Notes from TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 1


Notes from BBC’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival held in Leeds 30.06-01.07.2010.

Writers – a force for change?

With Jed Mercurio, Mark Catley, Nicola Shindler and Tony Marchant

Tony Marchant: Have writers lost the initiative? Do we just write for producers, commissioners and actors, what they want us to write?

Nicola Shindler: The saying „you’re only as good as your last project“ doesn’t apply. You’re only as good as your next project. Your history as a writer is not important, you’re not as good as your last thing but you’re as good as the project you’re working on now, the project you’re sending to the producers and commissioners. It also means that having a successful project in the past won’t guarantee you a commission. Great stories are more likely to reach the screens even if it doesn’t follow the latest brief from the commissioner.

Jed Mercurio: It’s harder to sell something to a producer if they haven’t asked for it. When the commissioner is looking for something specific, by the time the script has been developed and ready, they already want something different or there’s a new person on the top who wants other things. Therefore you need to write material that you’d like to see on screen, material that interests you and will therefore have better quality. You should write what you like (just bearing in mind the type of channel you want to offer it to).

Mark Catley: There’s snobbishness towards writing a TV series, somehow it’s considered ‘lower’ than, say, writing for theatre. Writers are not as ambitious, which has changed thanks to certain TV series but writers are still picky. Writing for TV doesn’t mean it’ll be harder for the writer to transfer onto something else – a higher quality series or another medium.

NS: There’s a political drama on Lockerbie which had been commissioned by BBC (Scotland) that they’ve not managed to sell. No one [from TV channels] has sent any notes, the producers were told it’s good but it’s just ‘doesn’t work for us now’. But that’s an individual reaction – these will change because people come and go. The next decision maker might think differently.

The producer tries to create a personal relationship with the author, so that they will know what the writer can and wants to write. This type of producer will be more useful for the writer but it doesn’t mean that you get through the door. It’s useful to be championed by someone with a good track record.

Question: are there any taboos?

NS: haven’t had the intention of shocking or breaking taboos (Queer as Folk), but just tell a human story about relationships.

JM: Sometimes there’s just one person whose opinion counts. Someone’s mum didn’t like seeing a doctor zipping up as he left the toilet (implied that he hadn’t washed his hands), or a producer decides that they’re not going to show a wound.
Often, the projects that are written according to commissioners’ briefs are the weaker ones. The ones the writer wants to write are usually the better ones. Either the concept is developed too fast and it’s too weak or for too long and you miss your chance because there’s already a new brief out.

Q: Have they ever submitted projects that have changed the rules?

JM: thought that authors would run more shows but it hasn’t happened yet. Showrunners are not the norm.

NS: Cardiac Arrest had doctors who were very flawed, which was a new thing. It was inspiring.

TM: Imitating another successful project is not good, the project will be weak.

MC:  Even when writing for long-running series, writers can retain their voice and write about what they care about. It is possible to merge your view of the world into the series.

TM: you’re as good as your next project. You shouldn’t think that I’m sh*t and I’m a bad writer and you’ll be found out. It won’t change. Success won’t guarantee anything. You can still keep getting rejections after a successful project [from another session: Peter Flannery of Our Friends in the North kept getting rejected and didn’t get anything made for 12 years].


Part 2:  Poacher Turned Gamekeeper. Showrunners

Part 3: Writer for Hire, Commissioners, In Conversation

Part 4: John Yorke Masterclass – What do great series have in common?

Part 5: Adam Curtis – The Power of Storytelling


More notes from the event

David Bishop (@davidbishop)

Mina Zaher (@DreamsGrafter)

Audrey Gillan (via @Bang2write)

Jason Arnopp’s Tweetcast (@JasonArnopp)

Simon Stratton via Jez Freedman (@StanDoubt)

Robin Kelly’s compilation of reports (@robinkelly1)



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