On TV Drama

I’ve just watched Episode 1 of Series 2 of Heroes – always one step behind that’s me! (Series 3 is currently screening.)  I’ve been told by many people that this series of Heroes is slow and disappointing – but I have to say, I was hooked all over again.  Though occasionally I had to rack my brains to remember what happened in the last  set of shows. (Didn’t Nathan die when Peter blew up? I assumed he had and was startled to see him alive and bearded.)

My television watching tends to come in fits and starts these days, because of novel writing commitments. But I’m now in a TV-viewing frenzy because I’ve just started up my course in TV drama in Brighton, for those lovely people who call themselves Lighthouse

I’ve been running this course for the last four years or so, and it’s one of the not-writing jobs I love the most.  We gather together six talented writers, all of them with professional experience, and each comes up with an idea for an original series. Then, with the help of our top BBC executives, including the fab Sarah Stack, we select one show to be ‘greenlit’, and the writers then go on to write the script collaboratively. It’s team writing, pure and simple; everyone is the author of their own ep, but the team is at the heart of it.

Because, however, this is ‘just’ a course, we don’t ever get to put the scripts into production. But in every other respect, we regard this as a broadcast commission; the writers have tight deadlines; the camaraderie is intense; and we aim to make the best damned show around.

I’m the tutor/ringmaster of the whole event (which means I don’t get to write a script! Damn!) and it’s very much a case of teaching by rowing the canoe over the waterfall and seeing what happens.

One of my major concerns is to encourage newer writers who may have done a Doctors or a Holby to explore the wider, fuller, richer resources of television writing.  Complex story telling, rich characters, challenging scenes, vivid dialogue, and most of all poetry. The great TV writers – David Chase, Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, David Milch, David Simon, Jimmy McGovern, Alan Bennett and more – are all poets.  They savour words and rhythms, they make dialogue that actors can relish, and relish saying, and they use verbal wit and sardonic humour to energise and illuminate even the darkest moments. A lot of British TV is written in pared-down ‘A Script Editor Has Been Chewing On This’ dialogue.  So much more is possible; and my job is to ask the writers to reach for that more.

This year’s intake is phenomenally impressive – two of the writers have had movies made, one writers has had 20 novels published, and all the rest are seasoned professionals who see this ‘course’ as a chance to test themselves and stretch themselves and to better their previous best.

So for the next six months I’ll be helping to create a brand new drama series, and catching up with back episodes of Heroes and The Wire and The Shield and Deadwood and who knows what else as I go along. 

I’ll write more about this process as it develops; this will be the inside story of the genesis of a new drama series, though we don’t yet know what the show will be…

Six treatments will be arriving on my desk in about a week; then the selection process begins…

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