BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 4


In this post:

  • Launching a new series
  • Thriller – the Trojan horse
  • Adaptations (briefly)
  • a few words from Ben Stephenson on what to pitch

This is the last set of notes from BBC’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival 2011.


Chair: Ben Stephenson (BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning)
With: Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford), Jane Featherstone (Creative Director at Kudos; Spooks), Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), Toby Whithouse (Being Human).

Pharoah: develop an instinct for conflict that will take years to unravel.
Gallagher: create a character you care about, want to know what happens to them, create an iconic character you love (as a writer)
Whithouse: character is fundamental. He writes pages of bios the audience never sees. You never run out of story.

Stephenson: what about premise and concept?
Featherstone: you want a character you want to spend time with – interesting, not necessarily loveable.
Pharoah: premise is important; premise, potential conflict and character – they are the main ingredients.
Whithouse: give the audience what they need, not what they want. Don’t second guess what they want.

Stephenson: series is hard ’cause it’s essentially contrived (not one straight story). You’ve got to love episodic format – something different every week.
Featherstone: after repeatedly reworking the firs episode – cutting and cutting – lesson: get to the heart of the premise quickly!
Whithouse: in the first episode the best way to introduce a character is through them doing their thing, action.
Gallagher: every week thinking – how do I make life difficult for these characters in a new way.
Whithouse: you want to write so well, you want to embarrass the lead writer!
Featherstone: you’ve got to have a story motor, especially when working outside genre. Something has to keep the story running.


Chair: Jane Featherstone (Kudos)
With Hugo Blick (The Shadow Line) , Fiona Seres (The Silence), Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files)

Blick: thriller – you’ve got a heightened sense of jeopardy you don’t want to let go of. Characters represent our greater selves.
Featherstone: real people in tough situations
Spotnitz: You want to be scared. Think about childhood fears. Film is good for thrillers for its ability to control time –
Blick: – and manipulate point of view.

Blick: Suspense vs mystery – there’s a difference. The former – you keep the audience waiting (loaded gun), the latter – you don’t know what it is.

Spotnitz: tap into social discomfort and paranoia. Using thriller as a Trojan horse for some message is tricking the audience, Spotnitz doesn’t like it at all.
Seres: think – what if something happened to my family, a member of my family
Blick: morality the characters have to test themselves against
Spotnitz: repeating the same (genre) formulae, keeping it fresh is hard
Blick: Bond films – sex and death is boring, love and death is great

Featherstone: How to avoid clichés, keep it fresh?
Seres: it’s got to be an emotional thriller, think how to make it emotionally thrilling
Spotnitz: heart and head. It has to feel like it’s the character’s experience
Blick: have fun
Featherstone: it’s all smoke and mirrors

On Plotting

Blick: tent pole of a set-piece. Know where the thrill is heading, so that all the tools have already been weaved in when that scene takes place
Seres: write the last scene first (which you can throw out) and then the ten scenes before it.

On Pacing

Spotnitz: as a writer imagines himself in the cutting room – every moment counts
Blick: pressure. Characters with secrets running and stopping pace
Spotnitz: character must come first

Audience question: how to balance plot and character?

Spotnitz: they need to be seamlessly intertwined. Plot is driven by character. It should feel like only this character can experience this (unique experience).


Chair: Bill Gallagher
With Paula Milne (Endgame), Sarah Phelps (Oliver Twist)

Using a classic story, adding your own voice, vision and understanding to a well-known story.

Phelps: [on working with the source material] you have to think about where the characters come from, what’ their background, why are they here? For example Oliver Twist – industrial revolution, London was the centre, it was a society on the brink of change.

Gallagher: characters embody the essence of the times

Phelps on translating a novel for the screen: you want to keep what it meant for the author
Milne: but you can’t be in awe of it

Phelps (on writing in general): you’re a juggler, you’ve got to keep those plates in the air, spinning.


Ben Stephenson and John Yorke answer questions about BBC drama

Stephenson: we’re interested in the domestic market. If the product won’t travel, it’s not a concern.
Single dramas are very important to BBC.
Sick of being pitched: remakes (especially ones without any passion), don’t try to second-guess us and the audience. We want original ideas. Think: how can the story be more that it is? (tone-wise, clarity). Don’t try to guess what anyone would like.


Related links:

BBC Writersroom interview with Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham

EW interview  ‘Being Human’ creator Toby Whithouse on the shocking finale

Frank Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions

BBC Writersroom Sarah Phelps interview

On this blog: BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 1 (Writers to change the world?; Bio-pic)

BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival, Part 2 (Controversy; Jimmy McGovern)

BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival, Part 3 (John Yorke on theory and practice)

Also on this blog – notes from the BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival 2010. See previous entries.



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