Monday, November 22, 2010

The story of writing my second episode for Doctors

Warning: this contains spoilers for Wasted Trip, episode 137 of Doctors Series XII. If you haven’t already seen the story, it’s still available for UK viewers to watch via the BBC iPlayer here. I recommend watching it before reading any further in this blog posting. Right, on with the tale of Wasted Trip’s journey to broadcast.

In the summer of 2008 I was fortunate enough to be one of eight writers invited on the Doctors mini-academy, a five day shadow scheme designed to help new and emerging scribes for the BBC continuing drama series.

In September 2008 I pitched five short ideas to my script editor, including the story that would become my first Doctors commission, A Pill For Every Ill. One of the other ideas was Green, Green Grass of Home, the tale of 60-something Tom Jones enthusiast Gwen who’s smoking marijuana to relieve the symptoms of a chronic condition.

Nurse Archie Hallam faces an ethical dilemma – should be report Gwen’s drug use, even though it seems to be helping her? The short pitch had a second plot thread involving an illegal immigrant and a cannabis factory. The immigrant collapses, forcing Gwen to ask for Archie’s help, and everything comes spilling out.

My script editor felt there was a good story in the pitch, but it was lurching all over the place at a tonal level. On one hand Gwen’s drug use had the potential to be quite a light-hearted tale, but the illegal immigrant and implied threat from human trafficking drug dealers was far darker and more sinister.

Doctors isn’t afraid to contrast the grim with the comedic, but pulling that off in the same story can be challenging. So a big re-think was needed for Green, Green Grass of Home. Plus the actor playing nurse Archie Hallam was leaving the show, so that was another factor to bear in mind when it came to revisions.

Fast forward to February 2010. My first episode had just been transmitted, I decided to pitch some new ideas and see if I couldn’t fix one or two old favourites. I gave Green, Green Grass a thorough rewrite, cutting out the illegal immigrant subplot and replacing the now long-gone Archie with Dr Heston Carter.

Heston’s a fun character to write for, thanks to his florid language and occasional lapses into pomposity. Gwen was replaced by Zita Morton, a 75-year-old patient with chronic rheumatoid arthritis. She manipulates Heston and engineers events to force out the truth about a cannabis factory being run from the adjoining home.

This version replaced the illegal immigrant strand with a hopefully comedic subplot about receptionist Karen getting stoned on cannabis-laced chocolate brownies. Jimmi and Cherry would have to deal with her while Heston confronted Zita about the illegal drugs. A burly Non Speaking Extra was written in to represent the drug dealers.

Discussions with my script editor saw the idea evolve still further. The burly NSE became Zita’s partner in crime, Craig Crumey, while the wily pensioner became even more of a trickster character, pulling everyone’s strings. Also in the mix – Karen’s husband Rob Hollins, a policeman who gets dragged into events.

A revised version of my two-page pitch renamed Wasted Trip was formally submitted for consideration at the start of March 2010. To my surprise, it was banked in less than three weeks, meaning Wasted Trip was now approved for use as a Story of the Day. [Sheer weight of numbers mean pitches can wait months for a yes or no.

It was only another six or seven weeks before I got the call from my script editor – was I available and willing to work on my second episode? Yes! I did have to point out I would be on holiday for one week at the start of June, in the midst of the script process, but otherwise I was ready, willing and able. Bring it on.

[Spring 2010 was a rather frenzied few months. I was writing a radio play for BBC7, an audio adventure game to accompany the radio play, teaching 2.5 days a week and taking part in a CBeebies Lab for writers interested in creating material for pre-school audiences. More on that later…]

First step on any new Doctors ep is to read the serial material that needs to be blended with your Story of the Day [SOTD hereafter] to create the script. Normally the SOTD takes up about 15 minutes of screen time, leaving about 12 minutes for the serial strands. Usually there are two serial strands, sometimes just one.

For Wasted Trip I was given a single serial strand about teenager Jack Hollins getting increasingly out of control due to steroid abuse. This would culminate in him lashing out at sister Immie – described in the serial document as a hard slap across the face. A big, serious story about drug abuse to contrast with my cannabis comedy.

This presented a major, tonal challenge – how to balance my cookie-based japes with a strong story about an unravelling youth hitting his sister. Get it right and the contrast would be great, potentially very powerful. Get it wrong and it could be a terrible mess that made serious drug abuse seem like fodder for fluffy comedy.

The serial also threw a couple of curve balls at my SOTD. Sergeant Rob Hollins was going to be away the week my episode was scheduled for, making him unavailable as the policeman who intervenes with Zita. The Jack serial strand also meant Karen couldn’t be the Mill staffer who gets stoned, that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Step forward Nurse Cherry Malone, girlfriend of police surgeon Dr Jimmi Clay. The actress who plays Cherry, Sophie Abelson, has an incredibly infectious giggle, making her the perfect candidate for a blissed-out, cannabis-brownie addled appearance.

The next step was creating a scene-by-scene that blended my SOTD with the supplied serial material, bearing in mind the actors available and other pre-requisites of the show. I got some very useful notes back that gave the s-x-s a tighter focus. For example, Zita’s partner-in-crime Craig became her grandson.

