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.]

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Goldman Awards 3

To the brave, honest and noble writer who sat patiently through a lengthy elaboration of ‘The Grid’ in the conference room of a bland hotel over the course of several days (see ‘Swimming Lessons’ below). This writer, who has contributed successfully to British Television for years and is both respected and admired, was less than impressed. When asked for an opinion, this writer obliged by giving one in an attempt to be helpful. A week or so later, this writer was dismissed without explanation from the show she had served on and off for decades. It was thought, presumably, that no explanation was necessary.

UK Broadcaster Content


[Writer’s note: I’d prefer this to be ‘the enormous converted loft-room of a six-bed mansion … ?]

[Producer’s note: check with budget.]

[Line Producer’s note: you do realise who we’ve got playing the lead?]


FAUSTUS: Never let it be said that we’re all doom and gloom. There is now something for UK writers to celebrate.


FAUSTUS: The good news is that the BBC, ITV and C4 are going to …


FAUSTUS: … launch a joint on-demand service which will bring together thousands of hours of television in one place.


FAUSTUS: Of course The WGGB and our respective agents are going to have to bargain hard over this, but at least there’s a potential for royalties. And in a way it’s a bit of a celebration of all our efforts, of the great writing that happens in this country.


FAUSTUS: According to the BBC News website, ‘Michael Grade, ITV's executive chairman, described the project as having the potential to become "an important shop window for UK broadcaster content and a great destination for viewers".


FAUSTUS: ‘UK broadcaster content?’ Funny old phrase to use. ‘Broadcaster content?’


FAUSTUS: To illustrate ‘UK broadcaster content’ the website offers an example of a Channel Four drama ...


FAUSTUS: A still from ‘Ugly Betty’.


[Producer’s note: This is nice but I’m not sure the actor we’ve booked can do ‘blank and haunted’ could he cry or bang his fist on the desk or chuck his computer out the window? Also do we need the mug of tea?]

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Swimming Lessons

An interesting story reaches us of a Public School that installed a swimming pool with a view to teaching its pupils how to swim. A teacher was duly appointed to give instruction and lessons commenced. After a while, the Head Teacher, whose pet project this was, went to the pool to see how it was all going. He was a little bit disappointed to see that very few of the children were able to stay afloat never mind get from one end of the pool to the other. This was in spite of the efforts of the swimming teacher who marched purposefully up and down explaining the principles of swimming, demonstrating all the moves and exhorting them to get it right. When the Head Teacher expressed concern, the swimming teacher said that really, he was doing all he could but there wasn’t a talented swimmer among them and they would just have to be patient.

After some time the Head Teacher went back to see if anything had improved but the children were still splashing around helplessly, flailing their arms and legs in only a vague approximation of what they were being told to do. The swimming teacher by this time was an enraged beast, frustrated by the stupidity of his pupils, railing at them from the sides. In a moment of insight, the Head Teacher barged the swimming teacher into the water. The swimming teacher promptly sank to the bottom. He couldn’t swim at all.

The moral of the story is that the best people to teach are those who can do. Mere experts can offer something, perhaps, but not the thing itself. A mere expert is one who has studied the art without practising it. Through careful analysis, detailed comparison and often with the help of power-point presentations, they tend to arrange the bits of whatever discipline it is they’re extolling into handy categories that fit nicely into a grid. If the grid hangs together, this is then given the title of ‘knowledge’. Their next move is, quite validly, to test this ‘knowledge’, this grid against different examples of the art. In writing, for instance, the grid is superimposed on a few ‘classic’ films, television dramas and so forth. So long as bits don’t stick out (and if they do they are generally ignored), the grid is declared to be correct. After that, it’s just a matter of passing the grid on to as many people as possible until it becomes a credible method. In time, anything that doesn’t fit is condemned as ‘not writing’. Writers that don’t conform or dare to question are declared to lack sufficient enthusiasm. Eventually all the bits that don’t fit no longer appear. Eventually, everything conforms to the grid. Resistance becomes futile. You are with us or against us. Kneel before The Grid.

Now, Faustus doesn’t have a problem with the likes of Bob McKee or any of the other script gurus whose systems, grids, books, software programmes and power-point presentations are now so readily available. They do have something to offer. But there is something else. There is an energy and power among writers, a creative urge often honed through years of study and experience that can’t be dismissed simply because it won’t be squeezed into the dull strictures of a tidy format. What saves some of the gurus is that they remain in contact with the writers from whom they learn. What any of the gurus teach, please note, is only what writers have taught them. This fact is often forgotten. They teach systems derived from people who did not know those systems. Even if the gurus simply gleaned their ‘method’ through the study of classic scripts, those scripts were written by a writer. However, it remains the case that once the method has passed through a sufficient number of unquestioning hands it tends to become something else, a free-standing, self-sufficient claim to be ‘the law’. That’s how writing is done, that’s what writing is, what isn’t this isn’t good. Writers aren’t asked about it anymore. They are simply told about it.

In recent months, The Grid has become the new creed for anyone who wishes to write for the BBC. It’s a curious little artefact borrowed from various gurus and cobbled together from the producer’s point of view. It might seem harmless enough except that conformity is a mandatory requirement. However many episodes of however many shows a writer might have written over the years, including TV features for which they’ve won prizes, whether or not they have been key writers or core writers or even taught extensively (shared their art) in writing foundations and universities, if they don’t attend a ‘Retraining Course’ to learn all about The Grid, they are sacked. Or as the BBC puts it, “Some writers went on it [The Grid Course], adjusted well and have continued to write”. The others, presumably, didn’t go on the course, didn’t adjust therefore and no longer write. So they have only themselves to blame. According to the BBC, “Some writers grab the opportunity and some don’t.” (From the WGGB/BBC meeting in October).

There is nothing wrong with would-be teachers learning from writers (by means of script analysis) and passing on the knowledge to newer, aspiring writers if it’s remembered that that’s how it is. There’s a decent living to be had out of it, after all, and we shouldn’t begrudge anyone a decent living. It becomes more sinister and infinitely less useful, however, when it turns into a gospel to which all writers have to subscribe (‘grab the opportunity’). What deforms the process is the severance of connection between learning and writing, which is to say the teachers of The Grid no longer recognise that all their knowledge derives ultimately from the natural talent, instincts and direct experience of writing that you can only get from real writers. The Grid is foisted upon writers without the writers being asked to enhance or develop or indeed to vivify it – through their dedication, passion and real knowledge – as the living, breathing, ever-adaptable, constantly creative act that writing needs to be to be called ‘writing’.

