Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Writing for the BBC Q&A report

Consider this your Wednesday blog entry, delivered a few hours early. I'll be busy getting inducted into the world of mentors and mentees tomorrow, so offer you this entra-long posting to fill the gap. The Q & A: Writing for the BBC event at Edinburgh's Filmhouse today was, in reality, a Writing for River City event. Suits me, as the show represents the best hope for new, wannabe TV drama writers based in Scotland.

I've been watching the show faithfully for six months now and am loving it. I get the impression a lot of people sneer at River City, but the show certainly doesn't deserve it. If you base your opinion of the show on a few episodes from when River City was first broadcast back in 2002, I suggest giving it another try - you might well be surprised how far it has come. My favourite new character has to be manipulative minx Iona [pictured], who's trouble with a capital T.

As for the Q & A report, you'll have to forgive any misspellings, faulty grammer or confusions in what follows. I was typing furiously on my iBook and struggled to keep up. Any mistakes are mine, all mine - sorry. Anyway, enough of my witterings: here comes the juice.
Q & A: Writing for the BBC – August 15, 2006 – The Filmhouse, Edinburgh

The 90-minute session was moderated by Katherine Beacon [KB hereafter], a project director with BBC North’s branch of the Writer’ Room [WR]. She was joined by River City [RC] executive producer Sandra MacIver [SM] and frequent RC writer Sergio Casci [SC]. The Head of Television Drama for BBC Scotland, Anne Mensah [AM], was in the audience and did contribute a couple of answers when asked. A seven-minute show reel of RC was screened, to give a flavour of it to those who don’t regularly watch it, before Katherine, Sandra and Sergio talked and took questions.

KB: Writers’ Room gets 10,000 unsolicited scripts a year. It accepts postal submissions only.

A second series of The Chase is being commissioned for 2007 and there will be an opportunity coming on the Writers’ Room related to that – watch the website!

The Writers’ Academy will be happening again in 2007. 25 writers will be invited to an intensive workshop, 16 carried on from there and finally 8 appointed to the academy, with guaranteed commissions for broadcast TV drama from that.

SM: River City is BBC Scotland’s flagship drama. It has a regular audience of 500,000 people, very good in Scotland. We’re very happy how the show is going. Next year will be our fifth year of production. We’re hugely ambitious for the show and where it’s going. All shows worked differently. I want to talk about how RC works, and opportunities for new writers on RC.

We have 14 writers in our team, and we commission eight episodes a month. RC has four storyliners. Writers in our team have an episode on air every other month, if not every month. The show has lots of long-term arcs – some run for two months, some will run for a year or two. The big, broad arcs are always shaped, but each month we have the finite job of shaping the next eight episodes.

We shoot 4 episodes in ten days, very fast. We write the strands for a block of eight episodes, before the storyliners prepare scene by scenes for the writers. That’s very important to establish the through-line of the stories.

We believe that liberates our writers, they’re don’t need to be scrambling about to develop the strands to hit the continuity beats in each story. What we’re looking for from our writers is fantastic dialogue. We’re very bold with our stories - I don’t believe there is a story we can tell. RC is a very character driven show, it’s all about the truth of the characters.

The structure we work to allows us to take risks and nurture new writing, because the system is so disciplined. We want to encourage new talents, that’s certainly been the case for the last two to three years.

We have a new writers’ workshop once a year, it’s a big beast to run. The next workshop will run in December this year. RC receives a huge amount of unsolicited material. We now have someone to go through that material, to work with us on that.

Anyone who wants to be part of the workshop needs to submit a piece of original writing and a critique of the show. Tell us what you feel about the show, the characters and the stories – all on a sheet on A4. Tell us your sense of the show.

If that is well received, we would give you some scenes to write, just a handful. That shows us what your dialogue is like. From that we invite people to attend a workshop. At workshops we have 15-20 writers, we could possibly cope with more.

There we take you through the rigours of RC, the deadlines that you have to hit, how the structure works. Everybody at the workshop writes a script for the same episode, from a supplied scene-by-scene document. They have one week to deliver first draft, just like the writer commissioned to script the actual episode.

When a commissioned writer delivers their first draft, they’ll get notes back and have a week to deliver their second draft. The process is repeated for the third draft – we only do three drafts. The stories are locked off before they go out to the writers. Our motto is story is king. We don’t develop story as writers write their episodes.

[Anyone in the UK outside Scotland can watch RC on 971 on Sky. The BBC Scotland feed can also be accessed via digital, by scrolling through the regional feeds. RC is also available on-demand via NTL.]

SM: We’re committed to new writers and developing new talent in Scotland – writing, directing, across the board. There are nearly 200 people in Dumbarton for half of the year, a huge team. About 120 the rest of the year when single banking. Double banking, we shoot 8 episdes in 15 days, two crews shooting simultaneously.

You need to be watching the show. Some of our writers are London or based in Ireland, but most are based in Scotland.

Sergio Casci [SC]: Started as a broadcast journalist in BBC Scotland. Didn’t like getting the facts right, stressed him. Sent to Italy to help with a documentary about Scots Italians and meet a director who got him into writing drama.

Sergio wrote the “worst screenplay imaginable”. But he carried on, writing short films and some radio drama, including a serial for Women’s Hour. That whetted his appetite for continuing drama. Chose to quit journalism for drama writing, and all his work promptly dried up.

Was involved with RC at the very beginning, wrote episodes 17 & 18 – didn’t enjoy it. A couple of years later Sandra MacIver came on board as executive producer and invited him back.

For people who are professional writers, the single best thing for creativity is discipline - the more somebody imposes that on you, the more creative you can be.

From the moment the writer is commissioned, there is only one month until you’re at director’s draft – there’s no time or margin for error.

