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.

33 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Lisa. Was talking to a writer friend about the whole Writers Room thing just the other day. He asked me a simple question: why don't writers in the UK ever join forces to pitch shows to broadcasters and production companies, ie present themselves as a ready-made Writers Room? And the best answer I could come up with was: they just don't. It's just not the done thing. My instinct is that, as things stand, execs would be put off by being faced with several writers who want to work together on a project they've devised and love. Almost as if, as you say, they're scared of the idea. Because it would be too expensive - or because it would give the writers too much control?

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    1. Hi Daragh,

      And thank you! I think a gang of writers would scare the bejesus out of 'em. Sadly.

      Lx

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  2. Your point about likeable characters is a good one. There is the world of difference between relateable/ compelling/ fascinating and likeable. Don Draper (for whom, I will admit, I am a little bit gay) is not likeable. And I think "Money" was ruined by making John Self, who is pretty monstrous or his nothing, into a shambling loveable loser.

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    1. Freddie,

      You're an excellent typist for a dog, but I really do think that we need to curb our desire to love all characters and remember that everyone wants to shag the bastard!

      Lx

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  3. I agree with most of your analysis, but I would add a few things. The commissioning editors have to take their share of the blame, for cancelling well-written shows, which are doing very well in the ratings, for no apparent reason. Off the top of my head, I can think of Peak Practice and Afterlife as examples of the phenomenon. The excuse that is often put forward is that drama is expensive to produce. Furthermore, our greatest successes have come from shows which are very British in their story structure: it is not necessary to have a happy ending, and the characters are deeply flawed. Misfits, which you mentioned, is a good example, and it was commissioned by a minor channel. Should we compare ourselves to the US, or ask what it is that we actually do well in the UK?

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    1. I think that's an excellent point. We should neither self-flagellate nor rest on our laurels.

      Lx

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  4. Darrell Andrews16 April 2013 at 13:53

    But do UK writers really want to be a part of a writing pool and perhaps losing some of their own independence and choices in their work? Are they afraid of losing their voice in their work? Do they want to be a part of some greater writing machine where they could end up writing a script with which they have very little input into? Wouldn't they prefer to keep a bit more control of their scripts?

    I personally think the Writers Room would be a good thing in certain circumstances, such as on a sustained, longer running show with more episodes than the normal average count. Personally, I think British TV needs longer running seasons which in itself would necessitate a Writers Room approach.

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  5. There's definitely a place for more 'authored' pieces - I'm sure most TV writers aspire to having their own series, with their own single vision - but, as you say, for longer running shows I think the Writers Room model is the way forward. It is starting to happen in UK tv. Kudos experimented with a Writers' Room approach on their recent spy series - the name escapes me - helmed by show runner Frank Spotnitz. And I understand Jed Mecurio is running a Writers Room on his (Canal Plus produced) series Lost Patrol.

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    1. Isn't that interesting though? The BBC bring in a Yank to be a proper showrunner (albeit unsucessfully) and Mr Mercurio has to go abroad!

      Lx

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  6. 'Hunted'! That was it. Though that show wasn't a huge success so maybe not the best precedent.

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  7. Brilliant stuff! I wholeheartedly agree we are falling short of the high standards set by US drama. Personally, whilst I certainly believe 13 episodes is better than 6, I would struggle to think of many British dramas I'd actually want to watch 13 episodes of! I'd say we occasionally do short serial dramas very well, but rarely returning series. I think it's definitely time to bring in the US writers room model, and I hope that 'Hunted' proves to be a successful trial. TV is such a collaborative medium that it just seems common sense that relying on one individual's ideas is unlikely to produce the best possible results. It's also worth noting that 'Life On Mars' - which I think was a rare example of us getting it right - was written by a writing duo. And by the way, my latest script is an ambitious, American-feel drama about the emergence of a new mafia-esque organisation in a church in South London ...so we'll see how well that goes down :-/

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    1. That sounds great, Asher! Look forward to seeing it.

      Lx

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  8. Carol Mulholland16 April 2013 at 18:22

    Can I suggest you try and catch Banshee - full of violence and sex, an Amish community, the Russian mob, and the lead character is an ex-con pretending to be the new town sheriff - impossible to see how that could be made in the UK but I wish it could. Of course it's an Alan Ball backed project and on HBO. I loved it and can't wait for season 2. But I also love Broadchurch - incredibly well-written and tense but on a smaller canvas.

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    1. Broadchurch is big slice of pure class. However, Banshee sounds bloody brilliant!

      Lx

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  9. I just wish every UK TV drama didn't have to have something to say about Britain today. Fuck that for a game of soldiers.

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  10. I'm waiting for a 24 episode per year series about a scriptwriter creating some of the best blogs ever.

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  11. All my favorite shows, are decades old, done on a comparative shoe string, are only available online or DVD (rarely on TV), etc. Surely, using crowd source funding and non corporate broadcasting mechanisms, its possible to produce a show anyway we want? A co-operative yet personal production?

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    1. It's surely only a matter of time. Lx

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  12. Fantastic post. Although I think British TV is developing its own bad patterns - where the US has its melodrama and repetitive teen angst, the UK is overloading on sentimentality. You only have to watch The Village, which could have been fantastic, but is ruined by sentimentalising moments and characters into something so obviously contrived. Especially jarring to watch it from a sofa in a Yorkshire village such as the one they're trying to portray ...
    Love your thoughts on collaborative writing - would be wonderful to write in a team such as in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip! - There's a great US show I can't believe ever got cancelled ...

