Thursday, 30 October 2008


I had a series with the BBC. The scripts had been commissioned, one after another, with such alacrity that my agent was prompted to say, 'This is unheard of.' There had been discussions about the second series. Then - a quick round of musical desks, and I've got a new boss.

'We like the scripts', I was told, 'but there'll have to be changes.'

An intake of breath. Wait for it.

'We want the characters to be younger.'

Now, this wasn't the first time I'd had this note on this particular project. At the start of the whole process, nine months earlier, I'd been told to drop the ages of the characters. And I had done so, as far as credibility would allow.

(One of the characters was a consultant forensic psychiatrist. There's about a twelve year training period involved in becoming one of these rare and exotic creatures, so thirty was about as young as I could reasonably make the character. Besides - who'd want a consultant forensic psychiatrist in their twenties?)

But this time, I was worried. For a start, the scripts were written. The previous management had accepted them. Suddenly, though, there had to be changes. The characters would have to be younger.

So, presumably, a lead character who had twin children would maybe not have those children anymore. And all the others would be a slick bunch of 'Hollyoaks' rejects. And we couldn't have them making mistakes because that would make their youth seem like folly. So maybe they'd have to be better at their jobs than their slightly older and more experienced originals. Which means that we've just thrown any attempt at realism out of the window.

The project died, there and then. I knew that to make major changes to the characters would destabilise the stories we'd got.

The note - 'We want the characters to be younger' - had not been thought through. Implementing the new requirements would create major script problems. The management would then weigh in with another dumbass idea, with more suggestions as to how to make it work (it was working to begin with, but then we started making changes) and the whole thing would gradually unravel.

It's too easy these days for producers to make remarks such as 'We want the characters to be younger.' I'd had a glimpse of this new tendency at the BBC a year or two before. This was on a series I was familiar with, having worked on Series One, and it was only after the third draft of my script had been handed in that someone in management - Armani suit, just back from the Algarve, definitely the new breed - stepped in and demanded that the beginning and the end of the script must change. The result - that script was ruined.

What makes producers think that they're entitled to behave like this? If they haven't got a sensible suggestion to make, why can't they shut up?

They really do seem to believe that a script is a document that can be rewritten ad nauseam, pulled this way and that, until it has reached a kind of homogenised state that nobody could take offence at.

In reality, what producers are doing when they fiddle with our scripts is they are taking away our own individual style, our voices. They are removing the 'author' from his or her own work. As a result, the script will lack 'authority. It will be 'unauthorised'.

This takes us back to yesterday's blog. Producers these days say that they like working with soap opera writers. Soap scripts are designed and constructed in such a way that they can be changed over and over again. Scenes do not rely on one another - a whole storyline can be lifted out and replaced.

In a real drama script, the story evolves, developing organically, as, little by little, the flesh of the script is put onto the bone of the plot. Making any major change at any point in the process, especially if that change has not been thought through, can ruin the story. Till then, the characters have been developing, taking on the forms that they require for the story to work. Suddenly, the characters are capable of being anything, doing anything, if it appeals to the producer. It doesn't matter that this new kind of character behaviour is violently at odds with the way the script has been developing. The producer has demanded it, so that's that.

In days gone by, producers tended to be excellent script editors. They also knew how to delegate. A scriptwriter was hired to do a job. They were hired because the producer believed that they could do this job. They were helped, advised, guided, but generally left alone to do the job they'd been hired to do.

Not anymore. Respect for scriptwriters and scripts has pretty well vanished. Producers who simply do not understand scripts, the processes by which they come into being, the delicacy of the strands which hold the various elements of the script together, feel that they have a natural right to alter any aspect of the script, at any stage in the process, whenever they feel like it.

This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It leads to appalling scripts. It leads to endless pointless rewrites, and to writers trying to incorporate stupid ideas delivered by producers who haven't got a clue.

It leads to producers trumpeting the merits of soap opera writers over and above experienced dramatists.

It leads to crap drama.

This is what writers are up against, these days. If it isn't tough enough breaking into the industry, the writer then has to be broken by that industry. On many series, they only employ writers because it takes too long to train a monkey to type.

So - suggestions, please, as to how we can overturn this horrendous state of affairs. We need to generate a debate on the future of scriptwriting for film and TV. At the heart of that debate must be the status and role of the writer.

Until some semblance of the old respect for writers is restored, we'll continue to see our working conditions deteriorate, and the quality of our scripts too.

How do we persuade big, scary producers that we know what we're doing - that we don't need their idiotic input?

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Soap opera is not drama. It is melodrama.

At a BBC Drama Group launch, some years ago, Script Doc sat at the back and watched as clips from the forthcoming drama season were screened for assorted hacks. Amongst the single-strand dramas (films, in other words), series and serials came a few excerpts from the BBC's soap, 'Eastenders', which takes place in a mythical land somewhere near the Thames. And Script Doc wondered, 'What is a soap opera doing here in the midst of all this drama?'

The fine points of why soap and drama are two different things can be explored elsewhere. The point is that Script Doc was right to feel a bit of concern, somewhere deep inside, about the classification of soap as drama.

Not so long after the Drama Group launch in question, the Doc came across an interview with one of British TV's up-and-coming young producers. 'We like working with soap writers,' said the Bright Young Thing. 'They always deliver.'

This statement intrigued the Doc. Was Ms Producer suggesting that drama writers who don't specialise in soap actually don't deliver? Or was she saying something else?

I think the latter. Soap writers have no ownership of their characters. They are accustomed to rewriting a script because somebody, somewhere, has changed their minds about something. A drama writer has an emotional investment in the script. Too many rewrites, too much second-guessing, inflict untold damage on a real drama script. Soap scripts can be rewritten indefinitely. Soap writers simply do as they're told.

Soap has become the behemoth of British TV. Even shows which struggled to define themselves as something other than soap have adopted soapy elements. Emotionally manipulative, socially meaningless, dramatically contrived, soap has come to dominate British TV drama over recent years.

So what, you might well ask. Well, as writers have lost control over their own scripts, the BBC has fallen into the trap of believing in celebrities. This is the classic Hollywood producer's mistake.

We're currently seeing a startling number of complaints made to the BBC about two massively overpaid comedians whose questionable prank calls made to an elderly actor have offended many people. Nobody queried whether the prank calls were a good idea at the time. They were made by two of the BBC's highest-paid celebrities, so how could they possibly have been a bad idea?

Let's compare the level of editorial control exercised over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand with that wielded by drama producers during the script stage. In the first instance, no editorial control whatsoever. Those two are celebs and therefore they can do no wrong. In the latter instance, all writers must be soap writers so that they will accept excessive, even abusive and exploitative levels of editorial control without the reservations that a real drama writer would have.

