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