Drama without the Drama: Writing for New Tricks


Image from New Tricks 'Love Means Nothing in Tennis' episode.


I've enough drama in my life, I’m forty-three but feel far older, I have two teenage children, one of each just to ensure all dramatic crisis’ are covered, a long-suffering wife of twenty-three years, an overly needy Jack Russell determined to cost me a fortune in vet's bills, two utterly unreliable cars that need almost as much attention, an overdraft, a mortgage I can’t ever see being able to pay off and everything that comes with it.

So when my Agent suggested I apply for New Tricks again after the long and torturous business of being turned down on my two previous attempts, I seriously wondered if it was a drama I could do without, both literally and figuratively. However, when I learned that new management had taken over the show, I thought I’d give it one more go.

New Tricks, like a lot of detective shows, will usually visit a different ‘world of the week’ every episode. A distinct setting or culture with it’s own rules and quirks, such as a Science Museum or a Cycle Courier Business. In my previous attempts to devise ideas for the show, I came up with the ‘worlds’ first and then invented a story to go in them, a technique that clearly wasn’t working.

Einstein described insanity as…

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…”

With this in mind, I was determined to try a different approach to my next pitch and so decided to find a theme I was interested in exploring first and THEN look for a ‘world of the week’ in which to set it.

For some reason, I have a strange fascination with the growing phenomenon of so called ‘Tiger Mums’ (And Dads); those ultra-focused Pushy Parents who appear to be the driving force behind many a child prodigy’s success. This topic, I thought, could make an interesting theme for my story.

Having settled on the theme, it was time to find the world. As a lot of the most high-profile Pushy Parents can be seen on the sidelines of various sporting arenas up and down the land, sport seemed like the natural choice, and being an avid tennis fan, an awful player but an avid fan, I chose tennis as it’s the sport I played and knew the most about.

With the theme and ‘world of the week’ both chosen, a four-page storyline readily presented itself which I called ‘Love Means Nothing In Tennis’. Problem was, the ending was dark, maybe too dark for a show like New Tricks.

But I needn’t have worried, the new Executive Producer was looking to push the show in new directions, he liked dark, he liked dark a lot in fact and after watching a short film I'd recently made called Love At First Sight, he offered me an episode. A terrific break for me as I’d never landed a nine o’clock show before.

I’m a great fan of short films as an art form in their own right and have given several talks on the subject. Aspiring screenwriters often ask me if there’s any point writing short films and as I hope the above example shows, there is.

Short films are a terrific way of getting something you’ve written actually on screen for a Producer to see. And if you can attract a big name star to your script, (we were lucky enough to have John Hurt and Phyllida Law play our two leads) it’s a tremendous way of adding credibility to your writing.

Love At First Sight has been a wonderful calling card for me as a writer and has really helped raise my profile. The film has won over a dozen major prizes on the International Festival Circuit including: the Raindance and Rushes Soho Film Festivals, a Royal Television Society Award for Best Short Film and, earlier on this year, it made the Oscar short list of ten for the 2011 Best Live Action Short Academy Award.

Alas it didn't make the final nominee list of five, but just to be able to reference the Oscars in association with something I’d written was a huge bonus.

Pullman and Standing speak to the grieving mother of a young tennis star.

As New Tricks is such an established multi-writer show with a very specific style and rhythm, it's hard to write an 'authored' piece as such.

Although the main crime story and theme for the A story had been agreed, I hoped that by developing B and C stories that reflected the Pushy Parents theme and showed counter arguments, I could lend my episode a more personal voice.

Various characters were developed in the A story to explore the theme more fully and, after hours spent pouring through the series bible and watching back episodes, I came up with a couple of ideas for the B and C stories.

One was about Dennis Waterman's character Gerry worrying about not having pushed his daughter Paula enough as a child, despite her obvious talent for football, and the other was about Alun Armstrong's character Brian learning how much trained animals can earn making films and deciding to turn his dog Scampi into a movie star.

Having been an animal trainer for film and television in my twenties, this particular storyline appealed to me greatly. (Wrangling the rat in the air conditioning duct with Tom Cruise and Jean Reno in the first Mission Impossible film being possibly my only claim to fame.)

The point of these two story lines was to show an alternative to Pushy Parenting. Gerry discovering that respecting Paula’s wishes when she wanted to give up football at sixteen and NOT being pushy is exactly what she needed at the time and Brian, who when offered the chance to allow Scampi to do a 'before' shot for a worming treatment advert, deciding that the loss of Scampi's dignity and integrity is too high a price to pay for fame and fortune.

The writing of the script turned out to be a pretty straightforward process and, despite what you might have read in the Radio Times, there was very little, if any, interference with the script.

Of course notes were given and opinions shared, but that's par for the course; screenwriting is an incredibly collaborative process, always will be.

Considering a New Tricks writer can expect to get script notes from the Executive Producer, the Series Producer, the Director, the Series Writer/Creator, the four main Cast Members and from the BBC, all filtered through the hard working Script Editor, who herself will have notes, it's amazing how little interference there was.

And if a Cast Member says…

“My character wouldn't say this, they'd say this…”

Only a fool would ignore them. They're highly skilled actors who have played their characters for almost a decade, who better to make that call.

The great thing was that everyone who contributed notes was as big a fan of the show as me and that enthusiasm, professionalism and desire to make the best possible episode was the common bond.

I wrote the first draft, honed the script to what I thought was within an inch of its life and hand it in thinking…

"That's as good as that script is ever going to get…"

Then I got notes back suggesting changes, and after my initial reaction of wailing and gnashing my teeth, I read the notes again and suddenly thought…

“You know, that could work…” or “That’s a nice idea…”

I slowly started to implement the notes and then low and behold, the script got better. So I went through the process of honing it to what I thought was within an inch of its life again and delivered the second draft while secretly saying to myself…

"This time, that is definitely as good as that script's ever going to get…"

Until of course I got more notes back and started the process all over again, and again, and again; the script getting better each time until the Producers finally put me out of my misery and put it into production.

I agreed with almost all the notes I was given on New Tricks, each one making the script better in its own way. There were a few notes I didn’t agree with, but I'd explain why and the Producers usually saw what I was getting at and allowed me to keep things as they were. It really was surprisingly painless.

On top of this, very little got changed between the final script and the final edit; as you’ll be able to see for yourself if you watch the episode and compare it to the shooting script that’s available to download in the BBC writersroom Script Library.

So that's what happened with ‘Love Means Nothing In Tennis’; I'd love to be able to tell you that I fought tooth and nail with the BBC, the Producers, the Director, the Cast and the Crew to ensure my 'vision' ended up on screen, but it didn't happen that way.

Between us we made drama without there being any behind the scenes drama, just how I like it…

Julian Unthank is the writer for New Tricks - 'Love Means Nothing In Tennis'- Watch the episode back on BBC iPlayer.

Download the script for this episode from the BBC writersroom Script Library.


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