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.


Gail Renard said...

Hi again, Faustus! As someone who was at the now-famous John Yorke/ WGGB/ PMA meeting in October (soon to be a film coming to a cinema near you!) may I make some corrections? When you write:

"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..."

It wasn't like that. John Yorke naturally wanted to know exactly how old some of the complaints were, because he'd tried to make conditions better since he'd taken over. We couldn't honestly carbon-date some of them as the writers hadn't provided us with the info, so the jury's still out on that one. But John Yorke was NEVER dismissive. In fact, that's why he agreed to come to the Guild on Dec 12th to discuss this issue face to face with writers. (Book early to avoid disappointment!) He can't say fairer than that. What I hope will happen is that everyone will hear each other out, digest what's being said and progress from there.

And next meeting, I'm really gonna have to hunt for hidden microphones!

Faustus said...

I thought my toes under the screen would have been a give-away but there we are.

Gail, thanks again for your comments.

Although I’m sure John Yorke would never be dismissive, it nevertheless dismisses all the concerns raised by the WGGB document to say that they represent old complaints which are no longer valid because everything’s better now. Okay, it might ascribe some historical curiosity-value to them but nothing more. And though not intended to belittle, the implication that a bunch of writers, when invited to speak of their contemporary experiences, only managed to bore everyone with ancient anecdotes doesn’t say much for those writers.

Okay, the tone is mine and mine alone, but the construction is logical enough, methinks.

So is it the case that writers have legitimate concerns about the situation as it has existed over the last three years right up to the present day, right up to now?

If the jury is still out, then it needs to reach a decision soon. If all the concerns relate only to the distant past, then Faustus has been wearing his fingers out on the keyboard for nothing. Then all the comments left here by various writers and all the comments sent directly by e-mail are nothing more than tedious old moans no longer relevant to what’s going on. Then the only reason to go to the event would be to congratulate the BBC on making everyone so happy.

If there are still grounds for complaint, however, then it makes little sense to come and hear someone explain ‘how the BBC have been adapting their shows - and the working conditions on them - to make them more writer-friendly shows … and [the] ways in which he is working to put writers back at the heart of the creative process.’ Except to revel in the irony and perhaps challenge him on that.

Of course, one might say that though the complaints do have some validity, if we only give the BBC a bit of time we’ll soon see the wonderful world they have in mind for us. But there has to be some acknowledgement that all is not well if there is to be any confidence in the proposed future. Up to now, there hasn’t been much acknowledgement at all.

So let’s advance a few propositions for the sake of argument.

Let’s say that things are a bit dire at the moment for many writers. Okay? It’s just a proposition and it might be wrong. If it is the case, however, then John Yorke seems to have been blissfully unaware of it. Meanwhile, he is putting in place various schemes to improve the lot of writers but is, essentially, wielding the scalpel without knowing where the injury is. He has executive produced enough medical dramas to know the use of that. In order to understand what the problem is, he first needs to understand that there is a problem. Then and only then will he know what to do about it.

Of course there are myriad caveats, qualifications and sub-arguments that follow from all of this but let’s not get too tortuous. We also regret, having strenuously tried to avoid personalising the debate, that a particular, undoubtedly sincere individual has had his name dragged up through these pages. That’s your fault, Gail! We said earlier that it is about ideas. We meant that. Being about ideas, of course, it means that we can discuss, exchange, learn and reshape the future to our own choosing in partnership with all the creative input that makes TV what it is. (To any BBC execs who might read this, don’t worry, we’re not advocating that the lunatics take over the asylum, just that we might have something useful to contribute if you would only change the medication.)

The first question has got to be: is anything wrong? If not, fine. If so, then a second might be why didn’t those at the top know about it? After all, the two might be connected.

Faustus did not intend to offend the WGGB which is, after all, at the forefront of this discussion. If Faustus got a bit over-exercised by his theme at times it’s because some of the comments left by some of the writers struck deep.

If we have contributed anything to the debate, it is hoped that we brought into the light that which might otherwise have festered unspoken of or, worse, been glitzed into oblivion with a PR exercise.

It is heartening that John Yorke is coming to speak to writers in an open forum and that he is willing to hear what writers have to say. Let me repeat that we have no personal issues here. It is also accepted that John Yorke sincerely wishes to make the writer’s life a happy one. Good starting point. But you know, these are very serious matters we’re talking about. Sometimes we apply a little humour to these pages and sometimes we get abrasive but in the end livelihoods are at stake. You’ve read some of the comments. Careers are at stake. People who have devoted their professional lives to Television have been chucked aside for reasons they cannot fathom. And they want to know why. They want to know what their future holds for them. We shouldn’t lose sight of this under a deluge of power-point platitudes. You’re the WGGB, Gail, you represent writers. Don’t be too nice about it.

(Oh, and don’t worry about John Yorke, if he means what he says, and we trust that he does, then he’ll appreciate the honesty.)

Anonymous said...

This 'putting the writer at the heart of the process' is so much mumbo jumbo. The latest buzz speak eminating from on high. And it is meaningless twaddle unless it is actually applied at the front line.

