Guardian TV critic Julia Raeside quizzed Roanna Benn, executive producer, Chris Lunt, writer, and Colm McCarthy, director on how they broke into telly and built their careers.
The latest RTS Futures event, "I made it ... in drama", was graced by a panel of three high achievers. Quizzed by Guardian TV critic Julia Raeside, the trio Roanna Benn, executive producer, Chris Lunt, writer, and Colm McCarthy, director, all revealed that breaking into telly and building a career had been far from straightforward.
Chris Lunt's first drama, Prey, starring John Simm as a cop on the run, aired on ITV earlier this year to critical acclaim and strong audiences. Lunt, though, wasn't an overnight success. "From 16 to 24, I was the world's worst lathe turner," the writer recalled.
"Since I was a little kid I had wanted to get into TV, but I'm from a place called Horwich, not far from Bolton, and if you'd said, "I want to work in TV," you risked being burned at the stake. I said to my dad that I had plans to go to university and he asked me if I was gay."
After eight years working in engineering, Lunt joined a corporate video outfit in sales, but a lucky break took him to Prague in the mid-1990s to shoot a documentary at short notice after the cameraman booked for the job fell ill. "I'd never even used a stills camera," Lunt recalled. "All I had to do was point and squirt, so I learned that reasonably quickly."
Next, Lunt landed a job with for Manchester-based graphics company Red Vision, where he remained for a decade. "I had three careers – as a lathe turner, a cameraman and in CGI – and I blagged my way through all of them," he said. Lunt wrote in his spare time while at Red Vision and then full time when the company went under in 2010. Prey was green-lit by ITV the same year, but by then Lunt had been writing, mostly sci-fi, and amassing rejections for a decade.
He received considerable encouragement from Red Productions founder Nicola Shindler. "She told me that I had potential, but as long as I was pitching dramas about aliens and bobbly-headed creatures I was not going to get anything made," he recalled. Lunt changed track and – with the 1993 film and 1960s TV series The Fugitive as an inspiration – he wrote Prey, which was made by Red.
Drama Republic managing director Roanna Benn numbers My Mad Fat Diary and Secret Diary of a Call Girl among her executive producer credits and Mark Haddon's drama Coming Down the Mountain as producer.
If you'd said, "I want to work in TV," you risked being burned at the stake
Benn went to drama school and worked as a theatre director with 7:84 in Glasgow and then in radio developing single plays before moving into TV in 1995 as a script editor on EastEnders. "That was a brilliant training ground," she recalled.
A job as script editor on Kay Mellor's drama Playing the Field followed, where she met producer Greg Brenman, with whom she has worked ever since – first at Tiger Aspect and then at Drama Republic, the drama indie founded by the duo in 2013.
Director Colm McCarthy, who is currently finishing the second series of BBC Two gangster drama Peaky Blinders, had always wanted to be a film director but hadn't done anything about it by the age of 25.
McCarthy's first TV work was as a stand-in on Irish fantasy series The Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog in the late 1990s. "I quit my job even though I didn't know what a stand-in was. It turned out to be the person who stands in while the actor's back in the trailer for the director of photography to light," he recalled.
"I was very keen and enthusiastic and by the end of the shoot I was owed a favour by the production manager. I borrowed some equipment and shot a short film, which was was shit, but I had made a film," said McCarthy. His first work, in the form of commercials and music videos, followed. "With everything I've done, I've managed to open up things for myself by continually directing," he added.
Emmy award-winning director Dearbhla Walsh, who liked one of his shorts, suggested McCarthy for Irish drama The Big Wow Wow and then, after finding an agent in England, he worked on Sky's Dream Team and BBC One series Hustle and Murphy's Law. Most recently he has worked on Sherlock.
"You have to love directing," McCarthy concluded, "but it's not really a vocation – it's more a personality defect"
The RTS Futures event, "I made it ... in drama", was held at the Drury Club in central London on 22 September. It was produced by Sasha Breslau and Anna Fern.
Report by Matthew Bell
Photos by Paul Hampartsoumian