Thursday, 30 July 2009

BBC nurtures new and young writing voices?

"There has never been a better time for new and young drama writers to get work onto our TV screens thanks to a number of BBC initiatives.

By targeting the very best new writers from fringe, theatre and radio, the Writers Academy alone, with its 90% success rate, has pumped a whole new generation of talent into continuing drama and now into the wider industry. But this is just a small part of the corporation’s growing commitment to new writing.

BBC Writersroom offers an extraordinary range of outreach schemes, partnerships with regional theatres and development projects for writers getting their first foot on the drama ladder. Its success has meant there are now more new voices than ever bringing their work and their vision to our screens.

In the last year alone, young and first-time writers have worked across all BBC channels on new pieces, as well as returning dramas such as Spooks and Being Human. Of particular note are BBC1’s Fiona’s Story, BBC3’s Personal Affairs and BBC4’s Long Walk to Finchley and Consuming Passions - original drama from the very best new talent in the industry, who sit alongside dozens more with original pieces in development.

New commissions from upcoming writers include Simon Stephens’ Dive, co-written with Dominic Savage, Tony Saint’s Syntax Era, Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford’s Money, Joshua St Johnston’s Material Girl, Lindsay Shapiro’s Enid, Peter Harness’ Forgotten Fallen and Neil Cross’ Luther. With the Comedy College in its second year and the Writers Academy in its fifth, patronage of new writing has never been greater. And it is impossible to complete any overview without acknowledging the many voices Jimmy McGovern and his extraordinary team have nurtured on The Street.

Far from “spurning new talent for the tried and tested”, the BBC does more than any other broadcaster to support them. We take our responsibility in this area extremely seriously, are proud of their achievements and believe there will be many more to come."

John Yorke, controller, BBC Drama Production and New Talent


Over to you people - do you agree with John Yorke, or Lisa Campbell, who wrote "More worrying is the opposite of ageism - youthism? - which sees the BBC spurning new talent for the tried and tested. One drama producer trying to champion a young writer was told the BBC, as the only broadcaster really commissioning drama at the moment, was inundated with writers, and why should they go for young unknowns? Er, because they are the future?"

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Rise Summer Challenge

Nah I didn't win it. Finally got this email from them:

Dear Summer Challenge Entrant,

We are writing to inform you that script has not been selected to progress to the next round of The Summer Challenge. This has been the first year of The Summer Challenge and the response far exceeded our expectations - having received over 1,000 submissions. Out of these, we can only select one winner.

Even though your script has not been selected, the decision was not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your screenplay. We received a diverse range of material, each with their own merits. Ultimately, with such a wide selection, we have to choose a project which we will be able to realistically produce in the best possible way.

With how much work goes into writing a script we have a great deal of respect for you for submitting your work. Having a good idea is just the beginning, committing to writing it and then finishing it is no small task. That's why we were so grateful to have received over 1,000. There are other production companies who may be able to realise your vision, so keep persevering with your project.

Due to our limited resources, we are sorry that we are unable to give any feedback on any of the entries. We hope to be running a similar competition in the near future. Thank you for your efforts and good luck in all your future endeavours,

The Summer Challenge Team


Fair do. People were getting these emails some months back so I guess I'm pleased to have hung on in there for this long! My submission (way back last September) was an early draft of a script that I now feel is much improved and has had some interest from elsewhere. So could be a blessing in disguise. Good luck to everyone left in the comp. Surely it can't be long now until they actually announce a winner!

Word of advice to the good people at Rise. A phone call to Red Planet or Kaos Films woulda told them how many submissions to expect. In fact I even emailed them when the comp was announced to ask if they wanted me to read any submissions. At the time they said they were waiting to see how many came in - and I replied that it will be around the 1000 mark!

Also, maybe next time there can be things like rounds (a la Kaos) or shortlists (a la Red Planet)
Feedback with massive numbers like this is never possible but little things like knowing how far you got, out of how many, etc, can help boost confidence and motivation for lonely, insecure writers such as... myself.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Jury Duty

I've been invited to be a juror for this years Sir Peter Ustinov Scriptwriting Award. Whilst by no means an obligation, it's a tradition that the previous winner serves on the jury the following year.

And although it's going to be a bit time consuming over the next few weeks, I jumped at the chance. Firstly, because I wasn't going to pass up the chance to give something back to the people who made me so welcome in New York last November. But also because I thought it would be a fascinating experience and a chance to see what writers are working on from not only England, but Wales, Australia and Denmark to name but a few.

I can't say too much about it now because the scripts have only just arrived in my inbox. (And no, I won't be marking any scripts by people I know!)

But after the winner is announced, I will probably be in a position to give some Ceri Meyrick/Paul Ashton/Writersroom style feedback on things I noticed, the qualities and common mistakes etc, which will hopefully benefit writers for the 2010 award!

