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
The Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands launches in Birmingham
The BBC's Midland region raises a quarter of the BBC's £3.6 billion licence fee take, but only spends 2% of its income in the region. Expenditure per licence fee payer is £804 in London, £82 in the north of England, and just £12.30 in the Midlands.
These statistics were presented to 80 actors, writers, producers and other television makers crammed into a Birmingham pub to launch a campaign to insist that the BBC gives more back to the Midlands region.
Speakers at the meeting included Equity's Tracey Briggs and Writers' Guild President David Edgar. Along with BECTU, the Guild is officially supporting the campaign. The last Guild Executive Council meeting passed a motion supporting the Campaign for Regional Broadcasting's demand that more BBC production be brought back to Birmingham.
As Tracey Briggs and David Edgar pointed out, BBC Birmingham has a proud history in both television and radio drama, and not just in the 'golden age' of the 1970s, when David Rose was producing groundbreaking plays and films by David Rudkin, David Hare, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. The Birmingham studios at Pebble Mill once produced 10% of BBC output.
Since the announcement of the move to Salford, BBC Birmingham has lost its pioneering factual unit to Bristol, the Silver St soap, and its last one-off drama producer. Its state of the art radio studio sits empty except for the few days a month of Archers recording. Its only television drama goes out on daytime TV.
Using BBC statistics, campaign chair Mike Bradley has calculated the huge disparity between what the BBC raises from the Midland region and what it spends. Nearly a third of what the BBC spends in London comes from the region. The aim of the campaign is to demand a fairer deal for the Midlands' television makers.
The campaign website has an online petition at www.crbmidlands.org.uk
An interview with TV storyliner and scriptwriter Kristy Jones
How did you get started in writing and storylining?
The first piece of work I wrote was a play for infant school children for a theatre in education company in south Wales. I only wrote it so I could direct the play; at the time I hadn't even thought of writing as a career and was concentrating on becoming a theatre director. It was a great experience, a four-year-old child won't sit down and pay attention to something that doesn't interest them. I got to see first-hand what worked and what didn't – there were a few rewrites during the first few days of the tour! My first storylining work was on Belonging for BBC Wales. I had worked with Sophie Fante, who's currently script producer on Casualty, on the first series of Torchwood. Sophie is a brilliant producer and mentor and now a good friend. On Torchwood Sophie was the assistant producer and I was a lowly trainee. She was brilliant at giving me opportunities and taking the time to explain how things worked, and coming from a theatre background to something like as huge as Torchwood, I definitely needed it. After Torchwood ended Sophie went on to work as executive producer on the final series of Belonging an she asked me to come along to storylining. I couldn't believe that you could sit in a room telling stories, having a laugh and getting paid for it.
What are the key elements of work as a storyliner?
A lot of it is creative, the actual creation of the stories and characters, but it's also quite technical and involves logistics. You have to ensure that there's enough content in each episode, that every episode has a dramatic peak. You have to use the appropriate number of interior and exterior scenes, make sure that your character count is accurate.
Having said that, every show is different. Soaps like Eastenders, Hollyoaks and Pobol y Cwm are very slick. They are massive shows with lots of different people working on them so the production system has to work. Hollyoaks and Eastenders had similar systems in my time. The writers would come in to a story conference every couple of weeks. Everybody would sit round a table and throw ideas around about what stories should be told over the next block of episodes. After story conference the story team would take all the ideas away and try to work out the structure of that story. We needed to decide things like how many episodes it would take to tell the story, how it would fit in with other long running stories, and if all the actors available to tell that particular story.
WPC56 is a new five-part television drama about a female police officer in the 1950’s, to be launched this March on BBC1. Series Creator Dominique Moloney explains how it all began.
Back in 2010 the producers at BBC Birmingham were looking to commission a returnable daytime crime series in the vein of Dixon of Dock Green. As fate would have it I had written a proposal about a young WPC in the 1950s, and Executive Producer Will Trotter liked it enough to take it through the various stages of development.
