Wednesday, 23 April 2014

For those about to write, we salute you.

And so, let us starts with the apologies. I write this in my cups, under the influence, one over the eight, pissed. This blog comes after the best of nights; a night on the lash with other writers. Very appropriate for the 23rd of April 2014, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Happy Birthday Bill!

And so I also think it is appropriate to sing the drunken praises of my fellow scribes, those other daughters and sons of the written word. The women and men who understand the human condition and bring it to life of on the page screen, stage and page. Those astronauts in the outer space of empathy and the search for truth. Ah, that’s pretentious babble but it’s not entirely off target.

You see the greatest thing about making a living from putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, arse to chair is your fellow travellers. That’s what makes this odd choice of career sustainable. The realisation that you are not the only one with that skewed view of the world, that exposed heart, that need to chronicle. And it is a need, not a whim or a vague notion.

And so the best moments of this odd life is not spent at the desk but in the tavern, inn, pub or coffee shop. That moment when you realise it’s not just you! There are other freaks that obsess over the words, over the scenes, over the characters. The first time you squee over that episode, that scene, that minor character. They get it, the minutiae. More importantly, they get you.

It’s an extraordinary moment. A feeling of belonging that you never felt at school, at your first crappy job or even, whisper it, when amongst your family.

That is not to say that your nearest and dearest can’t be taken on the journey. The box set and the book becomes your gift to those you love. Never turn your nose up at a flat, rectangular gift from a writer. Our heart and soul comes in those oblong boxes. It means we love you. In return, buy us stationery. There is nothing more guaranteed to gladden a writer’s heart than an unsullied page and the unused pen.

And so on this holiest days, I salute you my sisters and brothers of the pen. I share your frustrations, your tears, your triumphs and your desire to be ‘got’. And I urge you to remember that there is strength in numbers. The Writers’ Guild is there for you, manned and guided by your fellow writers. Other writers are there for you. Reach out, we’ll be there.

Well, when we’ve got this draft in. You may need to be patient.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

They Say The Darndest Things...

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with some fellow TV writers. Well, I say a conversation; it was more a cathartic expulsion of bile and frustration. But then don’t all conversations between writers ultimately end up that way?

Anyway, the topic under discussion was “things that TV Development Producers say”. Or specifically, “things that Development Producers say that make you wish BBC & ITV buildings had functioning windows so that you could throw yourself out of them”. As I said, it was quite a cathartic discussion.

Many of the producer quotes were greeted with howls of painful recognition. We’d all heard them in meeting after meeting. Those little clichés or go-to questions that they trot out in every meeting with every writer. So much so, that they are now a trigger for involuntary violent fantasies. But were we being fair? Do the producers even realise that they’re doing it? Perhaps they have no idea that we’ve heard all their little sound bites before?

So, I’ve decide to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but offer this as a friendly guide to things you shouldn’t say in development meetings. Especially if your windows are open.

I also provide a little guidance on how a writer should/should not react to these pearls of wisdom.

1. If you could sum this idea in one line…


What You Shouldn’t Say
If I could sum up my idea in one line I wouldn’t need to write a script? Why must everything be boiled down to the small paragraph that will appear in the Radio Times? It strikes me that if you can’t grasp a concept that requires more than ten words you’re in the wrong job.


What You Should Say
It’s Sherlock meets Breaking Bad.


2. This is a great start/first draft.


What You Shouldn’t Say
A great start? A great fucking start? Have you any idea how I’ve sweated over this? And do you really think I’d send you an actual first draft? Writing this ruined my marriage, you prick. I missed my kid’s Nativity play to get this to you.


What You Should Say
I can’t wait to take it to the next level.


3. Why should we tell this story now?


What You Shouldn’t Say
Because I've only just had the idea. And why does it matter anyway? By the time you’ve ummed and ahhed over it, we’ll be five years down the line. For fuck’s sake, aliens could have invaded and UKIP could be in government by the time you make a decision and it actually gets on the screen. And did you ask that question when you were doing your latest reboot/literary adaptation? Or did you just ask whether the material was out of copyright? Wow, do they actually give you a book of stupid, pointless questions to ask?