One result of this policy is the excision of ‘older writers’ (A pejorative BBC term) from the talent pool. Of course, you have to be tough in this game and if people get stuck in their ways then maybe they have to be replaced. But the history of writing tends to suggest that the more you do it, the better you get. Moreover, as a writer matures, so they see more of life, experience more, have more to say in different ways. Passion, oddly, is one thing that writers increase with age and experience. So we’re not talking about a lack of ability, commitment or passion. One producer put it frankly when she bewailed the fact that ‘established writers aren’t able to adapt to our way of doing things’. It’s not that ‘older writers’ lack knowledge, ability or passion. On the contrary, they know too much, have too much ability and are far too fussed about quality. A younger writer might accept a ludicrous note where an ‘older writer’ will argue against it. By ‘adapting’ is meant shutting your mouth and doing as you’re told. It means The Grid.

Perhaps to camouflage the practice of sifting out any but the most pliable and sycophantic, much work is being done to create and perpetuate a myth that these ‘older writers’ are just a bunch of crusties, past their prime, lazy and out of touch or, as the BBC describes it in a single word, have become ‘comfortable’. This would be remarkable if it were true. Remarkable because that simply isn’t how writing works. What is meant, of course, is that ‘older writers’ have the knowledge and experience to write beyond The Grid while, increasingly, producers and editors don’t know that there is anything beyond The Grid. We have heard numerous stories of editors and producers staring blankly at the writer who has attempted to explain something in terms that weren’t used at the last training course. Alongside this is an even more pernicious myth that ‘older writers’ don’t know how to write and therefore need to be taught. It is supposed that because they don’t know and perhaps don’t much care for the latest whizzy term for some particular plot point, they have no idea how to structure a story, develop a narrative, form a character and generate dialogue. One wonders how they’ve managed thus far. Although it’s too ridiculous an idea to merit any further refutation one does have to ask what opportunity it is that they failed to grab when they declined the offer to be ‘retrained’ by someone who hasn’t written a single piece of drama in their life.

Of course, it might be argued that older writers need to give way to newer writers or ‘fresh blood’ as the BBC rather worryingly calls it. This is fine. New writers must be given the chance to forge careers for themselves. But if you destroy a whole generation, from who will these new writers learn and take inspiration? The man with the laser pointer and the handy flow-chart? The past generation of writers (and we’re talking ancient souls here, some of whom are now in their forties and fifties) learned from their forebears as indeed their forebears learned from their predecessors. That’s how it works. With a bit of help from charts and grids, perhaps, what is communicated from one generation to another is much more than a check-list of story beats and a system of Acts derived from Chinatown. It’s the thing itself. This might baffle a good many producers and editors – not to mention flipchart fanatics – but writers will understand. It’s the thing that hit you when you realised you couldn’t ignore the need to write even if that meant an uncertain career path with no discernible reward in sight. It’s what made you write and write and write when you should have been looking after your finances. It’s what makes you turn your life into story and turns your stories into life. It’s what you feel when you meet people and see the world from their point of view. It’s everything you think and feel and breathe. When writers meet, they know what they’re talking about. It’s what they do. And, oddly enough, it is communicable. Get a good writer up there and it pours from them. It’s no surprise that many writers also teach, often ad hoc, giving inspiration and real knowledge to new writers in a way that no list of bullet points will ever achieve however pompously delivered.

If The Grid and its imposition sounds like a bit of in-house politics of no interest to any but those who win or lose - or play the game - then consider its wider effects, particularly on that most important of creatures, the audience. For how long will they put up with bland, homogenised drama that conforms only to a strict and predictable pattern? Editors might rub their hands in glee because draft seven finally looks like the format they’ve been lashing the writer to write but the audience won’t. Because in the end that’s not why they switched on the TV. Someone unkindly said that, apart from the costumes and the faces, virtually all the mainstream dramas have become interchangeable. All the episodes progress in the same way. The stories start like this, within the first three minutes this happens, ten minutes into the show the hero does a that … and so on and on.

As we’ve said elsewhere, the writing is, as it were, on the wall. They are switching off. And it’s worrying. The BBC response is to buy wholesale or nick shamelessly from the Americans. Or they repeat old shows made in a different era because they were written by writers. Many of the successes, meanwhile, either derive from the inspiration of a previous TV generation (Dr Who, Robin Hood) or come from books (the next Austen) or indeed radio. Of course we can’t deny that there is some terrific stuff on the box, new stuff, creative and innovative stuff written by writers who have been trusted and given the opportunity to write. But consider that the future of high-end drama is being forged, even as we speak, in the bowels of Series TV with its producers, editors and writers all processed by The Grid and its methodology. Consider this and be afraid.

The BBC says it puts writers at the heart of its shows. What it means is that it sits them down and tells them how to write. It gives them a Grid and shows them how to join the dots. It reads their work according to a tick list. It never asks them what they have to say or why. It never wonders if maybe the writers know something about writing that they might like to share with us. It fails consistently, deliberately and abjectly to tap into the one great thing this country has always been good at: writing.

We can only hope that one day the writers will be used for their proper purpose. To be heard. In the meantime, so long as they listen to what they’re told and don’t put up any resistance, at least they’ve got a job.

Friday, 23 November 2007


As American writers (bless them) stand on picket lines shoulder to shoulder with cast and crew, the Writers Guild of Great Britain shows itself to be no slouch either. It asked its members what their experiences are of working for the BBC and the answers were shocking. So they prepared a report and sent it to the Beeb.

A meeting was called last month. The BBC grumbled that some of the language of the report was 'intemperate'. The WGGB explained that the report only reflected the sort of language they were picking up from their members. The BBC said they'd let that go for now and promptly embarked on a power-point presentation.

After watching a bunch of headings flit in and out in brilliant colours from different directions and having listened carefully to all the bullet points, the WGGB invited the BBC to come and give the presentation to its members (an event now scheduled for December.) The BBC was much cheered. They had, after all, thus far failed to 'win the PR war'.


Have pity on the WGGB, though. They lack the clout because not all the writers are members but writers tend not to join because the WGGB lacks clout. Catch 22 innit?

So, if you do happen to spare a thought for writers in America bringing programme-making to a standstill, ponder also the stiff rebuke our own union got for 'intemperate language' in its honest report to the BBC. Makes ya wonder.

More to come, by the way. Faustus is still collecting the data. But be warned, some of you might find it disturbing.

Goldman Awards 2

A long-standing writer with a CV as long as yer arm, guv, found himself on a 'returning series'. He'd done them before, loads of them, and was therefore very welcome on a show that could be doing better. His stories were great, the treatment as professional as you'd expect but the first draft met with a cool response. He took notes and made changes. They still weren't happy. He tried again. Nope. Finally he said what do you want? They proudly showed him the shooting script of another episode they were all very happy with and said this is what they were looking for. He read it, said, "I'm sorry, I just can't write that badly." And walked.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

On Set

We are still reeling from the news that our American counterparts are needed on set in case any tweaks are required to the script. In fact their absence is a part of the reason why American TV production has ground to a halt.

