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Friday 26 December 2008

Television Q and A

How did you begin your career in television?

I was writing for radio at the time. It was a science fiction piece for Radio 4’s Saturday Night Theatre and Martin Jenkins, my producer, sent the script over to the Doctor Who production office. So out of the blue came this call to go over and talk to them.

Was it easy to find steady work writing for television?

I’ve never had steady work. The nearest to it was the time I spent on BUGS, where I wrote 10 shows over 3 seasons and acted as consultant on seasons 2 and 3. But even then it was a case of “one sale at a time.”

How much input did you find you had in a production of one of your screenplays?

That’s always going to vary. Once the script’s locked, there’s no reason to have the writer around except as a courtesy. You usually get a call when they’ve changed something and it’s caused them a problem and they need it fixed. If it’s something practical like a location they couldn’t get or a sequence that doesn’t work as planned, then great, that’s what I’m there for. If someone’s made a perverse change and failed to foresee the knock-on effect, I’m less sanguine.

How did you find you were treated by other members of the creative team when working on a project?

Again, that varies. In general I’ve been treated very well.

What was your biggest breakthrough in television?

I’d have to say Chimera. Prior to that I’d done just a couple of Whos and one episode of a crime show. Chimera took me from contributor to creator and put four hours of prime time drama on my CV.

Which gave you more creative input, being a writer or creator of a series?

It’s the difference between being paid to drive a car and being hired to design one. Actually that’s not entirely fair. But when you write for a series there’s a lot that isn’t on your shoulders. I can’t imagine why anyone might prefer that.

Were you ever frustrated by the workings of the television industry?

Daily! Dealing with the industry involves a whole separate set of issues from the act of writing.

Do you think writers are given enough credit when it comes to the creative process and audience appreciation?

Obviously I’m going to say no. But the fact is that there’s a very small number of names get on the front of a show and the writer’s place there can never be disputed. Although in feature films particularly, you get directors who encourage the notion that the writer’s role is to type up the director’s thoughts. One of the things holding back British TV is the resistance to a writer having a true executive producer role on a show.

What is your opinion of modern television drama?

On the plus side, it’s a relief to see that the drab hand of social realism is no longer holding it down. Throughout the 90s almost every British drama looked and played like an effing soap. And the kind of technology we’re getting now – HD, widescreen, downloads – is what I’ve spent my life waiting for. The downside is a lack of confidence and direction... of old-fashioned showmanship. Everybody wants to be edgy and relevant and issue-driven. And no one wants to see it.

What is your worst experience as a writer working within television?

Being excluded from a project I'd initiated.

What was your best experience as a writer working within modern television?

If I had to pick one moment, I’d say walking my dog down Gotham City’s main street on the Pinewood backlot after a meeting in the Chimera special effects workshop.

Which do you prefer, writing prose or screenplays for television?

Standard answer, and it’s always true... when I’m doing one, I yearn for the other.

Do you believe there is a big difference between writing for television and writing for feature films?

Yes. Mainly in choice of subject. A feature film is a one-off universal myth. TV’s a continuing parade.

Chimera photo by Stephen Morley


Gail Renard said...

"Throughout the 90s almost every British drama looked and played like an effing soap. And the kind of technology we’re getting now – HD, widescreen, downloads – is what I’ve spent my life waiting for."

I'd say it's a case of chicken and egg, Stephen. Perhaps it's writers like you pushing the boundaries of the imagination that inspired boffins to raise the technology to the height of the dream.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Ah... remember the days when every British drama that tried to sell itself on its "brilliant special effects" would turn out to be offering the same chromakey-with-fuzzy-blue-edges?

Gail Renard said...

Or my fav was the old ATV series, "The Cedar Tree" where all of World War II took place just outside of the french windows. They aspired to chromakey.

Piers said...

Riffing off the technology point:

Lew Grade's ITC stuff from the 70s was shot in 35mm with a view to worldwide sales. And the thing about 35mm is that you can even now remaster it into blu-ray and other hi-def formats. Hell, Star Trek is now remastering its special effects for HD - but the only reason that they can do that is that the shots of Kirk, Spock et. al. are shot in 35mm. All they have to do for 90%+ of each episode is transfer and grade.

The problem with the 90s (hell, I'd call the decline in the early 80s, and we're only pulling out of the slump now) was the executives, not the technology. Record your show in a sensible format and you've got an archive, something to build on. Sure, it costs more, but you make your money back five or ten or twenty years down the line.

Problem was, no-one in the UK post the 70s had the foresight to take the immediate short-term hit in order to make the money back later in syndication.

(You could argue that there's no syndication market in the UK, and many would, and did - but the value's in the archive, not on making the immediate profit. There's a reason that The Avengers still gets repeated regularly and, say, Doctor Who doesn't, and that's the fact it was mastered on film rather than video.)

Talking of which:

Anyone involved in Doctor Who?

You've seen the foreign and DVD sales. You have no excuse for not making the investment in HD.

Gail Renard said...

You're 100% right, Piers, and that's just one of the reasons ITV especially is in the low state it is: they didn't consider that a lot of their revenue comes from their archive (unlike Thames and ATV, etc, in the past.) For the last few years ITV has either been making shows like Midsomer Murders which, good as it might be, I believe doesn't sell well abroad. Or TV companies have made reality shows... which means no repeats or overseas sales if they don't own the format, which costs them dearly in the long run. Companies only have had their eyes on the short term. And I still don't think everything being shot in HD... which will hurt future prospects even more. The US and Japan went over to HD ages ago whilst here we're still making false economies. If we're going to do something, let's do it right!

Stephen Gallagher said...

I saw an interview with Russell T Davies in which he talked about the experience of shooting TORCHWOOD in HD, and how that had dissuaded him from going the same route with DR WHO anytime soon.

It is a major thing. HD is pretty unforgiving. Sets have to be finished to a higher standard and setups can take longer. But you'd think that if any TV property merited the investment...

I understand they're having to tear down and rebuild the entire EASTENDERS backlot to be HD-ready. The existing sets are passable in standard definition but look awful in high def.

No word yet as to what they plan to do about the cast...

Gail Renard said...

I'll see you and raise you. The last series of "Last Of The Summer Wine" was made in HD. Nuff said.