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.

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