In the UK their absence is an industry requirement. One or two Directors might invite the writer to pop in and say hi but saying hi is just about all you get to do. It's even astonishing to many UK writers that the Writer and the Director get to meet at all. I mean, what could the person who wrote the script and the person directing it possibly have to talk about?

Is this good for the programme?

If not, why is it standard practice?

One theory is that by introducing the writer to other people in the programme-making process a misleading impression is created that the writer has a useful contribution to make to that process. This could lead to people like directors and actors taking them seriously. You might end up with writers expressing a view about the script!

Then again, their absence provides a helpful person to blame for things in the script that don't work without them stealing kudos from the producer and the editors for anything that does.

Another reason perhaps is that the director and writer together might arrive at decisions by themselves. Creatives being creative? Unimaginable!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007


Cutbacks at the BBC? It’s a pity. Iconic factual programmes like ‘Rough Justice’ chopped to save money. The cultural flagship of Radio Drama squeezed so hard they might as well call it ‘unrehearsed readings’. Globally respected Newsrooms decimated. Why?

Of course it’s not the fault of the Corporation which now faces a fiercely competitive media environment. You see, over the last few years, the media itself, which is to say film, TV, the web and everything that goes on these platforms like drama and documentaries, news and information, gaming and sports has become huge. There is so much money to be made that everyone’s piling in for a slice of the pie. How could the BBC not fail in one of the world’s most flourishing industries? Er, let me read that again …

Okay, so maybe it was because of the disappointing license-fee settlement and the costs of digitising the nation. The story is that the corporation was hit by a less-than-expected income at a time of extraordinary expense. Our sympathy with this version of events is diminished a tad when we see the vast sums still sloshing into the pockets of Management Consultants, IT systems, relocation expenses, the cost of building buildings and then wondering what to do with the buildings that used to do the job quite adequately, startling increases of executive salaries and the hurling of cash at certain celebrity presenters that are of lottery-win proportions. So yes, cut-backs are in order but the BBC doesn’t exist to provide accommodation for an army of executives and IT experts or to feather the nests of a few (admittedly very professional) stars, it’s there to make programmes.

But let’s put that to one side and accept that the corporation is a bit strapped for cash at the moment. So do we put that violin to our chin or back in its case? Consider this: now more than at any other time is it possible for the BBC to generate revenue apart from the license fee. They ought to be swimming in it.

So why aren’t they?

Perhaps the answer lies in evolution.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “Although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe … an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.”

Revisiting the original theory, evolutionists are now beginning wonder if there is some merit to the concept of group evolution. The idea is that a lack of integrity (my words) and a propensity to shaft your colleagues in order to scratch your undignified way to the top might benefit you, but a group in which that sort of behaviour outweighs its morally-centred contrary will fail against groups that are, well, more proportionately altruistic.

If that sounds a little theoretical, let’s take some practical instances. In principle it works like this: a decision is made not on the basis of what’s good for the tribe (as Darwin would have it) or those it serves or with whom it trades – which in turn benefits the tribe. It is made on the basis of what’s good for me even at the expense of the needs of the tribe. So you sack that producer because he threatens your position, never mind how good he is. You don’t appoint that editor even though they’re good at their job because they know you’re no good at yours. As Producer you insisted on a scene in an episode which the writer resisted. The editor didn't like it either though he/she isn't telling the writer that. You now realise that it's a bad scene and the writer was right but you still insist on keeping it because worse than a duff scene is allowing the writer to think that he/she might be right. You know your series editor is an idiot but he/she is a friend of the executive producer and that already jeopardises your position so you keep shtum and watch the damage unfold. And so on and so on. The fact is that you are not providing the very best for your audience and, sooner or later, they'll abandon you. That they can now do so is what is meant by a 'fiercely competitive environment'. You now devote most of your creative energy trying to think of excuses (license fee disappointment, extraordinary expenses) hoping that your pleas won't be drowned out by the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

In drama, this takes on a more insidious level of degeneration. Since the classical narrative, based on the classical character, is one of transformation from the small to the large, the mean to the generous, the vicious to the virtuous, when you have small, mean and vicious people sitting around trying to reflect this 'journey', the result is a general sense of vacuity. They simply don't understand it. So they nick from the pattern-book of other shows, these days largely American shows, and reach for adaptations because somewhere along the line there was an original author who did understand these things. But the hollowness at the heart of their output begins to grate. They turn to 'issues' instead, lifting stories from the Sunday Supplements. It gets even thinner. Finally, in desperation, they cast pretty people in the central roles and do deals with celebrity magazines. It sells mags but it ain't drama anymore and after a while the audience drifts off in search of something more real.

In the world of factual programme-making, there has been quite a fuss in recent weeks over faked footage. Daft as it might seem when the proverbial hits the fan, if the only consideration was my job, my position, my promotion, my prospects, then the clouding of judgement and it's consequent idiocy is at least logical. The phone-in scandal? Where was the voice that questioned the breach of trust, loyalty, audience-care? Silenced by the clamouring voices of ambition, short-term gain and personal success at the expense of anything and anyone.

But let's step back for a second or two and ask ourselves if this description of avarice and paranoia truly describes what we know as the BBC. Are there people, as described, knifing their way relentlessly up the hierarchy, establishing little fiefdoms of absolute rule at the expense of real talent, real creativity, a real attempt to give the audience what it needs? Where, to put it another way, does the BBC as a whole fall in the spectrum of altruism/selfishness? A helpful method of analysing any tribe in these terms is simply to observe its performance against its rivals. In other words you only have to ask: how are we doing? Flourishing or failing? Do the facts speak for themselves?

Okay, this is not to be taken too seriously and certainly not all the ills of the Beeb can be ascribed to this process. But the contention here is that it’s a factor. And if we truly care about our old corporation, then we should take a good look at the ethos by which it runs - not just its stated Reithian objectives, but the prevailing atmosphere. What really drives it? A desire to do something well for the benefit of everyone inside and outside the corporation or mere personal ambition?

It may not be the only question but we think it’s a good one.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

The Goldman Awards

In honour of screenwriter William Goldman who famously told a couple of script executives that he was far too old and far too rich for this shit and left the meeting.

Confronted by the notoriously intimidating head of drama at a major regional production company, a young script editor who had formerly been in the army said something to the effect that a year ago he had been sitting on the edge of a helicopter over Africa wondering if his feet were going to get shot off. “That was scary,” he said, “This isn’t.”

