Thursday, 2 July 2009


I started my TV career on a long-running police drama series. During a tour of the studios, one of the show's police advisers was asked if there had been a cop show he had really admired. Quick as a flash, he said: 'The Sweeney. Those two guys could have walked straight out of any inner London police station in the mid-1970s.'

I was dead chuffed. 'The Sweeney' is one of my all-time personal favourites (and it was made by Euston Films, one of my very first employers). If you ever get chance to catch an episode, do - although you might be advised to avoid the one with Morecambe and Wise in it. The hard-living officers of the Flying Squad did not always get their man in 'The Sweeney'. It's thought of as unreconstructed male chauvinist fantasy, now, but in fact 'The Sweeney' was often deeper, more thoughtful, more complex and more emotional than you might imagine.

There's a book about Euston Films - I borrowed it from my local library once. Much of it is taken up with 'The Sweeney'.

Did you know that writers took an average of ten days to write an episode of 'The Sweeney'? Or that one wrote a whole episode once in just three days?

Did you know that a second draft of a script was a rarity - and a third draft suggested that something really had gone wrong?

The scripts were commissioned. They came in. The guys went out onto the streets of West London and shot it.

Simple. Effective. Brilliant.

Some of the best TV ever.

Impossible now, though. Producers these days demand as many rewrites as they think they can get away with, and then some.

Have we lost our ability to write scripts? Or do producers not trust writers anymore?

Too many rewrites ruin perfectly good scripts. At best, we end up with homogenised pap masquerading as drama - no rough edges, no flashes of brilliance, just a gruel of cliches and predictable outcomes. At worst, the script collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. Game over.

I doubt that talented scriptwriters have disappeared. I also doubt TV's ability to spot, nurture and get the best out of that talent.

You see, producers have let the rewrite thing go to their heads. And the sort of writer who can put up with that constant, unnecessary and counter-productive meddling and interference is not likely to be of the highest calibre. There's a big difference between a Writer and a Hack.

In my experience, three drafts of a script is enough. One to explore the territory, one to reshape the original and one to polish it all off. If you haven't got it right by then, there's a fair-to-middling chance you never will.

Sometimes, it should be acknowledged, a rewrite makes massive improvements to a script. And sometimes, a rewrite takes the edge of the script altogether, or sends the script off in a stupid direction, or tears the heart right out of it. It takes care, subtlety and know-how to set up a good rewrite; it only takes a power-crazed, incompetent producer to make a total mess of it.

The simple fact is - any producer who demands more than five drafts of a script simply hasn't got a clue what he, she or it is doing.

And if you find yourself working with a producer like that, good luck to you. Because there are plenty of them out there.

And, sadly, plenty of so-called writers willing to play that crazy game. And every one of them - every hack who happily writes a load of absolute bilge because their producer told them to - is putting a genuine writer out of work.

'The Sweeney' is a classic. Always was, always will be.

But that's partly because the producers had the common sense, good taste and manners to let the writers get on with their jobs.

Wouldn't happen like that today.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Apart from death and taxes, one thing is certain in the life of the writer: bad crits.

We all get them.

In some ways, whenever the odd bad review comes my way, I take it as a salutary experience. Having spent much of the past so-many-years reading and reporting on other people's scripts, it's kind of healthy to be reminded of how hurtful and harmful a savage crit can be.

Many reviewers seem to be unacquainted with the 'praise sandwich' principle, which argues that the best way to make a negative remark is to place it between two positives.

Knowing the pit of despair into which it is possible to sink after somebody, somewhere, has given a negative response to your work, I really do try my hardest not to be too cruel in my own script reports. One can be fair without being harsh.

Recently, a piece of my own work was 'assessed' by the moderator of a writers' website. I needn't bother recounting the substance of the crit, because there wasn't any. My effort had been rejected out of hand - which was a minor problem, simply because it seemed to me that the moderator had completely missed the point, treating my chapters as sample material for a novel when in fact it's a work of non-fiction.

Missing the point ... isn't that what we always accuse those who criticise our work of doing?

Ay, there's the rub. Because the fact is, reviewers and reporters are perfectly capable of missing the point.

As recipients of these reports, we writers have to tread a fine line. Sometimes, the reviewers are right: we haven't done as good a job as we thought we had. Other times, the reviewers are plain wrong, or have simply done a dreadful job themselves.

