Saturday, July 03, 2010

TV Writers' Festival: Casualty 2010 - The Vision

Mark Catley [MC] was one of the eight chosen for the first Writers’ Academy [WA]. Got into it through theatre. The writersroom held his hand for five years leading up to the Academy. At his first WA interview MC slagged off Casualty. Despite this he got a second interview two weeks later, and got in.

At the time he felt Casualty was a bland version of Holby City. Characters had no flaws, there were no dynamics, no differences in status between characters. MC got the show to introduce a class system to the hospital e.g. a new porter, new receptionist.

Belinda Campbell joined as executive producer about the same time. She wanted the show to be braver, bolder. The past five years have been building on that essence, making the show braver and bolder. MC felt the previous regime wanted things dumbed down, all on the nose, nothing left to the imagination.

The goal now is showing, not telling – write subtextually. There is a vision for the future. Casualty wants to stop holding the writer’s hands. Introducing a new commissioning process, get ideas signed off early. Editorial team has been guilty of not trusting writers to get it right – and writers have let editorial down too often.

If you make writers change everything after the first draft, their second draft is really just another first draft. It can take multiple drafts to find the right stories. But there can be a culture of fear. If a writer gets sacked, everyone carries the can. The fear of writers screwing up help push the writers into screwing up.

The process at Casualty: writer gets a serial doc, containing the A, B & C stories featuring regular cast. Writer has to create two guest stories to help tell the serial stories. Writers shouldn’t turn up at commissioning meeting with their guest stories before knowing the serial. Afterwards writer writes up agreed stories.

That pitch doc gets signed off. The writer does a scene by scene breakdown for the episode with their script editor – five stories in all, 50 minutes. MC believes Casualty is one of the hardest shows to write. An acclaimed writer of sitcoms and rom-com features did an episode a few years back and nearly got bumped off his own script.

Once the scene by scene is signed off, writer goes on to the first draft. MC believes that is probably read by too many people, leading to a lot of notes. MC reads the second draft, and the fourth. The writers has drafts 3 and 4 to implement MC’s notes [and other notes, such as medical research].

MC likes writers to bookend the serial. The guest story can become the antagonist for a serial story. [For example, a regular has an important letter to read but interventions by guest story keep getting in the way.] There’s flexibility for the balance of guest story to serial. Some writers get it, some don’t – but episode will be shot.

MC believes CDS [continuing drama series] is more brutal than other TV dramas because there’s’ immense pressure. Casualty will be cutting its budget by 30% over the next three years. It’s already working on a budget comparable with what it had back in 1985, when the first episode was broadcast.

MC thinks the show has six great episodes a year, matching any other drama on TV. Of the other 42 eps, 25 are good or very good – a few are turkeys. Eps have gone to 12, 13 drafts. So many people have a different vision, that complicates matters.

With Casualty moving from Bristol to Cardiff, MC expects his role to change. He still lives in Leeds – a four hour journey to Bristol, it’ll be another hour to Cardiff. MC plans to keep writing, but may do less producing. Budget cuts mean having to find ways of keeping the show’s unique flavour, but delivering it for less.

Two years ago the word resonance got banned. Writers are still expected to create resonance, but to do it with subtlety, subtextual connections between stories.

MC believes giving the writer more control over the show improves quality. There’s a story conference every three months. Ten to 12 writers there on the first day, 6-7 core writers remain for the second day. Core writers do four eps a year. MC went dry at the last story conference, so is concentrating on producing for a while

MC believes how the script editor gathers all the notes and communicates them to the writer can help the writer retain their voice. MC argued about notes from his 1st ep, described his attitude as chippy. He says writers have to be prepared to argue. Writers who surrender to all notes lose control of their episodes – and can get dumped.

Casualty writing process is three months from start to finish. Trying to reduce that to two and a half months – or two months, ideally. Goal is to get writing process down to four drafts. Casualty offers a shadow scheme for less experienced writers. The WA also provides writers. Cancellation of The Bill made experienced writers available.

MC stressed that Casualty is desperate for new writers. Nicola Larder is the show’s development producer, but you need an agent to approach her directly. MC says a good Casualty writer fights for what they know will work.

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