Keeping Faith - Writing and Script Editing the hit Drama
Matthew Hall & Joe Williams
Writer & Script Editor
Keeping Faith was first broadcast on BBC One Wales (in English) and S4C (in Welsh) in spring 2018 and went on to achieve record viewing figures for a non-network drama on BBC iPlayer via word-of-mouth. Now as it comes to the whole UK on BBC One, beginning at 9pm on Thursday 12th July, we spoke to the drama's writer and script editor about its creation.
Eve Myles as Faith Howells
What was the origin of the drama Keeping Faith? How did the commission come about?
Matthew Hall (writer): Co-founder of Vox Pictures, Pip Broughton and I have known each other for 15 years. It was a weird and fated coincidence. I was writing an episode of the ITV series, Blue Murder and Pip was appointed director of my episode. We had both moved to Monmouth in the summer of 2003 and found that we were neighbours as well as colleagues.
When in 2013 Pip set up Vox Pictures, she asked me to come up with a few ideas to pitch to television. I had been writing novels for a few years and so turned my mind back to small screen ideas. I wrote the pitch document for Keeping Faith very quickly - in a day or two. A character sprang into my mind. She was a very warm, very maternal, very emotional woman who was a friend and mother to all but who had somehow failed to realise her true potential. This was Faith. The principal elements of Faith’s character and the basic spine of the story were all there in that document.
Pip took it to a number of broadcasters and it was the Welsh language station, S4C, who showed interested and commissioned all eight scripts at once. Then began what would become three years of writing, which I threaded between books. It was also a tough time for my family. My son was very ill for a long period, I was running out of money, we had to sell the house for a smaller one but the house took nearly three years to sell …. Persisting with Keeping Faith became a metaphor for our lives over that period. It seemed for a while that everything might collapse and I got to a point where I was quite prepared for that. Many writers will tell you a similar story of events in their lives. It sometimes seems that you have to go to the brink of disaster before dawn breaks.
Dawn did break in early 2016 when firstly Eve Myles agreed on the fourth time of asking to accept the role and French distributors showed interest and wanted to invest in the project. BBC Wales got on board and more finance came from the Welsh Assembly. A project that had almost sunk and taken us with it suddenly sprang to life. I wasn’t going to be starting a painting and decorating business, which was my brilliant plan B.
Introducing Keeping Faith
How did you find the story and your characters? In particular the character of Faith.
Matthew Hall: The best characters sort of descend on you unprompted, which is what happened with Faith. Her voice – the unselfconscious ability to express what’s going on inside in expletive-laden speech – is something of an amalgam of various women I know. Not all of them Welsh, but several of them are. The people I warm to most are those who take themselves least seriously, that’s perhaps Faith’s chief quality.
There was also a very serious aspect to Faith’s character, which is that like so many women I have known since I was young, she has not fulfilled her potential in the world but is a brilliant mother. It is so common among women - they start out on high-flying careers then veer off in their 30s and have to juggle children, elderly relatives and all sorts of things as well as what they can salvage of their careers. This happened to my wife. It wasn’t so much a choice as a fait accompli. She was a barrister, had two young kids and her health collapsed under the strain of trying to keep it all together. More significantly I could see that she was being forced to a choice - be the nurturing mother she desperately wanted to be or be a successful high-earning lawyer who doesn’t see much of her kids. There was really no middle way. It’s a painful thing to watch and I guess this experience fed into Faith.
It was important that Faith’s commendable choice to put her children first and stay home for an extended period was the catalyst for the disaster that ensued. This fact dramatises the sheer impossibility of the dilemmas so many women face in their lives - they cannot please everyone no matter what they do. I wanted her husband to be supportive of her choices but at the same time to be suffering the consequences. Faith’s absences pushes him to the brink of financial disaster and leads him into a secret criminal life.
Watch a clip: People don't just go missing
Did you have a specific brief for a Wales-based drama? How important was the location in the generation of the story?
