Monday, April 28, 2008

I liked the 'What's at stake for Jesus' line though.

Interesting article in the Media Guardian about the current state of BBC Drama. You may have to sign up for the site if you haven't already, but it's free, and certainly worth your time.

UPDATE: now with a follow-up blog entry by Gareth.

Interesting partly because the main interviewee of the article makes an appearance in this post (while the writer of the article is in this one), but also because my experience of working with BBC Drama (they commissioned the teen drama from an outline, then a pilot script, then a second script, which I'm working on right now), has been almost entirely positive.

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case though, and also why I might be coming from a slightly different place to most drama writers, which are:

1) Having come from a comedy-writing background, where the only reason a Head of a Department would remember your name, or even come up and speak to you at a screening party (for example) is if they mistake you for an actor. This is understandable, as I was standing between Mark Heap and Oli Chris at the time, and I'm taller and better looking than both. All right, not better looking. Taller though. Than Mark Heap. A bit.

The conversation went like this:

HD: (not entirely un-flirtily) Hello, and where might I know you from?'
ME: (confused) Erm, did you ever go to the Waterstone's in Canterbury?
OLI: James is one of the writers.
HD: (annoyed) Oh.
ME: So, what did you-

Head of Department walks away.

ME: Oh.

2) I have had some small experience of co-writing a number of pilots for American networks. I can't go into this for exciting legal reasons, but the main impression I got from the experience was 'jesus this isn't much fun at all'. Every line of dialogue had to go through not just four executives, but four levels of executives. Any decision to do with casting involved conference calls with thirty casting agents on the same line, so you were ten minutes in just saying hello. BBC Drama may well be moving worryingly in this direction (and the bit about everyone constantly fretting about what the person at the top is going to think, rather than getting on with their job sounds a bit familiar), but I would say it has a way to go yet.

3) I like working collaboratively. The series is totally my baby, but I'm the first to admit that I have a lot to learn about structure, pacing, narrative arcs and so on. A surprising amount of stuff I did pick up from Bob the Builder, but my teen drama episodes will be sixty minutes long rather than eight, so unless the actors say their lines verrrrry verrrrrry slowwwwwwllllyyyy, I have to try and work out how to do this properly. Before I write each episode, I sit down with Joe Donaldson, the assistant producer, and Liz Kilgariff, the script editor, and we work together on the outline. And because we've spent a lot of time with these characters now, developing their backgrounds and talking about where they're going to go, if they disagree with me on what I want to happen, I can trust them that they're not doing so because they want to curry favour with people above them, but because they actually give a shit about the story we're trying to tell. This is close to being my favourite bit of the whole process, and sometimes I like to pretend it's an elaborate roleplaying game session, except that I'm going to write it all down later, and it's a bit more expensive. And I'm not allowed to have beholders in it. Although it's set in Cornwall, so +1 swords haven't been entirely ruled out.

4) The executive producer actually said to me about the first draft 'Hmm, I like this, but I think you could be a bit bolder with it. You know, taking a few more creative risks'. Producers who say things like this deserve parades.

5) I am being protected by the afore-mentioned TEAM MEATSHIELD.

None of this should be read as an attack on a pleasingly even-handed article by the way (yes, I'm sucking up to Gareth after some nasty bullying from that James Corden boy*), or to pick fights with writers much more experienced and talented than myself. It is only early days, and I'm sure there'll be some quite big and quite nasty fights to come along. But it would be remiss of me not to say that at this stage at least, working with Joe, Liz and various people at BBC Drama has been an enormously encouraging experience.

Obviously, if after ep two is finished the high muckety-mucks don't commission a full series, I'll burn down the East Tower of TV Centre and then force-feed them the shredded remnants of my tv license. But Agent Matt put that in the contract**, I think, so they've had fair warning.

* I'm on Team Gareth, even if only because we had a nice chat about Battlestar Galactica once, before it was cool to like it.
** I think it would be fair to say that Agent Matt's experience with the Contracts department has been a slightly less nourishing affair altogether.


Danny Stack said...

Top post!

james henry said...

Cheers! Of course I wrote that when I should have been working on episode two, but never mind.

Sylvia said...

Hmm. Reminds me of that time when you and Richard weren't allowed in the Green Room at the NFT before the event, and had to wait til afterwards. Outrageous! How could they leave you to fend off the Queens of Insania? Don't they know who you are?

Good luck with everything

Boz said...

Go Team Gazza!

Actually I can't imagine The McLean ever being called Gazza.