Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Using form and tone to tell a story in Doctors

My second ep of Doctors, Wasted Trip, is still available via iPlayer until tomorrow - I suggest watching it now [if you haven't already] before going any further with this post. There be spoilers ahead!

RJW asks: 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?

Good question. Doctors is fast approaching its 2000th episode, so has already tackled pretty much every medical condition or dilemma you can usefully tackle in 27 minutes. I can't claim to have watched every episode, so I don't know every story of the day [SOTD] ever done. I let someone else worry about that.

I can't claim the central character of a ganga-growing granny is wildly original. Indeed, the story springboard was inspired by news reports about pensioners cultivating cannabis and distributing it to fellow sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. So, nothing very new under the sun there, if I'm honest.

For me the different angle came from thinking about tone and form. In terms of form, most episodes of Doctors are about healing. A guest character appears in the opening sequence. They have a problem and it needs to be acknowledged, confronted or resolved today. A crisis is approaching, making their story urgent.

My first ep of Doctors was about a woman suffering extreme PMS and the effect that was having on her life. The symptoms couldn't be resolved in 27 minutes, but the series regular involved [Simon] helped her come to terms with those symptoms. The SOTD took her a few, vital steps along the journey of healing.

So that's the formal constraint viewers have come to expect from a typical Doctors ep. Watch enough of them and you learn the rhythms of the show, how it tends to tell stories. As a writer for the show I have to be consciously aware of this, while viewers instinctively know the form from watching it a lot.

Wasted Trip does it best to turn form on its head while still being typical, at least on the surface. Zita first appears as a spry little old lady. The mystery is how she achieved remission from her arthritis so quickly. The answer is probably cannabis. The mystery becomes where is she getting the cannabis?

Series regular Heston discovers a cannabis factory in the adjoining property, the police are called. Zita says the drug dealers threatened her, gave the cannabis in exchange for silence. The villain is minor criminal Craig Crumey - Zita's grandson. In fact, Zita is the mastermind. She sacrifices Craig to save herself.

When the ep ends, Zita has lost her cannabis factory next door and a grandson. But it turns out she has two more sites nearly ready for harvesting. Zita's been manipulating Heston all along, using the ethical dilemma about cannabis treatment for illness as a ruse. Everything she's done has been a smokescreen.

Zita is an example of a protagonist who doesn't change. Instead, the audience's attitude to the character changes as they learn more about her. Zita is a trickster, a shapeshifter who goes from perky old lady to frightened old lady to criminal genius, constantly changing her persona to suit the circumstances.

That was a deliberate choice. Rather than tell a story about healing, I decided to play with the show's formal constraints, to see if I could keep reversing audience expectations. The simple facts of the story are nothing wildly original, it's what you do with them that creates a different angle of narrative attack.

Tone was the other tool I used. The ep opens with Zita's mobile playing the famous theme tune to The Archers. This jolly, jaunty music has an association with all things bright and beautiful, a cosy rural idyll captured in 20 seconds of music. That music immediately makes Zita seem safe, kindly, unthreatening.

That set the tone for audience attitudes towards the character. Her first lines of dialogue have her talking about bake sales [actually a coded phrase referring to the harvesting of cannabis from one of her factories]. She calls everyone 'dear', just like a lovely little old lady would. It all sets the tone.

The rest of the ep gradually peels away the layers, revealing a very different character. By Zita's final scene, she is revealed as a ruthless manipulator willing to sacrifice her own grandson to survive. When her mobile rings again, the theme tune to The Archers has taken on a far more sinister connotation.

Viewers realise Zita is neither safe, nor kindly, and certainly not unthreatening. She may not be physically imposing, but she's wrapped everyone around her little finger all day long. [All praise to actress Deirdre Doone and director Sarah Punshon for bringing this out, and so much more besides - wonderfully done!]

The comedy japes with Cherry getting stoned at the Mill in the middle of the ep were a way to shift the tone. As events in the Jack steroid abuse serial strand built towards their climax, the SOTD's tone became more dramatic. By Zita's last scene the comedy has been replaced by something darker, to match Jack's trajectory.

Hopefully, all of that wasn't wildly apparent when you first watched the ep. If I did my job as writer well enough, the use of form and tone should be subliminal for the watching audience - implicit rather than explicit. Whether or not I pulled it off is for others to judge. Hope I did. Onwards!

1 comment:

Janice Okoh said...

really enjoyed the episode. Love Jack. Was the punch your idea or scripted? I think I'm hooked again on the show... last thing I need..cheers...