BBC Writer’s Room Festival

Helen Perry (BBC Writers Room development producer) said in her introductory speech that she had previously stated that she’d never do a writers event as part of her role. Well I and a whole group of aspiring and established writers are very glad she decided to renege on that promise.

Aspiring Writers

The BBC writers room event was a brilliant one day event hosted at Cardiff Museum. Aspiring screenwriters rubbed shoulders with more established writers for a cram packed day of talks and lectures culminating in a Bafta Cymru organised ‘evening with Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon’. And the best bit was, it was all free.

Writer Royalty

It kicked off with a genuine and funny keynote speech by the very successful (his own words) Russell T Davies (Years and Years). Russell had a great flair about him and as a listener I warmed to him easily (“This speech is a work in progress and one day it will be good.”). I thought during his speech that had he not been a successful writer he may have been a public speaker instead. When it came to the questions he was very intuitive, knowing exactly what each person was getting at which was fun to watch.

Russell T Davies

Although he did state that it is difficult to give advice ‘en masse’ he still shared some of his personal ways of working because he knew that’s what we all wanted. So some writing advice from Russel T Davies to you:

  1. Don’t get too hung up on structure and how other people write.
  2. The index card method is not essential.
  3. Learn subtext.
  4. Trust your own judgement on your work.
  5. Focus on script length which in turn helps tighten the drama.
  6. Return to your page one every day to refine it.
  7. Ask yourself again and again what it’s about.
  8. Don’t be too concerned about writing on the nose. It’s easier to pare it back than to crowbar something in.
  9. Make your characters cleverer than you.
  10. When you’re finding it very hard to write, that’s when you will write well.

Russell was very open and inviting and down to earth. His passion for new writing was evident. He didn’t hold back in trying to share as much as he could from his own experiences that he thought might be useful to us as newbies to the industry (most of us) and managed to do so without ever being condescending. It really was a fabulous keynote speech which set up the expectation for the rest of the day.

His Dark Materials

The next session I attended was a Q&A with the team who produced His Dark Materials. Jane Tranter CEO of Bad Wolf productions gave a nice little sound bite that I scribbled down because I quite liked it.

“If something is fantastic, it needs to be authentically so and if something is authentic, it needs to be fantastically so.”

Jane Tranter

I think scraping down to the bones of the truth is something we as writers are most in pursuit of, or at least that’s always the best writing I read/watch.

Jane was joined by Xandria Horton who was script editor on the project and production designer Joel Collins who both gave great insight into how collaboration really works on big productions like His Dark Materials.

This session was chaired by Ben Irving who is a commissioning editor for the BBC and who I saw at the next session.

BBC Commissioning

Ben was interviewed by 2019 writer in residence award winner Rhiannon Boyle. This was a really popular session and I only just got a seat at the last minute. I’m glad I did because as a commissioning editor Ben really knew his eggs when it came to discussing the types of scripts the BBC look to buy and develop.

Rhiannon Boyle and Ben Irving

Rhiannon didn’t dance about and got right to the questions we all wanted to hear the answers to. Equally Ben wasn’t shy in trying to break down what seems like a pretty complex process of finding and developing new writing. Some ideas of the kinds of things the BBC want to commission were:

  1. Targets 16-34yrs age bracket
  2. Specific stories about wider issues that feels like it’s been made ‘for me’.
  3. Unheard voices, unseen places e.g. Sex Education, Derry Girls.

Some time was also spent talking about how programmes are consumed now i.e. watched live or on iplayer and how success of them is measured. It was really useful actually to see the data broken down into graphs about how different types of shows are received.

Ben Irving was inevitably asked about the development process and how new scripts ever get made. I thought he explained it really well, regaling us with a hopeful story of how a previously ‘unknown’ writer had been ‘greenlit’ (given the O.K. for funding to make their show) that week after their script made it through all the rounds. Phew it’s like X-Factor for script writing!

Working in Welsh

The next session I chose to go to was ‘Behind the scenes: creating bilingual drama.’ Normally this would have been one I avoided with a wide berth. As a non Welsh speaker I usually feel completely out of place in these type of conversations. With a recent renewed interest in the Welsh language (I’m trying to learn some basics as my children navigate their way through the Welsh education system) I thought I’d hide in the audience under my impostor cape. I was pleased to find there was a translator there to help and we had been provided with special headphones through which he translated any Welsh speaking to English (which played right into my childhood fantasy of working at the united nations. That’s another story). I assumed the rest of the audience would be mostly bilingual people but actually lots of us were using the headphones. I checked.

Welsh drama is pushing new boundaries and it was enlightening to hear people who work within it discussing it. Roger Williams (Bang), Caryl Lewis (Hidden) and Hannah Thomas (producer at Severn Screen) were the panel, and the session chair was Ynyr Williams (BBC Wales). They switched between Welsh and English effortlessly as their drama’s do. Both Bang and Hidden are bilingual, Welsh and English is used interchangeably throughout each programme and it’s great to see. I’ve always thought this is most likely how the Welsh language is primarily used now and to see an accurate portrayal of that not only offers non Welsh speakers like me an insight into life in more predominantly Welsh speaking areas but also gives an authenticity to the production overall.

For instance, in Bang we were shown a clip where the family chat together in Welsh at home however the panel had talked about how later in the programme at the police station most officials speak in English. Which is probably what would happen just for ease as most Welsh speakers are English speakers too. Especially in towns like Port Talbot, where Bang is set.

Finally a very interesting discussion about funding. If you thought that the only audience for Welsh drama is in Wales you’d be wrong. Hidden was sold to audiences across the globe and so well received that a second series was commissioned.

