How did you get into TV? That is the big question that I get asked all the time. And I wish there was a straight answer and that I could give the secret password to the TV club to everyone. It would make the place a lot more interesting. However, there is no magic word or sure-fire way to get your foot in that door. So, why I don’t I break down the big question into some smaller, more manageable ones?
Did you train to be a writer?
Not formally. I went to a normal comprehensive school, did my A-levels at the local FE college and then onto a Film and Theatre Studies degree in London. The degree was purely academic with lots of critical theory and politics. It broadened my viewing habits and helped me understand the classics. Ironically, I procrastinated from writing my dissertation by writing my first screenplay. Now I procrastinate from writing screenplays.
Since then, I’ve attended a few workshops and lectures but I’ve never paid oodles of money to be told that a script should have a beginning, middle and an end. In my opinion, writers are born not trained. My advice would be to join an organisation like NWN that encourages you to write and interact with other writers. The only way to get better at writing is to keep writing.
What was your first job in telly?
After doing work experience at Yorkshire TV, I landed a job as a Production Co-ordinator for an independent production company in Leeds. They made factual TV but through that job I met Kay Mellor who read my screenplay and later took me on as her PA. I would say that if you can’t get the job you want get a job adjacent to the one you want. Keep your ear to the ground and your eyes peeled for your next opportunity. You need to be in the right place at the right time.
What was your big break?
Whilst I was working as Kay’s PA, she decided to make a second series of Fat Friends; the ITV drama set in a diet class. I helped in a brainstorming session by talking about my experiences of being bullied for my weight. Later, Kay revealed that one of the actors from the first series wasn’t returning for series two. That meant there was an episode that needed a new set of characters. That weekend I went home and wrote a story for the new family and handed it over to Kay on Monday morning. A couple of weeks later I had my first TV commission. I was in the right place at the right time.
What do you think of soaps?
I was at Emmerdale for three years. It was a brilliant apprenticeship and it taught me discipline and how to write to a deadline. They are a good way on for new writers, although it is unlikely that you will be taken on as a script writer straight off the rank. Instead, many of the soaps have entry level jobs in their story offices and on their script editing teams. It is very hard work with long hours and huge demands; the storyliners and script editors really keep the shows rolling. However, if you can survive the baptism of fire, then you’ll be well on your way to being a writer.
Are there any other ways to get noticed?
Yes. In fact it is much easier to get your work out there these days. Cheaper and more accessible technology means that getting your own short film or radio play up on the internet. A word of warning though, it is a crowded and noisy market. Make sure that your film really is your best work. Don’t pick up a camera until you have the best possible script. You can make a bad film out of a good script but you can NEVER make a good film out of a bad script.
Alternatively, you can go old school and put on a play. Get involved with your local theatre groups and ask them whether they are interested in producing new work. Start with readings and script-in-hand performances and then work your way up to a full performance. Just hearing your scripts performed and picked over makes you a better writer.
Any last words of advice?
Keep writing. No-one is a good writer from the moment they put their fingers on the keyboard. The best thing about my job is that I am on a continual learning curve. The more I write, the more I learn about writing and what I enjoy writing. Don’t just sit about talking about writing. Don’t just buy the books and read about writing. Get writing. The first draft will be awful. The second draft will be dreadful. The third draft will be bearable. But by the time you’ve written your fourth draft, you might actually be getting somewhere. Good luck!
Lisa’s TV writing career started with a 50-minute stand-alone episode for Fat Friends. She was then was part of the Emmerdale writing team for several years before going on to write numerous episodes of dramas including New Tricks, Robin Hood, Midsomer Murders and Waterloo Road, as well as radio and stage work. She won the Writer of the Year award in the RTS Yorkshire Awards 2011 for her 90-minute opener for Series 4 of Waterloo Road. More recently she’s written episodes of Call the Midwife, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small and A Discovery of Witches (on which she was co-showrunner on Series 3).
Her stage adaptation of Adelle Stripes’ novel Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile about the life of northern playwright Andrea Dunbar opened in 2019 and was included in the Observer critics’ review of the top 10 theatre shows of 2019. She is also developing several original TV pilot scripts and treatments and is currently Chair of the WGGB.
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