Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Writer in Modern TV

Last night I was at the BFI event - which had a subtitle of Second Coming or Looming Apocalypse? Tony Marchant, Jimmy Mcgovern, Donna Franceschild, Gub Neal, Nicola Shindler and Ben Stephenson were the ones charged with deciding. If you don't know who these people are, and want to work in British TV, then you should. So do your own googling! (Also there was David Butcher, but I'm never overly bothered by what critics have to say. And it was chaired by Mark Lawson)

So where did everyone sit on this rather wide range of a question? Unsurprisingly, all pretty much firmly in the middle. I'm probably one of the worst in the blogging community at doing event write ups, because my note taking is appalling. But these were some of the highlights of the discussion. (Disclaimer - like I've said before my short hand is rather hit and miss so the following is probably a lot of paraphrasing. Apologies to any of the participants if I've misquoted them.)

I ended up feeling a bit sorry for Ben Stephenson because the conversation inevitably turned to him to defend what the BBC does and doesn't do. All. The. Time. The poor bloke looked increasingly uncomfortable trying to strike the balance of not talking too much, and having to weigh in every two minutes. When discussing the lack of risk of TV drama - he insisted that he believed risk can very often define great TV. The BBC (somewhat bizarrely) are doing a drama about the creation of Coronation Street, the reason being because at the time, no one wanted it, no one thought it would work and the result of course is that now everyone is standing on the show's shoulders.

Tony Marchant said that you can do difficult topics on TV, but that they have to be packaged in a genre. He felt it was a shame things couldn't be tackled as straight drama. Ben agreed that a Trojan horse of a genre piece can be useful in terms of attracting an audience. But he wouldn't want to foster a false element on a story because it wouldn't work and therefore would be rubbish.

Interesting, although in the last few years all we've been hearing is high concept, high concept, high concept - Nicola Shindler thought the need for this was beginning to disappear. Gub Neal concurred that the idea of low concept - high character, was finally filtering through. And he was unequivocal in that it's coming through from the US shows over the last five years.

Donna Franceschild thought that The Street would show execs and broadcasters that drama about ordinary people (or seemingly ordinary people, but were of course actually anything but) can be a critical and popular success. And it just didn't. She felt it's still about self-censorship and what can we sell, not necessarily what we want to make. Ben acknowledged that from a BBC point of view, yes there's a corporation and a business and no system is ever perfect. But the only way to get the best TV is to get the best writers and allow them to write what they are passionate about.

And that's probably a good place to leave it. There was more of course, but my hand got tired. It was being filmed so I guess look out for it somewhere in the near future. Final word should probably go to Jimmy McGovern, the absolute master and most entertaining member of the panel. This was actually in the programme notes but he appears to have written it himself.

"I started writing seriously when I joined the Scotland Road Writers' Workshop in the seventies. Pedre James gave me my first break at the Liverpool Everyman round about 1980. And then Brookside took me on and I learned everything I know there. I left Brookside in 1989 after the Hillsborough Football Disaster and nobody in television drama wanted to know me - not the BBC and certainly not Channel 4 - until Simon Passmore commissioned me to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot for the BBC Screenplay strand. George Faber, the executive producer of Screenplay, then commissioned me to write a film called Needle and, shortly after that, Gub Neal asked me to write Cracker. And, after that, I was on my way. About 20 year from beginning to breakthrough."

Twenty years! And that's for Jimmy McGovern! Please, no one tell my wife.
Okay so after writing all that out the clever and apparently very fast note taker Michelle not only has a brief write up on her blog, but also a link to a six page transcript! So if you wanna read more - go there.

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