It seems to me that a writer's life is taken up with soliciting reviews and reports now more than ever. One agent I worked with commissioned dozens of them, each from a different reviewer. This, I believe, was a mistake - too many cooks, and all that.

But what are we to do about reviews which are not just unhelpful, they actually undermine our self-confidence?

First of all, every review or script report you receive should be read dispassionately, and scoured for useful tips. Try to get a sense of the overall thrust of the review, and do look out for the positive remarks (it's so easy to be swamped by the negatives).

Then remind yourself that this is only one person's opinion. It doesn't matter if that person is a first-class agent, a renowned editor or a shit-hot publisher. It's just one person's response.

Don't ignore it. Ask yourself, how can I improve what I've written?

But always remember that to err is human. Back in 1998, I wrote a speculative screenplay entitled 'TRISTAN AND ISOLDE'. There was a flurry of excitement at my then agency. Then nothing. The response kept coming back - no one's looking for this sort of thing, nobody wants it. So when, just a few years later, a film entitled 'TRISTAN AND ISOLDE' was released, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had been right. Someone (Ridley Scott) had indeed been looking for that sort of thing. The doomsayers of the London media village had been wrong. Didn't help my bank balance, but hey - the experts had been talking out of their arses!

So, whatever you do, retain a balance. One bad review does not mean the end of your life's work.

Don't snap, don't answer back. Take whatever's useful from the crit and move on.

After all, there's probably a circle in hell reserved exclusively for those know-it-alls who give out thoughtless crits. It'll be pretty crowded there. I just hope I end up somewhere else altogether.

Sunday, 10 May 2009


What TV really needs is more female directors

Amy Jenkins (Comment, last week) is right to bemoan the fact that women are a minority on the cast lists of our television dramas but I think she's wagging her finger in the wrong direction.
I have worked in television drama for 20 years and seen many of my female peers rise to positions of power and influence to the point where they are the majority of decision-makers. However, if representation of women on screen is slower to improve, it is for complex, cultural reasons that have as much to do with the make-up of society as with deep story structure. But there has been progress. These days we don't have to "balance" a strong female lead with an entire cast of supporting men, as in Prime Suspect. Let's keep challenging all drama to cast women in depth and let's try to increase the number of female directors coming into the profession. That number really does seem to have been at a standstill for the last 20 years.

Kate Harwood, Controller of series and serials, BBC Drama Production

This letter appeared in the Observer newspaper back in March. I read it, and I was aghast. It's been bugging me ever since.

Let's analyse what Kate Harwood is saying here. First of all, she acknowledges that British television, and the BBC in particular, has become largely a female preserve. I can vouch for this, having noticed, roundabout the middle of the 1990s, that male producers were becoming ever more rare.

Secondly, she admits that, even though 'the majority of decision-makers' in BBC Drama are now female, there is still a dearth of strong female characters in the BBC's drama output.

How come? Oh, well, because of 'complex, cultural reasons'. Nothing to do with the ineptitude of BBC producers. No, it's for reasons which are outside the BBC's control.

The reality, of course, is that it's not difficult to create strong female characters. Any halfway decent writer can do it. So what's the problem?

Is it really the case, as Kate Harwood suggests, that the 'make-up' of society prevents the BBC from developing good roles for female actors?

Or is it that editorial incompetence and second-guessing, constant interference, ideological bias and sheer bloody uselessness are what stand between the (mostly female) TV producers and a reasonable representation of women on screen?

Lastly, Harwood puts in a call for more female directors. The balance at the BBC has tipped, over the past fifteen years or so, increasingly in favour of female producers and female scriptwriters. Somehow or other, this has failed to result in better parts for women in BBC drama. So let's get some more female directors in. That'll make all the difference.

Actually, a director is a director is a director. Gender is immaterial. There are two kinds of director: one came up through theatre, and therefore understands actors; the other came up through cinematography, and therefore understands cameras. Beyond that, there really are only two kinds of director - good ones and bad ones. What's gender got to do with it?

Nothing at all, but in sustaining the myth that women are a suppressed minority (even though they form 'the majority of decision-makers' in BBC Drama), Harwood is both excusing herself and her fellow executives for their own failures, and seeking to extend the gender imbalance. It is difficult to see how an increase in the number of female directors will improve the quality of roles for women, if a preponderance of female producers and writers haven't managed to do so. And why are there so few female directors out there? Is it because they're discriminated against? No - how could it be, when most of the producers who hire directors are in fact female?

