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Cruel to be kind

September 11, 2009

Julian Friedman has posted the second part of his interview with Kate Harwood (Controller of Series and Serials at BBC Drama) over on TwelvePoint, and it’s a must-read for anyone hoping to break into writing for TV in the UK. (You are a member, aren’t you?) Continuing the theme of the first part of the interview that had me harumphing, she goes on to make it clear in no uncertain terms that she is not interested in ideas for series, serials, or one-offs from writers who have not already been produced and have the requisite “flying hours”, no matter how great the premise. It prompted Julian to ask if writers without an established track record were wasting their time pitching series or serials, and Kate replied with a lengthy and reasoned, but nevertheless emphatic, yes.

It doesn’t matter whether you are simply sending something to the Writers Room, or you are exploiting contacts carefully nurtured over the years to have a producer take it to the Beeb, the BBC won’t make it. If you think they might, you are kidding yourself. If someone tells you they can make it happen, they are kidding you.

Kate said that unproduced writers who wanted to express their own ideas would probably be better off writing a novel or trying to fund their own film.

It’s not exactly what I was hoping to hear, but I’m grateful that somebody in her position has spoken so forthrightly. Self-delusions are an important motivator in the face of very low odds of success, but fledgling writers also need a firm grip on reality to know where best to direct their efforts.

Perhaps there are more openings elsewhere, not at Sky, I wouldn’t have thought so at ITV, maybe at Channel 4?

Now, of course, most spec scripts will never be made and serve as calling cards for potential assignments. Kate suggests that new writers should be aiming for Doctors to gain experience. But in the context of the competition for places on the Writers Academy, Ceri Meyrick was critical of would-be writers who thought of recurring series (Doctors, Holby etc.) as stepping stones to something “better”, and they wanted writers who wanted to write on such shows for their own sake.

Some snarks are disparaging about such shows. I don’t really have an opinion about their merits, because I don’t watch them. My issue with writing for something like Doctors (and let’s not kid ourselves, if I had an assignment writing on the show I’d be crowing all around the blogosphere) is that I don’t know whether I would be able to do it, frankly. There is a big difference between creating your own worlds and characters and breathing life into them, and taking on other people’s existing characters and trying to get under their skin to become a convincing mimic of them. So much for the high premium put on a writer’s original voice.

Damien Hirst

In any sphere artists have a natural range. Working within it they can be brilliant, outside it can be embarrassing. Damien Hirst may be a brilliant conceptual artist but he can’t draw bananas for shit. His genius with dots may never have been discovered if he’d been obliged to make a recognisable stab at a bowl of fruit before being allowed to graduate.

banana

Unless I’m missing something — and please, tell me if I am — the implication is that the only real route into TV is through work on the BBC’s roster of recurring series.

Which leads me to think that my original instinct — that I would be better off directing my efforts at film — was probably correct.

Which means re-tooling the 3-part political thriller I’m currently working on into a 2-hour film. Or a book. Or a graphical novel. Or a radio play. There are opportunities out there to develop original ideas. Even if TV isn’t one of them.

If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

¹ I have no idea if either of those assertions are true. Damien Hirst used for illustrative purposes only. It might just as easily have been one of his contemporaries who confuse T-shirt logos with high art.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2009 10:54 am

    It really depends what is most important to the writer concerned. If seeing their OWN IDEA made is the be-all and end-all, in TV or Film, I’d say that writer is destined for disappointment. As far as I can see, ALL specs are 90% calling cards with a 10% chance of getting made – and that’s in the best case scenario, usually when that writer has “earned their stripes” working on various projects (whether TV or Film) beforehand. To understand this, all we need do is put ourselves in the producer or director’s shoes: why would they use YOUR idea when they can use THEIRS? Yours has to be something pretty special, not just on a creative level, but financially viable too.

  2. September 12, 2009 1:12 pm

    In my humble opinion, go off and make your film!