What You Should Say
I think we can draw a lot of parallels between the 16th century and Austerity Britain. And stories about the human spirit are ultimately timeless.


4. We really like what you’ve got here, but have you considered…


What You Shouldn’t Say
Of course I’ve considered it. I’ve been through every permutation of this story to get to this point. I didn’t just bash it out in an afternoon, you know? I’ve lived with this idea, working it through my mind, drawing on everything I know and have experienced. I’ve lived with these characters until I feel like I know every detail of their lives; things that won’t make it to the screen but will inform everything they do and say. I did all that before I could even consider showing this to you.


What You Should Say
That’s a really interesting idea.


5. Whose story is it?


What You Shouldn’t Say
It’s MINE! You can’t have it. You’re not worthy!


What You Should Say
Ultimately, it’s about a flawed and complicated protagonist. S/he’s an everyman/woman that the audience will fall in love with.


6. I’ll know what I want when I see it.


What You Shouldn’t Say
Well, any chance you could give us a clue what that might be? Start by telling us what you don’t want to see and we’ll go from there. And don’t give me that shit about your likes and dislikes being irrelevant and it being about ‘good writing’ when we all know it’s about who bought you a drink down at the Groucho Club last week. When I’m made to throw shit at the wall, I’d like to know there is an outside chance that some of it might stick.


What You Should Say
Wow, it’s great to have such a blank canvas. It’s like there are no wrong answers.


7. I gave your script to a friend/my kids/the girl who does my nails to get a second opinion.


What Not To Say
Why? Are you incapable of doing your job? Actually, I asked my postman what he thought of you and he called you an unprofessional dick. The woman in the chip shop agreed. I like to get a second opinion too.


What To Say
It’s always good to see things through a fresh pair of eyes.


But the ultimate annoying question and one that we’d all been asked….


8. But, if the main character does this will the audience like her/him?


What Not To Say
Perhaps not. Perhaps they’ll have a strong emotional reaction to the character instead of simply liking them. I like lots of people but I don’t want to give up an hour of my precious TV viewing time to watch them. Did you like Tony Soprano? Walter White? Nurse Jackie? Hamlet? I think you’re confusing liking a character with having sympathy for them, identifying with them, rooting for them, being outraged by them. The job of the screenwriter is to get us to feel something, not just to ‘like’ it.


What To Say
I was thinking we could cast Martin Freeman/Suranne Jones.


So, there you have it; all genuine things that are said repeatedly in development meetings. If you have ever said any of those things to a writer; shame on you. But it’s not too late to change your ways.


As ever comments are encouraged and welcomed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Writers' Blog Tour


Dearest Reader,

 
As you know I am somewhat erratic when it comes to blogging. I usually wait until I’m livid to write something career-threatening and possibly libellous.

And so, I’d like to thank Robin Bell (www.robinbellwriter.blogspot.com) for pressganging me into writing something slightly calmer. Basically this seems to be the blog equivalent of a chain letter. I answer the following four questions about my current writing and then get some other sucker to do it. Haven’t chosen the suckers yet, but watch this space.
 
1. What am I working on?
 
Currently I’m writing a new episode of Midsomer Murders, but that question never quite covers the reality of being a working TV writer. At any one time I have five to ten other projects in various states of completion from a full script to having a snappy title. Most of those projects I can’t talk about and most of them will never get past the various drama commissioners’ desk. By which point all the life and fun will have been sucked from them.
 
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 
First off, I didn’t word that question. What genre? I write across several genres. I also think that people often confuse genre for form. I assume what is being asked is what sets my writing apart from others. I don’t think that’s for me to say. I hope my writing is warm, sparky and compelling. But then I should imagine everyone hopes that about their work. It’s often said that writers should develop their ‘voice’; I can’t remember when I wrote in anything other than my voice. Although that’s not to say that it is never influenced by the vast amount of TV I watch.
 
3. Why do I write what I do?
 
I suppose I should write something noble about being driven to write by a deep inner need to express humanity in all its glory and depravity. Honest answer? Sometimes it’s that. Sometimes there’s a story or character that’s just itching to get on the page. Sometimes I impress myself with a new idea so much that I need to get my ego stroked by getting other people to tell me it’s brilliant. And sometimes I write for the money like a cheap whore.
 