At the time I had over 20 episodes of BBC TV's Doctors under my belt, and had been lucky enough to work on all three series of another BBC series, Land Girls (created by Roland Moore). So the team at BBC Birmingham were familiar enough with my work to trust me with creating the characters and to begin story-lining an original series.
I have always been fascinated by 1950s culture, especially what it meant to be a woman in that decade. After a brief taste of freedom in the fields and munitions factories of World War 2, an entire generation of women were forced back into the domestic sphere. There were of course those who chose to pursue a career, but it was rare for them to venture beyond the limited gender roles assigned to them. This is why I wanted to tell the story of Gina Dawson, a young woman entering a traditionally male dominated world, having to fight daily to prove her worth as a police constable.
Rachel Murrell on the opportunities for children's animation writers overseas
Photo: What's The Big Idea? by Planet Nemo Animation
It happened again this morning. The postman delivered a DVD of a new pre-school animation I’ve written. I ripped open the envelope, put the disc in the DVD player, hit ‘play’ – and couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying.
It’s not the result of early-onset senility – not yet, anyway – but of a sustained campaign of pitching producers outside the UK. And while I’ve been able to get work from France, Spain, Belgium, Norway and Germany, sadly, I don’t have the language skills to match.
It all started in 2006 when I was un-agented and short of work, and I emailed dozens of companies in the UK and abroad offering my services as a scriptwriter. Most ignored me, but one or two of the Europeans wrote back politely asking for a CV. Producer Frederic Puech of Planet Nemo Animation in Paris was one, and he suggested we meet when he was next in London.
We met for tea in the British Library – I like to set the right tone! – and soon afterwards, he hired me to write 10 episodes of his new show Silly Bitty Bunny. My schoolgirl French, while embarrassing, turned out to be no barrier to me working with Fred, or his then script editor Diane Morel. Both speak excellent English, and got every joke.
As time went on, I found more doors open to me than I’d expected. Of course I wasn’t the first to knock on them: several of my fellow British animation writers work for producers in France, Germany and elsewhere in Northern Europe. The reason is simple. Many European territories have subsidies available that see a lot of shows go into development. But that’s not enough to make them work internationally. Animation is a global business. Shows have to sell. And many European producers are open to hiring British writers because we’re seen as good at the character, tone and humour that will make a show a global success.
Rachel Flowerday on her experience co-creating a new BBC drama series, Father Brown, based on the short stories by GK Chesterton
Photo (BBC): Mark Williams as Father Brown
On Tuesday morning I found myself standing in the Sainsbury’s magazine aisle. Mouth dry. Palms slightly sweaty. Because the following week’s TV listings magazines had just arrived, replete with reviews, interviews, articles… How had I ended up here, with the TX date of my first original series (co-developed with Tahsin Guner, another BBC Writers’ Academy alumnus) less than a week away?
It was all down to Ann Widdecombe. Thanks, Ann.
Back in 2011, Tahsin and I (at this stage, barely acquaintances, much less creative collaborators) were at the end of the road with a pair of original detective dramas we’d independently pitched to BBC Daytime through John Yorke and Will Trotter. Much as the Beeb liked what we’d invented, in order to risk their limited cash, they wanted something a little more bankable.
Roll up, Ms. Widdecombe. She had just put out a Radio 4 show discussing her favourite novelist – GK Chesterton – and his Father Brown short stories, about an unassuming Catholic priest who moonlights as an amateur detective. John pitched the stories straight-off to Liam Keelan (then BBC Head of Daytime), and within days, Tahsin and I were asked – independently – to create treatments, building a precinct and supporting characters around the central priest. Parish secretary Mrs. McCarthy first drew breath in an email to Ceri Meyrick, our producer, in which I pitched a 'doughty, no-nonsense 60-something lay second-in-command who’s kind of a mother-figure but who probably also slightly fancies him/dotes on him… someone to check facts for him, to protect him from the wrath of the diocese, to make sure he eats…' Some of that original email is now on the BBC Father Brown website in her character biog. That’ll learn me.
