Despite the overhead lines in the Warrington area doing all they could to stop us, we made it to the Continental Pub in Preston only 10 minutes late. By that time Di Burrows who is currently a writer for Hollyoaks and screenwriter Lisa Holdsworth (Fat Friends, Emmerdale, New Tricks, Waterloo Road, Robin Hood and Midsomer Murders) were organising the chairs into a circle and generally making the audience of aspiring writers for TV and radio feel welcome.
Di has worked as a story-liner, researcher, runner, script editor and producer in TV. Last year she went from being Series Producer on Hollyoaks to writing it. Lisa and Di talked about the invaluable experience writing for soaps gives you. Many of the country’s top TV writers started in soaps, including Russell T Davies, Paul Abbott, Sally Wainwright, Kay Mellor, and it’s a great training ground. Di’s extensive TV experience helps her writing as there are many practical things to consider when writing soap, such as the availability and scheduling of actors, the limitations of filming ‘off-set’, and the budget. It teaches you discipline – you are a cog in the machine working for the greater good – and you can’t be too precious about your own ideas.
Lisa Holdsworth says the UK TV industry is too polite for the elevator pitch, there’s no ‘its Jaws meets the Revenant…..’ moment. It’s much more likely to be you and a producer having a coffee somewhere and after the small talk is done, you draw them in with an intriguing fact – like, did you know Vitamin A builds up in old dogs’ liver and it can prove fatal to humans. (This actually became the murderer’s modus operandi for an episode of New Tricks, a series Lisa worked on for a number of years).
The point is when pitching, think about how you ‘sell’ your idea to a producer. One man in the audience had an intriguing, supernatural Yorkshire-based crime drama, which was given a light grilling by Lisa. Who is your protagonist, why is she interesting and who would play them? Have you got a snappy title? What makes it distinctive? What is your ‘intriguing fact’?
After lunch Steve Chambers came to talk to us about his extensive experience of writing for radio. He’s adapted classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, Waterland and Robinson Crusoe and written numerous original dramas. Radio is a flexible medium, but it does have constraints because you can’t see anything! All exposition needs to come from character. This is why it’s difficult to have lots of locations in a radio drama, because the characters have to set each location up for you. Similarly, he says fighting is difficult on radio – characters can’t really say ‘here is an axe I’m going to hit you with it’ – that kind of thing has to be seen.
He suggests that we really listen to the way people talk. In one of Steve’s plays he used a friend’s habit of sniffing every time he made a point, and in another, borrowed from a friend who used to insert the phrase ‘I mean to say’ throughout his conversation. We discussed the fact that BBC radio is a prolific commissioner of new drama as there are so many slots to fill. Listen to the afternoon play and pitch an idea for that.
It was listening to the afternoon play while doing the school run that prompted Nuzhat Ali to write. She entered a script in Freedom Studios’ Street Voices scheme, and got a place. This, plus a local radio competition, gave her the confidence to apply for the Northumbria University / Channel 4 Writing for Television Award, which she went on to win. She spent 18 months or so working with Red Production Company creating an original series. Channel 4 commissioned the first episode and as a result of that and with the help of Red, she has found an agent.
Sharma Walfall’s episode of Hollyoaks will be aired on 18th January 2017. Sharma won the Northumbria University / Channel 4 Writing for Television Award in 2015. While undertaking her placement with Lime Pictures on Hollyoaks she was working two jobs on zero hours contracts and the bursary enabled her to give one of them up. This freed her up but it wasn’t easy, travelling from Manchester to Liverpool and juggling script deadlines with making ends meet. She also says that as a quiet, shy person she sometimes found it difficult to make her voice heard. It was the support and encouragement from the Hollyoaks team that helped her through it. She says there is no other way to put it ‘I have learned SO much in the past year, the experience has been truly life changing’.
The Northern Writers’ Awards 2017, including the Northumbria University / Channel 4 Writing for Television Awards, are now open for entry until 2 February 2017. www.northernwritersawards.com