You’ve probably seen this already but the Tony Doyle Bursary is open again for submissions. I was the last person to win this two years ago (hurrah!) and it’s a really great prize. Not only do you get 2,000 beans for your wallet (cash, not real beans, I bought a laptop and an iPod), you get to spend the weekend with the BBC Northern Ireland development team as well as a few specially invited guests.
What’s doubly great about the weekend is that it’s spent in an exclusive artists’ retreat in the middle of nowhere, ahem, the middle of Ireland. There’s no television or telephone or any other kind of distraction, just peace and quiet in a picturesque setting. So, it becomes an intensive workshop where the BBC NI staff and guests take you through the ins and outs of good TV writing.
Those attending at my weekend were Patrick Spence, head of BBC NI drama. He spoke with genuine passion and surprising honesty about himself and the business. I liked him a lot. Deirdre Alexander, script editor, who coordinated the bursary that year. She was great; she now works for BBC NI comedy. Sarah Stack, another script editor, no relation, but obviously with us sharing the same name, we got on like a house on fire. Amanda Verlaque, script editor, also fantastic; she's moved on to Scottish soap, River City. Tania Nash, radio producer, fab, now producing EastEnders. TV writer Ashley Pharoah, lovely man. John Yorke, who was still at Channel 4 at the time; brilliant. Sally Doyle, wife of the late Tony Doyle; a classy lady. Three other writers made the group - Ruth McCracken, Martin O’Brien and Colm McManus - and we shared long nights drinking wine at the dinner table. (I haven’t forgotten anyone, have I?)
Patrick Spence did a marvellous deconstruction of NYPD Blue. Ashley Pharoah took us through the structural delights of Deliverance. And possibly best of all, John Yorke gave us a masterclass in creating and writing successful TV drama series.
He did an interesting exercise with us. He got us to list all our favourite drama series on one side of a flipchart, and on the other side, all our least favourite or unsuccessful drama series. That was fun. Then, he got us to list the positive qualities of the successful series and the negative aspects of the stinkers. Now it got interesting. We all gave our reasons: good idea, original voice, interesting characters, good actors etc, as opposed to the ‘bad’ series: crap idea, committee-led, cardboard characters, and so on.
However, John told us that we were missing one vital ingredient for a successful returning series to work. ‘Returning series’ are much sought after by the Beeb and ITV as the shows can run and run forever (“okay, that's episode 6, but what happens in episode 56? ep 106?" etc), while “serials” tell a finite story over a six-ten part run or whatever (State of Play, State Within, Our Friends in the North etc). So what’s the vital ingredient that’s going to make a returning series tick? We tried to guess but we didn’t come up with the answer, so John put us out of our misery:
All successful returning series have a 'gang' element to drive the series and keep it focused. Y'know, a group of friends, or detectives, or a family, or whatever. And here's the good thing about it: the gang can be changed (when actors leave the show after a while for example) and replaced by new members who fill the required role in the gang, etc. Neat, eh? And blindingly obvious too, so we were kicking ourselves for not thinking of it sooner.
So, if you’re sitting down to come up with the next hit drama series, then think about your ‘gang’. It may seem annoying and prescriptive to think in this way but it’s not, it makes perfect sense, and can be illuminating in the process of figuring out if your idea is a series or serial (or neither) in the first place.