Barbara Machin created BBC1's Waking The Dead, which instantly sets her up as a major deity in my screenwriting temple. So her presence at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival was a serious draw. Thankfully, we got plenty of value from Barbara – she delivered the opening address, on the festival’s first day; hosted an informal Scriptbites roundtable session; and was a guest on the Showrunners panel session (the latter will be covered in a forthcoming post.)
THE OPENING SPEECH
Barbara’s impassioned keynote address (at one point, she challenged the packed Main Tent with "If you don't all nod, I'll leave the room!") acknowledged the pressure placed on UK drama by everything from reality TV to Facebook to digital to DVDs. She cited an episode of Casualty which she wrote years ago, which attracted an audience of 21 million – unthinkable in these days when even a flagship show like Casualty “does well to get seven or eight million”. Reality TV now secures the kind of audiences which were once the preserve of drama. Yet, she noted, these technological advances aren't the only reason that drama is losing viewers. Rather boldly, she maintained that, “We’re almost stone age in the way we tell stories.”
The answer, she suggested, is for us to be less conservative and restrictive. Innovation is the key. In her very first Casualty episode, back when there were only 12 episodes a year of the show, Barbara was allowed to shoot the character Charlie (even if, clearly, he survived.) She was also allowed to write an episode with three different POVs, moving back and forth in time - an episode which went on to win a BAFTA. Barbara points to US drama as a loose template for breaking boundaries and thinking outside the box. She offered Desperate Housewives as an example, which is narrated by a dead woman, for instance, and has surreal flashbacks. Back on these shores, however, she praised the invention of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street.
Barbara suggested that US-style showrunning “is the way forward and we have to find a way to make that work here. I'm an advocate of writers pooling their talents, as per the US showrunning model. That's when you get the breadth and richness."
She also noted that American TV puts a lot more money into trailers and advertising. Even if you have the finest drama in the world, after all, people have to know it exists. “Our audience doesn’t know or care that we’re there,” she claimed.
Some trailering methods, however, are not the answer, as far as Barbara is concerned. “I sometimes throw my remote at the screen,” she ranted, “when they start trailering the next episode of a drama, practically before the current one’s finished, giving away all the plots.”
At the very end of her speech, she stressed: “I’m not being a prophet of doom. I’m as happy and excited to be a TV writer as I ever was… I just think that our TV needs to grasp the nettle… We have to be savvy, but let’s be inspired as well.”
Cue loud and lengthy applause.
As mentioned before on this blog, Scriptbites are the SWF’s informal roundtable gatherings, taking place in a big marquee. They’re wonderful affairs, because you get to make eye-contact with, and directly engage with, people like Barbara Machin.
Regrettably, Barbara’s Scriptbites was on the first day, before I’d fully gathered that you need to be at these events as early as possible, and be quite ruthless in grabbing chairs at the table. As a result, I was unable to hear much of the session. Very frustrating. I may learn how to lip-read before SWF 2009.
Still, two cunning gems of advice were audible, concerning pitching in an exec’s office. Here they are:
1) When you arrive, always accept coffee, not water. This signals and ensures that you’re going to be there for a while.
2) Pitch your best idea third. This is because, for some reason, people will rarely seize upon your first idea.
Scriptbites sessions generally last for half an hour. Being a deity, however, Barbara sensed that attendees still had plenty of burning questions, so suggested that we all go and sit on the grass outside. What followed what was more of the same fierce inspiration, but audible. Hooray.
I didn’t make notes at the time, as I was busy soaking up the energy and positive encouragement provided by the Machin’s every syllable. But here are a couple of recollections I scribbled down afterwards…
While Barbara is incredibly encouraging, she’s realistic too. “There’s pain ahead, guys,” she warned us. “Writing is ever so difficult and the process can be very hard indeed.”
Barbara compares progressing in the world of TV to “building muscles”. Once you’ve proven you can write a Casualty, for instance, you’re then “given more trust and thrown treats like Christmas episodes.”
TV definitely wants unique voices, Barbara insists, despite rumbling cynical suggestions that this is just something which TV execs say. She cites the BBC Writers’ Academy graduate Mark Catley who had his own vision for Casualty and is now its showrunner (you can read an excellent interview with Mark at the Writersroom here).
For other splendid accounts of Barbara’s opening speech, switch to David Bishop's Vicious Imagery, here, Jon Peacey's A Slight Case Of Overbombing, here or indeed Tim Clague's Projectors Films, here.