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Harumph.

August 31, 2009

Julian Friedmann will publish an interview with Kate Harwood (Controller of Series and Serials, BBC Drama) on Twelve Point, but there is one choice quote he couldn’t wait to share with us on his blog Agent Provocateur:

“the idea is only a small part of the whole and you can have a brilliant idea for a series but if the writer hasn’t the ability to execute it, there’s no point. We have been there any number of times labouring away at a really good idea with the writer who can’t pull it off”.

Well if that doesn’t send a chill down your spine I don’t know what will. At face value it is perfectly reasonable, of course, this is development hell from the broadcaster’s perspective, writers who are unable to deliver on a promise (or a premise).

But the subtext – and as writers we look for the subtext in everything – is that the BBC has had its fingers burned once too often and has closed the door on writers without a proven track record. And if that’s the mindset of the drama commissioners at the Beeb, it will have a trickle down effect on independent producers. For those of us labouring away under the delusion that, whatever the odds, maybe just maybe if we can deliver the goods someone will sit up and take notice and our stories will find an audience, it is a painful intrusion of reality.

As writers we need that delusion, the odds are so stacked against us. We may not be living in a literal bedsit-cum-garret surviving on bread and cheap wine, but hope is our chief sustenance, and it seems as if scientists have just discovered that there is less hope in the universe than previously thought.

Know Hope

With hindsight I’ve made bad choices in selecting which projects to work on. I went with stories I believed in and was passionate about, but these have been stories on a grand scale and so have ended up as serials for TV. That flew in the face of the advice from an agent when I started out writing, who said (he’s American) “I don’t know how it is in the UK, but in the US, if it’s nigh-on-impossible to get a book published, it’s much more so to get a film made, and breaking into TV, well, forget it”.

At least with a film there is a finished take-it-or-leave-it project to be evaluated, and I think my efforts may be better directed there. The question is, do I bother to finish the episode of the current TV project I’m working on first? If it’s just something to offer as a writing sample, motivation becomes difficult. I’ve already travelled the characters’ journey with them countless times in my head. And I know how it ends, and in this case, it’s a tragedy.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2009 10:26 pm

    Should you finish the ep? Yes. A half-finished script counts for nothing at all, but a finished script is a whole different hairnet of walnuts: it shows you can finish and deliver something; it shows you’ve dealt with the end of a story as well as the beginning and middle; it shows that you don’t give up; it’s another title on your list of spec scripts.

    I think your American agent didn’t do you any favours. Sure, it’s hard to break into this industry. Very hard. But it’s not impossible. If it was, no bugger would be writing anything for anyone, and that clearly ain’t the case.

    Personally I think you’ve done the right thing in choosing projects that you’re passionate about. I’m assuming these are spec scripts? As such they are unlikely to be made – that’s just a fact of life. But it shows what you can do, how big your ideas are.

    Sure the BBC are looking for proven, able writers with a track record. They wouldn’t employ a clueless director or a incompetent producer (by and large) so neither should they employ a writer who is going to crumple at the first nightmare deadline or throw a hissy fit when their script ed comes back with a sheaf of notes slightly thicker than War and Peace.

    I mean, if I was an exec producer at the Beeb with a budget in one hand, a deadline in the other and a ratings target wedged up my arse I wouldn’t be chancing my arm on an untried writer any more than I’d be risking putting an unknown actor in my lead roles.

    But it’s not the closed loop it appears to be. How do you get a track record? First and foremost, write write write. Work your apprenticeship. Churn out some sodding excellent scripts. Be bloody good at turning ideas into pages that make actors smile and get directors excited. Look, act and sound like a pro. Pro is as pro does.

    Then look for the angles, the opportunities. Write short plays for theatre. Write drama for radio. Write comedy for stage shows. Write a pile of scripts for short films, from 3 to 20 minutes. Hunt down the people who have a real and genuine burning desire to put on plays and film films and furnish them with the raw material that they so desperately need.

    They do exist, they are out there. Honest. You’ve just got to keep looking.

    Make contacts, seek work, keep writing. Sooner or later the opportunties will arise.

    • terraling permalink*
      September 1, 2009 8:40 am

      Thanks Laurence for the level-headed and grounded pep-talk. I’ll be sure to mention you at the awards ceremony!

      You’re right about finishing the script, of course. And you are right about the tough reality of spec scripts that are unlikely to ever be produced. But I need to think there is just a glimmer of hope that they might get made to motivate me to make them the very best they can be, otherwise it becomes just like a job of work. These people I spend months with, it’s painful to think they will never see the light of day, might only be read by a handful of industry people as a calling card for another project. The things I put them through, I feel bad for them even if it sounds like I feel sorry for myself.

      In my twisted head it also further complicates the choice of which project to work on next. If the stories I work on now will only ever be calling-card scripts, then the ones I’m most passionate about I should save until I’ve made inroads career-wise and I might then be in a position to pitch them and have them commissioned. So find a story that I’m passionate enough about to do it justice, but not so passionate about that I can live with it never making it off the page. Noooo. Can’t go down that road.

      As luck would have it, a London-based agent arrived to stay yesterday, and in a brief chat when I suggested I’d be better off trying to write for film she said that wasn’t necessarily so as in relative terms the UK TV industry is in far healthier shape than the film industry right now. So, maybe I need to rethink that, too. Or maybe I just need to stop thinking, and get writing, as per your post the other day.

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