Power has shifted in the industry. This has taken about twenty years to achieve, prompted initially by the right-wing governments of the 1980s (Margaret Thatcher's husband was a particularly vocal, and unelected, critic of the BBC). What has happened during that period can be compared with the banking sector. A small, hugely privileged elite has been allowed to accrue enormous amounts of power - without responsibility - and has been rewarded with grossly inflated pay.

In the meantime, the majority of creatives have been forced to toe the line, on short-term contracts, and have been subject to the whims of over-promoted suits.

All writers have become soap writers. Hacks. Carefully screened and trained up to believe that creating the soapy drivel that passes for drama these days is some kind of achievement.

Today, there is one rule for the celebs and another for the drones. The former get showered with money and told to do whatever they want. The latter are kept on a tight leash and face oblivion if they dare to question the wisdom of their gobbledegook-spouting 'superiors'.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a system in decline. It is a slave economy engineered to benefit a tiny minority. By treating writers as slaves while allowing celebrity loudmouths to demand ever higher fees, the BBC management has shown the contempt it feels both for the vast majority of its staff and - even more tellingly - for the consumer (that's you and me, folks).

But there is good news. As noted in a previous blog, the BBC's grandly-titled Head of Fiction is leaving White City imminently, and the removal of her dead hand can do the BBC's drama output no harm. But the real issue is a bigger political one.

Governments around the world have, in recent weeks, woken up to the devastating effects of a certain mindset being allowed to dictate its own terms. The partial nationalisation of certain banks represents a huge political upheaval - the final realisation that a system based on greed and the imagined impeccable status of a lucky few will inevitably create its own demise.

Where the banking sector is concerned, we have all lost money. Where the BBC is concerned, we have all been short-changed. Senior management has been too busy enjoying its perks and congratulating itself to tackle the real problems that are now endemic within the Beeb. Staff morale is at an all-time low. The viewer is fobbed off with no end of junk. The creative voice has been silenced in order to allow the inane, self-centred babble of a few so-called celebrities to be heard. Standards have declined, opportunities have dried up, some people have become fabulously wealthy.

Is this what we want?

Let's hope that a fresh wind is about to blow. We've lived in a world of lies for years now. The consequences of doing so are now coming home to us. And, if history has taught us anything, it's that revolutions happen when too many people are browbeaten into harming their own interests for the sake of a pampered minority.

Don't be a soap writer. Don't be a slave.

Stand up for real drama. For the right to write, and the right to be heard.

The voice of the writer matters more than the right of a couple of overpaid celebrities to make prank calls.

Thursday, 23 October 2008


Imagine a flashy, trashy TV series. Something like 'Miami Vice'.

Our two leads work for Lieutenant By-the-Book. They are Flashback and his colleague, Voiceover.

Flashback was probably in 'Nam, where he caught the dreaded VFS (Vietnam Flashback Syndrome) disease. That, or he saw his wife murdered. Or - well, you know the sort of thing: a trauma that just won't go away.

Voiceover is a smartass with a personality disorder. He has a compulsive need to narrate his own story, to tell himself, and anyone else who'll listen, what's going on.

What adventures these two could have! Voiceover could tell us precisely what he's thinking and doing while Flashback is continually reminded of something that happened in the past. One stays cool while the other goes bonkers - but it all works out right in the end. Voiceover can tell us what he and Flashback have learnt from the experience, while Flashback rearranges his memories so that they don't keep jumping up and biting him on the bum. And they'll both have a wry laugh with By-the-Book, who just ten minutes earlier was about to fire them.

What a pile of faeces.

They'll probably commission it.

Flackback and Voice Over (V.O.) are two of the budding screenwriters most familiar allies. And, if you want my advice, you'll steer well clear of them both. Because they're idiots.

Scripts convey information. Two kinds of information. They tell us what we see and what we hear. This information is presented in the present tense. The script tells us what the characters are doing and what they are saying to each other.

Flashback and Voice Over are attempts at presenting information that, in reality, we are able neither to see nor to hear. Both take us inside the head of a character. With Flashback we are given a privileged glimpse of a character's memories. With V.O. we hear the character's thoughts.

Apart from the fact that both are unrealistic, they both tend to be used for the wrong reasons. Flashback is often deployed by the writer to break up a dull part of the script (no script should have dull bits!) and to hint at an on-going build-up of tension. Voice Over is resorted to so that a) the plot will make sense, and b) the audience will identify with a particular character.

Neither is necessary.

Flashback can be used as a structural device. Some of my favourite films start with the death of the main character and then go back to tell the story of his life. That's fine.

And there's a clever way of using Voice Over to make smooth transitions between scenes (effectively, making the soundtrack cut at a different moment from the visual edit, so that the dialogue from one scene can run over or anticipate the start of the next scene). And that's fine.

But otherwise, I almost always feel that the writer has plumped for using Flashback or Voice Over, not because they should, but because they can.

Let this be a warning to all beginners: KEEP AWAY FROM THE EFFECTS PEDALS!

Flashback and Voice Over are easy options. They're often used as if they were a natural addition of the screenwriters palette. But they're not. They're cheap tricks. And I've hardly ever come across a script that would not benefit from being rewritten without them.

Try writing your script without indulging in these fancy practices. Try writing it straight - just what we see and what we hear - as if the camera just happened to be there to capture the action.

You know, before he wandered off into Cubism and started painting women with their eyes in the wrong places, Picasso really could paint a perfectly representational scene. He did what every artist should do: start by learning how it's done before you try breaking the rules.

Start by mastering the straightforward, linear narrative before you get the toy-box out. Try it. If you can tell your story without using Flashback and Voice Over, then they were never needed in the first place.

Chances are, your script will work a lot better without them.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


A screenplay is a blueprint. I'm sure most of us have, at one time or another, tried to follow some kind of diagrammatic instructions. Perhaps we've had to assemble some flat-pack furniture.

You'd be a bit miffed if the people responsible for designing those instructions left out crucial information, wouldn't you?

The eventual product - the movie, the TV show - is put together following the instructions given in the script. The screenwriter provides the detailed plan, the architect's design.

Evidently, then, we don't want to leave out anything from the script that we believe is important to the end product. And we certainly want to leave as little as possible to chance.

But there are certain things we're not allowed to do, or are strongly advised to avoid doing. One of these is telling actors how to speak the lines. Another is telling the director where to put the camera.

I wrote a sequence, once, of various people arriving at different doors. Maybe five or six short scenes, each with a small snatch of dialogue. The director decided to shoot them all together in one continuous, fluid shot. He was showing off. It took hours to set up and cost a lot of money.

