The marvellous Jeremy Allen went to the awesome Writers' Day at De Montfort recently and very kindly wrote up the Q&A panel on TV for you all. Enjoy...
Recently I attended the annual Writers Day at De Montfort University in Leicester. The college runs a highly respected two year MA in Television Scriptwriting Course, endorsed and supported by key industry figures. The Writers Day is held partly to promote the course but also as a forum for networking. Each year the day has a specific theme and this year the theme is comedy. What follows is a report from a Q & A panel that took place in the morning.
The panel consists of Neil Mossey (development producer with Talkback Thames), Simon Williamson (agent with Jill Foster Ltd), Keith Lindsay (sit com writer, most notably the Green, Green Grass) and Lawrence Marks (sit com writer, Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart). The discussion is presided over by Julian Friedmann (Blake Friedmann Literary Agency).
The first question concerns the pros and cons of working with a partner. Lawrence Marks cites the benefits as being able to ‘bounce ideas off each other’ and the advantage of acting as each other’s ‘quality control department’. The ‘dark side’ is of course rows, fall outs and disagreements. It’s ‘like a marriage’, Lawrence reflects. Don’t ever sign a contract before you enter a writing partnership he advises: ‘if it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t’.
The debate then turns to the state of British TV comedy and Simon Williamson points out that there has been a move away from traditional sit coms, especially with the BBC, who are now rushing into ‘BBC3 territory’ with stuff along the lines of Green Wing and Black Books. This form tends to favour newer voices.
Keith Lindsay recounts that John Sullivan paid for the pilot of Green, Green Grass from his own pocket (£250,000), even though it was a spin off from one of the most successful sit coms of all time- the BBC didn’t want to put money into it.
The discussion turns to the importance of having a professional attitude. Lawrence mentions that when he and Maurice left their day jobs to become full time writers they saw it as a ‘proper job’, not some ‘bohemian way of life’ i.e. they wrote from 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch. Many writers they meet simply do not see writing as a serious profession- ‘it’s as proper a job as any other job you could imagine’.
Having just started working on a sit com with a partner myself, I asked the panel how they wrote together, particularly with regard to the allocation of dialogue. It seems there is no single approach. You can e-mail each other scenes, work in the same building on separate scenes, then swap and re-draft, or collaborate together on every line. Whatever works. Keith Lindsay later told me that Marks and Gran used to sit back to back on separate computers, working on the same scene.
The question is asked: ‘Why are American shows so slick?’
Lawrence Marks, who has worked in the US, says that typically a team of eight writers will work for eight weeks on one script , compose endless re-drafts, and then to top it off a guy was paid $100,000 to make the script ‘75% more funny’- in other words his sole job was to pepper a script with gags.
Julian mentions that the burn out rate on US shows (not to mention ulcers) is enormous. Lawrence adds that when he wrote at a studio called ‘The Writers Block’, they employed a studio psychotherapist to address this situation. Lawrence told her: ‘I don’t need a psychotherapist, I come from England’. Six weeks later, he was seeing her twice a week.
An audience member enquires how ‘bad shows’ come to be commissioned in the first place?
Lawrence counters that ‘the question is: why does a show work? The odds of it not working are far greater than it working. You can put all the best components into a show...and it doesn’t work’. The main reason the show fails, he argues, is the quality of the script (deadlines are often behind this): ‘What comes beyond the script not being good enough is really quite secondary’. He then contemplates that ‘there is so much that go can go wrong with a script before you see it, what’s amazing is that there are any hits at all’. So the question to ask is not ‘how did this ever get on? The question to ask is why is Porridge so brilliant?’
Lawrence recalls that he and Maurice were asked to be Head of Comedy at the BBC by Alan Yentob, but they turned it down because ultimately they wouldn’t have say over whether a show got greenlit. He also mentions that he often tries to get hold of people at the BBC and is told ‘I’m terribly sorry, they’re in a meeting’, which leads him to speculate: ‘I wonder what they’re meeting about? What is life at the BBC but a series of meetings?’
On the subject of shows not working, Keith Lindsay looks at it from the actor’s point of view: ‘The studio sitcom is a hybrid...one of the most difficult things you will ever do in television, because you have actors who are acting for a television audience and an audience in the studio and the cameras are in the way and I have seen really good actors freaked out by not knowing which one to play to...the best ones know how to pitch it’. He describes it as ‘acting through the camera’.
At this point an audience member comes in with the age old question: ‘how do I get in?’ (to the profession).
Neil Mossey responds: ‘Most of the shows at the moment are closed shops...as well as the number of slots reducing, as well as...the number of broadcasters reducing...the number of doors to knock on has shrunk’. He suggests ‘buddying up...you’ve got to have providence as a writer, even if you have an amazing spec script’. To this end, he recommends teaming up with other writers and performers.
Another problem, according to Keith Lindsay, is the emergence of writer-performers: ‘especially sketch shows, there’s no (traditional) way in...’
The panel is asked if, in their experience, ageism affects commissioning decisions?
Keith Lindsay reveals that he was he was initially involved in a BBC3 show, but an executive decision was made to remove him from the project because it was supposed to be about, for and made by young people.
Julian adds that there is still a sense that advertisers are appealing to 15-25 year olds, but that this is beginning to change as the largest demographic are now ‘oldies’.
