Friday, November 11, 2005

Writing for Existing TV Series

Yesterday, 6:00am. I wrench myself out of my slumber to catch a train and tube that will take me to King’s Cross so I can make it to Leeds on time to teach the new students of the MA screenwriting course how to write for existing TV series (module 2). At the back entrance of my train station, I go to purchase my tube ticket from the unsupervised ticket machine. It’s dark and cold. My debit card gets stuck in the slot.

My fingers fail to grapple with the two millimetres of card that are within reach and I curse and kick the machine. I skedaddle to the front of the station and tell the station master what’s happened. He tells me to go back to the machine and wait, he’ll send someone to help. I scoot back to the machine. My debit card is gone. I kick and curse once more, this time in the vain hope that the machine has swallowed my card.

It’s unlikely so I phone up Lost & Stolen Credit Card line. I get through to an automated response: “Please press the fourteen digits of your credit card”. Me, quite loudly: “how can I f***g do that when it’s just been f****g stolen!”. The automated response seems to have understood: “Transferring you to an operator”. But the station master comes up the steps and in true David Blaine style, produces my debit card from his pocket.

Someone saw the card and managed to get it out when I left it unattended. Big relief and thanks (to whoever it was). I’ve got my card but I’ve missed my train. Still, there’s a train in a couple of minutes which may get me to King’s Cross in time for the train to Leeds. I go to the front of the station. Big queue for the Ticket Man so I try one of the machines. But my card has been damaged in the previous machine so it doesn’t work.

The train arrives. I rush to the head of the queue and ask if I can butt in and buy my ticket. A lady agrees. Humanity is alive and well in south London. The train is on the platform, the doors close. I get my ticket and race to get on board. With a millisecond to spare, the doors shut in my face. I look up the side of the platform towards the driver. The train doesn’t move for a few seconds but with a satisfied hiss, it leaves the station.

Suddenly, I’m that freak on a train platform. Shouting and cursing to no-one. A loon to be avoided. Not even the station master can look me in the eye. The next train is cancelled. It’s twenty minutes before the next train arrives. By the time I get to King’s Cross, I want to kill myself. The ticket for Leeds only allows me to travel on the time that I booked so I queue at the Travel Centre to explain my predicament. After I finish my spiel, the Ticket Man stares at me as if I’ve just told him I’ve slept with his wife. He takes my ticket, stands up, and walks off, presumably to phone my local train station to check if my story is true.

He comes back minutes later, says nothing, scribbles on a piece of paper and stamps it with British Rail’s approval. Special permission to travel on the next available train to Leeds which leaves in exactly one minute’s time. Cue Vangelis’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ as I dodge the morning commuters all the way to platform 1 to spring like a baby lamb on to the 8.05 train to Leeds. It truly is a miracle. In the end, I am only half an hour late for my teaching session.

For ‘Writing for Existing TV Series’ the students pick a television show they like and I guide them through the process of writing an episode. While it doesn’t exactly emulate the atmosphere and approach of a writers’ room, it’s a lot of fun as we analyse the shows, study what makes them work and try to come up with suitable story lines. This year the students have chosen Nip/Tuck, 24, Desperate Housewives, Scrubs and the UK supernatural series Hex.

It’s really difficult, especially for the students as they have to do most of the work. I’m there to help them understand to nuts and bolts of the process. We look at the typical number of scenes in any given episode and how many story lines are included, developed, resolved and carried forward. Is there an A plot, B plot, C plot? What kind of structure does the show adopt? A teaser and four acts (standard hour issue) or a teaser and two acts (half hour)? Teaser, three acts? What’s the style, pace, tone? What characteristics make it that kind of show as opposed to everything else?

It’s great because usually I’ll end up learning a hell of a lot too. There’s nothing I enjoy more than studying what makes good drama and the best of US drama certainly has a lot to offer in terms of style and craft. The students nearly always choose American dramas to write instead of homegrown UK fare (which always baffles me - surely you’d want a sample script of a UK show to get some work after you graduate?). To be fair, the course has some foreign students who have no interest in writing for UK soaps like Coronation Street or EastEnders but it is interesting to witness the disdain and cynicism towards UK drama from those who say they want to write TV in this country.

I’ve been doing the module for the last four/five years now and somewhat surprisingly, one of the best results came two years ago when a couple of students wrote episodes of The West Wing. They did a really good job. It wasn’t exactly Aaron Sorkin but they managed an impressive display of The West Wing’s trademark style and content.

So much so, the Head of Screenwriting sent the scripts to his US contacts for evaluation. They responded that they were functional and efficient - representative of a lot of TV spec scripts - but nowhere near the standard of being made or being hired: a good student script. The hardest show we’ve tried to write for has been The Simpsons. It seems that being funny is far more difficult than being dramatic.

But the one thing that students learn every year is that writing for TV is much, much harder than they ever realised and by the end of the module have acquired a whole new appreciation and understanding of what it takes. They sometimes reevaluate their criticism of UK shows and realise that the same talent and craft is being used but that it’s usually a different style and tone that’s in place because of the specific tastes and culture of this island.

So, come on, let’s hear it for UK TV writers. To name but a few: Paul Abbott (Shameless), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Jimmy McGovern (Cracker), Ashley Pharoah (Where the Heart Is), Tony Jordan (EastEnders), Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk), Stephen Merchant (The Office). Style, talent and kudos to rival the best of what the US has to offer.


Anonymous said...

Question Danny. Do you think it's generally a good idea to send sample scripts of existing programmes to the producers in the hope they'll like your stuff? I think I remember reading somewhere that it's a pointless exercise as copyright reasons mean they would never even dare look at it. Is this true in your experience?

Danny Stack said...

Generally the script editors/producers like to read a writer's original work before they hire. Sometimes you'll be asked to write a 'trial episode' (Doctors and Eastenders do this occasionally) so while it's not exactly a spec, it'll be unpaid.

Grubber said...

Danny, with regards to the train episode, just try and think Sliding Doors...and make sure you didn't flog the vodka. ;-)