06 June 2011
TV scriptwriter Bill Armstrong talks about getting his first break on Doctors, writing the Indian Doctor for BBC TV and why he has learned to love script editors.
This is the transcript of an interview by Darren Rapier for a Writers' Guild podcast
Darren Rapier: Could tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got into, perhaps, acting to start with, and then writing.
Bill Armstrong: Well, I come from a long line of undertakers so it was a bit of a leap. I think it was probably the one thing my parents couldn’t tell me how to do, and so it had a certain appeal to it. I came to this country from Canada in 1975 and I auditioned for drama schools, got in, decided to stay and go to drama school and then after drama school I got a job playing Hamlet, so that seemed like a good reason to stay. And then by the time I finished that I got a job at the RSC and by the time I’d finished that I was married and I had a flat and I had cats – and I mean you can divorce, you can sell the flat, but what do you do with the cats? So that’s how I ended up being an actor in the UK.
Darren: And what led towards you writing, have you always written, or was it something that came from that?
Bill: Yes and no, I never wrote seriously. I wrote a lot when I was a kid. Shortly after I became an actor I did an Open University degree and then from that I went on and did a PhD and I did an awful lot of academic writing obviously for that. And when I stopped doing the PhD there was a period of a few years when I found it very helpful, a lot of the jobs you do as an actor are incredibly humiliating, and I found it very therapeutic to see the funny side of what I was doing and write up and I used to send letters to friends detailing the idiocy of some of the jobs I had done and found that I quite enjoyed it and that developed on… I did a film in Poland in 1991 I think it was, an absolutely bizarre film, the first private film that had been done in Poland after the [Berlin] Wall came down. It was a complete turkey and absolutely bombed but I was 13 weeks in Poland at a time when there was no infrastructure, you couldn’t phone back home, and we were put up in this bizarre villa on the outskirts of Warsaw that had been a communist party member’s house and the whole job was absolutely extraordinary. There was me, an American actress and this 10- year-old kid from Soweto whose father was a Jehovah’s Witness and they’d never been outside Soweto in their lives. The kid was delightful, I used to go around with him and seeing Poland through his eyes was quite extraordinary. When I came back to the UK I had this idea for a script and I wrote a script for that, and somebody at Sarah Radclyffe’s office read it and I did three or four drafts for them, and then I dropped it and I went and did my PhD. But then after that I then went back to writing – I wrote a couple of spec scripts, sent one of them away to [BBC TV series] Doctors and about a year later I heard back from them. About a year after that I got a chance to write a script for them and it sort of went from there.
Darren: What was your PhD in?
Bill: I used to go to parties and see how many people could stay awake for the duration of me telling them the title of my PhD, and generally most people would be asleep half way through. The title was British, French and European Political Responses to the Global Commodification of Film and Television – and very good, you stayed awake! That’s good, that’s good.
Darren: So Doctors was your first foray into professional writing?
Bill: Yes, well it wasn’t the first money I earned, I wrote a kidnap thriller and I sent it off to Warren Clarke, who liked it, and his business partner at the time optioned it. By then I’d been writing for two or three years I guess, and I was doing a film in Prague at the time and, there were only two nights in the course of doing this film that I actually drank far too much, and this was one of the nights, and I came back and I had a hotel room on the second floor of the Hotel Intercontinental, which faces onto a major thoroughfare, and the morning rush hour traffic and pedestrians, masses of them going through, and this night I drank far too much, and came back to the hotel room and clearly had gone seven rounds with my clothing trying to get into bed, and I can’t stand closed hotel rooms, so I flung open these massive plate glass windows to get lots of air, and had fallen into bed, and woke up in the morning hearing my mobile going, and struggled to find the thing, and when I eventually found it and answered the phone, and there was the noise of the rush hour traffic going on and I could hardly hear, and I had just gotten to the window and closed the big window when this bloke said he wanted to option my script, which is, you know, the thing you always want to hear but never really believe will happen. And I then had to deal with having a hangover, having to have a conversation that I’d never had before, not knowing what I was supposed to be saying, trying to sound intelligent, which was beyond me at that point, and I guess I was on the phone for about 10 or 15 minutes, and it wasn’t until I hung up that I realised I was standing in front of this plate glass window on the second floor of the Intercontinental facing the main thoroughfare stark bollock naked.
Darren: Has that worked its way into any of your scripts anywhere?
Bill: No, it hasn’t yet...
Darren: It’s in my next one! So then you moved on to Doctors, and how did you find that?
Bill: When I started doing Doctors I found it fiendishly difficult. And I thought it was them. And as I worked through, I’m now on my third script editor, the script editors seemed to get better each tim – and I’m slightly suspicious it might not have been the script editors getting better, it might have been me. But I now adore writing for Doctors, I really, really like it. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for writers. It’s the space and the freedom that you’re allowed there, I don’t think you’d get it anywhere else in British television. I mean my experience is very limited, and it’s a wonderfully efficient set up and, yes, I’m a big fan.
