I spent last weekend in Hebden Bridge, a startlingly beautiful town in Yorkshire with mill chimneys and clock towers and horribly, horribly steep hills. I was teaching on a workshop run by Screen Yorkshire for new and established screenwriters.
Jeremy Dyson of the League of Gentlemen was there too, giving a talk on how to write…he’s an engagingly and delightfully grounded guy. He spoke about he and his pals took a show to Edinburgh, worked their socks off to make it good – and the rest was history. Success swooped and swept them away, and the success of the League has been remarkable.
But Jeremy has kept a clear understanding on what it’s like to be on the other side of the wall, and judged his audience extremely well. A number of the would-be writers on the workshop had completed an MA in Screenwriting at Leeds Metropolitan University, in the hope it would lead to fame and fortune. And Jeremy was one of the first people to do that same course; and here is now, writing comedies for men dressed as big breasted women in Royston Vasey.
Jeremy spoke brilliantly and very honestly about what it is like to be a writer. It is basically very hard because you get out of bed, sit in front of the computer…then nothing happens. And when nothing happens, for hour after hour, day after day, it does become profoundly embarrassing. It is, I would surmise, a bit like being a gigolo who doesn’t much like sex. It is horrible, and awful, and also petty, and humiliating. There is the blank page. There is the writer staring at it. It’s not a bit like Clint Eastwood glaring at Lee Van Cleef. It is just basically….banal.
All writers know this. Clever writers use words like Writers Block to add dignity to the embarrassing phenomenon of creative impotence. And smart writers like Jeremy have a whole battery of techniques for conjuring up a creative mood in which the words happen. For Jeremy, it hinges around having a clear desk, a neat environment, and stopwatch techniques in which he forces himself to write 5 minutes of anything, however crap it may be. Then he takes a break. Then he writes for another 5 minutes. Then – and then, something takes off and magic comedy results. When the flow flows, it really flows.
After Jeremy’s talk, the writers broke up into 3 groups of 5. I was teaching the TV drama group, who were full of pizzaz and optimism and paid me the enormous compliment of actually having heard of the first TV show I worked on, The Paradise Club. (It’s a cult hit, but there’s a ghastly rumour that all the tapes have been lost or hidden in some basement somewhere – though this is a show that cries out to be given a DVD release.)
Kathyrn O’Connor, head of development of the Northern office of Talkback Thames, came to talk to the writers about TV today, and gave great feedback on their stories. I gave my usual spiel about the fact that TV really has got more interesting – it used to be nothing but police procedurals, but now high concept and science fiction and weirdy and wacky are all in vogue, which means there is at least the possibility of drama that’s excitingly different.
The projects pitched to me ranged from a cop show (by an actress with recent CAD room experience, ie being the person who sits behind a microphone telling the area car where to go) to teen drama (sexy, stylish, full of potential) to precinct drama to hugely ambitious melodrama. Interestingly, most of the writers doing the TV section of this SPARKS course have significant experience as writers, but are looking for human contact, and feedback, and career openings. The talent is out there…it’s finding a way to connect that’s so hard.
Later that weekend, at the instigation of script guru and my pal Simon van der Borgh, we did a pitching session in which all 15 writers had 15 minutes to pitch their idea to a scary panel including myself, Simon, Hugo Heppell (head of Screen Yorkshire) and Ann Tobin (senior lecturer at Leeds Met University.) As a joke, we compared it to the X Factor (I was cast as Louis of course.) In reality – it was alarmingly and terrifyingly like the X Factor. For a new writer, to walk in a room with four industry professionals and pitch a project which then gets ripped to shreds must be one of the most frightening experiences possible…and frankly, we pulled few punches in our critiques.
But we were nice with it; and the truth is, that degree of adrenalin does really help the creative process. I was amazed at how much the projects developed and grew after that Bunsen Burner process.
But then, of course, the follow up to that kind of scary pitching session has to involve TLC and slow, careful project development. Writers need a safe space in which to try out ideas; and they need room to spread their wings.
I love teaching; over and above the high quality work that results, the whole process is about getting the best out of people. And to be part of that process is a privilege.
SPARKS continues through the Autumn and into the early months of next year. I salute Screen Yorkshire for actually giving a damn about the new screenwriters in the region, and for giving them a chance to develop. Some will be better than others; some will have careers, some won’t. But everyone gets an even break, which is all we can ask for in this wicked world.
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