Lawrence Marks is quick to defend shows aimed at the older demographic: ‘The Green, Green Grass was a big hit...it might not have been the BBC’s favourite show (but) it was their biggest hit...and who were the people watching it? People about the age of the characters in the show...’. He highlights a basic flaw in this obsession to target youth: most people who watch mainstream television are ‘people between about 35 and 60...people that don’t go out as much as young people go out.’ There’s also: ‘so many ways of watching a show, I think the days of big viewing figures quite frankly are over’.
Neil Mossey claims that the one exception is the X Factor, which employs many of the techniques of television drama (e.g. reaction shots) to construct a narrative. Yet, it’s a lot cheaper to make. He then compares homegrown efforts with the perfectionism and quality control invested in US productions: ‘There’s a desperation in the US to make the script better and better’. This process involves endless rewrites: ‘ We’re not script led in this country, we’re actor led...instead of saying ‘can we get the best writer?’ ...they say: ‘can we get...an actress who happens to have been in a popular series last time out?’.
Lawrence affirms this: ‘The star actor is a recognisable commodity. Unless they have a star, they won’t sign the cheque’.
Recognising a good script is a problem as well and Julian Friedman rues that: ‘The training of script editors and their ability to read a script in this country is pretty non-existent’.
An audience member complains about television networks reliance on focus groups and attempts to target specific age demographics. How does the panel feel about that?
Lawrence is very forthright: ‘As far as focus groups are concerned what can you say? Fawlty Towers, Porridge, The Good Life, Birds of a Feather, Only Fools and Horses...the people who wrote them wouldn’t know what a focus group was’. Lawrence has one very clear arbiter of what makes a good script: ‘Are your characters the people that, if they moved in next door, you’d want to invite in for a drink once a week on a Tuesday evening, and if the answer’s yes, you’ve succeeded’.
Keith Lindsay also laments the BBC’s obsession with grabbing 25 year olds: ‘if we can get them in now, they’ll still be with us when they’re 70’. Lawrence quips that: ‘There won’t be television by the time they’re 70’.
Given the difficulties of getting your work seen, let alone commissioned, the panel are asked whether they have any tips for getting ‘under the radar?’
Simon Williamson recommends children’s television, where you ‘get to explore and learn your craft’. He also endorses team writing on shows such as My Family and Not Going Out.
Lawrence comes in with another critique of modern television culture. He bemoans that the only way to get started as a writer seems to be through soap opera: ‘could you do an episode of Doctors, could you do an episode of EastEnders? They’re all done in exactly the same way. It’s formulaic television and the authorial voice has gone’. He cites Jimmy McGovern as an example of an ‘authorial voice’ and rates him as the ‘best small screen writer we’ve got’. He mentions McGovern’s preference for not working with a script editor. He doesn’t ‘want anyone to come anywhere near his script’.
Keith Lindsay advises that you should ‘always take the job, it’s amazing how one thing leads to another’, however ‘circuitous’ the route.
Julian suggests radio. There are simply far more radio plays than television and they are open to new writers with less experience. However, he stresses that you have to ‘respect the medium’, in other words don’t just send them your ‘failed television script’. But Julian also defends soaps, however ‘snobby’ people in film can be about them. ‘It makes you write’, admits Lawrence.
What about short films?
Neil Mossey recommends this as a viable avenue. He also suggests writing for stand up. Although it doesn’t necessarily teach you narrative structure: ‘it is a good way of meeting other writers and becoming known and gaining that confidence and experience’ (Lawrence backs this up, one of the best learning curves for him in terms of learning narrative structure was writing monologues for Frankie Howard).
With regard to short films though, Simon Williamson warns that the trouble is, from a writers point of view, short films are more often about the director than the writer and can often be ‘anti-structure’. Therefore if you want to promote yourself through a short film, make sure it showcases your writing. Julian ‘hates watching shorts’ because he can’t tell whether a writer can write anything other than a short. He also suggests pitching a script to all the independents first before you go straight to the broadcaster. It’s better to be ‘rejected by six independents and then accepted by one’. That one independent can then pitch your idea to the broadcaster and it will naturally carry more weight.
Time is up and it’s coffee break i.e. networking. It’s been fascinating discussion and it’s always encouraging to hear your own thoughts and instincts validated by experienced hands, particularly with regard to commissioners reluctance to take risks and employ new writers (earlier in the day Lawrence Marks had opined that: ‘Generally speaking executives know diddly squit- you know as much as they do...what they want is a hit show... they wouldn’t know how to construct a hit show if it jumped out their desk and smacked them in the face’). It was also interesting to hear the panel’s consensus that actors often take precedence over writers in the decision making process, something I’ve suspected for a long time. Still, it was good to get those tips about how to ‘slip under the radar’ and Lawrence’s insistence that it ‘all comes back to the script’ has fuelled me to write yet another redraft of my spec. So, all in all, a positive, constructive morning.
Fantastic - thanks Jeremy! Remember, if you have an idea for a guest post for this blog - about anything - DO get in touch. We've had all sorts - from course and seminar write-ups, to music, thoughts and opinions on the state of the industry, even a story about rescuing a duck! Check out all the guest posts out here.