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.