In too many cases, editors andproducers feel free to re-write writers with no reference back to the writer. I'm talking about people with no credits for writing. And usually with tin ears and bad ideas.

Ask the writers who got a Bafta for Casualty and were then shunted off the show by the new regime how they feel about being at the heart of the creative process?

Ask about how commissioning is used as a weapon to silence those who want to speak up?

Talk is cheap. But too many programmes are production led to the detriment of creativity and will always remain so unless there is a real sea change in attitudes and not platitudes.

You want to put writers at the heart of the process?
Then create a culture where production bend over backwards to accomadate creativity and not theother way round.

KJS said...

John Yorke is the wrong person to attack. He HAS and continues to put writers at the heart of the process on Holby, Casualty and Eastenders; and at the most senior level. A writer at Casualty has recently been made Story Producer and It's John Yorke who insists that the 'Academy' writers cannot simply be rewritten at the whim of a producer. What the industry needs is more like John Yorke.

JOE said...

It is such a relief to see this site and find so many other experienced, once respected (probably still respected but that doesn't mean they'll give you a job) writers, in the same position. IT'S NOT JUST ME! Can I stop being paranoid?

I have been watching loads of British T.V.(I know, am I mad?) to try and figure out what is going on. So many scripts are so stunning in their mediocrity, (if it's possible to be stunningly mediocre) that I am mystified as to why anyone can think there isn't a problem. Just watch a bit of telly!

When you do get a good episode of a long running show, where you know a great writer has somehow managed to fight their way to a good script, the relief you feel is palpable. You want to run out and buy them a pint. And you think weren't the execs watching that, can't they see how enjoyable it is when a writer manages to be creative. There is still hope!

It can all change and hopefully this is the start of us fighting back in whatever way we can.

It has to change. The audience, whatever the money people may hope, are not stupid. People will stop watching and, as they're doing now, turn to innovative, writer lead, American shows. All my friends are. What we don't want to happen is that they decide not to even bother with home grown shows, as they're doing in Childrens T.V. (another battle) and decide it's cheaper to buy in all drama!

It's also great to know that so many Actors are as frustrated as we are and are willing to speak out.

To kjs, I think that it's common knowledge that 'Academy' writers scripts 'can't be written over at the whim of the producer.' They are indeed well protected. But although, being an 'Academy graduate' must seem like a great thing to them now, I'm not sure it will be in the long run.

I started at a time when a writer with an individual, creative voice was respected and working! That time will come round again. I just hope I'm not too much of an old writer by then to enjoy it.

Let's get a move on.

Faustus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Travis said...

KJS, I think that the points you make to defend JY are further proof of the problem. You don't mention that the writer who's now story producer is an academy writer, as I've been told. If I'm wrong, please correct me, but I don't think I am. If he wasn't academy he wouldn't have got near that job.

Also. if its true that JY won't allow academy writers to be rewritten at the whims of producers, then great, good for John. But if this is such a great idea (which it is!) then why isn't the privilege and basic respect extended to all the writers?

On balance, I do think John is sincere in his desire to improve the writers lot, but something is going badly wrong. It's clear we now have a caste system for writers in that department.

At the top, the star writers - Tony Jordan (though he seems to have moved on) Tony McHale, Barbara Machin, etc. Fair enough, they're there on merit.

Next, the academy writers.

Next, as John completes the process of changing the teams on his shows, these new execs/producers/script editors bring in their own writers, people they've worked with, script editors who fancy a pop at writing, mates, etc.

Last, the untouchables - the writers who've been serving the series well for years. It simply defies belief to imagine that all these writers have become bad writers overnight. But there are no kudos for script editors/producers to argue for these writers. No one defends them in discussions with JY and the execs, and so a huge amount of talent, experience and know-how is allowed to drift away from BBC series.

Oh, and not even in the pecking order, new writers who haven't been blessed with a place in the academy. Where are they to go?

You may be right, maybe we do need more John Yorkes with his commitment to writing and writers. What we have is a lot of people saying what they think John wants to hear.

Faustus said...

Hi Joe, welcome. Glad you found us. Hi Anonymous above. Thanks for your truthfulness. Hi too to KFC, who makes a valuable contribution to the debate and reminds us that perhaps it’s more complicated than we first thought. (And hello Travis, thanks a bunch for stealing my thunder. But well said.)

A Commentator on one of the other postings said, very poignantly, that two years ago he/she got nine million viewers, now he/she can’t get arrested. Meanwhile writers are being promoted to the position of Story Producer as proof that writers are being put at the heart of the creative process. Writers complain about numbing editorial notes and imposed dialogue changes. But hey, Academy Writers can’t have a comma tweaked because they are protected from on high.

So what’s going on? What is this glorious, empowering, creatively inspiring, heart-felt, heart-stopping, hearts-aglow, hearty let’s hear the word heart again ‘cause it sounds good vision for the future?

