It's my party and I'll write what I want to

Where are the new Potters and Bleasdales? Veronica Lee reports on a BBC scheme to mix and match young writers with tried and tested talent
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The Independent Online

There was a time when the BBC was the byword in television drama; Play For Today, The Wednesday Play and Play of the Month were just some of the strands that attracted Britain's greatest writing talents. But where once the Dennis Potters and Alan Bleasdales of their generations flocked to the corporation, the past two decades have seen a dearth of new writing talent on the small screen.

There was a time when the BBC was the byword in television drama; Play For Today, The Wednesday Play and Play of the Month were just some of the strands that attracted Britain's greatest writing talents. But where once the Dennis Potters and Alan Bleasdales of their generations flocked to the corporation, the past two decades have seen a dearth of new writing talent on the small screen.

But there is hope in the form of a remarkable new initiative called Dramalab. The brainchild of producer/director Patrick Mears and developed by producer Richard Fell, the Mentors Scheme is, the BBC says, about finding the next Dennis Potter by pairing up an experienced writer with one new to television.

That may seem a tall order until you see the list of mentors they attracted; Andrew Davies ( Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch), Debbie Horsfield ( Sex, Chips & Rock 'n' Roll), Tony Jordan ( EastEnders), Paula Milne ( Coronation Street), Jimmy McGovern ( Cracker, The Lakes) and Peter Flannery ( Our Friends in the North). Last autumn they teamed up with the newcomers via telephone, e-mail and personal meetings, and have now produced a highly creditable series of six 30-minute films.

Andrew Davies, creator of A Very Peculiar Practice and recognised as the UK's greatest adapter of classics for the small screen, was one of the first to sign up. "I guess that's because I'd been shouting about it for years - that new writers are being pushed into doing serials and sitcoms rather writing one-off dramas, which is what they most often want to write. I was delighted to do it."

Debbie Horsfield, who moved from theatre to television 15 years ago and found the transition quite daunting, became a mentor because she would have liked a helping hand at the same stage in her career. "I feel very sympathetic to anyone just starting in television because it feels like you are a strange person in a very strange land; there are all kinds of unwritten rules that you have absolutely no idea about. And as a writer, no matter what stage of your career you are at, you can feel isolated.''

She worked on The Wedding Party with Bettina Gracias who, like Horsfield, has a background in theatre. "There appears to be a mystique about TV," says Horsfield. "Quite often there isn't and you need someone to tell you that.

"In the theatre the writer is very much part of the process; you are there at rehearsal, you play a part in casting. It's not always the case that in television they will change things and just might let you know when it's going out, but it can be almost that bad. I was very protective of Bettina because until I had been around long enough to have some clout, I had some bad experiences."

Davies performed a similar role for Carl Grose, who wrote Boris Bitty's Brand New Parents, a quirky tale about tables turning in a most peculiar family. "I saw my role as pushing Carl to express himself and not be worried about doing what he might think was expected of him," he says. "I just wanted him to go for it."

The six newcomers, all in their 20s, were given the starting point of a title - The Party - and allowed to interpret it any way they wanted. The title comes from one of the BBC's most acclaimed and best-loved plays - Abigail's Party (1977) by Mike Leigh - and had to match its one-room setting and small cast, thereby keeping the cost of each drama down to £35,000. (Just one episode of a primetime drama serial can cost three or four times that.)

The producers did their work well in matching writer and mentor; the mentor's favoured subject matter and writing style suiting the tyro's. So Jimmy McGovern was paired up with Lucy Catherine on The Caravan, a sad tale about a drug-addicted mother constantly disappointing her daughter; Tony Jordan mentored David Eldridge on a story of teenage violence and drinking in Killers; Paula Milne aided Lloyd Evans on Meaningful Sex, a witty take on modern sexual manners; while Peter Flannery mentored Rachel Matthews on the surreal Half Life.

Without taking anything away from the writers, what strikes you on watching the films is the adept touches that you might suppose came from their much more experienced mentor. Did they give them any lines? "Oh no," protests Davies. "I did suggest a couple of lines but Carl didn't take me up on them,'' he says, laughing. "But like all good writers he took the notions and went his own way.

"The only thing I think I can claim is that I was able to do for Carl what someone very kindly once did for me - to show how you can say in three lines what he was doing in a page.''

Horsfield took a similarly non-interventionist line on The Wedding Party, about a Welsh woman opting for a Hindu wedding to her Indian boyfriend despite the opposition of her mother. "I never told Bettina what to do, but if something wasn't working for me, I asked her what she wanted to get across, or what the purpose of a particular scene was, and we would work on it."

A mark of the scripts' quality is the calibre of the actors who agreed to take part for far less than their normal fee; Lindsey Coulson ( EastEnders), Luisa Bradshaw-White ( This Life), Gary Webster ( Playing the Field), Kulvinder Ghir ( Goodness Gracious Me), Conleth Hill (currently in the West End hit Stones in His Pockets) and Ruth Madoc ( Hi-De-Hi!). Good writing, as any actor will tell you, is hard to find.

All six mentors have expressed interest in doing a second series with different dramatists, and other experienced writers, unavailable this time round, are ready to join up. The fly in the ointment is that the first series will be seen only by viewers with BBC Choice, available to those with digital television or who have bought it in a cable package.

It's remarkable that this fine series hasn't gone straight to primetime BBC, but producer Richard Fell says that, as a Choice commission, they have first dibs on showing it. "We've done what we promised - giving new writers a chance to make a quality film that they can then use as a calling card to other producers," he says.

"We're giving people the opportunity to make their drama in a place that's not necessarily as exposed as a BBC1 primetime slot. In much the same way that shows like Absolutely Fabulous and The Royle Family started on BBC2 and then went to BBC1, so shows starting on BBC Choice can go to terrestrial. Choice is a great place to try out the risky and different and innovative."

Without being too cynical, it's also a great place to fail without anybody noticing. But Choice does offer the opportunity for a little-used channel to be the equivalent of a studio theatre - doing radical and daring work compared with the more commercial product being shown in the main house it's attached to - and that should be welcomed.

In the event, Dramalab has produced a strikingly good product for a tiny financial investment. As Andrew Davies says: "What I want now is the BBC bigwigs to put the first series out on terrestrial TV. They have produced six terrific films and they absolutely deserve a mass audience."

'Dramalab: The Party' starts with 'Half Life' at 11pm on BBC Choice on Wednesday

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