Archive for the War Stories Category

Pecking Parties

I once worked on a long-running TV series that aged, as these shows are wont to do, from a sparky comedy drama to a bland rural soap.  In the early days I and the other writers on the team tried to keep the show funny and unpredictable and to subvert the expectations of the audience, but as time passed it got harder and harder to do anything original or challenging, and it wasn’t because we ran out of good storylines…

(Digression: I have never got round to keeping track of traffic to this website, but I suspect it has spiked recently, given my association with a new author whose romantic fiction trilogy has recently gone supernova in the USA with no advertising or input of any sort from PR people.  Want some hot gossip and insight?  You’ve come to the wrong place – this is my soapbox, and she has her own. In the manner of a crotchety professor whose lecture hall is full of the curious hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity student, I am now going to sit here and wait, drumming my fingers on the table, until all the rubberneckers have left.

OK, let’s carry on…



O well.)

For the first series of this long-running show I came to a script meeting where there were three people sitting round the table – two producers and the script editor.  We had a laugh and kicked ideas around and I was allowed to be a bit subversive in my script and the series was a hit.

By Series Five I walked into a meeting room to find fourteen people round the table.  Those first two producers had become Executive Producers and moved upstairs.  In their place was the line producer they had hired, plus the show’s in-house script editor.  The other dozen were from the network: the Head of Drama was there, plus her assistants, plus her deputy, plus her deputy’s assistant, plus the Drama Department script editors – they had two, plus two trainees.  Does all that make fourteen?  Possibly some passerby had wandered in off the street – it would have been hard to tell.

In the course of the meeting the script editors tried to impress their bosses with their insights, the trainees tried to look smart and useful, the Deputy Head of Drama tried to be assertive because her boss was here, and the Head of Drama was contradicting everything the deputy said, presumably to show us all who was in charge.  And of course the ammunition they were using in this pecking party was the script I had been working on for months.

Inevitably, among fifteen people not everyone will agree.  In those circumstances any lines or any exchange that are in any way controversial or cause the discussion to drag on are simply cut, because everybody is on a schedule, and there are two more scripts to fillet after this one.  The inevitable result of all this is a dull, lifeless screenplay that has the audience wondering what happened to that sparky unpredictable show they used to enjoy, and is there anything else on?

This is why writers and producers who have any clout at all try to keep their writing teams tight and well-focused and avoid taking ‘helpful’ notes from every exec who sees a draft of the script.  A writer’s distinctive voice can bring new life and freshness to the most familiar and well-worn storyline, and the committees that accumulate on long-running shows are the most efficient method that could be devised of strangling that voice.   (Don’t even get mestarted on focus groups.)

Writers who work to order on TV shows or movies are often paid well, but sometimes I think only half of that is for their talent – the other half is for the amount of crap they have to put up with*.

*Minus a small percentage for knowing not to end a sentence with a preposition.

**Well done to those movie buffs who know where I sourced the title of this blog instalment.  Answer next time I post. 

Not Getting It In Writing

My agent, the lovely Valerie Hoskins, recently launched the to show off her stable of writers (I’m the niffy old mule at the back… be careful, I bite) and very generously asked me along.  Of course, wherever there shall be more than one writer present, there shall be also bitching and moaning (see war stories below) and I found myself recounting one particular incident that usually I manage to blank out of my mind.

A few years back I was hired to do a rewrite on an episode of new TV series, very close to shooting.  The director – an old film-school friend – had recommended me to the producers as someone who could write quickly to order.  And so I was asked to do Episode Four, I think it was, of a six-episode series.  The producers showed me the existing script and it certainly needed help; the story made no sense and the dialogue was idiotic. Oddly, the first three episodes of the series were very good – well researched and superbly written.  I found myself wondering what had happened to the writer on Episode Four, but in these circumstances you rarely ask questions – you don’t have time, as much as anything else, if the show is filming very soon.

