COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you break into TV in the UK?
SG: In my case I started out writing for radio, where there were genuine openings for newbies. You could write a piece on spec, send it in, make a sale, and be treated like a pro from the first day... and with any luck you'd rise to it and act like one. Most of my sales were to Saturday Night Theatre, a 90' slot for solid, well-told stories. One of these was a science fiction piece which my producer sent over to the Doctor Who office with a note, and out of that came my first TV commission. I used to say of radio drama that it was the nearest thing we had to a National Writing School. It's still a way in, but there aren't as many radio openings as there were.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you get hired onto a British show?
SG: A producer's first instinct seems to be to call on the writers who've given them least trouble on previous shows. That can be regardless of whether they're the right person for the gig. There are a lot of competent dullards out there with lengthy resumes.
If stuck they'll send out a call to agents, describing the show and asking them to suggest suitable clients. Certain agents -- and I believe mine's amongst them -- have a reputation for paying attention to the brief and only suggesting genuine candidates. Others are like Broadway Danny Rose and send along every juggler on the books. They tend not to get asked again.
If they don't know you but your agent can make you sound good, the producer will read a sample of your work and then call you in for a meeting. After you've discussed the show, you go away and try to come up with a suitable story idea. You write it up in two or three pages, send it in, and wait. If they like it, they'll commission a treatment and if the treatment works, maybe after notes and revisions, they'll commission a script.
The limiting factor here, to my mind, is that every story in the show represents the first thoughts of an outsider encountering the concept for the first time. I didn't mind it as a contributor but I instantly saw the weakness in it from the creators' side -- good people coming along, grabbing the wrong end of the stick, rushing into story to get the job.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: You mentioned free lancers. Are many episodes free lanced or is it mostly staff?
SG: Almost everything's freelanced. The soaps tend to be the only shows with an actual writing staff. They have storyliners devising the long-distance stuff, which makes its way down to the contract writers in the form of scene breakdowns which they turn into dialogue. I got into a conversation with one of the contract writers at a Guild event once; he explained how they were paid by the episode but guaranteed a certain number of scripts in a year, with holiday provision and pension rights.
Going back to the earlier point about breaking in, I understand that some of the soaps will give new writers a tryout by giving them old scene breakdowns to work up. There was a scandal recently when one of them invited new writers to submit storylines in the hope of being given a tryout, but required them to sign away copyright. Then some of the rejected ideas began surfacing in the show... it was blamed on an over-enthusiastic individual in the script department.More tomorrow...