Chris Thompson explains how he came to write a how-to guide for continuing drama
Early in 2007 I was approached by Aber publishing to come up with a book explaining how to write soap opera. Aber specialises in academic study guides for school students through to postgraduates, but also has a series of Creative Writing Guides on its list. A previous title, Writing TV Scripts by Steve Wetton (author of Growing Pains), had proved successful over time and the publishers felt there would be a market for a new book dealing specifically with the challenges of writing for one of our immensely popular continuing dramas. There are other books on the market dealing with the topic, but it seemed a good idea to take a fresh, up-to-the-minute look at the dark art.I felt qualified for the task. I cut my teeth as a TV writer on Kay Mellor’s daytime Soap Families in the early 1990s, worked on Russell T. Davies’s late night, high camp Church of England romp Revelations and, at the time I was approached, had been a member of the Emmerdale writing team for nine years, contributing well over a hundred scripts. (The figure now stretches beyond two hundred.) Earlier in my career I had also managed to fit in a stint on The Archers, writing 150 episodes. So you could say I was steeped in soap, or rather soaked in it.
My first task was to write a sample chapter and so I put together what I thought was a lively, informative piece about Character, looking at some iconic figures in the history of soap. Packed with anecdotes, it wasn’t quite ‘you’ll never guess what happened round the conference table, or ‘The Soap Awards – the untold story’, but it wasn’t far off. And neither was it what was required. Perhaps one day, assuming I can afford a good lawyer, Confessions Of A Soap Writer might see the light of day, but that’s for the future.
Having been told, politely but firmly, that I was not providing what was required, I adopted a far more structured approach, based on the acquisition of skills. The idea was to take the reader through the process of writing for a soap, step by step, so that by the end of the book, they would have know exactly what was required to work for such a programme. Each chapter would be supported by a series of exercises, to reinforce the particular skill.
Before I began writing in earnest, I produced a chapter by chapter breakdown, showing how the various building blocks would be put in place. Looking back, that was probably the key task in the whole process. It was important to put myself in the place of the writer new to soap, or indeed, new to any kind of television writing. Once I had the structure in place, the writing was fairly straightforward, as I had a focus and context for my accumulated wisdom, such as it is. In some ways the exercise was similar to the process of writing a soap episode, where the choreography, the interweaving and crossing of various plot strands, has to be firmly put in place before a word of dialogue or a single stage direction can be written.
As we first reported in August, the campaigning body Save Kids' TV is joining forces with the Children's Film and Television Foundation to become the Children's Media Foundation (CMF).
In a statement Save Kids' TV, which the Writers' Guild has supported, said:
The CMF’s remit will be dynamic and evolve to suit the ever-changing needs of the audience and the industry. However it will be built on the following foundations:
- Its purpose will be to pursue quality in children’s media of all kinds, on all platforms.
- It will speak for children and young people, who, as a group, are frequently disenfranchised and ignored.
- It will also act as a critical champion of the children's media industries and provide briefings and information to government and the media.· It will act as the Secretariat for the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children’s Media and the Arts.
- It will work with the academic community to stimulate and disseminate research around kids and media.
- It will provide online resources and organise events and meetings on children’s media and the issues of current concern.
- It will provide a focus for parents, educators, children’s charities, policy makers, and the press, on all matters relating to children and their media lives.
- It will be professionally managed and supported through fundraising
The Writers' Guild of Great Britain (WGGB), along with other international writers' guilds, has lent its support to a protest by the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) against ITV Studios in New York.
The WGAE is demanding that ITV Stuidos, which produces highly successful scripted reality television programming, give its American employees the same rights as those afforded to WGGB members under our agreements with them in the UK.
WGGB General Secretary Bernie Corbett said: 'The Writers' Guild of Great Britain fully supports the WGAE. I have a meeting with senior ITV management later this week and I have insisted that this issue is on the agenda.'
David Croft, one of the great British comedy writers and producers, has died at the age of 89.
