King’s Place, London (27th June 2019)
Sky Arts and RTS present ‘The South Bank Show Live’, a live edition of Sky Arts and Directors Cut Productions’ ‘The South Bank Show’.
A complete verbatim transcript of ‘The South Bank Show Live’, a live panel discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg in conversation with Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Jed Mercurio and Heidi Thomas, held on stage of Hall Two at King’s Place, London on 27th June 2019. ‘The South Bank Show Live’ was produced by the RTS, Directors Cut Productions, Sky Arts and Premier.
SP – Steve Pemberton (Writer and actor)
RS – Reece Shearsmith (Writer and actor)
JM – Jed Mercurio (Writer)
HT – Heidi Thomas (Writer)
MB – Melvyn Bragg (Writer, broadcaster and presenter of ‘The South Bank Show’)
‘The South Bank Show’ is one of British television’s longest-running arts programmes – and the longest continuously running arts series – with only the BBC’s ‘Arena’ (and the now discontinued ‘Omnibus’) offering a similar mix of both high and popular culture explorations and bridging the divide between the two. What made ‘The South Bank Show’ a rarity was that it was a flagship arts series on ITV, normally noted for its predominately populist commercial fare. After 21 years a financially straitened ITV took the controversial decision to axe the show, at a stroke reducing its arts output to precisely zero. Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, who’d devised, written and presented the programme from the start, brought the rights to the brand and in 2012 ‘The South Bank Show’ was revived and reinstituted on Sky Arts, revitalizing and refreshing the series.
Perhaps reflecting the predominance and prolific status of drama in the terrestrial TV schedules and its increasingly high profile role and importance to the satellite subscription channels and streaming TV services, the ninth series of ‘The South Bank Show’ on Sky Arts focuses on some of Britain’s leading and most successful television writers, including importantly for fans who’ve eagerly awaited a serious and long overdue profile on the pair, the writing partnership of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.
Ahead of the scheduled broadcast of the ninth series the Royal Television Society (RTS) hosted a live version of ‘The South Bank Show’ to promote the new episodes – ‘The South Bank Show Live’ – at King’s Place, London. The onstage format of a panel discussion offered a condensed preview – a live abridgement – of the new set of ‘South Bank Show’ film profiles on the television writers selected for the series – Jed Mercurio, Jack Thorne (absent due to the opening night of his new play) Heidi Thomas and Pemberton & Shearsmith.
The discussion was chaired by Melvyn Bragg who expertly prodded and probed his guests about their creative craft from a range of angles: What strictures are involved in writing for television; their childhood viewing habits; if direct experience informed what they wrote; challenging ‘comfort TV’ and audiences; the difficulties posed in writing adaptations; developing characters and whether or when to kill them off.(c) Dodoswords
The assembled audience was rewarded with a stimulating meditation about all aspects of writing for television and the writing process itself. The format of a panel discussion helped to highlight where the writers intersected creatively and how they differed in approach regarding their work. The criss-crossing of ideas, perspectives and personal experience was totally absorbing and when it was opened up to questions from the audience, extremely informative: What advice would they give to new writers trying to break into TV; how did they handle interference or ‘advice’ from above over submitted scripts; how did they deal with writers’ block. Their views were sought concerning the threatened demise of traditional TV scheduling and whether it would have an effect on TV writing; what influence they had on the casting of their productions; what they thought of the social media phenomenon of squalling fans demanding rewrites and reshoots of shows they were unhappy with.
Mercurio, Thomas and Pemberton & Shearsmith have invaluable frames of reference to reflect upon and debate the subject of writing for television, with a depth of experience and unrivalled knowledge to draw on. It meant their contributions during the panel discussion and the Q&A were thoughtful, detailed and enlightening. Heidi Thomas exuded benevolence and wisdom when she spoke and was particularly engaging when she discussed the methodology of her writing. Jed Mercurio gave nimble and succinct summations of his career journey and development as a writer. Dryly witty with an entertainingly cynical edge, he also made some tellingly wry observations on the TV industry. Steve Pemberton was ebullient and expressive, eloquent and analytical on the techniques of constructing a script and the strategies deployed in writing. Reece Shearsmith was more leery and downbeat than his writing partner, armed with sardonic asides and an amusing line in self-deprecation, but also incisive regarding his influences and articulate and perceptive in explaining what he and Pemberton want to achieve in their writing, both in terms of format and narrative.
The very first question Melvyn Bragg posed to the panel that evening was why did people need stories. We’re living in times as precarious and scary as I can remember. It’s as if there’s a time machine pulling us back to the past of the 1930s, or even further backwards to the Dark Ages. It’s less the lunatics have taken over the asylum, rather charlatans, narcissists and psychopaths are figuratively lying in wait in the shadowy recesses of our homes, ready to murder us in our beds. Things feel that close and threatening. A nihilistic endgame where everyone loses. Chaos and hopelessness appear to be inescapable. Whereas stories give us a beginning, a middle and an end – they promise a resolution. They may not resolve themselves in neat and comforting ways but they offer relief from that sometimes overwhelming sense of being thrall to a chaotic existence.
Stories inform our humanity. They anchor and deepen it. Storytelling can engage us in different ways: As cathartic release or empathetic response; negotiate difficult, perhaps even painful feelings and experiences; help us to understand a little better and a little more. More generally stories provide respite for 30 minutes, an hour or longer – something that can do more good than is perhaps fully appreciated and understood. As both Pemberton & Shearsmith said during ‘The South Bank Show Live’ – “… what we try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next and see if we can entertain them and inform them along the way.” (Pemberton) “If you can do that to an audience and hook people in and take them away from their business of their day, that’s a lovely thing, it’s a service.” (Shearsmith)
Stories have a transcendent power. They’re therapy for the heart and soul. And they are needed more than ever given the times we’re living in. Those distinctive, individual voices such as Jed Mercurio, Heidi Thomas, Jack Thorne and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith offer us truths in a world being choked by lies, fake news and ‘alternative facts’. Watch ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’, ‘Cold Comfort’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Tom and Gerri’, ‘Zanzibar’ , ‘Empty Orchestra’, ‘A Quiet Night In’, ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ et al for a dose of restorative self-care.
The transcript below is a verbatim replication of ‘The South Bank Show Live’ panel discussion and audience Q&A which I’ve endeavoured to make as accurate as possible. A complete video of the event was put online by the RTS about a week after it took place, which of course greatly diminishes the relevance of – and indeed any need for – this particular transcript. The video in question includes the whole of the panel discussion and all of the audience members’ questions in full rather than the subtitled summaries which the BFI deploys when they put up videos of their Q&A events.
I’d transcribed about half of the panel discussion when the RTS made the video publicly available. Even though the readily accessible video nullifies any potential usefulness my transcript of the evening has for fans as a reference source regarding what was said and by whom I decided to nevertheless finish transcribing the rest of the audio recording I’d made of the event. Stopping midway through would cause my niggling, conscientious mind to itch like mad and above all I wanted to complete the transcript for consistency’s sake on my blogsite.
Since October 2017 I’ve transcribed a total of seven ‘Inside No.9’/’The League of Gentlemen’/Reece Shearsmith events. They’re all up on my blogsite, available for fans – or any connoisseur with a passion for original and innovative television – to either read from beginning to end or leisurely scroll through and dip into. Transcribing interviews, panel discussions and Q&A events are a big commitment to undertake. At a bare minimum any such transcript is several thousand words in length – often more – because the conversational discourse runs for an hour or longer. It’s an exacting labour of love to transpose talking voices to the written page with only a pair of headphones and a pen and paper to aid you.
(c) G. Carr
My writing – the long-form reviews of work I revere and the transcripts faithfully recreating those cherished creators’ spoken words – fulfils a need in me to have a creative fix of my own. It’s prescribed within parameters that are intently focused on one particular subject matter – the work and careers of The League of Gentlemen, especially Pemberton & Shearsmith’s partnership – and meticulously detailed in terms of treatment. I indulge my amateur scribing – the only form of creativity I feel equipped to even attempt – as a much needed distraction from the crushing negativity and discontent hanging over much of my professional and personal life. I constantly battle my berating inner voice which tells me I have no writing ability, that what I write is mediocre at best, hampered by unoriginal ideas and riddled with hackneyed phrases. I’m acutely aware I’m not a professional writer and fully subscript to all my doubts and low self-esteem regarding my writing (including the transcripts) by defining it as mere ‘appreciation’.
For interested fans the unedited transcript includes tiny slivers of extra material during Melvyn Bragg’s introduction cut from the video. This hopefully makes the transcript of interest to committed completists, who savour every additional detail however nanosized they are.
The Dodoswords blogsite is where my reviews of the work of creators I’ve admired for 20 years sit alongside the transcripts of events focusing on and celebrating their exceptional talents. My passion and admiration for their singular and sublime artistry is expressed in my writing, however inadequate and imperfect that may be.
