Television and other minor irritations (1)

I attended an excellent talk about Writing for the Screen a couple of evenings ago. You can read the lecturer's take on it here. It was a brilliant talk, partly because the advice on how to set about constructing a script for television was so direct and clear, but partly because it very much 'told it like it is.' Stuart doesn't pull his punches. He has had a great deal of success in television, so his experience is invaluable - but he has also had his fair share of television induced hassle and his advice for coping with it (treat it as a job, don't take it personally) would almost certainly have been invaluable to me many years ago when I had a few opportunities in television and still thought that I might want to write for that medium.

Back then, I had several short plays produced for STV, followed by a spooky serial for teens. It was called Shadow of the Stone - and boy, was I ahead of my time there! It has been one of the misfortunes of my writing life that whenever I have come up with an original idea, and had it knocked back, 'because nobody is interested in the supernatural', etc etc - I have seen it become flavour of the decade, several years after I have lost interest!

Anyway, after that, I wrote two episodes of a Scottish based television series called Strathblair - and then, following a successful stage play for the Traverse, I was approached by a script editor to develop a 'rural' series for television.

There followed a couple of years, during which I worked through successive hugely detailed proposals, outlines, sample scripts, making changes along the way. It was a truly vast amount of work. Somewhere, on a shelf, is the box file, or several box files, full of the paperwork. Eventually, I realised that it was never, ever going to be made. The script editor had simply been earning his salary. Whereas I hadn't been paid a brass farthing for any of this 'development' work.

Don't get me wrong. In any area of writing, you have to be prepared to do a lot of work up front and uncommissioned. But at that stage in my career, I had already had several competent television projects produced. So there should have been development money. In effect, I worked for nothing, for two years, on the promise of a pot of jam tomorrow. Only tomorrow never came.

God knows why I never asked for money, nor why I didn't give up sooner. But of course the money is so good, in television, when you finally get any - good, that is, compared to almost any other area of writing - that the innocent are tempted to soldier on, as I did.

Somewhere along the way, though, I realised that television was not for me although the realisation had little to do with that one bad experience. I think I found the process itself way too frustrating. I have no problem at all with collaboration - you can't work in theatre without it, and it can be tremendously rewarding. But television is largely weighted against the interests of the writer. And I couldn't just do it 'as a job', because whenever I write something, I have to be passionately involved in it. I can't help myself. Which, of course, raises the stakes. 
UK television dramas - with a few notable exceptions, Doctor Who springs to mind, and that's why it's so blooming brilliant - are often engineered by committees of executives who want to have their say. What emerges is the kind of thing we see on our TV screens. I'm told that in the US, by contrast, experienced writers are likely to be much higher up the 'food chain', much more influential in the process. Teams also work together, so that younger writers can be helped by older and more seasoned writers. I'm sure that happens here, but since even those older, more seasoned writers have very little real clout in the overall process, it doesn't help. But it does serve to explain why a significant percentage (but not, of course, all) US dramas are so much more vivid, imaginative and original than anything we see on our screens here. True Blood is a good example. Would that ever have been made here in the UK where we are supposed to be so 'daring'? I very much doubt it!

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