Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Rumble In The Jungle

The main difference between Faustus and Mohammed Ali (apart from good looks, huge biceps and er, being heavyweight champion of the world) is that Ali refrained, magnificently, from a final punch as Foreman’s legs buckled under him moments before he hit the deck.

Christmas Day, traditionally, is the occasion for TV drama to roll out its fruitiest pudding. This is partly the quaint practice of getting out your best china for the festive season and partly because the whole nation, briefly and tantalizingly, is actually predisposed to watching a bit of tele. They’ve opened their prezzies, scoffed too much food, broken the first toys, had a couple of arguments and are beginning either to fall out or fall asleep. What else is there to do but sit down, friends and family together, and flick on the box? It’s a moment created in schedulers’ heaven.

Christmas Day is also, theologically speaking, the time of new things, the birth of a new era, the dawn of all that comes after and the burying into history of all that went before. This year, perhaps more than any other, was the chance for TV to show what the future is all about. This was the birth, in a little manger behind the Coach and Donkey, just next door to ASDA on Bethlehem High Street of the New Approach in all its glory.

So what did we get? The answer is: yards of fresh, new, original and energetically creative writing. Dominating the schedule was a sassy wheeze in two parts called ‘Eastenders’, set in an East London borough that told a tale of ordinary folk living ordinary, problematic lives. They’d never have thought of that in the dark old days twenty years ago! Next up, a brilliant new concept about a couple living in a big house, him rich, her posh, called, wittily ‘To The Manor Born’. It only goes to show what you get when you let writers loose with their imagination. Finally, and perhaps most ingeniously, there was a new drama about a Time Traveller who nips about the universe in a Police Box saving planet earth among other things. On ITV, meanwhile, they’d come up with something so startling you wonder nobody had ever thought of it before. A group of ordinary people are gathered together in the Home Front Army during the Second World War. The genius of production was that it was all shot in a slightly dated way to give it a ‘seventies’ feel. Perhaps its greatest triumph was that it cast several actors into key roles who had passed on some time ago. Faustus can only marvel at the negotiations that must have taken place with their agents.

Stretching over the schedules before The Big Day, however, were some cunning adaptations of a little known Victorian novelist to really give people something fresh to chew on. So easily did the BBC’s contribution to this remarkable new genre sit with the Eastenders format that they could have welded them all together into one big Time Travelling drama about ordinary people dealing with problematic lives in a class-riddled society past and present. Maybe next year. Mind you, while we’re in a creative mood, I came across this little book by some Scotsman, I think, about this geezer who robs from the rich and gives to the poor kind of thing set during the reign of King John. I don’t think it’s been done before though it could make a good movie, too. And then there’s the Jane Austen compendium I got for Christmas. Has anyone out there thought of adapting some of those?

But Faustus, as you know by now, is an obstreperous git or a cheeky chap depending on your point of view. Of course TV had much to be proud of over Christmas. The BBC lost no time in pointing out its triumphant trashing of Dad’s Army on Christmas Day while the cute new drama on ITV about ordinary people living problematic lives in Manchester didn’t quite cut it this time around against its London rival. For a properly balanced view, check out the Have Your Say section on the BBC website. You’ll notice plenty of people writing in from Bristol, Salford and White City, er, London saying how wonderful it all was.

A Happy New Year to everyone. And here’s to great writing.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

These Pages Are Naked

This is an article that was received by Faustus a couple of weeks ago. It certainly made him chuckle and it even made him think a bit. So, in the spirit of debate, it is herewith offered. The point that Faustus took from it is that it questions the rationale behind some of the commissioning decisions we've been seeing. Anyway, with thanks to the author:

I was a small boy in a strange land.

I approached a crowd of people wearing beautifully crafted suits and talking on Prada phones. As I stared up at their excited faces I saw they were all from the BBC: Producers, Development Executives and Commissioners of every kind.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “The Emperor is coming and he’s going to shower us with gifts.” came the reply from one ecstatic face.

