Monthly Archives: July 2012

24%

I’ve just been reading Lisa Holdsworth‘s excellent blog on the BBC’s ‘Changing the Face of Drama’ seminar we attended at the TV Drama Writers’ Festival in Leeds.

If you haven’t read her blog, you should do that before you read the rest of this. Go on, I’ll wait for you.

http://deadlinesanddiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/pc-gone-mad-or-cognitively-impaired.html

Right, so I’ve been thinking about this too. That ‘24% of the UK population have a disability’ figure shocked me. I too came away thinking I’d put a wheelchair user in each script … but now I’m not sure that’s the right approach.

Hopefully none of the rest of this is offensive to anyone. These are my thoughts on the topic, I’ve tried to be honest and any offence will be caused by ignorance on my behalf. I don’t like being ignorant (despite frequently finding myself so) and would genuinely love to have my ignorance pointed out in the comments.

There were two main opinions on stage that day, one from  Lisa Hammond and Ben Owen-Jones (two actors who used wheelchairs) who felt there weren’t enough roles for actors in wheelchairs and one from Lucy Gannon who felt writers should give people with disabilities a voice.

They both had different attitudes towards the problem – the actors felt you should just write a character as normal and then put them in a wheelchair, because they don’t want to only play characters who are defined by their disability and, primarily, because they just want more work.

For example, Ben felt like he could easily be cast as anyone sitting behind a desk because sitting in wheelchair is exactly like sitting in a normal chair.

Lucy, on the other hand, felt that a disability informs everything a character says and does, the very way they interact with the world and therefore putting a character in a wheelchair afterwards wouldn’t ring true.

I kind of understand both points of view (whilst accepting I may have misunderstood both points of view and be interpreting them incorrectly). I mean, if you transfer any line of dialogue from one character to another, you have to rewrite it, because each character talks and acts differently; so putting someone in a wheelchair must change at least one or two lines or actions, surely?

Part of the problem is how a wheelchair in a script translates into what you actually see on screen. If you just slap a random character into a wheelchair, then someone (producer, director or casting) will immediately ask you if they HAVE to be in a wheelchair, because it narrows the casting range/makes the shoot more difficult logistically and visually/scares the hell out of the narrow-minded.

In a low budget production, where the wrong choice of sandwich filling on the catering truck can cause the budget to implode, the first two are legitimate concerns. Anything which extends the shoot by even a minute can have a huge effect on whether or not the film actually gets made. Or even finished. If you have to ensure wheelchair access to every location then it makes things complicated. But is ‘complicated’ a good reason to ‘not do’?

Similarly, if you have to shoot multiple scenes with one person’s head three feet off the floor and another person’s head six feet off the floor, it’s a headache. The reason short actors end up standing on a box when standing next to a tall actor isn’t always the actor’s vanity, but is usually more to do with being able to see both people at the same time.

So if you put an actor in a wheelchair for no story reason beyond wanting to represent disability on screen then the response is likely to be “That’s lovely and noble, but would you mind doing that in your next film?”

The only way to ensure a character in a wheelchair in a script stays in a wheelchair by the time the story makes it to screen is to make the wheelchair an integral part of their character or the plot. Which leads into Lisa Holdsworth’s fear of getting it wrong, a fear I share and one which terrifies film makers.

I’ve worked with a director who felt female characters MUST be pure and innocent at all times because women weren’t like normal human beings. I’ve been shouted at for making a black character gay, because apparently that was racist (as opposed to the inherent homophobia in that statement). The film industry is full of people who completely misunderstand the point of political correctness and live in fear of causing controversy.

If I write one stupid character into a film and someone casts a black guy or a gay guy or a guy with a disability in the part – I fear I’d be pilloried for being racist, homophobic or … um … whatever the word is for being anti-disabled people. I read an Internet rant recently about how outrageous it was that Joss Whedon wrote a black, female character into Firefly who called a white man ‘captain’ – apparently that’s both racist and sexist.

Some people are actively looking for things to be upset about and those loons make life really awkward for everyone involved. Stupidly, I would tie myself up in knots agonising about whether or not a character in a wheelchair had any negative characteristics which the able-bodied characters didn’t have. Even though I know from actually talking to wheelchair-using actors that playing a complete moron or a complete cunt is exactly the sort of role they would love to be offered.

The smaller casting pool for actors with a disability is an issue too, because most actors can’t act. This is much the same as most writers can’t write and most directors can’t direct and most producers are incapable of being reasonable human beings. These are difficult professions and there really isn’t enough talent to go around, hence you end up with the mediocre filling up all the spaces left vacant by the lack of real talent.