A final note on this session, I really loved hearing Caryl Lewis describe how she has some writing projects that she knows are Welsh and some that will work better in English. Almost like an instinctual thing.

Writing For Audio

Ooh I loved this session having got into my audio dramas lately on BBC radio four (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it, trust me). I was excited to hear about up and coming development in audio production.

With James Robinson (editor, audio drama Wales) as chair of this session and writers Janina Matthewson, Tim Atack and Darragh Mortell we were a bit spoiled in this session for talent and it was another cram packed room.

Left to right: James Robinson, Tim Atack, Darragh Mortell, Janina Mathewson

I learned some great things about audio drama at the Writer in Residence evening the BBC put on back last year. Primarily that it is, or can be, a very intimate medium. The listener you write for is there, invested, and interested in your story for the next however many minutes. Another great thing about writing for audio is the expression it affords. You can pretty much be as fantastical as you like with the idea and/or story world. Audio doesn’t need a multi-million dollar budget to set a drama in space like film would. The third great thing getting me feeling hyped about writing for audio is the pressure. So much of a good audio drama depends on the writing. Yes it’s still a collaborative process, what is good writing without good sound and actors? But the story and words have to be so bang on. Personally I think the room for error or weak writing is less compared to writing for TV.

So as I say we were spoiled for the panel in this one and we were. Janina Matthewson is co-writer of the popular dramatic podcast ‘Within the Wires’. I’ve not actually tuned in yet but I definitely will do. Tim Atack won the Bruntwood prize for play writing in 2017 (and side note: is the youngest looking 60 year old I’ve ever seen I think Google has his birth date wrong). He talked about coming from a musical composing background and how that had such an influence on his writing of ‘Forest 404’ which is an audio drama based in the future after all the rain forests on earth have died out. And I was so chuffed to see Darragh Mortell who is a BBC Voices scheme graduate and film maker because I knew he’d written ‘I am Kanye West’ which was on my to-listen-to list. I listened the next day after this session and can say it’s brilliant! Darragh talked about having confidence in your script and choosing the story to pitch that won’t let you go rather than having 4 or 5 weaker ones to choose from.

More Writer Royalty

Andrew Davies was introduced on stage by Anne Edyvean (Head of BBC writers room). She said his TV credits are too many to mention and I got the idea that he has been in the biz for a long while. He is known for his adaptations of classic novels to screen not least among them the recent Les Miserables which I adored. Having never seen any version of it before I was glad to cut my teeth on the TV adaptation because everything about it was stunning. So I was looking forward to seeing what gems of advice Andrew had for us.

Andrew Davies

A very candid and honest interview my ears pricked right up when I realised he had some things to say. Suffice to say Andrew Davies is a little too long in the tooth for smoke and mirrors or even buzzwords.

He talked about his career as a teacher and how he had always written alongside teaching. He described how his route to success had been incremental rather than astronomical. His flair for story telling was very apparent as he told a few yarns of the inspiration for some of his early work.

The Headliners

Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon of Gavin and Stacey fame finished off the day with a separate evening event in cooperation with Bafta Cymru.

Rob Brydon Ruth Jones and Huw Stephens

This was a packed event which was sold out (though the tickets were free) and there was much anticipation in the room. Ruth and Rob didn’t disappoint, getting big laughs from the crowd and sharing intimate stories of their shared youth at school. It was very endearing to see Rob Brydon genuinely welling up with emotion as he talked about their drama teacher who had been a mentor to him and was in the audience.

Ruth Jones went into detail about the writing of Gavin and Stacey with James Corden, the series and the Christmas special. She flew out to L.A. for 5 days to collaborate on the Christmas special and kept the project top secret right up until Corden announced it on Twitter in May this year.

We were treated to a little duet of a song they used to sing together in the car on the way to Bath to attend an amateur dramatic improv group which you can hear on my podcast.

Huw Stephens did a brilliant job of guiding the Q&A knowing when to let it roll and showing some great clips along the way.

It was exciting to see two very famous people I admire up close in real life and I felt the audience in this session were very ready to laugh at all the gags and make themselves known in the audience questions part.

The Power of Fame

I came away thoughtful after this particular session. I had been within touching distance of so much creative talent all day. Not only the people on the stages but the ‘unknowns’ amongst us attendees. Crazy amounts of talent and potential in every room yet the biggest buzz in the crowd it seemed was for the most famous of us. And that just cemented my desire to work in collaboration behind the screen. Because that’s just me. And also I can’t act.

Thank You

I couldn’t say enough how brilliant the whole event was. The museum staff were great hosts and it was a spectacular venue. We had lunch provided, teas and coffees, a wine reception at the end of the day, and some amazing chocolate brownies.

Dippy at Cardiff Museum

I learned so much and came home with my mind overflowing with information. Moreover though, I was made to feel valued as a new writer. Having only recently stuck my head round the door of the screenwriting private meeting room it’s easy to feel like a first former trying to hang out with the sixth formers (to quote Ruth Jones herself). And also as though my efforts are less than useful to anyone, anywhere. However, this event was open to all and the BBC writers room really put their money where their mouth is in saying they are interested in developing new writing and new writers.

Flinging the doors open with this event they rallied together a group of hopefuls, newbies and seasoned writers. We all shed our impostor capes for the day and shared the experience of being coached by our idols. People who have gone before us and not only claim to know how it feels but showed up to help in a way they could, by sharing their journeys and knowledge.

So, many thanks to BBC writers room for putting on the event, even though you may have previously promised you *would never* do a writers festival!

I am buoyed with new enthusiasm and permission.

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