(photo: Simon Denton/WGGB)
David Croft, a long-time member of the Writers' Guild and winner, with his co-writer Jimmy Perry, of a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, co-wrote (with Perry) some of the best-loved and most influential television sitcoms including Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Hi-de-Hi!
With Jeremy Lloyd he also wrote hugely popular sitcoms including Are You Being Served and 'Allo, 'Allo.
As Dennis Barker writes in an obituary in The Guardian, Croft 'did not need a marketing survey to tell him what would make audiences laugh. If he found a comedy idea or script funny, he reckoned that it might well amuse others.'
Croft was appointed OBE in 1978.
Gail Renard, Chair of the Guild's TV Committee, writes:
David Croft was one of Britain's greatest comedy writers and producers, a Guild member and a gentleman.
Dad's Army was originally written and broadcast 43 years ago and is still as loved today as it was then. How many other comedies will stand the test of time?
I dare say if David was starting today, he'd never have had the career he had. David wrote what he thought was funny, based on his experience... now there's a novel thought. Would Dad's Army, a show about geriatric men playing at soldiers even make it past a Readers' Room or committee today? Imagine the report:
It doesn't appeal to a young 20s -30s demographic. The setting is drab. No sex; no stars or a part for the current Flavour of the Month stand-up. Pass.
And Dad's Army wasn't the only series David Croft wrote. Any of us would be proud to base a career on Hi-de-hi! or Are You Being Served or any of his countless hits.
David made many millions laugh for decades and we’re all the better for it. My condolences to his family; including former Guild Chair (and my agent) Mike Sharland, and also to his long-time writing partner, Jimmy Perry.
The latest issue of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe (FSE) newsletter is now available to download (pdf)
Editorial by Christina Kallas, President
European Policy: Looking for Opportunities for TV and Film in the Online Age:
- Greenpaper on Online Distribution of Audiovisual Works
- Public Hearing at European Parliament
- State aid for Film, an Evaluation
- Creative Europe : What future for MEDIA? • Digital Age: Challenges for Film Heritage
- London Screenwriters Festival
- 2nd Spanish Screenwriting Meeting
- International Festival of Screenwriters in France
Droit d’Auteur and Copyright:
- Digital Uses : Who Pays for Private Copying?
- EFJ publishes Handbook for Journalists
The Writers’ Guild had a hyperactive week at the Trades Union Congress, speaking on key issues including the BBC licence fee and cuts to arts funding
This year’s conference was held in London and was much reduced in size, which meant the Guild was entitled to only a single delegate. That representative was Gail Renard, chair of the Guild’s TV Committee, who was one of the most energetic speakers in the section of the agenda devoted to arts, entertainment and the “culture industry”.
The Guild proposed a motion calling for the BBC licence fee to be unfrozen, and deploring the vast amounts of BBC cash diverted away from programme-making into the digital switchover and the migration to Salford.
The Guild motion also questioned the policy of allowing the BBC to take over the Welsh-language channel S4C – a subject on which our Wales Branch has been highly active.
We supported an Equity motion calling for a better deal for workers in the massively important creative industries. It also highlighted the launch of the Lost Arts website, which is keeping a full record of all projects and organisations lost due to Government cuts in funding.
And Gail went to the microphone again to back a Musicians’ Union motion pointing out the “emotional blackmail” of expecting performers and entertainers to work for nothing in support of charitable and fund-raising “good causes”.
A new rates card (pdf) has been issued confirming the 10 per cent increase in minimum fees agreed between ITV, the Guild and the Personal Managers’ Association (representing agents). The above-inflation rise was negotiated earlier this year in return for concessions on late-night repeat rates and came into effect from 1 May 2011.
The new rates are:
- Original Teleplays £12,650 per hour slot length
- Series and Serials £9,900 per hour slot length
- Long Running Series £3,300 per half hour slot length
For more information on the agreement see the second part of this transcript, from a podcast recorded last year.