Yes, this is why I have a career.

Less actors means less good actors, means a higher chance of not being able to find an even mediocre actor to fill that role, means more chance of a well-meaning casting director coming back to you and asking if there’s any chance of crossing out the word ‘wheelchair’ and perhaps writing ‘walking-stick’ instead.

As an aside and as an example of this, I was once part of a project with a very limited budget where we (the writers) had specified one of the actors was to be a black woman in her early twenties. I sat in on much of the casting and we couldn’t find any black women in that age range who could act.

Undoubtedly, part of the problem was the expenses-only, deferred nature of the project. It’s not that there aren’t any good black female actors, but the proportion who are prepared to work for peanuts is as close to zero as makes no odds. The great are snapped up very quickly, because they stand out. The new are harder to find because they are few and far between. I’ve never sat in on casting for a character with a disability, but (rightly or wrongly) I assume the same is true.

Obviously this is a cyclical problem: the less roles written for certain types of actors means less of those types of actors can get work, which means less of them enter into the profession or more of them give up faster, which means the casting pool gets smaller, which means less roles written for them … and so on …

Actually, to be honest, if I wrote a wheelchair user into a script, the chances are they’d cast an able-bodied actor and put them in a wheelchair. This would fulfil the ‘represent more disabilities on screen’ side of the argument, but not the ‘give actors with disabilities more work’ side.

I was thinking all this through last night when I realised what I was doing. I was using the wheelchair to represent disability. Most people with disabilities don’t use wheelchairs.

In fact, whereas 24% of the population have a disability, less than 2% of the population use wheelchairs.

Adding wheelchairs to a script doesn’t help redress the balance and represent people with disabilities, it represents wheelchair users.

And here’s an odd problem – we lump all the people of the UK who have a disability under the heading ‘disabled’ and then talk about representing them on screen; but what does that actually mean?

Where does this 24% figure come from? Or rather, who are the people who make up that statistic?

Does that include people with impaired vision? If so, how do you represent them on screen? Do they feel they need representing? I’m not just talking about blind people here, what about people who have limited vision or can only see out of one eye? I found out recently my barber has a glass eye. I’ve spoken to him for years without noticing. I even wrote him into a script because I thought he was interesting; but at that point I didn’t know he had a vision impairment, so neither did the character. If I’d known, it wouldn’t have made any difference – I’d still have written him the same way.

Does that 24% include people with hearing difficulties? Or are they not classed as disabled?

What about the sizeable percentage of people who have an invisible disability? Jack Thorne was on that panel, he has Cholinergic Urticaria – there’s no way you could know that unless he told you. It’s a very specific condition to portray on screen, you couldn’t just give it to a character as an afterthought, you’d have to incorporate it into scenes properly.

Would a person who has Cholinergic Urticaria feel ‘represented’ if they saw a drama with an actor in a wheelchair? Or an actor with learning difficulties? Or impaired vision?

My point is, whereas you can easily represent a race or a gender or a sexuality, it’s much harder to represent ‘disability’ when taken as a blanket term. The obvious mental equation is disability=wheelchair; but, as is so often the case, the obvious is wrong.

I understand the point of representing disability on screen. I understand the ‘normalising’ power of TV and film –  “Oh look, they’re just like us. In fact, there’s no them, there’s just a bigger ‘us’ than I previously thought.”

If all you ever see are stories about people leading tricky lives because of their disability then it gives everyone an insight into someone else’s life … but does it do anything to reduce prejudice beyond the initial ripple of sympathy? If random people in scripts have a disability and it’s not dwelt on as anything other than something some people have, is that better at slowly changing public opinion?

I can’t help but feel casting directors have more power when it comes to representing people with disabilities than  writers and that disability-blind casting is the way to go. I’m fairly certain I can include at least one form of disability in every script from now on … but I’m equally certain that character will either be ‘cured’ during production or end up being played by an able-bodied actor.

Personally, I don’t really know how to approach this. It’s a matter I intend to think more about from now on; but I don’t have any definitive or clear thoughts on the best way forward.