And in that moment the crowd parted and I saw the Emperor for the first time, seated on a golden carriage. The crowd became enraptured, shouting and cheering, each vying with each other for a closer look at their mighty ruler.

They began throwing money at him, gold and silver of every kind. The Emperor smiled benignly and ordered his carriage to a halt.

The crowd waited with bated breath as the Emperor stood, reached into an old leather pouch and produced two huge manuscripts, so thick that the crowd could only gasp in awe. He held them high in the air, “My loyal subjects." he boomed "I have finished my latest works of genius.”

A huge cheer erupted from the crowd. “Enjoy” and with that the Emperor threw the manuscripts in the air, their unbound pages scattering in the wind.

Each member of the crowd began to desperately clamber for the pages, greedy like hyenas, collecting huge armfuls at a time. Screams of ecstasy could be heard from all corners of the crowd as they devoured every word.

A page fluttered in my direction, catching my hand. I turned it over, the page was blank. Odd! I thought. I reached for another page blowing in the wind, it too was blank. And as I looked at the crowd I realised that every single page they had collected was completely void of words.

“These pages are naked…” I said to myself quietly.

Upon which this strange world came to an icy halt and the crowd turned in unison, staring at me with incredulity.

“What did you say boy?” came a disapproving voice.

“These…These pages are blank” I squeaked meekly. “Can, can nobody see it but me. There’s no drama, no jeopardy, no real words at all…”

Gasps of shock erupted from the crowd. But then suddenly one of the younger Producers looked at the paper in his hand. “He’s.. he's right… there is nothing there.” A Commissioner nearby noticed the same thing. The realisation spread quickly through the crowd, their looks of incredulity suddenly turning to ones of anger.

But the Emperor did not become leader by chance, clearing his throat he addressed his people.
“Have I not served you well these past fifteen years? Have I not brought rewards for you all, awards, bragging rights, the smug glow of knowing you are part of the intellectual elite."

The crowd looked at each other, reluctantly agreeing before the Emperor continued...

"For these manuscripts are the same story I have always told, if you cannot see it now, you will have been wrong all these past years. You will have to admit you have been fooled and held to ridicule for the many hundreds of thousands of pounds you have showered on me in the past."

This seemed to quieten the crowd, sending them into deep contemplation. Suddenly the Emperor pointed his great finger at me.

“The boy is blind. How could he possibly see the greatness within these pages, did you not hear him speak, he’s… working class…”

The crowd gasped and I heard a shout of “The Emperor’s right, how could the boy possibly know anything.”

And that’s when I felt the first stone, a sharp crack on my forehead followed by the warm sensation of blood trickling down my brow and into my eyes. A second stone quickly followed, then a third. I saw the baying crowd through a haze of red. Shouts of “Heretic” and “Neophile” followed stone after stone. Darkness came swiftly, light never to return.

And now, as I look down from heaven on this strange land, the Emperor is still seated on his throne and I read with a heavy heart that after the audience apathy and critical lashing inflicted on the Emperor's last two shows, the crowd have arranged for several lorry loads of licence payers money to be delivered to the Emperor’s Palace with a polite request for him to develop “something epic” for 2009.

How the Emperor must have laughed…

Written by: Issit Justme (22.12.07)

Friday, 21 December 2007

The WGGB Event

(Apologies that it’s taken a while for Faustus to distil the reviews into an intelligible summation.)

So what happened? Well, John Yorke turned up mob-handed, charming but mob-handed, anticipating a rough ride. A small number of writers were there.

The Guild welcomed John and Co, pointing out to everyone that they were honoured to have him there. John then explained that everything is great for writers and if you’re not working it’s because you’re ‘sh*t’. Unquote. That was about it. Then all those people whom you would need to approach if you wanted work sat in the front and faced the writers. One of them pointed out that all previous writing – until they took over recently – was crap. Now it’s great. Because they’re great. And if you don’t think they’re great it’s because you’re crap. Simple.