A Writers' Guild & Birmingham Book Festival event with Paul Ashton from BBC Writersroom
Monday 10th October 2011
Library Theatre, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3HQ
How do scriptwriters get themselves noticed? How do they then get themselves developed and commissioned? And how do things really work at the BBC for new, emerging and even experienced writers?
Demystifying the process will be Paul Ashton, Development Producer at BBC Writersroom whose job it is to find and nurture writers for BBC drama, comedy and children's programmes. He recently published The Calling Card Script, a book designed for anyone wanting to write an original script that speaks their voice and gets them noticed.
Writers' Guild Members £4
Box Office: www.birminghambookfestival.org 0121 446 3232 (via Midland Arts Centre Box Office)
Stuart Murphy (below) is Director of Programmes for Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky2 and Sky3 and Director of Commissioning, Sky Entertainment Channels. When he joined Sky, having been Controller of BBC 3, he pledged to create more home grown shows and crank up comedy on the main channel. Richard Bevan met him to check on progress.
What ingredients make up a scripted Sky show?
We’re aiming for Sky1 to be a family entertainment channel. All the scripted content on the channel needs to appeal to everyone from age 15 to 50. I think the perfect show as an example and one of my personal favourites is Modern Family which takes a big broad theme, has big actors and loads of different entry levels. I have two sons and the 11-year-old feels that it’s for him. I’m 39 and I feel it’s for me! It’s that kind of comedy-drama. So everything on Sky1 has to feel broad. There are certain times of the day when not all the family will watch at the same time but it’s certainly got to feel broad and deal with big themes. BBC3 on the other hand is about new talent, new British talent and really untried, untested things. Yes, I still look at BBC3 and I get excited when they use new talent but disappointed when they do something that’s derivative that somebody else is already doing.
There’s an emphasis on comedy at Sky, but what characteristics do a Sky comedy require?
When it comes to new British comedy on Sky1 it needs to definitely have A-list talent and to be a familiar area that all of us have been in or familiar with. You need to feel that the characters on screen are people that you’ve either met or they live next door to you, or you that know that kind of person. I think high concept stuff or really niche topics just won’t work on Sky1.
Would a successful ‘cult’ show like Misfits work on Sky?
I think a show like that is too young to be honest. All the cast are of a certain age and they all talk in a way that is quite ‘youthy’. I like the fact that it is distinctive and I think on Sky shows like Lost or House are distinctive but Misfits is just too niche. If we were doing that show it would have a much broader range of characters. We’d also want it easier to get into, have more high energy and be less surreal. But it’s got a good sense of humour which is definitely Sky1.
We’re now seeing an increasing amount of home grown content on Sky – is that due to you?
Yes! There’s a few reasons for it, mainly that when I first turned up at Sky1 it was so dependent on US content. The problem with that being that loads are competing for it, so it’s expensive. Another is that when you’re trying to get the channel to feel more in touch with British audiences it’s difficult to do with loads of American shows. I believe that if you put scripted stuff on a channel people (the audience) tend to feel warmer and love it more than if it has documentaries on. It just gets to your heart straight away.
Richard Bevan reports from the BBC's Something For The Kids symposium, featuring Connal Orton
Over the past few years much has been said about the declining commitment of British broadcasters to children’s television production. With occasional exceptions from the commercial sector, it is mostly now left to the BBC to be the main producer of content for channels such as CBBC and CBeebies.
A recent symposium, ‘Something For The Kids’ run by the BBC writersroom and the University of Leeds, demonstrated the keenness and enthusiasm of writers to write for children. The event was so successful that extra room had to be found in the building to cater for attendees who came from a multitude of backgrounds, including journalism, creative writing and children’s books.
At the same time the event was a reality check for would-be children’s’ TV writers as they learned about the pressures on British producers in a market dominated by a plethora of digital channels offering internationally made product. Against this onslaught of ‘generic’ kids’ shows and channels devoted to cartoons, the BBC is still uniquely committed to making comedies and dramas for British children. Hopefully the department’s move to Salford’s Media City will see more investment and rejuvenation in this very important part of broadcasting.