I didn't mind because it was fun watching them set that one up. I also felt that the director was fully justified in making that creative decision.

Tell you one thing: if I'd tried to write those five or six short scenes as one continuous sequence, dictating in my script that the camera starts up high on a cherry-picker and then steadicams in to a first floor apartment, the chances are it wouldn't have happened that way. The director would have decided that it was unfilmable.

Besides, who was I - a mere writer - to tell him where to put his camera?

Now. Here's the screenwriting secret. It is our job as screenwriters to tell directors where to put their cameras but WE MUSTN'T LET THEM KNOW WE'RE DOING IT.

Let's take the tricky matter of writing action sequences.

Some scripts are easy to read. Others aren't. One of the principal differences between the two is layout. The pages of an easy-to-read script tend to be very white. Too much ink on the page makes a script difficult to read.

We need our screenplays to be neat, clear, clean and easy on the eye. There is also a rule that a page of properly formatted screenplay should equal roughly one minute of screen time.

Let's say that you have to write an action sequence. If you expect that sequence to last, say, three minutes, then the action sequence in your script should be three pages long.

Nothing will make your script harder to read than three pages of solid ink describing what happens during the action sequence.

I have a rule of my own. It goes: when writing action or describing a scene, use short paragraphs of four lines maximum. Less than four lines - fine. More than four lines - no.

Break up the paragraphs. Don't write in solid blocks. Short paragraphs, with a single line gap between them, are easy to read. Massive chunks of text are not.

This turns a daunting, three-minute action sequence into short and snappy bite-size units of action.

It also allows you - up to a point - to direct the scene. Each short, pithy paragraph of one, two, three or four lines (max) is like a single shot. You'd be a fool to put 'LS' (long shot) or 'CU' (close-up) in your script, because that's for the director to decide. Besides, why bother? The way you write that short paragraph, that discreet unit of action, will indicate how it is meant to be filmed.

Our job as screenwriters is to visualise the entire story, moment by moment, and to describe it, moment by moment.

A lot of writers make the mistake of introducing a character without describing them. How is the reader to imagine what that character is like if you don't provide the basic information? How is the casting department expected to find the right actor if you don't tell them what to look for?

How that character is introduced is up to you. You're the one who first sees that character in your head. So write what you see.

Writing in short paragraphs means that you don't describe the scene. You describe the shot. And then, in the next short paragraph, the next shot. And so on.

Actors need things to do. It's a terrible mistake to write page after page of uninterrupted dialogue (boring, boring, boring). It's also wrong to put (sarcastically) or (angrily) in there in an attempt to tell the actor how to speak the lines.

Don't write it. Show it. If the character is getting angry, show him getting angry. Give the actor the appropriate actions - clenching fists, punching walls - but don't write (angrily) there in the dialogue. If you give the actor clear instructions to behave angrily, the line should come out the way you want it to.

It's the golden rule. Don't tell it: show it. Write each scene the way you see it in your head. Short paragraphs make the script easy to read. They also allow you to adjust your focus. Each paragraph tells us what we see. So, one paragraph might briefly describe a crowd. The next might describe one person in that crowd. The next, what that person is looking at. Implicitly, you're providing camera angles. You're writing the scene exactly as you see it unfolding.

Don't tell us that a character is depressed. Show us. I read scripts all the time which state things like 'So-and-so looks thoughtful'.

Try telling an actor to look thoughtful. Do thoughtful, darling. Give me thoughtful.

Rubbish. If you want them to look thoughtful, give them thoughtful things to do.

It's by being CLEAR and PRECISE like this that you get to direct your script. It's by being vague and imprecise that you allow directors and actors to do their own thing.

An architect wouldn't produce half a plan and leave the builder to make up the rest. That could be a recipe for disaster.

You're the architect. You decide what the building should look like, what it's made of. It's your job to make sure that the building will be aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound.

Write the script the way you see it. No camera angles, no actor's notes. Just what we see, moment by moment. Don't tell actors and directors how to realise your vision. Tell them what we see, and then let them give us that vision.

Don't tell. Show.

And be CLEAR and PRECISE about it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


My first lesson in fireproofing came while working on a well-known British TV series.

Police are called to a house to investigate a burglary in progress. They arrive to discover that the householder has already apprehended the suspect. In fact, he's beaten him unconscious.

In my scene description for the bedroom in which the supposed burglar is found I had casually written: 'There is blood all up the wall.'

Oh, naughty screenwriter. Bad, bad screenwriter.

It was pointed out to me, by a very lovely script editor, that this could be taken as an invitation to the stage management people to cover the bedroom with Kensington Gore. The scene would then look like Sam Peckinpah had shot one of his slow-motion sequences in there. So could I please amend it to: 'There are two or three drops of blood on the wall'?

My next lesson was on another primetime TV drama. On this occasion, petroleum spirit was seen being poured through a letter-box, followed by a burning rag (ooh, isn't my work nasty?). Again, it fell to the script editor to ask me to specify that THE AREA AFFECTED BY THE FIRE EXTENDS NO FURTHER THAN THE DOORMAT. Otherwise, it was pointed out to me, Vis-FX would burn the house down.

You see, we forget, us screenwriters. While we're so busy, thrashing out our marvellous scripts, we forget that it's so very, very easy to write out a sentence, but when it comes to production, that casual, seemingly throwaway sentence can mean hours of work for somebody.

Another TV series - this one involves a hospital. I had written, without really thinking about it very much, that one car swerves to avoid another car. Easy enough, you'd think.

Er - no. Just the paperwork involved in that one 'stunt' wiped out part of a rain forest. I actually felt quite ashamed. Thoughtless me, dashing off some line about a car swerving. Did it not occur to me that that could be dangerous? That somebody would actually have to make a car swerve it order to film it?

Vile, wicked, inconsiderate screenwriter!

Perhaps I should have been more specific about how much the car had to swerve.

While all this was going on (there was about five years between the blood-on-the-wall incident and the potentially-deadly-car-swerve) I was also learning that it was not just set-dressers going berserk that you had to guard against. You don't just have to take precautions against over-enthusiastic special effects teams. In fact, anyone involved in the production side of things can make a mess of your delicate labours.

Actors, for example. By and large, they don't have to do much. A car fetches them from the hotel. They get pampered by some fresh and fragrant make-up artist. They get fed and watered very nicely. And all they have to do is walk a bit and say something or other. Simple, yeah?

Don't you believe it. Watching some actors at work on your script will make you want to cry with joy. Others will make you wonder whether the laws on involuntary euthanasia shouldn't be relaxed.