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  13. Oh, I still mourn for Studio 60! And you're right, our period drama is rose-tinted in the worst way on occasion. See also; Downton "we were all lovely to each other for the most part" Abbey.

    Lx

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  14. I have a theory that UK television lacks ambition and financial resources because of the UK to US barrier. You watch our stuff. We don't watch yours. And there's more of us than you. That's why we get better stuff.

    Even if the UK were to produce an unbelievably amazing drama there's almost no chance the large American audience would view it. The 314 million people that live in the United States would not comprehend your setting or culture... or your accents. (Downton Abbey being the exception that proves the rule.)

    So I know if I was Sir Ridley I'd bankroll a project in the US, not the UK.

    We never get to see your programs. They may air on PBS (I think part of the fascination with Downton Abbey is the sheer amazement that there's something entertaining on PBS!) or an obscure cable network, but never on regular free-to-air TV. We have BBC America, but BBC America is a joke. Here's Friday night and Saturday's line-up:

    8-11 Apocalypto (yes, the Mel Gibson movie)
    11-1am The Crow (yes, the Brandon Lee movie)
    1-3am Star Trek: TNG (the great British science fiction series)
    3-6am Kitchen Nightmares
    6-9am Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (the UK needs to apologize for Gordon Ramsay)
    9-10am Top Gear
    10-11am James May's Man Lab (I don't know what this is)
    11-1pm Top Gear
    1-4pm Star Trek: TNG
    4-6pm Doctor Who (previous week's episode and new episode)
    6-7pm Orphan Black
    7-8pm The Nerdist (a new US talk show)
    8-9pm Doctor Who (encore of new episode)
    9-10pm Orphan Black (encore)
    10-11pm The Nerdist (encore)
    11-12am Doctor Who (2nd encore)
    12-1am Orphan Black (2nd encore)
    1-2am The Nerdist (2nd encore)
    2-3am Doctor Who (3rd encore--seriously!)

    And I'll stop there because I think you get the idea. Unless you're producing TV about a time traveling weirdo or an insane person yelling obscenities at amateur chefs your programming is not getting exported to our country. Meanwhile, we produce something like LOST and you guys can't get enough.

    So that's my theory. Our TV tends to be better because there are more viewers to consume it.

    How I wish we had access to your programs. And Canada's. And Australia's... Well, maybe not Australia. I lived in Australia for a year, and Australia had *nothing*. I resorted to watching Neighbours. Neighbours. Everybody needs good Neighbours.

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    1. Hi Sheriff,

      First of all, I do apologise for Gordon Ramsay. Profusely.

      That schedule is shockingly poor and definitely not representative of what we do produce. You're right, we don't have the volume and numbers but we often do have the quality. It just seems you folks aren't getting much of it.

      Perhaps the future is in downloads. Word-of-mouth hits that bypass the broadcasters? Not sure how we all get paid if hat s the case; it's a brave new world.

      Also, we can do better than Downton. I promise.

      Lx

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    2. I'm not sure where Sheriff is writing from, but the PBS lineup for the week here includes:

      Call the Midwife
      Mr Selfridge
      Doc Martin
      Scott & Bailey
      The Bletchley Circle
      As Time Goes By
      Sherlock Holmes
      New Tricks
      (one of yours this week, as a matter of fact)
      as well as BBC World News on weekdays and BBC Newsnight on the weekend.

      Still heavy on period drama and mysteries, but keeping up with the more popular programs. (I should note that of that list, only Mr Selfridge, The Bletchley Circle and Call the Midwife are coming from the national PBS schedule - everything else is contracted by the station itself.)

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    3. That's a great line-up. A lot bought in from ITV from what I can see. Sounds like it varies from state to state, possibly?

      And it's nice to know that I'm watched Stateside. I do hope Joss Whedon was tuning in. It's not like he's busy or anything.

      Lx

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    4. Oh, it varies greatly from state to state, and even within individual states. The best analogue I can give you is that it's similar to the old ITV franchises, though some PBS affiliates are statewide entities and others are regional stations within a state.

      A lot of the non-national programming in the list above is still PBS "library" - it's just up to the service or station which shows they want to run (or can afford - the national programming is covered by a basic payment to PBS, but library shows are additional cost.)

      Stations will also occasionally do independent buys for shows that are particularly popular in their area (I know one Northern California station that's been running Are You Being Served? for over two decades now.)

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  15. Purely from an employment perspective, the lack of writer-rooms in the UK is a bit of a bugger. Long-running shows like EastEnders/Holby seem to have them, but they're not really training grounds for new writers -- they're currently asking for agent-only submissions. Which is fair enough, but I'd always imagined it working in the other direction; starting out writing (based on treatments) for an established series, and then one day pitching your own shows.

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    1. Hi Michael,

      Agreed. I think they should provide entry-level jobs. Especially as, let's be honest, no-one is scouring the theatres for new dramatists. It's creating a bottleneck at the bottom of the ladder whilst the top of the ladder is dusty and stale!

      Lx

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  18. “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”

    Q: How many scripts for radio drama submitted to the WR have actually been produced, according the the BBC ?

    To use your wonderful phrase, I’ll give you a clue; it’s a number between zero and fuck all.

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    1. I was referring to the writers' room system that prevails in American TV not the The Writers Room scheme that the BBC run.

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