Introduction by Melvyn Bragg
MB: … I’m going to stand and talk about a couple of minutes or so, two or three minutes at the most. Then there’ll be clips, a 6 minute compilation of the work of the four people that we’re talking about and then a discussion that will last 40 to 45 minutes and then questions that will last as long as you keep asking questions that they want to answer, so quite relaxed in that sense. But a few things that I want to say, thanks to Sky Arts. Since – which are pertinent to what is happening this evening I hope – since 1978 ‘The South Bank Show’ has covered both high and popular culture, bringing the two increasingly together, that’s been part of the message, so that the distinction disappears, bringing it to a mass audience… recorded over forty years and made them part of the same culture.
No-one would deny now that so-called ‘popular music’ has as long a shelf life and as much intrinsic value as classical music. Nor in this context, that television drama can hold its own with the best out there on the stage. I’m pleased that tonight marks the launch of our eighth season under Sky Arts following 32 seasons with ITV. Over the last 8 years we’ve made over 40 new ‘South Bank Show’ films, 200 ‘South Bank Show’ originals, each season we’ve had the ‘South Bank Show Arts Awards’ and we’ve done various scholarship films. This season we decided to profile some of the most powerful and celebrated British television writers working today, whose dramas have drawn record viewing figures and won awards for excellence and praise for their excellence across the globe.
For over 40 years we’ve prioritised television drama on ‘The South Bank Show’. In our opening series on ITV our first drama was not something on the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) but our first drama was a film with Dennis Potter about his television work. Since then we’ve profiled many celebrated television dramatists including Alan Bennett, Lynda La Plante, Kay Mellor, Andrew Davies, Paul Abbott, Abi Morgan, Russell T. Davies, Jimmy McGovern, Sally Wainwright and many, many others. In fact I think it’s time for a dedicated channel for British drama to show these writers again and again as you could go into a bookshop and pick up a paperback again and again, because the work is so good. There’s nothing patronising about the reason we started with television drama. At the time I’d been going to the theatre quite a bit and I discovered again and again and again that it wasn’t as good as what I’d seen on television. It wasn’t as well written, it wasn’t as well directed, it wasn’t as well acted and it wasn’t reaching the big audiences, but that apart from the other things and today is still the case. And television drama has always been at the centre of this country’s cultural conversation, for over half a century. And never more so – or rarely more so – I think than now and that’s to do with the quality of the writing. In this series of new films we feature three distinct authorial voices and one highly original writing partnership. Before I welcome them to the stage here’s a short preview of these four new ‘South Bank Show’ films…
(A six minute compilation of the new ‘South Bank Show’ films on Jed Mercurio, Jack Thorne, Heidi Thomas and Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith – premiering on Sky Arts in July and early August 2019 – is played on screen before the guest panel of writers are welcomed to the stage by Melvyn Bragg)
MB: Sadly Jack Thorne can’t be with us tonight. He’s got one of the best excuses in the world. His new play is opening tonight, is on now at the Royal Court Theatre. But I’m delighted to welcome to the stage, the creator and showrunner of ‘Line of Duty’ and ‘Bodyguard’ and much else, Jed Mercurio (audience applause) and the writers and the stars of ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘Psychoville’ and ‘Inside No.9’, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (audience applause) and the creator and writer of ‘Call the Midwife’, who also adapted ‘Cranford’ and ‘Little Women’, Heidi Thomas (audience applause)
MB: Heidi, start with you. In the interview you recently said – no you said it at an awards ceremony – people need stories. Can you develop that?
HT: I think people do need stories. I think since society first became society it’s been about people sitting round together listening to the person who had something to say or to think. And I think for me in a world where people need stories, they need them for distraction, they need them for inspiration and sometimes they just need them to pass an hour that would otherwise be painful to them and I think that’s as valuable as anything and then if, as a writer in a world where people need stories, you can find stories that need telling as a sort of symbiosis, I think that everybody benefits from.
JM: Um, well I don’t know whether they need stories but there’s something about the experience that clearly creates this kind of relationship where people keep coming back to stories. Um I guess because it’s a form of information exchange and we’re hungry for information and I guess that if you look at it most of the stuff that drives our appetites is there because it’s evolved. It’s just the best explanation for any human characteristics, that it’s gone through some evolutionary process. So the ability to process information and draw conclusions and look at scenarios being acted out and develop strategies is something that clearly we’re hungry for, that we want to see examples of how not to get eaten by a bear I guess.
MB: There isn’t any better way of passing information is there really because stories are in everything, in every area, not just what you do, a dramatist, but it’s there in science, in everything you can think of. This is the story, this is what happens if you go from A to B to Z, that’s the story.
JM: Well I would say the best way of passing information is through mathematics but yeah tonight we’ll go with yours Melvyn… (audience laughter)
MB: Steve, what about you?
SP: Yeah, I mean you know, narrative is everywhere as Jed just said. You know, you watch a football match and that has incredible narrative to it. You know, the Women’s World Cup at the moment or, you know, the Tory Party Leadership conference, it’s got an amazing narrative. We want to know what happens next.
MB: Or not (audience laughter)
SP: Or wish we could actually change the story. Um but yeah I mean I think it’s… you will find narrative in everything and as Heidi said, what we try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next and see if we can entertain them and inform them along the way.
RS: Yeah, everything they all said (audience laughter) It gets harder doesn’t it for people like us who try to create stories because everyone’s so sophisticated and the tricks that you find yourself employing are apparent to people now and I think everyone’s attention spans are so short as well. You’ve got to be very pithy in hooking people in to your story. You get sent a YouTube clip that’s 30 seconds long – ‘I can’t be bothered with that, it’s too long’ – and delete it. And so, you know, you’ve got to really hook people in and I think that’s hard, especially with writing the way we try to write which is to surprise and write the kind of things that we used to enjoy watching ourselves, where you can’t not half watch it, you’ve got to sort of properly engage in it, it’s exciting. If you can do that to an audience and hook people in and take them away from their business of their day, that’s a lovely thing, it’s a service.
MB: Television is a fairly strict discipline or put it another way, a very strict discipline, especially if you’re a writer, where you’ve got breaks and so forth. Does that impose itself on you when you’re writing? Do you think that is a big factor or can you fall into it naturally -three acts, four acts? Which one of you wants to start? We’ll start at that end this time. Jed?
JM: Um. Well I’ve written most my stuff recently for the BBC where there is no commercial break to worry about so I tend to write in fairly free form. I don’t worry about the act structure. I know there are sort of real act structure ideologues who don’t actually write TV but they do inflict their opinions on people who do write TV endlessly and it’s… I think you have to look at it probably with a little bit more sophistication than that. The imperative with commercial television is to create a hook before the ad break but because so many people fast forward now I don’t know that it’s as important as the executives think it is… Actually you don’t need to worry about your first 30 seconds cos people just, they just land 30 seconds in if they’re going at times 12 or times 13. You see a car advert and you press play and then you think I’m right in the middle of the ad breaks. They’ve kind of like smuggled another Volvo advert in midway through so you just become inured to it. It’s when you see kind of whoever’s back on in a bit of police tape and then you think okay I’ll start watching again.
MB: You were going to say?
HT: …What I find is there’s a lot of emphasis, as Jed said, with academics and people who teach screenwriting and often charge a lot of money for teaching screenwriting and they’ve never written for the screen and so they sell a prescription essentially. I have never found that to be of any assistance whatsoever and early on in my screenwriting career I would read Sid Field etc. But I find – certainly for me – it’s not about structure it’s about texture. You go by the feel. You think does this feel as though its dragging, does this feel as though it’s pulling you in or pushing you away. So it’s about… for me it’s like running a cloth through my hands. You feel it, you’re feeling your way and I think… I’d like to say one learns to trust one’s instincts but inevitably the more experienced you get the less you trust your instincts because the more often you see it go wrong or right and so it’s also about constantly questioning what you’ve accomplished so far within the body of an hour, which is about – for a first draft for me that would be about 65 pages – but I then cut down as I get further on. But rules don’t, they don’t help me.
MB: Well I’m going to persist in this once more… If you’re writing a stage play I presume that they’ll say well we don’t want it to last more than three hours by the time of an interval or something… but the business that you’re in, its 22 minutes and out. Even with you its 58 minutes and out. That is, if it isn’t the difference… then let’s move on but it does seem to me to say this means you have to do that, that and that in a way that you don’t in other media. I’m not saying it’s lesser or more it’s just… that’s the way it is and I’m wondering what influence…
(c) G. Carr
SP: But it’s changing though with the streaming services. I think we’re all quite jealous. I mean we don’t write for Netflix but the idea that you can have an episode one week which is 69 minutes and the following week 49 minutes depending on how you felt…
MB: Do you find that attractive?
SP: Um I do find it attractive on the one hand but equally I like the form. When we’re doing ‘Inside No.9’ we know that we’ve got to hit that 30 page mark, 31, 32 and I like that. I like having a structure to an episode. When we did something like ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, which had 12 – one scene for each (of the) 12 months – it was really nice to be able to parcel all these scenes up into 12 and to know roughly if you were in August and you’re on page 6 obviously that’s not very good. So we kind of, we use those scenes to give us structure and I think putting a box around something makes you more creative somehow.