Anyhow Episode Four I wrote, as requested, and the producers seem pleased. So pleased in fact they offered me Episode Six of the series as well.  I happily got stuck into that, but very quickly hit a large obstruction.  My suggestions for a big series finale – and we had some scope for epic themes – were ignored.  I was told a treatment was already in existence for this episode, and I was required to adhere to it.  The producers sent me a copy and I sat down to study it.

It soon became apparent that whoever had written this treatment had also written Episode Four.  When I say ‘write’, in this context, I mean ‘typed a lot of words in no particular order.’ The story was dreary, clichéd and nonsensical, the characterisation non-existent, the dialogue solid mahogany.   All the same I was getting definite signals that if I wanted to make any radical changes to the episode, it would call for a certain amount of tact and delicate diplomacy.

Anyway, I did something I had never done before: I used the ‘notes’ function of Microsoft Word to scribble down my observations of this amateur treatment onto the treatment itself.  These were mostly along the lines of ‘O for God’s sake’ and ‘this makes no sense at all’, though I do remember writing ‘at this point the audience will be switching off in droves’.  I carefully saved that annotated document, closed it, and fired off an email to the producers saying ‘Thank you for the treatment – I have some observations, but with a few tweaks I think I can make it work.’

Their reply was a little slow in arriving, but when it did, it went ‘Thank you for your email, with its attachment, which we read with interest.’

I had somehow managed, in my reply to the producers, to attach the treatment I had liberally studded with snotty remarks.  So much for tact, subtlety and the delicate art of persuasion.  They accepted my completed Episode Four, and politely told me they’d find someone else to do Episode Six.

They never did, as far as I know, because the series was cancelled after three episodes – which hardly ever happens on British TV, even when the lead actor drops off his perch.  Before they cancelled the show the network shunted it all round the late night schedules, so to this day I have only ever met one person who ever saw it – coincidentally a nephew of mine, who happened to be channel-hopping late on a Tuesday night in August.

I did ask the director who got me the gig how the filming of my Episode Four had gone, and he said with a weary sigh that he honestly could not tell me. Apparently every morning new pages of dialogue would be handed out on set, and no-one ever had the faintest idea where they came from or how the new material fitted into the episode that was being filmed.  If this ‘new material’ was anything like stuff I had been shown, I am amazed the series ever got aired at all.

A few years later I bumped into the producer that had hired me, and he told me what had been going on behind the scenes.  The Executive Producer – a TV veteran with his name on some very famous shows – had decided that the script would be improved if he gave it a bit of a polish, by which he meant inserting his own dialogue.  The original writer had walked off in disgust and the executive had let him go, apparently under the impression he himself could fill in.  It was that man – the boss of all these junior producers – who had written the embarrassingly limp Episode Four and the incomprehensible treatment for Episode Six that I had sent back scrawled with notes reading ‘O God this is awful’ and ‘WTF?’.  No wonder I had lost the gig.  And no wonder the show had got cancelled, too, because this big successful TV executive could not write a scene, a story or a line of dialogue to save his life, but no-one on his staff had had the nerve to tell him.

The moral to this story, quite simply, is if you are asked to work on a script that makes you want to laugh or throw up for all the wrong reasons, and you are asked for your opinion, smile knowingly and say ‘I see what the author was getting at, and I think I can make it work’.  Do not put your honest opinion in writing, and if you do, do not email that opinion straight back to the guy who wrote it…

Breaking and Entering

I was invited onto a seminar in Dublin a while back to talk to Irish writers who wanted to break into British TV.  I was puzzled to be asked, because that’s how I usually think of myself, and when people point out that I already have written quite a bit for UK TV it always takes me by surprise.

So there I was on the podium beside TJ, a distinguished screenwriter who worked his way up from the writers’ stable to become showrunner on a major TV soap.  He was – is, rather – the best sort of producer, for whom only the story and the writing matters. He feels if you get that right everything else will follow, and he’s right, of course. Anyway someone in the audience asked TJ what they should do to get work in UK TV drama, and he replied, ‘Watch everything’.  There was a sort of gasp from the audience.

