Thursday, July 10, 2008

Getting a foot in the door at Doctors

Before I tell this story, I need to point something out: you're not supposed to do what I did. If you want to write for Doctors, you should start sending scripts to the BBC writersroom. That's the portal created to find and nurture new writing talent. Send the writersroom an original script, and mention you'd like to write for Doctors in your covering letter. Chances are you'll need to submit several scripts, rare is the person who hits the target first time.

Keep plugging away and keep mentioning how you'd like to write for Doctors. If you're good enough, the writersroom may invite you to a workshop, or even pass your details along to the script team at Doctors. Keep an eye out for opportunities like the recent Sharps initiative, they're a great way to advance your cause. But all of this depends upon the quality of your writing - your voice, your grasp of craft, your ability to respond to feedback.

Let me repeat: don't do what I'm about to describe. It worked for me, but I believe that stemmed from particular circumstances...

In September last year I came to the end of my screenwriting MA course. I'd built up a small but useful portfolio of original scripts, had a BBC radio play under my belt and even won an international screenwriting prize for a short film script. I figured it was time to take another crack at writing for Doctors, the BBC's daytime medical drama series. It broadcasts around 250 episodes a year, so needs a lot of writers and ideas. Maybe there'd be an opening.

First step: watch the show. I'd been avid viewer back in 2002, but was surprised and intrigued by how much the show had moved in since then. The entire cast had changed, the show's storytelling approach was looser and whole episodes never even went near the health centre. Doctors was a much broader church now, ready to tweak its format to tell the best possible story - be that hostage drama, comedy capers or even a full-on film noir mini-epic.

I kept watching the show, taking copious notes about the regular cast members and even transcribing whole episodes to get a grip on their individual voices. I also contacted two writers I know who work on the series, seeking their advice about the best way of approaching the script team. Both writers underlined a key fact: getting established at Doctors takes a long time, a lot of patience and a lot of persistence. Don't expect overnight success.

Having faithfully watched the show for several months, I composed a letter to the person who'd dealt with me back in 2002. [Happily, they were still on the show.] I mentioned their sage advice about needing to get more experience and expertise. I listed what I'd done recently, and asked if they'd look at my current work. Another member of the script team wrote back, offering to read my original scripts. Now, what the hell should I send in?

My prize-winning script Danny's Toys was an obvious choice. The soapy TV pilot I'd written as the final project for my MA course was another. Last but not least, I added my radio play in script form. Unlike the other two it had a contemporary setting, and told the sort of human interest story that Doctors does so well. I printed out pristine copies, put them in the post and waited.

Soon I got a reply. My scripts were well received - would I like to write a trial episode of Doctors? Yes, please! I got sent all the background material given to new writers, and told me to get in touch once I was ready to do my trial. There were no guarantees, no promises of a commission - just the chance to try out. What I did with that chance was up to me. I studied that background material like it was the Bible, determined to do my best.

A typical episode of Doctors [if such a thing exists] splits into story of the day and several slices of serial material. The latter is ongoing plot arcs centred on series regulars, their lives and loves, problems and challenges. The serial material is created in-house. Freelance writers supply the story of the day, which forms the largest part of each episode, with three guest characters and a strong role in that story for one of the regulars.

For the trial script, I was given serial material to incorporate with whatever story of the day I'd devised. From the moment the serial material arrived, I had ten calendar days to deliver my trial script. I'd a fistful of potential story of the day ideas, but wanted to chose one that would create some resonance with the serial material. When it arrived, I found myself setting aside all the ideas I'd been hoarding. I needed a new story.

Fast forward ten days: I'd finished my trial script, gotten some feedback on it from trusted and discrete sources, written a new draft and polished it several times. I sent off my best effort and crossed my fingers. Not long after I got a phone call: congratulations, my trial script was a success. Flawed, but a success. I was being invited to submit story of the day ideas. No guarantees, no commissions and no money - but I'd cleared a major obstacle.

The person dealing with me at Doctors said something that concisely sums up my current situation: 'You've got a foot in the door. Now you're inside, you've got a very long staircase to climb.' Getting a story of the day idea accepted is not easy. You pitch and rewrite, pitch and rewrite. Far more ideas get submitted than will ever get accepted, and even then there's no guarantee they'll get made. To succeed at Doctors, you must commit to the long game.

I've got so much still to learn about writing for Doctors, writing for TV, about writing. So many lessons to absorb, so much I've still to discover. It's daunting but also exciting. Every step forward is another step closer to my ambition of writing TV drama. I want this to be my profession as well as my passion. I want to tell stories that millions of people can see simply by tuning in. I want to tell stories from both my head and my heart.

I want this.



Anonymous said...


Fingers crossed for a swift smooth journey to commission!

Laura Anderson said...

well done - onwards indeed. Keep us posted :-)

Paul Campbell said...

Excellent news.

I think you'll be good at this next bit. It's all about persistence. Just kkep working on those ideas and sending them in.

I know they insist on a two-page outline. But that's actually a lot of work, getting the whole story down in an easy-to-read, accessible form. And, once you've had half a dozen of them rejected out of hand, it gets more and more difficult to keep going. It can be very dispiriting.

But I think you're the kind of person who doesn't quit - so you'll be fine.

One tip. Try to persuade your script editor to look at paragraph pitches first. Send him/her an e-mail with half a dozen single paragraph concepts and see which ones they like before wasting your time on a story they did last week, or one they can't afford to shoot. Or one that involves too many kids, or really old people. Or involves a taboo subject. Or they simply don't get. Or might just be a crap idea.

That way, you write your two-pagers confident in the knowledge that your script editor has already bought in to the story and will be predisposed to liking it when it arrives.

Good luck.

Can't wait to see that first ep.

Jason Arnopp said...

Cor, Mr Bishop, get in there my son!

Janice Okoh said...

congratulations. Things like these make it all worth it. You'll get there.

Robin Kelly said...