Toby Whithouse Interview, Part Two

Part One began yesterday, here.

What was the score with the season of six BBC3 pilots, of which Being Human was one? Some perceived it as a competition, in which only one series would receive the green light.

Hmmmm. Good question. Yeah, I think it was a competition. But to be fair, every round of commissioning is a competition. The only difference is this time the submissions were filmed and broadcast.

There are pros and cons to piloting shows. For the broadcaster, it allows them to try something out and see whether it appeals to the audience, instead of green-lighting a series of eight and then finding (as we've seen happen quite a lot recently) the show tanks in episode two, but you've still got weeks and weeks left of episodes to transmit. And for the writer, it's like a lottery - you have to be in it to win it, as they say - and you never know, you might be the one...

But - and it's a big but - the problem is, if a show is piloted and turned down - the chances of getting another broadcaster to pick it up are very very very slim. Often, scripts that have been developed and turned down by one broadcaster will be picked up by another. Channel 4 developed and then passed on Life on Mars, for instance. Then the BBC picked it up. But if a pilot has been made and broadcast, then it's very difficult to get another channel interested.

Personally I'm not in a hurry to repeat the experience. But to be fair, I'd be surprised if the BBC were either.

How much pressure does it add, when you publicly air a pilot for approval or otherwise?

Well, under normal circumstances you make a show and it gets transmitted and the public either watch it or they don't and that dictates whether it gets commissioned / re-commissioned / repeated / buried in a lead lined casket. Consequently the public's approval is absolutely crucial. In this instance it's well known that the decision about what show would be commissioned was made before the pilots were aired, so the pressure was different.

In America obviously they make dozens of pilots and the various networks make their choices. But the pilots aren't broadcast. It's different for the BBC, because they're a public service broadcaster. They can't spend millions of pounds of license fee making a series of pilots and then not show them. In America, the networks are private companies, so they can spend their money doing what the hell they please.

I had a similar experience with Channel 4. They did a series of sit-com pilots recently, and I wrote one of those. Despite it being well received, the channel didn't choose it. Even though Being Human did eventually get the nod, it was an incredibly frustrating process. Writing the script was the easy bit. Consequently I don't think I'll be letting any more of my shows get piloted.

But you know what? Even though the rules of the piloting competitions are vague and ever-changing and sometimes feel unfair and baffling - ultimately, we all knew what we were getting into. I assume that every one of the shows that were piloted, were - like Being Human - being developed as series at the BBC, and no one put guns to our heads making us enter our scripts for the pilot scheme. So even though I'm not a fan of the pilot system - at least not the way it's done in this country - I can't complain about it.

How true is it to say, as many have speculated, that Being Human got the go-ahead because of a real groundswell of support, post-transmission?

Weeeeelllllllll, the BBC have acknowledged that Being Human struck the strongest chord with the audience. And, to be fair, even though we didn't get commissioned the first time around - when Phoo Action was commissioned - they did keep Being Human in development. I have a feeling most of the other shows were officially and definitively turned down at that point, but the work on Being Human did continue. Also, none of us were prepared for how strong a reaction it would get. That took us all by surprise. I think if Being Human had just sunk like a stone in a pond, then maybe things would have been different. But it would have been pretty weird for the BBC to ignore such an extreme reception. So I'm enormously grateful to all the people that reacted so positively to the show.

In tomorrow's final instalment: Toby's writing routine and tips for budding screenwriters.


My Amazon-acclaimed non-fiction ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and  Amazon Prime members can also rent it for free.  Full details here, you splendid individual.


Danny Stack said...

Thanks for that Jase. Top stuff. And giving it to us for free when you could have probably flogged it to a mag or summink...

Piers said...


I propose we pay the man in beer.