How could you possibly watch every drama on TV – every cop show, soap, and Dickens adaptation – and still have a life?  And write as well?  Even for such an energetic, driven character as TJ it would be a tall order.  Maybe he didn’t mean it literally.

I piped up and said that I usually made time to watch the shows that amazed me and left me thinking, ‘Wish I could write like that’ – the shows I aspire to work on, even if I never will.  The Wire for example.  But if I wanted to go for a job on a specific TV show, I would watch previous episodes and read old scripts, get to know the characters and the setup, and figure out the way the stories worked.  In other words, I’d do my homework.  (I was relieved at this point to see TJ nodding vigorously.)

TV producers rarely take risks with new screenwriters.  There are usually lots of old hands available, and bringing in less experienced writers can involve extra work and extra risk.   That’s what gives rise to the ‘closed shop syndrome’ where you won’t get hired unless someone else has previously hired you. When you are trying to get your first break that’s incredibly frustrating, especially when you know you could a better job than some ‘established’ writers.

You just have to keep plugging away.  Do everything you can to show producers that you’re already up to speed with their show, that you can do it just as well as the regulars.  There’s a form of mimicry involved: you have to assume the voice of the show, to find dramas that not only involve its established characters but also engage you as a writer.  You have to get excited about what you can offer, if you want the producers to share that excitement.  You can even push the boundaries of what’s been established – if you’ve done your homework properly, you should have a good idea of what you can get away with.

Admittedly this advice is less relevant than it used to be. The current fashion in UK TV is for ‘authored’ pieces, where an entire series will be created by one screenwriter.  It’s part of a growing appreciation for the craft of writing and for the distinctive individual voice that started in the US, when writers like Aaron Sorkin and David Chase were allowed to write quirky, demanding shows such asThe West Wing and The Sopranos that had previously been rejected by networks locked into established formulae. (Sorkin had been told at one point ’you can’t have a leading man with a beard.’)

New networks like HBO wanted intelligent, adult dramas and were prepared to take risks – Sorkin is a mercurial character who would sometimes still be writing the script when the crew had started shooting, but the finished product was worth it.

Nowadays UK broadcasters too are more willing to take risks, and let one writer devise and script an entire series. While this is good news for the art of screenwriting, it makes life harder for jobbing scriptwriters who make ends meet doing an episode here and an episode there, and harder still for unknown writers hoping to get a break on a long-running TV show.  It makes it more important than ever to keep developing new projects of your own.

There are a handful of UK TV productions that make it their business to find and develop new talent – low-budget daytime soaps, for example.  They use new writers because they’re cheap and will (usually) do what they’re told.  It’s not very glamorous or boast-worthy, but it’s a great way to learn the ropes and add weight to your CV.  Just try to make sure you never work for less than the Writer’s Guild minimum (Google it). I know of some up-and-coming writers so eager for a break they worked for months for a pittance, effectively subsidising the indie that hired them.  No respectable TV producer should ask you to work for less than the WG/PACT minimum rate on a show that’s intended for broadcast.

There is one thing I should have said at that Dublin seminar and didn’t: I should have asked the audience why they were so eager to work on UK TV anyhow. I mean I know the answer – that for Irish writers it’s close to home, and we know all the shows – but it’s not very ambitious. British TV is a small pond, after all, with an awful lot of big fish in it. If I were starting out from scratch, trying to flog a screenplay, I’d try to do it in Hollywood. The US market is enormous, and even if it takes a while to get a break I’d rather be a skint struggling writer on Venice Beach than a skint struggling writer in Shepherd’s Bush. The bullshit is the same over there, but the rewards for surviving it are vastly greater. If you’ve got the talent, go for it, aim high.  The British TV market will still be here if you decide to come back.

And the more bright young talent heads west, the more work there’ll be in the UK for old farts like me. Off you go, aim high, send us a postcard.