Matthew Hall: I live in Wales, was raised more or less bang on the border and have wanted to write a series in Wales for years. There was no thought to commissioners’ requirements when I wrote the proposal. Faith was Welsh, she lived in a small Welsh town. I wanted a story set in a very specific, identifiable and real place as I knew that would lend greater authenticity to the emotional stories. Most of my family is Welsh, all through my childhood I was surrounded by Welsh relations and especially in South Wales there is something very emotional about the way people behave. They’re like Italians – warm but volatile, clannish but generous. This makes for a lot of colour in speech and behaviour and makes Welsh characters huge fun to write.
The landscape was always going to be a silent character in the drama. Welsh landscape is wild and untamed in places so there is always a sense of the elemental - a reminder of the deep rhythms of life and death - in the background. Against this backdrop human beings are thrown into starker relief than they are in an urban landscape; somehow they become more sharply defined.
I was also very keen to subvert the usual TV portrayal of the British countryside as a rather idyllic and uneventful place. My many decades of living in the country has shown me that everything that can happen anywhere else can happen here, and often does!
The Keeping Faith locations
How does the scriptwriting process work? Do you write a treatment first before any drafts of the scripts? If so then how detailed does this have to be and do you get notes on it which you have to respond to?
Matthew Hall: As a writer I have been lucky in this process in having very few note givers. I worked closely with Pip the producer/director and Joe (Williams, the Script Editor) later joined the process. Pip took notes from the various commissioners and executives and filtered them before handing me the good ones! As with nearly all TV, the process began with a series proposal which set out principal characters, backstory and the broad narrative arc and themes of the series. Next I moved to a detailed treatment of each episode in one large document which ran to about 20,000 words. Stage three is a scene breakdown of each episode. Stage four is drafting scripts.
Notes come at every stage of the process. The ability to negotiate notes is perhaps a skill every bit as important as being able to write. The writer has created the soul of the series and must never lose it. Some notes are very good and spot on, but often notes have diagnosed a problem or possibility for improvement but haven’t necessarily produced the right answer. So you have to respect notes, consider them, question them and act on them in a way which preserves the essence of what you are striving for.
At what point did Joe come on-board as Script Editor?
Joe Williams: Aside from script editing ‘Keeping Faith’ I also work at Vox Pictures, so it’s a project that I’d had some involvement with for quite some time before the series received the greenlight. I’ve known and worked for Pip Broughton for many years, so my attachment to the project came fairly organically. Script editors are usually brought on once the series has been greenlit. By that point, the writers and producers have a good sense of who the characters are and where the story is going. There may be a few plot specifics that need to be ironed out but by the greenlight stage you typically know where you are going. But because I was at Vox I was able to watch the series taking shape from when it was in a more embryonic stage.
How does a Script Editor work with a writer? Do you meet in person? Over the phone? How often and what sorts of notes do you give?
JW: It really varies depending on the project, the writer, and the producer. Pip has a long-standing creative partnership and friendship with Matthew, so my work on the series was very much carried out through her. Typically, Pip and Matthew would work on the gestation of the series together and I would join slightly later in the process. Due to our time being spent between London and Wales, there were a combination of face-to-face, Skype, and telephone calls. From Vox’s point of view, Pip is very much the creative drive on the series but both she and Matthew are very open to thoughts and suggestions. You don’t simply have to just sort out the admin side of script editing and there is a spirit of collaboration that I know isn’t always there in the development process.
The notes we would give on the series could focus both on individual episodes as well as macro notes for the entire series. Some of the notes are of a more practical level, such as looking into the procedural qualities of the story or double checking that the chronology of the scenes work. Sometimes there would be traditional development questions, such as examining how intriguing the central mystery is and if there’s room to tease the audience further in terms of finding out what has happened. We had a number of discussions regarding the finale for the series. We always knew what the final scene would be but the critical few steps that get Faith there were discussed a few times. Ultimately, it came down to dissecting who Faith really was as a character and how ‘Faith the Lawyer’ and ‘Faith the Mother’ come into conflict and ultimately resolve themselves. Once viewed through that prism the series gradually fell into place. We would also spend a lot of time talking about TV programmes we love; Matthew knows the medium of TV writing so well and I’ve had lots of engaging conversations with him dissecting the appeal of programmes and their characters.
