Notes from TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 2


Transcribed on day 1 of BBC’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival on 30th June 2010.

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper
Showrunners, the balancing act.

With Toby Whithouse, Tony Jordan, Alice Nutter and Stephen Butchard

Why is it important to be a showrunner?

They used to call them executive producers or creative producers but that title caused a lot of confusion because people didn’t understand it. It didn’t make it clear whether they’re writers or producers.

Tony Jordan: You’ve got one vision – it should remain with the creator, not hand it over to an ‘accountant’. Also, you’ve got no one else to blame if the script is not good.

Toby Whithouse: It’s important to know when to delegate. You leave the directing to a director who is a professional but the writer can have a say and make decisions about costume and other details. It’ll help keep the whole thing following the concept, one vision. That’s encouraging for writers.

When you see mistakes, you immediately want to have more control and make decisions. You can learn a lot from other professionals like the director of photography or costume designer.

TJ: It’s important to surround yourself with the right people and things will run smoothly. As a writer [for a producer] you send off the script and get a DVD at the end. You’re not involved. If you’re not there during the shoot, you have no control. The actor can put the stress on the wrong word and change the meaning, and the writer is not there to correct it. The point is to have more control over the project.

Alice Nutter: has worked for a showrunner. You want to have your voice in the script as much as possible, so that when someone rewrites it, your voice will still be in there. There have been disagreements, her material was changed and she had no say in it (The Street). She wanted a different ending but the showrunner wrote what they wanted to see. You have to fight for your material, you don’t have to accept changes too easily.

TJ: The showrunner has a different relationship with hired screenwriters – they’re not working for an illiterate producer but for someone who knows about writing and knows how to write. TJ has never felt the need to rewrite other writer’s material unless the writer has been sacked for being lazy. They’ve been hired to do the writing, you can’t do someone’s work for them. You just give the script back to them and let them rewrite it.
There are very few showrunners who rewrite other writers’ material, and that shouldn’t be done.

AN: To reach a more powerful position you have to do things that are unpleasant (having your material changed).

TJ: You obey so you can pay your rent. As a showrunner you hire other writers and you expect them to complete the script.

TW: The most important thing is – what is good for the series. People who are good writers and put the showrunner to a test, they challenge the showrunner and her/his decisions – you need to hold on to them because there are very few of them and they are excellent writers. When you hire someone talented you shouldn’t ignore them. You should listen.

TJ: A showrunner is not someone who rewrites everyone’s scripts.

TW: doesn’t have time to be on the set all the time but is sent photos from locations, clips, rushes and other material while he’s writing the script.

There are different options: the showrunner has the idea and finds the writers and they divide the episodes among each other, or they develop it all together, or the writer with the idea supervises the others.

It’s not fair if the writer is not given feedback or a chance to rewrite, when they just take it and disappear.

You need to respect the writer because you want them to keep working for you. It’s an exception when TW rewrites someone else’s scene. The situation is always handled delicately and the writer is always informed, it’s only when they’re about to start shooting and there’s no time to send it back and forth, or the writer is occupied with another episode.



Part 1: Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

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



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