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.]


Anonymous said...

Do you have access to a copy of The Grid so that I can make up my own mind about it? I have written for the BBC, but never once has the notion of a Grid come up -- but then I've not done anything for them for a couple of years. If you could point to where it may be found, or print it yourself, I'm sure many readers of this blog would find it worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Well said, Faustus. Pros and cons of the grid aside, the saddest thing is that, in all this talk of how much writers are loved and at the heart of the process, in practice at editing meetings, the writer is the only person whose opinion doesn't count. (1) Because he or she is rarely present; 2) because his or her views, if heard at all, will almost invariably be overruled.

Paul Campbell said...


Not sure I’m too keen on the patronising tone of “with all sincerity, bless him”. It’s beneath you, Faustus. I thought we were all in this together.

And you’re a bit fast and loose with the reportage, old chap. I didn’t “repeat the allegation that [older writers] get all defensive when asked to explain why their way is better.” What I said was that “[writers] shouldn't get defensive when asked to explain why it's better their way.” Seems fair comment to me.

Sorry. I wouldn’t have got all defensive if you hadn’t blessed me.

Devil's Advocate said...

Taking a shot at the Writer's Academy is a bit like kicking a puppy, but it has drastically reduced the number of episodes on shows like Casualty, Holby and Eastenders which were traditionally available to non core writers. In the process, a whole swathe of working writers have been shut out. It's also the case that script editors have (privately) complained about having to commission from the Academy writers who take a lot more hand holding.

Now I know that last comment is going to tick off some people, it would me if I were one of the Academy writers. However, the tranche of writers who came before (you know the jaded, bitter ones) were all untried writers at one point. They survived in the early stages by learning quickly. Sure some slack might have been cut on their first script or two but that was it. You stepped up several gears or you got the bullet. End of. It made for a very fast learning curve.

That rather Darwinian system, brutal though it was, produced the A-list writers of today like Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern and Russell T Davies, as well as a whole host of really solid dramatists who aren't household names. Will the Academy do the same?

Vic said...

Good to have a forum for the generation of TV writers who currently feel devalued and disenfranchised by the BBC. There seem to be two main issues. Does the BBC owe us a living? And does the BBC owe us humane and reasonable working conditions?

I’d like to ruminate mainly on the first one. Does TV owe us a living? We’ve perhaps taken the risk of giving up salaried paths to live the freelance life, but then a lot of the people we are working for/with are on 6 month or 1 year contracts, such is the nature of the “industry”. But we’ve found a way to break in, forge a career, make a living, and now the works dried up. We always knew the deal, you’re only as good as your last script. Okay so the goalposts seem to have moved, when what was good once is suddenly no longer judged to be good. You think, is it them or is it me? You doubt yourself. You start to think you’ve “lost it”.

Because we’re not dustbinmen. We’re cre-ay-tive. Not anyone can do our job. It is special, it is highly skilled. It is, for some of us, a calling, a compulsion. And we have to work with other creative people – producers, script editors – and we have to connect with them creatively, they have to want to work with us, feel we are on their wavelength, etc. It is a complex and delicate process. You live on your nerves. So much can go wrong.

Then you find it’s not just you, it’s happening to a lot of people. It makes you feel a little bit better. Even the likes of Marks and Gran and Frederick Raphael have had to turn to radio this year to get new work produced. (This is in no way to suggest that radio is a lesser medium, it isn’t, but sadly it doesn’t pay enough to keep a stressed out TV writer in booze and fags, never mind pay the mortgage! ) But it is interesting that even a considerable track record or reputation doesn’t guarantee work at the Beeb. What hope for us lesser mortals?

Now, it’s not that we’re not all just sitting on our arses complaining on blogs. (The proverbial “whinge of writers”…) We’re calling contacts, begging series editors, submitting series ideas, writing novels, but it’s a competitive business and outlets are limited. And the BBC is the largest, most centralized one, holding a lot of the cards. But are we owed any respect? Are we owed a living?

Part of me thinks, well, I’ve had a good run, I’ve had what to me was the greatest job in the world, and if my face doesn’t fit anymore, for whatever reason, then it’s time to move on, write speculatively again, find other directions. Although it does feel like starting again. But living with the current paranoia is too soul-destroying. Though it’s hard to walk away from a medium that has been your life for so long, that you love so much.

But we are here to be constructive. Here’s a silly suggestion. Most of us would be glad of one credit a year to keep the wolf from the door and stop us from going insane. The BBC produces 208 eps of Eastenders and 100 odd of Holby and Casualty. One perception is that the pie isn’t being shared out as much as it used to be. That core writers have more work than they need, priority is being given to the Academy, leaving far less people able to make a living out of TV writing.

It seems to me that if Continuing Drama can earmark a number of episodes across all its franchises for Academy Writers, why not a proposal to the Writers Guild to negotiate for a number to be earmarked for experienced writers who are being shut out. I don’t know how it would work, a sort of “Available for work” pool, (a dole queue?) maybe some priority for number of hours produced.. It would be too humiliating for some, but a resource for those who are desperate enough….

I dunno. Maybe I’ll just go and be a dustbinman.