And what about directors? On the whole, I like directors. They only want to look good by turning your crummy script into screen magic, and there's nothing wrong with you taking the credit for their brilliant ideas. But don't imagine for a single moment that a director can't cock up your script.

Editors? They take decisions about what gets left in and what gets taken out when you're not looking.

In short, you slave away in a dark room on iron rations, desperately polishing your lovely script until it shines. And then you hand it over to a bunch of monkeys. Some of those monkeys are exceptionally talented. But they're still monkeys.

You have to protect yourself. More importantly, you have to protect your script.

My first lesson in this involved making the script 'stage-management proof'. My second lesson was about being 'Vis-FX proof'.

No one ever told me to make my scripts 'director proof' or 'actor proof'. I learned that from experience.

And here's the catch. Actors and directors can get a bit shirty when the screenwriter tries to tell them how to do their jobs. Sometimes, they'll do the opposite of what it says in the script, just to prove who's the boss.

So we have to be clever. We have to anticipate all the many different ways that somebody involved in the production can interpret our words and then make sure that there's only one possible interpretation.

In fact, this brings us to the essence of good screenwriting, which is all about being CLEAR and PRECISE.

It's all too easy to just write a line of action or a line of dialogue. But to fireproof it, you have to be aware that somebody else is going to be let loose with that bit of action, that brilliantly witty line. And that person may well want to make their presence felt by following their own interpretation of what you might have had in mind.

Don't give them the opportunity.


It's your job to be in control of the script. Bitter experience will teach you that, if you don't carefully consider the possible ramifications of everything to write in your script, there's every possibility that you'll be embarrassed by what somebody does during production.

After all, it's your name that goes out after 'Written by'.

Fireproof your script. Be CLEAR and PRECISE about everything that happens in it. Don't leave any room for interpretation. Be CLEAR and PRECISE.

Unless, of course, you really do want blood all up the wall.

Sunday, 19 October 2008


According to William Faulkner, 'The only thing worth writing about is the conflict in the human heart.'

Try telling that to the makers of 'Butt Lovers #4'.

But there's truth in it. Most of us will have been told, at some point, that drama is all about conflict.

'Drama' actually derives from a Greek verb meaning 'to do'. As we now know, character is what character does. The hero's character is forged as he or she takes steps to achieve their objective in the face of obstacles.

It is what the hero does to overcome the obstacles which stand between him and his objective that forms the story. The drama is generated by the hero's struggle to reach his goal. What the hero does forms the drama.

As I've said before, it's amazing how many scripts get written in which the hero doesn't really seem to want anything. If the hero doesn't actually want something, there can't be anything or anyone preventing him from getting it. Ergo, no story. No drama. No conflict.

But there's an added refinement. Hopefully, you will never attempt to write a script without making sure, before you start, that you have got a


who has an


to achieve which they must overcome


It's vital that your hero wants something. We can look at this another way:


Fine. But why does the screenwriter want to write an award-winning screenplay? And what's really holding them back?

Why do you want to write a screenplay? Sigmund Freud believed that what the artist really wants is power, fame and the love of women (or men). Because the artist doesn't have those things he or she sublimates their desires into their artistic endeavours. With any luck, they become successful and achieve what they always wanted: power, fame and the love of women (or men).

What does your hero really want? Yes, yes, we all know that heroes want to save the world. But why bother? What's the real motivation? And what's really stopping them from getting off their backsides and doing a bit of world-saving?

You can add depth to your characters by remembering that we all have inner and outer objectives, and inner and outer obstacles.

Let's say that your hero wants to win an Olympic gold medal. That's an outer objective - it can be seen, it can be grasped - and the audience needs to know about it early on in your script.

Your hero should also have an inner objective. Where does the desire to win Olympic gold come from? It's a lot of bother. There must be a reason for the hero to go to all that trouble, and it isn't the desire for a bit of bling.

Similarly, maybe your hero's obstacle - the thing that's standing in the way of them winning the gold medal - is that they're grossly overweight. That's an outer obstacle. There'll be an inner obstacle, too, which probably accounts for them being overweight.

The hardest obstacles to overcome are the inner obstacles. And while the plot might be all about the struggle to win gold, the story is really about achieving the inner objective - a sense of self-worth.

The story takes place on two levels. On the one, 'outer', level, it's about someone who has to get in shape and beat the competition in order to win Olympic gold. That, basically, is the plot. But there's an 'inner' level to the story that is possibly more important. On that level, it's about someone who has to overcome crippling self-doubt, personal unhappiness and perhaps some kind of trauma in order to win the praise that they never received from their father and to rid themselves of their inner demons. The struggle then isn't against the other competitors so much as it is against themselves.

All your main characters - HERO, VILLAIN, SIDEKICK and LOVE INTEREST - should have objectives and obstacles if they're going to be real characters. But you can take that further. Give them some depth. Let them have inner objectives and inner obstacles in addition to their outward desires and external problems.

And be aware of your own inner objectives. Why do you really want to write a screenplay? What is your real motivation? How will it feel to achieve your own inner objective? Keeping that in mind just might keep you going when the going gets tough.

And remember, 'The only thing worth writing about is the conflict in the human heart'.

Because the real drama consists of the struggle to achieve what we really want in the face of what's really holding us back.

Saturday, 18 October 2008


And lo, it came to pass that, after trying to exterminate them for many years, white people realised it might be interesting to study the native tribes of America.

And anthropologists and field-workers went amongst the indigenous peoples and did talk to the elders of those tribes, and whatever the wise folk told them they did write down in their notebooks.

And the redskins did say unto them, 'Why do you write things down when we are talking to you?' And they asked of them, 'How can you be listening to what we are saying when you are so busy writing in your little books?'

And lo, that was a good question.

I was once working on a BBC drama series and, as part of my research, I spent a week on a police van, following the cops and observing what they did. One of the police officers told me that, only a week or two before, they'd had another writer on the van with them. This guy wrote down everything they said. Every little witticism. Every turn of phrase.

I read this other writer's script and it didn't ring true. It sounded wrong. But how could this be? Surely every line of dialogue came straight from the horse's mouth, as it were.

I think he was so busy writing things down that he forgot to listen. He had captured their words, but not the context, the thoughts or feelings behind them. Most of all, he had not caught the atmosphere on the police van. He'd got the details, but missed the bigger picture.

A lot of notes are written in this business. Perhaps the worst offenders are script editors. They go through scripts, making notes. And then they go through those notes with the writers. And the writer goes away with page after page of notes on what needs doing to the script.

What if the script editor had just read the script, thought about it, and then made some observations?

