On Closer Examination: Writing for Medical Drama
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Editor’s Note: The Writing for Medical Drama Q&A took place at UAL St Martin’s new building in Granary Square (part of the redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross) on 26th March. It was a partnership event between BBC Writersroom, Drama Centre London and Central Saint Martins' new MA Dramatic Writing.
The chairperson was BBC Creative Director, New Writing, Writersroom’s own Kate Rowland and the panel consisted of Holby City Series Producer, Simon Harper, Casualty’s Medical Advisor, Pete Salt, BBC Development Producer, Continuing Drama Schemes, Anne Edyvean and writer Lucia Haynes.
Over 200 hours of medical drama are produced a year on the BBC. Doctors, Casualty and Holby City may look similar to the untrained eye, but from a producing and importantly a writing point of view they couldn’t be more different, as I discovered.
The one thing EVERYONE on the panel agreed on is that writing for any of these shows is gruelling, but ultimately incredibly rewarding – the key for writers is: you have to have a passion for that particular show – there’s no faking it – the dedication and hours required mean a love of the subject and characters is vital.
What makes a good writer for a medical drama on the BBC?
Writing-wise the main difference between the three concerns the amount of content per show that is ‘authored’ i.e. the story that the writer brings to the episode versus ‘serial’, (story arcs for existing characters, which are given to the writer by the producers).
You might assume that the authored stuff is the hard part – but in fact the more a writer can create his own story, world and characters the easier it is, it seems, while writing existing characters and stories that you haven’t generated yourself requires more skill and experience.
What medical dramas are broadcast by the BBC and what distinguishes them from each other?
Writers new to the genre often start working on Doctors because there is minimal 'serial' and each programme has a big ‘guest story’ which the writer originates. Anne Edyvean compared this to a single play and suggested it was a good place for writers with a message or something specific to say.
Casualty has more of a balance between serial and authored pieces, plus the opportunity for big events and action set-pieces, as it often goes off location to show the accidents that bring patients to the A & E department. The challenge with Casualty is that the authored pieces need to revolve very strongly around authentic medical criteria. That's where Casualty’s Medical Advisor, Pete Salt, comes in - he has been working on the show since its inception and reads every single script, advising writers on what is or isn't possible medically.
Finally Holby City is the most 'serial' heavy of the three and has a very distinct style - slightly heightened and dramatic, something Holby City Series Producer, Simon Harper refers to as 110% reality and Executive Producer Oli Kent apparently calls the 'Holby twinkle'. Where Casualty is more 'state of the nation' reflecting life in Britain, Holby is more 'glossy'. That stylistic difference means that medical procedures that are less mainstream can be incorporated - things that are a little bit unusual or pioneering compared with the cold hard facts required by Casualty.
Are you expected to know about medical procedures and terminology?
It was emphasised that whichever drama writers work on, they shouldn't be intimidated by the 'science bit' - an attempt at writing those knotty medical scenes is vital - but there are advisors on hand to ensure accuracy.
What are the risks and responsibilities of writing and producing medical drama?
Writer Lucia Haynes (who has just finished her second Holby script) advised watching the shows and to “do your homework”. She added that "dealing with the unexpected is key" - things can change quickly through unexpected events, for example an actor becoming unavailable or the location having to be changed at the last minute.
What tips do you have for creating and developing characters and storylines?
Everyone agreed that humor was a vital attribute in scripts and (in writers’ personalities) and Lucia singled out resilience as a key attribute - any script (she explained to me afterwards), usually goes through about five drafts with notes from an array of producers, editors and medical experts, all of which have to be incorporated in re-writes.
So how do you start writing for one of these programmes? Each programme has a shadow scheme system in place to allow around eight writers a year per show the chance to see the programme’s inner workings and have a go at writing an episode – if successful further episodes could follow...
How can you become a writer for medical drama at the BBC?
And the way onto these shadow schemes? "Writers need a champion" asserts Anne Edyvean. She says she finds writers by watching work on stage, by being recommended writers or approached by agents and via the BBC Writersroom. Scripts that make it through the BBC Writersroom unsolicited script room, and reflect a writer who has the potential to work on the shows, are directed to Anne and her team. 'Spec scripts' should be an original script, not an attempt to write an episode of one of the existing dramas. "We are looking for humor in spec scripts, people with a great sense of story".
Listen to a downloadable podcast of the Q&A from the BBC College of Production or watch the highlight videos above, which cover the main topics.