Monday, September 26, 2005

Interview with Stephen Gallagher (part two)

Part Two of the interview is now up, and the topic of British showrunners is breached. Mr Gallagher was also kind enough to respond to a comment I made on the first part of the interview about show-runners, digital TV and writing courses:

I'd like to hear what Stephen has to say about the growth of digital channels in the UK - most of the really good writing and gripping new shows seem to originate on BBC Three right now, and he doesn't mention that.

Also, Russel T Davies is, effectively, showrunner for the new Doctor Who, as is Paul Abbot on Shameless, so does this indicate some kind of sea-change? Are writers being given more creative control, or is the title a placebo?

What does he think about UK university courses, such as Leicester's TV Script Writing MA - are they are good way to break into the business?

By Lee Thomson, at 5:12 AM

I seem to recall that Russell T gets a mention later on, so hang in there, Lee. I'm hoping that we're witnessing the exceptions that will prove and ultimately destroy the 'rule'.

BBC3's doing interesting stuff, for sure, but as a pro market for drama it's still comparatively tiny... BBC4 ditto, but even smaller. I mostly talked about our two main channels because that's where you mostly have to set your sights if you're going to sustain a career. But on their output I don't disagree with you at all.

I didn't realise that in describing the setup I deal with on a daily basis, I was telling a tale that Alex would read as a horror story; his reaction has made me view the situation in a new light. I'd had a glimpse of the showrunner system at a MediaXchange weekend in London a couple of years ago and had been persuaded that it's a far more exciting and successful way of making volume television drama. But now I'm even more dissatisfied with the setup than I was.

A screenwriting course will never make a writer out of a non-writer but as a place to stretch your muscles and learn stuff it's a better-than-most opportunity, especially if it's taught by genuine industry people. Having said that, it's always going to be what you make of it. I did a year as mentor/script tutor to a student at the Northern Film School and I don't think I helped her one whit. She sent me her script with a note saying that she'd got it pretty much as she wanted it. I praised her neat idea (which it was) and detailed which of her choices made it go nowhere (which it did). Four drafts and four sets of notes later she'd moved some of the furniture around but changed nothing essential.

You can't do that in the real world; you can stick you what to believe in but you have to do some footwork to deliver it in a way that'll keep it intact. With good notes I usually find that my initial resistance changes as I grudgingly implement them!

Flawed as her screenplay was, it was put together in a very professional way. I think the film school gave her that. The rest was up to her.

By Stephen Gallagher, at 7:21 AM

It's a bloody good read. Alex brings up the unique-to-the-UK method of producing blocks of episodes (generally six to eight) which are completely written by a single screenwriter before they shoot. This is both the blessing and the curse of UK TV. On the one hand this one show, one writer method has given us State of Play, Holding On, Blackpool - a tradition of world class, novelistic drama stretching back to Edge of Darkness, Boys from the Blackstuff and The Singing Detective. On the other, and this is Stephen's example, it's the same practice that fucks up perfectly good procedurals like Jonathan Creek which, when handled by a single scribe, never last more than a couple of seasons because all the inventiveness gets drained from the premise in a way it could never do if a team of writers were producing it. As Stephen says, "[producers’] own business model isn't about hiring writers, it's about buying stories, and as long as that persists then British writers are always going to be a bunch of spiky loners" By extension, the UK is never going to be capable of producing a Lost, Desperate Housewives, Battlestar Galactica or Veronica Mars; long-form quality dramas that viewers can really engage with because, by their very nature, they are team efforts.

As much as I love my American friends, the shows they produce, and their revealing blogs, the British industry is the one I want to work in, and this interview offers more pertinant information than pretty much all of the blogs in my sidebar combined (except for Danny's, which is a treasure). You should read it.

Category: Movies and TV

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