4. How does my writing process work?
 
Mainly, it doesn’t. It’s a soul-sucking, self-defeating routine of procrastination, distraction, self-delusion and twatting about on Twitter. However, after a few days of that and with the deadline looming, I kick into tunnel-vision mode where the only thing that matters if getting the fucking thing on the page. I write it like I’m possessed by it and I hate it. It’s a slog of early mornings, late nights, crap food and poor personal hygiene. And then the writing narcotic kicks in. I can never predict when but it’s never a moment too soon and so far it’s never too late. It’s that high you get when it’s finally flowing. When my fingers can’t fly across the keyboard fast enough to get the dialogue down. The characters are speaking and the stories are forming. It’s the closest I get to believing in the supernatural. And then I take a shower, clean the kitchen, phone my parents to tell them that I’m still alive and the next day it starts all over again.
 
And there you have it!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.


As regular visitors to this blog will know, I am not a stranger to fits of rage, fury and general kick-the-cat anger. I try to channel them into humour and not kicking cats. Before anyone calls the RSPCA; I don’t own a cat. And thank God for that, because something happened last week that would have had me firmly planting my boot up Chairman Meow’s fundament.
 
The Guardian newspaper has decided to take a break from the quinoa recipes and stories about Twitter to run their own film awards. You know, because what the UK film industry really needed was another evening spent in a London hotel function room eating cold food, slapping each other’s backs and listening to video speeches from actors who couldn’t be arsed to get on the plane from LA. Yeah, that’s just what a national film industry that is in decline requires.

  
But that’s not what put me in the bad mood. Have a look at the categories.

 
So, there’s the usual suspects; best director, best performance, best film etc. Hang on a minute, this looks like fun. There’s a category for ‘Best Scene’ and ‘Best Line of Dialogue’ instead of ‘Best Screenplay’. Okay, I think it’s difficult to ask people to judge those things out of context. Still, at least it’s recognition of the writer’s craft and how we use dialogue and scenes to build a story and characters…
 
Except it’s not, because those trendy wankers at The Guardian haven’t actually bothered to involve the writers in those categories. Indeed, in the Best Dialogue category, they’ve listed the actors that learned those lines, but not the writers that actually wrote them.
 
This is what incites my genuine and deep felt rage. This utter inability to understand how films are actually made coupled with such a spectacular lack of basic respect for my profession. The idea that months, often years, of work by a writer can be boiled down to a line of dialogue or a scene that looked good on the trailer is bad enough. However, not even bothering to credit the men and women who stared at a blank page or computer screen and then conjured those lines and those scenes from thin air, is unforgivable.
 
Because that is what screenwriters do, They create the characters you love; the dialogue that made you laugh; the scenes that broke your heart, FROM NOTHING. Before a DOP touches a camera, before a costume designer touches a sewing machine, before a producer touches a phone and before a director touches some poor unfortunate starlet on the casting couch. Before all that there is a writer and the blank page.
 
And that is certainly before anyone designs the fucking poster or edits a few clips over an Ed Sheeran track, but the Guardian hacks still think that the ‘Best Marketing Campaign’ is more worthy of an award than the writers.
 
I’m assuming that the bright spark that came up with these award categories was one of the imbeciles who couldn’t understand why the silent film The Artist received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. The sort of imbecile who will never understand the tyranny of the blank page and the sheer hard work that goes into creating a credible script with a narrative structure and complex characters. To isolate just one line of dialogue or a scene shows an ignorance of film, not a love for it.
 
The very least that the Guardian could have done was credit the writers of the films from which they arbitrarily lifted scenes and dialogue, but they could not even be bothered to do that. So, I’ll do it for them.


