Monday, August 11, 2008

Where next for River City?

There's revolution afoot at the BBC Scotland continuing drama series River City. After years of appearing as a twice-weekly soap only broadcast in Scotland, the show is mutating into an hour-long weekly drama. There are reports of massive staffing changes, including executive producer Sandra MacIver. It remains to be seen what the effect will be on the show, but the consequences for emerging TV writers based in Scotland is clear - look south of the border.

In truth, that much has been obvious for some time. Two years ago this month MacIver was interviewed on stage at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She outlined the path for writers looking to break in via River City: submit a critique of the show, along with a sample of your original writing. Dozens of people applied and I was among the many offered a chance to write half a sample episode for River City based on supplied scene by scene breakdowns.

MacIver said the best 15-20 people would be invited for a weekend workshop with the script team at River City, learning more about the process of writing for the show. All those invited would write a full trial script and, hopefully, one or two could be offered commissions for the series. No guarantees, but plenty of encouragement. The process had worked before: Louise Ironside came through it, becoming one of the show's most outstanding writers.

That was September 2006. We all got emails thanking us for our effort [we'd had a long weekend to write our trial scripts], and the progress of feedback later that week. The following week we got an email apology for the delay, but the promise of feedback soon. After that the emails dried up, leaving those who'd done trials in the dark. Some gave up, others kept chasing for a reply. I believe in persistence, so I kept in contact as best I could.

Fast forward to September 2007. After a year of waiting, I got a rejection letter from River City based on what I'd written. I phoned up the person who'd actually read my material and asked for further feedback. They offered to read more recent material, so I sent in my latest original script. More phone calls, more gentle nudging, no replies. In December I discovered that person had left the show.

After 15 months of this, I admitted defeat. If you wanted to break into TV writing via continuing drama, it seemed apparent you had to look south of the border. I switched my focus to Doctors, which has a tradition of finding and nurturing new writing talent. After two years of faithfully watching River City, I gave up on the show. All that waiting and all those broken promises soured it for me.

My decision to look elsewhere for openings was confirmed a few months back. Somebody at River City rediscovered the original script I'd sent in for feedback. They sent it back and said the show would not be looking at new writers for at least twelve months, but I was welcome to get back in touch sometime during 2009!

In truth, I'm not bitter about what happened with River City. It was frustrating at the time, but I wasn't ready. I've still got so much to learn, but believe I'm nearer the standard required now than I was two years ago. I do think it's a shame there are so few opportunities for writers based in Scotland who want to break into TV drama. River City used to a potential doorway - not anymore.


John said...

Bizzare! How can a show which produces an hour of drama a week (in 30 or 60 minute slots) NOT be looking at new writers? I may be half the output of the other soaps but it's still a huge turnover of scripts and ideas. Plus, it's the BBC, in Scotland - it's supposed to be part of their remit to bring new people through and something like River City represents (like the other soaps) a perfect training ground to nuture talent. Wasted opportunity... and a real shame for all the talented writers in Scotland looking for their first break... On the other hand, if the scheme you described has worked in the past on River City, maybe it really is just a case of changing staff and the resulting upheavels.

Anonymous said...

River City was and is a gang of daft wee lassies playing at making TV. Come to think of it that goes for BBC Scotland.

Tom said...

I was just the same David. It took a year for them to give me a one sentence knockback.

I spent two years sending in work and e-mailing before they even asked me to write a critique of the show and write the sample episode.

Anonymous said...

Count yourselves lucky. It was no place for a new writer. It would have shattered your illusions. Show politics up the wazoo, editors and producers promoted way above their abilities. It would probably have left you with some very bad habits and expectations that you'd subsequently have to un-learn.

Anonymous said...

Lucky escape, folks. It's absolute bollocks that people on RC didn't have time to read those scripts. It could all have been sorted in six weeks if every script editor/producer had spent one hour three days a week reading. As it was, RC was chronically over-staffed in editorial terms.

When it comes to encouraging Scottish talent, River City has now resorted to flying in writers from south of the border. BBC Scotland's a complete disgrace.