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Thursday 21 March 2013, 11:15
It’s 10am on a Monday morning and I’m sat in Room 101 – no really, it’s a basement room in central London with three people quietly reading. It’s not the British Library, it’s the ‘sift’ for the Trans Comedy Award at BBC Writersoom.
The award was launched at Creative Diversity Awards in November 2012, its aim to find a 30-minute comedy that deals with Transgender issues in an affirming way. The winner takes away a cash development prize of up to £5,000, with a view to the work being considered for a pilot.
Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing, introduces me to the session pointing to the pile of scripts in the middle of the table and an array of multicoloured post-it notes. “Post-it’s are vital,” she tells me. The readers consider the first 10 pages of every script and then label it as ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’. And in this particular sift they’ve a new category: ‘something else’, this is because Mark Freeland, Head of BBC In-House Comedy, believes that this particular award will grant the BBC and the Writersoom access to a community that needs to be represented more fully and in a more positive way, and as such if some of the ideas are good, but the writing skills not honed yet there’s the possibility of teaming up new writers with mentors.
The shout out has led to 319 scripts being submitted, more than the team expected - though less than a competition with a less niche remit might attract (the last comedy competition attracted over 1,400 entries). Hannah Rodger, New Writing Co-ordinator at the Writersroom says they thought they’d get many less, and that a lot arrived at the deadline. It seems this particular award has raised a lot of issues new to Writersroom, for example anonymity – normally writers are keen to be named as the author of their work, but in this case because of the potentially sensitive subject matter some writers were nervous about using their real names.
Despite the comedy scripts the mood in the room is quite sombre – my library analogy not entirely off – this is a job the readers take extremely seriously. As Kate said in her introduction, it’s an act of courage for writers to submit their work – to be read by people they don’t know makes them very vulnerable, and the readers approach the work with a great deal of care and respect.
At 11.30am Paul Ashton, Writersroom Development Producer, and Hannah come back to check how things are going. There’s a discussion about the difficulty of benchmarking with the first few scripts – and the readers admit to going much further than the allotted first 10 pages to get a real sense of the writing. But one of them says, “you quickly get a sense of what’s authentic and what’s not”. After a short chat about the ‘brief’ its back to the grindstone and the pile of scripts in the middle of the table diminishes.
Over lunch I grab a few minutes with each of the readers. They have to remain anonymous, but they all have writing experience themselves, many of them in comedy – something that should reassure anyone who submitted a script that their work is in safe hands. Some are also performers. They are a friendly and knowledgeable bunch, and they’ve all read for the Writersroom before.
After lunch Trans comedian Claire Parker who has been working with Trans Comedy on the award comes in to chat to the readers about the Trans community and answer any questions. She presses home the point that the eyes of the Trans community are on the project and are excited about taking ownership of the way they are portrayed in the media.
More reading follows and at the end of the first day of reading 75 scripts have been considered and three scripts have the coveted ‘Yes’ post-it.
Day two continues the theme of diligent reading with regular visits from Hannah and Paul to see how things are progressing. Ian Critchley, BBC Head of Creative Resources who is one of the competition judges surreptitiously puts his head round the door to ask how it’s going, then vanishes… there’s a real sense of anticipation in the building about what’s going on in this basement room, an excitement about the potential gems that might be unearthed within these scripts.
I chat to Hannah and Paul about what happens next: once all the scripts have been considered by the readers the lucky ones that make it through to the next stage (and there’s no limit on numbers here) are read in-house by BBC staff as well as representatives from Trans Comedy. Then a long list of up to 10 scripts will be passed on to the judging panel that includes Kate Rowland, Ian Critchley and former head of BBC Comedy Jon Plowman.
Hannah and Paul are clear that the prize itself may go to one or more writers, but that the whole process is about more than the prize, it’s about finding new writers, unheard voices. They also talk about being responsive to the needs of the writers who get through the first stage, with possible future workshops, talks and mentoring.
So even though there will be a winners announcement come the end of May 2013, when the judges have considered the long listed scripts, it seems to me that the writers whose scripts get a ‘Yes’ post-it this week are at the start of an exciting journey.
Hannah Khalil is Digital Content Producer, About The BBC Website and Blog.
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