How to write an awesome TV script

The Sydney Morning Herald – 31 October 2012

At the London Screenwriters Festival last week, director David Yates was talking about superstar writers. He knows about them, having translated J.K. Rowling’s last three Harry Potter novels to the big screen. But previously he did television, including the 2003 BBC thriller State of Play, working from the original scripts of Paul Abbott.

Abbott was so highly respected by the BBC that the serial went into production before the scripts were even written. “I think one of the charms of the series is, you don’t know where it’s heading,” said Yates, “and neither did Paul.” Result: a masterpiece.

In Britain, top television writers get this kind of latitude. After playwright Russell T Davies had success on commercial TV, BBC execs asked him what would make him work for them. His answer: “Bring back Doctor Who.”

Over the years, many had made this request, only to be ignored. Still, to lure Davies to their studios, they brought back the series that, while fondly remembered, had rarely rated well. Under Davies’ guiding hand, it was an outstanding success – and a lesson for television execs: sometimes writers know best.

Many of the 500 screenwriters and aspiring screenwriters at the London Screenwriters Festival (LSF) were more interested in the glamorous world of feature films, but according to speakers, the prestige for dramatists is now in television. “Smaller, more intricate stories are migrating to television,” said Yates, “going to [U.S. cable network] HBO, where they do that sort of thing really well.”

Even in Britain, long the home of superb television drama, the LSF crowd (mainly from the UK, but also from Europe, Australia and elsewhere) was buzzing about the renaissance in U.S. television drama. Sure, Britain still produces gems, but the most exciting scene is across the Atlantic, where the traditionally high budgets are finally being matched by a focus on excellent writing. Like Abbott or Davies, top “showrunners” (head writers) like Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) or Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) are now treated with as much reverence as their lead actors.

Just as U.S. drama has been learning from the UK, British drama is following America’s lead. “Doctor Who rebooted in a completely different mindset,” says LSF director Chris Jones, “and that mindset was clearly based more on the American structure of single narratives and long story threads. [Doctor Who] is more like Mad Men than it is like the original Doctor Who now.”

Mad Men, often cited as a model for quality writing, was almost never made. “For several years, the script was just languishing,” explained Lisa Albert, a writer on the series, speaking at the LSF. “They [programmers] were saying ‘Nobody wants to do period [drama].’”

More proof that writers often know best. The success of Mad Men has even led to imitators, also set in the 1960s. “Not to badmouth the shows that came and went,” said Albert, “but they learned the wrong things from the success of Mad Men.” She mentioned Pan Am and The Playboy Club, network shows that premiered in 2011, but were soon cancelled. “They thought the secret was to set a show in the sixties.”

So if it’s not nostalgia, what’s the secret to Mad Men’s success? “Write a complex show with complex characters. Duh. Network television never fails to amaze me with their ability to learn the wrong lesson.”

What’s the lesson for Australian drama? In recent years, with hits ranging from Underbelly to Paper Tigers, and even the concept for Rake selling to America (a prospect not as ominous as it once was), it has certainly done many things right. Still, the future is notoriously uncertain.

Not just in Australia, either. The recent spate of high quality drama, and its link to good scripts, should be empowering for screenwriters. Yet the mood at LSF wasn’t always optimistic. In fact, one session about television writing was considered so overwhelmingly negative that delegates walked out, tired of hearing the doom-laden outlook of a panel of writers and producers.

Eventually, producer Beccy De Souza, hidden in the audience, announced that her company, Tiger Aspect, was thriving, and in her eyes, there was still much potential for the industry. It led to applause from the audience, relieved after all this pessimism. Just maybe, there is hope after all.

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