Report – Write On
● Everyone in the writers’ room has permission to talk nonsense and say things that aren’t going to be broadcast.
● Nobody really knows what a show is until halfway through the first series.
● In the writers’ room, you need detonators who also bring solutions.
● If you are a wallflower, make sure you’re the first to speak.
Host Julian Scott asked us to guess which of the panellists had chased Gordon Brown down the street dressed as Mr Spock, stood in for Rowan Atkinson, given Ralph Fiennes elocution lessons or got a KGB officer drunk, all to be revealed at the end of the session.
Julian started by asking the panel how you make writers welcome in the writer’s room. ‘Wine and cake,’ said head writer, showrunner and producer Mellie Buse. ‘That and guaranteeing writers a number of scripts. A writers’ room is permission to talk nonsense and the wine helps.’ She said she prefers a show to be run by a head writer rather than a script editor because a showrunner can do a rewrite, whereas the script editor’s job is more administrative, collating notes from various executives but with a lot of creative input.
Scriptwriter Omari McCarthy, who has written for animation shows such as ‘Love Monster’ and the live-action preschool series ‘Biff, Chip and Kipper’, thought the idea of guaranteed scripts for everyone in a writers’ room was a good idea. And head writer and showrunner Diane Whitley also liked the idea of writers having at least one scrip guarantee. She likes to have a few experienced writers and some novices who might get one script but also might get more.
Mark Oswin has written for ‘Strange Hill High’ and ‘Dangermouse’ and is head writer on Nickelodeon’s ‘Goldie’s Oldies’. He said that a writers’ room should not be competitive, that there was no such thing as a bad idea, and that creativity could be thrown out of the window if writers shouted each other down. ‘You need to say things that aren’t going to be broadcast and you don’t want the “teachers” in the room with you.’
Julian asked if there were ever any wallflowers in the writers’ room. The panel was quick to defend the quieter writers, with Mellie pointing out that, like animators, writers are often shy, but it was a mistake to underestimate the quiet ones. Omari thought that he could be a bit of a wallflower himself, and that’s why he made sure he was always the first to speak in the room. Mark said that if he sees someone who wasn’t talking, he likes to bring them in and make everyone welcome enough to speak. What about the detonators, who are the members of the writing team who blow up ideas? Diane said that you need detonators who can also bring a solution. Writer’s dread notes, and Julian asked how the panellists dealt with them. Diane thought that this was where the role of script editor was invaluable. They have the time to deliver the notes in a sensitive way, as notes from various executives could be contradictory. Mellie said that she received notes but also gave them to animations and musicians. ‘You have to put yourself in their shoes and think “is that fair?” I give notes knowing animators and musicians know more than I do.’ Diane’s advice for new writers was for them to do their research before sending in spec scripts, adding that it’s a lot tougher than it had been when she started. She had worked on a CBBC show where new writers had been paid to shadow writers, and Omari thought that shadowing was a good thing for new writers and had done it himself. Mark said that new writers would see the bible and a spec script before going into the writers’ room, but nobody really knows what a show is until they’re halfway through the first series.
Mark and Mellie had experience in both the American and UK writing systems. Mellie thought that writing has improved in the UK but the system hadn’t changed much. Dianne added that the UK is nowhere near the US system. Mark thought that, although writers on US shows were paid properly, there were Americans who complain about their system. ‘It’s more brutal,’ added Mellie.
Then came the big reveal. It was Omari who once stood in as Mr Bean at a rehearsal; Diane once taught a young Ralph Fiennes how to speak ‘proper Oldham’ for a stage production; Mellie had got a KGB agent drunk after he had followed her group to an illegal party in Soviet Moscow; and it was Mark who followed Gordon Brown down the street dressed as Mr Spock.
The session ended with the Changemaker video from Ayo Norman-Williams, nominated for the Bafta Young Games Designer in 2018.
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