JM: I think also we would all recognise that the precise delivery time is hit in post-production. You know, you don’t do a script and sort of like go ‘Oooh that’s 59 minutes’ (audience laughter) It’s like you shoot the thing, you cut it together and if its 63 then you know you’ve got to get 4 minutes out if you’re trying to hit 59. And sometimes that’s easy and then you’re struggling to put stuff back in because you’ve done a natural edit and its 52 or something. So you then go through a process and as long as you’ve got enough time then – as in enough editing days – you can fine tune it and you can always tighten things up in a way which doesn’t affect the way that you’ve told the story. Its little things like how long does it take for someone to walk across a room.
MB: Can we go back to when you started and what you got from where you started from. Reece did you grow up watching a lot of television? What set you off wanting to write?
RS: Um. Well I think curiously it was – cos we’re doing them now – ‘Play for Todays’ and the dramas of Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood and comedy that was, that had an edge to it and a bite to it and plays that you wouldn’t normally see. I knew there was something different about watching an Alan Bennett play on TV. It just felt, the language felt different. It felt richer somehow and I don’t know what that was about but it appealed to me because it was a voice that was around me in the North – I was from Hull – and um so I think it was that, um, the darkness of Alan Bennett and then when comedy was around I was watching ‘The Two Ronnies’ and Victoria Wood. That was the sort of stuff of my childhood but again with Victoria’s stuff that definitely resonated with it being a sort of northern voice but a savagery to it as well that was hidden in the… in-between the sort of…
MB: Resonated in the sense that you said ‘I’d like to write like that’ or are you just…?
RS: Yeah a little bit… I still don’t really consider myself as a writer. I don’t know what I’m doing sat here but I do feel like that definitely informed my taste and I enjoyed watching that sort of thing and I thought if that’s – when I thought I could be an actor – that was the sort of stuff that we started writing and had a collective love of it. That was what was weird about us four as The League.
MB: Heidi did you have a direct watching television background?
HT: I think I did. I was an early reader and I loved to read but my mother had a wonderful habit and… younger people you do have to cast your mind back to the days of pre-video or anything. There was this serendipity about television. Suddenly my mother would say ‘There’s a film on this afternoon’ and we would drop everything and watch ‘National Velvet’ or something. But I remember once being fetched out of bed at about half eight-nine o’clock at night and my mother said ‘You have to come and watch this film. It’s one of the best films ever made’ and it was ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ with Charles Laughton and I was seven or eight and she made me watch the whole film. I’d never been up so late in my life but I sobbed throughout saying ‘He does turn into a handsome prince doesn’t he? Promise me he turns into a handsome prince’ and it’s relentless. There’s no way he turns into a handsome prince. It’s utterly harrowing, most unsuitable for a child (audience laughter) and I loved it. There was something for me in that about the power of performance to bring a story alive. I mean this was black and white on a screen about this big but it completely elevated me and I think it made me realise that stories do not always resolve the way you want and that doesn’t make it any less powerful and I think that’s always stayed with me.
MB: Curious that you should mention that. I saw that when I was a kid at the weekly cinema and on nights I looked under my bed before I got into bed… I’d never been as scared from a film as Laughton playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was terrifying. Jed.
JM: Yeah I watched a lot of TV as a kid. I mean it was um, I guess it was my only real access to the arts. You know I went to a very ordinary school, didn’t really do drama or have much access to creative things and, you know, I was a sciencey kid anyway so TV was my only exposure to storytelling um apart from, you know, maybe occasionally going to the cinema and so I kind of didn’t really return to the influences until much later in my career and I think that it was probably the American television that I had the best relationship with. I remember not being a great watcher of the BBC and thinking it was all a bit middle-class and a bit, it was just… it was like watching a play which is just people talking about the past. It’s just, god have a car chase (audience laughter) It’s the sort of thing as a 12-year-old boy I wanted to see and the Americans were giving us that. So that’s probably been the biggest influence.
MB: And you Steve?
SP: Yeah I watched TV avidly, especially in the summer holidays when TV was yours, you know, as the kid. In the evening it was the one remote control… on the side of Dad’s chair, you watched what the family watched but in the summer holidays it was curtains closed and you had Laurel and Hardy on…
HT: ‘Banana Splits’.
SP: ‘Banana Splits’ (audience laughter) ‘Flashing Blade’ um so and Mum going ‘You’ve got to go and play outside’ and flinging the curtains open… ‘No I just want to watch TV’ and um and then, you know, the other side of that is late-night horror movies on BBC Two, like you say, on a tiny TV, when we shouldn’t have been allowed to watch them. But I think going back to your point about ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, films which don’t give you that neat ending I think stay with you much longer and I think there’s a huge lesson that I learnt watching ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ as probably a 12-13-year-old boy which, both of which – without giving spoilers away – have these horrific endings that you can’t process as you’re watching them and that stayed with me for the rest of my life and something that ties a nice neat bow on the end um is, you know, too easy to forget.
MB: Does this idea that goes around – and see what you make of it – write what you know. Have you found that’s been any help?
HT: I started writing very young and I didn’t know much so I think I would have got to a dead end quite quickly if I’d only written something that I know but I think – perhaps instinctively – even now I look for what I know within what I don’t know. There’s always a sort of navigating moment where one identifies with something. For example, when I was adapting ‘Little Women’, it was a book I thought I knew because I’d read it over and over again from childhood and when I came back to it as a woman of 55 to adapt it for the screen I had to navigate through it by looking for what I knew and for what I remembered and what I actually found – which was so much richer – was a very complex novel about love and grief and loss and growing up. That was for me… at all times I was looking for things that did feel familiar so I think it’s about finding that balance. I mean I have led quite a tedious existence. If I wrote about what I know it would just be really boring (audience laughter)
MB: That’s what you’ve done, not what you know. What you know includes what you’ve read and… what other people have told you…
HT: I think sometimes I find things that I don’t know. There was a scene, again in ‘Little Women’, which in the novel is just one line where it describes how Jo used to go to her father for consolation after the loss of her sister and I lost a teenage brother when I was still in my teens and I was able to put words in their mouths that I, that existed within me but had never found their expression before. So I suppose that was the case of me using something from my personal lexicon if you will, to create dialogue and put something on the screen.
JM: Well I had an unusual route into writing for TV. I went to medical school and I practised as a doctor and I got involved as an advisor initially and so I was very fortunate that the first thing I wrote was very much about my primary experience of working in the NHS in hospital medicine in the sort of early to mid-90s. So that absolutely informed my first series because it was revisionist of the dramas that were on at that time which… they’re still going, those juggernauts that will last forever. ‘Casualty’ and ‘Holby’ will be on long after the world is dust (audience laughter) and these other medical dramas that try and approach it differently just come and go and they’re just not, you know, these things are like cockroaches, you just can’t kill them. So I was kind of reacting against something that was already part of the TV orthodoxy – even the TV dogma – so I had an enormous advantage.
MB: That was ‘Cardiac Arrest’ but what made you want to do it in the first place? You’re a doctor, you also trained to be an RAF pilot which you managed to do both at the same time. Anyway never mind, it’s unimaginable I suppose, as far as I’m concerned, to do those two things. But what made you want to write it?
JM: It was actually a response to the advisor role which was asking for doctors to come forward to volunteer to advise on a medical drama that was in development and as it turned out – I know that production companies rarely do this – it was just a big lie because they didn’t have anything very significant in development. They were kind of scrabbling around a bit and so I started giving them advice on how you might do something about the field that I knew which was hospital medicine from the viewpoint of the junior doctors and there just came a point where they felt that it would be better unfiltered. Rather than them talking to a writer who would then put the doctors on a pedestal and make the nurses lovely and all those things, that actually it might be simpler for them if I did it and I then just became quite convinced that I needed to get the message out. It felt like an opportunity.
MB: The message being?
JM: The message being that what was being portrayed on television was um very much a sanitised version of what was going on in hospitals to the extent that its reference points seemed either to only have existed decades before or may be to never have existed. And so what was happening was that medical dramas were just feeding off other medical dramas about how doctors behaved, how consultants behaved, how nurses behaved and so forth. So it felt like it was an opportunity to put out there something that changed the conversation around the working conditions in the NHS.
MB: And it had that jarring effect when it came on?
JM: Yeah it completely solved all the problems in the NHS (audience laughter) Everything’s fine now (audience laughter)
MB: Would you have anything to say about that Steve?
