Holby City – Love Divided By Three – (Series 17 Episode 18)

Next Tuesday (February 10th) the episode of Holby City is one of mine.

soaps-holby-city-rachel-levy-sacha-levy

See preview here

Tony Jordan creates Gene Hunt, Paul Bradley, and the Writers Academy down the pub.

Here we go again – a brain spray of the last couple of weeks on the Writers Academy.

We’ve just completed Week 6  – we have 7 weeks to go.  We are approaching the ‘Mid-Point.’

This past seven days has been the toughest so far (on Tuesday and Wednesday alone – we wrote 2 full 30 minute scripts, two full pitches for doctors, and Scene by scene documents for Holby city.) – But all 8 of us acadamites are still on board…

The mid point represents the point of no return. So we’re now John Yorke’s happy bitches… (Sort of..)

In these last two weeks lecture titles have included the ‘Middle acts,’ ‘Endings,’  ‘Money shots,’ and ‘Twists.’ As always this has been engrossing – inspiring and daunting.

Last week Tony Jordan came to speak with us. Tony has written hundreds of eps of Eastenders, he created Hustle, co-created Life on Mars, and is the man behind Red Planet and so much more. He is, arguably, one of the most successful TV writers alive in this country. And his enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring.

Tony (similar to Sarah Phelps) talked about putting ourselves in our work. The actual phrase he used to explain this was – ‘spunk on your script.’

He said that he could usually tell who’d written a EE episode. EG

– if it started in the dark in the rain with a young woman distraught with make up running down her face – it was usually a Simon Ashdown script.

If it had sharp witty lines – tough black surprising comedy – it was a Sarah Phelps.

Tony told us to ignore everything that John was lecturing about. (and said this with a real naughty twinkle in his eye!)

He explained (rightly) that we’d be told to write only in sub-text and to stay ‘off-the-nose.’ But… that, every so often, people DO speak on-the-nose…

– like when his wife calls him a cunt – and he replies with – ‘but you knew what i was like when you married me.’

He said that we’d be told to make sure that every scene we write moves story forward. But he liked to have some space in his scripts…  That we should have scenes where we just ‘have a wank’ – ie ‘do our stuff.’ A scene purely designed for the writer to have fun in… (Reading this back it strikes me that Tony uses sperm as a term relating to his work quite frequently!)

He gave an example (i hope I’ve remembered this story correctly) – Tony was writing a scene for Frank Butcher in Eastenders. He had Frank go into the Queen Vic, sit at the bar, and hold forth in monologue – his take on ‘women.’ Funny and provocative. It was nothing to do with the story – just five minutes of pure Frank.  When he delivered the script – the scene was cut.

So the next episode Tony wrote – he put the scene in again.  Again it wasn’t filmed.

So the next Ep he put it in again – and again – and again. Until the show’s exec called him in for a meeting.  People were getting fed up with this scene cropping up.

But this scene was what Tony was all about.  Tony believed in this scene.

So he put it in the next script….  It remained unfilmed.

Until – for one reason or another- one of his eps was running short in production – so they had no choice – they filmed the Frank scene.

He didn’t tell us whether it was any good….

We loved Tony.

Tony told us that he starts any piece of work with character. He asks 3 questions about all of his characters –

What do they always do? What would they never do? What is their paradox?

eg –

Always do -Bob goes to church every Sunday with his wife and disabled son.

Never do -Bob would never park on a yellow line.

Paradox -Bob visits Hamburg every fortnight to go to hardcore fetishist spank clubs.

You answer those three questions – and you immediately have the beginning of a story.

He said that if you apply this to the smallest character in your script it can make the whole texture more alive and interesting.  e.g that tiny character in casualty pushing a trolley load of laundry through in the background – give him the three questions and something amazing might happen.

Tony is obsessive about character.

He talked about creating the character of Gene Hunt for Life on Mars.

Tony would go online as ‘Gene’ – fill in consumer surveys – and even job application forms.  At one point ‘Gene’ applied for a job as a security guard in Essex.

The firm liked the idea that Gene was ‘Ex-old Bill’ –

But – One of the questions on the form was – ‘If you discovered an intruder late at night, how would you respond?’ – Gene’s answer: ‘I’d kick his fucking head in.’

To Tony’s delight, Gene got through to the interview stage of that job. (This may say more about Essex than it does about creating a character though.)