And where would Kate Harwood's argument go next? Let's suppose that she fast-tracks a host of female directors into the industry, and they somehow still can't come up with decent female roles. What will she blame then? Too many men watching TV?

The problem of strong female characters in TV drama has nothing to do with social conditioning. 'Coronation Street', for example, had some of the strongest female characters going, and that was years ago. No, the problem is that TV executives can't keep their bloody mitts off other people's scripts. Female characters in BBC drama have to be flawless. They must be plucky, honest, hard-working, long-suffering individuals who are invariably right, while the male characters around them are almost always weak, craven, corrupt and wrong. To create a female character with realistic human flaws would be seen as a betrayal of all those women - like the majority of decision-makers at the BBC - who like to imagine that they're struggling in a male dominated world.

The female characters in TV drama today are not, then, created to be real, or realistic, depictions, but rather to carry the burden of the wish-fulfilment and political ideologies of the TV executives. In the arse-about-face world of BBC Drama, women characters cannot be strong because they must be role-models, idealised versions of the female executives themselves.

The BBC Drama Department has made it impossible for strong female characters to be created, because they have to keep interfering in the scripts to ensure that their ideological image of women is constantly being reflected.

But far be it from Kate Harwood and her colleagues to notice their own rank inability to create convincing female characters. No, the fault isn't theirs: it's a cultural one, apparently. By which, presumably, Harwood means that there simply aren't that many strong women out there in the real world for characters to be based on. So the best that TV drama can do is to keep cloning their idealised, hard-done-by, shining examples of female virtue in the hope that enough real women out there will get the message.

The truth, of course, is that executives at the BBC are trapped in a vicious circle of their own incompetence and their out-dated ideological convictions.

The argument has moved on from the seventies and eighties. But not, apparently, at the BBC, where writers would be perfectly able to create strong, interesting, convincing roles for both men and women, if only the bloody executives would let them get on with their jobs.

Saturday, 2 May 2009


Genius or nutter? It's hard to say, really, but Stanley Kubrick knew how to make a movie.

He was naturally obsessive, which is probably no bad thing when it comes to making movies. Even us writers ought to be obsessive about our scripts.

One of Kubrick's obsessions was with Non-Submersible Elements.

Now, I'm sure you've all heard of these things. No? Weird.

Actually, Kubrick's 'Non-Submersible Elements' is just a fancy phrase for a fairly straightforward thing.

No movie should be without its non-submersible elements. These are those stand-out moments which make the movie memorable.

A non-submersible element can be a sequence or a scene, it can be a moment, a line, a shot, an image. Whatever. It is one of those things which makes that particular movie unique.

And Kubrick seemed to be of the opinion that every movie should have roughly eight of these NSE's.

Now, how often, when we're devising, developing, writing and rewriting our screenplays, do we stop to consider the non-submersible elements? How often to we pause and ask ourselves, 'Which are the eight-or-so moments in my script that will really stand out?'

We should do. Because it's those moments which matter. They are designed to stick in the mind. Non-submersible elements are what set your script, your movie, apart from all the others.

And they're something we ought to be bearing in mind right from the very start of the screenwriting process.

What's a script (or a movie) without non-submersible elements? The chances are it's a fairly mundane piece of storytelling. You may well find that a particularly memorable line, exchange, moment or sequence happens naturally in your script. Whether you manage eight or so of those moments naturally, without thinking about them, is another matter.

But knowing that a script, or a movie, should have those stand-out moments is essential if you are going to make those moments shine.

As you work on your screenplay, you should have a good idea about which moments, which elements, in your script are the non-submersible ones - and you should treat them with great care. They are the high points, the classic moments, which make your script unique. They need to be nurtured, polished, carefully set up and brilliantly executed.

Think about some of your favourite movies. What images, which moments, instantly spring to mind? Chances are, they're the non-submersible elements.

So - does your script have non-submersible elements? Does it have anything up to eight moments which stand out and shine? Is each one different, unique? Have you given each one of them its full impact and value?

What's a screenplay without classic moments? It's probably a waste of time.

Remember your non-submersible elements, and send a little prayer of thanks up to Mr Kubrick for giving them such a useful if, at first glance, baffling name.