SP: Yeah well obviously Reece and I came to writing really via acting, you know, so for us I think it was a question of how do we give ourselves the roles that no-one else is giving us…
RS: It’s all we do it for (audience laughter)
SP: … and then gradually over time I think the writer has stepped forth and hopefully improved and now we don’t think of being that way. Yeah we certainly, the first things that we wrote were all about Restart rooms, really bad theatre companies, strange northern towns where you couldn’t wait to get out but you couldn’t somehow escape (audience laughter) so all of those things were brought to bear, you know, they were our first impulses and now we’ve ended up with ‘Inside No.9’ where we kind of write about anything. You do have to be drawn, something has to draw you to the subject in the first place and like you say you find – even if it’s something you don’t know much about – you find your way into it via a character, by something you’ve read, via another piece of television you’ve seen or a movie you’ve seen. There’s all, that thing, there’s your life experiences which, you know, as a writer might be quite limited and what you draw from other people’s as well.
RS: It can backfire cos I remember when we finally did ‘The League of Gentlemen’ on TV and we… I was sat, felt like vindication that I was filming our own television series and I was in a Restart room doing the Pauline sketches where I had experienced them in real life and I thought ‘I’m back on the fucking dole’ (audience laughter) It’s like being back in there so it was full circle. It was like a depressing week. It’s reliving it. Yeah that was very much taken from real life.
MB: The… you’ve all written comedy. I mean you er… is that a, are you in a different place, different gear from that? What about you? Start with you again Jed.
JM: Yeah I tried to get a lot of humour into ‘Cardiac Arrest’, the first series I wrote, and inevitably a lot of it got cut out for the time reasons, basically the thing that we were talking about, about cutting stuff down to fill the slot, so… there was definitely a desire to have um comedy counterpoint the darker elements of that and also just the gallows humour felt like something that was important as a way of challenging the very earnest way in which people talked on medical dramas. You know the way medical dramas tend to work is that someone comes into hospital with their medical problem and then what happens is remarkably they find someone who gives a shit about their personal problems and then gives them a talking cure for the episode whereas in real life that just doesn’t happen. You go in with a personal problem no-one gives a toss, so that earnestness was something that I wanted to challenge and the way to challenge it was through humour.
MB: Yeah. And to challenge comfort TV. You two, you’re challenging it and doing the same thing there aren’t you?
SP: Yeah I mean we like to, you know…
MB: What has been called comfort TV… I can’t remember which one of you said it. Yeah. Yes.
SP: I think we stumbled upon this format which allows us to take risks with how we present a half hour of television so we’ve enjoyed doing that over different episodes but, you know, humour is something which any drama should have and drama is something that any comedy should have… they really, you don’t separate them in your mind and sometimes when you’re trying to come up with a joke it’s the most serious-minded thing and you construct it in a… we’re not sitting around killing ourselves laughing. I remember…
RS: God no (audience laughter)
SP: … the first joke in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ which is a guy reading a letter on a train and it was taking us into the… we knew we needed a hard joke to come in on to show people it was a comedy and we just sit and pondered it and thought right when you’re introducing a… we watched the opening few minutes of things like ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Tales of the City’, anything where a character comes into a world and in a number of them they use narration, so we had this character reading a letter and then as you pull out you see it’s the old lady sitting next to him on the train (audience laughter) who’s reading his letter and it worked a treat but it was constructed. It was done, you know, it was not just ‘Oh I’ve got a great gag’, you know, and we’ve all got the mate down the pub who tells … who’s the funniest guy around the table. I mean, you know, I have and it’s never me but that person wouldn’t necessarily know how to take what skill they have and create something with it and I think that’s what you learn over many years, months and hours of writing.
MB: There’s a deep yearning for comfort TV. I mean ‘Call the Midwife’ is called ‘comfort TV’. It’s very difficult to watch a lot of the time. I mean there’s people in agony giving birth, there’s people – you saw a tiny clip with the thalidomide baby – and on it goes. Does it being thought of in that way upset you or is there something about the public that’s going to find that, if it possibly can, in whatever circumstance?
HT: Well I think it goes back to what we were saying at the very beginning which is what are stories for? Do people escape into them, do they feel inspired by them, consoled by them, whatever. And the funny thing is I’ve never actually written comedy and in fact over recent years I’ve got a reputation for making people cry. The episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ are judged according to, you know, is it tissues, is it toilet rolls, is it kitchen roll, how much are people crying and… but in a weird way people are consoled by their own tears and I think time and time (again) when I get personal letters from people it’s often because the show’s given them a form of catharsis. Perhaps they’ve wept over somebody dying in ‘Call the Midwife’ when they didn’t weep 20 years ago over a death of a friend. I mean that’s a very raw and reductive way of putting it but I think people are comforted when they feel something even if that feeling is sadness or empathy, a painful empathy for somebody’s who’s, you know, suffering in some way.
MB: But in terms of what the audiences will take, some of the – from the very beginning – some of the episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ were way ahead of what people had seen about childbirth on television. I mean it was close-up, literally close-up and it was agony and it was serious agony and you feared for the life of both the people concerned.
HT: And quite rightly. It was 1957 and gas and air hadn’t been invented. You know there was much to fear. But I think one of the interesting things for me about ‘Call the Midwife’ is that when we were writing it we presumed it was going to go out at 9 o’clock. That was the slot we were prepping for. So in other words post-watershed and about 20 minutes in the first episode there’s a character who hops up on a bed and removes her unattractive drawers and says ‘I’ve had some shocking discharge’ (audience laughter) and we thought that was fine at 9 o’clock but there was a collective gasp because nobody had said ‘discharge’ at 8 o’clock (audience laughter) which was when we were put on and when we found out the show was actually going to be on at 8 o’clock on a Sunday night Dame Pippa Harris and I wept in the office because we felt (A) the show had been underestimated in terms of what we were hoping to achieve in terms of candour and perhaps pushing the envelope a bit in terms of women’s health particularly but also we thought that if we did get a second series we wouldn’t be allowed to do the things we’d done in the first series. And what we have found over time is the audience can take an awful lot. They can take the word vagina and, you know, and we show placentas on a regular basis. We’ve got, you know, numerous placentas made of silicone. We show that. We can’t show a lot of blood interestingly and I remember once saying there was loads of blood on telly last week and they said ‘Ah but that’s crime’ (audience laughter) that’s alright’. So there are physical rules but I’m always guided by… I remember hearing an interview that Charlie Chaplin gave when, sort of in the late 1940s, so he’s a man reflecting back on his career and he said the most brilliant thing. He said ‘I have never written down to my audience’ and I thought that was fantastic. You respect your audience, understand that they can take hard things, perhaps, you know, perhaps wrapped in an attractive wrapping… There are times in ‘Call the Midwife’ when I think some people may not want this but if they… I say it’s sort of a bit like a trifle. You can scoop the top layer off, the fluff and the cream and just enjoy that if you want to but underneath there is, there are harsher truths… or fruit.
MB: How much do you er… Jed, how much are you involved with your characters to the extent of saying I won’t let him or her go because the audiences, not because they’re popular… but the audiences, I’ve got somebody there the audience identify with, are very fond of, very interested in the development of and is there ever a tension between it’ll be good if they were killed off or it be better if they stay alive?
JM: Well it’s always got to be about what’s in the best interests of the series. Clearly it’s not in the best interests of the character to be dead so the way I would approach it is look at what new story you get from that and if the audience’s got a real attachment to a character it means they’re then invested in whether there’ll be justice for that character or if there’s a mystery around it they’ll be invested in finding out what might have actually befallen them.
MB: Yeah. Can we just talk for a moment about adaptation. You’ve both done adaptations… you might want to comment on it. You did D.H. Lawrence and you’ve done ‘Cranford’. Is that an entirely different operation?
HT: I think I use the same skills and the same approach, certainly to storytelling and mostly I’ve done adaptations that have not been obvious. They’re either unfinished or as with ‘Cranford’ it was an amalgam of three novellas. So I think it’s also very interesting that nobody’s first big job is an adaptation, it’s something you come to much further down the line and yet even from other writers you hear ‘Oh well it’s so easy for you’, ‘It’s much easier when somebody’s done the story and written the dialogue’ but to take a novel or a novella and convert it into a piece of screen drama it’s like taking, you know, a 1930s dance dress and turning it into a trouser suit, it’s a different genre. You have to dismantle it and reconstruct it. So um, but in many ways it’s about, you know, how do we introduce these characters, how do we get into this world, what happens when we’re in there, how do we pull away and get perspective on it and that’s the same whether you’re creating original material or working with something written 150 years ago.
MB: Yeah but the one difference… you’ve got working for you… that you would respect… do you feel I can’t let this work down? Does that enter into it?
HT: Oh I mean completely. You can’t… there’s two, you know, big terrors in adaptation. One is you can’t let the book down and the other is you can’t let the readership down because people expect certain things of an adaptation of a book that they know well, whether it’s Lawrence or something like ‘Little Women’. I don’t know how I had the nerve, you know, it’s one of those things where you think I love this book so much I couldn’t resist the offer to adapt ‘Little Women’ but I knew there were 10 million women worldwide who would bay for my blood if I got it wrong and that took a lot of the pleasure away (audience laughter) It really did and… but it is about trying to identify that which is sacred within the book and burnishing and nurturing that to the best of your advantage knowing that ultimately every adaptation is judged not by what you put in but by what you leave out.
