Thursday, February 22, 2007

Obsessions & Notions what it all comes down to. But more about that later.

The saving grace of the late morning Drama Q&A at De Montfort University’s one day Television Scriptwriting Workshop was that it came after Laurence Marks’ excellent Comedy Keynote speech. If it had come first on the schedule, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach would have pushed me to crawling under the seat and hacking off my ears with my front door key.

The panel was chaired by BBC Executive Producer Mervyn Watson, who, even before everyone seated around him had finished giving a brief rundown of their career, was already fervently bigging up the BBC Drama Series Writing Academy initiative. Never mind that it was for writers who have already had at least one film, television or radio drama script produced or one theatre piece performed professionally, and when he asked who fell into this category the percentage of the audience that raised their hands was low, Mr Watson kept hammering the point home.

Initiated by John Yorke, Controller of Continuing Drama Series, the Academy trains a number of writers each year, culminating in guaranteed work on Doctors, Casualty, Holby City or EastEnders. In my notes I scribbled down “the most boring fucking hospital drama ever!” which, from the list, doesn’t exactly narrow it down.

Hospital settings make for great drama because it runs the whole gamut from birth, life and death, and I know we should be standing on the touchline cheering on homegrown shows – because apparently anyone who doesn’t is a schmuck! – but Doctors, Casualty, Holby City or EastEnders? I mean, Jesus! I assume at some point in the year Doctors and Casualty take a break but Mr Watson made it known that Holby City runs 52 episodes a year and, although it has been recently denied in the press, EastEnders will soon be broadcast five nights a week. In total, somewhere between 200 and 300 hours of bland drama produced annually. Which means they need writers.

Make the grade and there’s the opportunity for an in and regular paycheques but... Look, I’m not trying to make out that I’m some highly principled idealist. I’ve worked on McDonalds commercials and the like in the past and for pharmaceutical companies more recently, so I certainly haven’t gotten away clean. But at least I had the choice of being allowed to spit rather than be forced to swallow. Wouldn’t it be better for the Writing Academy to work on rearing a juicy steak every once in a while rather than churning out a conveyor belt of toadburgers?

Worse, Paul Ashton, the Development Manager of the BBC’s writersroom, chimed in as he talked about two new exceptional talents that had recently been discovered through his selection process who, after careful shaping, were now writing for these damn hospital dramas. All the while, all I could think about was Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Luckily the two other members of the panel – literary agent Frances Arnold and Jyoti Fernandes, a writer and producer who was a very welcome last minute substitution for Lizzie Mickery, who had come down with the flu – didn’t wholeheartedly endorse their opinion. Which was a good thing.

Thankfully nobody asked Tony Marchant’s opinion. As the afternoon’s Drama Keynote Speaker he soon made plain his feelings of some of UK TV’s current hackneyed offerings and implored each person in the audience to find their own voice.

Beginning his career as a playwright before branching in to television, Mr Marchant wrote the award-winning Holding On, Passer By, and Kid in the Corner as well as adaptations of Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. The recipient of BAFTA’s 1999 Dennis Potter Award, he reminded us that Potter had once remarked writers have only two stories or themes that they constantly rework – their demons and obsessions.

A Catholic brought up on an East London council estate, Mr Marchant identified themes of guilt and moral responsibility as being prevalent in his work. Even when it was for more mainstream drama, the themes were still smuggled into the story.

To show how that could be done, by way of an example Mr Marchant gave us The Adventures of Robin Hood. ITV's first hit series back in the very early days of commercial television, the series was scripted in part by blacklisted writers who, having fled the McCarthy witch hunts, turned family tea-time viewing into a drama about a corrupt society.

That said, Mr Marchant reminded everyone that writing about obsessions is not therapy by proxy, which meant attention must had to be paid to the story. But the passion for the story had to come from the writer.

After the Workshop was over there was an Evening Reception with wine and nibbles in the foyer. Briefly talking to Mr Marchant about his obsessions, I said, “So this makes you the English David Milch.” He laughed and said he liked that, rolling the words around on his tongue to see how it sounded.

One of the second year MA students clustered around him, who hopefully had initially misheard, asked “Who?” Ouch.


At 2:32 pm, Blogger potdoll said...

Dennis Potter is right in my case.

were many people there?

was it worth your 60 quid?

At 4:34 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I think Potter was spot on too. There are a couple of things that, looking at my work, I constantly go back to whether I'm aware of it or not.

There are a couple more posts on the Workshop. The BBC writersroom is next, possibly something else and then a final round up.

Not to keep you in suspense, yep, it was worth every penny.

At 6:49 pm, Blogger potdoll said...

Doggy I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours...

ok, maybe not!

Glad it was worth it. And glad there's more to come.


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