Television: The series is taking off - it's time to bale out

TV writers come and go. Jasper Rees looks at the seams
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The Independent Culture
A year or two ago, the television writer Lucy Gannon asked Carlton to take her name off the opening credits of Peak Practice. Gannon created the rural medical drama, but left after three series only for rumours to filter back to her of what might be called peak malpractice. "There was a feeling of not knowing where this series was going, what was happening to my characters," she says. "I also heard that they were treating new writers quite badly and they were being damaged by it. That pissed me off a bit. I said, `Forget the royalties. I'd rather protect my name.' " In the end, she and Carlton came to a compromise. Peak Practice, formerly "devised by Lucy Gannon", is now "from an idea by Lucy Gannon".

In television drama, the relationship between writers and their work is uniquely amorphous. Where novelists and playwrights enjoy a degree of autonomy, and screenwriters expect interference, a leading television dramatist has a choice between power and powerlessness. The reason is wholly logistical. In television, unlike elsewhere, writers can create a drama which, if the viewing figures are large enough, is self-perpetuating. Some writers look on it as a pension, others as a sentence. But either way, there comes a time when they have to let someone else have a go.

"You get tired and you get bored," says Jimmy McGovern, "and you need somebody to come in with a new source of energy." McGovern handed over the baby for the first time in last Sunday's episode of The Lakes. It was announced as "Jimmy McGovern's The Lakes", but the story was actually by Joe Ainsworth. Students of McGovern may even have detected a subtle tilting of the axis - a greater emphasis on the younger characters, slightly less stress on the Catholic strand of the story.

It's at the point of handover that writers are faced with a choice. They can simply hop off the bus, and risk seeing the show deteriorate or, even more gallingly, improve (Amy Jenkins jumped ship after the first series of This Life, which is widely deemed to have matured in the second series); or take the more attractive alternative: stick around, keep a weather eye on the scripts, and occasionally lob in a few of their own. It helps writers to protect their own name, and makes them feel they've earned the 10 per cent levy on the fee for every script.

For senior popular dramatists, this is increasingly the option of choice. Kay Mellor has brought two writers to help her with the forthcoming second series of her drama about a women's football team, Playing the Field. Gannon oversaw Bramwell from first to last and, unlike on Peak Practice and Soldier Soldier, had final say on the hiring of writers. And now McGovern, though not a natural delegator, is using three different writers on the second series of The Lakes, while yet another writer is working on a third series.

Kieran Prendiville's relationship with Ballykissangel is typical of how the system works. Having devised the drama about an English priest in rural Ireland, he wrote the first three episodes and the last in the six-part opening series. For the second series of eight parts, he did the first two and the last. By the third series, now 12 episodes long, he was lured back to write the final two stories, in which the two main characters were written out of the script. In the fourth series he was no longer involved.

There is a basic operating procedure for handing over. Once the top writer has bedded the show in, other writers are drafted in to take up the story. "You have to write the first episode of the second series," says Kay Mellor. "You don't want to, because it's such an arduous task filling in the back spaces and pushing off the series, but I'm not going to lumber somebody else with that."

The new writers are usually younger - "lean and hungry", says McGovern. "You don't want a tired old hack, because they'll treat it as just another job." It helps if they have a mimetic ear, and there are ways of securing that. Mellor has used two tonally consistent writers on Playing the Field: both are female. McGovern is a graduate of Brookside, and favours soap writers familiar with the creative routine of sitting round a table parleying a plot into existence. Ainsworth also wrote for Brookside, while Paul Abbott, who wrote two episodes of McGovern's Cracker, did time on Coronation Street. Gannon, who has always written hour-long dramas, prefers not to use soap writers. "They find it very difficult writing for my series because the stories are so big and they're not used to the discipline of all the characters having a journey, and one huge main story which is sometimes melodramatic. They find that very hard."

Once the writers have been chosen, they are handed what's called the bible, a ring-bound outline of character developments, plot lines so far, rules about whose viewpoint the story can or can't be told from. Some writers are then required to come up with their own stories, others not. While Mellor finds story-boarding the easiest discipline, and so did it all for Playing the Field, Gannon does not. "I never say to another writer, `this is your story-line'," she says. "If there isn't a story they want to tell then quite frankly they don't get the gig, because there's no way I want to do the story-line for them."

Writers may be competitive, but they are not by nature hierarchical, and yet the rise of the writer-producer is promoting a fascinating new eco-system in which one writer will hold sway over others. There is a novel form of awkwardness when the script submitted is not up to scratch. "I never learnt to actually sit down with a person and pull their script apart like script editors do," says McGovern. "Because it's a fellow writer, you've got respect. There might be things in the writer's script that I'm not happy with but it's their script and how dare I criticise it?" Nor does Mellor enjoy having jurisdiction over other writers. "I just think, how am I going to say this? This is not what I would like to be said to me."

Usually a bit of tactful firefighting will bring a faulty script round, but the risk of bringing on younger writers is that they don't always deliver remediable material, especially with the clock ticking. Gannon is currently working on a series called Hope and Glory set in a school (run by headmaster Lenny Henry). "I was going to do six of the episodes and we were going to bring on four new writers. The BBC wanted the thing yesterday, so we were cut right back from eight months to three, and 10 episodes to six, and suddenly you didn't have time to give young writers any episodes. We managed to give one out but of course the timetable was too tight for that writer so we didn't do him any good. In the end we had to say, sorry, we're going to have to pull it."

McGovern's instinct is to insulate himself from unpleasantness of that sort, but sometimes it's not possible. A personal friend of his was sacked from the second series of The Lakes. "The dissatisfaction came from the top and I had to concede that they were right. I knew things were going to be said. But at the top they were very dissatisfied. Maybe the question to be asked is, if I hadn't said I would write it, would they have been as quick to sack him?"

The fall guys in all this are usually the lead actors, who will always prefer to work with a top writer rather than some untried lieutenant. "I think actors do mind, unfortunately," says Mellor. "They are the casualties of this whole thing. That's why you owe it to them to get the best writers you can, and also keep your eye on it."

When an actor discovers that the writer who attracted them to the drama is no longer writing it, the disappointment can be bitter. "I was angry at the fact that Jimmy McGovern wasn't writing the second series," says John Simm, who plays Danny in The Lakes. "You trust him so much and you think, all right, he's not going to sell it down the river, so he must know what he's doing. But then another half of you didn't understand why he'd handed over. You think, oh God, nobody is as good as him, no matter what he thinks of him. They're just not."