Planet B, the BBC Writers Academy and Richard Curtis

It’s been an exhausting time – so once again – from a tired nut –  here are some formless thoughts on the last couple of weeks.  (Excuse the chaos of my thinking at the moment – and all the silly grammatical errors.  You wouldn’t be so pedantic to worry about syntax anyway, would you?)

The bbc Academy has been hotting up. We’ve just finished week 4… That means 9 weeks to go.

Each Academy week has a clear structure.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, at Elstree, John Yorke and/or Ceri Meyrick talk about elements of  “Story.”    Act structures, character, dialogue, beginnings, subtext, story history –  etc – all explored in detailed. These ‘talks’ aren’t presented in a prescriptive do-this-and-all-your-writing-problems-will-be-solved style.  They are presented in the form of principles that tend to occur – something to be aware of…  And the argument is convincing.

(A favourite quote from these talks was from Coronation Street  actress Julie Goodyear: “This isn’t a smile, it’s the lid on a scream.”

During the talks we watch clips from popular tv drama and film (British and American) that illustrate principles – or suffer by not abiding by them…  When these examples are from dramas that we don’t rate – we moan and laugh.  When they’re from dramas we like – we cheer and laugh.  Generally, we’re a noisy group  – arguing and laughing loudly.  And sometimes agreeing too.

Our group of eight are split down the middle in terms of experience.  Four are relatively new- backgrounds based in theatre – the rest have ten years plus writing in the industry. But we’re all learning stuff. And fast.

Throughout Mondays and Tuesdays we are given writing exercises – under time strictures.  When the time is up our work is thrown onto a big screen – and gets analysed by the group.

This made us feel vulnerable and self-conscious at first –  having our precious words under intense communal scrutiny… But now we’re balls out about the whole thing – tossing out big ideas, gambling with our style, kicking ego into the corner. All very liberating.

All this is clearly good practice for when we enter the brutal machine of continuing series drama…    (more of that later…)

On Tuesday nights we’re set our homework.  This is based on severalthings  – putting into practise the aspect of story that we’ve been working on, preparing for our dry run Doctors episode (bbc1s afternoon continuing series), breaking down story documents (a first step writing for Holby, Casualty or Eastenders.) And writing scripts.

Wednesdays we write at home.

Thursdays we have guest lectures.

We’ve had some brilliant people so far.

Sarah Phelps – a former core Eastenders writer (she did lots of brilliant episodes including the moving Armistice day ep where Alfie and Nana Moon goto Normandy to visit her husband’s grave.)

Sarah was passionate and vibrant – and told us to spray our musk over our Eastenders scripts – “back up and squirt all over them.”

We loved Sarah.

Claire Powell and Jeremy Howe came in from Editorial Policy and explained their work.  No words are actually banned by the bbc -everything depends on context – but there are guidelines.

The three toughest words to get onto BBC1 are “Cunt” – “Motherfucker” and “Fuck.”

All of which now nestle together cosily on my blog in that last sentence. (And it’s not impossible to get any of them onto BBC1 – if they can be justified.)

Richard Curtis came in.  The man who is responsible for the two most successful British films of all time.  He told us a scurrilous story about Julia Roberts – but instructed us not to tell anyone about it. (My lips are sealed.) He told us how much he hated working on all his films.   What a terrible time he had working on Blackadder. And how he has enjoyed very little of his writing career.

But he said all this with such charm and good humour – that it was hard to entirely believe him.  Richard is someone who loves popular television.  (He referred to his love of the X-factor four or five times in the two hours he talked with us.) He loves Eastenders – and is committed to writing for television as much, as he is for film – perhaps more so… He said he doesn’t give a monkey’s about taught structures -(whilst writing perfectly structured scripts naturally.)

He told us that it was Emma Fielding’s idea to have a funeral in Four Weddings. It was originally going to be called “Four Weddings and a Honeymoon.”


