Beating an Eight Year Dry Spell

Jon Baker is an A&E Consultant and a deputy medical director of a large North London hospital. He has been writing radio plays for eight years, with just one being produced. Then, six months ago, he signed up for the Goldmine Tribe. Now his CV looks very different. Since joining the Tribe he has signed with Emily Smith at The Agency and optioned three different TV shows. In this interview Phil Gladwin hears what’s been happening.

Watching you take off over the last six months off has been amazing. Before we get to that, can you take us back to the beginning?

I think all these things look easy from the outside, don’t they? And I sometimes wonder if it might look from the outside as if I was just breezing into these things. But it’s not entirely luck; it’s hard work that engineered various circumstances, and I’ve been playing away at it for ten years or more.

Going way back, I was always interested in media and I watched a lot of TV. I loved Doctor Who as a child. But rather than just being interested in the stories, I had all these ‘Making Of …’ books on how it was produced and made, so I was always interested in the mechanics of it all as well.

I made the choice to be a doctor, in some ways, because I thought it was the safest thing to start a career. So that was probably almost a little cowardly. That being said, I don’t regret it, because I like being a doctor, too. And it’s given me something to write about!

Do you remember your first piece of creative writing? Beyond essays at school?

I started out a long time ago writing non-serious articles for the British Medical Journal. There’s a supplement they send out and I wrote something for that about my first death. It was actually a serious article with some humour about how we junior doctors weren’t prepared to manage our first death. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to go and tell some relatives that their dad had died, and nobody had ever explained to me how the hell you go about that.

Then we went away for a year to Australia to work as doctors. While I was there I tried to write romance stories for Woman’s Weekly. Because they were short and I could write them quickly. I thought, ‘Oh, that might be simple to do.’ It wasn’t at all. I sent off loads, never got one published—never got anywhere at all in fact—but I spent a year on that.

When we came back to the UK I looked at writing radio plays. Radio drama is a fantastic world all of its own, but I saw a lot of radio comedies going over into TV. So I thought that would be a way to start. And an editor said, ‘You know, you write some of the funniest dialogue I’ve ever read.’

I wrote a long rambly rom-com and sent it off to BBC Scotland, and this guy got straight back to me. It never got off the ground, but it spurred me on, because he must have seen something, so I kept working on different ideas. None of them ever really came off, which was frustrating.

How many years have you been working on radio plays?

I have been trying to get something away fairly constantly for eight years now. I have had so many near misses! But over that time I have been pretty much just bashing stuff out. Continually. I have a zillion radio scripts.

Have you had anything actually broadcast?

No. The only thing I had sold, prior to the Tribe, was to the wireless theatre company who are a Radio Four supplier of afternoon dramas. They did make one of my scripts, and so I do have an audio play they sell. It’s a credit!

You must have learned a lot though?

I think that’s how I learned to write. Not that I am anywhere near a finished product at all, but I guess that is where I trained, by knocking out radio scripts, month after month.

I also got into the habit of networking there, and meeting producers, so I got used to taking notes from them, and started to understood the annual commissioning process. It was a practice run: learning what to say and how to take notes on projects. The thing was, I’d also got used to the annual rejection because radio seems to be almost impossible to get into at the moment, for me anyway!

So you turned to TV?

A couple of years ago I started a TV script called In Vitro but I left it half done because I got embroiled in various radio bits and pieces. I came back to it last autumn and finally finished it last November when I sent it to you for feedback.

Yes, I don’t normally do script feedback any more, but I saw something I thought was really good. We did a couple of drafts—and then it actually placed in the Screenwriting Goldmine Awards.

It came fourth! That was the start of things, but then I had to start wondering how the hell I was going to go about actually making some TV industry progress.

There are various initiatives out there, with various people doing various things, but I applied for the Tribe. I met you at the South Bank for the interview, and I realised your scheme seemed the most tailored so I accepted your offer to join the Tribe. Things seemed to mushroom from that point.

One of the big things we do in the Tribe is facilitate industry contacts and explain how to open doors in the industry. How many meetings have you generated for yourself since you started on the Tribe?

It feels like millions, but I’d say I’ve booked around 20-30 meetings over six months. At the moment I’m doing two or three a week which has been mad.

What have these meetings led to?

I’ve had three of my original projects optioned. I’m also developing more ideas, hoping to get those optioned too. I’ve now moved into the zone where I’ve realised I can start giving people one paragraphs and pages to start looking at.

You’ve also signed with an agent, Emily Smith at The Agency. How did that come about?

I was listening to one of the Sitcom Geeks podcasts recently and I heard them say, ‘You’ll get an agent just when you’ve created your own network and done everything that needs to be done.’ I mean, of course you do need them; they take things to the next level. But there’s definitely something in that quote.

But that’s more or less how it happened. It did feel that that’s the point when you get an agent: just when you don’t need them. I’d been meeting tons of people, made all these meetings happen, got one script optioned, and the second one almost, but even then it was really difficult to get someone to sign me.

What was the tipping point?

I think it did come down to having that one really good spec. I’ve only really just understood what my voice is, and how it seems to be both dark and funny, and my writing sits between drama and comedy.

I didn’t realise it was a skill, as such, it’s just how I approach things. I think people were looking for that and finding it slightly difficult to find. In Vitro showed that tone, and probably felt quite unusual, and it got me in a lot of places.

But even then it wasn’t easy. Having sold that to a good company like Blueprint was probably the point where agents got more interested.

