The London Screenwriters’ Festival was an incredible three days of talks, events, seminars, pitches and networking. Each day this week, and probably well into next, I’ll post a new nugget from the festival. These include wildly entertaining chats with Lynda La Plante, Charlie Brooker and Tony “Life On Mars” Jordan; commentaries on Lost Boys, Finding Nemo, and Silence of the Lambs; and some “how-to” classes on scriptwriting.
I’ve kicked it all off with a news story in The Times today. It’s mostly about Tony Jordan’s forthcoming BBC One series, Dickensian, so let’s start off here with more life-lessons from the irrepressible Tony:
1. You have to blag it: EastEnders was my very first job as a writer. I wrote a script by accident – that is, I was chatting to a friend who was trying to get into television, and if he was collecting butterflies I would probably have collected butterflies, but as it is, I wrote a script. I had a pitch in a market so they somehow thought I was an East End barrow boy, even though I was raised just outside Liverpool. So after that I was Dick Van Dyke, I had to pretend to be Cockney. It stuck for 15 years until I was told there was a magazine wanting to do a feature about me growing up in the East End and I had to come clean.
2. You must hold on to your voice: We all have a unique voice as a writer. The problem is, when you go to soaps, they say “we want your voice”, but they don’t really; they want all the episodes to sound the same. So I did what any writer would do: I watched an episode, paused it, counted the scenes. Dissected it. After a few episodes I realised the structure was always the same.
There’s always a cliffhanger at the end, and that’s your North Star, you’re aiming for that. That then gives you your first image, because it has to be connected in some way. Chuck in another three or four narrative staging posts, and you can cover all that in about ten minutes. I worked out that left me 20 minutes to myself. When you see an episode with all the men in one corner of the Queen Vic having conversations that begin “The trouble with women is…” and all the women in another corner going “The trouble with men is…”, and juxtaposing them in an interesting way, that’s me.
3. You will have to deal with twats like Andrew. There was this twat [at the BBC] called Andrew, I can’t even remember his second name he was that much of a twat. He had me, a 34-year-old father of three, used to fist fights at 6am to safeguard my pitch, sitting on my back doorstep sobbing like a child. I very nearly gave up EastEnders at that time, after about eight scripts [he went on to do about 250]. On his first script meeting with Ashley Pharoah [who later co-created Life on Mars], Andrew picked up his script, held his nose, dropped it in the bin, and said “Shall we start again?”
When you recognise the twats, you have to get away from them as soon as you can. Or strike them physically.
4. Just write the truth. I was expelled from school at 14, so I didn’t understand the frames of reference when they’d talk in meetings about Brecht or Shakespeare or Dickens. But I eventually discovered there is no secret. It’s just writing down the truth on a bit of paper.
5. You can break the rules – for a reason. When I was writing Hustle, I got stuck. I had to explain all the cons to the reader and it was just pages and pages of exposition, like wading through treacle. I phoned Jane Featherstone at Kudos and said “It won’t work,” and she said okay, if we can’t make it we can’t, but just have a Bacardi and a bit of a think; relax.
So a couple of days later it hits me: when we have exposition, we just freeze it, and have the actors talk directly to the audience. Jane had the imagination to say, “That sounds pretty f***ing weird, but you know what, let’s do it. We’ll either make history, or we’ll never work again.”
6. Rejection is not the end. I had this great idea, and gave it someone, and they said, “We can never make that. It’s too silly.” Too silly. Right. No getting round that. But someone else later took it on. That was Life on Mars. So it’s not necessarily that the script is bad, it’s just not right for someone.
I also had this idea for a show about the making of a soap, which would be paralleled on alternative nights by the soap itself. It stayed in my bottom drawer for 12 years until a new head came in at ITV, and said they wanted to break the mould and take risks. I said, funny you should say that, I have just the thing…
7. There is life on Mars. At EastEnders we used to do these away-days, 14 writers in Badminton House playing poker and getting drunk. That’s why I stayed so long, to go to the story conferences! So I pitched to Kudos that they give me £1,000 in expenses, in three carrier bags, for me and two writers to go to Blackpool. We would work till 4.30pm, then our time’s our own. So we arrived at Blackpool train station, and found this poor runner standing there on the platform, who gave us our carrier bags full of cash.
One of the ideas to come out of this session was Legion [which Watch has now commissioned as ten hour-long programmes], and another was Life on Mars. I recently found a photo from those days and it has a flip-chart with “’70s cop show” with a big ring round it. Life on Mars came about for one simple reason: we wanted to write for The Sweeney, but it wasn’t on anymore. We thought we could never sell a ‘70s cop show, so we thought “let’s put a spin on it”. Doing a time-travel cop show wasn’t done because we saw a gap in the market, it wasn’t ground-breaking, it was three pissed writers who wanted to write for The Sweeney.
8. At some stage, you may want to set up your own production company [Tony’s is Red Planet]. Sometimes, when I created a series, they wouldn’t want me involved in anything but the scripts. I don’t want to just put the script up someone’s arse and the DVD comes out their ear.