Darren: Would you consider writing for other TV or is there a reason you would stay with Doctors?
Bill: You’re offering work?
Darren: Well, unfortunately…
Bill: I’d write for anybody who paid me.
Darren: A good writer’s response, isn’t it? So how long were you on Doctors before the idea came up of The Indian Doctor?
Bill: The idea for The Indian Doctor wasn’t mine, it was a bloke called Tom Ware, it was his idea. He read a spec screenplay that I’d written, and on the strength of that he asked me to write The Indian Doctor, so it wasn’t my original idea. But I’d been working on Doctors for about four years before that came up. And it came up very suddenly. I was working as an actor in a play and half-way back from Cornwall I got a phone call from my agent and he said they want you to do this thing but they want the first draft, and this was about three weeks before Christmas, and they want the first draft by 1st January. So I said yes, why not? Went home and wrote 10 hours a day every day of the week until it was done. And then on the strength of that it got green lit, Sanjeev Bhaskar came on board and they asked me to write the other four episodes.
Darren: So, did that present a different challenge – suddenly having to write for that amount of screen time?
Bill: The challenges weren’t so much the script length, it was just a very different set-up. For a start, for budget reasons they decided not to have a script editor. And, although I appreciated script editors before, I now hugely appreciate the value of a script editor. Because that was very, very difficult. They were also comparatively inexperienced, they’d not done drama before, were learning as they went along, there were an awful lot of mistakes made and I didn’t have anybody else to fall back on for a long, long part of it. Fortunately, there was a director called Tim Whitby who came on, who is very experienced, and from that point on it became quite easy. But dealing with all kinds of problems that I’d never had to deal with on Doctors, there were all kinds of things that a script editor takes care of for you that you’re not aware of, that when they’re not there you become very, very aware of. Every script went into double figures in drafts and it was just an awful, awful lot of work. And I think there’s the huge challenge of being on your own, because when you’re writing for Doctors, or I suppose any continuing programme, there is a continuation there. I mean, most of the characters were given me when I started, but they were quite two dimensional at the time, so it was a case of building an entire world, which you don’t have to do with Doctors or any of the continuing soaps. So, there was kind of a lot more responsibility, things like I was never given any deadlines, it was up to me to set my own deadlines, and that’s again, not something that I was…..
Darren: There’s quite a lot of responsibility there, yes, especially when it’s a new series like that as you say. So, essentially, what were you given as your starting point for that series?
Bill: They had quite detailed outlines for all five episodes. Unfortunately, the thing was originally conceived as a sort of three-hander and it became a one-hander because of casting reasons, and I suppose it’s the same with everything, we were trying to adjust the blueprints while we were decorating the rooms. And they also had, for whatever reasons, the outlines were kind of packed with melodramatic incident, and I’m not sure whether it would be easier to come up with your own story or try to take that and rationalise it and make it coherent and make it all tie together. I kind of suspect that coming up with your own story would be easier.
Darren: Essentially on Doctors you have your story of the day, don’t you, which is yours, and you have your serial that you fit in, but here you were presented almost with a blueprint for a whole set of episodes that you then had to bring to life.
Bill: Yes, and they wanted, the BBC wanted a kind of version of a story of the day for each episode but it wasn’t anything like the story of the day in Doctors. In Doctors the story of the day is sort of, I don’t know, about 60% of the programme, in this it would be 5-10%. And sometimes, there were 10 main characters and an awful lot of interwoven, or an awful lot of sub-plots that needed to be interwoven to keep the thing together and to pull it back to the central character, which was incredibly difficult, you can imagine there are basically 10 sub-plots going on, or at least five or six sub-plots going on at any one time. And you want to keep trying to get it focussed on the main character, and there was something kind of intrinsically centripetal about it. I remember feeling at one point like I was writing with my head in a vice. But it was a great, great idea, and I think if you’ve got a great idea it makes it so much easier to go from there. If you have a mediocre idea you can kind of do any amount of work you like and it’s not ever going to pull together. With a great idea you can lose it, you can blow it, but you’re starting with a huge advantage.
Darren: And how long from that first phone call before Christmas to the January when you had to deliver?
Bill: The first script I think we had done seven drafts in five weeks and that was delivered to the BBC and then there was a further two drafts went to them before they green-lit it, and then I think another two after that. I think it was green-lit in early February, and they started filming the second week in June I think it was.
Darren: Had they started filming before you’d finished writing the last episode?
Bill: Oh god yes. And I remember being phoned at 5.30 in the morning one time and the director said you know there’s a hole here, I apologise for not having seen it and everything, but we really need a scene here and I wrote this scene which he filmed at 8.30 that morning. I text it to him on his Blackberry, it was mad. A kick bollocks scramble is kind of the way it was.
