Friday, July 13, 2007

Tony Jordan: "Television is my Priory"

Finally, a chance to blog my notes fromthe Face2Face with Tony Jordan event at London's Royal Court Theatre on Wednesday. The lovely Lianne has already posted her notes [and they're well worth a look], so there may be some repetition in what follows. Hopefully I'll pick up on some stuff she didn't. Tony was in conversation with Kate Rowlands, the BBC's Creative Director of New Writing, but they also considered questions pre-submitted by email and plenty of questions from the audience. Happily, I got the final question, about whether UK TV drama would move closer to the US writers' room system, something Tony's hoping to do through his production company Red Planet Pictures. Right, on to the notes. The next voice you'll read is that of Tony Jordan [photo by Harriet Barbir]...

[On Holby Blue] The BBC hadn't cracked police precinct drama since Z Cars. I was offered the Holby brand. Other writers all advised me not to use the brand; told me it was beneath me. It made me pissy, so I choose to use the Holby brand. I wanted to say sod you. In a well-trodden genre or precinct, you have to ask yourself why do we need another one? What makes it different? Holby Blue was the first uniform police precinct show since 9/11, that makes it different. To me that justified the series. There was also the issue of dealing with mass immigration.

You need to find your characters first and your story second when you create a show. It's madness to go story first, characters become story vehicles. In the case of Holby Blue, the premise came first, then we started talking about the characters. I wanted a central partnership to drive Holby Blue. I was a great fan of NYPD Blue. That told police stories, but concentrated on its central partnership. On City Central I tried to introduce 30 characters in 60 minutes - it doesn't work. In Holby Blue the central character and his conflicts drove the story, how he overcame his problems, such as difficulties with his estranged wife.

[On research] You can treat research in two ways. Producers tend to treat research as if it's the law. My reaction is "Bollocks!" Writers should use research to justify what we're doing. If the research expert is telling me what to do, they should be writing the script, not me.

You can't create a new series without doing everything. On Holby Blue I had to storyline the whole series, all the arcs. You have to find the heart and soul of the project. Lots of people have an idea for a story. That's not a whole world. You need a reason to tell a story.

[On Hustle] The premise was conmen are cool. That's it. But it needed to have heart, soul, passion to it. I did research on the great conmen of the past, particularly the early twentieth century. They talked about the art of the con. Grifters would have a moral code - you can't cheat an honest man. Conmen were called the aristocrats of crime.

Like Holby Blue, Hustle also starts with the central character having ex-wife trouble. I must have been having ex-wife trouble at the time. Both times. What can I say, television is my Priory. There's no domestic elements to Hustle, it wouldn't be cool. So I had to create a family of characters, even though they weren't related.

Great stories are great, but great shows have character. They're character-based, not story-based. Get your characters right and you'll get longevity in series creation. Life on Mars took seven years to get commissioned. My new shows Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper were in the bottom drawer for twelve years. They could have been made years ago if I'd been willing to change the concept.

[On EastEnders] Eighteen million people watched the episodes where Zoe found out Kat was her mum. Eighteen million people crying. How many buckets would all those tears have filled? I did that. On my shows I give people a part of the series arc to incorporate into their script. On someone else's show, you have to fit their framework.

[On his new company] Red Planet is designed to bring teams of writers together. the way to success in creating shows is character, passion, emotional truth. Don't try to second guess commissioners. You should writer what you're passionate about. For Life on Mars, we talked about shows we wished wwe could have writter, like The Sweeney. Passion, integrity, heart - that's what it's all about.

Writers are always looking for excuses not to write, an excuse why they haven't been discovered yet. I didn't know anything when I started. I thought film noir was a flavour of ice cream. I thought there was a little box with a secret inside it. Just get that you're Paul Abbott overnight. Screenwriting gurus like McKee, Vogley, Field - most of it is bollocks.

A writer writes. Characters first. Know what your story is. Have a beginning, middle and end. That's about it. I think of my main story as like a big, solid coat-stand. the bottom is the beginning, the top is the end and everything else is in between. I hang other stuff on it, like you hang coats on a coat-stand.

If you're talented as a writer, talent will out. But you have to understand the politics of TV. Your script editor could one day be controller of BBC 1, remember that. Look for good guys, people who will respect your writing, your integrity.

[On his best work] Best thing I've ever writter is called Legion. It's been sat in a drawer for eight years. It's nearly been made but I pulled it because it was getting cahnged. Its got a huge voiceover and it's necessary. Adds to the narrative, rather than replaces it.

I like to write the world as I see it. It may be a little rose-tinted. If I have to look for something to say in a story, it's a problem. The moment you think you know it all, you've lost it.

[How to pitch a new series] Write the first episode. Outline the rest of the episodes, half a page for each. Write character breakdowns.

TV drama is getting more and more choppy. EastEnders will insist on cutting away from a scene when it getting going. Quality writing will overcome that.

[On Red Planet Pictures] I think of it as the sort of production company you would find behind the bike sheds, having a sly fag. Red Planet is planning to employ writers as a staff group, like the American system.

[Final advice] Sit down and write what's in your heart.


Lara said...

Nice one, great notes. Thanks for sharing.

Lianne said...

Great stuff, thanks for filling in all the blanks DB! I missed loads of stuff....

John Soanes said...

Infinitely better than my scrawled version of events - many thanks for posting this. Good to say hi to you at the event too.

SK said...

You really like the idea of the American system? It seems to me to be designed to produce 'product' that all looks and sounds exactly the same, so that viewers know exactly what they're getting every week, and everything is kinda homogenised -- like the process described in that book Crafty TV Writing which you mentioned, where it says the goal is to give the audience what they want and make every episode of the series feel like it was written by the same person, if only they had the time.

Which sounds horrible to me, both as a viewer who craves variety and as a wannabe writer. I'd much rather watch lots of different, distinctive six-episode series like Conviction or even Jekyll (and yes some'll be misfires, but if they're onyl there fore six episodes then they'll soon be replaced by someting else that's actualyl good) then twenty-some episodes of something that are entirely interchangable and just designed to get audience mindshare.

SK said...

Sorry, I meant serial, not series. Mistyping.

Lucy said...

Cheers David. Great notes. You may also be interested to know that your mindset is completely tuned in to the word "writer": not for the first time, you've put the word "writer" in place of "writes" and "written" in your article. Think you're destined for the job! ; )