He was promptly thrown out and has since become a highly successful script executive elsewhere.

What’s interesting is that his ejection from the meeting had nothing to do with his abilities as a script editor. He simply wouldn’t be bullied and therefore had no place in that company.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

That BBC Party

It’s a fancy envelope. It’s from the Beeb. They’re having a party. And you’re invited!

Initial reaction: they still love me. Secondary reaction: god, I hope it’s not like the last one. Third reaction: or the one before that.

You phone in to accept. The day comes. You turn up.

They’ve picked a good venue. Again. Big, impressive, unusual. It’s a bit of treat really, going somewhere you’ve never been to before. The invite said it was about Vision or Talent or Networking or something – a way of showing how valued your contributions are to the BBC, a little thank you. It will be nice to be thanked, you think, as you make your way past the phalanx of grey-suited door-people to hand your coat in. You look around. But you don’t recognise anyone. The coat-lady gives you a docket. You head for the bar.

There are lots of people. Lots and lots of people. All here to be thanked. You still can’t see anyone you know. There are quite a few people standing a bit bewildered looking round to see if there’s anyone they know. Some people are huddled in laughing groups. You see someone you know. You are about to wave but you realise you only know him from the TV. He presents something and is famous. Technically speaking you don’t really know him at all.

People scan your face to see if they know you, either personally or, even better, because you’re famous. But they don’t and you’re not and they look away to scan elsewhere.

The drinks are interesting. People in uniforms push silver trays of things under your nose for you to nibble. You don’t know what to do with the cocktail stick that came with the sausage. (When you get home you’ll find twelve cocktails sticks in your pocket and three olive pips.)

You don’t mind about not knowing anyone. Sooner or later the BBC is going to come over and thank you. In fact, there’s John, head of who you're working for, and you know him, obviously. He knows you. He sees you, smiles cheerily, waves and hurries off to talk to Tony, who has just had yet another series commissioned, by the window. He will talk to Tony all night. You don’t want to interrupt. So you don’t. You expect John to come over at some point or at least stop talking to Tony for a couple of minutes. But he didn’t at the last party. And he won’t at this.

Aha. Kate is almost BBC in her own right, she's in charge of something or other hugely influential. And you know her. But she has her back to you and is talking to two other people you don’t recognise. They are huddled by the wall. In fact, she has her back to everyone apart from these two people. She will have her back to everyone all night. She won’t come and say thank you. Perhaps she’s here to be thanked so why should she go around thanking anyone, especially you? All you ever see of Kate is her back. Apart from the two people she’s talking to that’s just about all anyone’s going to see of her.

It’s Alan! Now if he’s not the BBC, who is? But he’s scowling. He doesn’t seem to want to be here. You catch his eye but he’s already leaving. Ten minutes is all he’s got for this kind of thing. He’s very important.

Now there’s that lady, what’s her name, Jana, talking to Peter. They are definitely the BBC and, hey, her name was on the invite inviting you. She actually asked you to this party. I mean, you don’t go to a party and not say hi to the host. Especially if they want to thank you. You approach her. She glances round, with a ‘who the hell are you?’ look on her face. Peter scowls, he was in the middle of saying something. You pretend that actually you were just passing by and you pass by. They carry on talking, a bit relieved that you weren’t about to speak to them.

The music stops. So here it is. The speeches. A lot of people stop talking. But not everyone. A lot of shushing goes around but those who want to talk talk. Maybe they don’t want to be thanked. It seems very rude especially with Jana or Peter or John or somebody up there profusely thanking everyone. But anyway. You bathe in their gratitude. You are told that without you the BBC wouldn’t be what it is. You are told that you’re so immensely talented it’s a privilege to work with you. You are told that creative people are at the heart of what the BBC does. You are told that innovation, originality and freedom to do what you do best is all that has ever mattered to them. You clap wildly at the end. The microphone goes off with a click and the music starts up again. John hurries off to talk to Tony. Kate disappears into another huddle in the corner. Jana and Peter move aside and nobody dares to disturb them.

And then you see someone you know, really know, to the extent that you can just walk up, say hello and talk to them. They are a writer. You have worked together on several shows. You walk up, say hello and talk to them. They are with a couple of other writers you’ve seen before and know vaguely. You try to talk but the noise is so loud now that you can only pretend to hear what they’re saying by nodding vigorously when they look earnest and shrugging when they look bemused. You get the gist that they’re not happy. None of the writers are happy. One has just had their episode rewritten by somebody else. Another hasn’t had a call even to say he won’t be getting a call. A third is a core writer who disagreed with the series script editor at a story conference about a choice of actor and is probably in for the chop. Another has done nine drafts of a script because the exec kept changing her mind. They say it’s not worth the money. Another is cheesed off because their editor always phones on a Friday and asks for delivery on Monday. You’re cheesed off too. You wonder if writers just aren’t always a bit cheesed off by something. But a producer comes along whom you know and like and you remember working for them for a couple of years and not being cheesed off once. They have a couple of things in development but really they’ve just bought a house in France and spend most of their time fishing these days.

All the writers have something in development. Development means they are thinking about it. Or they’ve talked to someone about it. Or they’ve had lunch over it. It might even mean that someone intends to commission it. In fact, one of them is on a third draft but the producer has just left to join an independent company and the new producer doesn’t like the title or the characters or the theme or the style and is asking what relevance this story has to young people. Nobody expects any of their ideas actually to get made. They all glance round at John and Tony chatting earnestly in the corner.

Then you see some of the cast from the show you’re working on. They are with the Series Producer but, when you saunter across, the Series Producer looks baffled. Your presence here doesn’t help his career. He does not have any use for you at the moment. He doesn’t introduce you to the actors for whom you have written numerous scripts. Not introduced, the actors move away and talk amongst each other. The Series Producer mutters something and hurries away to talk to the Series Script Editor who is with the Series Story Editor. You wonder if there’s something about you they’re not saying. They didn’t, for instance, say thank you. You go to the toilet and realise, as you’re washing your hands, that the nervousness on the faces of the other writers is now the primary ambiance on your own face. You’re glad it’s dark out there.

And eventually it all comes to an end. You’ve swapped some e-mail addresses but it’s unlikely you’ll make any contact beyond a ‘hi’. You’ve plotted revolution among writers but nobody’s ever going to do anything about it. You were thanked in a collective sort of a way so that was alright. You think about it all on the way home but can’t seem to draw any conclusions.

You wonder if you should ever go again.

But the invitation comes the following year and you phone in to accept.

One day it won't come. Then you'll be deeply upset.