Questions were taken. Nothing contentious. The Guild read out some uncontentious questions. They were answered clearly. One anonymous question sounded vaguely critical so The Guild read it very fast, missing bits out and at one point said they had trouble reading the writing. Chuckles all round. It all ended with a stirring round of applause as people leapt to their feet shouting ‘John, John,’ or ‘I am saved’. One person declared that hitherto they had lived in the dark but now they could see. Another person who had arrived in a wheelchair actually got up and not only walked for the first time in fifteen years but proceeded to dance the Fox-trot. Er, we are getting carried away by the euphoria. In fact, it just ended with a round of applause, profuse thanks from The Guild to the honoured guests for gracing the writers with their august presence, then everyone stood around for a bit drinking wine and not saying what they thought. Then they all went home or somewhere.

Perhaps the most interesting point put forward was that the BBC will always champion good writing and that if you write well you can be as unpleasant a person as you like. Bad writers are kicked out because there is no room for them. Sounds fair to Faustus. Although we are reminded of an instance when a script editor attempted to sack a writer who is now a household name at an early point in the writer’s career. It was during a serialised adaptation that is now a landmark in BBC history. When the script editor informed the Executive Producer that they needed to drop the writer, the Exec, who is legendary, sacked the editor instead. So we now have a great writer who could so easily have been lost to us or whose work, at least, would have taken longer to reach us. To champion great writing you need to recognise great writing. In this increasingly tick-box world that is likely to get more difficult. And as for being as unpleasant as you like, we all know that being unpleasant in a way that doesn’t diminish the ego of the editor/producer is a fine art that not all have mastered. Perhaps they should add that as a module to one of the MA scriptwriting courses presently littering the halls of academe. Perhaps the Writer’s Guild could sponsor it.

Friday, 7 December 2007

From An Actor

This was received earlier in the week. Its author has given us permission to reproduce it.

In addition to his [blush] compliments about the Blog itself, he says:

"[I] am amazed and disgusted by stories from people whom I know to be very good experienced writers who are being sacked off shows without even going to script. They're being fired by people who have never, ever written, edited or produced a single thing on TV of any value and are, I suspect, adrift, incapable to analyse a script, formulate any notes or express a coherent opinion but desperate to keep in favour long enough to be 'promoted' to producer. So, after a few volleys of contradictory sh*te - along the lines of your excellent Dr Who notes - claim to their bosses they've no option but to sack 'em. Of course the writers are left, after weeks of pain with merely a handful of smarties for the storyline fee and a damaged reputation. Shame on those who allow this practice to continue."

He hopes that the writers will start to 'fight back'.

Faustus should let you know that this actor has been a part of all our lives for many years. So we are honoured to hear from him.

Clearly, too, he knows a lot of writers.

It's also clear that a 'fight back' if that's what we wish to call it, is not only for writers but for all those who have to perform, direct and in all the various ways that people do turn our scripts into Television. (Note another recent comment from an actor.)

It's easy enough to dismiss the grumbles of writers as mere whingeing. The BBC did as much when they met the WGGB in October and swept their report aside as old anecdotes dredged up from the distant past. How belittling is that?

If the BBC really wants to put writers ‘at the heart of programmes’ they have to make that a meaningful phrase and not just the momentary glow of a snappy sound-bite with all the long-term nutritional value of a mince pie.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

A Date For Your Diaries?

From the WGGB website:

"Do you write for a long-running drama series? Would you like to write Holby City, Casualty, EastEnders or Doctors? Do you have experience of working on any of those shows? If so, this is a unique opportunity to hear about how the BBC have been adapting their shows - and the working conditions on them - to make them more writer-friendly shows.

John Yorke, Controller Drama Production Studios for the BBC will be talking about changes he's made to the BBC's working practices and ways in which he is working to put writers back at the heart of the creative process. He will also be taking questions on this subject.

Other senior BBC drama executives will also be attending this event and will be taking down the names of anyone deemed insufficiently impressed. [Okay, I added that last bit, it should read will be available for questions.]