What other functions does the Script Editor perform? Are you the point of contact between the Producers and the writer? Do you have to look out for the writer’s best interests in the development process?
JW: The job of Script Editing is an interesting mix of both inspiring creativity and occasionally mind-numbing administration! Again, it depends on the nature of the job - some Script Editors are hired simply to carry out the admin side and to collate notes, while others have much more creative engagement with the series and the writer. In this case, there was a good mix of both. Creatively, you tend to ask traditional ‘large’ development questions - what are the stakes of this episode; does this storyline make sense; is the mystery intriguing enough - alongside narrower points - plot specifics; whether a line of dialogue works; or whether a character is acting in a credible way. The important thing to remember, though, is that you’re not the writer. Your job is to enable the series to be the best it can based on the writer’s creation.
The admin side of Keeping Faith was particularly intricate, as we had to deliver both English and Welsh versions. This involved keeping on top of all the current drafts, ensuring the latest versions were properly signed off and distributed when they needed to be. There are also more simplified tasks, such as proof-reading and standardising the formatting to ensure continuity between drafts. Your work on the series also extends beyond the scripts themselves, as you find yourself writing summaries for the series and drafting straplines used for the show’s promotion. Then, you have to be on hand to answer production-based questions: how much of a certain character is in an episode; how much night there is; how many scenes are in a certain location etc.
Script Editors are traditionally the middle-men between the writers and the producers, though in my case it was different, as I already worked for the production company. It’s a tricky question, as the producers are ultimately the ones who pay your salary! That said, I think your loyalty should try to be towards the series itself and helping it along to be the best that it can be. This can mean fighting in the corner of the writer, the producer, or even for your own thoughts in relation to the script.
Did you ever strongly disagree and how do you resolve any disagreements?
JW: Personally, I don’t think I had any bust-ups with Matthew on the making of Keeping Faith! Much of my work was carried out via Pip Broughton but I personally found him to be open and very perceptive to thoughts from the team. He’s certainly not a pushover though and will fight for elements in the series that he truly believes in, as all writers should.
Ultimately, unless you’re talking about story practicalities and ironing out procedural details, much of the work put into script development is inherently subjective. So, of course, most of what you say is an opinion but it’s an opinion that you have to back up, otherwise why should anybody take it on board? I once saw Tony Grisoni do a brilliant talk when he said, “the best note I can be given is a question”, which I think is excellent advice. It means you are not being prescriptive and are framing your thoughts as something of a puzzle to engage with.
MH: I second Joe’s comments here and am glad that I’m not a pushover! I think the point is that if you care deeply about what you are writing you will firstly defend what you have written but secondly also want it to be as dramatically effective as possible. The process of dramatising is a hugely complex one involving thousands of decisions in a single script. It takes several sets of perceptive eyes to get things sufficiently polished. Writers have to be strong and also humble and receptive and eager for constructive criticism. Too much ego as a screenwriter will soon derail you!
I must also add that Joe is an excellent note giver. He’s forensic and thoughtful and takes any potential emotional heat out of the situation. You always have a calm and productive discussion with Joe, which is exactly what you need.
Watch an interview with the writer of Keeping Faith, Matthew Hall
Who else gives notes during the scripting process?
JW: In the early stages, it will be the producer and their development team with the circle gradually widening to include the commissioners. When the production process begins, members of the team will also give their thoughts - whether it is the actors on their characters or the script supervisors critiquing logistics. As the script editor, it’s also your role to help balance these things and collate them together.
What’s the final point of your work together? Is it the creation of the shooting scripts ready for production or does the work continue through the actual shoot? Are either of you on-set?
JW: Keeping Faith was unusual in the sense that we had the eight scripts written at the start of the filming process, so my job was not quite as intense as it tends to be with other series at that point. That said, there is still a fair amount of work to do, though largely more on an admin scale. Often it’s things like changing character names, place names, or locations, usually because we can’t clear the original ones.
