Complications Ensue:
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Monday, September 26, 2005

My interview with Stephen Gallagher, continued.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: I gather non-writing producers have more power in the UK?

SG: It's rare to find a producer with writing skills. Occasionally a writer makes a splash with a hit show and gets to be an Executive Producer on the next project, but with a few exceptions it's a vanity credit. One of the exceptions would be Russell Davies, who's effectively the showrunner on the Doctor Who revival. But I could probably name you dozens of the other kind.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: I have the impression the British system is more about small blocks of episodes completely written before they shoot, often by small numbers of writers who slave to get it all perfect before it goes to camera. If so, doesn't that create a lot of work for everyone and piss off the audience when you can only get 6 episodes of Coupling a year? (It took us 7 episodes to figure out the template for Naked Josh, and we only had 8 first season, damn it.)

SG: Every now and again you'll get a British TV executive fulminating over how British writers resist team writing and how they're singlehandedly responsible for holding back our television drama. But their own business model isn't about hiring writers, it's about buying stories, and as long as that persists then British writers are always going to be a bunch of spiky loners.

One of my favourite British shows of recent years was Jonathan Creek, a detective drama about the odd-couple pairing of a scruffy, lateral-thinking magic assistant and a dysfunctional true-crime writer who drew him into unsolveable cases. If ever a British series cried out for the creation of an inventive writing crew sparking off each other under the close direction of the show's creator, it was this one. It had the feel of something that could really have gone the distance. But instead they never made more than six of them in a year, all penned singlehandedly by David Renwick. Before the second year was out the cracks were showing and the inventiveness was flagging. Series four and five were down to three episodes each and the show felt dead on its feet. A real shame because at the beginning, it was great and the potential was always there. Renwick could have run a great ship but he just stayed chained to the desk.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: When you're creating a show, do you write a spec pilot or a bible or what? How much do you write before taking it to a producer or network?

SG: Experience suggests that if you want a producer to pick up your idea and run with it, a descriptive proposal is best. Premise, setup, characters, story. Then they feel they're being involved from the ground up. If you show them a spec pilot it's like you've started the party without them. I find a useful compromise to be a proposal plus the first ten to fifteen pages of the pilot. If you've written the first act and you still haven't proved that there's a show there, then there's no show there.

As far as the network people are concerned, they'll only greenlight on the
basis of at least one fully developed script.

To be continued...



Really good stuff. There are so many screenwriting blogs out there where one can learn all about the American system whereas this is the sort of stuff I really want to know.

Thank you both, Alex and Stephen, for this.

Rather surprising cliffhanger, though...

By Blogger Lee, at 12:16 PM  

Very interesting Alex, thanks for posting this. Quick question... where's the rest of it? Surely there's more, it can't end on "develo". Can it? :)

By Blogger writergurl, at 12:30 PM  

The point about small episode blocks is well made, as it's both the blessing and curse of UK TV. Clearly it's completely inadequate for a procedural like Jonathan Creek but, on the other hand, it's the system that's given us the dramas we can be most proud of. Without that method of doing things there would have been no Singing Detective, Boys from the Blackstuff, or any one of the countless, brilliant dramas all the way up to today's Holding On and Conviction.

I'd hate to see us develop a team-centric production ethic at the expense of such unique visions.

By Blogger Lee, at 1:47 PM  

At the Showrunners event that I mentioned earlier (see comments to part 1 of the interview) the guests from the US all expressed envy of some of the more 'handcrafted' products of British TV and of the fact that we don't necessarily have to come up with an idea that will run for 100 episodes.

Of current British drama they were unanimous in admiration for SPOOKS (retitled MI5 for the US).

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 3:17 PM  

I like Spooks. It's a little bit like Law and Order and NYPD Blue, in that it can run forever and ever with a constantly rotating core cast, unlike, say, Monarch of the Glen or Ballykissangel, which lose their spark when the original leads move on.

By Blogger Lee, at 6:36 PM  

So how come Steven Moffat gets to write Coupling all hisself? Married to his producer?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:06 PM  

It's a tradition, or an old charter, or something; a holdover from the days my grandparents gathered around the wireless for their yucks.

The BBC is nothing if not reliably conservative.

Of course, they just might not have enough office space to accomodate writing teams.

By Blogger Lee, at 4:29 AM  

Spooks is possibly the closest thing you'll get to team writing in British TV (other than soaps) - the writers get together with the producers to hammer out series arcs and some storylines before starting the writing process. My impression is that this is partly down to Kudos deliberately trying to emulate US-style teams. However the creator, David Wolstonecraft, isn't a showrunner in the American sense and has no producer-type power. Which probably explains why he doesn't write episodes any more.

By Blogger mark g, at 6:47 AM  

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