You can’t talk about your projects in development, but could you give us an overview of your writing concerns or interests? Do any themes come up for you?

I keep writing about dysfunctional women!

Interesting!

My background is an A&E doctor, but I almost became a psychiatrist as well at one point. I’m interested in writing about psychology, people and emotions.Now, one thing that has struck me is how the producers I’ve been talking to have been very keen on trying to get something authentic into each script, even if it’s just a detail. I went to see one production company the other day to talk about a comedy/drama I’m developing with them. They’d read In Vitro and the producer liked a line I’d put in about a doctor struggling to get a drip into a patient.

To me it was a throwaway line which I just happened to put it in because it’s not a medical script. But they seemed to like the authenticity. So that’s interesting, and helpful, because I feel better writing the stuff I know, too.

Practically, I’ve been trying to keep my writing associated with a background that I know. That keeps it authentic with some of the stuff rooted in medicine—even if it’s just the odd character— because it just seems to give it a bit more of a flavour.

How do you approach your writing? Are you a planner?

[Laughs] Now or previously? Even though sometimes it does just work and you can bash something out, I’ve never really written a script without some form of outline in place as that would just seem like lunacy. But I used to start up with the barest of plans, and then get into a muddle and have to spend a long time trying to fix things.

I’m a terrible rusher and I am impatient, but now I actively hold myself back from writing the script too early. The thing I’ve learned, both from working with an editor in The Tribe, and over the years through pain, is to try and outline in as much detail as possible.

With regard to new ideas, I have a blog in my phone where I just write down anything and everything, wherever it comes up. And then I’ll chew things over.

Then I outline and get it done.

I do just like to get them written, as I think if you sit on them too long it’s a problem. I do want each script to be perfect of course, so I do agonise over every word when I’m editing stuff down, but I’ve tried to get as much written as fast as I can and move on to the next thing. That’s helped because you always know somebody’s going to want the next thing.

I feel short of ideas now as I’m going around with all these meetings. I’m going to sit down next week and try to plan some new one-paragraphs. ‘Cause I’ve run out of stuff for people!

That’s brilliant.

I do think sitting on one script for five years is probably not the way forward.

It took you about three months to write your Tribe piece. How long do you think it will take to write episode two?

I’m not sure, but it’s going to have to be quicker than three months if that show progresses!

I assume the scripts you were sending out before you came on The Tribe weren’t first drafts? Who was editing you at that point?

The radio scripts have been through millions of drafts by the time they’ve got anywhere. They were all active projects that we were trying to sell to Radio 4 through various commissioning rounds, so each script would go to a radio producer who would give me notes.

I also used to hire a comedy guy called Dave Cohen, and another guy called Marc Blake. I used them both quite a lot for notes over the years. Both fab for comedy notes!

In the last few months you have offers from five different agencies, and have placed just about everything you have written recently, so you obviously know how to conduct a meeting. Have you any tips? How do you prepare?

Well, I didn’t prepare that much until you told me to on the Tribe, so now I make sure I am up on the production company I’m seeing. I still don’t actually do hours of preparation—I haven’t got the time. But I make sure I have got my book with me that always has the latest stuff I have been watching scribbled in the front.

Then on the train going there I might remind myself and have that open. They do always ask, ‘What have you been watching, and what have you been watching recently?’ So I’m always prepared to discuss that.

My pitching is better too. You don’t always get asked about new ideas but I do try to slip a couple in, so I know the pitches I have, and have one-liners for all my ideas.

Overall with all this practice I’ve become a bit more relaxed. I think the key thing is just being able to connect and talk to people. Maybe being used to talking to people in situations from my day job has helped. There is something about being affable and friendly, and I suspect that gets you quite a long way. If you can write and you can be polite, and have some ideas and know the industry, then for me that’s the basic mix.

Your day job does obsess me a little because I can’t conceive of how you can possibly do all the writing you do and then have this enormously busy day job as an A&E doctor.

Yup! And I am slightly more involved than that.

I’m an A&E consultant doctor by background, so I still work clinically one day a week. Then I’m also a deputy medical director at the hospital I work at, so I’m managing the doctors for the rest of the week. I do a horrendously long day on a Monday, where I start at 8.00am and do management stuff till lunch time, and then I work till 10, 11 PM. That does give me a day off on Tuesday where I can work from home and do emails, and catch up and do some writing. Then I’m more 8 to 6 ish on the rest of the week so I have the evenings.

Another thing is I will write in 20 minute bursts. So at lunch time I might take 20 minutes and write for another four blocks of 20 minutes, same again in the evening. And I guess for me I write anywhere. All my scripts are entirely written on final draft on my iPad. Which means I can be sitting at the dentist, whip it open and write.

What’s the goal for the next year, two years?

I seem to be having a reasonable hit success rate with trying to get stuff developed, so I would like to try and get something of my own greenlit. At the moment I have three or four options, so I think I am going to keep trying to get more. I’m aiming for eight or nine in the next year, in the hope that one of them will get greenlit, and then that will get me some more work.

Final question, because I have to ask—what have you been watching lately?

Patrick Melrose! Show of the year. And Very British Scandal. I really enjoyed Hidden. And my favourite shows ever, things like Fargo. I used to love all the Six Feet Unders, Sopranos, and Mad Men. I do watch a thriller on ITV One, but they can feel a little dry, so I prefer the stuff which is elevated to that next level, where there is some humour as well.

If you’d like to find out more about The Tribe, there is the long introduction to the thinking behind it here, or the shorter, pithier condensed version here.