Thursday, 4 September 2008

Grumpy Old Man Syndrome

I'd like to expound for a moment upon a session at this year's Screenwriting Festival in Cheltenham. Maybe I'm getting to be a Grumpy Old Man, or maybe it's a quality of writers that we like to be contrary sometimes, but I very much enjoyed the opening keynote speech by Barbara Machin. Because I disagreed with it.

Well, not every single thing, obviously: Barbara was lovely, and gave her time freely and enthusiastically in multiple sessions across the three days, so good on her. I've also enjoyed what I've seen of her work (her Bafta winning 'multiple perspective' episode of Casualty was sheer class); and, the general message that writers should strive to keep audiences interested is self-evidently true. But Barbara's speech, and the article she wrote for Broadcast on the week of the festival which covered the same ground, seemed to limit the notion of innovation to a dangerous degree.

There is a write up of the speech here which also links to other bloggers' coverage (I wish I could keep as good notes as Jason - I guess I'm too busy sitting in the audience being contrary) but if you missed it, the thrust was thus: audience's are bored by drama, reality and entertainment formats are kicking our butts in the ratings, the US are putting us to shame, and commissioners, script editors, and writers shouldn't be scared of doing non-conventional narratives.

There was also a point where Barbara stated "There never was a golden age of TV" before listing many old shows in a wistful tone that made me think she didn't quite believe herself. But she's right, there never was - it just seems like it because people didn't seem to really know what they were doing, and (maybe) there were less gatekeepers.

Every aspiring 21st Century comedy writer must have gritted their teeth on hearing the old story of the early Monty Python meeting in the late sixties, where some Beeb Suit asked the boys lots of questions about what their new show was going to be like, the answer to each was a shrug and a 'dunno'. 'Okay,' the Suit replied finally, peeved, 'But you can only have thirteen episodes.'

Maybe things were freer then, but I'm not convinced: that Python anecdote has the shape of one that's been finely honed over the subsequent decades, and anyway the Beeb Suit had just bagged six seasoned TV writers, including John Cleese - who was already a star - so they knew they weren't exactly backing a three-legged pony. But, even if true, was the amount of quality programming really that different in those days? No. The good programmes have only endured because people liked them, we've forgotten all the forgettable ones.

Same for the States: we get a lot of great stuff imported from HBO, and a few inspired shows from the networks too, but there's a load of old toss produced across the pond that we never see. And a lot of them never get seen by our American cousins either, as the shows tend to get shit-canned after three episodes.

And are entertainment format ratings out-flanking drama's significantly more than they always have? Again, I don't think so. More people were watching New Faces than Dennis Potter's plays, weren't they?! It's no different.

But it's a constant fight, and we shouldn't be complacent. We do need to innovate to survive. So, what is innovation? What is non-conventional narrative? The examples given were flash forwards to start an episode (an example was given from the West Wing), multi-character perspectives, and... Oh, I'm yawning already. Because these techniques are hoary old clich├ęs. Yes, the approach worked on Casualty, and I loved it, but that was - what? - two years ago now. It's been done. And as anyone who's watched more than four episodes of Battlestar Galactica in one sitting (and why not?) can tell you, flash forwards get old very quickly.

I'm being unfair of course. It isn't easy to list examples of innovations, because if you've got an example of it already being done: it ain't really an innovation anymore.

So, what's to do? Well, it's not so gloomy. There's a recent drama that holds it's own against the reality shows, is always top non-soap drama of the week and a top ten show. It often beats the soaps and has reached number 1 in the ratings on several occasions. That show is New Tricks. Yes. The one with Dennis Waterman and Co: a cold case detective show, i.e. a format as old as the sun; its only twist is that the detectives are old, just like the cases. Which is, of course, in its own way, both innovative and brilliant. The show has found a loyal audience, and this seems well deserved to me, even though it's not my cup of tea.

The Wire *is* my cup of tea, and is loved and talked about by many (though perhaps not tuned into by so many - it's more of a DVD phenomenon). And The Wire deliberately eschewed any formal tricksiness and embraced as total a realism as it could. Which is, of course, in its own way, both innovative and brilliant.

I agree with Barbara Machin: every series should strive to be different, but how it should be different should not be imposed from without, but should develop from within. True innovation will emerge naturally, if talented people do their imaginative best to entertain and surprise their audience; it will emerge from a premise, or a plot, or most importantly from characters that people might love. If we start with just the idea that we should innovate, we will get into trouble. I do worry that, in a speech given to an audience with a large proportion of writers who are starting out, Barbara might have made a dogma out of trotting out flashbacks and voice over and all that boring stuff.

But maybe I'm just a Grumpy Old Man.


Dan Turner said...

Agree 100%.
had this conversation with someone this very week sir.
And in the end we figured that rather than 'try to be different' we would get on with our idea and let ours personalities bleed through it, and if it's different, then fine. if not. never mind.

The basic story archetypes have been told and subverted and unless you want to be deliberately arty and experimental then there is a finite number of drama stories to tell.
It's all those little factors that shape an idea into being different.
People always hold up Life On Mars as being totally different. but is it?
It's a mixture of familiar themes and ideas into a new show.

There are lots and lots of ways things can be individual. Casualty and E.R. are essentially the same show, and yet utterly different.

That's what makes it all so brilliant.

It's almost as big an obstacle to new ideas to try and think of one!

I have a theory that you can sit down to 'copy something. Music/film/book etc. but by the time you've finished developing it and adjusting it and adding your own spin it will be utterly different.


Why are you so mental?

Paul Campbell said...

Yes, definitely a grumpy old man.

But a very wise grumpy old man.

Just like me, in fact.

So it's not surprising that your analysis is spot on, in every detail.

Stuart Perry said...

Thank you both, Gents. Later at the festival, and afterwards, I did try to air this view in conversation with others that were at the session, and was left thinking I was the only person who felt like this. It's mainly why I waited so long to post about it: I didn't want to harsh anyone's buzz so soon after the festival.

Paul Campbell said...

I think part of the problem is that the kind of inventiveness you're talking about, the stuff the emerges as the writer and the rest of the creative team get their teeth into a project, doesn't exactly show up well in a treatment.

Whereas, if you want to sell a project, it's easy to think that the treatment has to be chockablock full of exciting storytelling devices.

You can't pitch on the basis of "... and I'll write it really inventively".

David Lemon said...

Hi Stuart
I'm afraid I missed the speech, but agree with what you've said. What constitutes 'innovation' is highly subjective but it should always be part of the 'why' of the story rather than a gimmick.
For example I've been on a course with a terrific writer/drector who's directd lots of Eastenders eps and we boh agreed that was a show in which directorial flourishes and tricksy storytelling rarely worked- whereas the likes of BSG or Buffy were designed to accomodate big shifts in perspective and time, hallucinations etc.

Stuart Perry said...

Paul - yes, quite agree that this doesn't show up well in treatments: even with the luxury of creating selling docuemnts *after* writing your script, they can still seem gimmicky. I've found this with my one pager for Red Planet - ideas that seemed to me to be naturally occurring form the premise and characters, seem just like 'Voice over and flashbacks and all that boring stuff' when summed up in a paragraoh.

David - Yep, genre plays a big part. BSG and Buffy can get away with more than a UK soap can. Though if Tony Jordan is tempted back to write for 'Enders again, I wouldn't put it past him to pitch a musical episode.