Rachel Murrell on writing for an animated series about the everyday issues facing 9-to-14-year-olds
As a pre-school scriptwriter, I don’t often get the chance to write about periods, snogging and priapic teenage boys. So when Ken Anderson and Sueann Smith of Red Kite Animation offered me the chance to help set up an animated series for tweens about ‘a group of friends on the rocky road to puberty’, I jumped at the chance.
The show in question – then called Girls’ Things – had been devised by director Mercedes Marro of Tomavistas in Barcelona. Ken saw its potential as light-hearted way to raise important issues for tweens about everyday moral dilemmas, difficulties in relationships, trouble with body image, etc. Confident that this would work for the BBC, he agreed to co-produce the show with Tomavistas, Dutch company Submarine, and Catalan broadcaster TVC.
I took one look at the show’s bible, and I was sold. The zingy design felt very original, and the fact that the scripts had to get across accurate information through character and comedy was the kind of challenge I love. And I wasn’t worried about lack of material. My own misspent youth was stuffed with enough accident and embarrassment to drive a fair few stories, and for the rest, I asked around. ‘What does an erection feel like?’ was a great conversation starter at parties.
No. What scared me was the breadth of the target demographic: 9-14 year olds. Kids in this age range have vastly different emotional and social understanding – not to mention different physiological experience. And that’s before you factor in the cultural differences between the three territories involved. Surely it would be impossible to write for all of them?
Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer were given the Writers' Guild prize at the British Comedy Awards in London last night. The writing and performing duo have created a number of memorable TV shows, including Vic Reeves Big Night Out, The Smell Of Reeves and Mortimer, Catterick, and Shooting Stars.
Other winners at the Comedy Awards were:
- Male TV comic - Lee Mack
- Female TV comic - Jo Brand
- TV comedy actor - Peter Capaldi
- TV comedy actress - Rebecca Front
- Comedy Entertainment Personality - Charlie Brooker
- Comedy Entertainment Programme - Harry Hill's TV BurpS
- itcom - Hunderby
- New comedy programme - Hunderby
- Comedy Breakthrough Artist - Morgana Robinson
The Guild has backed S4C’s refusal to scrap a repeat episode of soap opera Pobol y Cym following a complaint by the Welsh Government.
According to the BBC News Wales website, ministers complained after a character on the BBC-produced TV series said the Welsh government "doesn't have the backbone" to cull badgers.A planned cull in west Wales was cancelled in March when ministers decided to vaccinate badgers instead.
The Welsh government claims that S4C and BBC Wales, which makes the programme that has run for 38 years, have breached editorial guidelines and that the government has been denied a right of reply.
S4C, however, said the programme included a variety of viewpoints and repeated Wednesday's episode on Thursday as planned.
Guild General secretary Bernie Corbett congratulated S4C on 'standing up to the most bovine attempt at censorship in broadcasting history'.
One Guild member commented on Facebook: 'When soaps do try and be contemporary, and let their characters talk in a credible way about issues affecting their lives, they get this sort of [rubbish] from politicians. This objection is totally unreasonable – not a breach of guidelines – but it still causes trouble for the programme-makers and broadcasters.'
Writers' Guild Award to feature in ceremony on 12 December
The British Comedy Awards are back next month for the 22nd year and will include the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Writer(s) Of The Year. Our past winners have included Armando Iannucci, Sam Bain and Jess Armstrong, and Graham Linehan. The Guild members on the jury are Gail Renard, pictured above with Jury Chair, renowned producer and agent, Peter Bennett Jones (left) and writer David Quantick.
The programme goes out on Channel 4 on 12 December and, because it’s live, tends towards the controversial and edgy. Anything can happen and, as history has shown, it usually does.