Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Blog Post #1981: The legacy of Hill Street Blues

If I could travel back in time to write for any TV drama, Hill Street Blues would be top of my list. Not that I'm anywhere near good enough for the US police procedural, but because I have such an abiding admiration for the series. It's been a major influence on my writing and is a big part of why I enjoy ensemble TV drama so much.

Hill Street Blues hit US TV early in 1981 to critical acclaim and audience apathy. It went against the grain by adopting documentary techniques - lots of hand-held camera work, overlapping dialogue and in your face narrative viewpoints - designed to give the drama immediacy, thrusting those watching into the middle of the action.

This was revolutionary 30 years ago, now it's become a style choice. But the reason Hill Street Blues endures [for me, anyway] is the writing and the characters. The sprawling cast, all with distinct attitudes and voices. The multi-stranded tapesty of plots woven by each episode. The willingness to show human flaws and frailties.

Plus there's a seam of dark, bleak humour that runs through the series [the David Milch factor, perhaps?]. My favourite Hill Street Blues sequence comes on the death of a series regular. The police spread the character's ashes on the streets, fulfilling their last wishes. Soon after a sweeping machine wishes the ashes down a drain.

Last Friday I submitted my application for the BBC Writers' Academy. My sample script was The Specials, an ensemble TV drama about special constables in Edinburgh. I won't make any claims of greatness [never invite yourself to a banquet of humble pie and hubris], but my pilot script tips its hat to the greatness of Hill Street Blues.

Applications for the academy close this Thursday. About 500 people apply most years. An initial sift will take those numbers down to around 150 by the end of May. In early July the top 30 or so will be invited for workshops in London. From these people perhaps 12-15 get interviewed for the eight places on this year's academy.

Get in and you undergo an intensive, 13-week experience learning to write for BBC continuing dramas Casualty, EastEnders, Holby City and Doctors. Survive the academy and you write one episode for all four shows in a twelve month period. You can get on each show without the academy, but it's the fast-track to tackling them all.

The fact I've written three broadcast episodes of Doctors is neither here nor there when it comes to selection for the academy. You need a professional writing credit to apply, but after that it's the quality of your writing sample that determines whether or not you at least make it to the workshop phase of the selection process.

I won't know about the success or failure of my application until the end of May at the earliest. In the meantime I'll be watching all four shows to immerse myself in the way they tell stories [plus the BBC Scotland continuing drama River City, which I watch every week anyway]. Good luck to all who apply for the academy. Onwards!

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