This helped explain how a granny with a spotless record could get involved with cannabis cultivation. It also added an extra dimension to the betrayal when Zita shifted the blame on to her grandson. From being an apparently sweet old lady at the start of the episode, by the end she would be an utterly ruthless criminal mastermind.

The s-x-s wasn’t perfect [these things rarely are], but proved strong enough to secure my formal commission. Up until this point a writer isn’t guaranteed anything. Once the s-x-s is approved, you get a contract and some money in your future. I had secured my second TV drama commission as a screenwriter.

My next job was to write a first draft. Unfortunately, this was moment when I went on holiday to Madrid for a week. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a holiday or Madrid [it was lovely, in fact] but I was in danger of falling behind the other writers on this particular block of episodes.

I was also writing the pilot script for a show I’d devised on the CBeebies Lab. Throw in the possibility of volcanic ash clouds shutting down Europe’s airports again, and I had no choice – my laptop was coming with me. I wrote the CBeebies script on holiday, and agreed to deliver my first draft for Doctors a week later.

Seven days should be ample time to write a first draft. Unfortunately, this seven days was a bit crowded. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I was teaching. That means leaving the house at 8am and not getting home before 7pm. Wednesday night I had a meeting for the Biggar Theatre Workshop. Thursday night I had the BTW AGM.

So I got up early those three days and wrote for 90 minutes before heading into Edinburgh to teach. The good news - I didn’t have a meeting Friday night. The bad news – I was flying to London for a friend’s birthday party. Saturday night I was going out in London, so Saturday was a writing day, come hell or high water.

I was staying in a hotel, so spent Saturday locked in my room, writing as fast as I could. Sunday? Flying back home, then out in the evening to meet a woman from the University of New Orleans about a potential joint project. So Sunday was a wash-out for writing. That left Monday and Tuesday to finish the first draft of my script.

Thanks to a solid s-x-s, I managed to deliver on time. I was still running a week behind all the other writers, but I’d hit my deadline. There were lots of notes on the first draft, as there always are, but nothing apocalyptic. For the largest part I’d pretty much hit the nail on the head. Plenty of finessing but no radical surgery required.

One big question was how far to go with Jack hitting his sister. The supplied serial suggested a hard slap, I wanted him to go for it. My first draft had Jack backhand Immie across the face, sending her sprawling across the kitchen floor. That caused some debate with my script editor, but we kept it in.

I felt Jack’s descent into steroid rage would be better illustrated by a big backhander than anything softer or less violent. Much of the next episode was devoted to the fallout from Jack’s drug use, so having him really hurt his sister felt necessary to me to properly tell the story, to set up what was to come in the following day’s Doctors.

There were four more drafts after the first one, but this was about polishing and tweaking than significant alterations. By the third draft I’d caught up with the other writers in my block. The script was locked at the start of July, with the Jack attack on Immie upgraded from a backhander to a punch in the face.

The episode was shot as part of Series XII Block 50 at the end of July and beginning of August, with Sarah Punshon as director. I was lucky to travel down to Birmingham to see one day of filming at the Mill Health Centre, mostly the stoned Cherry sequences. It’s amazing how hard and fast the cast and crew work, quite amazing.

I got an advance copy of the episode to watch about a week before Wasted Trip was broadcast. It’s always fascinating to see how much of the episode makes it onscreen. A handful of scenes went for timing reasons on my first Doctors, but I think only one ended up on the cutting room floor for this ep.

As always, the cast and crew did me proud. Deirdre Doone gave a stunning performance as the duplicitous Zita, adding extra layers to a constantly shifting trickster character. Jack punching his sister was even more shocking than I’d expected and the whole thing felt like it had a lot more than 27 minutes of drama packed in.

The biggest challenge for me was balancing the comedic tone of my SOTD with the much darker serial strand, which goes from dramatic towards tragic. I front-loaded the comedy scenes so they fell in the first 20 minutes, while the darker sequences involving Jack and Immie were held back to much later in the episode.

All in all, I think Wasted Trip works pretty well. Feedback has been positive and it’s an episode I’ve been proud to suggest people watch as evidence of what I can do. Obviously, I’m still learning as a writer [you never truly stop], but this was a good result out of what seemed a very time pressured spring and summer for me.

So, what’s next? Filming is all but complete on my third ep, scheduled for transmission in March next year. I don’t have any more SOTD pitches banked, but there are four on the pile waiting for a yes or no answer and others in development. I’m loving writing for Doctors, the fresh challenges each new episode offers.

One more ep and the BBC contracts department will consider me an experienced writer. That seems a bit of a nonsense when I’m just scratching the surface, but I won’t reject the 25% raise in my standard rate it’ll bring. All I really care about is the work, the chance to learn, to share my stories with millions of viewers. Onwards!


Joseph Lidster said...

I thought it must have been difficult combining the comedic and the dark storylines but it worked really well. Jack's punch was truly shocking. Fab stuff.


Thank, Joe!

I felt lucky to be given such a meaty serial, it's not often you get one regular punching another on Doctors. Doing it justice was a challenge.

RJW said...

Hi David

Congrats on your success with 'Doctors'. I really enjoyed your latest episode, but I just wanted to ask as the subject of cannabis use as pain relief and the whole ethical dilemma surrounding that has been featured on the show before, how did you set about approaching it from a different angle?