Thursday, May 03, 2007

TV Forum notes: the BBC, Five and soaps

Last week I went to That Fancy London for the Script Factory's TV forum, a two-day event in deepest, darkest Soho. The morning sessions on both days were led by Rob Ritchie, but I was asked not to blog about the content of these. Instead I'll provide what notes I managed to scrawl down during the afternoon sessions, starting with Thursday's two helpings of wit and wisdom. The first afternoon session on Day 1 was with Kate Rowland [KR], the BBC’s creative director of new writing, and Five’s commissioning editor for drama, Abigail Webber [AW]. [Abigail’s counterpart at Channel 4 Liza Marshall was due to attend, but had to drop out due to events elsewhere, as documented in Broadcast.]

AW: I commission original drama for Five. We’re trying to raise the profile of original drama on Five, people tend to know our purchased drama [CSI, House, etc]. We’re trying to find a Five voice. The channel’s working with independent production companies [indie prodcos], we don’t make anything in-house.

KR: The Writers’ Room acts as a talent agency within the BBC. We run 6-8 professional training schemes a year. Radio’s a great place for new writers to break in. there are 193 Afternoon Play on Radio 4 each year, many by new writers.

AW: Five is small by comparison to the BBC. We’re moving into long-form series. AW is her whole department. She relies on agents and indie prodcos for intel.

KR: The BBC Writers’ Academy is now open for applications. You have to want to write for EastEnders, Holby City, Casualty and Doctors. BBC1 wants mainstream drama that’s entertaining, but it can be intricate e.g. Five Days. Not so much drama on BBC2, but the channel does broadcast event pieces like Shoot the Messenger and Soundproof. BBC3 hasn’t been about drama up to now, but new controller may change that. BBC4 tends toward the innovative, often biographical e,g, Fear of Fanny. Online drama is a growing area for the BBC. Creative future strategy is looking for comedy dramas, series aimed at the 18-30 audience, 1-off family dramas of 90 mins, and the new Doctor Who or Buffy.

AW: Five’s target audience is 18-34, not teenagers. We want contemporary series with energy, not period drama. We’re aiming for consistency, shows that are populist, entertaining, young, fresh and contemporary. Five doesn’t have Channel’s remit to be edgy and controversial. We’re less cynical than Cannel 4. Five had 14 hours of original drama in 2006. Planning to develop two series of 6-8 hours each. Five wants long-running drama series.

KR: Children’s drama is very important to the BBC. Our attitude; they’re short adults. There’s only one commissioning round a year for children’s drama.

AW: Five has a healthy children’s drama department, though it’s outside her remit.

KR: EastEnders has a shadow scheme for new writers. You get on that via the Writers’ Room with a great 60-page calling card script. Story is crucial. Characters need to be authentic, even within a heightened reality series. Characters must take a journey. We want imagination, surprise and engaging writing.

The second afternoon session on Day 2 featured soap scribes Tony McHale [TM, now executive producer [EP] on Holby City], Bill Lyons [BL, veteran writer now on Emmerdale] and Rob Gittens [RG, a core writer on EastEnders]. The session was moderated by Yvonne Grace [YG], a former producer on Holby City who’s running the Storylining for Soaps workshop for the Script Factory at the end of May. 3, 07

TM: Working on TV and soaps has been looked on as a second rate job, but it’s given me a fantastic grounding in writing for the big screen. Deadlines force you to deliver. You have to be more creative than others within the parameters given you. The discipline of soaps is beneficial, it forces you to be more creative.

BL: In soaps you follow characters day by day. You can show a gradual progression much better than in other mediums. Soaps do some things worse than other mediums. You need to stick with what you want. There’s 27 people involved in decisions now, it’s a much more collaborative process. If you’re enough of a bull you will get your way.

TM: Soaps give you access to a vast audience.

YG: Storylining is an arduous task. Series that are very writer-led are the stronger for it, such as Coronation Street. You’re up against the audience’s knowledge of the show.