A couple of interesting sites for further reading:

http://www.dontplaymepayme.com/index.html

http://www.papworth.org.uk/page.php?s=6bfc07869ad8e52b5f29c29351163c08&urlid=disability_statistics

http://disabilityfilms.tripod.com/

And the Code of the Freaks documentary again, for anyone who hasn’t seen it:

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Categories: BBC, Festivals, Industry Musings, Things I've Learnt Recently | 2 Comments

Fuck you, Mr. Arnopp

You probably don’t know this, you may not even care; but I’ve been at the centre of a conspiracy for years now. Time and again I have been subject to the vile whims of one man and his campaign of … well, not terror. Annoyance is probably a better word.

As an aside, I believe all Terrorists should be referred to as Annoyingists from now on. I have two reasons for this:

  1. It sounds less cool and anything people can do to make terrorists sound stupid is a good thing.
  2. They don’t really strike terror in anyone, they’re just bloody annoying.

I never sit around terrified I might get blown up or have a plane crashed into me, but I do get really fucking annoyed every time I have to take my shoes off at an airport. That’s your legacy, you fuckwits. You may have killed quite a lot of people’s loved ones; but all anyone thinks of when they think of you is how fucking irritating you’ve made going on holiday. Good job. Thanks for that.

But anyway, I have been the victim of a conspiracy for … um … a bit. This man:

Has gone out of his way. Far out of his way. As far as Birmingham (which may not be that far if you live in West Bromwich) to make sure I don’t get to see his debut feature film, Stormhouse.

That’s right, ladies and gentleman, a writer who doesn’t want you to see his work. Actually, he does want you to see it, he just doesn’t want me to see it.

I can’t quite remember how this vindictive campaign of bastardness began or even if it actually happened outside the confines of my imagination; but happen it probably did and I’ve suffered greatly. Or at least, mildly. A bit mildly.

But I’m too clever for the affable son of a bitch. What he failed to take into account is my limitless patience and my lemming-like cunning. I’ve bided my time, I’ve allowed my bile and exclusion-rage to boil down until it’s a simmering dodecahedron of intense bitterness … and now I’ve struck!

I have a copy. I bought it. It’s mine. Fuck you, Mr. Arnopp – I can watch it any time I like and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Except maybe murder, blinding me, breaking into my house and stealing the DVD, burning my house down, pouring jam into the DVD player, smearing my TV with the excrement of fire ants, employing a small horse to stand between me and the TV … actually, there’s quite a lot you could do to stop me; but I’d rather you didn’t if that’s all the same to you?

Stormhouse, written by this man:

Directed by this one:

Available in the shops right now. Go buy it, just in case Mr. Arnopp doesn’t want you to watch it. Head him off at the pass before he instigates a (largely) imaginary vendetta against you.

 

 

 

———————— UPDATE —————————

WHAT THE FUCK?

Categories: Bored, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way | 7 Comments

TV Drama Writers’ Festival 2012

If I haven’t been answering my emails for the last few days, it’s either because I don’t like you or because I’ve been enveloped in the welcoming arms of Leeds for the BBC Writersroom’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Hence the title of this post which, let’s face it, would be an odd title if I hadn’t actually been. Unless it was a rant about how unfair the world is and how the BBC won’t let me play with any of their millions of pounds.

But it isn’t!

Hooray!

The BBC did let me go and said they would be happy to let me (or indeed anyone else who wandered past) play with all their money … so long as I (or you. Yes, you!) could write a script good enough to make their pants froth with excitement.

So that’s lovely.

If you’ve not been to the festival before (which I hadn’t) then know this:

The TV Drama Writers’ Festival is the festival for professional television writers. Providing a unique opportunity to mix with BBC drama commissioners and producers, and writers who are at the top of their field, the festival is a mix of masterclasses, conversation and debate – led by writers for writers. It is an opportunity to be inspired, challenged, and to have your say.

That’s from the BBC Writersroom website, so it must be true.

And it is.

The estimable (he used to be inestimable but … oh wait, I’ve done that gag before and it wasn’t funny the first time) Piers Beckley and I trundled up on the train the day before so he could get drunk in a pub with some other lovely people while I drank tea and mumbled stuff about The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard.

I feel like I should list the other lovely people; but at the same time I’m wary of just listing people I’ve met in a weird sideways name-dropping thing. If anyone really wants to know a complete list of everyone I spoke to, email me and I’ll send it to you.

If, on the other hand, you just fancy seeing your name on my blog then say so in the comments and I’ll list you here:

That’s a space there, for anyone who wants their name in pixels on an obscure writer’s obscure blog.

But enough of this nonsense. What happened at the festival itself?

Lots, is the simple answer.

