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.


Paul Campbell said...

Hi Faustus

Interesting article.

I write from inside The Grid. I've been lobotimised, brainwashed and sterilised in person by the man himself. So you shouldn't believe a word I say.

I can see why the Grid seems threatening. But I don't think it is. The writers who come out of it are judged, I hope, on the quality of their writing, not on their conformity to the rules. The message from The Gridmaster, it seems to me, is...

- The Grid offers a useful way of looking at, and analysing, stories.

- It isn't always right.

- Good writers don't need, and often don't use, the Grid.

- Most writers (even good ones) could benefit from using the Grid sometimes, particularly when the script isn't working so well.

- Continuing Drama series having to produce 50-100 hours of drama a year find the Grid a useful template/checklist/starting point in order to ensure a basic level of quality control

- But Continuing Drama series should not feel hide-bound by it

- and neither should writers get on their high horse if asked to think about how their work looks when seen through the Grid, and they shouldn't get defensive when asked to explain why it's better their way.

Oh, let's drop the coyness! I'm one of eight writers in the 2007 BBC Writers' Academy. John Yorke has personally tutored us through several months of lectures, tutorials and exercises. I'm not some young whippersnapper - I'm 41. But I am a new writer who found it difficult to break into television - two episodes of Doctors does not a career make.

I can't see the harm in the BBC doing a bit of training.

The only other way in for a new writer used to be that you begged and pleaded and sent in spec script after spec script until eventually you were permitted to write a trial script. You weren't told how to do it. You weren't trained in the challenges of writing for Continuing Drama. You were simply given a story outline for an old episode of EastEnders and told to get on with it.

Maybe it's just me, but I think the new approach has some merit.

Faustus, I know that you suffer from mulitple personality disorder, but maybe you should remind yourself of what you said in an earlier post on the subject of EastEnders...

"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."

This is the same John Yorke. He hasn't changed.

I'm trying not to be some desperate sycophant here (believe it or not, John Yorke does have his faults), but the message I keep getting week on week out is that the "rules" he dishes out to us - notably a five act structure and the paradigm of change - aren't anything stunning, or anything new. And they're certainly not an absolute requirement. But, generally speaking, in the hands of a good writer they produce good drama.

That seems to me to be a reasonable starting point.

Faustus said...

Many thanks for your remarks, Paul. Oddly, I don't disagree with any of them. The John Yorke written of favourably in the post about Eastenders is the John Yorke of today, passionate about TV, amiable, approachable and in fact very knowledgeable. The Swimming Teacher is a parody of many script gurus (it wasn't meant as a particular poke at John) and I hope that in our analysis we didn't dismiss the notion of some merit in the teaching of how to write. The good teachers are very valuable since most writers are too busy writing to teach full time. Also, it's remarkable and impressive that John gives so much time to the Academy and that it has produced so many good writers. Faustus supports and values the whole concept of the Academy, the work that it does, the chance that it gives to real talent and indeed the writers who come out of it. Above all, we salute John for his efforts.

However, the case remains that many exisiting writers are not happy. This isn't because they are defensive when their work is criticised, nor that they refuse on a point of principle to refer to the grid (if the grid is fundamentally valid they would have been using it anyway), nor are they all trotting about on high horses feeling threatened.

You stress that the grid is useful as a reference and indicate that it is not to be taken as gospel. In practice, however, this is often not the case.

A good writer will constantly learn from their work. That's what makes collaboration, the exchange of ideas and the exploration of method in positive company so valuable and so rewarding. But they learn nothing when they are not listened to, when it is not an exchange but a dictat. John isn't a dictator but by the time his own commendably rigorous yet affable message is passed down a few layers it can become something else entirely.

It's great to have a balancing view and in fact we are soon to offer a little balance of our own. This is not a retraction of anything stated, if anything, we are just trying to clear the fog to see what's going on.

As an Academy Writer you are enjoying a little bit of shelter not afforded to many experienced writers who are not considered to be friends of John and therefore useful to various personal career paths. Ouch, that's an acid comment and I'm almost tempted to delete it. Maybe I will later! I think John would be horrified if he could see some of the things that are going on in his name.

Faustus said...

Just in case a comment in my last comment or indeed the post itself might be misconstrued, Faustus in no way suggests that Academy Writers are not judged by the quality of their work. They were chosen after a rigorous selection process, they already had to be writing, would even have had something published or produced (so far as we understand) and were then put through quite a process to hone their craft. They are writers, they have something to say and a way of saying it. They are serious, committed and, to use that word again, passionate about writing.

It's an important point that we draw no distinction between Academy Writers and those who might have arrived at writing for TV through another route. Neither is there any perceived rift between new writers and old writers. New writers have a fresh energy that is great to work with from an editor's point of view. Older writers might have more experience and knowledge to share with an editor, but as we said, even older writers continue to learn, even from working with editors, and thus remain continually fresh.

In practice though, there is a growing sense of division. It is predicated on the idea that writing is just a process that follows a series of rules that anyone can learn. This is an insult as much to Academy Writers as it is to writing itself. All of which might sound a bit pompous and 'old crustie' but it's just that the rules of structure are only a part of what writing is. They have to be learned, they have to be understood and applied. But if they are taken to be the whole thing, it isn't writing anymore, it's mere format.