Alan Partridge:Alpha Papa
Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons & Armando Iannucci

Gravity
Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron

The Great Beauty
Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello   

12 Years A Slave
John Ridley (based on the book by Solomon Northup)

Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen

Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel & Ethan Coen

Before Midnight
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Kim Krizan

Post Tenebras Lux
Carlos Reygadas

Blue is The Warmest Colour
Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix (Based on the book by Julie Maroh)

The Wolf of Wall Street           
Terence Winter (based on the book by Jordan Belfort)

Behind the Candelabra
Richard LaGravenese (based on the book by Scott Thorson & Alex Thorleifson)

American Hustle
Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell

Nebraska
Bob Nelson

Philomena
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (based on the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith)

Robot and Frank
Christopher D. Ford

Her
Spike Jonze
 
That took me about 10 minutes to look up on IMDB. It shouldn’t really have been a stretch for a paper that apparently prides itself on the quality of its journalism. But then the journalists probably just, you know, throw a few ideas together. It will be their editor that whips it into shape. It’s actually all about the typeface and the pictures that he chooses, the words aren’t that important. Are they?
 
See what I did there?
 
It seems to The Guardian that we writers are not even worth ten minutes of their time. However, it is worth saying that other publications are equally dismissive.


I’m looking at you Empire; allegedly the World’s Biggest Film Magazine. Let’s not even talk about how your photo shoots of actors usually have them in sharp suits whilst the actresses always seem to have forgotten to put on their trousers. Perhaps you could take a break from turning into Loaded and actually list the writers on your film reviews? Perhaps interview them once in a while? Because without writers there is no film for you to actually write about and no reason for Jennifer Lawrence to be naked and covered in blue paint.
 
It’s not about money or credits or claiming ownership of films. It’s about respect.
 
 
 
 
No cats were harmed during the writing of this blog.

 

 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Santa Baby


Dear Father Christmas.
This year I’ve been a good little writer. I promise. I’ve hit all my deadlines (eventually), I’ve only sworn at producers and script editors AFTER I’ve put the phone down, I paid my BBC licence fee and my Writers’ Guild subs. I watched ALL of Dancing on the Edge (and didn’t ask for a damn rebate on said licence fee or the six wasted hours of my life back).  I’ve tweeted responsibly and I’ve supported British films at the box office. I even went to the theatre a couple of times, goddammit.

So, I think I deserve to get everything on my Christmas List.  Here goes…
Could you bring me a nice shiny coin? It’s not for me. It’s for the commissioners at a certain UK channel. It seems to me that the only way to get a decision out of them is to call heads or tails. The thing is, there is nothing more guaranteed to strip the passion (that they claim to want) out of a project than to have the powers that be umm and ahh over it for months on end.  I think someone should tell them that around the 7th draft of a treatment, you start to hope that your show/episode won’t actually get commissioned because you couldn’t stand to write the fucking thing. At draft 9 you lose the will to live. At draft 10 someone should call Amnesty International.

I’d like some sparkly new dramas that don’t rely on women being murdered, raped and menaced for plot and story. That means no more dead prostitutes (there must be a skip full of them at the back of Broadcasting House), no more terrified women who don’t call the police because that would fuck up the story and no more charismatic misogynists. It’s been done to the point of utter cliché.

I’d also like some new female characters to play with. Sparky, complicated, flawed, intelligent, powerful LEAD female characters (no  Barbie dolls). You might have to buy those from America or maybe Denmark, they seem to have loads. And could you put some of them on the telly on Saturday night? I’m a bit bored of the companions and damsels in distress that we already have.

Actually, scratch those last two items. I think I know what I really want; more women writing telly. Not just the soaps and stuff about pensioners falling in love. I want women writing stuff that has swords and time-travel and police officers and dinosaurs in it. I can’t be the only good little girl who wants to write a car chase for Christmas. I want to play with the boy’s toys but they don’t seem to know how to share.

Oh, by the way, can you not bring me any more bullshit books telling me how I should write? You know the ones written by people who have never written a damn script in their lives? I’ve got loads and I’ve never got past the third chapter in most of them. I’ve been too busy actually writing. I'd rather get socks. Or herpes.

Finally, this Christmas, I’d like some friends to play with. I’d like producers and script editors to stop keeping writers apart like we’d create a rift in the time/space continuum if we actually end up in the same room together. The thing is that when you put writers together we are combustible; brilliantly so.

