For a long time, I felt the BBC Writers' Academy would be the fast track to success as a TV dramatist in Britain. It's certainly the fast track to one high volume strand in UK TV - continuing drama. Get in the academy and you're all but guaranteed a crack at EastEnders, Holby City, Casualty and Doctors. If that's what you want - brilliant.
Many fine TV dramatists learned their trade in continuing drama, so I'm not knocking it as a training ground. But to write well for continuing drama you have to love those shows, or at least drink the KoolAid. If continuing drama isn't your first love, you face having to fake loving them for years on end to succeed.
In continuing drama, emerging writers can feel like servants to the machine. Some succeed and get to ascent the rank. Others get rewritten . Some simply get fired, either because they couldn't fulfill the exec's vision, or couldn't write within the show's tone and format, or simply couldn't cope with being a cog in a machine.
At one extremity, the writer's job seems little more than taking the storyline documents, adding structure and dialogue, and then outputting several drafts. [That's a gross overstatement for effect, I hasten to add!] At the other end of the spectrum is the delightful Doctors, where writers invent 60% of their episode from scratch.
Continuing drama execs talk about encouraging new voices - and many of them do. But the show always comes first. If you can't give them what they want on deadline, you will be fired. [That happens on plenty of other UK TV dramas, but the relentless machinery of continuing drama can be particularly crushing.]
The Writers' Academy was set up to counteract the problem of new scribes failing on Casualty and Holby. From memory, 4 out of 5 new writers used to get booted. The WA has made significant improvements to that, and deserves applause. [Holby or Casualty also run shadow schemes, if the academy route isn't for you.]
But I've decided not to bother trying for the academy again. Some 600 people apply annually and about 30 get invited to a workshop day. That leads to interviews, from which eight are chosen. Talent will out, but it's also a bit of a lottery. I know some very successful screenwriters who've failed with applications, so I'm in good company.
[Why haven't I succeeded? Partly the quality and volume of competition, but mostly it's the scripts I've submitted. Not distinctive enough, not enough individual voice shining through. Last year I made the longlist with a rough first draft. This year, a much more polished version of that script didn't even make the longlist - such is life.]
I've applied four times in six years and never made it to the workshop day. Even if I had, I doubt I would have gone further. Each time I applied, I felt obliged to watch Eastenders, Casualty and Holby in case I make the shortlist. That should be a joy - not an obligation. If I didn't enjoy watching these shows, why would I enjoy writing them?
While I haven't gotten close to the WA, I've written four episodes of Doctors broadcast by the BBC since 2010. Had my second radio play on air. Written ten episodes of Nina and the Neurons for CBeebies. Scripted an acclaimed computer game. Helped establish a groundbreaking Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University.
I'm enjoying my writing. It's not always fun, certainly not always easy, but I'm challenging myself. Yesterday I finished a first draft of my first feature film screenplay, written on spec. I've enough stories to write to last me a lifetime. So abandoning my Quixotic quest to get into the Writers' Academy doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice.
A tiny part of me feels making this decision is akin to Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, admitting he will never play the Dane. But my ambitions have certainly not ceased or diminished. If anything, not watching endless hours of hospital dramas should free up a lot more time for writing, reading and watching TV drama. Onwards!