Complications Ensue:
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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Stephen Gallagher (Dr. Who, Rosemary and Thyme, Eleventh Hour) was kind enough to answer some questions about what it's like to write in the British system. It's sort of appalling, really...

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: The big question, of course, is how the British system works. You probably have a good idea of how it's supposed to work here. A writer brings a pitch or spec pilot to a production company, which brings it to a net, or the net takes the pitch directly. They commission a pilot if it's not written already. Some of the pilots get shot. Some produced pilots are picked up for a series order. Usually there's a writing staff of 4-8 for a drama, more for a sitcom. The creator is showrunner if she or he has enough experience, otherwise the creator gets second chair while a showrunner's hired on. The showrunner is almost always an experienced writer.

STEPHEN GALLAGHER: In our case the first place to go with a pitch (or 'a submission', as it's still sometimes called) would be one of the old-style broadcasting companies, an independent producer, or the Drama Department of the BBC. They, in turn, are all entirely focused on the needs of the Channel Controllers, who'd be our equivalent of your network people.
There's a whole story to be told about the political background to changes in the structure of British TV during the 90s, but we'd be here all day if I started to tell it. I'll just jump ahead to the outcome, which is that we moved from a producer-led to a scheduler-led system. The tricky part is that we haven't made it all the way there yet.

A successful, active producer will pay you to write a pilot script. A lesser producer will get you polishing up your treatment for free in the hope that he can persuade someone else to underwrite the scripting. A total loser will try the old, "You write it for nothing, I'll put in my time, and everyone wins in the end" routine.

Whoever takes on your idea for development, there are effectively only two people in the business with significant greenlighting power -- the Controller of BBC1, and the ITV Network Drama Commissioner. Theirs are the big, popular channels with a lot of hours to fill. BBC2 and C4 have so few hours for original drama that it's barely worth taking a mainstream idea to them -- although it's sometimes worth remembering that BBC2 has a penchant for the Cultural (= set in the sixties) and C4 for anything 'edgy' (= issue-driven with wobbly camerawork). Our other channels generate little to no original drama at all, although they may invest in a piece of some international project and show it as their own.

The networks don't finance pilots, although they'll occasionally spring for a 'back door pilot' -- which means they'll commission a one-off drama for broadcast with the idea that they'll spin a series from it if it goes down well. But almost without exception, everything that gets made is going to get shown. It's after the greenlighting of a show that everything differs. The pitching process may be American-modern but the organisation for the making-of lags way behind.

The producer keeps hold of the reins and has the show written entirely by freelancers, of which you the creator will be the first in line. You may get hired to write further scripts, and you should get a 'created by' credit and a fee whenever it appears. But you'll have no actual creative control. You won't get an office, or a parking space, or even a pass to enter the building. You'll be required to show up for meetings but you don't get to call them. You may not even meet any of the other writers. The producer will be the arbiter over every creative thought you offer. You'll have to sit at home and watch the show if you want to find out what direction it's taking.

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Good article - looking forward to reading the next bit.

Comedy, by the way, is even worse. I spent my whole life trying to write for UK TV comedy, and now I'm there, I'm desperate to get out. If you're not a writer-producer, or a writer-star, you have to be very lucky to make a living.

By Blogger James Henry, at 7:13 PM  

I'd like to hear what Stephen has to say about the growth of digital channels in the UK - most of the really good writing and gripping new shows seem to originate on BBC Three right now, and he doesn't mention that.

Also, Russel T Davies is, effectively, showrunner for the new Doctor Who, as is Paul Abbot on Shameless, so does this indicate some kind of sea-change? Are writers being given more creative control, or is the title a placebo?

What does he think about UK university courses, such as Leicester's TV Script Writing MA - are they are good way to break into the business?

By Blogger Lee, at 5:12 AM  

I seem to recall that Russell T gets a mention later on, so hang in there, Lee. I'm hoping that we're witnessing the exceptions that will prove and ultimately destroy the 'rule'.

BBC3's doing interesting stuff, for sure, but as a pro market for drama it's still comparatively tiny... BBC4 ditto, but even smaller. I mostly talked about our two main channels because that's where you mostly have to set your sights if you're going to sustain a career. But on their output I don't disagree with you at all.

I didn't realise that in describing the setup I deal with on a daily basis, I was telling a tale that Alex would read as a horror story; his reaction has made me view the situation in a new light. I'd had a glimpse of the showrunner system at a MediaXchange weekend in London a couple of years ago and had been persuaded that it's a far more exciting and successful way of making volume television drama. But now I'm even more dissatisfied with the setup than I was.

A screenwriting course will never make a writer out of a non-writer but as a place to stretch your muscles and learn stuff it's a better-than-most opportunity, especially if it's taught by genuine industry people. Having said that, it's always going to be what you make of it. I did a year as mentor/script tutor to a student at the Northern Film School and I don't think I helped her one whit. She sent me her script with a note saying that she'd got it pretty much as she wanted it. I praised her neat idea (which it was) and detailed which of her choices made it go nowhere (which it did). Four drafts and four sets of notes later she'd moved some of the furniture around but changed nothing essential.

You can't do that in the real world; you can stick you what to believe in but you have to do some footwork to deliver it in a way that'll keep it intact. With good notes I usually find that my initial resistance changes as I grudgingly implement them!

Flawed as her screenplay was, it was put together in a very professional way. I think the film school gave her that. The rest was up to her.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 7:21 AM  

Thank you, Stephen, I really appreciate the reply. Looking forward to the rest of the interview.

By Blogger Lee, at 10:48 AM  

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