When I said that Academy Writers are sheltered, I suppose I meant that in some perceptions, Academy Writers are the future and non-Academy writers are the past. It's a daft notion but there we are. For non-academy writers it means you're out because you're not part of the machine. For all writers it means that after ten years, you're no longer wanted because you've been there too long. That's hardly a career. And as we've said before, it fails to understand how writing works.

I'm sure that Academy Writers don't think of themselves as part of a machine (beautifully satirised by the evidently non-lobotomised, brainwashed or sterilised Paul). But watch out for that idea, it's creeping up on us.

John Yorke said that 'it is increasingly hard to source, attract, keep and nurture new talent'. This is problematic because of the increase in drama output. It suggests that we're in danger of running out of writers. We're not. Because it isn't just 'new writers' who can write. The problem is keeping them. Simply recruiting more troops to throw at the front-line isn't going to help. There is a wealth of talent simply drifting away because what they are asked to do doesn't feel like writing anymore.

That needs to be looked at if there's going to be any sort of future for British drama.

P.S. 'All but the most pliable and sycophantic' was a bit strong. Apologies. But it was meant as a warning.

Anonymous said...

I'm another Academy writer - the class of 2006 where the 8 writers ranged in age from 23-50, only two had television credits, the rest of us came from theatre and radio backgrounds.

I wrote terrible trial scripts for television shows prior to the Academy - they were terrible because I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know how to structure a 30 or 60 minute piece of television. I'm fine with a radio or a theatre play but not television.

The shows I wrote trials for were high profile shows that made very encouraging and supportive noises and asked me to try again next year. But these shows didn't have the time to go through the various mistakes I made and I couldn't learn from them therefore I wouldn't do it any better therefore I would never get on.
It's not a criticism it's just fact, everyone is under such enormous pressure that there's no time to teach - it's the nature of television.

The Acadmey taught me where I was going wrong, it taught me how to structure 30 and 60 minute shows and it taught me not only to write television but also to strive for better television.

Some television writers I know are self-taught and some self-taught writers can be the most insecure writers because they are surrounded by editors and producers using the latest phrases that have become common currency for them. These same editors and producers may not be the best at their jobs but they do speak the same language and that can be intimidating.

Other writers I know have done an M.A. in screenwriting, done Robert McKee, done a TAPS course and they've done it all in an effort to learn their craft and to be better writers.

I believe the Academy is another branch of learning, another way of information to be passed on and another way for writers to not only break into television but also to be better television writers than they'd been if they'd got a job.

All of the writers from the Academy of 2006 have had difficulties - i think all of us have cried, all of us have had fights with editors and producers but we are all trying to do what John Yorke is trying to do - to make television better.

John Yorke is using a language for stuff that good writers already do - instictively - but this new language is now being used by BBC editors and producers and I'd urge all writers to take it on - don't be baffled and don't be left behind.

Great writers continue learning. Good writers get on with it. Bad writers get found out. Terrible writers get found out and then grumble about a sinister new regime.

let's try to be be positive and let's try to make television better.

Anonymous said...

"Terrible writers get found out and then grumble about a sinister new regime"?

Like you, previous "Anonymous", I grasped the opportunity to train on a BBC scheme, precursor to the Academy. I was keen to learn, had a positive attitude, and went on to work with apparent success, becoming a regular writer on more than one BBC show.

I don't think I'm a "terrible writer", any more than the many colleagues who have suffered the same fate in the last couple of years. The Academy is a great resource for new writers, and no-one is arguing with the basic dramatic principles which underpin it. The problem is how they are often applied in daily practice on long-running shows (whatever the good intentions from above) - not to solve problems, but as a prescriptive, non-negotiable yardstick by which your script is measured.

Yes, this may achieve a uniform technical polish across the show. It may also, however, breed banal, predictable storytelling, in which all the journeys feel the same; and time may be wasted, trying to force your stories into the pattern, rather than developing them fully as their natural rhythm might dictate.

Paul hopes that Academy writers are judged "on the quality of their writing, not on their conformity to the rules". Indeed. If only it were so for all of us!

We are not griping about new writers being given opportunties to learn their craft and get their first breaks. What alarms us is that this route now seems ascendant as the only route - not only for new writers, but for established writers who want to continue working (have they all suddenly become incompetent over night?). Also, that there seems to be no corresponding value placed on experience.

A few years down the line from my own first break (for which I am duly grateful), do I feel "nurtured"? No. I feel frustrated, depressed, worn down by the increasing industrialisation of the process, which seems not to allow for any flexibility, spontaneity, or instinct - the qualities which surely make us writers, and yes, good producers and editors too.

I'm not a "crustie", I'm relatively new myself, but all that I've learned through actually working on top-rating shows seems to count for nothing unless it fits into the Grid.

That's why Faustus speaks for all of us, when he warns that non-Academy writers are likely to become a dying breed.

Anonymous said...

Am I in the twilight zone? What is The Grid? I have written for most of the major series and am doing so at the moment and have yet to hear anything about a Grid. I write some scripts, I get some notes, I write some more drafts and then hopefully get a few less notes and then I'm done.

Faustus said...

If you don't know about it, don't worry about it.

It isn't universally applied. And never when you're working with people who know what they're talking about. Or when you're trusted.

Faustus took a pop at 'The Grid' in a slightly sardonic way, using it to parody a highly formulaic way of doing things. He didn't quite expect to have touched such a nerve.