On RC it’s about making the characters and the dialogue sing. I’ve never worked on a show that gives me so much freedom by giving you so much structure.

SM: There are four storyliners, two producers and me. We commission on a Friday morning. Then the seven of us will sit down and map out the next eight episodes. The storyliners beat out the stories. We have 6-8 strands across 8 episodes, 28-32 beats per episode. Once we’ve signed off the scene-by-scenes, they go to the writers.

All the writers have different styles and the scene-by-scenes are tailored for specific writers. The writer gets their scene-by-scenes on Wednesday night (or Thursday!]. We have a writers’ forum on Friday to sort out any problems. Sometimes they’ll get their own way, sometimes they won’t.

SC: ON RC, you’re all writing the same movie, so to speak. It’s about the characters, the stories, and the truth of the characters. It’s fundamental to how RC works. People feel a tremendous sense of ownership of their language, their city, their country. If you make dialogue too melodramatic or misuse the language, the audience will know.

SM: The character of Scarlett is such a good example. Her grabbing Andrew by the balls was so in character, so true to the character. You wouldn’t get away with that on most pre-watershed shows, but it was true to her character on RC.

SC: Very little cleverness gets under the wire at RC. Characters will always be true to themselves. If Bob isn’t chirpy, there’s a very good reason. When you’re true to your characters, it gives the series tremendous health. Living in Glasgow, I’ll hear a local phrase and work it into a script. “It smells like a busload of wet students” was one I overheard – and that made it on screen. That’s a tremendous source of satisfaction.

SM: You don’t have to write local dialect for RC scripts, just plain English. The actors will change the script to reflect their character’s particular accent.

We let the story drive the episode, we won’t force something into the cliffhanger just to get a balance of light and shade in.

Sample scripts - we want dialogue, not prose. A short film script is fine. If that seems promising, we’ll ask for sample RC scenes. If you get to the workshop, you’ll be asked to write an episode – one that’s close to transmission. Hopefully you’ll get a commission off the back of that.

Four or five of our core writers came through that workshop process. We have some very established writers on our team, but we’re committed to encouraging new writers. Send your unsolicited material to tahira.iqbal@bbc.co.uk

Be patient – we’re double-banking until the end of October, and programme making takes priority. The producers and SM like to be involved with that process, choosing people to go forward to the workshop.

SM: We haven’t supplied sample scripts of RC in the past. You’re much better to watch the show for at least six weeks to get a better sense of the characters, etc.

SC: RC uses Final Draft, but a very specific layout within that.

SM: We’ve a very loyal young audience, and an awful lot of men watching the show, despite the fact they say they don’t watch soap. Our message board is amazing!

SC: His mother was in hospital, said it went dead when RC was on – no doctors, no nurses, no porters to be found.

The immediacy of continuing drama is fantastic. You can’t change characters to suit yourself, and that’s a good discipline. I feel you need to have learned to write before you go on RC, but it’s a great place to develop. I have a tendency to overwrite and it shows up some much more on RC. Working on RC - you have to be continually match fit, otherwise it won’t be up to the standard required.

SM: You can tell any story and there is no end, there’s no limits put on you.

We storyline in house, but we also have blue sky meetings with our writers, inviting them to be involved with the story development process. Those ideas have to be for at least several months into the future of the show.

SC: Because RC is so well organised, you can spend time on the fun bit – dialogue. You have time to do other work as well. Anyone who is half competent can produce a facsimile of RC – one that looks, tastes and smell like RC. You can just join the dots…

SM: …but we want so much more than that. It is easy to write a bad RC episode.

SC: Producers want something a little bit unexpected. I always try to have something in a script that’s a surprise - a phrase, a moment of interaction, something that goes beyond what I’m given in the scene-by-scenes. I try to add value into every scene.

SM: Some of our writers will step out of the commissioning cycle and they can step back in again. That’s good, that’s healthy. People can take on too much. We don’t drop somebody if they step off the bus for a month.

Your critique: firstly, it shows you’re watching the show, that you have a sense of our stories and our characters. You have to be passionate about a show to write well for it. RC is not for everybody or for all writers.

SC: It has to be fun. If I’m not enjoying an episode as I’m writing it, that’s a signal to me that I’m going wrong, that I need to rethink.

Sandra: There are script editing internship opportunities via BBC Broadcasting House. At RC we have four script editors, and often a trainee. We negotiate funding for that trainee on a regular basis. Keep in touch about that. There’s a reasonably high turnaround in that area, because script editors want to be writers or producers. One of our script editors is leaving next week to become a writer.

AM: There is a push within the BBC to identify teen brands, teen audiences and get them on board. If you are based in Scotland, come and talk to us – we make a lot of drama, there are opportunities.

SM: We’ve got about 30 characters in the show, 15-16 of which are regulars. The editorial team decides whether to phase out characters. There’s always a real sense of consensus about who should stay and who should go. It takes a while for us to make a shout about whether a character should go.

Some characters are introduced to facilitate a story. DCI Hunter was originally just a one-episode character. But if the actor makes an impact, if their character makes an impact, they grow from that into regulars.

SC: Lots of different writers champion different characters, they’ll protect them.

SM: There’s no talk of RC going up to three episodes a week, despite what the papers might say!



Danny Stack said...

Thanks so much for that - great!

Frank said...

Great post Dave - I couldn't make the meeting due to work commitments so these notes are spot on!

BTW - we have met before - I was the game director on the NARC project you did some script work on! (Small world, huh?) Love the blog - keep it up.

Laura said...

Thanks for that! It's very good of you to write all that down here. It's certainly interesting too - I am one of those people who watched RC when it started and was horrified by it. Perhaps I should give it another go, as you suggest...