    I’m in my last term of a Screenwriting MA and y’day a writer/director came in to give us a talk. He’d done the Screenwriting MA at LCC and then went on to do one at UCLA. Thereafter, he spent the next several years in LA writing specs. He wrote rom-coms mostly and action films (Die-Hard esque as he described them.) But it wasn’t until he picked up a camera and shot two shorts that he decided to write a feature. Suddenly, the material he was writing changed. Instead of writing derivative high concept films, he wrote smaller films that were possible to get made. And in short, he’s just finished a feature called ‘Deadline’ with Britany Murphy and Thora Birch which has already been sold around the world. His next film had a $20 million interest from Sam Raimi’s film but for various reasons he’s decided to take a $5 million from another source. The writer/director is called Sean McConville.

    If directing doesn’t appeal to you. Produce it yourself. Set up a Ltd. company and find the talent. In this day and age, films are now easier to make. And if you’ve got a good script, the talent will want to work w/ you. After all, most of them half their time not working. That’s the nature of their business.

    I’ll stop now. But yes, if you want to see your stories become realised. It is possible. My background is in scripts and I never thought I’d pick up a camera. But given the quality of cameras today and the ease of editing, I just thought there’s nothing stopping me and now instead of my script sitting in the drawer, it has come to life.

    Good luck w/ your writing! And keep being inspired! 🙂

  3. terraling permalink*
    September 12, 2009 1:25 pm

    Hi Lucy

    thanks for responding. You make no distinction between film and TV: is there none?

    Everyone knows the odds of having your own work produced are small, very small, but in the interview Kate has effectively said that the chance of having your work produced on TV isn’t small, it’s zero. (For the BBC, at least.)

    If that’s the case then it really makes a difference as to how a writer approaches their career. Everyone has limited time and must make decisions about how best to use it.

    There is a scale of risk from the producer’s side. With a film spec script you have the finished product (barring rewrites) in front of you. If a producer can’t make a decision based upon the material before them, it suggests they lack confidence in their own judgement. At the other most risky extreme you have spec TV series. The writer may have delivered a pilot, but it can’t be judged in isolation because the writer has to keep on delivering, and without a track record that is a big unknown, and a big ask of a producer or commissioner.

    Somewhere in the middle, and where I’ve been mostly digging, you have serials. If you have a very strong script for episode one and detailed outlines of the remaining two episodes, you are much closer to the finished product. Or, with encouragement, you might even write all three episodes. But no matter, that door has been closed.

    If you stay in the loop you can have a reasonable idea of the things the BBC are looking for, but the BBC are not talking to you, the unproduced writer, and I’m coming round to the view that dreaming up series or serials is a waste of time — even if you are looking to break into writing for Casualty — because they won’t ever be made. Would it not be better to concentrate on films to showcase your writing talents? At least they have a non-zero chance of going into production, and the Writers Room are as happy to read film as TV.

  4. September 12, 2009 1:35 pm

    I have to say I think you’ve taken Kate’s interview a little out of context here. She said that unproduced writers, with no track record, and zero interest in writing on anything other than their own original series in order to gain experience, are better off working on their own film.

    You’ve also overlooked several alternative routes into writing series drama for the BBC, such as going via independent production companies.

    I’m a writer with no prior TV credits and I’ve got an expensive returning series in development with a major production company. If they honestly thought it had zero chance of being picked up, they wouldn’t have bought it off me.

    It is possible.

  5. terraling permalink*
    September 12, 2009 1:36 pm

    Hi Mina

    thanks for the encouragement, although I’ll have to get to work on the film scripts first, having been devoting my efforts to TV so far.

    There has been a lot of noise about Radio drama recently, and having listened to a Radio 4 play for the first time this week I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it. So I might direct some efforts there, too.

    And shorts, everyone seems to be at it, I will have to start paying more attention there. Are yours visible online anywhere?

  6. terraling permalink*
    September 12, 2009 1:53 pm

    Hi Michelle

    thanks for that, it is very encouraging to hear someone with a positive experience to report. Is your series bound for the BBC?

