Monday, August 01, 2011

Writers' Festival 2011: Holby City - script to screen

August already? sigh. It's been weeks since the BBC writersroom staged the 2011 TV drama Writers' Festival and I still haven't typed up my notes. So here's the first in an occasional series, assuming I can decipher my very, very, very rusty shorthand and scribblings. Today: Holby City - script to screen.
“A nuts and bolts works on the story process from inception to execution with series producer Justin Young [JY], and script producer Simon Harper [SH].”

SH: There’s been a reshuffle at Holby. Justin was head writer, now series producer. [This change is about] making shows more writer-led. As story producer, I’m responsible for all scripts. On Holby we look for four things – head, heart, hooks and humour. I give out straight commissions to experienced writers, people who’ve written hour-long TV.

JY: Holby is an aspirational show about surgeons, ranging from very smart to smart in a different way. Subtext is crucial. A bad hour of Holby is the longest hour of TV of the week. You need a keen sense of structure. We look for really sharp, witty dialogue.

SH: Holby is so different to Casualty. It can be much more heightened, what we call 110% reality. Know and be passionate about the characters. There’s no emergency medicine, Holby doesn’t go outside the wards.

It’s elective surgery, so it’s seen through the eyes of the regulars. We’re trying to escape an hour of talking. We’re really driving incident and action.

I’ve just given out six straight commissions in a row [to writers with experience on one-hour dramas]. If a writer only has half hour experience, there’s departmental money to do shadow schemes.

On a shadow scheme, six writers spend a day at Elstree learning the structure of the show, about the world. We divide our show into A story [50%], B story [30%] and C story [20%]. More often than not, the story’s are all in different wards.

Shadow scheme writers are given six weeks to write a strand from a script. They go through three drafts, getting notes on each draft. Four of the six writers from last year’s scheme are now doing commissions for Holby.

The BBC Writers’ Academy has helped drive Holby [JY is a graduate of the academy]. But the academy isn’t the only way into Holby. I always have gaps, I’m always looking for new writers. Writing for Holby is about being good and passionate.

Holby isn’t a soap. We want you to write it as your hour, a crafted piece of drama – not just three strands of soap, bubbling away.

JY: It’s a remarkably authored show. You really can own your hour.

SH: Your guest story is very important to that. It can’t be superfluous. That’s a tricky balance to get right. I’m constantly liaising with agents, meeting people.

JY: We hold long term conferences for blue sky insanity, with the core writing team. Everyone pitches ideas. We’ll split into groups to tackle individual characters.

SH: Holby works in series, even though it’s on air all year round. Series 13 is on screen at the moment . Writing for series 14 is happening now, starts on TV in October.

We divide each series into quarters, with each quarter like a mini-series with its own arcs for all the regular characters. The story department, core writers and others will create a serial document for each quarter of a series. Then I book suitable writers for each ep.

JY: Each ep is a link in a larger narrative chain. The job of an ep writer is to craft their story link in the most interesting way.

SH: Once writers are contracted, they start talking about guest stories with the script editor(s). We keep an eye out for replication or duplication. Hold planning meeting for the whole quarter, everyone round a big table. That gives writers a sense of their ep within the larger arc. We thrash things out. When the commissioning doc is locked down, eps roll out in blocks of two e.g. 1 & 2, 3 & 4.

JY: The two day commissioning conference – two days locked in a room. Two eps, one script editor, looking at how the eps, the stories, the guest stories integrate. This gests writers tuned into the show’s characters, their specifics at that moment. I still get to the second draft of my own scripts sometimes and realise a character’s superfluous.

Day one focuses on ep 1 of the pair, but both writers are there to create a sense of continuity. Each story gets broken into beats, quite specifically.

SH: We’ll ask questions like why is that happening in the guest story? How is that relevant? Writers get research on medicine, it’s the writers job to make it sexy and interesting. Holby City is not a soap, it’s a medical drama. Medicine is the sword our characters wield.

The writer writes up their episode pitch over three pages. Gives it a title, outlines the thematic elements, breaks each story into five acts. Shows how guest stories play into the serial. What’s the big curveball that sets protagonist up for the day? Identify ad breaks.

JY: It’s really rigorous. Writers often comes to us with a character idea, not a story idea.

SH: You have got three serial stories, maybe an also story [like a D story, but deep in the background], and three guest stories. There can be up to ten strands, twisting and turning. It’s really challenging. We talk a lot about the four Hs of Holby City – Head [intelligent, smart writing], Heart [emotionally involving], Hooks [turning points that help drive the narratives] and Humour [sharp, snappy dialogue]. It needs erudition, smartness.

JY: Every scene should end on a question.

SH: The Holby City songtage [where an emotionally resonant song plays over a montage of the day’s storylines, often near the end of an ep] – that puppy dog moment is needed.

Holby used to be angsty, humourless, competitive. It needs banter and joy.

JY: Getting the tone right is very hard. It’s heightened but still needs to be real. Sexy and smart but still real.

SH: I teach the show quite regularly to new writers. There is a guest story formula.

After the 3 page document, writers move on to their scene by scene. There’s no virtue in rushing. You have to pin down the choreography of your story.

JY: An average script goes through five drafts. Sometimes you effectively end up writing three first drafts as part of that process.

SH: The US TV drama Grey’s anatomy is a wonderful model for aspirational and emotional appeal. Here’s a rough guide to have five act structure works in Holby…

Act One: set-up serial of protagonist’s wants and needs
Act Two: an explosive medical case comes through the doors
Act Three: coming as your medical case emotionally compromised by your situation
Act Four: it all goes tits up – emotionally, medically, etc
Act Five: Symbiotic resolutions – one plays into the other – resonance, not resemblance

JY: There really doesn’t always have to be resonance.

SH: In a spec script I need to see smartness, funny, a lightness of touch.

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