If you’re in the UK you might have noticed a major row kicking off this week between a group of actors and just about every writer in the country.
It started when the Radio Times (still Britain’s most august TV listing and features magazine) published an interview with the lead actors in a TV show called New Tricks.
If you get chance to read the interview in the Radio Times it’s worth a look. But here’s a summary.
In the course of the meeting, the actors crossed a line. In an armoured car.
Amanda Redman said the show was ‘more bland now’ and that the characters were no longer as ‘anarchic’ as they used to be.
Dennis Waterman added: ‘We’re always talking about history and some writers – not all of them – can go on and on about that. You have to remind yourself that people aren’t as stupid as writers think, but that is the way things are going in the industry.’
Alun Armstrong also claimed that the cast re-wrote the series’ scripts if they didn’t feel that stories were as good as they could be.
The response has been, predictably, robust.
One of the writers on the show expressed themselves in no uncertain terms
(Here is the non-swearing version.)
Writers Guild Response
The Writers Guild got involved. I think the term used was ‘lambasted’.
Maurice Gran wrote a response in The Daily Telegraph:
Why Did This Touch So Many Nerves?
A couple of reasons.
The first thing to say is that I don’t know a single writer, ever, who has pushed to make a show more bland and less anarchic. Writers also don’t think the audience is thick. That’s simply not what writers do. If that’s happening, then I suggest that particular finger gets pointed elsewhere.
The fact that the writers are getting attacked for it is a prime example of the big problem of the writer.
The Writer’s Lot, as it were.
Because we work mainly alone, because when a script is good it reads easily and seems very simple, no-one really knows how damn HARD it is to actually write like that.
Writers Lead For Many Months
Let’s look at the process that leads to a script getting to a production slot on a TV show.
I don’t know the detailed ins and outs of the current New Tricks process, but I can imagine it’s not going to be too different to the usual script development system, wherein each script is the result of many months’ hard, often painful, labour by the writer.
First of all they have had to have put in the hard work to have the original idea for the episode. And, as we all know, that’s not *quite* as easy as it looks.
Then it’s quite possible they will have had to bend, and shape, and generally morph the idea into the refined version of that idea that matches the tone of the show, the characteristics of the actors, and the particular set of audience expectations of that show, with that history, in that transmisson slot.
Then they will have had to pitch the idea, and impress the script editor, the series producer, plus any execs who are floating around (all of whom will have had their input, and asked for changes).
The writer will have had to regroup after one or two meetings like that, sort out the new version of the idea, and then write a prose document detailing exactly what happens in that episode. More or less scene by scene, probably around 10 pages of pretty dense story telling.
This document will have gone through many, many versions, as the script team on the show continue the process of working with the writer to shape what can have started off as quite a raw idea into an idea that fits the New Tricks slot. (In today’s TV world, where having a homogenous product is super-important it can be very, very tricky to match your own voice as a writer to the voice of a well established show. Just tiny variations in story tone or lapses in characterisation can be major disasters.)
Finally Go To Script
If the writer and the idea survive this process without being ‘cut off’ (ie sacked) (and to be honest, especially on New Tricks, a great many don’t survive this stage) then they will take that document and turn it into a full script.
Which again will have gone through many, many drafts, over perhaps 2 to 6 months.
Take it from me, you need a fair bit of resilience, persistence, creativity – not to mention political skill – to get to the point where your script is deemed ready for production. Over those months you will have cared greatly. Massively.
Really, I sometimes think the writers actually care, (with their heart, you know), more than anyone else on the show.
You will have poured your hopes, dreams, a slice of your own life, and a great deal of your private emotion into it.
Over the course of those months you will have fallen in and out of love with the story, with your ability as a writer, with your actual vocation.
You will have taken what seem like great punches in the stomach on every draft, as you hear that the script team isn’t keen on what you have done, and they “have a few thoughts for you.”
And, In The End
But in the end, you will have got there. You will have survived this ordeal by fire, and you will, most of the time anyway, have something you are pretty damn proud of.
Something that reads fast, and light, and which bounces along, but still evokes a complex range of emotion – and which tells a pretty neat story in the process.
You’re proud, and so you should be – you’ve worked hard enough on it.
After all that, to then hear that the actors think they have “sorted out the script for you” by every now and then coming up with a few lines of dialogue, (or even by coming up with a few story points for heaven’s sakes) can you imagine how that feels?
That’s like saying changing the hubcaps and adding go-faster stripes is building a car.
It’s An Old Problem
As Maurice Gran puts it:
“…So we were somewhat peeved when, during the making of series two, one cast member casually observed how they loved the way that our scripts just gave them a general steer, allowing them to flesh out the characters and do all the colouring in. It was all the producer could do to stop us presenting the cast at the next
read-through with a hundred blank pages apiece, and inviting them to get on with it.”
You need a tough skin to be a professional writer, which most of us do have after a few years in the business, so it’s actually quite funny to hear a group of actors say that.
Funny – and yet somehow not very funny at all.
I’ll not bang on any further. The last word can go to the wonderful Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the Writers Guild:
In the Radio Times interview, Dennis Waterman also commented on the quality of foreign television dramas such as Danish series The Killing.
‘Basically, we all want to move to Copenhagen to get to do some really extraordinary television,’ he said.
In response, Bernie said: ‘Waterman and his co-stars have had decades of success on the back of UK scriptwriters. We regret their imminent departure, but we wish them every success in the state of Denmark, and hope that if they find anything rotten they’ll acknowledge their own responsibility for it.’
That’s all for this week. I need to go and cool down somewhere.
To working with respectful people!