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.