This event is intended primarily for professional writers working in the TV industry and not as an opportunity to learn about ways in. Speakers will focus on current working practices in the BBC and ways in which the role and profile of writers on long-running drama series are changing.

The session will be chaired by Gail Renard, Chair of the Writers' Guild TV Committee on Wednesday 12 December 2007, 7pm until 9pm at the Writers' Guild Centre, 15 - 17 Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JN. "

Check the WGGB website for more information and to book.

There's also a chance to submit questions anonymously.

There will, of course, be mulled wine and mince pies afterwards.

Faustus is under no illusion that serious questions will be pressed on this occasion. His advice is that we should all use the opportunity to show John how enthusiastic and happy we are in the hope of getting more work. We gotta live, after all.

However, Faustus did have a dream last night in which a BBC Executive stood in front of the crowd and demanded to know who Faustus was. After a chilly moment of silence a man stood up and said, “I am Faustus.” A moment later another man stood up. “I am Faustus.” Then a woman stood up. Then whole groups of people got to their feet chanting “I am Faustus”. Then I woke up. Delusions of grandeur or what?

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Terrible Writers

A touching defence of The Writers Academy is offered to us by one of its recent graduates for which we are grateful. See the comments under ‘Swimming Lessons’. As we've said before, it is our firm belief that The Academy is a Good Thing (even if it doesn't teach its students how to spell the word 'Academy' - just pulling her leg.) It is an excellent provider of knowledge. However, it is not the source of that knowledge and should never delude itself that it is.

But there are dangerous implications in what she says.

‘Good writers get on with it. Bad writers get found out. Terrible writers are found out and then grumble about a sinister new regime’. From which it follows that those who grumble are probably terrible writers. So where does that logic end? If you question the way Television is being run? If you query a script note? If you fail to listen to your producer with the necessary indications of abject humility and reverence?

A writer has two fundamental duties. One is to question. We’re the fool at the feast. We take no idea, no social policy, no government edict, no big new fashionable whim for granted. That’s why we’re often shot. It applies to PR exercises too. It even applies to Grids or least to the way they can be misused. The other is to be honest. If a writer honestly finds a script note in conflict with their own judgement, they are required to say so. If they aren’t quite satisfied with the way TV drama is being driven, then surely they need to say so. They fail themselves if they fail to speak. Because that’s what a writer does. They might be wrong or right but they need to speak.

It’s an old trick, meanwhile, to say you’re with us or against us. ‘The Supreme Leader wants only the best for his people. If you doubt the Supreme Leader, then you are an enemy of the people’. Crumbs, we’ve spent too many years over the years in concentration camps or waiting our turn on the firing line over that one to flinch now. ‘Be positive’? ‘Get on with it’? Sorry.

It might sound like a disproportionate analogy to compare speaking your mind over a script note to the defiance of a totalitarian regime. It is. But it’s also the same process. Honesty. Truth. Yes?

The BBC says that, ‘There is definitely no hit list and people can complain. It is important to overcome this climate of fear.’ It’s good that they acknowledge the existence of this climate. But like Oedipus, they ought to check out what started it and what keeps it going. ‘Terrible writers get found out and then grumble about the sinister new regime’. ‘Let’s try to be positive.’ You are with us or against us.

It’s also a worrying distortion of the truth that up to now TV drama has been blighted by the presence of what the commentator calls ‘self-taught’ amateurs. Okay, some have shown a bit of willing by doing a TAPS course or reading a couple of books, but too late, they are soon to be replaced by properly educated, truly professional writers forged and honed by the BBC itself. I’ve never met a professionally working self-taught writer in my life. They have all learned from their predecessors, they have all been nurtured and mentored – usually by experienced writers directly – they have all studied and practised and learned by doing. The BBC is pleased that Casualty won its first BAFTA in twenty years and holds this up as a sign of new aspiration in series TV. Much credit for this goes to the production team, of course. But some must go to the writing team which consisted almost entirely of these ‘self-taught’ amateurs, many of whom, it appears, were subsequently culled from the show. What they did for the show was simple enough: complete refreshment, new ideas, creative energy, an increase in standards and originality all round. What enabled them to achieve this was being listened to, being heard, being trusted with the reins of creativity and being allowed to run with it. But that was then. The top echelon left along with most of the producers and editors. Writers were thereafter sacked wholesale or walked. (cf. WGGB June Guest Blog.) According to the WGGB, Casualty is now the show about which writers have most complained. According to one of our commentators, a writer on the show recently handed back a substantial cash advance to spare himself the agonies of doing another episode. And it was doing so well.

