Fast shows

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Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?

At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)

The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).

As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans – all illuminating about the process.

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Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.

That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.

So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.

in-the-flesh

In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.

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The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.

I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?

A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.

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I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.

I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.

Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!

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The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.

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37 thoughts on “Fast shows

  1. I’m not in your esteemed and hallowed circles – but I do share your sense of joy and destiny!
    I started following *Broadchurch* from the day the casting of Andrew Buchan was announced (7/7/12 from memory), through its filming, promo, broadcast and then awards, awards, awards – culminating in the BAFTAs.
    My third feeling was one of relief – as expressed by Chris Chibnall on the night: “Bloody Hell!”
    😀

  2. Dear Andrew, I found your take on this interesting, as I took a similar route into the media as you (albeit before you).
    I have taken several scriptwriting courses over the years (and was even told by one now mega-famous TV scriptwriter that I wrote some of the best chat-up dialogue he’d ever read) but found it is rather like bashing your head against a brick wall – lovely when you actually stop it.
    I never was good with delayed gratification over anything, so it isn’t so much rejection that hurts; these days it is the knowledge that, unlike when I started and was encouraged (by whichever ex-BBC assistant producer who was running the course) to plug away sending in my stuff (under a JK-like pseudonym, natch) no one was actually going to bother reading a submission from anyone new. This was always the tendency; now the playing safe has reached epidemic proportions.
    I cheered for Chris Lunt – he’s one of the lucky few to have broken his duck. It seems that nowadays commissioners will only take a punt on you if you’re known as a performer (pace Cordon and Baynton – who, incidentally, have been robbed in recent TV awards) – and even then it’s no cakewalk.
    Rant over. I shall probably now just spend more time with my cats.

  3. I graduated from film school last year. TV writing is even trickier than film script writing in a lot of ways. It’s a lot more constrained and there’s a lot less you’re allowed to do. Especially when The Budget is involved!
    It makes me think of what one of the writers of ‘Friends’ said when he was asked what motivated him to write – ‘Bills, mostly.’
    He also said that Monica and Chandler’s relationship added on two bedrooms and a bathroom to his house.

  4. It feels like quite an honour to be Freshly Pressed by WordPress. I’m very pleased to enter this Valhalla of blogs!

  5. I paused at your words “working in TV…is a privilege.” I worked for a TV station some years ago and it was one of the most fun jobs I ever had. It was unpredictable and never boring, and it put me in situations and in places I never could have gone. It placed me with people I, otherwise, could never have met. It was so much fun.

    You’ve given us a nice look inside. Thank you.

  6. A very interesting post. However, I am still trying to get my head around the idea of a sitcom titled Vicious. It seems more appropriate for a standup comedy. As for your life, you seem to be running too fast and too overwhelmed by the glamour of TV to take a good look at what your “buddies” are producing. Or perhaps your world and theirs is as dark as it sounds. Someday I hope you will find a happier place.

    • Vicious, which is a broad, studio-audience sitcom for the mainstream terrestrial channel ITV, is based on the lives of two old gay men from theatrical backgrounds and was originally working-titled Vicious Old Queens. This was toned out for the actual broadcast.

      As a 49-year old man who has been working in TV and radio for over 25 years, I don’t really think I’m “running” anywhere, never mind “too fast”! Although the idea notion amuses me. Believe me, the industry I work in may be frustrating, but it’s anything but “dark.” It’s a shame you took that impression away with you.

  7. Great blog post NKU! I love meeting great talent; writing, acting, producing, directing… I’m not sure but, after I’m dead, if I act blasé… I’ll probably ruin my haughty energy by giggling. ;D

  8. Congrats on your Freshly Pressage!
    I am working on a feature film and would love to venture into TV screenwriting. I’m sure it has it’s own set of beats. Writing is my passion, but I hope it pays for a couple of home improvement projects someday….
    You have a fascinating job. What’s your next project?

    • Next project? Good question. I always try to have at least three plates spinning – that is, ideas “in development”, or at least “in play”. Once a project is outright rejected, I no longer consider it a spinning plate. I file it away. I have three potential plates currently spinning – one solo-written sitcom, one co-written sitcom, and a co-written drama – of which the drama is the number one priority. Both sitcoms are looking insecure, I’ll be honest – one is with BBC3, a “youth”-oriented channel that’s currently under threat and is moving online, wholesale, with reduced budget. The other I thought had been rejected by the BBC and another commercial broadcaster, but I learned last night the latter has not yet completely rejected it.

      In short: I think I may have to get a new plate spinning!

      • I love your “spinning plate” metaphor! I remember a guy who did that on the Ed Sullivan Show in time to Flight of the Bumblebee. (I’ve dated myself. I was three when I watched that show. 🙂 ) It sounds like a wild time, but you need product in order to sell! Good luck to you. I will follow your blog to keep up with your endeavors and

  9. “As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most.”

    I agree. I was recently in LA for the Writers of the Future workshop where I got to meet and stay up late with some of the legends of scifi & fantasy, and I never met a sweeter bunch of folks. We (winners) were just bowled over by how nice and genuine everyone was.

  10. God, yes, it’s slow. A TV series I’m being paid to develop has been in the works for 18 months now, without yet being pitched to a broadcaster. The upside for a TV writer is that, if/when it does go ahead, you at least get the credit for it, unlike in film.

    • True, having started out writing soap, even though that process is hugely collaborative, it was a huge thrill to see my name on the screen. That counts for a lot.

  11. Really liked what you wrote here. My daughter who is 32 has just found her calling she believes and is started on her journey into this field. She has always been an excellent writer and it bothered me she didnt pursue writing and went into biology / and looked toward pharmacy school. It all changed with some inspiration of sorts. Oddly from a tv show and opportunity at her college to become involved in visual media film classes. She just finished working with a group making a short. And is ever so eager to delve in already in a pre production for a feature length .. well zombies are in and that is the subject. Anyway this blog im showing her to inspire her to keep up her dream and maybe she too will taste some of that treacle syrup! Thanks.. (Dee Wes in Las Vegas)

    • Thanks, Dee, glad you found it useful. I wish I’d done film, or TV, at college. (I studied graphic design and illustration, which was fun, and it certainly helped me to decide that, ultimately, I wanted to write, not draw.)

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