Thursday, October 01, 2009

Writing for the BBC

Want to write for the Beeb? Interested in their continuing drama series (Doctors, EastEnders, Holby, Casualty)? Think it's all a closed shop? It isn't. You may think it is, especially if your ten pages didn't get past go at the writers' room, again, or you were rejected from the Writers' Academy for the fourth year running. But there are other ways in. Shadow schemes. See the full rundown below. I've taken this directly from BBC writersroom, so check out their website for more details, info and interviews.


What is a shadow scheme?

A shadow scheme is basically a dummy run of the commissioning process. Writers are asked to pitch guest story ideas, and given a real serial document from which they are asked to write all or part of a script. Usually they are asked to write two drafts. This script is not for broadcast, but is used by the production to decide whether or not to commission the writer.

Not all writers who write shadow scripts then go on to be commissioned.


Several times a year, writers are invited to attend an "Elstree Day". These are writers who are either new to the show, or would like to return. (It is optional for the returning writers, but still recommended as the show and the team have changed so much in the last few years.) During the day writers explore the genre of Continuing Drama; analyse a story document and see its journey to the transmitted episode; tour the set so that they can understand the geography of the world they'll be writing; and discuss the influence of both the show's history, and the real East End.

At the end of the Elstree Day the Shadow Script Task is set up. At a time convenient to them, writers are given a story document, the related research, and logistical production requirements. They then work with the Development Editor, James Peries, on two drafts of the script. After that a decision is made as to whether they will be commissioned to write for the show. There is no fee paid for this process, though (in a few cases) if a further period of development work is invited a fee might be paid for that. All writers new to the show have to undertake the Shadow Script process.

Holby City

Writers who already have an hour-long broadcast drama credit, are requested to pitch two brief, original guest story ideas. These must be devised in order to drive and illuminate the given serial from a story document. The writer does two drafts of their pitches with notes from Simon Harper, Development Editor. There is no fee paid for this exercise.

Less experienced writers may be invited on to the Holby City shadow scheme, for which, the work being more intensive, a fee is paid. Participating writers first spend a day at the Holby office, and then take away a story document and over the next few weeks, select one strand of a real episode and write a scene-by-scene treatment with an original guest story woven into it. They do two drafts of this before proceeding on to writing up 12-14 selected scenes from the treatment. Again, writers do two drafts, with notes from Simon before the Holby team decides who to take on to commission. This process is for the Holby team and the writers themselves to find out if they are right for the show. New writers can often fall down if they try to write a pre-imagined idea of the show, rather than discover what the show is about now.

Holby is a strongly authored and writer-led show. Tony McHale, who originated the show, is lead writer and also Executive Producer.


Also looks for writers with TV experience and a good grasp of structure. Casualty needs writers who can not only handle serial stories and medical procedure, but who can come up with strong and arresting guest stories and who have something exciting and relevant to say about the world now. For the 2008/9 Casualty shadow scheme, writers were given a three-day induction course on how to write for the show, which included a set tour and information about the format and ambitions of the show. The selected writers then pitched guest stories and if these were thought suitable, those writers worked with Script Producer Bianca Rodway and Script Editor Jenny van der Lande to develop shadow treatments and a draft Casualty script. A fee was paid for each part of the shadow scheme.

In 2009/10 Casualty will run another Shadow Scheme - the format of the scheme may be revised and further details will be posted on this page as they become available.


Doctors has a very high number of writers who are new to television. All new writers are asked to complete an unpaid shadow script in order to assess their suitability for the show.

The show does not have a Development Editor. Instead, all the Script Editors develop and work with new writers.

The show also runs an annual residential Doctors Academy that takes eight new or current Doctors writers, and teaches them more about how to write successfully for the show. Unlike the Writers Academy, you cannot apply for this scheme, but you can declare an interest in doing it when submitting to the show. The Script Editors decide which writers would must benefit from it.


Remember, if you don't have an agent, then you have to submit via the BBC writersroom. If you have an agent, get them to submit your work to the relevant people of the above shows (full details of key personnel available on writersroom website).


Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

Very interesting that, but I don't see details of the scheme on the Writersroom site - is it a situation where you are invited to take part in these initiatives or do you declare an interest?

Also I'd be interested to know your thoughts on what consists of a decent portfolio. I'm a slow writer - or at least I am at this stage of the game - and cautious about considering something finished until I'm happy with it, but the aim is to put together a number of scripts to send off to agents. What should I be working towards?


Danny Stack said...

As far as I know Mark, you submit via the writers room if you don't have an agent, and then they'd recommend you to an appropriate show. If you have an agent, then they would contact the relevant show directly. But a well-crafted email to those directly responsible could work, too, it all depends on you!

As for a decent portfolio - that varies, too. When I was starting out, my portfolio was 3 specs (incl an adaptation), TV specs and outlines/ideas. One really hot spec could be enough. Again, it all depends!