Darren: You’d have been better off being in a sleeping bag on the set, really, wouldn’t you?
Bill: Probably, yes.
Darren: It sounds, as often is the case, like a mad scramble to get everything finished and things; how did you find the whole process of seeing the show develop?
Bill: Fantastic. Because the first three episodes were in one block, and actually they were ready, pretty much. I’d never written anything and had anybody read it before, I’d seen things that I’d written broadcast but it’s not quite same thing to sit in a room with people and just an awful, awful feeling of embarrassment because when the lines didn’t work they kind of scream out at you and you just feel everybody in the room hating you and it’s just awful. But suddenly seeing how the actors could take what I’d written and make it work was just wonderful, because when you’re writing you hear it all in your head and everything and you try to, I suppose you’re constantly trying to write the perfect script and you forget that when an actor gets hold of it they’re going to breath life into it in a way that you never imagined. And most of the actors on The Indian Doctor were extraordinarily well cast and they did just an amazing job of it. And seeing them read it and seeing their appreciation of it was one of the best days of my life.
Darren: It sounds like you were involved a lot more than you would be on a daytime soap?
Bill: Much more. I worked with Tim Whitby, he worked very closely with me, what was very interesting working with him. You know that thing when you’re writing you’re always struggling to get what is in your head down on the paper. And it dawned on me there’s a second process, the person reading it has to get it out of the words and into their head, and both things are really quite a subjective process. And there will be good directors who can read your stuff and just not get it, and that’s not because you’re bad or they’re bad, it’s just a matter of sensibilities. Tim fortunately had the sensibility to get what I was trying to say really well, and to be able to help me get it out, which is why he’s such a wonderful script editor among other things. And therefore talking with him, in a way it went beyond just developing the script. It went into how he was going to film it, and indeed he would talk to me while he was editing and a couple of times I went down and sat in on the edit with him and it was fascinating watching. Watching the edits was almost as fascinating as watching the rushes, which is really crucifying because in the rushes there is nothing to hide the script and if you, a duff line just screams out. I would recommend any writer watch the rushes if they can because you really see which bits of your writing work and which don’t work, and you can really see when an actor is struggling with it, and that’s not always the actor’s fault. It’s incredibly instructive.
Darren: And at what stage in the process did you know that Sanjeev Bhaskar for instance was going to be playing the doctor?
Bill: Quite early on.
Darren: So did you have him in mind when you were writing the lines for that character?
Bill: Very much so, yes. But although, you know it’s a funny thing, because it’s tricky writing for somebody. When you’re writing, the character tends to take over a life of it’s own, so I can’t say I was thinking of Sanjeev. I always knew that Sanjeev would be perfect for it, but I wasn’t tailoring the writing for Sanjeev, if that makes any sense? I mean he’s kind of perfect for, what I loved about The Indian Doctor was that you have a series that’s set in this strange world, and the world is seen through the eyes of somebody who is an immigrant, and he’s kind of perfect, he has that wonderful sort of almost bumbling charm of somebody, like an innocent abroad drifting through this world of slightly mad people, and he knows they’re slightly mad but he’s kind of charmed by them, and that’s very much Sanjeev’s, I mean he has that kind of charm as a person and as an actor.
Darren: Yes, and going back to your own background, did you feel you started to recognise anything in your thoughts about that character, arriving in that little village, coming from Canada yourself, or?
Bill: Yes, I never really thought about it that much while I was writing it, but after it had been broadcast, there was a documentary called The Real Indian Doctors that Tom Ware did, and there was a couple in it, a very old couple, he was a doctor and she was his wife and she said during this interview that they’d had problems with his family that when they got on the plane she knew they were never going back. And that was the point that I realised there was a lot more about it that was autobiographical than I had realised, because I left Canada for very similar reasons, I’d never got on with my family. I can remember the first time I got on a plane to come to the UK, thinking this chapter of my life is closed and I won’t be coming back. It’s the difference between an immigrant and an ex-pat. An immigrant is somebody who has cut the root, and an ex-pat never does. And I did have a very strong feeling when I think back on it, at that moment, I mean, you know those moments in your life that you remember incredibly vividly, and that’s one of them and I think it’s because I had a very visceral sense of having cut off a root and starting something new, which was what all those Indian doctors did. It would have been a very, very huge move, and most of them ended up in places and they ended up in the back of beyond or in the worst inner city, so it was total antithesis of what they had known, urban sophisticated India.
Darren: I think for me that was what was interesting about the series. Immigration has often looked at people coming here to better themselves and to a better life, and a lot of those Indian doctors had actually quite good lives in India.