Tony talked about creating the Slater family in EE. They got the actors in – got them taking on camera about what they’d do if they won a million pounds. Character quickly revealled through their responses. They noticed that among the ‘sisters’ Zoe was just young enough to be Kat’s daughter – but only if Kat was very young when she was made pregnant…. The back story evolved- it would be the uncle who had raped her when she was a schoolgirl…

The Slater family was introduced with great success – but this back story was buried for 18 months -then the viewers were told the truth – but Zoe wasn’t…

The story fizzed and bubbled  – until it finally burst across a memorable, amazing ‘Slater week’ – beginning with a scene that is as iconic as anything that’s every been in the show before or since:

(The Square, Late night, darkness, two women with mascara running down their faces – Simon Ashdown script)

“You’re not my Mother!” – “Yes, I am!”

In moments like that popular drama becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. It becomes a part of the fabric of life. The Slater family were as real as any family we knew. (For a few weeks at least)

Tony runs ‘Red Planet’ – they look for new work, new writers – but not just any scripts – it has to be the script that you’d write if you only had three months left to live. It has to be that  important to you.

It was very easy to see why Tony has achieved what he has. He left telling us that now we’d met him we were at liberty to contact him any time -get advice –  go for a beer – whatever.

Careful, Tony. You may regret that.

Paul Bradley’s visit as guest speaker (last thursday) was equally interesting.

Paul is a lovely man and a lovely actor. You can see and feel his humanity and lovliness in every character he plays.  He was Nigel in Eastenders – the curly haired best friend to Grant Mitchell – the butt of jokes – an emotional centre.  And he plays Elliot Hope in Holby City.  An eccentric, brilliant surgeon – who is emotionally delicate. A bubble of real humanity. With curly hair.

I’d like Paul to be my best friend and my Surgeon.  Although he did say that while he knows how to take a human heart out of a body – he doesn’t know how to put it back in again. So maybe I’ll settle on best friend.

Paul was funny and generous – telling us about how he became an actor, got into the industry,  made his way… and how his teacher (the late Philip Lawrence) was a major influence – a person who really believed in him.

Paul talked about his love of detail. What he likes to be in the script. How he only does up the collar button on the left hand side of his shirt – because his character ‘lives alone.’

He told us that HE is the custodian of his character -that’s how it works in series drama. He owns it.

He told us some scurrillous stories about EE cast members… A particular lady was particularly bad… (one of her best off screen lines was to a director who asked her to do something: “i’ve been doing this for twenty years so fuck off and don’t tell me what to do.”) He didn’t name her as he didn’t want to speak ill of the dead….

Paul uses different smells to help him perform in certain scenes. He has a scent he calls ‘garage’ that he wears when he’s doing surgery scenes. It reminds him that he is at a place of work.

When asked the difference between acting in Eastenders and  Holby City he said:

“Eastenders is Rock and Roll – Holby City is Jazz.”

He demonstrated his points by making us dress up as surgeons, by strangling Writer Academy dev assistant David Roden – and by getting us to play a silly game.

Although in splitting our group in two for the game he hadn’t guessedat  how mouthy and competitive we’d be – shouting abuse and needling each other.  (After a while he quietly packed the game away with a chuckle.)

Then he gave us some Halloween chocolates.

We loved Paul Bradley.

Being a thursday – and thursdays being our ‘going down the pub’ night – we went down the pub.

The Elstree club doesn’t open until later – so for the last couple of weeks we’ve been going to a local Elstree pub that nestles gently on a busy exhaust fuggy round-about in the shit part of town. (Shit part of town in Elstree is like saying worst serial killer.)

By Thursday we need a drink. All eight of us always attend. It’s an emotionally bonded group. We’re all going through this together. (I think in a previous post I mentioned how one day we’ll be like war veterans reuniting to remember neck-on-line times – I think I may have underplayed that…)

Basically we get quite drunk and review our week while taking the piss out of each other. And after about three pints someone goes and buys twenty bags of crisps.  But in this local pub there’s the added tension of the townies who drink there too.  It’s a lively place…

(Drinking a lot this week was a foolish mistake as we had meetings early the next morning at tvcentre where we were pitching our Doctors stories with a Senior Producer from the show – a large morning pint of Berocca had to facilitate this.)

At some point i’ll go through our group and tell you a bit about them. I really like them all – but we’re good at laughing at each other too.  But that’s for another time.

But… One of our small group – Natasha Langstridge won the Meyer-Whitworth prize this week.  (which is basically best play of the year and awarded at the National Theatre.) When she told us we gave her a big round of applause. Such wonderful news.

When she got back from the ceremony she told us she gave a speech that ended in her calling everyone assembled to ‘have a riot’- apparently they agreed that they would.

Apart from the prestigiousness of the award, and the opportunities it opens up for Natasha – she also won ten thousand quid. We are all so pleased for her.

It was Natasha who bought the crisps this week.

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

Hmmmm.

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…