MB: What about ‘Lady Chatterley’?
JM: Yeah I mean that’s going back and probably I was susceptible more to the commissioning preferences then. You know it’s, I’m in a fortunate position now where I don’t have to do adaptations.
MB: So you had to do it because it was a job that came your way at a time you wanted a job?
JM: Yeah it was an opportunity and I was sort, you know, I’m a full-time working writer and the time it came we had no idea of the future of ‘Line of Duty’. I think we’d shot series two but we had no idea what was going to happen next and, you know, if series two hadn’t been successful then the series would be over. So it was an opportunity to do something where fundamentally it was greenlit. You know the channel had decided that they wanted to include it in a series of adaptations of early 20th century novels and if I didn’t do it they’d offer it to some other creator of dodgy thrillers or whoever else it would be that was in line. So I thought well I read this as a kid. Basically the only major literary figure that I ever felt any affinity for because we’d done Lawrence for English ‘O’ level, which was the last English I’d done, and I grew up in a small mining town in the Midlands and he wrote about working class characters so there were a lot of affinities there that made me feel that it was a good project to take on. But I completely agree with everything Heidi just said about the different um interpretations of how an adaptation is successful. You don’t normally get criticised for another story you could have told for a piece of work you’ve done because nobody has any idea what else you could have done whereas if they’d read the book they’ll have an opinion and obviously the critics think they’ve read the book and so they’ll have an opinion, which just proves they don’t know anything but they’ll still put it out there, so it’s a bit of a… I do find it a bit of a poisoned chalice.
MB: Yeah. Do you feel that you’re working, I mean you take things from other film directors and you, you don’t adapt and change them. Is there any similarity to what Heidi and Jed have been saying in what you two do, Reece, Steve?
RS: Well Steve did adapt ‘Mapp and Lucia’ so that was…
MB: Of course yeah… but ‘Inside No.9’…?
(c) G. Carr
RS: ‘No.9’ is a magpie’s nest of… as all our work -written work – has been really. The sketches of League were four young men that were just given a television series and suddenly were able to do that bit from ‘The Shining’ and do that bit from ‘Don’t Look Now’ and we were just enjoying all our references laid bare and in the hands of Steve Bendelack, who directed it – who got all those references – it was a joy to do. But you look back on it now and it’s quite a strange mix of things. It looks like an artist’s palette with the splodges of everything on it and I think we tried to hone and be more disciplined about how we take our inspiration and, you know, tonally ‘No.9’ is really great to write because we get to change up every week, so we can do the more psychological one that we can think is a bit more of a Pinter play and then we can do something that’s very broad and slapsticky the next week so…
MB: Or a silent film?
RS: Or a silent film yeah and that was a great thing to do. It’s funny talking about the time slot that you get, that’s an interesting thing because a lot of ‘No.9’ is very, I think, not that dark at all. I mean I’ve got a twisted sensibility but… (audience laughter) My threshold is different to everyone else’s but sometimes I think this could be on at 8 o’clock easily and people would like it. We got, we’ve been pegged at a certain time with the expectation of this darkness and I think that sometimes goes against what we do, especially with it being deemed a comedy. I mean none of them are very funny but sometimes I think we get away with – we affect people more because they – it comes in the guise of a comedy so you’re geared up to watch extensively the slot that ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ is in and then you get something that makes you cry and that, it blindsides you a little bit because you’re not prepared for it and I think that works in our favour sometimes.
MB: The business of you and Heidi – and I’d like to bring in the others – you work against, inside and against – institutions. What does that give you Jed?
JM: Well I think there’s still a lot of drama that represents institutions in the way they want to be represented. You know when we started doing ‘Line of Duty’ we sought the co-operation of the Metropolitan Police to be advisors on it and we very quickly realised that that is PR led. If you’re, if you’re giving a version of the police that they want to propagate they’ll help out. Now I’m not saying that, you know, that they should stop investigating crimes and help out TV shows (audience laughter) but the fact that they do help out some TV shows and they very specifically wouldn’t help us out, it is, I think it says a lot and, you know, I also – in writing about medicine – I tended to tell stories which were about the darker side of medicine. The way in which say negligence is covered up and the… all the political manoeuvring around those things and actually those things have remained prevalent in our institutions all through my writing career. There are maybe a few things that come and go with fashion but fundamentally the institutions are there to promote their own well-being, not to do the job they were originally founded to do and that’s something that I think a lot of drama doesn’t really tackle and obviously there are lots of reasons for that.
MB: Do you find the same with the… you’re a great advocate of the NHS?
HT: I am an advocate of the NHS. What’s interesting with ‘Call the Midwife’ is that it’s a drama, well we’ve now covered eight or nine years of history, we’re in series 9. With every series another year passes by and when we started the drama was set in 1957 when the NHS was up and running in the most spectacular way. But over the nine years that we’ve been, you know, in the East End watching midwives at work, hospitals at work, there’s huge change, even within people’s expectations. You know at the beginning of every series I say ‘What’s the prescription situation?’ because sometimes prescriptions were free, sometimes they’re being charged for. It was a constant political hot potato so every year I read Hansard and see what they were arguing about. But I think the thing about the NHS is – to my mind – it was part of the engine of social change and development in mid-century Britain. So often we see the NHS operating hand-in-hand with what we would now call mental health services and there are different rules in play. There are different rules for the poor. There are different rules for women. There are different rules for the mentally-challenged and constantly what I find is not, I’m not writing a drama that’s set in an institution or is about institutionalised medicine but it’s what are the axes between medicine and society and how is our perception of ourselves and society affected by medical change.
MB: Steve and Reece when you’re creating characters, do you stay with the character that you have created or do you change them or do you develop them between you? How does it work the two of you working together on a character? We had a little bit in that snippet…
SP: Yeah well we often don’t decide in advance which character we’re going to play and I think in that way… one of the earliest things we discovered is that if you write every character as if you are going to play them as the actor then you will make each character interesting because no-one wants to be stuck as an actor with a duff… (audience laughter) you know, ‘Yes Sarge’ kind of character. And I think that’s stood us in good stead and we will look – once we’ve finished – when we’ve got six scripts say for ‘Inside No.9’, we’ll want it to be a fair distribution of characters and we’d want to play different types of characters. So we have a kind of horse-trading session where we kind of, you know, it’s a bit like a card game, ‘Okay if I’m Hector then you can be Edward’ and um we’ll share them out and it seems to work.
RS: Yeah. I mean we’ve… to go back to that point of killing your characters, we very deliberately in ‘The League of Gentlemen’ killed off what we thought were our… cos we got a bit annoyed that people thought it was catchphrasy and a bit easy so we killed Tubbs and Edward – the local shop people – in the beginning of series three thinking… it was a stupid idea, we shouldn’t never have done it (audience laughter)
SP: We brought them back.
RS: We brought them back immediately (audience laughter) but yeah we thought we don’t want to be, at any level, that we were treading water or we’re doing the same thing over and over so we thought we’ll get rid of our most popular characters (audience laughter) Stupid idea (audience laughter) Don’t do it.
MB: Well we’ve talked for the length of time we said we’d talk. I’ll come back to the panel at the very end but if you’ve any… can we put the lights on and have questions. There’s a microphone around if anyone wants to ask a question… I don’t know who’s got the microphone. Yes, somebody at the back. If you see a hand can you pop a microphone into it? That’s the best way…
Audience member: I just want to ask what would your advice be to new writers trying to get into TV? Specifically with regards to rejections please. Thanks.
SP: Well I found that, you know, writing off letters as an actor you get the rejections… are more painful cos its literally they send back your CV with a staple through it. As a writer I found that when you did get a rejection at least somebody would write something, an opinion of what you’d done and I think having that process, if you do get someone who writes you a nice letter back or seems to understand at least what you were trying to do – maybe it wasn’t right at that time – its finding the right people to work with, which is essential and the right producers and executive producers. And they are the doorway between you in your office and your blank pages and this commission and um so I think if you’re lucky enough to find somebody in one of those positions you keep working with them, don’t you?
HT: I agree and I remember after I started to make some headway in my own career, a writer who was sort of starting out said ‘But I just can’t get the meetings with heads of drama’ and in actual fact I would say, for example, I executive produce ‘Call the Midwife’ with Pippa Harris and we met on our first TV jobs, you know, in the days when people wore leggings in the office. I mean this was about… I think it was about 1991-1992 and we’re sort of executive producing together now but we started our relationship when she was so junior she didn’t have a desk. We used to sit on a chair in the corridor and meet. So I would say look for other people who are starting out to make those connections with, as Steve said. And the other thing that – while I have the platform – is a lot of new writers come to me and they say ‘Well I’m developing a series and I’ve written 8 episodes but it’s a 12 parter’ and I say ‘Stop’. Nobody wants to read your 8 episodes. You write one really good spec script that you feel represents you well and the first thing I would say is – I do also know new coming writers who go direct to producers – and if you put some energy into trying to find an agent who can do that for you, once you’ve done your first spec script and developed other ideas, the agent will then work for you while you write a second thing and a third thing and start to practice with your own voice because I think having two or three irons in the fire when you start out also helps you cope with rejection because nobody ever had three projects rejected all on the same day, all in the same week. So there will always be, you know, you need to sort of cast your net wide and stay very focused because everybody gets rejection when they start out and, you know, the business needs new writers. It really needs new writers and just keep at it really.