Seriously Santa, this year I want to explode with creativity and ideas but it’s really hard to do alone. So, can you ask the nice people on all the shows and all the channels to get us around a table, try a story conference or even throw us a party? Can you also give nice presents to the nice telly people who did just that? But you should only put lumps of coal in the stockings of those producers who treat writers like mushrooms by keeping us in the dark and up to our necks in shit. Remember a writer is for life, not just for Christmas.

And I think that’s it. It’s all a girl could want and hope to find under the tree this year.

Although, without wishing to be ungrateful, there are still outstanding items from last year’s list. I am assuming that you’ll be delivering them this year, yes? Just to remind you, I’m still waiting for my working Iron Man suit and a snog off of the real Thor. If you don’t deliver this year, I’ll have to stop believing in you and send next year’s list to Amazon.

Yours With Jingle Bells
Lisa
Aged 39 and five quarters.
 
PS: A very, very Merry Christmas and a happy, creative, successful 2014 to all the other boys and girls out there in Writer-land.

Monday, 2 September 2013

FInd The Lady


There’s a new game sweeping the internet. Have you played it yet? It’s not Candy Crush or Scrabble. It’s called ‘Count The Women in the BBC Drama Trailer’. Want to play? Here you go…
 

 

Now, I’ve had estimates on Twitter ranging from 3 to 20. There are bonus points to be earned. How many lines of moody dialogue were delivered in a female voice? I’ll give you a clue; it’s a number between zero and fuck all. How many of the shows featured have a female lead? How many of the male actors featured could you name? How many of the women? For the record, the programmes showcased in the trailer are Sherlock, Ripper Street, The Great Train Robbery, What Remains, The Musketeers, The Escape Artist and By Any Means. How many of those shows do you think have female protagonists?
 
 
Sidebar: I think the trailer is also distinctly lacking in racial diversity and I didn’t see any disabled characters either. But as I’m white and relatively able-bodied, I’ll talk about the lack of vaginas, not melanin and wheelchairs. Feel free to comment on any of those other issues, though.
 
 
Now, someone on Twitter pointed out that this is just a trailer. It’s an advert and is designed to sell. He rationalised that men sell action and drama. That they are men that other men want to be. Well, I don’t want to be a man. So what I supposed to aspire to? To be shagged by them? Or, if you look at British drama’s recent record, to be shagged by them and then killed in well-shot, soft focus ritual killing?
 
 
How long are we going to carry on reinforcing the idea that women are passive and men active? Apart from anything else, it’s dated bullshit. Women are in the police, fire service, the armed forces, politics and the frontline NHS. They are also criminals and prisoners (not just their wives). They win gold medals for us in the Olympics and Paralympics. I really thought this might be the year that was reflected on my TV screen.
 
 
Let’s take a look at one specific BBC TV slot in particular. The Saturday teatime drama slot. Where you’ll find/would have found Doctor Who, Merlin, Robin Hood and very soon Atlantis. That’s the coveted slot when families are supposed to sit down together to watch something exciting and inclusive. Something that will have kids running around wielding imaginary sonic screwdrivers or good old-fashioned swords pretending to be their favourite characters. But who are the little girls supposed to pretend to be? A Timelord’s companion? A chambermaid who marries into the Camelot Royal family? Where are the female role models? It won’t come as a huge shock to hear that the protagonist of Atlantis is called Jason, not Jessica.
 
 
Look, I’m not saying that women are invisible on telly. Thank the Goddess for Vera, The White Queen and Scott & Bailey. But it’s not an improving picture and this trailer made my heart sink. But I’m all about solutions, not problems. What can we do about this?
 
 
Easy-peasy. Employ more female writers and directors, because it’s not just actresses that are conspicuous by their absence from that trailer. None of the lead writers of those eight shows are women. Not one. That's just not good enough.
 
 
I was heartened to hear that Doctor Who is actively looking for female directors to work on the next series. But what about the writers?
 
 
At this year’s BBC TV Writers’ Festival, Steven Moffat was asked why the show hadn’t featured a female writer since 2008. His answer was (in my opinion) defensive and unsatisfactory. He claimed that female writers had been offered episodes and had turned them down. I have no reason to disbelieve him, but I do wonder exactly how many female writers have been approached.
 