Faustus said...

To The Above Contributor who would like to know more about The Grid.

The Grid is different things to different people. It can be different things at different times. Sometimes it has a blue-grey tinge to it and sometimes you can pick out a subtle hue of burnt umber. It is said to give off the aroma of toasted almonds, though some say it is more sulphurous. It was once described as having the scent of putrefied strawberries though Faustus can’t confirm this having never sniffed any. It is often accompanied by a dull murmuring although sometimes it is barked violently by people with a steely glare in their eyes. It takes at least four days to be programmed into the grid though some people do it over several months. By the time you’re fully programmed you are the grid. Everything you think and do is by and for the grid. It is the stuff of gridonomics and gridology. Of course there are gradations of mastery. Gridophyte means ‘one who has just begun to understand the grid’. A Gridolyte is ‘one who has subjected themselves to the grid although it hasn’t fully begun to work through them’. A Gridmaster has mastered The Grid, obviously enough, but still retains a vestige of creativity. A full master is simply The Grid. So if you’re introduced to someone and are told that he or she is ‘The Grid’, well, then you know you’re in its presence.

I hope this helps.

Okay, levity aside. There nothing much funny in experience dismissed, knowledge disregarded, talent wasted and careers destroyed with all the consequence that has on families. And for what? Better Television? Faustus dissolves into hysterical and slightly worrying laughter.

So what is The Grid? Basically, it’s just the five act structure and all that stuff you get from various books and courses, McKee is an obvious source. There are other teachers teaching much the same. You can sprinkle in a bit of ‘hero’s journey’ to make it look classy if you like. It’s the sort of thing that says you start with the main character, within three minutes there’s an inciting incident, then within ten minutes you get your first reversal etc. Along with that are numerous bullet-lists like the ten questions to ask of your main character, the story or both, something like that.

It’s quite handy if your script’s going belly-up to take a look at that sort of thing. And it helps to focus your ideas, to sort things out into beats. I believe you can get computer programmes now that do it for you which is even handier.

As a teaching and learning tool, it works fine because it sets out all those various steps and let's face it, there has to be some system to the process of teaching. It gives new writers something to gauge their efforts by and, yes, older writers too can always make use of formalised structure and convention. These narrative steps, the internal dynamics of a drama are tried and trusted. Drama does follow certain modes, certain rules and these need to be understood.

But in the wrong hands it means that things like ‘The Turning Point’ become exactly that. A character journey involves change, okay. So to begin with your character, say, beats their kid up. Then they have a turning point. After that they don’t beat their kid up anymore. Saul falls off his horse, basically. A good example is Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. He thought he was Buzz, then he saw thousands of boxed buzzes in a TV ad’ and realised he was just a toy. Toy Story did it well because they had more than one movement going on in the scene and the character had further to go in an interesting way. In TV drama it’s usually the moment when someone overhears exactly the thing they need to hear or someone says something to them apropos of someone else that just hits the spot, or their kid runs off and they suddenly realise they didn’t love them enough. That kind of thing. They stand over the kid’s bed holding a soft toy to their heaving breast with a sort of far-away look in their eyes and suddenly it all becomes horribly clear that they’ve behaved like a rotter. They turn and run out of the door in search of their child whom they now realise they love totally. Cut to the canal, three and half minutes of hyperventilation and your hero running around shouting, ‘William, William’ before they meet and fall sobbing into each others’ arms, resolved. You’ve seen it a million times. It’s The Grid in all its glory. The point is that there are many valid ways to develop character transformation that don’t involve a single, obvious, identifiable moment that happens from one stage-direction/line of dialogue to the next. Also, there might be many different turns for a character in a story, working through them in different ways, apart from the biggie. The Grid is when your editor/producer/Gridmaster says they can see that the character has changed and it’s all very nice but where exactly is the ‘turning point’? You have to look through the script and say something like ‘scene twenty three, a third of the way down the page, second sentence of the speech,’ before they’re satisfied.

We all use a form of some kind and the one taught by the BBC, though not the best is better than many. You could say it is to drama what nursery rhymes are to musical composition. It’s good to check you’ve got a tune from time to time, that it has a melody, counter-melody, development, variation and finale. It’s only a problem when hour after hour of peak-time, mainstream output starts to sound like Baa Baa Blacksheep.

To the second anonymous comment, above: thank you. Many of our contributors, either via posts or e-mail have observed an apparent divergence between those lofty claims by the BBC to put writers ‘at the heart’ of their shows and the practical reality of the daily grind. Of all the allegations made by the WGGB to the BBC, the one that seemed to hurt most was that the BBC doesn’t care about its writers. Which isn’t to say that they accept it. In fact they retorted by pointing out how much work they’re putting into finding and training new writers. This, they say, refutes the claim. I’d say this rather misses the point.

As for the ‘repositioning of writers’ with lead writers and core teams … some of our contributors have questioned whether this isn’t just a classic instrument of control. ‘We can make you and we can break you’. That writers’ voices are thus, as the BBC claims ‘heard and defended at the top’ equates with nothing we’ve heard from anyone.

Faustus said...