Another pernicious untruth is that these old writers are afraid of the terminology, afraid of The Grid. This is simply not so. Experienced writers just get exasperated when grid terminology stands in place of any real understanding of how a story is unfolding. By and large they’re happy enough to talk inciting incidents for hours, though the independently spirited might rebel slightly against the fatuousness of corporate-spiel. But take your grid to theatre, radio, film, to any Independent company of any value, to any great writer whose work we admire, to any of the producers and editors doing outstanding work and they will laugh and laugh and laugh.

It’s not that form and structure are unimportant. Nor that they can’t be taught as a theoretical construct from which the writer can thereafter develop. Nor that when we’re starting out we don’t have a lot to learn. Nor indeed that we can’t always learn something new. All these points are noted and accepted. It’s that the grid is then applied by people who have no understanding of what the grid can only ever represent. It doesn’t allow for originality or creativity, innovation or surprise. The BBC itself says the grid isn’t always right. Fine. So that’s why it’s important for the writer, the editor and the producer to work together in a balanced, co-operative and mutually respectful way to get the very best out of a particular story on a particular day. The contempt with which writers are held and the fear of the consequences of allowing them to speak, increasingly prevalent, does not for co-operation make.

Another devious piece of propaganda floating about is that these older writers are difficult to deal with, that they are pompous and unhelpful. A previous commentator, with all sincerity, bless him, repeated the allegation that they get all defensive when asked to explain why their way is better. No they don’t. They love being asked why their way is better. Yes, they might get a bit irritating after a while as they explain at great length and to uncalled for depths why they think their way is better but that’s because they love to talk story, character, theme and idea. Defensive? No.

In itself the concept of ‘new writers’ and ‘old writers’ is benign enough. Old writers are experienced, proven, knowledgeable. They are usually knowledgeable enough to know that there is always something more to learn. New writers are just new to it, that’s all: they’re getting there, they need a bit of help, but they’re talented and enthusiastic and that’s what matters.

New and old regime is another matter. The lunacy of a kind of Pol Pot ‘year zero’ mentality is ultimately destructive.

Here’s a proposition. These ‘older writers’ aren’t afraid of the grid, of the terminology, of criticism, of hard work, of being pushed, of learning, of editors and producers who know what they are talking about. It is the new regime and its acolytes who are afraid of writers. Not old writers or new writers. They are afraid of writers. They are afraid of the inherent freedom of thought, creativity, innovation, self-respect and yes, knowledge of writing that writers embody. They are afraid of losing control. They are afraid of any diminution of their prestige by having to acknowledge that they are not the ultimate source of the universe.

We gave those people involved in free-thinking, quality drama a chance to laugh with our mention of the grid. Let’s give some of the BBC people we’ve known and loved something to laugh about. An editor or producer learns about drama from the grid. They study it, assimilate it, test it, they are happy with it. They then sit themselves down in front of a writer to learn what it really means. Oh boy, I can hear them cackling now. Learn from a writer? Listen to a writer? It is for the writer to dance to the melody of the grid not for the grid to dance to the melody of a writer. That’s the view our commentator suggests when she says that older writers need to learn the language. Writers already have a language. Writers are language. Of course, it helps to agree terms but good editors, good producers don’t fuss with all that. They talk drama. It’s the language that binds us. If it’s dividing us, then it’s not us at fault but the language.