In the meantime, good luck to all those who have entered for this year. I know from various emails that there were a few all nighters being pulled so I really hope all the hard work has paid off for one of you.

Friday, 17 July 2009

We are what we write II

In an unofficial follow-up to this post some other things have come in the last couple of weeks of script reading work.

Picking up from where we left off, to sum up, as writers all we have is our scripts. A revolutionary statement I know, but nevertheless, it's important to remember that those 100 or so pages we send off, represents us completely and utterly. Certainly at the beginning of our careers, when we haven't had the time yet to build up any sort of reputation.What lands on a desk may be all that that person knows about us.

I was reading the script of a client recently. And no it's not Steve this time (who outed himself here) It was the third script I'd read from this writer, and the previous two had been excellent, some of the best I've read since I started Script Reading on the Blog. But whilst this latest script was competent and structurally and motivationally sound, there was something missing. It was a bit flat. It lacked the spark of the previous stuff and I knew the writer was capable of more. You see I knew, because I was familiar with their work. So I told them what I felt and interestingly, the writer replied, in not so many words, that they had gone through the motions a little bit on this one. Something slightly similar had recently been on TV and a certain impetus had been lost. They felt they should finish the script and so did so, but without any real flair or gusto.

I found all this incredibly interesting because it was clear to me that the writer's feelings had manifested itself on the page - to the detriment of the work. It made me think back to scripts I'd written, maybe just to get them done and move onto the next thing, and wondered whether this kind of attitude had transferred itself to the script.

Because you can send what you like to me (and other readers like me) Splurge drafts, first drafts, fifth drafts, drafts full of typos. That's all fine. That's what I'm here for, to hopefully help to make things better.
But it's probably not a good idea to send something that you are not pumped up about yourself, to a production company, producer, or even a competition. It will show on the page. And if whoever is reading it does not know you or your work any better - then that's it. It could be the end of the road for you with that particular person/company before it's even really started.

Like I said last time, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Things we noticed watching TV this week: Torchwood Special (Spoilers)

There was only really one show to watch this past week, but in between Celebrity Masterchef I manage to catch a glimpse of Torchwood: Children of Earth.

The dust has settled, opinions have been shared, and a disgrace has taken place - which I will come back to later. But as for the actual series itself, my goodness, what a great bit of British television that was! All the controversy beforehand had been about Torchwood being 'relegated' to just five episodes, stripped across one week. But because of the long wait, because of the build up, because of the switch to BBC1, in the end, it felt like a big TV event and not just another series of a popular, but not mainstream show. With viewing figures hovering around the 6 million mark all week, and even rising at one point, there can be no doubt it was a resounding success. Five hours of TV is a lot to cover in one blog post so I will just pick out a few moments of what worked, and what, in my opinion, didn't.

A stand out moment of Episode One was undoubtedly the reveal that potential new Torchwood member, Dr. Rupesh Patanjali, was actually a mole, and his betrayal led to a bomb being planted in Captain Jack's stomach. I didn't see either coming and to blow up Jack and the Hub in the first episode is setting the drama metre pretty high right from the off. We knew of course that Jack would survive, proving I think beyond any further speculation that he really, really cannot die. But what lifts Sci-Fi from the jibes it usually gets from its critics are not the crash, bang, wallop scenes. It's the quiet, character driven moments that let you know that although this is a world of aliens etc, it is also populated by real people with real emotions. Three scenes, with Jack and his daughter and grandson, Ianto with his sister and family, and Gwen and Clement, were beautifully written and made sure that the show had a sense of soul, and not just spectacle.

Episode Two was a quieter affair, necessarily so as we saw the Torchwood team reeling from the previous days events. Jack is now incarcerated and Ianto and Gwen are on the run. Admittedly, because the audience are privy to what's going on inside Thames House, and indeed what happened in 1965, we are desperate for the characters to catch up. So whilst this was still an enjoyable continuation of the story, it felt like a set up of far more drama to come. And maybe I missed something, but how did Ianto know what cell to crash into with his fork-lift truck to spirit an encased Jack away to safety?

Episode Three picked things up and started providing some answers. The aliens land and they want kids, lots of kids. I couldn't help be reminded of Independence Day with the fire bolt from the sky and the 456 even looked a bit like the other lot. Threats to destroy the world too - but that probably goes hand in hand with alien territory. But this lot are actually here to negotiate, of sorts. And so there were long scenes of Peter Capaldi talking to them, in their glass crate, trying to figure this thing out so everyone can go home happy. Sounds a bit dull, right? Wrong. I've argued for a long time that people just talking in a room, traditionally thought of as big no no in screenwriting, can be extremely dramatic and bloody tense! Just look at Twelve Angry Men, or more recently God On Trial and Endgame. And it was a similar story here. I couldn't take my eyes off it. And then came the sucker punch. It was clear Jack knew about 1965, but I for one did not expect him to have been involved with handing over twelve children to the aliens (in exchange for an anti-virus needed on Earth). It was a great character moment because suddenly, certainties that Gwen and Ianto depended on were whipped out from under them. It propelled us nicely into the penultimate day.

