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.]