Wednesday, June 25, 2008

BBC writersroom roadshow visits Edinburgh

Went to the BBC writersroom roadshow in Edinburgh last night. It was staged downstairs at Traverse 2 at the Traverse Theatre, an austere and gloomy space for such an event, but Kate Rowland did her best to bridge the divide. Kudos to her for heading north on a dreich day, especially having spent the previous few days reading the Sharps longlist. [Two of the 25 scribes chosen for next Monday's Sharps workshop were in attendance, including Screen Academy Scotland student Ronnie - congratulations Ronnie!]

So, what did the BBC's creative director of new writing have to say? She outlined the functions and working processes of the writers' room, stressing that its main role was finding and nurturing great new talents. Few spec scripts sent in ever get made, but the best writers are identified, encouraged and showcased to other departments within the BBC. Some 10,000 scripts arrive each year, with screenplays and radio plays the most frequent submissions.

The first ten pages of each script are read. The vast majority [90-95%] go no further, receiving a standard rejection letter. The rest get a full read and feedback letter. If they show sufficient merit, the writers are encouraged to submit another script to the writers' room, and so on. This process enables the BBC to keeps tabs on emerging talent, monitor their progression. So, what do you need to nail in your first ten pages to reach that stage?

1: Character is everything. 2: Get the story going ['be emotionally bold']. 3: Medium and format ['is this the right way to tell your story?']. 4: Coherence ['does it make sense? does it hang together?']. 5: Emotion ['does your story, do your characters engage?']. 6: Surprise. 7: Structure is key. 8: Exposition and expression ['one of the biggest, most common faults is bad, expositional dialogue']. 9: Passion ['and honesty']. 10: Be yourself ['don't imitate'].

Kate also provided one of the simplest explanations of a writing flaw known as NCI [no clear image] - 'don't write what an actor can't show]. She encouraged everyone to read their own work out loud. Avoid on the nose dialogue. Create characters with flaws, contradictions, don't be obvious. Always think about your script as if you're reading it for the first time; what impact does it have on a new reader? Your spec script should speak to you, what you believe.

Spec scripts do sometimes jump from the slush pile to radio, but it's only happened once that a script sent to the writers' room has been made into a film by the BBC. Kate describes short films as being like a poem; at their best they can be a stunning piece of work - but they don't tell you if a writer can pull off longer form drama. Names get noticed, the writers' room is all about finding new talents.

Kate was surprised to hear the writersroom website asks people submitting the first episode of an original series to also include detailed breakdowns for subsequent episodes along with characters breakdowns. She believed that should be changed, writers need only send their first episode script and a page that shows they've thought beyond that first episode. Otherwise, anyone submitting a spec series script must do disproportionate extra work.

She outlined the shadow schemes run by the BBC to nurture new talent, such as new writers, radio comedy writers, the EastEnders shadow scheme. Radio 4 wants more series to complement its range of one-off plays, so a shadow scheme was run where eight writers were taken away for a week to develop new ideas. In general, the BBC wants more comedy-drama, particularly radio. The writers' room gets scripts from agents, not just unsolicited material.

Kate acknowledged how closely the BBC comedy departments for radio and TV work together. The same doesn't happen with drama, few radio plays migrate to BBC TV. But last year four former BBC radio dramas were presented in theatre as stage plays. Kate wants to see more scripts about modern Britain. Not all scripts need to have contemporary settings, but they need to resonate with contemporary audiences. They must be ambitious and entertaining.

Kate said the Sharps longlist had run to about 50. It uncovered writers the BBC team had never hard of before. There were a lot of scripts that got very close. The writers room will be letting people know once the dust settles. Kate said they are looking to see if some regional workshops can be staged, spinning out of Sharps.

She also talked about the BBC Drama Writers' Academy. Twenty-five people are being invited to a masterclass. From them 16 will be interviewed and eight chosen. Those selected for the academy will have their travel and accommodation covered, the first time this has happened. Apparently, this is in addition to the four hundred pound a week. It will make the academy more affordable for those who don't live within commuting distance of London.

All in all, it was an interesting and worthwhile event that attracted quite a cross-section of people. I expected it to be fuller, but only spotted the announcement last week myself. Hopefully future roadshow will be trailed a little further in advance so more people can take advantage. If you do go to a roadshow, don't be afraid to talk to Kate afterwards. She's very approachable and friendly, happy to talk and answer any questions you have.


Jason Arnopp said...

An excellent report. Much obliged!

John said...

Yeah! Really interesting. Thanks David.

Rooinecks said...

Hello David,
Thanks for your evaluation of the BBC roadshow. I went to the London event, which was really well attended and well organized. The Writersroom team are genuinely interested in new writing, it'll be interesting to see how many people who attended end up with commissions. I'd like to post a link to your blog from my writers' group blog, trust that's OK and we'd welcome a link from your site. You may find our sci-fi / fantasy writers, Nick and Hartwin of interest.
All the best