Script editors who obsessively make notes as they go through a script are like those anthropologists talking to the native American chiefs. They're not listening because they're too busy writing notes.

They're not listening to the script. Every time they stop to jot down a thought, a query, a comment they are interrupting the flow of the script. The result is that they haven't actually READ the script. They've gone through it, looking for things to make notes about. On the one hand, they've succeeded - look: hundreds of notes on the script! But on the other, they've failed miserably. Because most of those notes were unnecessary. They should have just read the script.

I've conducted many interviews in the course of my screenwriting career, and several have been interrupted by the subject asking, 'Are you recording this?' Fortunately, the answer was no, so they carried on talking.

And I listened. I let them say things that they wouldn't have said if I'd be writing everything down. And I came away with an impression of that person which I would not have got if I'd been making notes throughout the conversation. By not writing everything down I was able to observe the subject, to listen to them, to make my own mental notes.

Too much note-taking and note-making goes on. Which means that too many people in the industry aren't listening. And that's really rather rude, when you think about it.

Let's make a pledge to stop taking notes. Let's learn to listen, to observe, to take information in without disappearing every few seconds to write something down.

Let's give people, and scripts, the attention they deserve.

Thursday, 16 October 2008


England vs Argentina, World Cup, 1998. I watched it in a pub in Bristol. Probably the smallest pub in Bristol. The place was packed.

Normally, football leaves me cold. But England's clash with Argentina at St Etienne was something else. Ninety nail-biting minutes, followed by extra time, followed by a penalty shootout. A young David Beckham (whatever happened to him?) got sent off. The community of emotion was incredible.

There were groans. There were mutterings. There were roars. There was armchair analysis. There were anxious faces. We sat, transfixed. We stood, punching the air. We held our breaths.

We lost. But watching that match I wondered, through the ever-thickening alcoholic haze - why can't drama be more like this?

People from all backgrounds, stopping everything they're doing, to concentrate on an event, a trial, a contest. Rapt attention. Ratchetting tension. A nation's heart in its mouth.

Why can't drama be more like that?

Deep down, I believe that it can be. And it's the scriptwriter's job to ensure that it is.

There's a lot we can learn from major sporting events.

First of all, there's the matter of identification. The audience has to identify with the hero. We have to make the audience invest in the hero, just as fans invest, emotionally, in the fortunes of their team. The audience must cheer the hero on, hoping and praying that the hero will succeed.

To achieve this, make your hero good at what they do. We admire people who are good at what they do. Give them a good, clear, positive objective. Let the audience know, as early as possible, what your hero wants, what they're setting out to achieve, why it's important to them. And make sure that the obstacles are formidable.

Secondly, the outcome of the story must be unpredictable. The history of sport is a history of unexpected outcomes. The audience must be desperate to know how the story ends.

This is quite tricky. We've all seen, heard and read so many stories that we know how they tend to work out. Unconsciously, readers and viewers are constantly anticipating where the story's going, what's going to happen next, how it will all end. They're like those armchair pundits with their constant, knowing predictions.

Our job is to keep them guessing. Avoid the soft option. Don't be predictable.

Lastly, a great sports match is a story of ups and downs, of dramatic twists, of sudden reversals, of heart-stopping moments, of despair followed by euphoria. It's a rollercoaster ride. A real emotional journey.

You've got to be cruel to your characters. Love them, but torture them. Give them their triumphs, then make their world collapse. Make their journey, their struggle to achieve their objectives in the face of their obstacles, as eventful as you dare. Reward every positive step with a bigger problem for them to overcome. Surprise them, and the audience, and yourself. Make the stakes as high as you can, and keep piling on the pressure, right up until the end.

These are three areas in which many scripts are deficient. We must care about the hero. We must want them to succeed. We must be gripped by the story, unable to guess what happens next. We must be buffeted, just like the hero, by the vagaries of fortune, by a range of emotions of increasing intensity.

We must invest in the hero, identifying with their cause, cheering them on, suffering their highs and lows. We must be kept in suspense. We need to feel our hearts sink and our spirits soar. We need to be on the edge of our seats, our nerves in shreds, willing them on.

If you can achieve that with your scripts, you've got it made.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008


Character is what character does.

Tattoo that on your forehead - in reverse, so that it's the first thing you'll read every morning in the mirror:


Or, if you only have a little forehead:


I stumbled across this one when I'd been directing a 'method' actor. Every day, right up until dress rehearsal, he'd come up to me and say, 'I'm having problems with my character - I'm just not getting my character.'

Resisting the urge to beat him to a pulp (it's only acting, for crying out loud!) I realised I needed an answer to this one. How do we delineate and define character? How do we measure character? What is the essence of character?

Then it came to me. We judge a person by their actions. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

When I'm teaching screenwriting, I always illustrate the point this way. To my admiring students, I say 'You no doubt look on me as the fount of all wisdom. I could tell you anything and the chances are you'd believe me. I could present myself as the coolest man in Christendom. Nothing fazes me. My pulse rate never wavers. I am sang froid incarnate ...

'But what happens if a fire breaks out, or a man-eating tiger bursts into the room? If I manfully tackle the flames, or position myself between the class and the tiger crying "Women and children first!" then maybe I've been telling the truth. Maybe I do deserve a medal. But if I'm the first one out of the window, then much of what I told you was a lie. I'm not brave at all. In fact, I'm a terrible coward.'

It's not what I say that makes me who I am - it's what I do.

The same goes for characters in a script. Actors, take note: if you don't really 'get' your character, look at what your character DOES. That'll tell you what your character IS.

Characters are often a major let down in scripts and screenplays. Too often, they seem hollow, two-dimensional, only there to serve the plot. I've read countless scripts in which the protagonist has a bit of character, there's a character in there who (surprisingly) stands out, but is not a very important character, and the rest are ciphers. They have no real existence.

In order to create rounded, believable characters some writers fall back on an elaborate system. I was once working on a project (treatment stage - yuck!) when a colleague presented me with his 'tried and trusted' character questionnaire. It was about two pages long and consisted of all sorts of questions: This character likes ... / This character doesn't like ... / This character is least likely to say ... / and so on.

Now, this really is screenwriting for dummies. It's just like those games actors play ('If my character was a car, what car would my character be?') which, though they help to pass the time, have very little bearing on performance. Knowing what your character had for breakfast this morning is of limited value. Hamlet might well have had a bowl of cornflakes, but what the feck has that got to do with anything?

In the case of actors, they often do this sort of thing because they're not very good at reading maps. Sorry, I mean scripts. Same thing, really. All the necessary information is present in the script, but actors aren't very good at spotting it, or they don't trust it, so they make a load of stuff up.

