Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scotland Writes Nov. 26th Q&A notes

Drove from Edinburgh to Glasgow on Thursday for the BBC Scotland Writes Q&A session with Anne Mensah [AM hereafter] at Pacific Quay. Starting to think Pacific Quay is Glasgow's Bermuda Triangle. Everytime I go near it, something goes awry - car crashes, trains run late, pedestrian overpasses get closed, or massive tailbacks on the M8. This time: massive tailbacks, driving rain, general carnage.

Anyway, on to some notes from the session. Script editor George Aza-Selinger welcomed everyone [about 60 people attended, it was a full house] and introduced Anne Mensah, who's Head of Drama at BBC Scotland and [since April 2009] Head of Independents. She introduced a showreel of BBC Scotland TV drama projects, past and present, before talking about her department, how it works, etc.

Ideas submitted via agents or production companies are read by a script editor. If they like it, the project gets passed to AM. Her department holds bi-weekly development meetings to discuss new and current projects. If she likes an idea, a treatment will be commissioned. Notes, rewrites and more notes follow. All going well, a script commission will follow. More notes, more rewrites, etc.

AM can pay for all the script development needs of a networked [i.e. broadcast across the UK, not just by BBC Scotland] project. But to get commissioned for transmission requires approval from London - Controller of Drama Commissioning Ben Stephenson, and the relevant channel controller. [This is known as the two tick system.] Scotland-only commissions don't require two ticks.

AM admitted personal tastes played a significant part in what gets commissioned, it's not an exact science. [She also stressed the audience should take everything she said with a pinch of salt, not treat her comment as commandments.] She cares far more about the quality of a writer's work than their ability to pitch a story. Concentrate on your story, not potential slots or channels.

AM warned writers to beware letting bad notes ruin a script. Instead, use the note to identify the underlying problem in your script and invent your own solution. Your TV drama ideas need to have an intrinsic point of view, something to say. Use research to find the emotional truth of your story. Content is not original, it's how you tell the story, your voice that makes it unique.

AM advocated playwrighting as a way of getting attention from BBC drama. In Scotland the script editors make it a point to see as many professionally staged plays by new talent as possible. Alternatively, go to workshops and introduce yourself to script edtiors, find someone will to read your work. They need to find new talent, they want to champion the next great writer.

Everything submitted via an agent or a production company gets reads. If you don't have access to either of these avenues, don't send scripts cold to the BBC Scotland drama department, it'll get bumped to the writersroom in London. Befriend a script editor who agrees to read your original sample, you could avoid that. Contest like Scotland Writes are another way to get attention.

AM revealed the BBC Scotland continuing drama series River City is looking for two new writers per series. They'll be mentored by an experienced writer, to guide them the process of scripting an episode. Producer Morag Bain chipped in that she was keeping a beady eye on the Scotland Writes competition, in search of potential candidates for the mentoring scheme.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, it was announced that 150 entries had been received for the Scotland Writes TV drama contest. The winner gets £1500, while £500 goes to the runner-up and twenty people will get a workshop with AM's team. She would like to run the contest every year, but the one-day workshop costs a lot to stage. Winners will be announced mid-December.

AM's presentation was peppered with clips from dramas by first-time TV writers, such as Gregory Bruke's forthcoming Scottish Single and the powerful one-off Fiona's Story by Kate Gabriel. For contrast, she also showed very early work by BAFTA-winning scribes to demonstrate that everybody starts somewhere and writers only get better through hard work and experience.

After all of that, the gathered throng retired to the lobby of BBC Scotland HQ at Pacific Quay for free drinks and crisps. I was driving, so it was strictly orange juice for me. Nattered to various BBC folk, and had a few words with AM [she recalled my script from among the Red Planet Prize finalists, which was nice]. An illuminating night - well worth the vile journey!


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Lindsay said...

Thanks David - much better than my own notes!