You think about all this but can’t seem to draw any conclusions.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Dr Who - Notes from a Parallel Universe

Asked by the BBC website which programme she’s most proud of, Jane Tranter (BBC, Controller Fiction Commissioning) replied with two words that are unlikely to surprise anyone: “Doctor Who”. Asked what she thinks is the best thing on TV she answered, ‘Torchwood - because it’s audacious, bold, entertaining, intelligent, heightened, humane, powerful and funny.” Torchwood, of course, is a spin-off from Doctor Who. Elsewhere, at the recent CBBC commissioning day, a particular programme was cited by Anne Gilchrist, (Creative Director, CBBC), as exemplifying the energy and originality they’re looking for. It was – you guessed it - Doctor Who.

Obviously nobody can grumble at the arrival of a genuinely exciting, grippingly inventive drama series that wins both audiences and prizes and becomes, inevitably, the proudest feather in many an executive cap. But is there a lesson here to be learned?

Among many of the writers currently labouring in the catacombs of series TV, there are some dark mutterings that maybe the success of Doctor Who has something to do with where it was made - which is to say, not in any of the usual BBC places (Television Centre, Elstree, Bristol, etc) but in a far, far-away land called ‘Cardiff’ where writers rule and everyone has fun. While there are undoubtedly corners, rooms and occasionally cupboards in the great BBC empire where writers aren’t bottom of the food chain and ‘fun’ isn’t a dirty word, the grumble these days is of an increasingly stultifying atmosphere.

That the series actually originated in a completely different era (black and white, remember?) may not be irrelevant. Those were the days of good ideas being given a shot, of chances being taken, of creativity being trusted, of writers living under the somewhat audacious impression that they were the writers. What Cardiff did, arguably, was reproduce the conditions of a Golden Age, the results of which speak for themselves.

So what might have happened if Doctor Who had been offered to those other institutions within BBC Commissioning, those august edifices populated by hordes of feverish executives and fresh-faced editors clutching their media degrees, stumbling from the tidy flipcharts of how-to-write-drama courses into the brutal reality of slovenly, unpredictable, slightly smelly and frustratingly non-jargon-spouting creatures called ‘Writers’? Perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps it’s obvious. The following is a guess.

From Sharon (Script Editor).

Hi Russell,

Hope you’re okay.

Loads of thanks for getting the treatment over to us so fast (you hero), hopefully we’ll be able to give you a bit more time for the third draft or so but you know how it is here – completely mad. I’m afraid to say we’re really pressed for time now so absolutely need to crack on. Sorry also that it’s taken so long to get back to you. Peter was away for two weeks and didn’t have a chance to read it until he got back. But I thought I’d get these notes over to you by the end of the week so you’ll have a chance to change things and hopefully get another draft to us on Monday, preferably first thing.

We all really loved the way you told the stories and thought the character development was really intriguing and the whole idea of a time machine sort of thing is still such a great idea (well done!) so a pat on the back to you.

We did think, though, that it needed a bit more focus in places. Peter’s had some really great ideas and Becky and Shioban and also Simon came up with some brilliant suggestions. See what you think. Obviously these are suggestions only, we do want you to enjoy what you’re doing. If there’s anything you don’t like in this, just give me a call and I’ll talk you through it.

The main headline note (which is very much about focus) is to do with the opening which sort of knocks on to the rest of the episode. Basically, we start with Rose and her life and go shopping with her and meet her family etc etc, but Peter says as this is about a time traveller who fights monsters, it would be much better to kick off with some time travelling monster fighting. As it is – perhaps you hadn’t noticed this – The Doctor himself doesn’t actually appear for ages. The problem is that when he does turn up, we really don’t know who he is and Shioban is particularly worried that the audience won’t be fully engaged with him if they can’t engage with him right from the start. I think you did the course last year too so you’ll know that it’s really really important for the audience to ‘understand the central character, where he’s coming from, what he wants and how he intends to achieve that’. Just in case you mislaid it, I’ve appended the document ‘ten questions you need to ask from your main character’ for you to have a look at. In any case I think it goes without saying that the main character does need to appear pretty much at the beginning so we know he’s the main character. So Scene One, if you don’t mind, should feature the doctor absolutely at the heart of it. I think it makes sense. (The Big Question, as ever is: what is at the heart of the show? The big answer in this case has got to be: The Doctor!)

Simon pointed out that although The Doctor is our hero, his first line basically is ‘run’ which isn’t very heroic when you think about it and there’s a danger, therefore, of losing audience sympathy which obviously we don’t want to do! So when we meet the Doctor, it would be great to see him really getting stuck in there with something. Becky also thought that it would be better to have monsters that are more recognisably monsters from the start. The thing is, shop-window dummies are very ordinary and not scary really and we feel we ought to be really scared right from the start. Audience Research did a focus group last year about what audiences find scary and I’ll get that over to you hopefully tomorrow. Basically, though, the scariest things are things they don’t understand or even recognise, like the Daleks who come in later, which is great, but everybody knows what a dummy looks like. So could we change that please?!!!

Don’t get me wrong, we all loved the way you opened the story with Rose and all the bits of her life and everything – really, really nice characterisation – but we just felt that it went on a bit. Sorry. We also thought that it belonged to a different genre. As a kind of modern life study sort of thing: great. But sci fi? Sci Fi is all about science and gizmos and interesting technology as well as taking a twist on life as we know it plus the unexpected, obviously - but it’s just ages before that actually happens. I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ll try to dig out the document on ‘Genres and how to know which one you’re writing for’ - which I think I’ve got somewhere - for you to have a look at. What’s most important, I seem to remember (it’s been a while since I did the course!) is consistency. Remember the three laws of Genre? Consistency, consistency and consistency. It always makes me laugh, that one. But basically you open with a police box spinning in space and then go to a kind of kitchen sink drama and I fear that we’re going to lose our audience before The Doctor even turns up.

Regarding the police box, by the way … I’ve asked around the office and nobody here has ever seen a police phone box and some didn’t even know what one would look like if they did see one! We’re going to lose the younger audience if they’re baffled right from the start. So we need something everybody knows and instantly recognises. Also in the days of the mobile phone, let’s face it, phone boxes are really old hat even if they don’t work. Becky asked for something shiny and sleek which is how she imagines a time machine would actually be. It doesn’t have to be anything other than a time machine really, does it? I’m sure design could come up with something. So don’t worry about the actual shape of the tardis for now, we can take care of that, but just have a look through and remove any references to it being a blue box or anything to do with Police. Peter said that we really don’t want this series to be confused with a Police series anyway so any reference to that particular genre has to go. The three Cs anyone?! (Actually, we did wonder if maybe we should go the whole way and make it an actual Policeman who becomes a time traveller but apparently there’s something a bit like that already in development.) What really matters, though, is that the shape of the tardis makes a strong, positive and instantly memorable statement about the main character (The Three Keys to a Strong Main Character’, remember?). It is his vehicle after all and as Peter said, you can always judge a character by what he drives (Morse, Peak Practice etc.). So something chunky and big and even a little bit in yer face which is how we think the Doctor should be.