By the way, I trained as an actor. I know their little ways.

A writer can dispense with all that character questionnaire crap. Let's remember that the main character - the 'hero' - requires two things, an OBJECTIVE and an OBSTACLE, to make their story come alive.

Well, the same goes for all your other characters. They, too, need their objectives and obstacles. Characters fall flat in scripts because they don't seem to want anything. They're just there, in the way.

In reality, each of us is the lead character in our own story. We all of us have our objectives and our obstacles.

Make your characters real by making sure that they want something, even if it's a small and simple thing, and that they have something that's obstructing them, just like your hero does.

If you do that - mentally - don't put it all in the script, just know that it's there - then every encounter between characters in your script instantly becomes richer. Think about it: every encounter we have in real life involves at least two people who, individually and separately, want things that something's preventing them from acquiring. So every encounter is a negotiation (i.e., will this person help me or hinder me? Have I got time to deal with their problems?) And, similarly, if every character in your script has their own, individual, natural objective or desire, and is fighting, successfully or unsuccessfully, against their own personal obstacles, then what you're creating is a little world of competing interests - which is just what real life is, really.

There's more to come on character. But always remember, characters can lie, but their actions tend to reveal the truth.

Make your hero active. Make sure that your hero sets out to achieve the objective and takes arms, one way or another, against a sea of obstacles. We all like active heroes.

And make sure that every other character is following his/her/its own agenda. They have their own desires, their own problems.

And make sure that they DO things. Because character is what character does.

Character is action.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


We all know what a displacement activity is. It's what animals do when they're trying to avoid a fight. It's something you do when you know you should be doing something else.

You've got a tax return to fill in, so what do you do? Wash the car, or finish that bit of grouting. Displacement activities.

Writing a treatment is a classic displacement activity. Obviously so - because what you should be writing is a script.

For the uninitiated - a treatment is between 30 and 60 pages long (actually, that's REALLY useless information). It's a kind of sales pitch for a script. So: one-page synopsis, detailed story outline, character breakdowns, any additional information. There is no actual definition of a treatment, but it's basically a detailed description of the script you're hoping to write, compiled in such a way as to allow the reader to know precisely what kind of script you're going to write.

Now. I guess when Christopher Columbus knelt before Ferdinand and Isabella to ask them for money, he was expected to give them a detailed description of the trip he intended to make. He gave them a 'treatment' - a map, if you like, of a journey he'd never made. And then he proved how spot on he'd been by discovering somewhere else altogether.

That's one of the main problem with treatments. Not only are you describing something you haven't done yet but you're running a very real risk that your journey ('script'), when you take it, will turn out to be totally unlike your treatment. So what was the point of the treatment?

Let's be clear. There are some things that a treatment is good for. It's not a bad idea to clarify what you're planning on doing, and making sure that your backers, producers, clients, whatever, are broadly in sympathy with your intentions.

But a scriptwriter or a screenwriter really only has one purpose in life, and that's to write scripts or screenplays. Anything else - like churning out treatments - is a distraction, a displacement activity.

Treatments were not actually a very big deal when I started out in British television. Way back then, producers really only wanted to see scripts. Which was fine, because I really only wanted to write scripts.

But little by little, the treatment became king. I remember sitting in a meeting, discussing some project or other. The Head of Drama said, 'Right, well I think we need a script.' I feel good and start mentally counting my fee. The Head of Drama Development (glorified script editor) said, 'No, I think we need a treatment.' I feel bad, and then worse when the Head of Drama caves in.

The result: there never was a script. I got paid about a tenth of my fee and had NO FUN AT ALL.

Because here's the rub. NO ONE has EVER gained ANY satisfaction from reading a treatment. That's partly because they're unreadable. I mean, what are they? They're not scripts, they're not novels. They are, essentially, a waste of time.

So why are these things everywhere, these days? Why must every writer (more or less) devote a considerable amount of their time, energy, attention and expertise on creating, revising and polishing treatments?

At treatment stage, a producer still feels he or she has some control over the project. The worst producers just don't 'get' scripts. I think they're jealous of us gifted, creative children. They're scared of our abilities. And they're terrified by our independent spirits. So they try to delay the moment when the writer goes off to do what he or she does best (write a script), because the moment they do so the more inadequate kind of producer instantly suffers a LOSS OF CONTROL.

Let's look at the rest of the production. Does the director have to make a kind of 'home video' version of the show first, to prove that he can do it properly? Does the actor have to present a report on how he or she is expecting to play the part? Does the editor compile a 30 - 60 page report on how the piece ought to cut together?

No. But writers, the most marginalised workers in the industry, are expected, these days at least, to do something well outside of their comfort zone (just as treatments are no fun to read, they're no fun to write) which will have minimum benefit for the script and might, in fact, ruin the script before it's even started.

Producers will argue that treatments allow us to anticipate any problems with the script and solve them before the script is written.

Nonsense. You can only ever tell if a script is going to work by reading the script. The treatment is meaningless. If the script needs to change (and often if it doesn't) it will change. The treatment is meaningless.

Worse - the writer needs to tackle the script with a degree of freshness, wonder, adventure. But all too often, every last shred of excitement has been squeezed out of the project during the treatment stage. So the treatment - a worthless document that nobody likes reading - has killed off the infinitely more important document - the script - before you've even started!!!

For now, more's the pity, treatments can't be ignored. Producers cling to them. They're a displacement activity - not for writers but for producers who dread letting writers do what they're good at.

But never make the mistake of imagining that a treatment has any real relevance. Only the script has relevance. The treatment is a straitjacket which a producer tries to force a writer into. The public will never read it, most executives will never read it, and none of the great writers of the past ever had to worry about them.

Treatments are a symptom of what's wrong with the industry these days - of how badly writers are treated. 'Let them write scripts', is what we ought to be hearing. Instead, we hear 'Let them write treatments.' Which is tantamount to 'For God's sake, never let a writer write anything! Don't let them do scripts! Keep them distracted, farting about with something pointless! Whatever happens, AVOID LETTING THE WRITER WRITE A SCRIPT!'

To those producers, I say: 'You do your job and let the writers do theirs.' And to the writers, I say: 'The script matters. The treatment doesn't.'

So there.

Sunday, 12 October 2008


Ah, Cherie! The Blessed Cherie Lunghi. I had Sunday lunch with her, many years ago, when I was what you might call a callow youth.

She exuded femininity. She radiated softness and perfume, like a living ad for fabric conditioner. It was intoxicating. I just wanted to snuggle up to her. I would have gladly let her stand on my chest, if she'd suddenly felt the need to do so.

