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Monday, 24 September 2012

Writers Write. Don't They?

A couple of weeks ago I had a catch-up lunch with someone I worked with a few years back. She was a script editor then and she's an executive producer now, but it wasn't a pitching opportunity, more of a comrades' get-together.

(I was going to say 'old comrades', but, you know, that would make her sound old, and she isn't.)

(Which I think should cover me if she reads this.)

I was aware of a couple of the jobs she'd done since we'd last met, but she'd had about half a dozen, skipping from one company to another for a variety of reasons...  a departing boss, a vanishing drama budget, and in one case a writer-killer actor that no one wants to work with more than once. Entitled performers, take note. Similarly, she was aware of some of my recent credits but not the stories behind them.

I was telling her about the four US pilots that to date I've pitched, sold, and that haven't been picked up (the number's a bit of a cheat because I sold one spec script twice), and the new ideas I'm working on, when she said, "You're nothing like the other writers I meet."

"Oh?" I said, wondering what was coming next. "How so?"

"They don't bring in ideas."

"Then, what do they talk about?"

"They're looking to us to give them something to work on."

I should add that the company she's with is a serious player, and no, don't ask me to tell you which company it is.

This notion of writers without ideas of their own seemed alien to me, but apparently there's a whole raft of them out there and she gets a lot of them through her door. They're professionals, making a living. Some of them will take an assignment only to deliver late because they got another job elsewhere and worked on that instead.

Who are they? I have no idea. We don't move in the same circles and I can't even imagine their mindset. There's a notion I picked up from Mike Newell when we were developing one of my novels for a feature (unmade) - that the working life is divided between personal projects and 'gigs'. You bring the same professionalism to each but they mean different things to you. The quality of work stays the same. Often it's possible to blur the line between the two, if you can make some personal investment in a template you didn't invent.

The best gigs sustain and entertain you but the personal projects are always there, awaiting their chance. You keep a running Wish List. Some you fall out of love with, or they pass their sell-by date, but then every now and again a new one gets added to the list. I've learned that if the market doesn't want your stuff today, don't despair. If you sit on the bank of the river for long enough, the body of the latest BBC1 controller will float by.

I wondered if this (to my mind) passive attitude is an unintended consequence of British TV's diversion of new writers into its soaps and returning dramas. Once upon a time, if a writer shone in a soap or in fringe theatre, they'd get a shot at a single play on a subject of their choice. That's how we got Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal, Joe Orton, Alan Plater, Arthur Hopcraft, Stephen Poliakoff; and if they then went on to do series work it would forever have their distinctive and individual signature on it.

Those slots - Play for Today, ITV Playhouse, Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play, in retrospect the R&D division of British TV drama - no longer exist. A new writer today is most likely to be inducted into a world of long-term storylines and given episode structures. Which sounds to me like a bit of a honeytrap - you're offered a living but you give up your voice, like The Little Mermaid.

But I don't really know because I've never worked that way. I have worked in the American Writers' Room system, where a showrunner plus staff work together to give an authored consistency to twenty-two hours of television in a nine-month burst. But every one of those staffers has a spec pilot on their netbook and their eye on a showrunner's chair of their own. As did, in my experience, the writers' assistant, the showrunner's PA, and the script co-ordinator.

Have we bred the fire out of a generation of TV writers? On Said the Actress to the Vicar this blog comment from former Holby and Crossroads producer Yvonne Grace suggests that there's a happier medium in a reality of which I've no experience.

Whatever the case, the thought that there are gigs-only writers out there, looking to be hired but with nothing personal on their wish lists, came as a surprise to me.



Channel 4's Coming Up scheme is the modern equivalent of Play For Today, I'd suggest. Open to writers with no TV credits, gives them a first taste and doesn't require them to go down the continuing drama series [CDS] route. Alas, less than a dozen are made each year.

Doctors on BBC1 is halfway between totally original and CDS. Writers have to pitch their own, original story of the day - but it must include a series regular. If it gets commissioned, the writer is 60% the writer's own story and 40% CDS material where the B & C stories come from in-house.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I remember Jane Tranter declaring bluntly in an interview that there was no public appetite for single dramas. But this was also a period where no commissioner would touch an adaptation of any novel that wasn't already thought to be familiar to the audience - which in practical terms translated into a remakes-only policy, and which is no longer the case. If that can change, who knows...