Saturday, 25 April 2009


I've been meaning to do this for a while. Now that the gig I was supposed to be at tonight has been cancelled, I've started giving it some proper thought. And I'd be grateful for your help.

There are plenty of books out there - not to mention courses - which purport to lead the reader through the ins and outs of screenwriting. I've read quite a few of them. Some have interesting stuff in them, the odd nugget here and there, often surrounded by wads of less than useful information. Some are - to my mind, at least - absolutely bloody useless.

One of the problems is that the expert author feels the need to parade their phenomenal knowledge of the subject at great length. Even on screenwriting courses, I've been shocked at the sense of sinking in a sea of 'How To's and 'What Not to Do's and ever deeper layers of complication.

Screenwriting is hard work, but it should also be fun. There's a lot to learn, yes, but if the balance between creative and prescriptive is all wrong, aren't we in danger of crushing the imaginative spirit and the individual voice of the writer?

I've been mulling over this for a long time, and wondering whether it wouldn't be possible to produce a guide to the art and craft of screenwriting which emphasised creativity, which takes the reader on an enjoyable journey round the pitfalls of scripts, presents practical know-how and makes the whole process reasonably clear.

And there's another dimension. This has something to do with the ways our lives are defined by stories. We're surrounded by them; they tell us what to think, what to believe. We live our lives according to the stories we've been told, and the stories we've told ourselves.

So, theoretically at least, we can devise better stories to tell ourselves (and others), and by doing so we can alter our attitudes to the world around us.

Isn't that what practically every self-help manual and self-improvement course sets out to do? To get you to change your inner story, to tell yourself a different story?

The journey of the script is the writer's journey. The writer undertakes the adventure, and lives through the long dark night of the soul which lies at the heart of the story. The writer returns with the secret of the script, the experience of the story, and, like the hero, acquires a new understanding.

I'm thinking that the time has come for me to start putting together some worksheets, along the lines of a step-by-step process, which look at the journey of the script from start to finish. I'd like to keep it as simple, as straightforward, and as stimulating as possible. I'd like to present it as a month-long plan.

The result, if it comes out all right, will be available as a PDF document.

I could do with any input you have to offer, though.

What are the areas of screenwriting, or the issues involved, which interest or concern or confuse you the most?

What could my guide do differently that would really help?

What would you most like to know by the end of it?

And would you be interested in seeing these worksheets as they come rolling off the press?

Let me know what you think.

Monday, 20 April 2009


I'll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, a part of me rebels against my own strictures.

It's a kind of teenage rebellion. Screenwriting, I tell myself, is a creative art. How can there be rules? How can I stipulate that this, that or the other must happen? Surely there are exceptions! Surely, a gifted writer can break all the rules and fashion an absolutely brilliant screenplay! Not all screenplays have to look the same.

And then I read yet another screenplay in which a basic 'rule' has been overlooked. And I realise that, these so-called 'rules' actually do mean something.

Let's take the antagonist, for example. Other names include Villain, Rival, Enemy, Nemesis, Shadow, Bad Guy ... but ultimately, they're all the same. The hero of a script tends to be the protagonist ('First Contestant' or 'First Actor' in the original Greek meaning of the word), and whoever he or she is up against is the antagonist.

It's rather surprising to find that, in script after script, it's hard to pin down an actual bad guy.

I reckon that would-be screenwriters often have a great idea. They then imagine themselves as the lead characters in the story and start spinning a yarn around that lead character - and a few other characters for ballast - making their way through that great idea.

But they haven't thought it through. They're creating a kind of daydream on paper. They've imagined themselves into the role of the lead actor of hero in the story, but they've forgotten to provide that hero with a shadow, a nemesis, a rival.

I don't think that this is a peculiarly British thing. But it does betray a lack of planning and preparation. No bad guy equals no drama. The essence of drama is ... no, not conflict ... it's struggle (or, rather, it's what happens to a character as they engage in that struggle). It is possible for the hero to struggle entirely against non-human factors, or against something within themselves, but a story tends to come alive when the struggle is personified. The hero wants something, they have the gall to go ahead and try to achieve it, but there's someone who's determined to beat them, to oppose them, to steal their triumph or to finish them off.