Also, we got your note (thanks) about Gemma’s query but I’m afraid it still doesn’t quite answer our worry. I thought you were working on a name for the doctor and was a bit surprised when you said that was his name! The thing is, it’s not really a name at all and I think people are going to be asking who he is - which might be okay for a secondary character who is a bit mysterious but seriously the audience has to know the main character or they’ll just switch off. The shows that are doing really well at the moment (Daziel and Pascoe, Rosemary and Thyme, Murphy’s Law etc) all have a definite name in the title. Other shows, like Casualty and Eastenders tell you immediately and recognisably what they are. But ‘Doctor Who’ doesn’t really tell us anything and sounds a bit like we just couldn’t think what to call him. So it’s either got to be a name or something to do with Time Traveller. Simon thought maybe just call it ‘The Time Traveller’ which tells you instantly what it is. Marketing said they’d have real problems selling a show that doesn’t have a proper title. I did argue your point about it being a mystery but I’m afraid nobody really bought that. We’ll have a think too and let you know what we come up with. Peter said that if we called it ‘Doctor Who’ then it should have a question mark after it and I’m afraid there’s no way we can have a question mark in the title. Imagine, say ‘Eastenders?’ Or ‘The News at Ten?’!

Shioban is not convinced by the episode title, either. I know you said that you were introducing Rose and I agree that if we called it ‘Rose’ then we’d know that that was what it was about but Gemma said that it’s not really about Rose it’s about The Doctor so really, the title needs to be either to do with the Doctor directly or in some way introduce the idea of monsters and jeopardy. The word ‘Rose’ doesn’t sound very threatening really and we need to get a sense of threat all the way through. Remember ‘J for Jeopardy’. We need to know what the danger is and what’s at stake. So we’d really like you to have a think about ‘What’s At Stake’ for the Doctor (what does he stand to lose). That ought to be reflected in the episode title and it must be something we know about early on. At the moment he’s just too cheerful. I mean, there’s danger everywhere and he just seems to be enjoying himself. Becky said if The Doctor isn’t afraid why should we be? I think that’s a good point. It does feel a bit like you knew we were spending too much time on Rose as a character and therefore called it ‘Rose’ to get away with it but we’re all agreed I’m afraid that it’s not quite working for us. Nice try but could you have another look at that?

On the subject of gizmos and technology, Peter pointed out that it’s really important for ‘The Doctor’ to have an instantly recognisable weapon. He said that apart from a person’s car, it’s mostly by his weapon that people judge him. Or something like that. Think Dirty Harry. We all laughed at the sonic screwdriver jokes and think that’s fine in principle (keep it) but we’ve been talking to some casting options and one of the things they said was that they’d like to have a really huge weapon that blasts monsters very spectacularly. Again, have a think if you can.

I’ll send a scene by scene hopefully by this evening or first thing Saturday but in the meantime this is just to let you know that we’ve had a few thoughts about casting. We talked it over this morning and although we all agree that Christopher Ecclestone is a brilliant actor and personally I loved him in Jude and some other things he’s done but he can be a bit sort of gloomy … ? We’re just not sure he’ll have the charisma to pull off The Doctor over a whole series. The good news is that Ross Kemp might be interested. Also Peter said we’re looking for a Ross Kemp vehicle at the moment and when he mentioned a monster-killing time travelling macho hero sort of thing Ross got quite excited. It might mean a few changes here and there (some of the dialogue you suggested does feel a bit long especially the science things – which might get a bit boring anyway) and obviously not the screwdriver.

As for Rose, Simon said he can’t remember having seen Billie Piper in anything quite like this and thought perhaps we ought to try asking Jessie Wallace (Kat from Eastenders?) instead because we know she’s got such a terrific range and can be really bolshy and brash, as a character, which is what we feel the character needs. Jessie’s a great actress and we are looking for something for her to do. The audience really responds to her – she’s extremely popular – and I reckon she’d be great. What do you say?

One other point: Peter had another look at the series outline and raised what I think is an important point. The whole ‘Bad Wolf’ thing just doesn’t do it for him. He says it’s great in principle but basically we’re going to have all these references to something which people won’t understand until pretty much the end. When we do find out – at the end – he doesn’t think anybody is going to remember having seen them anyway. You see what I mean? We had a long conversation about it. Simon thought we should maybe just lose the references and play the story at the end as a stand-alone. He’s really keen that we don’t confuse our audience. Peter suggested – and I’d like you to have a think about this – that we start the series with the last episode. I think this is brilliant because it solves two problems. Firstly we don’t have to bother with all that stuff in the shopping arcade but also we don’t run into problems with confusing people over the ‘Bad Wolf’ thing. Also he says could we not call it ‘Bad Wolf’?

Oh and finally, Nigel was thinking maybe less Cardiff (though we all like Cardiff as a place and think it’s really sexy and ‘with it’ at the moment) and maybe somewhere similar but a bit further towards say Bristol. We’ve already got a fictional Bristol-type place that people know and wonder if it could only benefit the series to use the same brand identity which is working so well. If you could work ‘Holby’ into the title that might solve that problem too! Nigel thinks this would really kick-start publicity and we could even have Rose, for instance, working in A&E (guess which one) plus The Doctor could find himself in the General Hospital, interacting with our fave characters from Holby for a couple of episodes. He is a Doctor, after all, isn’t that right? Peter says there’s some talk of maybe having a series about the Police in Holby (they haven’t got a title yet) so we could even tie in with that which would be great!

Anyway, there’s plenty here for you to chew on. I’ll get you the rest of the notes asap, just waiting on feedback from Kevin who’s been on a conference and is a bit snowed under at the moment.

Have a lovely weekend.


Eastenders - from high to low. So what happened?

Everyone’s talking about it. That was the catch-phrase and, for the first time, at least in living memory, it was pretty much true. Eastenders had come of age. Good actors, taut scripts dealing with meaningful stories, dialogue that transcended the medium of soap, directors getting creative … there really was something to talk about. For a while there, writing for Eastenders was something to be proud of. You had kudos in just about any kind of circle, school-kids, relatives, neighbours, friends. Even the critics recognised quality when they saw it. What’s more, the show was beginning to contend for serious awards and not just soap gongs. One year later the only talk was of how bad it was, how maybe, for the first time in its history, there might be reasons for pulling it. So what happened?