RG: Joined EastEnders in the mid 80s, when stories were crafted on the back of a fag packet. With EastEnders now four times a week, there’s much more pressure. Success in soaps breeds pressure. EastEnders is moving to give its writers more ownership of the stories they tell. The show has 12 core writers, that has helped give power and direction back to the writers.

YG: You want writers to do great work, but they also need to buy into the producers or EP’s vision for the show.

BL: There’s a balance to be had, but also a tendency to homogenise. House style is good, homogenised shows are bad. A happy show is a shit show, you don’t want everybody getting on all the time. You need a diverse writing team. I like a heated debate.

RG: I work to solve story problems imposed on me. You can’t run away from problems in soaps.

BL: Once you get going, there’s more freedom than you imagine. The middle of any episode I write is all mine. The start and finish are the true collaboration.

YG: Good writers will own their episode. Producers and EP are looking at the long view. The script Editor [SE] is so essential, integral t long-running dramas.

TM: The role of the SE has changed massively. Soaps have turned SE into a creative role. The relationship with your SE is paramount to get the best out of you and your script.

BL: You’ll know a bad SE when you see one, they’ll have a clipboard. They use old jargon. Because they’ll be working on a dozen episodes at once, they need a good grasp of the through-line, where it’s going, the thrust of it. It’s not about fixing odd words when you’re editing or writing a script. The SE role needs give and take. A fresh opinion is great, but the SE has to be on top of the script.

YG: the SE is the producer’s mouthpiece. When I was an SE, I hoped to get a writer to agree with four notes out of ten I gave them.

RG: The worst SE want to be writers, and they practise on your script. They want the script to be different, but it won’t make it better.

TM: You get black and white editing: you wrote black, they ask for white.

BL: It’s a field where it’s good to have your opinions and stick by them.

YG: You need to have an opinion and you need to voice it. The more successful soaps become, they eat themselves.

TM: Some of the Writers’ Academy people have worked out well and some haven’t. Holby City’s strangely different; it’s 60 minutes where Casualty is 50. That extra ten minutes is tough. You get to page 50 and suddenly all the characters are going for a drink after work, they’re run out of story.

YG: A lot of these shows are like factories.

TM: The idea of me becoming EP on Holby was to act like a showrunner in the US. I’ve resisted the urge as EP to rewrite scripts.

YG: A lot of soaps are budget-led, not writer-led.

BL: You have to have your characters. A lot of stuff is now is very melodramatic and stormy. I don’t like the trend to make characters either baddies or goodies.

RG: We have story conferences but they should be called character conferences. The characters are paramount. On EastEnders the Slaters were given a year to settle in before the big revelation about Kat and her daughter.

TM: You can tell when a writer doesn’t like the show they’re writing. It took me ten years to leave EastEnders, I loved it so much.

YG: On Holby the writer bring sin the human story and the medical story is wrapped around that. A disease of the week isn’t enough. Soaps eat writers. To write well for them you need someone who can join the factory and not be petrified by the strictures.

TM: It’s not a closed shop. These show eat writers. They’re crying out for people who commit and have talent.

BL: Emmerdale used to be 100 episodes a year, now it’s 312. Shadow anyone on a show and you’ll learn so much. These days writers are very separate from the process of physically making the programme. They don’t know what they’re asking the show’s makers to do.

RG: Fid out who the SE are and send them your scripts. SE want to build a career too, and they do that through the writers they find.

YG: You need tenacity. Watch the show. Send scripts to SE – they do read. Take SE to lunch, they’ll appreciate it. Watch the credits. Love the show you want to write for.

TM: You’ve got to write, every day – writers write.

Still to come: an audience with Kudos.


English Dave said...

Nice post Dave. Just a few comments on the guests answers. 5's next long running drama, and biggest spend, in the abscence of Family Affairs, is a German originated Telenovella and the writing staff basically consists of one guy translating it from German.

On EastEnders, the impression given that the Shadow Writing Scheme is for new writers is not quite true. Just about every writer has to go through that now, new or not so the 'new' writer is up against some seasoned pros.

Mark said...

Thanks for posting that. Hearing advice from such legends as Bill Lyons, Tony McHale and Rob Gittins is great. Very interesting!