Bill: When I was doing the research I think the thing that struck me as most interesting is the number of doctors who talked about, you know, they’d had successful careers in India, but the real attraction was the NHS. We take it for granted. And we take it for granted that the NHS is a great thing for patients. But I remember this doctor telling me about how, you know, you didn’t have to advertise for patients. And you never think about that, but of course that is, and for them, it was a chance to do what they wanted to do without, you know it’s a bit like being an academic without having to struggle for research grants and all of that, they could just do what they loved doing and what they were good at. So, in a way, that was bettering themselves. But they were doctors, most of them came from upper middle class backgrounds, educated backgrounds, and obviously in the case of our story to end up in the back end of Wales, the Rhondda Valley, is a big leap, you know to end up in those sort of places was something of a shock to them, and also the weather.
Darren: As far as the process of The Indian Doctor and the way it panned out for you, would you want to repeat that? Would you want to have more control at an earlier stage?
Bill: Well, obviously one would always want more control, but the thing about television drama is that it is nothing if not a collaborative art and therefore however much control you have or don’t have, you are at the mercy of the people that you are working with, and it’s always a lottery. If you tend to find yourself with great people it’s going to be a wonderful experience and if you don’t then it’s not, and I think that’s probably true whether you’ve got control or not. I’ve never done anything where I’ve had a lot of control but I suspect that from the 30-odd years that I’ve been doing television it seems to me that chaos is endemic and so it would be, the possibility for chaos is as great if you were in control as if you’re not.
Darren: Has doing The Indian Doctor led to other things on the horizon for you?
Bill: I think it’s too early to tell, because things do move quite slowly. There isn’t much work around, it’s a difficult time. It certainly, but it has opened some doors, yes, definitely.
Darren: And you’re still writing for Doctors?
Bill: I’m still writing for Doctors, andI’m still writing spec stuff that I’m pitching to the BBC. Because I think the difficulty with being a writer these days is that you’ve got to really scramble to get work, and even while, I’m sure you know, writing for Doctors, deadlines are quite sharp but at the same time, scrabbling to make a living you have to keep writing spec work to move forward, so it’s a ridiculously time-consuming business.
Darren: And it’s quite difficult to allow yourself the time to write those spec scripts, isn’t it?
Bill: Yes, to find it, but I think, I haven’t been writing very long and I don’t know that many writers but the few that I know I think probably most of us probably need professional help, probably, we probably should be committed really.
Darren: And do you think your experience on writing The Indian Doctor has changed the way you look at either your own work or the way you write for Doctors?
Bill: Definitely. It’s made me much thicker skinned and therefore things that would have flummoxed me don’t. I mean the last episode of Doctors that I wrote was an abuse story, and I had written it from the point of view of the girl who was abused and my script editor had the very good idea that it would be more interesting to write it from the point of view of the mother of the girl who was abused. It was a great idea, but involved a kind of 90 degree turnaround at very short notice. I’m not sure I could manage that before The Indian Doctor ,so that’s what I mean about being thick skinned, I can cope with a lot more. Partly just because I think doing The Indian Doctor there was big element of taking a deep breath and just trusting it would come out the other end. And the fact that it did and the fact that it was a ratings success and won an award, all of that sits in the back of your head and you think, well, actually you know, that thing if you sit down and look at the blank screen or the blank piece of page and you think, who am I kidding, I can’t do this, but somewhere in the back of your head there’s a little person saying, well you did, and that helps a little bit, certainly.
Darren: And has it made editing your own work any easier?
Bill: I’ve always found editing easy, it’s getting to the end of the first draft that’s hard!
Darren: Do you have any advice for anyone who is starting out writing?
Bill: Well, for anybody starting out or trying to start out I think the best piece of advice a friend of mine ever gave me was that writing is like a muscle, the more you do it the stronger you get. I would say get to the end of whatever you write, first of all plan it out, don’t start writing straight away, plot it out and plan it out well before you start writing, but get to the end of the first draft before you start re-writing, otherwise you’ll never ever stop re-rewriting and you’ll never get to the end of the first draft. For somebody starting out in something like Doctors, I suppose thinking about my experiences, as hard as it may be, the script editor is on your side and wants you to succeed , because I think, the difficulty about being a writer is that nobody can teach you how to be a writer, you’ve got to learn for yourself, and it’s a bit like, the learning process is a bit like the Battle of Britain, if you survive you’ll be a writer, but if not you’ll crash in flames. I think there’s a limit to how much anybody can help you, you’ve got to do it and you’ve got to do it for yourself, but while you’re doing it don’t get paranoid about your script editor and the people giving you notes, they’re working under a lot of pressure and sometimes the notes don’t always add up and make a lot of sense, but they are on your side and they are trying to make your stuff work.
This is the transcript of a podcast that can be heard on the Writers’ Guild website, via iTunes or through the Guild’s app for the iPhone and iPad.