After presenting an impressive showreel showcasing current and new programmes including Tracy Beaker, M.I. High, The Sparticle Mystery, Histories Horrible, Leonardo and the teenage comedy show Sadie J, the audience was then given the low-down on what CBBC is looking for in terms of content as Connal Orton, Executive Editor for CBBC, answered questions.
How should writers approach creating shows for kids as opposed to adults?
Connal Orton: Fundamentally, I don’t think there’s an enormous difference between writing for teens and writing for adults. They all involve telling stories that are relevant to that particular audience and can be understood and enjoyed by that audience. It’s the same thing, finding interesting and fascinating characters, compelling dramatic dilemmas and having some level of engaging mystery to it.
Should writers take into account the economic pressures facing producers and write material that has international appeal, rather than simply entertaining British audiences?
I wouldn’t say that the international thing is necessarily important, in fact in some senses I would suggest that writers shouldn’t think about that because producers know the market and how to put those deals together. I think sometimes when writers try to create something that is a bit more culturally transparent or international, it actually just feels a bit wishy-washy and rootless.
By Gail Renard, Chair of the WGGB Television Committee
Let me start by saying I have every respect for BAFTA. I’m a member and also a proud BAFTA Award winner and, if I could, I’d use the picture from that moment as my passport photo.
But writers have been coming to the Guild with a grievance. It's been a concern that, for the past few years, BAFTA has shifted the Writer Award to their Craft Awards, which is no longer a part of their main televised Television Awards.
Added to that, BAFTA only give one award for writers, covering wildly different genres. In this year’s category were the one-off Eric And Ernie; comedy series Getting On and The Inbetweeners, as well as the dramatic mini-series, Five Daughters. These shows are all superb and award-worthy in their own ways, but how can one possibly (and fairly) compare televisual chalk and cheese?
Over the past two years, the Guild’s Television Committee has written to BAFTA on several occasions asking them to reconsider. Our requests have been sadly refused. In answer to our members’ continuing pleas, the TV Committee proposed a motion which was passed unanimously last week: 'The AGM would respectfully ask BAFTA to reinstate writers as part of the main awards, where they clearly belong. The writer is the creator of any work.'
We also asked BAFTA for separate comedy and drama awards for writers; as there already are for actors and every indeed other category.
As ever, let’s remind the world that without writers, there’d be no shows. We start with a blank
page, often without pay at first, sometimes developing a project for years. We create something out of nothing. We’re there at the start as the creators; an integral part of the production. We should bethere at the end as well, getting honoured alongside our peers who wouldn’t be there, but for our work.
Let’s all join together and ask BAFTA to please reinstate the writers' awards in their main ceremony and to have separate comedy and drama awards for writers. And remember, despite rumours to the contrary, that writers are highly photogenic.
Gail Renard speaks to Nick Reding and Coronation Street scriptwriter Damon Rochefort about writing for public health
It’s a long way from the cobbles, but when Coronation Street writer Damon Rochefort went to Kenya to write a new play for SAFE (Sponsored Arts For Education), a charity which uses drama to highlight vital social health issues, both he and SAFE founder Nick Reding realised that good story-telling has the same effect whether it’s in Weatherfield or Mombasa.
It was while Nick was starring in the film Croupier in Los Angeles in 1998 that he met a Kenyan paediatrician whose ambition it was to open an HIV clinic. He wanted to build a public hospital back home to provide antibiotics, food and counselling to keep HIV patients alive until the proper drugs were made available. He also wanted to educate Kenyans to help them understand AIDS and HIV transmission. Nick suggested Theatre In Education, which the doctor deemed to be too patronising. Nick’s second, more ambitious, proposal was ‘to put on a long play, with the best actors and writers; a world-class theatre performed for free, and to have workshops as well’. Somehow he made it sound easy, so SAFE was born. Nick’s been running it ever since, along with its Creative Coordinator, Kamau Wa Ndung’u. Their goal is to deliver life-saving information to the most under-served areas in Kenya; to use theatre to educate and empower their audiences.
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.