These are the bits I can remember:

DAY ONE

Peter Bowker gave the keynote speech on ambition. It was very funny and witty and insightful … but I was a bit befuddled by … reality, I guess, at that point and failed to take most of it in. I think the general point was:

Ambition – you should have some.

Which sounds about right.

Then I went to a session with Barbara Emile and Mark Catley called Pu … dy in Long Runners.

Or at least, that’s what it said on my eticket. Turns out it was actually called Putting the Comedy in Long Runners, which makes much more sense.

This was a bit of an odd session for me, almost totally because of my own ignorance. I didn’t know ‘Long Runners’ meant ‘Soaps’ (which I don’t really watch*) nor did I know that putting comedy into them was even a debatable point. I mean, surely everything has the odd funny line in here and there? Why would anyone think this was a bad thing?

So the message there was – you should.

Then there were some clips shown to illustrate how funny bits make drama bits more dramatic.

This session and most of the schedule for the first day highlighted a bit of a problem for me, should I ever get round to making a concerted effort to work in TV; namely, I don’t really enjoy cop shows, medical shows or soaps. There are a bunch of different reasons for this, none of which are entirely relevant here. Let’s just suffice it to say I’d rather watch a bunch of beautiful inbred hillbillies driving in circles than anything which reflects real life.

Next up was a discussion about REV with James Wood, hosted by Alice Nutter. The essence of which was, Rev is a fantastic show, James Wood seems like a really nice guy,  Alice Nutter asks interesting questions, reverends are only too happy to talk to anyone about their vocations and research throws up far funnier things than any writer can possibly imagine.

Then I had a cup of tea. I almost didn’t. For a heart-stopping moment, I thought Michelle Lipton had used the last of the hot water in the urn … put judicious tipping proved she hadn’t and the day was saved.

Phew.

Next up: The Art of Pitching with Ashley Pharoah who comes across as an inordinately lovely bloke (no doubt he was responsible for the  gnawed kitten-skeletons the staff were smuggling out of the Green Room; but in public – really nice guy).

I was a little afraid a session on pitching would be all dynamic and forceful …

but that’s not really Ashley’s style. He mumbled and apologised his way through the session, explaining he tended to mumble and apologise his way through pitching. The result is so endearing I wanted to give him some money there and then … but, you know, I haven’t got any.

The salient points were:

    • Be passionate about your project and know why you want to write it. If you get a no and can immediately pull out five more ideas … how passionate were you about the original idea in the first place?
    • Know exactly what it is you’re pitching. Know the idea inside out so you can answer questions.
    • Don’t rehearse the pitch too much, you’ll sound like a robotic dick (my words, not his)
    • Know why only you can write that story and why it’s important to you.
    • If in doubt, lie – pretend it happened to someone you know so the commissioner/producer will believe only you can write the story.
    • Be Ashley Pharaoh, because being awesome and having an awesome track record means you get to wander into rooms and pitch random, mumbled ideas to people in the knowledge they’ll have enough faith in you to give you the benefit of the doubt.
    • Even if you are Ashley Pharaoh, you still get more nos than yeses.

Non-Linear Storytelling with Linda Aronson was a complete and utter head-fuck.

There was days’ worth of information squashed into 50 minutes.

Most of it seemed pretty decent, but I’d need to re-watch a lot of the examples used in order to agree or disagree. A lot of it seemed quite obvious, but was stuff I hadn’t really given names to before.

There were one or two things I think are obvious which seemed to be missing … but I may be wrong because I zoned out more than once. When I get information like this, I like to mull it over and apply it to as many films as possible; but there just wasn’t really enough time.

I think maybe you’d need to read her book or attend a longer seminar to figure out if any of it was useful.

Which is not to say it wasn’t useful, just a bit compressed.

The last session of the day was a debate about Disability in drama … actually, it wasn’t a debate. It was an articulate and well reasoned case for writing more disabled parts into scripts.

Lucy Gannon, Jack Thorne, Lisa Hammond and Ben Owen-Jones each gave their points of view which, summarised, went something like this:

  • Lucy feels writers are extremely privileged because they have a voice and can affect change. To not use it is a gross dereliction of that power.
  • Jack agreed and puts his pen where his mouth is by either writing disabled characters into scripts or holding disability-blind castings so the person gets hired irrespective of their physical ability.
  • Lisa mentioned and knocked down every objection to hiring disabled people and pointed out able-bodied actors get an average of 25 auditions a year. Disabled actors get an average of 2. That’s just fucking shocking.
  • Ben (a wheelchair user) doesn’t understand why he can’t audition for roles which involve sitting behind a desk or anything which doesn’t specifically involve a character using their legs.