Everything until now has been a pre-amble for the last two episodes. Day Four kicks things up a gear with the decision of Jack and Torchwood to fight back this time, and that 10% of the world's children is too high a price to pay. Again, the most dramatic scenes take place with people talking around the table - this time the cabinet deciding how to choose the children. The tension was palpable and it worked because it was a genuine impossible dilemma. Drama works best in shades of grey. Unless the genre calls for it, characters are more effective if they are not painted with broad strokes. Nuance and subtly is the key. Torchwood was at its best when the characters faced impossible choices. Otherwise good men and women, who genuinely have the country's best interests at heart (even if we disagree with them) have to decide things no one should have to. Yes this was Sci-Fi so it involved aliens. Yes this was TV so it wasn't real. But the concepts undoubtedly have happened before and will happen again. Where it didn't work so well was when it lapsed into cliche. Would it have been more dramatic and gut wrenching if the PM had been a good man, and not a self serving back stabber? Can we finally move on from the Americans = Bad, characterisation shorthand? (Seriously give it up. Bush is gone, they voted for Obama, lets move on.)

In the episode climax, Jack and Ianto bribe their way into Thames House, it all goes pear shaped, and Ianto dies. I. Was. Shocked. Torchwood ended the last series by killing off two main characters, and now boom, another was gone... and it wasn't even the finale. I've criticized some shows for wanting us to buy into life and death scenarios, and then continually bottling it with everyone being alright in the end. This can certainly not be levelled at Torchwood. And it was Jack's fault too! They charged into Thames House with the worse plan ever. They would tell the 456 there was no deal and... that was it. This has taken some stick for being a plot failing, but I actually think it was deliberate. Jack has never been like the more cerebral Doctor. He flies by the seat of his pants and gets by on being flash, brash and ballsy. In other words everything he used to get into Thames House - and then for it to go terribly wrong. It was perfect. Now we were really in trouble. Our usual tactics weren't going to work this time. Ianto is dead. Everyone is devastated. And we have no plan.

And so to the excruciating final episode. Having discovered the previous day that the aliens do not harm the children, but rather feed off them to produce a drug like euphoria, this episode contained the strongest anti-drug message since Zammo just said no! But in yet another heart wrenching and beautifully written (and shot) scene, Peter Capaldi is ordered to hand over his children to show the government isn't playing favourites, but knowing their fate, decides to kill his family before turning the gun on himself. This is prime time BBC1! It's a massive show of support for Russell T and his team and a genuine show of risk taking. But just when I thought the series couldn't get any more heart wrenching comes the devastating realisation that the only way for Jack to save the world (who after failing with his usual methods, is now thinking things through Doctor like) is by sacrificing his own grandson. It was an agonising scene to watch but emotionally powerful throughout. I must admit, and maybe this is just me, but I didn't entirely get how it all worked. It was something to do with frequencies but I'm not actually sure how, or if, the alien race was vanquished? Lying in bed last night (I watched Eps 4 & 5 yesterday) other questions popped into my brain. They're actually pretty much the same ones on Dan's blog so I won't repeat them here. But it's clear that not everything worked or was tied up at the end.

However overall it was a fantastic series, a fantastic experiment almost, and because of the figures it got one likely to be repeated. I for one would definitely tune in. Another aspect that I really love about it is that The Doctor Who universe is so well formed, that the audience already has certain expectations. This can lead to awkward moments like the early explanation that Martha Jones is on her honeymoon (er, she probably woulda cut it short in the face of the apocalypse) to the cool video message Gwen leaves in Episode 5. Although I knew full well that David Tennant would not be appearing, after the cataclysmic events of Day 4, and the seeming no way out situation, I found myself genuinely wondering whether The Doctor would appear. Maybe they had kept that one brilliant secret from us? Of course I knew he wouldn't, but if not him then who? I wonder if this came up in the writing room because low and behold, there was Gwen, pre-empting the audience and wondering exactly the same thing. How clever is that? How brilliant and how well do you know your story world to do something like that.

And then things all got a bit distasteful. Apparently a few people didn't agree with some of the plot decisions of Torchwood: Children of Earth. Shock horror. Apparently an even fewer number of people took this to mean they could abuse writer James Moran on his blog, twitter, email etc. I believe in free speech. What writer doesn't? I've spoken about that before on this blog and only a couple of weeks ago discussed the decorum I try to use when commenting on current TV shows. But I also believe free speech is not a concept to hide behind when all you actually want to do is abuse.