I went more or less straight from Sunday lunch in Kensington with the lovely Cherie to afternoon tea at Lindsay Anderson's place in Hampstead.

Two things I quickly spotted about Lindsay Anderson's house. 1) he was a fan of John Ford, and 2) his home life was rather chaotic.

I should explain. One of my best friends at drama school had an uncle who was a movie star. Said movie star had seen some work of mine and wanted me to write him a movie. Basically, he wanted to play a cop. American or British, didn't matter. Something a bit 'noir'. Oh, and he wanted a treatment.

A treatment?

What the feck's a treatment?

I tried to find out. There didn't seem to be many books around about screenwriting (my, how things have changed!) but I deduced, from an old copy of 'Writers and Artists Yearbook', that a treatment was between 30 and 60 pages long.

I had to write between 30 and 60 pages about my script - without actually writing the script. Okay, cool ...

After Sunday lunch in the presence of the eternal feminine (ah, Cherie!) we were off to see Lindsay Anderson, who would be going through my crude attempt at a film treatment with me. We sat around a large, round table in the corner of a large, somewhat old-fashioned kitchen - me, movie star, Anderson - and he started pulling my work to pieces.

A few minutes in and I thought that maybe the best thing all round would be if I politely excused myself, stepped outside and put a bullet through my brain.

I told myself that I was not going to cry, not under any circumstances.

I even began to stand my ground. I would suppose this was about 30 to 45 minutes into the mauling. I didn't get belligerent, because I was convinced that Mr Anderson was perfectly capable of sticking a big pin through me, dipping me in formaldehyde and displaying me in a glass case as a warning to other young screenwriters.

After an hour or so, movie star himself started standing up for me. I was young - I was from Birmingham (which, back in those days, counted as a Special Need) - at least I'd written something, unlike Anderson's regular writer, whose speciality was not actually writing things.

But, evidently, my treatment was an object lesson in everything that a treatment should not be. I think it was possibly about the right length, but that's it. Everything I had come up with was unfilmable. (At one point, sniggering, he turned to movie star and said, 'Maybe we should send this to what's-his-name, down the road - Nic Roeg - see if he could do anything with it.' So callow, so naive was I, that I didn't see the heavy irony in this; I just thought, 'Do you think Nic Roeg would be interested?')

Anyway, Lindsay Anderson treated me and my script treatment rather like a Rottweiler might treat a soft toy. He became a bit more avuncular towards the end. But I had been roasted, dissected, slapped and poleaxed, repeatedly run over, forwards and reverse, and given a darn good pasting.

I didn't cry. I wrote a screenplay - which had nothing to do with my treatment - and that got me my first five years of professional script work.

Treatments are a complete waste of time, as I will prove in some other posting.

But, on many a future occasion, in a script meeting or on the phone to a script editor, whenever I heard the words, 'We're sorry about all these notes, it sounds like it's really wrong, but the truth is we think the script's great, it's just that ...' I would always say, 'Look, it's okay, nothing you can say about my script can hurt me. I had afternoon tea with Lindsay Anderson.'

Impervious to criticism? No, not quite. Ignorant criticism is actually very destructive - and pervasive, in the industry these days. But Lindsay certainly toughened me up. Perhaps that had been what the exercise was all about.

As for Cherie Lunghi, someone really should name a hospital after her. And there's that spare plinth in Trafalgar Square ...

Saturday, 11 October 2008


How many stories are there in the world?

Nobody knows. Some say seven, some say eight. Some say ten. I say one.

One. With two variations. One story, told over and over again, millions of times across the world.

Must be quite a story.

Basically, the story involves someone (human or otherwise) who undertakes a journey (real or metaphorical) which will change them.

That's the story. And the two variations? Does it end happily, with the promise of new life for the hero and possibly a productive relationship? Comedy. Does it end unhappily, with the death of the hero? Tragedy. But the story remains the same.

A few days ago I introduced the image of the bridge as a metaphor for the three Act structure of a script. With the addition of the Mid-Point, the bridge tells us that scripts should subdivide neatly into four more-or-less equal sections:

First quarter: Act One ('Set Up'; approaching the bridge)

Second quarter: Act Two - first part ('Story'; crossing the bridge; approaching the Mid-Point)

Third quarter: Act Two - second part ('Story' continues; crossing the bridge, away from the Mid-Point)

Fourth quarter: Act Three (climax and resolution)

This is very useful. A full-length screenplay of, say, 100 pages is a daunting prospect. But a full-length screenplay made up of four sections, 25 pages each, is easier to tackle, especially when you know exactly what needs to happen in each section.

The Road to Enlightenment is the story structure. It fits neatly over the bridge structure for the script. Or, to put it another way, with both structures in your head (the Bridge and the Road) you have a perfect working structure that will keep your story and your script on the straight and narrow.

The Road starts with an everyday world in which something is wrong. There is, or has been, some disruption to the happy continuity of everyday life. The hero feels this. He or she is aware, if only dimly, of something being not quite right.

The hero wants something. He or she is restless. There is a burning desire in there. That desire is for a better life.

Adventure calls. This is a rule of storytelling. The hero receives an invitation to go on the quest. But the hero turns it down.

Ever been going on holiday and felt at the last minute that maybe you'd rather not go? Leaving your comfort zone isn't easy, and it shouldn't be for the hero, either.

But the story must unfold. Adventure refuses to be ignored. Something happens which makes the hero take a deep breath and set out on the road.

End of Act One. The script is a quarter of the way through.

The hero is now in a new and wondrous world. Everything might look the same, but the rules have changed. In a romantic comedy, everything the hero sees is refracted through the eyes of one who is in love. In a mystery, the hero has entered the world of shadows and duplicity that is the case. The hero has to get to grips with this new world and its rules.

Like a foreign country, the world of adventure (the 'Story' - Act Two) is both exotic and threatening. The hero must discover whether the people he or she encounters are friends or foes. The unexpected can happen at any moment.

Little by little, the hero approaches the place of ordeal. The Mid-Point. The dragon's lair. Death's citadel.

The hero has an objective. Something stands in the way of that objective being achieved, the dream realised. That something lives at the Mid-Point.

And, as we all know, dragons guard treasure. Whatever the hero is searching for, the answer will be found at the Mid-Point, where Death lives. Halfway through the script, the hero faces a major challenge. Oblivion is threatened (the loss of the loved one, failure, loneliness, humiliation or an unpleasant death). Simultaneously, the hero finds the answer - the thing he or she has been searching for.

The story is about growing up, about developing as a person. The old self has to die for a new self to be born. This is acted out in initiation rituals. It is the change which happens in the midst of neurosis. The hero emerges from his/her Mid-Point encounter with Death a stronger person. He or she now has the key to the story.