The consensus was that most disabled actors don’t want to only get offered roles which centre on their disabilities, they want to play a variety or roles where they can be perceived as human beings first and not just people coping with a disability.

In an ideal world, we’d just write scripts and those parts would be open to anyone to audition for them regardless of disability, skin colour or gender … but we don’t live in that world.

If you don’t mention someone’s in a wheelchair – casting departments won’t cast a wheelchair user. It just doesn’t occur to them; so even if doesn’t matter whether a character is disabled or not, specify some of them are and help to redress the imbalance.Just don’t make that character defined by their disability.

Write the person first – slap ’em in a wheelchair afterwards.

Lisa recommended watching this short:

And that was pretty much day one.

Interspersed was lunch, booze and mingling.

And stupid fucking questions.

And questions which weren’t actually questions, but statements.

Or bragging.

Or just pointless rambling which derails the session, takes the focus off the person we’ve all come to listen to and puts it on someone who can”t string a coherent sentence together and leaves the poor person at the front trying to unpick a random stream of consciousness in case there was actually a question buried in the middle of it.

Just to confuse matters, when I got back to the hotel – the sign had been removed from the front, leaving me uncertain if it actually was my hotel or whether I’d been the victim of an elaborate Leverage-style  con to swindle me out of my £18 a night.

I hadn’t been, they’d just decided to confuse the fuck out of everyone. Or maybe just me..

DAY TWO

The day kicked off nice and early (too early for some drunken layabouts) with a John Yorke Masterclass on Storytelling Physics.

This one was really interesting; John Yorke’s a great speaker with some fantastic ideas about the Ego and the Id and the facade we put up versus our internal desires.

I still need to process a lot of this information and work out how I can apply it to my work; but the main thing I got from it was the realisation that a lot of bad writers misuse his ideas to defend their appalling grasp of story.

Through arguments I’ve had with writers who insist their rambling, nonsensical, structureless work adheres to John Yorke’s five act structure, I’d come to the conclusion he didn’t know what he was talking about.

After hearing him speak and seeing him briefly sketch those acts on a board, I’ve now come to the conclusion said writers didn’t pay enough fucking attention and completely misunderstood what he was saying.

I’d love to hear more of his thoughts first hand.

Plot versus Character with Toby Whithousewas a great session – a discussion about how he creates characters first and uses them to create a plot generator.  I didn’t realise Being Human started off as (essentially) Game On before the idea of making one of them a Werewolf got chucked into the mix.

I’d still argue the premise came before the characters (even if the premise changed when the characters didn’t) but it was a great lesson in character building – followed up by an exercise in creating a character, which was fun until we ran out of time.

Meet the Commissioners  was pretty much exactly what it said and gave us all the chance to listen to what  Ben Stephenson (BBC), Laurie Mackie (ITV), Sophie Gardiner (Channel Four/E4) and Huw Kennair-Jones. (Sky) wanted in a script.

They want it to be fucking awesome and right for their channels.

That’s pretty much it.

Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve written before, just make it amazing and make sure it’s the right match for their channel.

And that’s kind of all that matters. Stop whining, write something better and it’ll get commissioned.

Probably.

If it doesn’t, keep trying. They’re always on the look out for amazing work, there are no barriers to entry … it’s just you and your talent, kid.

Last up: The Language and Rules of Reinventing the World which was a hilarious session with Toby Whithouse and Jack Thorne about creating fantasy worlds on a budget, making it up as you go along versus plotting out several series’ worth of mythology and wanking whilst crying.

At this point, I felt the sudden and overwhelming need to turn into one of the people who annoyed me so much and share my knowledge of The Dukes of Hazzard with the room.

If you were in that session, sorry. I’m not even convinced that information was entirely accurate. I really don’t know what came over me beyond a desperate need to join in.

And that was pretty much that.

All in all, a fun and informative few days with friends old and new, information useful (them) and pointless (me) and a bit of a wander around a city I hadn’t been to before thrown in for good measure.

If you haven’t been, I strongly recommend you go next year. It’s cheap, it’s interesting and it’s fun. If you have been … well, then you already know this and are probably wasting your time reading this post.

* This isn’t a judgement on quality, it’s more my inability to grapple with tiny pieces in the middle of a year long story without falling asleep. I’m fairly certain if I watched any soap for a few weeks I’d love it as much as everyone else does.

Categories: BBC, Festivals, Industry Musings, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 8 Comments

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