Stuff