 
He also claimed that not enough women write genre and was backed up by his interviewer Toby Whithouse in reference to his show Being Human. I assume they meant that not enough women are writing sci-fi, horror and fantasy. My follow-up question would be; if not enough women are writing genre TV, what are you doing to change it? How about looking beyond sci-fi and fantasy? How about just looking for really good writers? Because a working knowledge of the Tardis is useful for a Doctor Who writer; but isn’t a working knowledge of structure, great dialogue and character actually more important? In my opinion, Mr Moffat is robbing himself of some great writers by being so utterly limited in his search.

 
As I said in a previous blog, I don’t believe in positive discrimination on writing teams. I do, however, believe in the positive impact that a diverse writing team can have on a TV series. I think a diversity of experience can only be a good thing when developing original, surprising stories and characters. In fact, I believe it’s increasingly essential. I also believe it won’t happen without some actual action on the part of producers, showrunners and commissioners.
 
 
I’m throwing down the gauntlet to those people. The next time you're putting together your publicity package for the new season's drama, can we have a better ratio of women on screen. And can they not be murder victims or the protagonist's wife? Can we actually hear a woman's voice on the trailer? I don't think it's much to ask. You may disagree, feel free to comment.

 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Wrong (United) State Of Mind.


I had so much planned this weekend. I was going to do all sorts around the house in preparation for an intense period of writing that inevitably will result in the whole place being a festering shit tip. However, what I actually managed to achieve was a couple of loads of washing and a trip to the Co-op with my coat on over my pyjamas. And that was because I made a fatal mistake. On Friday night, I watched the first episode of Sons of Anarchy; the US TV drama about a Californian Motorcycle Club.
The show is a pretty heady mix of motorbikes, snarling powerhouse performances, sex, drugs and violence. And once I’d watched one, I needed to watch more. Unfortunately, thanks to the wonders of a Lovefilm subscription and my Wii, I had the wherewithal to do just that. By Sunday evening, I was gasping and sobbing my way through the Season 2 finale. And I could have gone on to Season 3, but Monday morning and a trip to London prevented me.
By the way, I bought the Wii so I could get fit without leaving the house. Yeah, that happened.
Still, as I watched episode after episode, one question hung in the air. It’s something I believe every TV writer asks him/herself when watching something they really love that comes from across the pond.

Why aren’t we making shows like this in the UK?
Because we’re not. Don’t get me wrong, we make good TV in Great Britain. But seriously, are we making anything that inspires the loyalty, love and devotion that shows like Dexter, Friday Night Lights, True Blood, ER, Glee, Nashville, Southland, The Good Wife, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Buffy, The West Wing etc. do?  I’m quite sure you could add to that list but those are just my personal favourites.  They are the shows that get my series links and my hard earned box set money.
The US versus UK Television is a favourite topic of conversation wherever writers gather. As we huddle together over black coffee and simmering resentment, we wax lyrical about our favourite episodes and bemoan the lack of something similar on our home grown channels. The thing is we never quite get to the bottom of why UK TV does not compete. Is it just a question of money? Or is there something more fundamental at play? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I feel the need to outline some theories and air some frustrations.
They’re not set in stone, I don’t have the answers and I welcome anyone who disagrees or has their own theories. So…
The Financial Theory. It’s the go-to excuse when producers and commissioners are quizzed about the gap between US and UK product. And it’s a fair cop. The Yanks are seemingly drowning in money. It’s worth noting that many of the shows on my list originated from pay-to-view channels like AMC, HBO and Showtime. They have subscribers who pay to get the best telly and the channels put that money up on the screen. In recent years, all this filthy lucre has lured big names into TV production. Steven Spielberg, Frank Darabont, Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony have all produced big budget beauties. It seems a shame that Ridley is producing telly in the States and not his native South Shields.  However, it’s worth noting that both Richard Curtis and the much-missed Anthony Minghella came back to the BBC after Hollywood success.
As for actors, the road between TV and Film is no longer a one way street. There’s no shame in going from box office to the box anymore. I should imagine that decent pay scales have something to do with that. And you can’t help but notice that much of the on-screen talent in those bid US series is British. Stephen Moyer, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damien Lewis, Kevin McKidd have all dusted off their American accents and taken lead roles.
Of course, that’s not just about money but also the availability and quality of parts. Especially for black actors like David Harewood, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo and Marianne Jean-Baptiste who had to go Stateside to get lead roles outside of the Holby NHS or Albert Square. For God’s sake, the last thing that the impressive Colin Salmon did on British TV was Strictly Come Dancing! Something wrong here surely? And heaven help us if our female actors cotton on what is available over the pond, because there’s precious little for them to get their teeth into over here unless they like wearing bonnets.

