COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: Who gets screen credit when a staff writer writes a show? I'm told the head writer often grabs the credit.
SG: That one's outside my experience. I did work on a show once where a freelance saw his script so rewritten by producer and script editor that he wanted his name off it, and the show went out with no writing credit at all.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: Do you write drama or comedy? Is there a big dividing line in the UK, or does one shade into the other? Here in Canada we have these wacky half hour dramas that don't exist anywhere else.
SG: I'm not stopping and thinking too deeply about this but I'd say the dividing line is very much there. Off the top of my head I can only think of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who started out writing sitcoms and now write a successful blend of drama-with-humour. Mostly our drama's rigidly naturalistic while the most successful comedies of recent years have been quite dark and absurdist.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How important do you feel genre is to television? Are there clearly defined genres? Does the audience like hybrid shows that cross genre lines, or are they problematic?
SG: Well, I grew up on genre shows and I think they're enormously audience-friendly and entertaining, but it seems I'm at odds with our commissioning culture in that one. Right now you'd have to look long and hard to find any British-made fantasy or sf outside of childrens' TV. Whenever I get one of my shows onto the screen, it always feels as if I'm reinventing the wheel. Even when one of them's well-received it seems to gain me no ground for the next one.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: Do you have a writer's union? Is it strong or weak? I notice the producers were proposing having multiple people writing episodes at once with no guarantee. Were you all to be paid, or only the lucky successful one?
SG: We have the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. I've been a member since my first professional sale and I served for three years as a regional chair. But I'd be kidding myself if I said we had the clout of, say, the WGA. [Ed. note: Neither does the WGC. The WGA can be pretty heavy when it needs to be.] Only a fraction of working writers are members. A significant fraction, and enough to have a credible presence when it comes to negotiating basic rates and conditions. But there are few direct advantages to joining, so many don't. As for the unacceptable 'writing race' that I was invited to be part of, I didn't stick around long enough to establish the terms.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you know when a draft is done?
SG: When I've ticked off all the notes on my big yellow pad. I know the script's fully done when I've seen the rough cut and written or rewritten all the loop lines.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you think the advent of DVD sets will change storytelling? E.g. will there be more room for serial storytelling?
SG: Getting an entire season of a TV show is like picking up a Russian novel. Suddenly serial elements are desirable instead of irritating. I mean, you miss the first episode of something on broadcast TV, and even if everyone's talking about it you feel that the bus has gone without you. Or you miss a show in mid-season and never regain your grip. Or you just run out of commitment... I remember getting all the way to the last episode in the second season of Murder One and just not having the will to watch the end, even though it was the one where you found out the verdict. We taped it, kept putting it off for months, finally taped over it. Still don't know the outcome. But with a set you've got no ads, better picture quality, and you set your own timetable. We've been watching Lost week-by-week (season one just started over here), but only until the DVDs arrived yesterday. Now we're three weeks ahead.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: What shows do you watch? Why?
SG: At the moment my must-sees are Deadwood, Carnivale, Alias (although season 3 tested my devotion and I'm not sure I'll be on board for season 4), Battlestar Galactica, Family Guy. I like CSI but only Las Vegas; I can watch New York but not Miami. I'm awed by the stripped-down procedural drive of Law & Order. I was never a Buffy fan but I think Firefly's wonderful. I've heard good things about House and Veronica Mars so they're both on the list. I think shows like these are the next logical step up from the kind of incident-led, movie-look entertainment TV I grew up with. The Saint, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Callan. The new stuff has the same kind of joy but with a richer adult sensibility.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: There seems to be more room in British TV for unlikable yet compelling leads. Only now are HBO and Showtime catching up with that. Why do you think the British audience has a greater stomach for watching shows about bastards and/or losers? Or is that not an accurate perception?
SG: I've heard theories that it's all a consequence of losing an Empire. All I can say is that I feel no personal responsibility for any of that.
Warren Zevon once said, "I couldn't imagine writing about a winner if he wasn't a loser who'd prevailed." I liked it so much I made it the opening quote in a book.Thanks, Steve!