Inside the BBC Writersroom TV Drama Writers Festival

Digital Content Producer, About The BBC Blog

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It’s early, even for someone with a toddler, and I’m at the rather magnificently refurbished King’s Cross Station. It’s appropriate that I’m leaving from this station with its literary link to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter in it’s Platform 9 ¾ because I’m heading north, to Leeds for the second day of the BBC Writersroom TV Drama Writers Festival.

Billed as: “Two days of inspiring sessions, masterclasses and debate for professional writers’, it’s an all-star affair, with a keynote from Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat and a whole host of important TV people including: BBC Controller of Drama, Ben Stephenson, director Phillipa Lowthorpe; producer and writer Pete Bowker; Emma Frost (writer The White Queen); Chris Chibnall (writer Broadchurch); writer Dennis Kelly and director Marc Munden (Utopia); Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax), Bryan Elsley and Jack Thorne (Skins), Tom Bidwell (My Mad Fat Diary), plus the BBC’s own Development Producer Paul Ashton and the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing and Head of Writersroom, Kate Rowland.

I'm a little nervous. The festival started yesterday so I’ve missed out on Moffat’s keynote and the early mingling…  Will it be like starting school mid-way through the term? Will anyone talk to me? Or pick me for their team? I bite my lip in the hope of seeing a few friendly faces.

I console myself that even if I’m the loner of the piece, the sessions I’m signed up for are so enthralling they might just distract me from any feelings of loneliness: 'Skins To Dates'; 'Breaking the Mould' with creator Brian Elsey and writer Jack Thorne; 'How do you plan your Career?' with writer Emma Frost and producer Cameron Roach ;'Broadchurch from Spec to Screen' with creator/writer Chris Chibnall and Ben Stephenson; and finally 'Difficult Writers and the Conflict of Being a Writer' with Emma Frost, Dennis Kelly, writer Toby Whithouse and Kate Rowland.  

The theme of this year’s festival is “conflict” and as I walk in to the College of Music, where the event is being held, there’s the first of a series of related quotes stuck to the wall.  These quotes are a perfect metaphor for what the whole thing’s about – inspiring writers. Boy, do they succeed in their aim, in spades.  I can tell from the moment I walk in where there’s loud chat from many enthusiastic and, to my relief, friendly folk.

The festival is a safe environment for television writers to talk about the state of things in a frank and open manner; this is vitally important as writing is such a solitary act. The exuberance of everyone here attests to a real joy in having the chance to get together and share ideas and experiences. The lovely, loud level of chatter in every break attests to this.

In my first session, Jack Thorne interviews Bryan Elsley about how the Channel 4 programme Skins came about. Bryan explains the idea was his son Jamie’s, and that it was Jamie’s unflinching attitude and vision (he was a teenager himself at the time) that lead to the rigourous and groundbreaking drama.

Next Emma Frost and Cameron Roache reveal the secret to planning a career as a television writer: you can’t really plan it! There are as many different kinds of paths as writers, but the rule of thumb is: write what you love and make great relationships with everyone around you – you never know, they may be the executive producers of tomorrow.

Chris Chibnall then talks to Ben Stephenson about his journey to creating Broadchurch, a labour of love that he was involved in every facet of. The conclusion of his story; that the key to great television drama is clarity of proposition and creative integrity. Chris says he knew exactly what he wanted to write from the outset – a piece that was very much character led, and then made sure that he achieved it in every minute of the show (that’s where the integrity bit came in).

My final session starts with the panel – Dennis Kelly, Emma Frost, Toby Whithouse and Kate Rowland – trying to define what a 'difficult writer' is – they agree that it is not someone who questions the 'notes' they are given by a script editor on their script. In fact, the relationship between the script editor and the writer is revealed as a vital one and that the notes should be a starting point for a conversation to uncover what may not be working in a script. The panel agree writers should have the courage to fight their corner and that the best solutions come through talking. However, in some ways being difficult is a writer’s job – to challenge the world and things people take for granted.

The overall air of the sessions is one of honesty and candor, of colleagues talking to one another, and I’m awed by how open everyone is. Proceedings finish at 2pm ahead of a lunch and closing words of thanks from Kate Rowland.

As I travel on the train back to London I feel slightly nauseous. It could be the Pendelino train I’m on, but in truth I’ve come a long way today - literally and metaphorically. I’ve heard some of the most important people in television drama and commissioning sharing their wisdom: I’ve much to digest.

The messages I'm taking away are that, as in so many other fields, relationships are key, that you need to really love the programmes you write for and that it's the writers with staying power who make it through. One thing’s for sure, if I get the chance to come again next year I will, and for the full two days. Nauseous or not I’m hungry for more…

Hannah Khalil is Digital Content Producer, About the BBC website and Blog.


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