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.

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

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8 thoughts on “TV Drama Writers’ Festival 2012

  1. Sounds like another brilliant event. Thanks for taking the time to post these notes, Phill.

    • It was … but is anything here actually useful? Um, no, wait … I’ve been learning how to accept compliments – you’re welcome. That’s how you do it, right?

  2. Adrian Bentley

    Good meeting you last week Phill. We must do something similar again.

    – by similar I mean something involving large amounts of alcohol and a discussion about the Dukes of Hazard.

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