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What happened on the TV Drama Writers' Programme?

Sarah Page

Writer

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Getting a place on the BBC Writersroom's TV Drama Writers’ Programme was like Indiana Jones’ mission to get the golden idol at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark - with each step of the quest being more formidable than the last.

It started with sending a copy of my play Punts (which had recently had a run at Theatre503) and a pitch for an original drama series. Then I had an interview with the BBC Writersroom’s Development Producer (Ros Ward). This was closely followed by a second interview where I had to present three original drama ideas this time to Anne Edyvean, the Head of the BBC Writersroom.

The final stage of the selection process - the boulder rolling after Indy part - was to meet with all of the production companies interested in my ideas. For me this was BBC Studios, Bad Wolf, Balloon Entertainment, Clerkenwell Films, Hartswood Films, Kudos North and Mainstreet Pictures.

At one point I had to pitch to five of these incredible production companies simultaneously which was rather like being on five speed dates with phenomenally attractive people at the same time.

However, I did come out of these (terrifying) production company ‘speed dates’ in a relationship: I was happily paired with the brilliant Petra Fried and Matt Jarvis at Clerkenwell Films to develop my idea.

The nine writers on the 2018 TV Drama Writers' Programme

Most of the writers decided what they’d work on later on in the process, but I actually knew right from the start the idea I wanted to develop during the programme: I had always wanted to write a drama series about the fascinating, sometimes secretive pharmaceutical industry and Clerkenwell were interested in exploring this subject too.

We spent the first six months focusing on research and pulling together potential storylines and characters before I started work on creating an outline and then writing the pilot. Clerkenwell arranged for me to have invaluable support from the fantastic TV and film researcher Meroë Candy, who set me up with numerous helpful (and interesting) interviews with academics and employees from the world of big pharma.

Alongside developing the script with Clerkenwell, the BBC Writersroom invited me to attend a series of useful events, along with the other eight writers on the programme. This included being introduced to the commissioners; a workshop on structure with John Yorke; an invitation to the BBC Writers’ Festival 2018, a preview screening of Kirstie Swain’s marvellous show Pure and masterclasses with super successful writers Mike Bartlett, Jed Mercurio, and Abi Morgan.

We were also invited to attend a pitching session with BBC Three. This turned out to be hugely beneficial for me as one of the drama commissioners, Ayela Butt, liked one of my ideas and it has recently gone into development with Playground Entertainment/BBC Three.

The second half of the year was spent writing and redrafting the pilot episode of my series idea Good Pharma with the guidance and encouragement of Petra and Matt at Clerkenwell.

The 2018 TV Drama Writers' Programme culminated in Script read-throughs

At the end of the programme the nine writers delivered a full-length pilot script and were asked to select a 20-minute extract of this to be read by professional actors (directed by Andy Hay) at a read-through at the BBC. All of the writers were a little nervous to share our scripts for the first time in front of an industry audience. (The night before, our WhatsApp group was littered with Katniss Everdeen GIFs and weeping emojis.)

I turned up at Broadcasting House anxiously on the day of my read-through and had one of my favourite - and most gloriously W1A - moments of the programme… I hadn’t any photo ID with me and the security staff were reticent about letting me into the event - despite the flyers for said event having a large photo of my face on it.

Having successfully convinced the front of house team I wasn’t an evil twin, I took my seat in the BBC's Council Chamber. I was first up and had to introduce my extract. Nervous, I said something about Matt and I, as part of the research, having a tour of a laboratory’s rat vivisection room which made all the attendees momentarily pause from nibbling on the free pastries. Then the actors (beautifully) performed the extract.

It was so useful to hear the script aloud and both Clerkenwell and I were really pleased with the response – and the debate about the ethics of big pharma that it inspired within the audience afterwards. It was also wonderful to hear the enormously varied, tantalising extracts from the other writers’ scripts.

Because that’s one of my favourite things to come out of the BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme – as well as it being extraordinarily helpful for my career, and having got me working with the superb development team at Clerkenwell Films, it has also introduced me to eight awesome screenwriters.

We’ve all grown close during the year and so I’d like to mention each of them here - just in case you’re not familiar with them already - so you can (and should) keep an eye out for their work. They are: Alan Harris, Francis Turnly, Hamish Wright, James Pearson, Mario Theodorou, Phoebe Éclair-Powell, Rebecca Manley and Tallulah Brown.

One day, hopefully you’ll see our names again in the credits of a BBC show.

I mean, not the same show. That’d be weird.

Find out more about the BBC TV Drama Writers' Programme

The 2019 writers and production companies have just been announced - find out more

*Please note* This is a separate scheme from our open submission Script Room, with more restricted entry criteria

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