MB: Who’s next?
Audience member: So if you could go back in time and start your careers again is there anything you’d do differently or change anything about them, about writing and stuff?
JM: Yeah I’d miss the middle bit out (audience laughter) um I think it goes back to the first question about coping with when things go wrong. You do learn from that and its, you know, I still get rejections now in terms of projects that I really believe in and people don’t want to make them for whatever reason and you’ve got to find the right relationships and that’s something I probably learned after the event. You know it’s that classic thing ‘Experience is the quality you have just after you needed it’ and the fact is that there were a couple of projects that I got involved in after I became established where in retrospect I was working with the wrong people on the wrong thing and so it… that ended up being a number of years before I corrected that. So it’s just an endorsement of the advice the others have given.
HT: I once went five years without a green light and that wasn’t at the beginning of my career it was the middle passage. I got off to a flying start. I was, looking back, I was quite lucky, but five years without a green light whilst being constantly commissioned is really hard and most of us will encounter that at some point.
JM: You end up taking adaptations (audience laughter)
MB: Over there.
Audience member: Hi. You’ve talked about time slots. Do you think the TV schedule is fixed or do you think the death of appointment to view is going to change TV writing?
MB: Who wants to take that on?
JM: Well apparently appointment to view’s dead so my stuff knackered isn’t it.
HT: We all work for the BBC don’t we? I mean I think people are curating their own viewing now in a completely different way and I think what’s going to change television, you know, with people viewing when they want – what they want, when they want – is my fear is it’s going to reduce the dialogue we have with each other… I was born in 1962 and in the 70s TV was the glue that kept everyone together, but I had lunch with a friend yesterday I hadn’t seen for a while and the whole conversation was ‘Have you seen?’ ‘No but have you seen?’ and he’d watched six things, I’d watched six things and even though we have similar tastes there was no dialogue because our recent experience of the medium was not overlapping in any way and that’s what I regret rather than it being about the academics of which slot we aim for – if those slots are going to be superseded – is where is television going when there is so much out there and we’re collating our viewing schedules at random.
RS: Yeah I don’t think that the new um way of consuming telly – with the fact that you can, you know, just decide what your night’s menu will be – is seemingly having any effect on the time frame of programmes. They all just seem the same. You’ve got your hour, your 45, your 22, your 30. That seems to, I’ve not heard any whisperings that that’s going to change for any reason.
JM: Yeah and pre versus post watershed. I mean it certainly hasn’t affected the vast majority of commissioning that goes on.
MB: Right in front of you…
Audience member: I’m an actress primarily but I’ve just suddenly written two short films – 10 minute films, someone’s interested in them – and what interested me was that I was able to choose all the actors that I wanted and that made me feel really relaxed because I chose them. Do you as writers have any influence on the casting of your writing?
RS: Yes (audience laughter)
Audience member: Well give me a part.
RS: We cull anyone we don’t want.
SP: It’s one of the great joys…
RS: It is yeah.
SP: … once you’ve finished the slog writing the scripts is to have this, you know, this kind of ‘Spotlight’ and we have so many brilliant actors in this country. We’re working our way through them in ‘Inside No. 9’ and um it’s a real joy and I think to work with people who you’ve worked with before is a real joy as well. So there’s nothing, you know, we try not to go back on ‘Inside No. 9’ but um its… when you know that everyone’s going to be making the same programme it’s so important because that’s something that can often happen on a big production, small production whatever, if different actors are in different shows and different producers think they’re making a different show to the director and things that millions of pounds are spent on them don’t have a centre and they can fall apart very easily. So yeah I think it’s great to be able to pick who you work with.
HT: I love finding new talent because we have, sort of, a younger and an older generation, certainly within ‘Call the Midwife’. When we cast a new, you know, new midwife a couple of years ago I was looking at the tapes and somebody will shine out at you and they perhaps not done anything on camera before and that’s beautiful because then you start to look for the resonances between that actor and the character, especially if they’re young and inexperienced. Sometimes you have to almost coax them along and make sure you’re giving them the material that they can work with and I find that as thrilling as, you know, someone like Miriam Margolyes going on chat shows saying ‘I want to be in ‘Call the Midwife’ cos I had always wanted Miriam Margolyes to be in ‘Call the Midwife’ so it was a brilliant marriage but you know she will be fantastic, but when you bring somebody out, almost out of drama school and you find out that they’re fantastic it’s so, well, inspiring. It gives me a real shot in the arm really.
MB: What about working with a – for a while anyway – with a set, with a cast, a company like… Jed, when you work with ‘Line of Duty’ for instance?
JM: Yeah I mean I think that it’s no accident that we have the same three leads. I mean they’re really good actors but also they get on really well with each other. We all get on very well and if that hadn’t happened one of them would have been, you know, killed in some (audience laughter) in some completely unexpected way that propelled the story forward (audience laughter) But um yeah I think that… I’m in this very fortunate position to be a showrunner so I am very involved in the cast and in the casting and so um it’s about finding people who are the right fit for the world of the show. You know, people who are credibly part of that and a lot of that is then defined by the kind of actors you already have, you know, because we have three actors whose acting style is, feels very authentic to being police officers. We can’t necessarily bring someone in who appears like they’re from a very different background or from a very different way of approaching the scripts or the performance requirements. So it ends up becoming kind of a synthesis between the existing cast and the script and the new people coming in.
MB: But it’s rather like a rep company. Directors who run theatres have rep companies and they use it to great advantage because they know… its shorthand of talking that can get more out of them the more they know them. Is that not a factor as well, the positive factor?
JM: Absolutely yeah. I mean that was just a specific example of kind of character continuity within one series. Obviously if you then are working on something else and you start to look at casts, so in say ‘Bodyguard’, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes were both actors I’d worked with before and once they were mentioned in connection with the series then it was just helpful to have had that experience. You know, you know how hard it is to film television drama, you need people who aren’t nuts and aren’t lazy and, you know, you just don’t know sometimes so if you have worked with someone and they’ve passed that particular test then it’s helpful.
MB: So the ‘nuts and lazy’ test is early on is it?
JM: Apparently it doesn’t apply to being the leader of the Conservative Party (audience laughter)
HT: I think the other thing though with the rep company set up is we don’t, as the writers, don’t always have control over whether people stay or not. You know for me ‘Call the Midwife’ has run for nine years and has been an exercise in noble forbearance when young ladies come on the show and three years later they decide it’s time to go to Hollywood and every time it’s like a stab through the heart but I’ve now learned that that actually refreshes the brand and refreshes the company and you bring in new characters and new stories, but I now know the signs and when I see the signs coming I think ‘Oh Hollywood beckons’. I start to think of how I will move them to one side and it’s like a bereavement but I’ve also become quite sort of ruthless about it and I just have to prepare for the worst but it’s not always the choice of the showrunner who stays really.
MB: And… someone down here. Can you keep your hand up?
Audience member: Hi Reece and Steve. I was just wondering you do such brilliant things with the format of the episode of ‘Inside No.9’ when you kind of do things that you wouldn’t expect looking at the format, like the silent episode, the live episode, the episode where – I think it’s called ‘Twice Removed’ – where the timeline is, of what actually happens, is kind of fractured to such great effect. I was wondering when you look at those kind of episodes do you, does the idea for ‘this is a great thing that we can do’ come first or is it does the format fit the story or the other way round, if that makes sense?
RS: Yeah a bit of both. Um we wanted to do a, we thought it would be good to do a silent episode so that was let’s just see how far we can get and then um… We enjoy now thinking about how to tell the stories and grab the audience in a different way, you know, people are very sophisticated, like I said earlier, so to think about how you’re actually consuming the story in a different way. Doing the live episode of – for the Halloween last year – it was fine and we didn’t really want to do it because we thought well everybody does it now… ‘Eastenders’ do it, ‘Casualty’ do it and we thought… but to do it and have a reason to do it, it suddenly caught fire in our imaginations when we thought well the thing, the reason why you watch those things is if it’s going to go wrong. Is it going to go right? Am I going to see an actor fluff his lines, that’s the most that usually happens and then we thought well let’s take advantage of it perhaps completely breaking down and having the test card come up and ‘We’re very sorry’. We were getting texts on the night of people ‘Oh I’m so sorry. You worked so hard’ (audience laughter) so it was delightful because it worked absolutely as a prank type thing but it propelled the idea of the whole episode which was great. That was an example of just enjoying the way of storytelling and, you know, the backwards episode that we did where every 10 minutes it went from the end to the beginning. That was a new way of revealing information and hopefully it was a complicated thing to do but it was… It’s just all about those new half hours. The ‘No.9s’ are really hard because each week it’s a whole other world, whole new world and it’s just to not be boring and not repeat ourselves and it’s an exercise in that isn’t it?