Wheel the time back. Eastenders, circa the late nineties was plodding along much as it always had. Then in came John Yorke, an exec on his way up who believed that going out four times a week didn’t mean it had to feel rushed, routine, bland. Perhaps his greatest innovation was to encourage every writer to define their episode within the bounds of a self-contained structure. In other words, they weren’t just knocking the serial element on a couple of beats, they were telling a story. That meant they could use tone, texture, they could play with structure, have some fun. As one writer at the time put it, ‘getting away with 23 minutes of jaunty cockney dialogue wasn’t enough anymore.’

While the change was painful for some who’d got perhaps a little too comfortable, for others it was a relief to raise the bar. [It’s worth noting, that this process, natural when it happened naturally, became a kind of ‘hurt the writers to show I’m in charge now’ formula exercised indiscriminately on numerous shows but, inevitably, without the beneficial effect.] Slowly the word got out that writing for Eastenders might be interesting. Established writers began to knock on the door and found to their pleasure that the new creative freedom and editorial disciplines could make for some seriously good writing – which is all that most writers ever ask for.

The term ‘writer-led’ began to float around the grey lanes and grubby corridors of Elstree studios. Writers began to engage with the story-lining. They met and talked to each other. Good writing brought good directors. Good directors made for good actors. Everything began to shape up and pretty soon, yes, everyone was talking about it.

Then John Yorke moved onwards and upwards, taking over drama at C4. He was replaced by Louise Berridge and, for a while, the show went from strength to strength, gaining prestige, gaining momentum, gaining speed as it headed straight for that there old iceberg.

Now, opinions on Louise Berridge are divided but we have heard more in her favour than against and are therefore of the view that Louise is one of the good guys. She’s demur, modest, approachable and honest. She’s not too big to talk to anyone in the production, from writers to actors to crew. A lot of the effort to put writers closer to the centre of the show was hers. She even hosted events for writers to get together, wander around Albert Square, share ideas and opinions and have their photo taken outside The Queen Vic. Above all, Louise has a natural nose for story and the ability, not as common among execs as might be good for British Television, to read a script and know what it’s doing.

So far so good. Ms Berridge turned out to be a natural successor to John. A friend of writers, a believer in writing, she was demanding but never a bully. For a good two years everything in the show smelt of roses. She even made history, of a kind, with the reincarnation of Dirty Den. Ratings were high, acclaim was consistent, prizes began to clutter the tall glass cabinets outside the lifts in Neptune House. But two years is a long time as executive producer of a busy show like Eastenders, especially for someone as conscientious as Louise. She lived and breathed it. She agonised over every detail. She was available to everyone all the time. Many feel that all she needed was a holiday. A couple of weeks in the sun with a trashy novel and a glass of G&T might have saved her. It was fatigue, we believe, not malice or ineptitude that led to a series of fundamental mistakes. But it should also be noted that in spite of the size of the ice-berg, nobody warned her. Not the other execs in White City, nor the writers who only grumbled as writers do. Nobody sat her down and said hey, we might be making a bit of a mistake here. That they didn’t speak is probably because writers are accustomed to not being listened to and have ceased, by and large, to try.

Mistake number one was that she started taking the message boards of the BBC Eastenders website too seriously. However important a feedback and response website might be, it nevertheless represents only the opinions of one type of one part of a show’s audience. And they don’t necessarily know why they like what they like. So when they said how much they loved the Sharon/Denis love-story, for instance, Louise decreed that they get more of it, bags of it, sometimes nothing but it. They loved it. But others in the audience started to fidget while the writers began to tire of whole episodes revolving around a single, rather bland narrative concept like ‘Sharon and Denis walk around the square loved-up’. The writing began to get functional again, fed-up, and even – in spite of the enthusiasm that still remained, a little bit ‘will this do?’.

Mistake number two stemmed from mistake number one. The website tended to carry remarks like ‘I love Sharon, she’s mega fab.’ So the characters became increasingly important. And increasingly, stories amounted to little more than a rehash of their past histories and the effect that years of unlikely life-stories might have had on their present attributes. No scene was allowed to crack on if there was an opportunity to remind the audience what happened to Pauline in 1989. Great for the stamp-collectors who cooed at the myriad references, tedious for the new audience, the young audience, the audience that has a way of packing its bags the moment a show gets boring. As each episode became a futile effort to dredge the depths of characters that weren’t especially deep anyway – these are stylistic constructs designed for soap, not tragic-heroes with a terminal velocity – so they became increasingly bogged down with research notes and archival niceties that meant very little to most of the people out there and even less to writers who just wanted to get on with the exploration of human nature and the telling of tales.

Mistake number three was a genuine attempt to improve the situation. Aware that scripts were beginning to spin in ever-decreasing circles, she attempted to offer creative control back to the writers and editors. What she did was tell the script editors that the episode they were working on was ‘their’ episode. She forgot to mention that this implied working with the writer. Writers suddenly found that they were taking dictation by sometimes very inexperienced editors who nevertheless were still trying to second-guess Louise. It could be five or six drafts before Louise got to see it at which point she could and often did, throw the whole thing out. So they started again, another five drafts wondering what she’d think about this. Scripts began to lose any sense of authorial voice, of imagination, of creativity. The audience was still strong, but was ominously beginning to drum its fingers on the side of the armchair.

Somehow the press began to get a whiff of all this. Having elevated it with praise over recent years, the time had come to destroy. All they had to do was pick their moment. It nearly came with the lack of interest shown in the Ferreira family, the oddly cobbled-together amalgam of too many focus groups, a family made of bits, the siblings of which didn’t even look like each other. But Louise held her ground. Then the Ferreira Patriarch was somewhat inelegantly hoisted off the show due to visa problems. Production went into controlled panic as episodes had to be re-written at the last minute and story-lines reshaped into something that was, frankly, not all that good. Then Dirty Den lived up to his name - off the set - and the jackals moved in, howling.

In some ways it was just another cast scandal in a long list of cast scandals but it rapidly became an attack on the show itself. Now, drama is a bit of make-believe that requires a suspension of the thought that these are people paid to recite lines written by somebody else. Dennis Watts has never actually existed and yet, in the realm of story, he has a kind of existence necessary for the story to be told. Focus attention on the actor to the point where his reality takes over that of the character and it’s no longer drama, its celebrity exhibitionism. For a show like Eastenders which depends on rather a lot of suspension of disbelief to be watchable, the breaking of its glittery magic was a mortal blow.

