Tuesday, October 18, 2005

BBC Writing Academy

This year, the BBC launched a new writing initiative called the BBC Drama Series Writing Academy. John Yorke, the Controller of Continuing Drama Series, wanted a more focused search for the next generation of talented writers who could write for the BBC’s flagship shows like EastEnders, Holby and Casualty. The scheme has chosen its eight writers for this year but it’s likely that it will run again next year, so keep a look out for it.

One of the conditions of application was that potential writers would have had at least one film, television or radio drama script produced, or one theatre piece performed professionally. That left it open to professional writers, or semi-professional writers at least. This appealed to me because it meant that it wasn’t open to Joe Public and I just about qualified because although my Doctors episodes hadn’t been broadcast, they had been signed off, which made me eligible for the scheme. So I applied - what the hell. You had to send one of your scripts along with one of the standard BBC application forms.

To my surprise, I was invited in with the final twenty one candidates to Drama’s HQ in BBC Centre House (opposite BBC centre). We spent the day with the Head of New Writing, the Acting Head of Development and the Producer of the scheme. They reliably informed us that our work had been carefully read and selected from over 600 applicants, so we represented ‘the best and most talented’ writers who bothered to apply. They explained the shortlist procedure: we were going to spend the day together talking about the flagship shows, then we were going to do a couple of writing exercises from which we would be judged. A kind of Script Idol but without Simon Cowell.

Talking about the flagship shows was fun and our first writing exercise was to write a scene of our choice from one of the shows. I wrote a scene between Diane and Owen in Holby City - their relationship hitting the rocks - and while it wasn’t exactly Mamet, I was quite pleased given the one hour turnaround. Our overnight exercise (and deadline) was to write the first ten pages of an EastEnders script. They provided us with the previous story lines and relevant information that we needed to know, and we went on our merry way. I tried not to dwell on the exercise too much and wrote my ten pages and sent it off with an hour to spare on the deadline.

At this stage, I’m not expecting much. I’m quite pleased to have made it this far and while I think I have a fair chance of getting a spot, I don’t realistically expect to get through to the next stage (the final interview). But hey, I get called in for interview. This is with the aforementioned heads along with John Yorke (chief honcho) and Mervyn Watson (exec producer of Casualty). I’m nervous. I’ve met John Yorke before, he’s a really nice bloke, but the interview completely throws me and I fall flat on my face.

They warn me that they’ll be making notes during the interview, so they may not be looking at me the entire time, which is fine but as I try to answer their questions (“why do you want to be a TV writer?” “what went wrong with EastEnders?” “should the audience feel happy or sad?”) I notice that they’re not taking any notes at all, and they’re staring into space. I’m unnerved. John Yorke looks bored. Shit. I begin to second guess myself. Some of the questions they ask cover what we spoke about at the workshop so I wonder if they want me to reiterate or come up with something new to say. I blather between the two. Mervyn Watson asks me about Casualty, the show I’m least familiar with. I give him generic observations that quite rightly don’t make a jot of an impression. The interview ends very quickly - half an hour (they said it would take 45 mins) - and I leave shell-shocked and disappointed with myself.

Outside BBC Village, I have to sit down for a half an hour as my brain tries to fathom the situation. It’s the worst interview I’ve ever done in my life and I’m truly amazed at how it went away from me so quickly. I feel sick. Even though it’s not the be all end all, the scheme is a great opportunity to get your TV career on the fast track. In a daze, I somehow make it into town and meet my friend for much needed pints. I tell my agent how I’ve blown it. She’s got three other clients up for interview so I give her a heads up of what to expect. She tells me that one other client has already had his interview (must have been right after me) and he shared a similar demoralising experience. I put it aside, thinking I will not be offered a place, but my agent remains optimistic.

A couple of days later, a get a phone call from the Beeb. A phone call is good - rejections normally come in letter form - but this call is to tell me I won’t be part of the scheme. It’s as I expected so I’m not too downbeat. However, my agent’s three other clients all get offered a spot (even the guy who said his interview was just as bad as mine). Jesus, my interview must have been The. Worst. Ever. Must try harder.

Nevertheless, the experience grants me a meeting with Kate Rowland, head of the Writers’ Room, and she tells me of various opportunities (radio, the BBC Film Network etc). She puts me into contact with a radio producer and we discuss a few ideas and the BBC’s submission process (see previous post on the subject). And yesterday, I got a phone call from the Writers’ Room asking me if I’d be interested in a pitching session during the London Film Festival. Why thank you very much.

So, even though I didn’t get a place with the writing academy, it was an enjoyable (really) and worthwhile exercise that has afforded me a few new contacts. And that’s the name of the game really.

For a full breakdown of the writing academy and its schedule, click here.


James Moran said...

Yikes. I feel your pain. It's horrible when you know it's going wrong, but are powerless to stop it - doing the face to face stuff kills me, I just feel like an idiotic 12 year old who has never spoken until now. Well done for pulling a silver lining out of it, though. Hello, by the way!

Warren said...

Good for you. That's progress, although it probably feels only like rejection. Nice job staying upbeat about it all, and maybe it will end up leading to something cool after all!

Do you know if the program was restricted to UK Citizens? I may be living over there soon, and will be looking for writing opportunities, but I'm a Yank.

Danny Stack said...

Think it's open to just about anyone who's resident in the UK so you should be ok if you move here.