Before we attempt to grapple with the paradox (of some writers apparently being treated like royalty while others are dealt with in the shabbiest imaginable manner) let’s just admit to having fallen into a bear trap meself. In fact that’s why Faustus posted and then removed this very comment-on-a-comment. The trap is to think that there are two kinds of writer. Mr Campbell was right when he observed that we are all in this together (see a previous comment). There are surely only writers. Some are just starting out, some have had a few things made, some are in the full swell of their careers and some are just picking a few projects here and there in between working on their allotments. Some are shuffling nobly off into that great BBC Clubhouse in the sky. And some have long gone leaving only a wealth of work behind for us to enjoy. It has always been the case that older writers welcome the new generation. That’s why they are happy to give advice, to teach sometimes, to mentor, nurture and watch with fond approval as these young ones become, in time, the older generation passing it all on in their turn. It is a recent invention to separate the young from the old and build a wall between them. Now we speak of ‘older writers’ and ‘Academy Writers’ as separate species. Now the two seem not only distinct but in some way pitted against each other. We should not allow others to impose these artificial breaches into a natural, centuries’ old process. Why not? Because the new learn from the old as the old learn from the even older. What better way of learning the knowledge and techniques of drama than to watch the works of those who have gone before? A cocky generation (and we were all cocky in our day) will say they can do better. The older generation will simply encourage them to do exactly that. What teachers do is help new writers interpret and understand the methods of the old. Keeping the old around, keeping them working, allowing them to reap the years of effort and study is kinda vital when you think about it in this way.

What we’re speaking about is a current of knowledge and practice that goes back not just to the first flicker of light in a bakelite box by the fish-tank but beyond measurable history. Attempting to wipe out the past and start again is going to create a vacuum into which the past will disappear. And that will be our loss. It’s not that new writers are incapable, but that a formula can never replace the tangible, observable wealth of our predecessors from which we draw inspiration, craft and a deeper kind of intuitive understanding that can never be replicated in a ten-point plan. Or can it? Perhaps the jury really is out on that one. Perhaps we should allow the theory to be applied and wait for our Pyrrhic victory some time hence.

What seems to be happening, then, is a deliberate plan to fill the writing slots with only the new generation, but a very specific type of new generation, those who are known as ‘Academy Writers’. At the same it is Academy Writers who are promoted to the lofty heights of Series Story Producer (as KFC points out) and other senior editorial positions. Meanwhile, as the core writer positions also go to Academy Writers, the older writers are simply swept away. The thinking would seem to be that although it may hurt in the short term and create a bit of a fuss (e.g. this), once their voices are silenced, all will be at peace again. After a year or two, all Series TV drama will be a product of the Academy and (notwithstanding the creative energy that will begin to rebel among those writers after a time) every second of every programme will be, yes, The Grid unfolding over and over, with all the beats in their proper place, the openings and closings just as you’d expect, the dialogue nicely formulated in that ‘who the hell actually talks like that’ way that is becoming the drone of mainstream British Television.

It could not be otherwise. Because to destroy the older writers is to stop in its tracks the very substance of writing from which the new gain their inspiration.

Your Paranoia, Joe, is instructive. If you went through what many writers are going through it is very likely the product of being led to believe that there is something wrong with you and your writing, that you couldn’t hack it anymore, that whatever it is you once had you either lost or it’s not what audiences want now. It’s a great trick because the writer retreats rapidly, noiselessly into the night. Another one is ticked off the list. Another nuisance, old-school, unprocessed talent is despatched to obscurity. The ripples fade. The pool is quiet once more. What you now know is that it is merely a trick, that it has happened to many others, that there is nothing wrong with their writing or your writing, that everything you’ve done up to this point has only made you better, more creative, more inspired, more imaginative and far too valuable a talent for us to lose.

(Faustus mourns the absence of so many admired voices from series TV, each with their distinctive vision, each with something new and surprising to share, time and time again.)

You offer us a glimmer of optimism, however, which is interesting and encouraging. You suggest that the audience is already getting bored. Even within the corridors of Series TV, the talk is of American shows, for their versatility, ingenuity and creative energy. If your thesis is right, then the BBC’s weakening position will only get weaker. At some point, it will have to ask why. None of us want it to suffer, of course, but we’d all like it to come to its senses.

Casualty Fan said...

Re: Anonymous (8/12)
The Casualty Bafta was for Barbara Machin's two-part Christmas episodes, not for the series as a whole.

Faustus said...

Oops. Faustus stands corrected and 'Casualty Fan' is right. The BAFTA for Best Episode in a series went to the Christmas special episodes and not the series as a whole. Although, hang on a sec’, wasn’t it called BAFTA for 'Best Continuing Drama'? Well, I expect calling it 'BAFTA for Best Episode in a Continuing Drama' is a bit cumbersome. Although it does make us wonder if a series would get an award if it was entirely crap except for the one episode. Maybe it should have been 'Best Episode in a Possibly Otherwise Crap Continuing Drama'. Well, anyway, I think what confused Faustus was the BBC saying ‘Casualty won its first BAFTA in twenty years’ as a justification for its present methods. This provoked Faustus to point out that the BAFTA was awarded to a team which predated the present methods. So if the present team wants to ascribe the BAFTA to the credit of the whole series, they need to ascribe that credit to the team who made the show in the season in which the episode took place. Or not. But you can’t have it both ways.