Richard told us how important it is to maintain control of our work. Be involved in casting etc.  …Then TV writer Emma Frost came in to tell us how to ‘survive the industry’ – and we soon realised that it’s easy to have control of your scripts if your name is Richard Curtis – and almost impossible if it’s not.

Emma told us lots of nightmarish stories about writing on the big shows. How people tear your scripts apart mercilessly.

I’m looking forward to being dead on a carpet of script covered in script blood at a bloody script meeting – while writing for Holby City.

“Be the most evolved person in the room”  – was Emma’s big tip for dealing with producers/script editors etc…

Thursday nights the group go to the bar. Drink heavily. Exhausted. And laugh about the week – taking the piss out of each other. These can get quite messy – especially, last night, where we were at TV centre – the bar is more lively and we can get home more easily – so stay later… and drink more…

On Fridays we have one-to-one ‘tutorials’ with John and Ceri. Picking over the homework-  assessing how we’re doing. Then we’re set more homework… which we do on Saturdays and Sunday – this really does do our heads in…

That brings me to Planet B – the BBC Radio 7 series that I co-created and have been lead writer on since its beginning two years, or so, ago.

We’d been working on the third series since the early summer. And the studio recording took place last week. By chance the recording of my episode this series was on Sunday – so i was free to attend.

I got my head down and worked hard to do my homework for the Academy on friday night and throughout saturday. There was a lot to do. (And I couldn’t resist attending the West Ham / Fulham match on saturday afternoon – a far from exciting draw.)

Come Sunday – my head was aching with ‘work.’ But the prospect of a day doing Planet B is always a pleasure. It doesn’t feel like real work.

Planet B is a gamey world of exotic and strange soundscapes. It’s dark fun. (Dark fun, as we all know, is the best kind of fun.)  Planet B is a breathe of fresh air. I love working on it.

I arrived at the studio at 9.30. producer James Robinson greeted me with – “Can i have a word?”

Planet B’s cast is made up of the RDC – the repertory Radio company that changes every six months or so. (This is one of  the reasons that Planet B cast changes every series – we have to use the Rep actors as they cost us nothing to use – they are retained generally on contract – and our budget is minute.)

James told me that one of the actors was a guy called Adeel Akhtar – a hugely inventive, completely brilliant, comic actor. He played one of the terrorists in Chris Morris’ films “Four Lions.”

James: “I wouldn’t dream of saying this to any of the other writers… but…”

Adeel’s character in my ep was tiny. We didn’t know he’d be so good.

SO…. in short… on Sunday morning – I rewrote thirteen scenes to give him a bigger part.

Maybe it was the Academy that gave me the bottle to have a go at this. Or maybe it was James’ faith. Or maybe I was inspired by having a great performer the other side of the studio glass.  But whatever it was – it made the script better. And I spent all afternoon crying with laughter. (We finished that night at 8pm ish – and went to the pub – I then had to return home negotiating the tube strike.  It is my corpse that is writing this blog.)

The best line I wrote that morning: “I’d have been a sausage roll.”

But you’ll need to hear it in context – Planet B Series 3 Episode 5 – the series finale.

(and R7 will repeat the first two series before then too, I think.)

I’m babbling on now… there’s probably no one still reading… ??

I could probably get away with telling that Julia Roberts story now…


3 thoughts on “Planet B, the BBC Writers Academy and Richard Curtis

  1. Hi Matthew, just a big THANK YOU from Spain for co-creating Planet B. I just discovered it and it is one of the best if not the best audio drama I’ve heard so far (and I’ve heard a few..). Congrats to all Planet B team!

  2. Hi Matthew, I came across Planet B on iPlayer a few years ago and loved it. I can usually only manage to dip in and out of radio dramas but this had me engrossed. Your stories are so inventive and different from what else is normally broadcast on the radio. I must also mention the excellent sound effects and mixing which really transport the listener. Looking forward to Series 4!

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