Monday, 26 December 2011

LSF 5: In Conversation with Ashley Pharoah

The penultimate session I attended at LSWF was an in depth conversation with Ashley Pharoah, one of the most experienced writers working in British television today. (As ever these are my paraphrased notes.)

How did you get started?

Ashley always wanted to be a writer. He knew nothing about scriptwriting. He listened to Radio 4 plays and wrote a 30 minute play, sent it off to BBC and about 6 months later they got in touch and said they’d like it. He got paid £300 and that changed his life. This was something he enjoyed doing so much and you could get paid to do it. Ashley went to the NFTS, didn’t eat for about 5 years, and then properly started on Eastenders.

How did you get on Eastenders?

A director he was at NFTS was working on the show and said the scripts were awful. But the weird thing was whilst at college the thought of writing for TV, an even more so a soap, was appalling to Ashley. So even though he was on the dole and completely skint, a part of him still thought was it worth the shame? (which he blushes about now.) But he sent in a spec film script which was a good writing sample, and it was good enough to get him an episode, and he ended up being there for 3 years. Film school turned out to be the theory, whereas working on Eastenders was the practical. Hearing actors say your lines – and psychologically, seeing your name on telly, he felt like a real writer.

When you’re creating characters and series bibles etc, what sort of things do you think about?

Ashley doesn’t really do series bibles. They are really hard to write and really hard to read. He’d much rather write – and read for that matter – a script. All the bibles he’s been involved with have been retrospective ones put together by script editors for the purposes of series continuity. He might have done more work on characters etc when starting out, but nowadays he’s likes to discover the characters when writing the screenplay. Does it matter where they went to school or what they had for breakfast? What matters is action. Character is action.

Can you talk us through how the commissioning process might go?

Different ways. You've got to get that first meeting with a commissioner. Ashley met so many people on Eastenders like other writers, producers, script editors, that went onto work on other shows. John Yorke was his junior script editor on Eastenders. Often young writers will show Ashley ideas for a series and it’s not really. It might make a good movie, or three parter, or serial, but it’s not a series. There has to be something in the kernel of the idea that will generate conflict for a long time, so if a commissioner turns round and says okay what might happen in series 7 episode 3, you have some idea of where you can take the series. Something in the one page pitch that tells you there is potential for endless conflict. For example Wild At Heart. A show about an English family in Africa. Company Pictures asked him to come up with a Sunday 8pm ITV show. And he’d done so many he said no. But this was going to be set in Africa. So it was a traditional dysfunctional family, but the environment was new and could exert so much pressure on the characters. And if the original family left, you could bring in a new family into that environment. And they’re just doing series 7 now.

What can writers do to improve their chances of getting a series green lit?

It’s complicated and the worst thing you can do is to try and double guess what they want – which we’ve all done. You obviously need to get your script in front of someone who can green light a series. Ashley's in the fortunate position now of getting those meetings – although even then it doesn’t mean getting the series. With his new show, Eternal Law, about angels being lawyers on earth and learning about humanity etc, it was a bit high concept and he didn’t want to give people the chance to turn it down just from the pitch. So he wrote the pilot on spec and took that to ITV because he wanted to retain control of the content. That’s what got him the meeting and although the pilot script changed a bit, the kernel of the idea was in place.

How specific should you be about talking about things like channels and time slots?

If it’s your own stuff, probably not as much, but certainly have an awareness of the different styles of broadcasters and, really crucially, the difference between 8pm and 9pm slots.

You've done quite a lot of supernatural and high concept stuff, when are we going to see a return to more naturalistic stuff like Our Friends in the North?

Ashley's actually done a fair bit of both. Ever since Cathy Come Home people think television is about social message and political change. And of course it can be. But it's always bothered him that television is seen as social realist and cinema more poetic. It began to change with Dennis Potter. With Life on Mars they tried to have a high concept show that had emotional truth, and hopefully said something, even ironically, about the political situation. Things like Our Friends in the North dominated for around 50 years. So a few high concept shows doesn't hurt.

How does the collaboration with Matthew work?

