Sunday, July 27, 2008

Life at the 2008 Doctors mini-academy

My brain's still processing everything from five days in Birmingham, so apologies if this rambles or judders like a Super 8 camera missing a sprocket. This blog will mostly be a record my impressions, rather than offer a blow by blow recitation of everything we were told or taught [I've gotten my wrist slapped for that in the past by others]. And forgive jumps from I and me to the royal 'we' and 'us'.

I arrived on Sunday night, having the greatest distance to travel. The seven other invited writers turned up Monday morning - two from the North, one from Bristol, the rest from London or surrounding counties. In total there were four women, and four men. Several already had episodes of Doctors broadcast, nearly all had done trial scripts, everyone had professional writing experience in their history.

Got to say, it was a lovely, friendly, supportive group. The mixture of writing backgrounds [theatre, radio, journalism] and cultural backgrounds [one Kiwi, one Irish, one Canadian, people from various parts of the UK] kept things interesting and varied. Everybody was there to learn, everybody was eager to get involved, arrogance and egos got checked at the door. A nice bunch of people.

It helped we spent our days and nights staying at a Quaker centre, where everyone respects each other, where silence and tranquility are valued, and where people go out of their way to help one another. If we'd all been stuck in some impersonal economy chain hotel, it would have cheapened the experience. Somehow the Quakers enriched the week, added another dimension to the journey.

Monday: introductions, a tour of the Doctors sets [always smaller than you expect, the Campus Surgery especially so] and some words from producer Peter Lloyd. He's the man who decides which story pitches submitted by writers to bank, so it was good to spend time with him and get a sense of his enthusiasms. Producers and script editors had lunch with us, though I had an attack of shy. Silly boy.

In the afternoon a Doctors core writer came in to share her experiences, again in company with Peter. We watched one of her episodes, plus a recent, cracking episode by another writer that deserves every bit of praise it gets. [When Doctors flies, it soars.] Evening meal, a gentle stroll to the nearest pub for a pint or two and back to bed, knowing the hard work was all ahead of us.

Tuesday and Wednesday: enter John Yorke, head of BBC continuing drama series. He gave us his top 25 tips in the morning. After lunch Ceri Meyrick took over for the rest of that day and all the next. She showed us ten questions to ask of your protagonist, and demonstrated the five stage story structure preferred by some within the BBC. But she pushed one statement over and over again.

Writers should write about what they feel passionate. Things like the five stage structure or the ten questions were only diagnostic tools to help writers identify where a story might be misfiring. Writers mustn't substitute structure and turning points for inspiration or talent. Structure can be fixed, but great structure's no replacement for unique characters or crackling dialogue.

Thursday: the Doctors team returned to help us apply what we'd learned to writing for the show. More theories but lots of specifics, like capturing the voices of the regular characters. We also had fun with our last group exercise, small groups creating a Doctors pitch from scratch in 40 minutes. Another lunch with producers and script editors - all trace of shyness long since gone.

The rest of Thursday we spent developing our individual stories. I'd taken a dozen one paragraph ideas, and springboard sentences for another two dozen, plus a few more developed proposals. I tinkered with my favourite from among the developed pitches, before moving on to turn two single paragraph ideas into full-length efforts. Another pint in the evening to celebrate the last night.

Friday: breakfast, check out and a last minute frenzy of rewrites and printing out. Over to the production offices for pitching. Each writer spent between 60 and 90 minutes with their assigned script editor and producer, verbally pitching between two and three story ideas. Some felt their efforts went badly, others seemed pleased with the response. Most of us simply felt relieved afterwards.

A last lunch in the Doctors canteen, trying not to stare at the actors whose onscreen personas we'd been discussing all week, before an hour with the show's executive producer. Then it was time for planes, trains and automobiles [if not in that order] on the long trek home. Excited, exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure. But most of all the week left me inspired, eager to get writing.

If you ever got offered a place on one of the BBC's continuing drama series shadow schemes [let alone the 13 week Writers' Academy], I suggest grabbing it with both hands. You learn a lot, laugh a lot and get to spend time with people who shares your passion for storytelling. What could be better, right?


Jason Arnopp said...

That all sounds like a dream come true, quite frankly. And I intend to get me some.

Radders said...

Sounds like a very fruitful week.
Sorry for appearing stalker like from Edinburgh to Selly Oak! My partner was more impressed when I told her about the Morse book, rather than being a long standing editor of a certain weekly comic anthology...

Laura Anderson said...

Sounds great David, and well done again for getting yourself that opportunity in the first place.