My profile has risen over the last few months. First because of the award and then because this blog was linked to the BBC Writersroom website. People new to screenwriting have emailed me asking for advice, and where I've been able to, I have gladly given it. One such piece of advice is to read blogs by other writers. Screenwriting books are of varied use and quality - and expensive in these tough times. But blogs are free and you get real time, up to date info, tips and advice. One of those blogs would had to have been James'. He is surely the busiest, working blogger in this country. But now, unfortunately, he has decided to take a step back.

And I don't blame him. James is a bigger man than me cos if it had been me, I would've deleted every single one of the comments that I deemed to be aggressive, insulting, abusive and not interested in any form of constructive criticism or debate. So thank you - those of you who were responsible for this - for removing (in its current form) a valuable resource for up and coming British screenwriters. I would say please stop by here instead. But I'd rather you didn't.

Friday, 10 July 2009


Commiserations to all those who did not make it to the CBBC masterclass. There seems to be some people who have had an email and some who haven't. God bless the Writersroom but turning around over 700 scripts in a week was probably a mightier task then they anticipated and some confusion is understandable. Credit to them for doing it so quickly in the first place as most comps take months and months.

But anyway, what I really came on here to say was massive congratulations to my friend Matt Sinclair for making it through. As some will recall he did the notes on the Q&A for us, and was clearly paying very close attention! Hopefully we'll get the inside scoop on the masterclass now too.

Well done mate, good luck in the next stage. It's a fantastic achievement for you personally and dare I say, another little success for our writers group as a whole!


Congratulations to former Peter Ustinov Winner Felicity Carpenter for also being invited to the Masterclass!

Monday, 6 July 2009

End of the Road to Elstree

I didn't make the cut for the Writers' Academy workshops.

It's frustrating not to get any feedback at this stage, but I totally understand that the numbers would just make it too difficult. I know I did all I could. And therefore could not have done any more (if you know what I mean)

It wasn't meant to be, and I'll probably accept that over the next couple of days or so.

For now I'd quite like to get blind drunk... except I am tee total.

So commiserations to all those who didn't make it and massive congratulations to those who did. You better write bloody good episodes or I will savage you on this blog.

Just kidding.

Friday, 3 July 2009

We are what we write

With CBBC stuff, Ustinov stuff and the regular work, I've been a bit swamped with script reading whilst trying also to write myself (which I hear is traditional for a screenwriter.) But during the course of the reading and discussions with clients, some interesting things have come up that I thought would be worth sharing.

One question that came up was this. I told a client (he shall remain nameless unless he wants to comment below!) that he wrote confidently, to which he replied, what in real terms does that actually mean? It's obviously positive thing, but how do I know what it is that I'm doing right to get this response? And it was an excellent question - because I have never quantified it in those terms. It's just a feeling you get whilst reading a script. I've also been told that I write confidently so it was worth thinking about what this actually meant.

I feel it suggests that you have a certain control over your understanding of a project. You know the world and the characters inside out, you know what's going to happen, when and why. If it's a series pilot for example, you give the impression you know exactly how the series will pan out. Notice I said give the impression. You don't of course actually have to know every single beat of a 6-13 part series. It would be frankly staggering if you did. What was it that Toby Whithouse said about Being Human - something like that he knew in the final episode Herrick would walk into a room and George would step out of the shadows. That was it! And it was then a case of working out what has to happen to get to that point. I'm working on a series idea at the moment where I know in the final episode, one particular character will be shot by another particular character. How it gets to that point at the moment I have no idea! So what does it mean to write with confidence?

Like I said it's more a feeling you get, so I will describe it in metaphor. Think of a person, so cool he glides not walks. He can chat comfortably with either sex, he is basically the Fonz. Now think of that in terms of the words you put on the page. Are the characters described with a few punchy verbs, is the dialogue crisp and economically written, do scenes flow into one another to make up sequences, acts and ultimately a complete coherent story?

And it occurred to me just now that the antithesis to all of that is overwriting. Overwriting betrays a lack of confidence. Because if you are unsure about what you are writing, you can often feel the need to over state and over explain things. This is the other reason that it's preferable to have a script as tight and as short as possible. (Whilst still doing justice to the story of course.) It's not just because readers/producers can't be arsed to read long scripts and will visibly sag under the weight of epic after epic landing on their desk.

They say you only have one chance to make a first impression. This is never more true than with screenwriting. Unless you are Paul Abbot (see here) you won't recover from turning in a bad first draft. You'll go on to write other projects, but that particular one, with that particular producer/company/agent, will be dead. So it's worth spending the extra time to go through it all and ask yourself have I done everything (plot, character, dialogue, action) as economically as possible? People take courses to become more confident and assertive. They are qualities we desire and other people admire. So it makes sense that you definitely want to be described and known as someone who writes confidently.