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…

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