In term two, as part of the MA Dramatic Writing’s Year of Experimentation (www.theyearofexperimentation.wordpress.com/about-2/), we welcomed the latest of our Masters to the table. TV drama script-editor, producer and script-consultant Philip Shelley joined us for a four-week investigation into writing for television. Very exciting stuff.
Philip Shelley has worked on a whole raft of successful UK TV projects: from award–winning procedural cop series Waking the Dead (BBC), to feature length romantic crime drama A Good Murder (ITV), to the wildly popular and much-loved Inspector Morse (OMG!).
He’s also been tending to the blossoming talents of this country’s newest writers via his work teaching screenwriting, first at Carlton (now part of ITV), then at the BBC and nowadays on Channel 4’s well-respected screenwriting course. (http://www.script-consultant.co.uk/channel-4-script-submit/).
Over the four weeks with Philip we explored the contemporary landscape for drama commissioning in the UK, used creative tools for generating character and story ideas, and developed our own outlines for new TV drama series. We were also invited to present our thoughts on the TV programmes we most wanted to talk about. Philip featured our ideas on his weekly blog (http://www.script-consultant.co.uk/2014/02/28/screenwriting-notes-part-3/), which is a great resource for TV writers and enthusiasts.
At the beginning of the course Philip made clear the distinction between a TV series and a serial. A TV series is a show that has self-contained episodes, or a ‘story of the week’, whereas a serial is a bigger story told over several episodes. There is cross-over, for instance an episode of a medical drama series like Casualty will have a topical storyline but there will be serial elements as the characters’ relationships change and develop over time.
Watching and talking about television has always felt like a slightly guilty pleasure for me, as if in the middle of a lovely chat about the representation of women in Mad Men, some well-respected arbiter of taste might pop up behind me, prop my eyelids open with match-sticks and shout “That’s not real culture, watch Nymphomaniac forever and suffer”. During this course I was thrilled to find that we’d get to immerse ourselves in the art of TV storytelling, and for homework we’d have to watch TV.
In our first session we watched episode one of Alan Ball’s dark family business saga Six Feet Under, (HBO). The serial elements of the show are set up very quickly: the inciting incident in the car and the artfully staged first scene in the kitchen giving us a direct insight into deep and resonant family tensions. The introduction to this intense world takes place alongside the first ‘story of the week’, provided by the work of the funeral home. The introduction of a freshly deceased character in each episode serves to power the series story engine and create a driving force for episodes to come.
Our first homework assignment was to watch Inspector George Gently (BBC), which turned out to be so gently inspectorate that it served rather better as a tranquilliser than a gripping crime drama.
Next on the list was episode one of the second series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (BBC), which got a much better reception, considered by almost all to be a pacey and tense example of masterful TV storytelling.
Choosing our own television programmes to watch brought a brilliant selection of TV to the table. We talked about the intriguing relationship between a philandering family man and recovering alcoholic in Nic Pizzolato’s super stylish, big budget cop drama True Detective on HBO (though continuing to watch this show I grow more and more frustrated with the egotistical masculine leads intermittently screwing and saving the female characters. For a crime story that puts women at its heart I love Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s haunting serial drama Top of The Lake); a fictionalised version of the White House seen through the eyes of the complex, Machiavellian character of Frank Underwood in Beau Willimon’s House of Cards (Netflix);and the experimental new format which combines fictional storylines with the quick-fire filming methods and improvisation of structured reality shows in Suspects (Channel 5).
This creative and challenging investigation allowed us to try out our own ideas and explore what’s exciting about TV drama at the moment, with the constant guiding principle that drawing compelling, three-dimensional characters is the most important thing for writing good television. What’s burgeoning in the industry now seems to be the changing viewing patterns and commissioning models coming out of online distribution (legitimate and otherwise). For examples of this see the Netflix phenomenon in general, and what’s happening now with the Amazon Studios (http://studios.amazon.com/) ‘development slate’ model, where Amazon are opening up free discussion on TV concepts for potential development.
Talk of the changes coming out of online distribution reminded me of a recent talk we had from guest speaker Matt Locke (http://storythings.com/about/ ), who I wrote about recently in my blog on our Digital Investigation (http://madramaticwriting.myblog.arts.ac.uk/2014/02/20/week-15-by-liberty-martin/). Matt has pioneered transmedia content around big Channel 4 shows Skins and Misfits, and spoke about how online sharing is changing the way audiences consume and respond to TV content. As writers it’s up to us to keep up with the current trends in production, but however TV is made and distributed, as Philip Shelley wrote in his most recent blog Characters and Story (http://www.script-consultant.co.uk/2014/04/04/characters-story/), writing good television starts with writing compelling characters.