So, we have the talent. It’s just all on the red-eye into LAX.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, there is no doubt that money is often too tight to mention. Smaller budgets and tighter schedules mean that corners are cut and goodwill is often abused to breaking point.  For a little while there, BSkyB was the big white hope with writers assuring each other that the commissioners at Sky 1, Living and Arts were chucking money about like it was going out of fashion. However, when they paid a few billion to secure the Premiership, F1 Racing and the cricket, it became clear where their priorities lay. They’re still showing top notch TV but they’re buying it in from HBO and banging it on their own Pay To View premium channel; Sky Atlantic.
And even when they were financing projects, can we really say that they have produced anything truly unmissable? I’ve enjoyed Strike Back, Stella and Mad Dogs but they haven’t inspired the same loyalty in me that just one episode of Battlestar Galactica or The Wire did.
However, I would also argue that constrained budgets have also produced some of the best British TV. It seems to bring out the gung-ho inventiveness in our best writers and producers. Let’s think about Misfits, Being Human, Skins and the recent In The Flesh. All mind-blowingly well-written, cult TV shows made on a shoestring. They looked great, unearthed new talent and inspired loyalty in their audience. Maybe UK writers and producers work better under the financial cosh?
Still, could they have maintained that quality over 13 episodes per series? That’s the other big, enviable difference between us and the States. And I mean enviable. How wonderful would it be to develop characters and slow burning, far reaching, arcing stories over that number of episodes? The very thought of it makes me salivate. And it works. US TV has produced some of the most interesting, multi-layered characters in that luxurious longer series format. Would we have a UK version of Don Draper, Stringer Bell or Nurse Jackie if we allowed our series to run on just a little?
Of course, the reason our American cousins can keep a series going for that length of time is because they use the far more sustainable Writers’ Room system.  Series stories are discussed, developed and planned by a committee of writers in an actual room whilst individual writers go away and write scripts for the episodes. The shows tap into both collective inspiration and individual flare.
Of course, it’s not true to say that we have completely eschewed this system in the UK. That’s pretty much what happens on most of the soaps in one form or another.
However, the majority of big ticket shows in the UK rely initially on one writer beavering away and coming up with both stories and scripts with sporadic input from producers and script editors. Other writers are called upon but they tend to work in isolation too. Indeed, I would suggest that the powers-that-be are seemingly terrified of putting us writers in a room together; it happens so very rarely. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments from the big wigs about the cost of the system and the claims that it wouldn’t work in this country. And you know what I say? Bollocks.
There is something magical that happens when writers work together. Obviously once we’ve all drunk our own weight in coffee and bitched about the last episode of Doctor Who. Still, once that is out of the way, there is something about being in that unique atmosphere that emboldens and inspires. Ideas are prefaced with phrases like “This is probably a bit mad…” or “We definitely shouldn’t do this, but what if…”. And you know what? The ideas are a bit mad and we shouldn’t do them, but the collective whirring of brains finds a way to make it work. Those multiple “What if” moments don’t happen when you’re alone and desperate to fill your page. And maybe that’s why British TV so very rarely surprises me these days.

Maybe it’s time for the death of the author?

By the way, in my opinion,  the Writers’ Room system provides a clear career structure for writers instead of keeping them on tenterhooks as they go from job to job. It gives them the actual power. Like I said, maybe someone is scared of putting us in a room together.

However, there are also some (also in my opinion) insurmountable cultural and national differences between UK and US TV drama.

