Over the next couple of days I’m going to complete the write-ups of all the recent screenwriting events I’ve been to, including the Writers’ Guild ‘Meet the Agents’ event, where I got to meet many lovely bloggers. Yay! But first, I thought I’d post on this as it’s probably the most useful to my reader(s) - Paul Ashton, development manager of the BBC Writers’ Room, had a brief slot for questions and answers at the Screen South Information day last month. Here’s a summary:
Paul first talked briefly about BBC Films, as it was a film agency gig. The bottom line is that BBC Films do not accept unsolicited scripts. If you don’t have an agent, or if you haven’t a producer or production company (with a track record) attached, then send your script to the Writers’ Room in the first instance. If you do have these attachments, still don’t send the script to BBC Films, but contact them to arrange a meeting. [NB: Since Paul made this statement, there has been a shake up in BBC Films instigated, so the situation may change.]
Moving on, Paul urged new writers not to overlook radio as a medium for new writers. In his opinion it is closer to film than, say, TV. Radio has lots of slots for one-off dramas, and so writers don’t need to fit in with an existing format, and can realise an original vision. Strands like the Friday, and Saturday Plays, and the Wire on Radio 3 are home to some more challenging and extreme pieces.
For radio there are two other routes aside from sending material to the Writers' Room: an in-house producer, or an independent producer or production company. When I asked Paul later about sending material through these routes, he repeated the standard BBC policy of not sending material to in-house producers, as they will only redirect it to the Writers’ room. But many other sources have told me that an introductory letter to a BBC producer doesn’t hurt at all, and having a producer champion your work will obviously mean it stands a greater chance of a commission that sending a script in cold. As for independent producers, Paul said it was fine to try that route. But he added that independent radio producers only have a certain amount of slots that they can bid to fill, so you may find that they are less receptive to new writers.
Paul was asked an audience question about what percentage of submissions are successful. About 20% of all submissions to the Writers’ Room are given a full read, and the remainder are rejected based on the first ten pages (they call this ‘sifting’). Of those, it is hard to say how many go on to be made, as it differs depending on what is being applied for. Radio wins out again here, though: 25% of Radio 4's afternoon plays must come from a first or second-time writer.
Another audience member asked what material the Writers’ Room will consider, particularly in regard to short scripts? They will read them, but only as an example of the writer’s work; and they would need to see more material than just one short script: a minimum of 30 pages/minutes as a guide. There are no shorts being shown on the BBC currently, but this could change depending of the tastes of the commissioning heads.
Are spec scripts for existing TV shows accepted? No. Paul wants to see something original from a new writer. But if you want to write for Doctors, say, send in an original piece that’s roughly similar in tone – don’t send in a wacky sci-fi plot, for instance. The BBC Writers’ Academy will mean that it is a little more difficult for untested writers, who aren't in the academy, to get scripts on continuing drama shows, but the Writers’ room will always support writers that they think are producing good enough material.
Do one-off dramas by new writers get shown on TV? No, this doesn’t happen. But there are ways and means that a new writer’s vision can get to the screen. Recently, two different writers’ scripts that started off as original pieces were adapted for the last Silent Witness series. Other new writers have got to write for shows such as Inspector Lynley or Daziel and Pascoe. The only BBC show that Paul feels is invitation only for writers is – you guessed it – Doctor Who.
Finally, Paul was asked if he could define good writing, and what he is looking for in a script. Here’s his thoughts:
- Knowing the medium (Tv, film, radio) and knowing the genre
- A good hook in the first 10 minutes
- Bold and vivid characters that you want to spend time with
- A lot of story packed into every minute, so that your script isn’t slow
- Original thoughts: don’t just serve up what you think the market wants
- Good dialogue
- A story that starts in the right place
- Focussed storytelling
Paul was full of useful information, and stayed long after the lunch break had started answering personal questions from eager writers. If you have the chance, I would recommend attending an event where he speaks.