They're very different people and very different writers. When they were in America pitching to people, Matthew described them that if they were doing an episode of ER, Matthew would do the helicopter crashing on the roof and Ashley would do the old man dying. Matthew is more of a movie writer in that sense and Ashley is more interested in the emotional core. In series television it works really well to bring different strengths to a project. Ashley doesn't think, coming from the more socialist realist background, that he could have done shows like Mars and Ashes without Matthew. But he likes to think they would have been weaker shows without him trying to keep them real in terms of emotional truth. Ashley and Matthew write episodes separately, and they are not joined at the hip. They did try to co-write in the same room once on a project for Aardman but it was a disaster because they are such different writers they kept just trying to rewrite each other. But what it means is that they can go off and do their own thing.

Why do you write on series TV as opposed to feature films?

Because he has a mortgage. Like he said at film school he never would've dreamed of working in TV. But attitudes have changed and a lot of the snobbery has gone, mainly because of US shows. And in any given week 90% of the best writing on screen is on TV. Going to the cinema now, unless you've got your kids with you and you have to put those glasses on, there's nothing to watch. It's become a theme park. You strap yourself in and have an amazing special effects ride, which is okay. But we don't see our life on there. Compare that to going to the movies a lot in his twenties, and something like Chinatown, which was a mainstream Hollywood movie, would that happen now? Having said all that, Ashley does write movies but they never get made. Whereas his TV stuff does and he gets paid and you have a lot more influence, from casting, seeing the edit, the rushes, the music, etc. When working in that environment Ashley sees himself as a writer that's a filmmaker. But in the movie world, he feels like a cleaner again. He's sat in meetings with a production company, the director and him, and the conversation has been about what's going to happen in the next draft, and no one actually looked at him. It baffles him that they are not interested in using his knowledge and experience, and it's his script. And it baffles them that he would want to be involved in the stuff he's involved with in TV, like the edit, casting, rushes etc. In film writers just deliver the script – and maybe they'll get fired and another writer will do the next one. And so on.

How much do the actors contribute to creating the characters?

Obviously they do contribute. And if you're very lucky something magical happens between them getting the script and what they do on screen. When it works well it's really exciting and dynamic. But when it doesn't, it can be quite painful to be a screenwriter.

For long running series is there room for others thing apart from crime, life and death, family, etc?

Well that's not a bad start. The soaps do cover that and the obvious reason is that it gives you natural intensity and conflict. Of course there is room for other areas of story telling. But funnily enough when really powerful writers reach the stage where they can write anything they want, and stray away from genre, it can often not work. Because no one is editing and reigning that in. When Ashley's stepped out of genre in his career he's come a cropper a couple of times. He thinks genre is a help. The example he gives is the sonnet, one of the most rigid forms of writing – but it's produced some of the greatest ever. He likes being told this show is going to be on ITV, 8pm, you've got 44 mins, 3 act breaks. It's a challenge.

But series television is a really hard place to be learning on the job and Ashely has seen writers come unstuck. For example the first series of Life On Mars had gone out and Kudos knew of a playwright they really rated. This writer had never written a TV episode of anything and they wanted them to do one in the second series. Ashley and Matthew hope they are generous people, but realised what massive pressure this person was now under. If someone said to Ashley can you write a play by next month he'd say no, he's never done it, he would need to learn the craft. And it chewed this poor person up and it was unfair.

But on series TV writers are really well paid. Ashley now exec produces most of his shows and sees the budgets, so knows he sees what directors, producers and DP's get and it's not as much as writers. It's really annoying when writers on series television do sloppy work and at some stage you do see it. And he just thinks you lazy bugger. Because it's not just about talent. And the danger is falling into a comfort zone where you make a good living and as long as you don't stick your head above the parapet you're okay. And the other thing is that the quality of directors coming into the TV industry is getting worse. When Ashley started out the director was the most important person but it was generally a good democratic thing. Now writers are the most powerful. They get shows greenlit, actors do to, but directors don't. So the talented ones go and work in movies where they get the reverse of what Ashley gets in that environment. A few years ago the Directors Guild tried to get more power in TV and Ashley could understand why. But in cinema they insisted on retaining the horrible 'A Film By' credit, which is the most disrespectful credit in the history of cinema. And until they say they don't want to do that, why should they have a piece of the TV cake?

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