    If I am being too pessimistic then I’m glad to hear it. Do you have a sense of what proportion of drama at the Beeb is commissioned internally, and how much through independents? I don’t think I’ve misrepresented what Kate said in terms of there being no prospect of unproduced writers having original material commissioned directly by BBC drama.

  7. September 12, 2009 2:23 pm

    Bearing in mind Kate does oversee the biggest, most expensive area of drama, it would be quite unrealistic for them to stick untried, untested writers straight in at the top and expect them to be able to manage a whole series on their own. Hence the comments from Julian about experienced showrunners being brought on in some cases.

    It’s extremely difficult and demanding and there are lots of practical and financial considerations involved that require the sort of knowledge that can only be gained from experience. Any new writer in their right mind would be over the moon at having an experienced show runner brought on board their project because (a) it gives the project a fighting chance and (b) it’s much harder to balance all these things than you think it’s going to be when you’re sitting at home writing in your pyjamas.

    I suppose it’s like any job, you can’t just waltz in and become chief executive, you have to work your way up from the bottom. Of course you do.

    I think you’re right to look at alternatives: comedy, children’s, radio (especially radio, I’m very positive about radio at the moment!) but if writing series drama is what you really want to do, don’t give up just because someone’s saying it’s next to impossible. It only takes one person to have a little bit of faith in you and be willing to give you a chance. And it only takes one (really really good) script to get them to do that.

    But I think you do need to be willing to work on other people’s series, it doesn’t have to be continuing drama if that’s not your cup of tea. Lots of indies have stuff they need to commission writers for. If you’re not willing to work collaboratively or on someone else’s show (not you specificially, you know, one) then she’s right, you are better off going and making your own film or writing a novel.

    Tis the nature of the beast.

    Oh, and I think the figures for inhouse vs independent drama are currently at 50% inhouse, 25% independent and a 25% Window of Creative Competition which can fall to either side depending on who brings the best projects to the commissioner.

    You can read more about the WOCC here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/network/wocc.shtml

    Sorry, I’ve taken over your comments section now.

    I’ll show myself out.

  8. September 12, 2009 2:27 pm

    I don’t think there’s much of a distinction between TV & Film: it’s hard to get someone to invest in your idea wherever you go. But as Michelle rightly says, anything IS possible. So you need to decide what you want and go for it, doing whatever it takes to get it – for some, that will mean going *through* the soaps but for others like me, soap IS the detsination. You’ve just got to keep going, believing in yourself, etc. And that’s the hard part.

  9. terraling permalink*
    September 12, 2009 3:45 pm

    Michelle

    all good, you can take over my comments section any day, your insights are much appreciated.

    I’ve probably come across as some kind of prima donna with an unearned sense of entitlement, which is not the case at all, and collaboration with other writers or having someone come in above me to take control of a project, if that’s what it takes to get something made I have no problem with that.

    I’ve never imagined that inexperienced writers could or should helm a TV series. Where I’ve been uncertain, or should I say, misleading myself, is in thinking that there was some scope for a serial getting made, because as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the material is largely there for consideration. Lucy seems to think it makes little difference and maybe you are right, Lucy, although that’s something I’ll never really understand if it is the case.

  10. September 13, 2009 10:23 am

    Yes, definitely check out radio! Great medium. You can take your imagination/story anywhere but unlike film, not have to worry about budgets. Go to space or go back or forth in time. The world’s your oyster! Check out Michelle’s blog for some great tips: http://michellelipton.wordpress.com/

    I’m just editing my short right now so it’s not online and I don’t think the director for my other one has put that one online yet. Will tweet when they’re up. In the meantime, a producer pointed me in the direction of: http://www.propellertv.co.uk/ and http://raindance.tv/ . And of course, there’s You Tube.

    Hope that helps. And the advice above is spot on!

    Good luck and have a great time writing!

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