SP: Yeah I mean the format on its own as interesting isn’t a story and it doesn’t drive the narrative so it’s interesting to come up with, you know, a new device for telling a story but you still need the story to tell because people are forever coming up to us and going ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea for you. No.9 bus’ (audience laughter) There you go… so you have to…
RS: So yeah then what?
SP: … you have to, you know, make it work but in answer to your question, um yes we often in those stories where there is an interesting narrative device it usually is that first and then how do we make it work to tell the best story.
MB: Yes over there.
Audience member: Hi Heidi. I’ve got a question about your writing process. Curious about how much of it you’ll be happy to reveal. With such a long running programme I’m kind of curious how you keep each episode… give it a fresh concept or something like that but also because this show seems so… the characters are very rich, very sort of anyway identifiable in some way and whether they’re leading it or whether you’re coming up with a theme and then beating the whole thing out or… yeah.
HT: It’s a good question because at the beginning of every series I think how did we do it last time because it seemed to work and we’re doing another one. I think what’s enabled ‘Call the Midwife’ to go on for such a long time – cos we’re making series 9 now – is because we do a Christmas Special every year, every series covers a year in time so I always start with historic and medical research and I like to have two stories for each episode. One will be what you could broadly call an ‘A’ story which might… it’s usually a medical story but it might not be a birth. Then there will be – and that can take us into a new world, for example, a character lives on a barge or we might visit a culture we haven’t seen before like the Sikh culture. Then there’ll be a ‘B’ story where we try to use our standing sets for reasons of economy cos it’s the BBC, so that has to sort of have a smaller physical scope and then I lace around that the series arcs or personal little stories for characters that might not span a whole series but might pick up from episode to episode. So that’s how you collate the raw material and then I’ll write… I write the lion’s share of the episodes but not every single one because I love bringing guest writers on who maybe haven’t written for this sort of slot before, like if there’s maybe a 5 or 6 page treatment they’ll come back to me with a 14 or 15 page treatment and then I’ll oversee the drafts, but I mention that because it’s not dictatorial on my part. There’s always a dialogue either between myself and the guest writer or between myself and that episode because we’re character driven and we don’t have a format and like a lot of BBC dramas there’s no compulsion to create a hook in the middle of episode or a series beat. Things can spread to fit the space available. It might be more appropriate to have a slower pace for example and we’ve never had a format but time and again I find out there are rules that I didn’t know I’d written. Like after a couple of series we realised its totally counterproductive once a lady… once you can see the baby’s head you can’t cut away to another strand in the episode. That baby has to be born because nobody wants to leave the delivery room unless it’s to either see another baby being born or somebody dying (audience laughter) So it’s only when I write an episode and think this birth is not landing and I’m like oh that’s because I’ve gone off to the horticultural show (audience laughter) you know, just as the shoulders are being born and so I think that’s it. There’s no format but there are rules and if you respond to the rules your drama creates its… it will, you know, it will retain its balance I think. And the other thing, as I’ve mentioned before, don’t be afraid of change. Over a nine year period things will change. I mean the look of the show is completely different, the colour palette is different but I got half an episode on the invention of tights (audience laughter) and sometimes little things like that you think actually it makes it a bit fun because in the next episode there’s a baby with no limbs found dead on a draining board so let’s go with the tights (audience laughter) … so in the next episode, sorry, we can really go into those darker places because when, you know, the series arc as a whole is not bludgeoning and without, you know, without remorse really.
MB: At the front there. Hello is there a microphone? Oh there you are.
Audience member: Steve you mentioned earlier about the construction of a joke and how difficult it is when you’re sitting there. I wanted to ask this quite simple question about how you all deal with writers’ block when you’re just sitting there and can’t think of anything?
SP: We are very lucky in that we are a writing partnership so what we do is that we talk and talk and talk and, you know, if we don’t actually write anything or we don’t even turn the computer on the day hasn’t been wasted because we will have had discussions around it. Um I have written things on my own and found it really hard to dig your way out of that um but, you know, the greatest tyranny is the blank page and you just have to get something on the page and I know that’s the most basic piece of advice and I have to tell it to myself every single time I sit down to write. But once you start, even if you don’t know where it’s going or you think it’s not right or you know it’s not feeling, just keep going, push through it is the best way because it’s in those revisions and corrections and seeing what you’ve got at the end um that will spur you on to make it better, but you can’t make a blank page better. It still remains a blank page.
HT: Somebody once said to me – because I have writer’s block every day of my life – there’s an hour where I sit there and think ‘I don’t know how I’m going to start today’, but somebody once said to me the most brilliant thing – and I will say it to any writer -which is first drafts don’t have to be perfect they just have to be written because once you’ve got your first draft, however ragged and full of holes it is and however much you’re embarrassed by it when you re-encounter it, you can then start to make it better. If you haven’t written it you can’t make it any better and I found that sometimes has been like the little lifebelt I cling to. On a bad day just write anything…
SP: Absolutely, yeah.
JM: Yeah it’s a process. You know, I think that um you, well you never write a perfect script. You just don’t. So you’ve got to just keep exploring the story and even if you go back over your day’s work and realise it hasn’t worked and you’ve got to start again then you’ve learned something you didn’t know. So I think you just have to accept that it’s something that doesn’t work like a production line. You have to figure some things out and sometimes you spend more time figuring things outs than actually writing them and other days you’ve figured a few things out and so there’s a lot of natural story that allows you to flow through the plot.
RS: We’ll often write a script that’s got the written word and then ‘blah blah blah brackets a joke here’ (audience laughter) or we’ll write something and think that’s not right but we’ll go back and we never do (audience laughter) So these terrible scripts are our scripts (audience laughter)
MB: At the back there.
Audience member: Just talk(ing) about scripts. I wondered how much – I was going to say interference but maybe I’ll just say input – you get from your uppers? And maybe that’s a really naïve question…
MB: It’s a very loaded question.
Audience member: … Do you listen to them? Do you react to it? You know, what stage of the script gets delivered on screen?
SP: Well from our point of view, you know, we started out as a team as The League of Gentlemen and we were a core already so we weren’t kind of in the market for somebody else to come and tell us what our comedy was and we were very, very lucky to get collaborators and collaborators are totally essential and we’ve managed to keep that going by and large and like I said earlier about finding good producers and executive producers to work with. I have had experiences of notes which er – on other things that haven’t been necessarily my own, you know, creation, I’ve just written stuff – and it’s very, very hard to deal with that, with that rejection essentially. It’s bad enough having your idea rejected or ‘we’re not going to make it’ but then once you’ve written it to have it rejected again and the worst thing I think someone’s said to me was ‘I think you’re two or three drafts away’, thereby meaning that the second and third draft I did you were still going to send it back to me (audience laughter) so you’ve pre-decided that this isn’t any good and yeah its… I don’t know, you guys may be will know more about drama compared to comedy but I think it’s…
MB: Heidi what about you?
HT: Well I remember writing one kind of drama that was never made, about the love life of the young Benjamin Disraeli and it wasn’t going well, which wasn’t for want of subject matter. But the script editor sat me down and I thought oh this is a ‘talking to’ meeting and he said ‘Now listen Heidi’. He said ‘I think what you need to do is write out all your characters in the form of a bar chart’ and I still don’t know what he meant (audience laughter) I’m going back about 18 years now and if you knew, I think… well what his crime was wasn’t in not liking my script but it was not knowing me well enough to know that I failed CSE Maths and that was like lower than GCSE Maths… a bar chart was going to be of no use to me. I work in a different way. And I think… now I’m very lucky. I don’t, you know, I’m actually sort of training up script editors because script editing has become a sort of an entry level job in our profession. I don’t think that’s a bad thing but sometimes I know a bit more than the script editor so nobody makes those sort of suggestions to me anymore. But I think you, I think when people try to give you advice you have to try not to perceive it as interference but as somebody genuinely trying to support you and sometimes it just helps you to acknowledge that what you’ve written is no good and that’s the beginning of improvement hopefully.
RS: You can get good notes that do highlight something that you had a niggle about yourself, then and so you think, yeah that’s, they’ve… you know, they’ve honed in on something that we weren’t sure about so there must be something wrong with that thing. But it’s when you don’t trust the judgment of the person it’s hard to navigate, cos you think well I’ve been working on this for so long, you’ve cursorily looked over it and I don’t believe… I don’t want to unpick it because of this thing you’ve said. So we don’t (audience laughter)
MB: What about you Jed?