Faustus has to slap his head at this point and ask what have we become? It’s ridiculous. Cowering in script conferences. Taking dictation.

We don’t want to start rehashing our old arguments but take a look at the post: ‘Dr Who, Notes From A Parallel Universe’. That’s the grid in action. Not the grid in concept, which is passable enough as an indication of some aspects of drama approximately expressed. Then consider this: Dr Who in one form or another is currently on the cover of the Radio Times, the cover of Sky magazine, its merchandising adorns some of the most prestigious shop windows in the land. It’s a big franchise. It’s had a huge impact. It’s great TV. Part of its success is down to a brilliant writing team led by truly talented people, great production and outstanding cast. But Dr Who (so far as I know!) was never a product of the grid either in its origination or in the way its written now. Neither was Casualty when it started and when it won its recent BAFTA.

I would agree with the commentator that those writers who speak up, speak out, sit up and maybe even walk out, when forced to write what they know to be wrong are ‘terrible’. But not terrible in the sense she meant it. To all those insecure editors and producers, therefore, clutching onto their security grids, here’s a bit of advice gently offered: don’t be afraid of writers. They just want to make better television. They might have their own language but it’s a proven language and they are very flexible really in many ways if you would only listen to them. You never know, you might learn something about writing from a writer. And then hey, you’ll share the creative process, gosh they’ll even learn something from you. You’ll both learn something from the piece you’re working on. You’ll be refreshed and energised by having worked on it and yes, it will be a great piece of work. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

[P.S. Structure, form etc and the learning thereof, not a problem, perfectly essential. Writers Academy, fantastic. Those from the Academy who offered comments, genuine thanks. Nothing in the above is an attack on any particular individual. Believe me. Absolutely seriously. It’s about ideas. That’s all. And everyone has something to learn. Even Faustus.]

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Best of People. The Worst of People.

It has been pointed out to Faustus by one of our correspondents that while you can meet the worst types of people in this business and have the worst kind of experience, you can also meet the best. Faustus agrees wholeheartedly.

There are many talented Producers and Editors out there with whom it is a pleasure to work - a pleasure because they make good work possible.

Of course, it is not to be supposed that Faustus applauds only ‘nice’ people. It’s not a cuddly-bunny world that writers are looking for but the opportunity, having been hired, to work to their very best potential. We all take stick sometimes, we’re all driven to anguish and frustration sometimes, many of us have gone home after a ‘strenuous discussion’ with the producer or editor to think: er, hang on, they was right. That is half the fun. The other half is knowing at the end of it all that you’ve made a great piece of drama.

Nothing of the grief described to Faustus derives from a writer being pushed to write better. They love nothing better than being pushed to write better. If nobody else does it for them, they’ll push themselves to write better. It all derives from that cynical climate of intimidation, power-games, mind-games and bullying so well described by one of our commentators below.

The word filtering back up the mountain, meanwhile, is that some writers have become ‘comfortable’ [I quote this again - it’s from the WGGB/BBC meeting]. That is an incredible slur. More incredible is that it might be believed. Being a writer is a constant and habitual state of discomfort. From where else does the writing come? What has become clear from the various messages that we’ve received is that, on the contrary, the writers remain so committed, so loyal, so dedicated to the art and all that it might achieve that it hurts.

So who is telling the lies and why?

It’s no surprise that the BBC is in a panic about getting new writers. All they hear is that the old ones (and that will one day include those who are now new) ‘lack enthusiasm’ or ‘are not sufficiently committed’. Maybe what’s needed is a system that allows the enthusiasm and commitment not only to shine through but to survive more than five years in what one writer described as ‘the battle-field that is now Series TV’.

[Note to many of the new BBC script editors now trained and ready to edit scripts: the title of this post is a reference to the opening of a book called ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens was a writer who lived in the nineteenth century. A book is a thing with lots of pieces of paper stuck to each other in the middle with words written on them. A reference is … oh never mind, you won’t notice them anyway.]