Now, I've given this post the title 'Common Errors', of which there are plenty. You come across them all the time: scenes which wander randomly from one precise location to another without a scene break; a lack of thought given to structure (script structure or story structure); a tendency to rely on dialogue to do all the work; too many characters who aren't introduced properly, so that the reader can't really tell who's who ...

But one of the most frequent errors I come across is the lack of a clear antagonist.

Now, as my last posting mentioned, there can be a great deal of fluidity about the four principal characters (HERO, VILLAIN, SIDEKICK and LOVE INTEREST). Any of these can turn out to be the antagonist (yes, even the hero can be revealed as the bad guy). Some great stories play games with our expectations in this respect.

Hitchcock's 'Psycho', for example. It's some way into the film before we discover that the bad guy isn't the man at the start with the stetson and the money, or the cop with the mirror sunglasses, but that nice young man at the motel.

Last night, I watched Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'. The antagonist, to begin with, is the British government, in the form of the notorious Black and Tans, or certain English landowners in Ireland, and only gradually does the hero's friend emerge as the antagonist.

So it's not necessary to establish your typical bad guy right from the outset. But your story does need one.

The more daunting the opposition, the greater the danger you're hero will find themselves in, and the greater the struggle they face. Which makes for a good story.

Hence the need to prepare, as you develop your project, rather than dreaming up an idea and launching yourself straight into the script. Because some things simply cannot be overlooked. And one of those things is the antagonist.

Some stories try to get by without the hero really wanting something. By and large, this doesn't work.

And some stories try to tell themselves without the hero facing any real opposition.

Where's the drama in that?

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Okey-dokey ... so, your premise is being honed, refined and polished. You've got your basic set-up, you're paying attention to the genre and you've given some thought to the most appropriate format for the piece.

You might even have a title (but don't get too attached to it just yet).

The development of your project now takes place along parallel lines.

On the one hand, you'd be well advised to build your basic premise up in stages, aiming first for a half-page synopsis, then maybe a synopsis of a page or two, maybe making it to a five or six page outline after a little while.

This is how a great deal of script development is carried out in television. It's a simple Cartesian process, starting with the most basic 'synopsis' - the premise - and progressing to ever more detailed outlines.

('Synopsis' and 'outline' can mean the same thing; I tend to call the earlier stages synopses, and the more detailed story work outlines - the synopsis summarises the story, the outline goes into more plot detail.)

We'll worry about treatments separately. They are a blessing and a curse, and will need to be looked at shortly.

For now, though, what do you need to be thinking about as you build up your story from the premise, through a synopsis or two, to an outline?

Let's start with your characters. You've already established who your main character is - the protagonist who wants something but will have to overcome obstacles to achieve or acquire it.

What about the other principal characters?

Have you begun to establish a clear antagonist? A villain, rival, nemesis or shadow?

Has your hero got a side-kick, a friend, ally or partner?

Is there a love interest anywhere in sight?

Not all stories need all four characters (HERO, SHADOW, SIDE-KICK and LOVE INTEREST). What is more, a character can quite easily shift from one role to another. A side-kick can turn into a love interest, or even into a rival or shadow. A love interest can become an enemy.

Giving some thought to these central characters at this stage is helpful. Too often, scripts have quite strong central characters, partly because the writer identifies with the hero, but the satellite characters are two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs who exist only to advance the plot or do what the hero requires them to do.

Urgh! Avoid that at all costs. The simplest way to do so is to remember a fundamental fact:


Every character in a script, if they are going to feel at all real, must have his or her own agenda. Just like the hero, they want something, and something stands in their way.

So - while you're gradually building your story up from premise through synopsis to outline, do a little work on the side with your characters.

You don't need to fill out a whole questionnaire about each character, but you should know what each character wants and what's preventing them from getting it.

This is essential for plotting your detailed storyline. It's also fundamental to the drama of your script. If everything's too easy for your hero (because that's the only character you care about), then there's likely to be too little drama. The struggle's not there.

But if every major character is acting as if they were the hero in their own story, wanting things, struggling to achieve them, facing obstacles, making decisions and taking action, then you'll get conflict of interest, stronger characters and a better plot.

And never forget that character is revealed through action. Character is what character does. So make sure that your characters are able and willing to do things. They're not pliant or dormant. They're not just there to do a bit of talking. They're real people, with needs, desires, fears and foibles. And they DO things.