Wednesday, 4 March 2009

BBC Writersroom Toby Whithouse Q&A (Contains Being Human spoilers)

It would be fair to say that Being Human has been my favourite series so far in 2009. So I thought it would be fun to pop along to the BBC Writersroom hosted Q&A with the creator and writer Toby Whithouse. I should say firstly that the Arnopp did a very cool interview with him on his blog last May, so check that out here cos there is some cross over.

But back to tonight and Toby was in discussion with Kate Rowland, BBC's Creative Director of New Writing. As ever, I will give my apologies to you, dear reader, anyone who was there, and Toby too, cos I am no journalist and have my own, rather weird shorthand which can be a bit hit and miss.

But anyway...

Toby began life as an actor and as he put it himself, arrogantly decided to write script as he kept getting sent crap material. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this. Lucy Cohu told me the same thing in New York, and it was implied too by Brendan Burke, who played my protagonist in The Storyteller read through. I always react in dismay when I hear this. For one thing, I of course also arrogantly believe that my scripts are not crap so would like good actors to read these instead! But, whereas yes, I have also read a fair share of ropey material, I have also read some gems, and it annoys me that these are not getting out there. They deserve to be, and hopefully at least some are.

Toby never really had a plan of where he wanted to be in 5 years or what he wanted to be doing in 10. All he knew was that he wanted to write sitcoms. But funnily enough, when he finally got the chance, he hated it. He felt that the artificial creation of a script that had to have 5 jokes on a page or else, was a very unnatural way to write. By the same token, and having done some stand up to hone his comedic writing, Toby wouldn't be able to write a script without gags in it. It would feel weird. Then I was amused when he said something I have long thought myself with regards to my own writing. If you write a drama with 20 gags in it, everyone says how funny you are. If you write a sitcom with 20 gags in it, everyone says this guys not very funny! It's so true and it's worth bearing in mind when describing our work. Send a comedy script out and the reader will be expecting to laugh their arse off (and will be pretty merciless if they don't.) Send out a drama that is very funny, and they will be pleasantly surprised, grateful, and remember your work. (Of course this is not carte blanche! I wouldn't recommend trying to disguise a sitcom as a drama or anything like that!)

At the start of a project, Toby spends a lot of time working out the characters (with detailed biogs etc.) When World Productions approached him about No Angels, all they had was a series about four nurses. Toby had to come up with the rest. So he met up for a drink with a lot of nurses (which he claimed was not as much fun as it sounds.) But what was important here was the research. Toby is a big fan of the empowering nature of research. It gives you confidence about your subject matter, but also, will give you story. (He got an absolutely cracker from one nurse about trying to disguise the death of a now stone cold patient by putting them in the bath - which ended up in the No Angels pilot I think.)

I asked him if whether with fantasy like Being Human, did he also do a lot of work on creating and establishing the rules of the world? He said that they thought quite a lot about what Vampire mythologies they would use and what they wouldn't (because there are so many out there already!) But other stuff like the vampire plot to take over the world evolved during the writing. At the end of the day it's mostly down to what makes the best story. This isn't entirely what I meant but I didn't get the chance to follow it up. What I really wanted to know were the rules about what Annie could and couldn't do. (No one can see her, at first at least, but she can make casserole - do people then see a casserole dish moving in mid-air!?? But perhaps this is best left alone and has only occurred to the way my brain thinks.)

Anyway, moving on and Toby will then write a treatment. If he's writing for himself, he might do one or two and then onto the script. But when in the field as it were, many companies have their own 'rules' which you are then contracted to about how many treatments, scene breakdowns etc you have to do before going to script. One particularly interesting thing he talked about was genre writing. Toby has never really seen his work as genre based. By that he meant that within a series like Being Human, or even within one episode in the series, scenes or moments can shift from dramatic, tragic or comedic. He said that life is a mixture of genres. In real life, a tragic thing could have happened, and everyone can be dealing with that, and then someone will break wind. No one thinks, oh we've changed genres. So Toby tries to reflect that in his writing. To be honest, I'm not sure about this. I think you can write a drama with a healthy balance of comedy and pathos, and vice versa, but mixing genres? Not too sure. (My old mentor Phi Parker would be doing his nut right about now but I suspect what Toby describes as genre is not the same as Phil's Genre Analysis.)

For Being Human, Toby now had a pilot and series bible ready. And he knew that in Episode 6, Herrick would walk into a room and George would step out of the shadows. That was it. But by having that, he knew that everything then had to lead to that point. But he admitted that writing a pilot is a difficult business. You have to balance setting up the series and telling a good story in the episode itself. With Being Human, he wrote the pilot that was shown on BBC3 last year, and then had to virtually do it all again, but differently, with the beginning of the series proper!

Questions were then opened up to the audience and here is a selection of topics covered.

On difference between writing for the stage and screen
TW. Stage you can do anything because it's cheap. More money in TV means more constraints and less brave. On stage you can experiment. But there is no money in theatre and I have a family support! But you do get to control your work. I am lucky with Being Human but previously, the script I have written for other shows and sent away, did not always reflect the DVD copy of it that came back!

On whether he could then now go back to writing other shows
TW. Depends on the show. I am doing that at the moment in fact. I spent 7 years writing on other shows but always wrote my own plays. I think you have to have that outlet otherwise you'll go insane.

On rewriting
TW. There comes a point where you have to get the script out of the house. Otherwise, if it's still there, you can always go back to it and pick over it. Deadlines are good for this. And the more you pick over something the more attached you get to it, and then when things are cut or changes have to be made, it becomes harder.

On the writing process
TW. It's a job. I get up with the kids at 7am. At my desk by around 8:30am and work until 5pm. I try to write five pages. Write them and then revise them. So by the end of the day I have five good pages.

On actually liking writing
TW. If you don't like it, then don't do it. The downside is that it's very solitary. But I like having control over my day. I can work, get up, walk about, have a sneaky nap, email, work, etc. Obviously you can't really do that in an office.

On series drama or story of the week
TW. Viewing habits have changed. It used to be that if you missed a show on TV in its slot, that was it. So broadcasters were worried that viewers wouldn't come back if they feel they've missed some important story beats. But nowadays it's becoming less risky. There is iplayer, repeats, and most crucially DVD box sets.

On the old classic (why does someone always ask this at these things) where do your story ideas come from?
TW. No idea.

And on that note, everyone decamped to the bar. (I actually didn't cos I had to get off. But I did want to sneak up on Toby and wave my Star of David at him just to see what happened. But he was bit swamped and as we've never met before thought better of it anyway.) But all in all it was a pretty enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes or so. What I liked about Toby was that apart from being very funny, he seems like a nice bloke too and really appears to be having the best time doing what he is doing. With young kids and the fact that he spent 7 years writing for other people, I'm not sure how old he is. Maybe he just has a young face. But whilst I found him inspiring, at the same time it was a bit scary. I was left with the feeling that I really need to get a move on!


Just seen another couple of reports from the Q&A. So for more, go here and here.


Jason Arnopp said...

I feel distinctly cheated, sir, as I did not see you at the event. Where's my Freedman Time, that's what I'd like to know. Cheated!

Jez Freedman said...

well you can imagine how I feel then - the same - only ten fold!

Tom Murphy said...

Thanks a lot for the excellent report, Jez - sounds like an enlightening evening

Jez Freedman said...

cheers, you're welcome