The hero must escape from Death's lair. Just after the Mid-Point, there's usually a chase or a flight, as the hero, alone or with others, evades Death's clutches, putting a good deal of space between themselves and the Death Star.

The objective hasn't yet been achieved. But the hero now knows what must be done.

The hero, stronger, now, after surviving the Mid-Point encounter with Death, has to marshal his or her forces, their resources, and take the battle to Death. For this to happen, there has to be a kind of return to the beginning. We have to get out of the story world, off the bridge, back to the world we're familiar with. The hero has to leave the world of adventure behind. Living in a story is like living in a dream - it can't go on indefinitely.

Just as the hero had to be forced to set out on the road, to leave the comfort of home behind and begin the adventure, so the hero must now be forced to put the adventure behind him and get down to the serious business of resolving the story.

End of Act Two.

The final confrontation with Death happens much more on the hero's own terms. Lessons have been learnt. The hero now knows who his or her friends are. We have also spotted Death's weaknesses. Something that was stolen or appropriated at the Mid-Point will prove to be the key to the whole thing, and that can now be used. The hero will triumph.

Joseph Campbell, who first noticed that all the world's stories are essentially the same ('The Hero With a Thousand Faces'), called the last stages of the cycle - or Act Three, in our terms - 'Master of the Two Worlds' and 'Freedom to Live'.

In Act Three - the final quarter of the script - the hero demonstrates that they now have the ability to survive both the world of adventure and the everyday world of home. He or she has conquered Death. The mystery is solved. Love blossoms. The hero is free to live.

There will be a marked difference in the hero at this final stage in the story. If your protagonist remains essentially the same at the end as he or she was at the beginning, then their hero status might be lacking.

If they haven't learnt something about themselves from their close encounter with Death, then they're not really a hero.

And boy, do we need heroes.

Friday, 10 October 2008


For more than a decade, the BBC's drama output has been increasingly under the control of one person.

Beginning her career as a secretary working in radio drama, Jane Tranter switched from the BBC to Carlton, where she worked as a script editor, in 1992. In 1998, the BBC's highly respected Head of Drama Serials, Michael Wearing, was obliged to walk the plank. He was replaced by Jane Tranter, who became Controller of Drama in 2000 and, in 2006, achieved a whole new post - that of Head of Fiction. In this capacity, she oversaw an annual budget in the regions of £440 million.

In September it was announced that Jane Tranter will be stepping down from these lofty heights. As of the beginning of 2009 she will be heading up BBC Worldwide's American arm.

The end of 2008 will therefore witness the end of an era in BBC Drama. It has not been a good one.

Tranter had not long been back at the BBC, in a position of immense commissioning power, when the corporation announced the first of its new schemes to attract writers in off the street. Screenwriting students of mine were very excited at the time. The BBC was at last opening its doors to fresh talent.

I had to point out that it was not necessarily so. In a short space of time the BBC had succeeded in alienating much of its creative talent. The call-out for beginners, enthusiastic amateurs, to fill the breach could barely hide the fact that trust has completely broken down between the already existing talent pool and the TV executives.

The BBC needed new writers, not because we had suddenly discovered that there was a shortage of good drama writers but because a shortage had been created. Experienced scriptwriters knew a thing or two - which made them 'awkward', or 'precious', in the eyes of the new regime. The BBC's Drama Department therefore had to recruit and train up a new bunch. One which didn't know the score. Which didn't baulk at doing yet another rewrite on a producer's whim.

In April of this year, Guardian journalist Gareth McLean wrote an article which asked, 'Is Drama Safe at the BBC?' His investigations had revealed 'a regime in which only one person's opinion matters, a system in which the micro-management of projects by inexperienced executives and producers is ... leading to "an anti-creative, stifling atmosphere that's killing new ideas".'

McLean's article prompted an astonishing response from people in the TV industry. With all the flair of a New Labour government the BBC had proudly trumpeted its achievements, but McLean had exposed something rotten in the state of Denmark. "Such is the lack of courage of commissioners and the climate of fear in which they operate," one BAFTA-winning writer had said, "the commissioning process is ossifying."

Gareth McLean did not get to speak to Ms Tranter about the fear and loathing he had detected amongst her underlings. Jane Tranter has a minion whose task is to keep intruders at bay. He is Ben Stephenson, Head of Drama Commissioning, a young man who came more or less from nowhere, with a marked paucity of experience, to become Tranter's loyal Number 2.

Stephenson was happy to announce that, "At the end of the day, we're all working with the same quite small pool of talent". Why that talent pool should be so small was not explained - or, at least, not by Ms Tranter's lieutenant.

McLean, perhaps, went some way towards explaining the dearth of talent when he dropped his bombshell. 'So there's no truth in the rumour that there's a list of talent banned from working on BBC dramas?'

It would be interesting to know where the Guardian journalist picked up that rumour. The sentence certainly struck this reader with some force because, dear friend, your humble Script Doc might well have been the first name to have made it onto that blacklist.

So - the BBC dips into a small pool of talent, there are dark rumours of an official or unofficial blacklist and new writers have been brought into the BBC and trained in the arts of writing soap-based drama. And doing what they're told.

Tranter's departure from White City will present the BBC with an opportunity. The most foolish move of all would be to appoint young Stephenson as her successor. This would simply mean that Tranter continues to control BBC Drama from her new post in the States. The real question is: do the higher echelons of BBC management have the nerve to appoint a real Head of Drama, possibly breaking up the colossal empire Jane Tranter consolidated for herself in order to free up the system a little?

Ten years is a long time in TV. The processes by which the BBC commissioned and produced drama have been wrenched into new, Byzantine shapes under the Tranter regime. Where writers are concerned, all but a privileged few have suffered considerably. The anger extends far beyond the world of the scriptwriter. Imperious and at times, apparently, paranoid, the supreme leader has swatted and quashed any creative who dared to question her decisions. The industry has been divided into two camps: those trusties who would never contradict La Tranter and the remainder, who have been sent out into the cold.

The tragedy is that drama has been eviscerated at the BBC, and this at a time when ITV was abandoning its regional remit to please City shareholders and high-salaried executives. The past decade could have been a Golden Age for BBC Drama. Instead, it has seen the creative element emasculated and, in many instances, cast into outer darkness. We are all the poorer as a result.

So where next for the corporation? It's unlikely that matters could get much worse. But could the new 'Head of Fiction' repair ten years of damage and return BBC Drama to its former glory?

Would whoever gets the job be prepared to relinquish some of the power that Ms Tranter amassed?

We can only wait and see.