Saturday, July 03, 2010

TV Writers' Festival: Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

Nicola Shindler [NS]: It’s always about the next thing a writer’s going to do. Getting a writer’s idea to a broadcaster can have stutters along the way. Channels want what they want. It’s our job to push the boundaries and challenge. The more brilliant, the more likely it is to get on.

NS: A lot less drama made in the last two years. What does get made has to be made at a lower price. On the positive side, it feels like there’s less top-down commissioning, more flexibility. Serials are back. There’s more ambition to get brilliant stuff on air.

Mark Catley [MC]: Lead writer on Casualty for two years, still a writer first. Now a consultant producer, poacher turned gamekeeper. Part of the editorial, now feels in the middle of it. As lead writer MC had a lot of story and character input. Now feels more like a showrunner. Had to put the time in to become a showrunner.

Jed Mercurio [JM]: Writer, producer and director. It’s a different environment, hard to get your own projects greenlit. It’s not being asked for, so a harder sell. JM very wary of top-down commissioning. Responding to a brief is problematic. By the time you have developed something, it’s too late. You have to go back to basics, write what interests you, then you’ll be true to yourself – won’t be that much harder to get off.

[JM works for HBO in US, Canal Plus in France] If you restrict yourself to established drama markets it makes life harder. Some shows are Channel [C4] or BBC2 – you think, why bother? Sky is a new player in the market, expanding its drama slate. There are different ways to work overseas that suit JM. [How to survive in hard times] You fall back on relationships when things get tough. Bodies was JM’s last BBC series.

MC: Continuing Drama Series [CDS] can be a brilliant place to cut your teeth, but there’s still a snobbishness toward it from some in the industry. Paul Abbot and Matthew Graham helped raise the profile and respect for CDS. But despite our best efforts, CDS is still seen as a lower rung.

NS: Spent a long time developing a project about Lockerbie. Brilliant script, commissioned by BBC Scotland, development was straight forward. Three years ago it was deemed not a fit for BBC1, despite there being no notes to offer. NS never giving up on it. To her a sexy show is a good show.

JM: As the commissioning chain extends, it puts projects in jeopardy. You get into strategising. It’s always about individuals, a single person’s taste. There’s no conspiracy to stop the Lockerbie project getting made. It can’t do any harm to work with a producer, or a director that has an established track record. It shortens the odds, but there are no guarantees. You make the project as good as it can be on paper, but people can still say no, even with a great champion behind it.

NS: Queer as Folk wasn’t about breaking taboos. It was a good story about compelling characters in an unseen world.

MC: You can say shit or bastard on some CDS shows, but never blaspheme.

JM: Sometimes you have to negotiate with one person’s views. [JM started as a medical advisor on a TV series.] That got him an access all areas pass, a relationship. Thereafter he kept pushing for more and more access.

NS: Good producers want to put the writer at the centre of things.

JM: There’s a difference between showrunner-lite, who gives their wisdom and leaves, and a real showrunner who has total involvement and responsibility.

MC: On Casualty writers have engaged with having another writer giving notes.

NS: Almost every time when she’s developed a show to meet a brief it’s struggled [bar Mark of Cain]. Better going for the writer’s initial passion.

JM: If you write to a brief you end up chasing rabbits. There’s nothing you can do about speeding up development.

NS: Very rarely do you get something through fast.

JM: We don’t have showrunners as a norm.

NS: Cardiac Arrest [by JM] allowed TV to show flawed medics. Holding On [by Tony Marchant – TM] brought back the serial.

TM: There’s a tendency to imitate success with diminishing returns.

MC: Commissioning tends to be obsessed with the latest success. ON Casualty guest stories are where the writer’s voice comes through. You have to find your own way into the story.

TM: I only think I’m as good as the next thing. Everyone thinks they themselves are crap, waiting to be found out. I had four things turned down by C4 after Mark of Cain. You can win gongs on one thing and not get arrested the next.

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