Shameless writers

I had a bit of a treat last night: the BFI’s season on radical drama neared its end with a preview screening of episode 4 of the new series of Shameless, followed by a discussion with Paul Abbott, Bryan Elsley, veteran producer Kenith Trodd and newly-appointed Head of Drama at Channel 4, Camilla Campbell (also a veteran of No Angels, Sugar Rush and Skins, so regular readers of the blog will know I was impressed!).

A quick word on Shameless first of all: the episode was excellent, and several prominent characters, including a Gallagher, appear to have been written out by the mid-point of the series. I’ll say no more. A trailer for the new series of Skins was also shown, which seems to promise the heady mix of outrageous behaviour and characters being put mercilessly through the wringer that we’ve now come to expect from the show. Paul Abbott joked, “I paid 25 quid for that as a porn DVD, and now Channel 4 are showing it!” He continued to laugh at this for quite some time.

Indeed, it was worth the price of admission for the bons mots from Abbott alone. Most strikingly: “If you wouldn’t watch it, don’t fucking write it.” This heartfelt advice, and some of the comments concerning continuing drama from  other panellists, remind me that I really must get round to writing about the BBC’s use of continuing drama as the entry-point for new writers. But that’s for another day: last night I particularly enjoyed Abbot’s “You don’t write from your heart, you write from your spleen, so you go >>spleeuurrggh<<!”

The discussion that followed the screening was absorbing. What follows covers only a part of it.

The session was chaired by Jonathan Powell, whose questions to Bryan Elsley in particular seemed to attempt to put words in his mouth, only to be greeted with a polite “not really, no.” So, is there an agenda with Skins to depict an unrepresented section of society? “Not really, no…”

We know Skins’ writers are young: the youngest is 19 for this series, although she has been contributing material since age 17. Elsley made an interesting point about the generation gap on the show, which depicts both teenagers and their parents. I’m firmly in that gap in between, my teenage years long gone but nowhere near having teenage kids; perhaps refreshingly, people in their late 20s and 30s seem to be wholly absent from the writing team as well as cast.

Kenith Trodd, who sadly was not the inspiration for the TV Comic robotic villains of the 1960s, but has instead been producing television since around that time, including much work with Dennis Potter and others, had many interesting reflections. Among the first was: “The name of John Birt has to figure here as someone who screwed things up…” Since the 1990s, as Trodd sees it, the BBC in particular has become much more institutionalised, and producers and writers enjoy far less creative latitude in TV drama. “It haunts me still,” he later observed, that in the mid-80s he heard Dennis Potter lightly remark, “Everything is now for sale.” At the time, he didn’t understand what Potter meant. He sees Abbott as a “survivor” from this past era, having started on coronation Street in 1983 and co-created Children’s Ward in 1988 (not 1998 as the programme carelessly claimed).

Powell suggested that the development of the independent sector was important, dynamic and stimulating. Abbott, however, exhibited distaste for it: it had led merely to a proliferation of “little businesses.” He later expanded on this: in 1994 there were ten A-list writers and five independent production companies; now there are twelve A-list writers and 50 or so production companies. He despaired of how quickly conversations move from being conducted in creative terms to being conducted in commercial terms, where the creator is held to account by business standards; he sees a “total contradiction between business and creativity”.

Powell amplified this with an interesting perspective: the TV “food chain” will see a body of 70 or more episodes as something that “will make money forever”. Is this a pressure Bryan feels on Skins, to crank out as many episodes as possible? Not really, no: interestingly, the youth of the cast and writing team makes it impossible to make more than ten episodes a year. This is partly down to the inexperience of the writers meaning that more time needs to be taken over crafting the scripts, but also because they and the cast have to go to school as well.

Elsley then spoke very frankly about Casualty, a programme for which he used to write. When it was 12 episodes a year, it was “premier drama” and a privilege to work on it. Now, at 48 episodes a year, he feels it cannot honestly be called premier drama, and states unambiguously that its quality has suffered.

The position and esteem of writers then came under some discussion. Camilla ventured that Channel 4 and the BBC feel very different, and Channel 4 will pay more heed to new writers and giving creators their head, a point on which she was politely bullish. Did Bryan, Jonathan wondered, feel part of an agenda to blaze a trail and restore the esteem of writers by making them more integral to production via a “showrunner” model? Not really, no: both Elsley and Abbott pointedly said they did not endorse a “showrunner” model, even though they have both often been described as operating one.

Rather, both advocated that writers should be more aware of production considerations – not necessarily the same as being the producer. More responsible writing, Abbott suggested, could lead to first drafts emerging to the standard that many writers only manage with the third draft. Elsley too described himself merely as “a writer who has an interest in production”.

These views may or may not be held widely by others in the industry; they certainly jar at times with the conventional wisdom often held out to new writers. I might try to write more on that another time, but for now let’s conclude with some interesting facts about Shameless past and future. Abbott wrote Shameless seven years before Channel 4 commissioned it, for Screen Two, but felt he didn’t get it right. He spent the next seven years working at it, to get the tone and feel that are now so familiar and seem so effortless.

Abbott also confided that he was terrified of the following day, when he would be flying to LA to cast the US version of Shameless, which starts filming in January with John Wells. The lack of a benefits system like ours makes the American proposition rather different: as Abbott casually put it, “there’s no skagging.” Whatever happens in the US, the UK version of the series, pared back to eight episodes next year, will run for a massive 22 in 2011. It’s quite a challenge for Abbott and his young writers – it will be great to see them tackle it.

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