Many thanks to my ol’ mucker Janine Jones, who I went to primary school with, for this write up!
Kicking off the TV Drama Writers’ Festival with a dry and funny look at Ambition, Peter Bowker (Eric and Ernie, Occupation, Monroe) explained ambitious projects are not necessarily high-concept and big budget. The ambition is to make great British television – through fantastic characters, solid stories and brave subject matter.
For me it was an opportunity to be in a room with my writing heroes, Lucy Gannon, Alice Nutter, Jack Thorne and Paula Milne. So yes, I was happy just to be there and have access to insider insight. As such I found the experience positive overall, although many there were desperate for answers, looking for hope in a downturned and depressed industry.
FIrst I attended a Q&A with Lucy Gannon (Soldier Soldier, Bramwell, the Best of Men), who was forthright and spoke with passion – her success is dependent on constant writing, pitching and writing, rejection and more writing. Lucy also gave a lot of credit to brilliant Script Editors and Producers, who she loves working with – the best of whom “make you run, not plod”. As budgets are smaller now, tell your stories in small, emotional ways, not with epic scenes. Lucy’s next series Frankie starts shooting in Bristol in September.
Next up was Rev: bringing a character to life. Writer James Wood explained that by dropping the ‘concept’ it was possible to develop a great (conflicted) character and his world (of conflicting relationships). Based on it’s integrity and authenticity, the show has become a massive hit, with audiences and the Church. It’s a great example of the format-changing shows the channels want, pitched from a fresh angle, with exceptional characters and issues to explore.
As a Cardiff resident I was compelled to attend Out of London, with Faith Penhale, Chris Aird and Stephen Wright, Heads of Drama Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They want to portray contemporary Wales, put Scotland back on the Screen, film ideas which can only be made in that location. Show what’s surprising about these places, avoid stereotypes and create drama with integrity of place, but with national appeal.
I started work on Casualty weeks after Mark Catley left, so I went along to Out of the Safety Net to hear him talk about leaving continuing drama. It was frank and personal and his love for Casualty and continuing drama were evident. As with much debate over the two days it focussed on the challenges of writing and pitching, how timing (and even luck?) can come to bear on every project.
The most illuminating session was the evening’s keynote debate about representing disability and casting disabled actors. In the hot seat were Lucy Gannon and Jack Thorne (This is England, The Fades, Cast-Offs, Skins) and two actors, Ben Owen (Best of Men, Shameless) and Lisa Hammond (Psychoville, Bleak House) who talked about their experiences of getting work and roles available to disabled actors. I left considering the representation of disability in contemporary television, but also the potential in roles that weren’t ‘about’ a disability per se, but for which a disabled actor could be considered for casting.
On day two Paula Milne discussed her working style, amazing career and 2011 series White Heat. I also saw Ashley Pharoah and Danny Brocklehurst comparing the relative merits of the US and UK markets.
Meet the Commissioners introduced Ben Stephenson (BBC), Laura Mackie (ITV), Sophie Gardiner (C4) and Huw Kennair-Jones (Sky). Their key advice was to be absolutely sure you’re pitching your idea to the most appropriate channel – but to keep pitching (via the appropriate channels/Producers/Production Companies, etc.)
My final session was Is it in our DNA? in which Ben Stephenson, Paula Milne and Emma Frost (Consuming Passion, Shameless) discussed questions around women writers and the head vs. heart debate. Admittedly, it was fairly inconclusive. As with the other sessions there was reassurance to be taken from it – hard, good work yields results. It re-invigorated my passion for a challenging industry.
The Festival isn’t a forum for new writers, nor a how-to seminar on getting into the business. It is an environment where you can pick up a real sense of the industry today and potentially a few contacts. I chose to believe Ben Stephenson when he said that if you pitch a really brilliant idea, it doesn’t matter if you are a new writer or a TV stalwart – the idea is the thing. This message was pervasive across the whole programme of seminars – all the commissioners want to see is great scripts, great pitches, great characters and great formats.