First of all, if I remember my geography correctly; America is quite big. So big that it is possible for big things to happen to small communities without it turning into national news. Sunnydale can have a 7 year vampire problem and then disappear into the ground without CNN sending in a news crew. The small town of Charming can be run by biker gangs and bent coppers without the Whitehouse sending in the National Guard. There is dangerous wilderness and huge tracks of land to get lost in for a lifetime. In the UK you’d struggle to be lost for a couple of days. It’s actually hard to make stories feel big and impactful in a UK setting.
In fact, here’s an exercise. Imagine a show about a comprehensive school’s soccer team. For five seasons you follow the ups and downs of the team members and their families. At the heart of the show is the PE Teacher, a man who inspires loyalty, love and honour in the boys at every team practise. Every match against other school teams feels like a fight for a better life, for something intangibly British and human.  Each episode leaves you heart broken and uplifted at the same time.
Yeah, doesn’t work. Does it? But it did on US TV in the critically acclaimed American Football drama Friday Night Lights.  Why can’t we transplant that brilliant show from Texas to Taunton? Is it that British love of self-deprecation that kicks it into touch every time? Do we have too much perspective? We know that a high school football game actually means very little in the scheme of things and we can’t pretend otherwise.

Look at how we write teenagers and young adults. American TV is awash with erudite, emotionally intense teen dramas; Glee, Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Revenge etc. the Americans write young people as they see themselves; the centre of the entire  fucking universe. There is no sense of adult perspective. Of course when they fall in love, it will be forever. Of course winning a high school choir competition is the single most important thing that will ever happen to you. Of course, you can solve racism, sexism and homophobia with a heartfelt speech at the Prom. Meanwhile, in the UK, we write teenagers with a sneer, safe in the knowledge that the annoying little sods will get over it by listening to a One Direction CD in their bedrooms.
There is also something else that we can’t ignore; gun culture. I recently saw an interesting exchange on the IMDB page for Midsomer Murders. An overseas fan of the show was perplexed as to why the Midsomer constabulary are not armed. She pointed out the Inspector Barnaby and his DS were often sent into high risk situations; surely a firearm was in order? Now, I have written a few police dramas in my time and I have never felt the need to have any of my characters pull anything out of their pockets more dangerous than a police-issue notebook and pen. Still, it can’t be denied that US crime dramas are often solved with a shootout or a stand-off. There is no better way to raise the stakes than to write a deadly weapon into a scene.

And yet, that is one of things I definitely don’t want to change about British Telly. I don’t want The Doctor armed with anything beyond his Sonic Screwdriver. I think guns are often an easy out for a writer. The minute a suspect pulls a gun, the case if solved. S/he is the baddie and they are to be brought to justice, possibly with terminal force. I’d rather write deadly dialogue, even if that does mean I work a bit harder.
However, I would like us to adopt the American’s less po-faced attitude to criminality. For all the crime drama that this country produces, it is very rare that we make the most interesting characters the lead; the criminals. We’ve got every style of detective; old, young, clever, former Timelord, tropical, opera-loving, violin-playing former coke addicts. We work so bloody hard to make them, interesting; perhaps we could save ourselves a lot of work by looking at the really fascinating characters, the criminals themselves. But that still seems forbidden on UK TV. Sure we’ve had loveable rogues and the odd plastic East End gangster, but no long-running crime syndicates or off-the-grid outlaws. No Sopranos, Stringers or Sons of Anarchy.
And do you know how we could solve that? By banning script editors and producers from asking a question that now makes my blood run cold – But will we LIKE this character? Seriously, the next time I am asked that question, I am going to refuse to answer; because the job of the screenwriter is not to create a perfect little world where everybody is redeemable and lovely. It is insulting to both the writer and the audience to assume that they need to see character smile at a baby or cuddle a kitten before they can engage with him or her. Drama is a safe space to explore the darker side of life. By making the fictional world anodyne and safe, we are doing a disservice to the real world.

So, that’s my analysis. It’s simplistic and born of frustration not just at what I watch, but also at what I write. However, I do wonder how many British writers have projects and ideas that they have never dared to show because they sound a bit too ambitious? How many of us limit our imagination and creativity because it’s all just a bit too… Big? How many of us have started a pitch with the words “I know it sounds a bit American but…” like that is something for which we should apologise?
As ever thoughts, comments and full-blown take downs of this blog are encouraged.