Death in Paradise: My first broadcast credit

Thursday 3 November 2011, 10:53

Robert Thorogood Robert Thorogood

I've been devouring the contents of the Writers' Room for years, so I'm a little intimidated to say the least at trying to add to the store of excellent knowledge that's already here. And for a good reason. It's not as if I have much experience of TV writing - in fact, I have precisely one experience of TV writing. But it was on my own show, so I've been trying to think what was perhaps different about Death in Paradise that meant that it got picked up, when all of my other stories and pitches before now weren't.

There are obviously a million factors as to why a show is or isn't commissioned, but I think there were two things that I did differently this time which made the process that little bit more likely to succeed. 1) I came up with an idea that only I could write. 2) I then gave it to someone who could make it.

Doesn't seem like much, does it? But I realise that in all of the years I've been writing, I've rarely been pitching/writing stories that only I could tell; and I've never managed to get them to a person who could then get the show made (QED, Death in Paradise is my first broadcast credit).

Image of the cast of BBC One detective drama, Death in Paradise.

To take the first of these points - writing a story that only I could tell. This is of course no more than a pumped-up version of the old adage to 'write what you know', but I think it's an adage that needs a little pumping up. In fact, here's what I wish I'd been told when I was starting out screenwriting many, many years ago: find the thing that's particular about yourself - the thing, whatever it is, that only you know - that you are passionate about. The world that you know inside out, or the outlook on life that only you could have. Identify how this is special to you... and then write the arse out of it with total commitment, passion and love.

That's what I wish I'd known when I started out, because it otherwise took me well over a decade to notice that the one form of TV I watch above all others is light-hearted murder mysteries. It's the genre I most love - they're the books I've always read - and it can't be a coincidence that when I finally got a show off the ground, it was in a genre that I am absolutely passionate about. (Any more than it's entirely coincidental that the male hero of my show is a middle-aged uptight neurotic with increasingly debilitating OCD tendencies. And, while I'm here in these parentheses, being sure you're working in a genre that you already adore will be a necessary crutch during the weeks of grinding work you have ahead of you).

To put it another way, if you're an unproduced writer - as I was at the time - what I think you're trying to avoid being is entirely generic. If your idea is generic - and could be written by any number of other writers - then what's going to jolt a channel or producer out of their pre-existing apathy towards you and actually commission you to write the script?

I think that you have to pitch an idea so compellingly cut throughout with your own DNA that when they come to consider commissioning a script - or even a treatment - they can't disassociate the idea for the show from you as the person who 'gets' the idea best - and lo and behold, they won't just buy the idea, they'll have to commission you (against their better judgement) to write the script. After all, it's so specifically something that you're brilliantly knowledgeable and passionate about, who else could they get to write it? Paul? Abi? Russell T? How could they? Those writers wouldn't have your command of the material or your passion.

Then of course you've just got to write it brilliantly, but that only takes years of practice, hard work, slog, blood, sweat, tears, pain, joy and misery to master, so let's just take that as read, shall we?

And this brings me to my second point. Once you've got your brilliant idea that only you could write - or treatment or spec - what do you do with it now? Well, you sell it, of course, to whoever will buy it. Um... well yes of course, that is exactly what you must now do - and any sale of a script is better than no sale, of course that's also true - but let me take you back to 2007 to a time when my career had pretty much come to a complete standstill.

(I say 'career', but I spent most of the 2000s working as a temp secretary and freelance script reader - feverishly running up and down Oxford Street picking up scripts in my lunch break that I'd then read and write reports on while back at my office desk under the guise of doing my secretarial work).

By 2007, though, I realised that while I'd been selling the odd script - maybe at a rate of one a year - I couldn't work out why my 'career' didn't seem to be gathering any momentum. It seemed, in fact, that for every two steps I was making forwards, I would then following it with precisely two steps backwards.

It may seem a simplistic observation - and I think I was somewhat dimwitted not to have noticed sooner - but I realised I'd been thinking of the sale of a script as an end in itself - as though that was the 'prize' in and of itself (a not unreasonable assumption when the cash a script sale generated could briefly pluck me out of the clutches of the typing pool). But what I slowly began to understand was that the 'end' of a script sale shouldn't be the sale, it should be the production of the script. In effect, what I needed to do was find a producer who not only wanted to commission a script from me, but who also had the clout, drive and similar insane passion as I did to get the script produced.

My great stroke of good fortune was that I came to this realisation at about the same time that Tony Jordan was establishing his Red Planet Prize (the only script competition in the UK worth entering, IMHO - it's free and the rewards for entering are tangible, as I can attest - ahem). Tony announced he had set up his company with the express intent of finding new talent and he promised, as an established show creator, that if he found any ideas out there he loved, he'd do everything in his power to get the show made, no matter how inexperienced the writer was.

