Getting your foot stuck in the swinging doors of UK television is not as impossible as you might imagine.
While you might have grand dreams and ambitions of being a BAFTA or Oscar winning writer, the humble truth of it is that everyone has to start somewhere.
The opportunistic tales about being spotted or a script being chosen out of the pile above the rest are not about you and are never likely to be. Forget about the stories that have catapulted Terry from Tynecastle to Hollywood glory.
If you want a career in the UK industry, you just have to get involved. Be prepared to work in a minor role - raise your cholesterol by sucking some eggs for a while - gain some contacts and then roll the dice to see what happens.
This particularly applies if you’re a graduate or someone still in their late teens/early twenties. But it doesn’t matter what age you are really. If you’re fed up with writing to an empty vacuum from your pad in Poole, then make some effort to be part of the process rather than continually complaining about the system.
Like most things, it’s a simple enough approach and procedure but takes a lot of hard graft, determination and luck to get a break. But if you’re not doing it, someone else is benefiting. So:-
Watch the credits of shows that you enjoy. Jot down the producer’s name and the production company who made the programme.
Write to the producer. Better still, telephone to see if the producer works at the production company full-time or if he’s freelance. Get to know the assistant. Be polite but don’t get chummy. Ask him about the chances of getting work (runner/pa/whatever) and ask who the best person to contact is about this.
Thank them for their time and then write to the producer. Tell them who you are, you love their shows and you want to work for them.
You won’t get a reply. That’s okay. Follow it up with a phone-call. Talk to the assistant. He’ll remember you and might like the sound of you, and promise to put your CV on top of the pile. You might get a call back, an opportunity might crop up, you never know. But you’ve just made a contact with the assistant, and that’s the name of the game.
Regular TV favourites like ‘Have I Got News For You’ and ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’ (both made by Hat Trick, seem to have a high turnaround of staff per season. The runners will move on to something else or become a researcher so that leaves a spot open. Be alert and aware, and pick the right time to contact.
The BBC advertise all their jobs through their website, the national papers and their in-house magazine, Ariel (which you can nab at BBC reception).
Check out Monday’s Media Guardian for all sorts of media jobs and opportunities.
Broadcast is the TV industry trade mag for the UK market. It astounds me that very few people wanting to break in to the biz know of its existence. Get with the programme. It’s on sale every Friday and has a regular ‘Appointments’ page at the back with lots of jobs available, from runner to researcher to AP to producer.
Channel 4 and Channel 5 don’t make their own programmes, they commission them to independent production companies. This means that there are opportunities to work in the commissioning departments for C4 and C5. Basically, you become a temp and then see if you can wangle your way to a more permanent position (which is a regular occurrence).
I got work at Channel 4 through the temp agency Career Moves. They probably do Channel 5 as well but all you have to do is phone up the personnel departments of each channel and ask what temp agencies they use and then go from there.
When I came over from Ireland in 1994, I temped around for six months (advertising, publishing etc) before I got the call from Career Moves asking me if I’d like a spot in Channel 4’s “Duty Office” (now known as Viewer Enquiries).
It was a two week stint and I stayed for two years. Again, this is a regular temping occurrence. It’s still one of the best jobs I’ve ever done. I got to know all about Channel 4, the programmes it made, the people responsible for them and how the commissioning process worked.
If you’re stuck between a runner and a researcher and are not quite sure what to do, then go work for Viewer Enquiries. It rocks. From there, I worked my way into the Entertainment/Comedy department and stayed for another two years before taking the plunge to write full-time.
All is not lost if you don’t know anyone or have no relatives in the business. I didn’t know anyone but as soon as you get that first temping assignment (for Peter Salmon when he was Head of Factual Programmes at C4), you start making contacts.
From my two week spell cramming Peter Salmon’s diary with meetings he didn’t want (“8.30am? Why Danny?”), I got in contact with Kudos Productions (who now make Spooks) and met with producer Stephen Garrett. He asked me what I wanted to do, to which I replied: “Everything!”.
His advice was pick one thing, stick with it and give it all you got. I left the office disagreeing with him (I know, nuts) until finally five years later, his advice hit home and I chose writing above all else.
But his advice didn’t mean ignore the possibilities and opportunities of working as an assistant and working your way through the TV programme (or whatever it is you're doing). He meant do these things as long as it gets you to where you want to be. Don’t just go from pillar to post without any final objective.
So, breaking in can be done and all the experience and contacts will enrich your life and help you get to your goal. At least, that’s the plan.