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. 

One Response to 'Pecking Parties'

  1. Niall says:

    Forgive the delay, but I have been rather overtaken by events… the title ‘pecking party’ is of course a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the Ken Kesey novel and/or the movie based on it. McMurphy the mental patient says Nurse Ratchet’s ‘therapy sessions’ are in fact pecking parties – what happens when chickens kept in a shed see a speck on a neighbouring chicken and peck it, drawing blood, and others join in, until all of them get splattered with blood and peck each other to death…

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