JM: Yeah I think that it’s definitely part of your job and its part of the process that people are going to give you feedback and I think as a writer you’ve got to develop the ability to do that. You’ve got to be able to not only accept feedback but seek it. You won’t develop as a writer unless you have an opportunity to hear how people are reading your scripts and what their interpretation is of what you’ve written. Sometimes it’s very illuminating when they say ‘I just don’t get what’s going on in this scene’ and you ask them what’s confusing them and sometimes it can just hone in on something that shows that your intention as a writer isn’t coming through. But I also understand that the question is also about the terrible notes you sometimes get from executives and how you deal with that and there is no way of dealing with it. All you can do is move on, you know, it’s… They’re never going to say ‘Oh you know what? I’ve just had this incredible epiphany that I’m an idiot’. No executive’s ever going to do that. They’re going to stick by their notes through thick and thin and, you know, sometimes you get people who just constantly give terrible notes because they don’t get what the piece is or they want it to be something else and it’s not just at the script stage. Often the most damaging notes you get are once you’ve finished principal photography and you have that time where you show an assembly to a representative of the broadcaster who then says ‘Well can this happen here and can they not be in it and can they go over there and can we have some ADR where this is explained and blah’.
MB: There’s time for one or two more questions from the audience and then a final question up here…
Audience member: Hi. My question is um how do you react about season of… ending season being rewrite and reshoot because of the pressure of thousands and thousands people off internet that are not happy about the characters die or something like that and would you be able to do it, rewrite and reshoot seasons of episodes?
JM: What? After they’ve gone out?
HT: I think people suggested it for ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t they? People were not content and there was a social media backlash where it was suggested it should be rewritten and reshot (audience laughter) If you tried to please…
JM: Yeah I think the clue to whether that is valid is contained in the two words ‘social media’ (audience laughter) It’s like, you know, on Twitter people are telling you the Earth’s flat. I mean forget it.
HT: I think if we started to buy into that you’d never finish, you know, because you’d rewrite it and reshoot it and then…
JM: If they pay for it, if like these muppets on Twitter (audience laughter) are prepared to crowdfund. I would love to reshoot everything I’ve ever done (audience laughter) so if they can crowdfund what the budget is, yeah great, game on (audience laughter)
MB: One more down there… there’s one at the back, one at the front.
Audience member: A question for Jed actually. What would your advice be for somebody who came from a completely different career and decided to get into writing? How did you do it and what would your advice be for somebody else looking to do the same thing? And for Reece and Steve, maybe more so Reece – cos I know Steve came from an acting theatre background – in terms of acting and writing your work, how do you develop those acting skills for the work you’re writing for yourselves?
JM: Yeah sure… yeah I mean I suppose I was very fortunate that the first thing I was writing about was something that I knew a lot about. I was writing about the life of junior hospital doctors and that happened, fortunately, to be the job I was doing at the time so therefore not only did I have a lot of input into what the texture and the authenticity of the world would be but also I was getting ideas every time I went to work. Um I think it’s different if you’re going from a job that has nothing to do with what you’re particularly writing then I don’t think it particularly makes any difference. I think that you have to move forward in the way that any writer would.
SP: Do you think you can hold down a job and write in the evenings and weekends?
JM: Yeah. Well that’s what I did…
SP: … That’s a good, you know, halfway house.
JM: I think certainly a lot of the newer writers I work with aren’t at the stage where they can give up on doing other work to make ends meet. Um I think it is a really important part of our industry that we allow people to come through who are possibly socially economically disadvantaged. I mean it’s very easy if you come from a rich family and they’ve got… they’ve brought you a flat in London and you can just fiddle around with your craft for years on end and it doesn’t make any difference but I think the people coming from, certainly the background I came from, then the ability to earn money to sustain a career is absolutely crucial to whether you’re going to be able to develop a career and so if you do have another way of earning money so that you can write in your spare time. I mean I was a junior hospital doctor. I was working long shifts but I could still carve out an hour here and there or a couple of hours or, you know, if I was off at a weekend I could spend six or seven hours writing (a smattering of applause from the audience) Don’t clap… don’t encourage the class warrior in me (audience laughter) You do not know how far I will go (audience laughter)
MB: … A lot of us start by having a job to keep us going and writing because we really want to do it and the two can run alongside each other for a long time. And all you do is pile into it and hope you get to the end of the job and the end of the – in my case – novel. But it was common in my time. Most people I knew who were writing novels had a job as well. I mean it was common for a lot of people for a long time and then it’s become slightly… Anyway can, if there’s a very urgent question great. Otherwise I’d like to ask one last question and maybe… no, you’re a very urgent question.
(c) G. Carr
SP: Reece didn’t answer his question about how to…
RS: Oh what was the question?
Audience member: Thanks Steve.
RS: Can you say the question again. I’ve forgotten it.
Audience member: … going into acting without the… if you don’t necessarily… have any training in acting but yet you also want to be a part of your work.
SP: Well we trained together so we are… we did both train doing drama and did it at college so we were…
RS: It was a sort of halfway house because it was a degree course. It wasn’t quite… the Rada but um, so we thought we would, trying to be actors, we did do three years. You had to write essays at the end and you got a degree but as Steve always said it’s like having a degree in washing up (audience laughter) but, so I thought, I think you’ve just got to… I remember the crossroads at school thinking I was either going to do something with my art, cos I can draw a bit, or try acting and I just remember thinking I might regret it if I never… this is the point where, you know, the life has got these forks in the road and you decide to go down one or the other and I remember thinking I’ll try and do… and I was hedging my bets because it was a degree course but that was where I pursued the acting rather than the art and it only worked out really when we started doing our own thing. I came to London and tried to be an actor and was in ‘London’s Burning’ and TIE (Theatre in Education) and not very good things and you’re one of many people and it was really hard as an actor and then when we had our thing which came about by accident really – ‘Do you want to do these sketches on the fringe?’ and we’d been writing a bit. We pursued that and then that become everything. It became ten years of The League of Gentlemen. So we were sort of… our… then our work preceded us and we were thought of as actors with that in mind rather than just ‘Who’s this person coming in?’ you know, this other person which, you know, when we had our thing we mined it and then we were notable because they’d seen the work already.
MB: Can I just ask you finally, all the new stuff that’s coming in – the Netflix and the Amazon and the Apple and all. Is that going to affect you as writers? Does it give you more opportunities or do you rather balk at it?
JM: More opportunities for rejection, yes (audience laughter)
SP: I don’t know. We haven’t gone down that road… I suppose that there are…
MB: It’s a road that’s coming. I just thought you’re very successful dramatists and you’re commanding and doing great work. Is this going to change the way you offer your work? Is this going to change the way you set about, ‘well I can do sixteen episodes now’ and is it going to have any big effect on you or is it just going to become part of the landscape and there you go and nothing much has changed as far as you individually are concerned?
JM: Well I think one of the things it has changed is the way in which television is consumed. I mean I remember years ago where executives would sincerely advise you not to make things too complicated, not to have too much serial story because the audience wouldn’t remember what had happened last week and had no opportunity to catch up. Whereas now the streaming services have driven the mass consumption of this kind of technology and by streaming services I would also include BBC iPlayer which was in the vanguard. But what it does mean is that people now do catch up, they do jump into series once two or three episodes have gone out. If they watch an episode and they’re really curious about what went before they’ll go back and watch not only previous episodes but previous seasons and that has enabled writers to push the boundaries of complexity.
HT: I think it’s also… um I’m writing a storyline in my 69th episodes of ‘Call the Midwife’ at the moment and what you realise with the boxset generation is that you can never repeat yourself. You can’t say ‘oh we did that sort of case in series two’ because somebody might be watching series two this week and people binge watch and, you know, they might be watching series two and series eight within weeks of each other. But I think the other thing is it is changing the way television is commissioned. Amazon and Netflix for example, they don’t develop and we’re all used I think to the BBC culture where you have an idea and even at quite an early stage in your career you can be paid to write a pilot, you can even get paid for a treatment. There are literally hundreds of scripts in development at the BBC at any given time but Amazon, Hulu, Apple etc they want projects, they won’t, they don’t sort of indulge you over – or keep you prisoner – for two years. They want to see a first episode and then they will greenlight it and I think we’re all going to have to be quite nimble to deal with that and I do worry that it could mean, I don’t know, on one hand you could say it means there is a great desire for content and more projects will be made and, you know, we need more writers. On the other hand without the development process will nascent and emergent writers perhaps get the support that our generation got when you’re sort of paddling in the shallows and maybe stuff doesn’t get made and it’s frustrating but you’re learning and earning at the same time and I think with the streaming channels it’s all a bit more all or nothing and that could long-term have a detrimental effect on the writing experience, but I don’t know.
RS: There’s a funny gag in ‘Family Guy’. It cuts to an office and a woman answers the phone ringing. She goes ‘Hello Netflix. You’re greenlit’ (audience laughter)
MB: I think that’s a good ending. Thank you very much (audience applause)
- Steve Pemberton, ‘The South Bank Show Live’, King’s Place, London (27th June 2019)
- Reece Shearsmith, ‘The South Bank Show Live’, King’s Place, London (27th June 2019)