Note to Paul Campbell:

Bless you.

Anonymous said...

My personal favourite is the "Crucible of Truth" in Act 3. Just thought I'd share that with you.

Anonymous said...

Vic: I'm with you, mate. But just had to ask - are you Old Vic, Young Vic, or Queen Vic...?

Anonymous said...

Five act structure applied to a 50 minute serial drama or soap. Good luck with that.

Question: Are the Writers Academy folks paid for scripts they write which air? If they write an actual ep of say Casualty, do they get the same as everyone else? I heard from someone today that they get their stipend and that's it, but surely that can't be the case. It would be incredibly unfair on them if it was.

Anyone know?

English Dave said...

Lovely stuff!!!!!

True story to emphasise how much attention is paid to writers.

A script editor wanted a line in a scene. The line sucked. I mean sucked at Olympic standard.

I politely informed her that no way on God's green Earth was I writing that line. She told me the producer wanted it. I argued the case as to why it sucked and why I wasn't really willing to write it. [A cardinal sin on breaking the
4th wall btw]

I didn't write it.

Watched the ep a couple of weeks ago. The line was in. And it was like bleeding fingernails rasping down a file.

Paul Campbell said...

Just a quick reappearance to reassure Anonymous that Academy writers are paid for their eps. Guild minimum, naturally.

Faustus said...


Anonymous said...

Just to give a different perspective - I've worked as an actor on one of the shows that's being discussed here. I had to struggle to find a way to say the lines I was given - and I mean struggle to say them. They were so vacuous, so lacking in any internal life, so void of any subtext - but most of all, just didn't sound like something a human would say. I tried hard to discuss the script with the director, but sensed his resistance immediately. I later had it confirmed that the problem was that with the advent of script academy writers, it is much harder to make changes to the script on the set (i.e. it is discouraged) and that it is even harder to criticise the work. The implication being that because the script is essentially 'backed' by John Yorke', people are too scared to point out its deficiencies.

One day I'll write out the interchanges I had. They would make you shudder... I could sit and literally take every single line in a scene and explain why it didn't make sense...

Final thought. Since I'm in a world of writers here. And if you're reading this blog - no doubt, decent writers at that.

Your work is appreciated. And believe me, a good actor knows when he questions a terrible line and the director gets all sweaty and can't look you in the eye - it's because the producer wrote it... We know...

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous actor, your comment about knowing where a line came from is much appreciated. But does your agent or ours get commission on that 2 cents?

English Dave - if that's the worst experience you've had on a series then you've had a charmed career!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous actor, your comments about producers are appreciated. It makes your skin crawl to think that anyone might assume that some of the lines that get stuck in are written by us.

English Dave - if that's your worst experience (and I'm sure it isn't!) then you've led a charmed career.

I like to think you're both talking about the same line!

Faustus said...

To the Actor, what can I say? I have often wondered if you blamed us writers for some of the stuff you get given to do. Do you know the fights, the struggle, the tears that go on behind the scene as we try to explain to some grotesque toad of a producer, puffed up with his own self-importance, what sub-text is?

And what of the Academy Writers? When they are shown a cage of bland uniformity and told that this is how you do it? What of their undoubted talent, passion and commitment? Ah, those words sliding inexorably into the dustbin of Televisual history.

You are not the first actor to communicate with Faustus but the first to post rather than e-mail. There is a natural complicity between actors and writers, a unique harmony of intent that should make working together enriching and enjoyable. Little surprise that we are discouraged from meeting.

And what of Directors as they get their shooting script written by someone they'll never see and turn its pages to read scene after scene of functional dialogue, lame humour and microwaved narrative? They just look for the action scene, hope they get a crane and wonder why they ever bothered going to film school.

Vic said there were two issues. One is whether TV owes us a living and the second is whether we deserve a decent working environment. I am in perfect agreement with all his points which are well made and truthfully told. If he will allow me, I think there is a third issue. Quality. Good scripts are good for actors. Good actors are good for directors. Good directors make good TV. If you pull that first card out of the castle it all falls down sooner or later.

It's not just writers that suffer. In the end it's the audience too. And that's the real shame of it.

You touched a nerve there. Many thanks. Faustus needs to go and sit in a dark room for a while with a damp cloth on his forehead.

Devil's Advocate said...

To the actor who commented, we feel your pain. As a writer I've always been happy to discuss the script with an actor. I both like and respect the work actors do because I know I couldn't do it. If only producers extended the same courtesy to writers.

ED's story probably rings true for a number of writers. I've sat down and watched my work and thought about a certain line, "Jesus, did I write that crap?". Checking back through my drafts you find out it's been wannabe writer script editing getting their mucky prints all over it. Again it's something that seems to creep in more and more.

Incidentally I've written crap lines too, but if there's gonna be crap I'd rather it was mine.

In terms of subtext that's where it gets really interesting. A note I've had a lot is that my work lacks emotional depth. I worked out a while back that means a half page snot filled monologue. I'd rather underwrite a bit and give the actors something to do, then go for the big emotional moments when the story warrants them.

Thanks to Paul for his clarification on script fees. I'm glad to hear it!