You also need to be responsible for overseeing any revisions and issuing changes to the cast and crew. At the start of a shoot, you ‘lock’ the scene and page numbers before issuing a shooting script to the cast and crew. If there are any revisions during the filming process, these are then re-issued as ‘pink pages’ - named because the pages are printed in pink paper and inserted into the script traditionally to prevent you from printing out the whole thing again. If there are further changes, they are issued on blue paper, and a colour sequences carries on after that. You also need to write a list of amendments in a separate document for the team’s benefit.
Casting can also play a role in the revision process. The unhinged dentist, Dr Meral Alpay, played brilliantly by Pinar Ogun was not originally written as being Turkish, so the character was slightly re-calibrated when she came on board (I believe the character was ultimately named after Pinar’s mother). A few other characters even changed in regards to gender. We also made minor amendments to the script based on how it sounded in the read through and how the first block (episodes 1-4) was coming along. Nothing enormous, mainly revolving around dialogue, pacing, and plot clarification. As a script editor, I’m not particularly needed on set, though it is necessary for me to be in close contact with the production team.
Are you surprised by the reaction to Series 1 of Keeping Faith? Why do you think audiences responded so positively?
JW: Personally, I knew the series was going to be good and hopefully connect with those who saw it, based on the quality of the scripts, as well as the terrific team that was assembled behind and in front of the camera. Even so, it was still a non-network regional programme, so it felt like there was more of a hill to climb in terms of actually reaching nationwide audiences in comparison to other drama programmes. So, yes, the reaction across the country has been surprising, though more because of the series’ platform, as opposed to its artistic qualities, which I always had faith in. If the series came out five years ago, maybe even less, I’m not sure it would have taken off in the same way, simply because of how much viewing culture has changed in the post-Netflix landscape. It’s also unusual for elements beyond the show’s story and characters to have taken off the way they have done, from Faith’s yellow coat (with its own Twitter account) to Amy Wadge’s songs. I think its success particularly came home for me when my wife was recently considering buying one of the coats, which would have been a bit strange!
I think probably at the heart of why audiences responded positively towards the series is the character of Faith - her relatability, her enjoyment of life, and her dedication as a mother. So many people have Tweeted saying it’s one of the best and most accurate depictions of parenting they’ve seen. The triple whammy of Matthew’s writing, Pip’s directing and, of course, Eve’s powerhouse performance all perfectly came together to bring Faith to life.
MH: Pip and I are both parents of young adults and have gone through the cycle of parenting from start to finish. From the first proposal I was very keen to have three young children - a real overwhelming handful so that the audience could never forget for a moment that Faith is first and foremost a mother. Most shows try not to have kids on screen for too long, especially babies - the hassle! - but we were determined for them to be a huge presence. We simply haven’t had that level of family intimacy with young children depicted in quite that way before. Our female audience, in particular, really seemed to appreciate that. It was their lived experience on the screen.
‘Intimacy’ was a watchword Pip and I shared throughout the development process. My favourite shows - usually American, but also the French Spiral - are incredibly intimate. You are intensely close to the characters, you hear them breathe, you smell them. That’s what we wanted to achieve, so that every turn of the story was an intimate emotional and physical moment. This meant lots of layering at the script stage. We made sure the story was always told through Faith’s eyes so that the audience were feeling things at precisely the moment Faith was. We included moments that involved us with Faith in as many sensory and emotional ways as possible - eating, drinking, showering, crying, laughing - so that you ended up feeling that you could almost touch her.
I tried to write the scripts in as naturalistic a way as possible and Pip took that further in the directing process, encouraging a hyper-real and very spontaneous style of performance. I think we were hugely helped by the fact that many of the cast knew each other well, understood each other culturally and intimately understood the nature and foibles of the kind of small Welsh community we were depicting. This led to little spontaneous moments that kept adding to the whole. For example, there was a wonderful moment when Alex Harries (playing the petty criminal Arthur) pats Matthew Gravelle, playing Terry the local constable, on the head at the police station and asks after his wife. This came from the actors on set and brought in another layer of intimacy showing that all these characters knew each other inside out.
Somehow the cumulative effect was to break down the distance between the drama and the viewer. Keeping Faith can’t be watched at arms’ length. You either switch over to the snooker or allow yourself to become completely immersed. There is no middle way.