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It was like a lightbulb going off in my head. I had to get to Tony - by whatever means. So I entered the competition, got into the finals and eventually got the chance to pitch my 'Copper in the Caribbean' idea to him. Luckily for me, Tony and his team loved the pitch, and now I saw for the first time what happens when you have a producer attached to your idea who has real clout and passion. No obstacles were insurmountable, no doubts were to be brooked - we were going to make the show or we were going to die trying. Now that's the sort of Producer you should be trying to find to work with.

Of course, not everyone has the good fortune to have Tony as their Exec (although, can I point out that the Red Planet prize for 2011 is launching again in the next week or so?), but the principle still holds: when you've got your perfect idea that only you could write, you must try with all your will to find that one producer out there who feels the same about the idea as you do - whether they're established or a complete newcomer - because their passion and commitment to selling the idea is arguably going to prove more important in the long run than your ability to write the idea well in the first place.

Okay, so that's me done - thanks for sticking with me for this long - but before I go, there's one last thing I feel I should say on this blog, even though it's such a dangerous idea - seditious, even and possibly the least helpful thing you'll ever hear. You won't necessarily thank me for this, but here goes:

Never give up. I was an unproduced screenwriter who had been struggling for years when it happened out of nowhere for me.

You could be next.

Robert Thorogood is the writer of BBC One's new detective drama set in the Caribbean, Death in Paradise.

Watch Death in Paradise on BBC One at 9pm on Tuesdays.

Catch up on episode 1 and 2 on BBC iPlayer.

Read a blog about working on the series from Gary Carr, who plays Det. Fidel Best, on the BBC TV blog.

Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    Thank you for that blog, Robert. I'm sat here all fired up after reading it.

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant...!

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    Comment number 2.

    Excellent blog. Lovely entertaining series.
    Could you explain please what you mean when you say only you could have written it? Have you had experience of actually being an 'outsider' on a Carribean island? Or do you mean the general thing about being uptight, middle aged etc which is actually quite a big club.
    By the way, I am most definitely available if you require extra writers for the second series.

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    Comment number 3.

    Please could you post your death in paradise script on here and maybe one of the crapper ones you did which didn't get accepted. It would be great to compare the two to see how writing evolves, what wins contests and what doesn't!
    thanks
    tim green (@ihatebanker)

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    Comment number 4.

    Interesting blog post, and very encouraging to those who, like you were, have been slogging away for years trying to get their work on screen. The advice not to give up couldn't come at a better time for me. The Red Planet Prize has always seemed like a great opportunity. I entered it once a couple of years back, but will definitely be giving it another go.

    I was interested that despite Death in Paradise being your first broadcast credit, that you'd sold scripts before - were they sold to production companies who just didn't produce them in the end? Or were they for a different medium?

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    Comment number 5.

    I too found this blog extremely inspiring and packed with excellent advice. I intend to tackle things a bit differently as a result of reading this blog. Thank you Robert.

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    Comment number 6.

    ----more of the gecko, please!!! And, by the way, note to the BBC: this would be excellent family viewing so how about putting the next series (and there has to be one) on before 9 p.m. any evening or on a Sunday afternoon.

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    Comment number 7.

    This is a splendid production and we are really enjoying it. No bad language, stunning locations, well cast front of camera team. Story lines are interesting. Thank you Robert and your BBC production team.

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    Comment number 8.

    This is one of few TV programmes in recent times both my husband and I enjoy together, we both try and work out the plot throughout, it really is excellent viewing. Ben is brilliant - I think he is very like a modern day Clouseau!
    Can you please tell me is there will be a release of the soundtrack for the programme...and look forward to the next series

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    Comment number 9.

    I love this series and agree my daughter, who like me enjoys a great detective story, would enjoy it too. I admit to comparing our leading copper with Poirot, and the episode where an Agatha Christie fan turns up on the boat to confront our detective with his handcuffed criminal reminded me, just for a moment, of a Poirot scene...

    Keep up the great work though. What a refreshing change and great casting, in my opinion.

    Being a Primeval fan I can see some similarities with our 2out of place2 copper in paradise and civil servant amid dinosaurs :] My only observation (for the costume department) is that I really do think he would take his suit off - now and then...even Poirot had a change of wardrobe.

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    Comment number 10.

    Great blog, thanks. I enjoyed this series so much, I'd like to know when the next series is going to be commissioned?

    I always worry when I enjoy a series that the BBC won't continue with it, a bit like the Zen series. Hopefully the Beeb know they can't go wrong with a brilliant written murder mystery with humour and excellent cast. 10 out of 10 to Robert, Tony Jordan and the BBC. More please....

  • Comment number 11.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

 

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