Confidence in the show drained as rapidly as the blood from Louise’s face when the scandal broke. The audience, already tiring of the effort and losing hope that things would improve, left in droves. The press was in raptures. The lowest ratings ever for an episode of Eastenders, they chanted. Louise defended her position: Corrie had put a special against that episode, if you took the overnights into account it wasn’t so bad … But once they’re ripping into you, forget any attempts to reason. The show toppled. It was jeered at, abused, vilified. The execs in White City did what anybody does when they are anxious only to save their own skins, they showed her the door and suggested that it might be nicer out there.

She went. Mal Young, who was himself on the way out to pursue a career in the independent sector, looked around for a new Exec for Eastenders and settled on Kathleen Hutchinson from Holby.

What the traumatised writers didn’t realise at this point, was that, compared to what was about to happen, they were still in the good old days.

Louise, it must be said, remains liked and admired to this day - by most people at least. We have heard no-one deny that she is a very talented lady who has earned her place in the Televisual Pantheon. Many grieved at her departure confident that given a bit of support from above and a proper holiday she might have been able to turn things around - with or without the feeding frenzy that became the tabloids’ response to Dirty Den’s unfortunate indiscretion.

But it was not to be.

Kathleen quickly settled into the show by ditching the most recent set of production scripts and demanding complete rewrites along with a total revision of their story-lines. In spite of the pressure this created for everyone, Kathleen declared that there was no way she’d put her name to those episodes. Some muttered that this was more of a kick-ass demonstration than a genuine editorial decision. Others felt that maybe she was just getting a grip at last and things might actually improve.

She gave a talk to the core writers, along with the script editors, in which she set out her vision for the show, her attitude towards the production team, her management policies and her understanding of what story-telling is. As she left the room a wag from the back was heard to remark, “I give her six months.” It was prophetic but then good writers are. One of these days, or is it merely in our dreams, people in the business might actually listen to them.

Christmas brought a much bigger meeting with all of the writers who contributed either regularly or irregularly. The mince pies and mulled wine looked cheery enough in the cavernous space of the clubhouse. But what anybody walking in noticed instantly was the tension on the faces of the producers and script editors. Greetings were forced, smiles were vague and meaningless. The fear was palpable. The only person who seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely was Kathleen Hutchinson.

The proceedings began with Kathleen saying how wonderful it was to be in the same room as some of the country’s best writers. She then explained why she had pulled those episodes. Basically, she wasn’t going to tolerate sub-standard work from anyone. That was also why, incidentally, she’d changed the production lighting because it looked dated. Wow, this was an up-to-the-minute-quality-demanding executive producer and no mistake. Then she said that when she had been fussing over a particular episode someone had said it didn’t matter because it was ‘only a Tuesday Ep’. She stared at the assembled creatives with a look of horror on her face. That, she said, was an attitude she was not prepared to put up with. Heads nodded although some people were slightly baffled since, if anything, the problem under Louise had been too much attention to every episode, too much hashing and rehashing and fussing around things that had already been fussed over. Nobody quite recalled anyone ever dismissing an Episode as merely ‘A Tuesday’ but somebody must have or Kathleen wouldn’t have mentioned it.

She then shared her vision for good writing. Every episode, she intoned, had to have one moment that made you really laugh and one moment that made you cry. A roomful of the country’s best writers sat aghast at the fact that they’d never thought of this.

And then it was a chance for anyone to say anything they liked. Kathleen invited questions, comments and even, she said, grumbles. Let’s have them out. One or two writers wondered about creative freedom and were told that this was a Producer-led show and always had been. A few more questions were dealt with equally brusquely. The wise sat wisely on their hands, all-too aware that inviting grumbles didn’t exactly mean that grumbles were invited.

And then it was on to the flip-chart as two hapless editors fumbled through photographs of our favourite characters while the writers were asked to define their principle characteristics. Kathleen stood to one side smoking, watching contentedly as a roomful of the country’s best writers dutifully jumped through their hoops, waxing lyrical about Pauline’s cardigan and Dot’s voice.

And from there it was downhill all the way.

Stories were written, torn up, rewritten. Scripts were written, torn up, rewritten. The story-line department went into melt-down. Writers had their stories changed up to production draft and sometimes beyond. Sometimes the stories changed without the writers being told. And, of course, writers were sacked en masse as chaotic scripts they’d worked on day and night trying to fathom what the hell these episodes were about in the first place were ripped from their hands and given to others to finish. Some week-blocks lost more than half their writers. A few stalwarts started to write most of the series but they could hardly keep up. Story-lines were arriving later and later, scripts later and later. Meanwhile, Kathleen marched around the offices berating everyone for their incompetence. Allegedly – although we don’t believe this to be true, of course – she called one script editor a ‘talentless slug’ who would ‘never amount to anything’. The production team became angry, the editorial team demoralised, the writers started to find other things to do - like episodes of a different series or perhaps a spot of gardening. Slowly it became difficult to find anyone actually prepared to write a script. The Series Editor phoned around past and present writers with increasing desperation. But much as everyone would love to have written for their beloved show, funnily enough, a lot of them were otherwise engaged for the moment.

This is perhaps the one and only time that the writers of this country have gone on something like a strike. Evidently there comes a point when writers, however much they need the money, would rather not write anything than write for a show they no longer believe in.

Far from reshaping the series back to a winning formula, the new regime had only succeeded in plunging it into further depths of failure. People began to wonder how low it could get before it actually fell off the schedules. The audience had abandoned it. The critics forgot about it. The gongs went to other series. Even the soap awards ended up with Corrie and its cousins.

And then, a bit like Richard The Lionheart at the end of Robin Hood, John Yorke came back, this time in charge of Returning Series. He wasn’t pleased with what he found. And it was his turn to talk. In one meeting with the editorial staff he said that he wouldn’t tolerate bullying in any of his shows. Apparently the sun must have caught Kathleen slightly at this moment because her face turned abruptly crimson.

But nothing much changed. And one morning John Yorke, Belinda Campbell and a couple of others all turned up to have a word with Kathleen. By some weird co-incidence, they had all quite separately decided to wear black for the occasion. One producer said it was like the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They marched, silently, to Kathleen’s office, knocked on the door and went in. After a few minutes, Kathleen emerged, striding very quickly with her coat and bag, past the office doors, down the stairs and out.

In spite of many efforts, Eastenders has yet to fully recover. Some say it never will. Though it improved hugely thereafter, it has never quite reached the heights of those dizzy days. How much damage this did to UK Television, writers, actors and everyone else concerned with the show along with their families is perhaps something we’ll never be able to measure.

We’d like to say ‘The End’ at this point, but will have to reserve that phrase for the day we can be sure it will never happen again. That day has yet to come.

(Faustus is grateful for the contributions to this account received from many of those present. If there are any omissions or if any of the information is incorrect, please let us know. We wish to tell only the truth.)