“Television drama has been at the centre of this country’s cultural conversation for over half a century and rarely more so than now – and that’s to do with the quality of the writing.”
Melvyn Bragg was talking at a special live edition of The South Bank Show, featuring four of the UK’s leading TV writers – Jed Mercurio (writer and creator of hit police corruption thriller Line of Duty); Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (black comedy anthology Inside No. 9); and Heidi Thomas (period drama Call the Midwife) – discussing their craft.
The RTS event was held in advance of The South Bank Show’s new run on Sky Arts in July, which will look at the work of these four writers, plus Jack Thorne (National Treasure). He was unable to attend the RTS event as it clashed with the opening night of his new play, The End of History..., at the Royal Court.
There was agreement on the panel – despite their trade – that there’s more to good drama than the writing. “It’s no accident that we have the same three leads [Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure and Martin Compston] – they’re really good actors, but also get on really well with each other.
“If that hadn’t happened, one of them would have been killed off in a completely unexpected way to propel the story forward.”
He added: “In Bodyguard, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes were both actors I’d worked with before.
“It’s hard to film television drama – you need people who aren’t nuts or lazy.”
Thomas added: “Writers don’t always have control over whether people stay or not. Writing Call the Midwife for nine years has been an exercise in forbearance – young ladies come on the show and, three years later, they decide it’s time to go to Hollywood.
“Every time it’s like a stab through the heart but I’ve now learned that that refreshes the brand and the company, bringing in new characters and stories.”
Telling stories, argued Shearsmith, is getting harder “because everyone is so sophisticated.”
He added: “Attention spans are so short that you’ve got to be pithy in hooking people into your story.”
Thomas had no truck with “people who often charge a lot of money for teaching screenwriting who’ve never written for the screen. They sell a prescription essentially and I’ve never found that to be of any assistance.
“For me, it’s not about structure; it’s about texture – you go by the feel of the thing. It’s like running a cloth through my hands, feeling your way [through the story].”
Thomas added that the best advice she’d come across came from Charlie Chaplin, who said: “I have never written down to my audience.”
The panellists discussed their early television memories. “I watched a lot of TV as a kid. It was my only real access to the arts – I went to a very ordinary school, didn’t do drama or have much access to creative things. TV was my only exposure to storytelling,” recalled Mercurio.
US shows figured more than the BBC, which “was all a bit middle-class. It was like watching a play – it didn’t have car chases, which is what I wanted to see as a 12-year-old boy.”
Pemberton watched “TV avidly, especially in the summer holidays when TV was yours as a kid. It was curtains closed and you had Laurel and Hardy on, The Banana Splits, The Flashing Blade.
“And then there were late night horror movies on BBC Two on a tiny TV when we shouldn’t have been allowed to watch them.”
Even the most prolific dramatists experience writer’s block from time to time. Pemberton argued that being part of a writing partnership with Shearsmith was fortunate: “We talk and talk and talk. If we don’t actually write anything, the day hasn’t been wasted. I have written things on my own and found it really hard to dig my way out of [a block].
“You just have to get something on the page … and I have to tell it to myself every single time I sit down to write.”
Thomas revealed that she suffers writer’s block daily. She advised: “First drafts don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be written. However ragged and full of holes it is, however much you’re embarrassed by it, you can then start to make it better.”
The RTS early evening event, “The South Bank Show Live”, was held at Kings Place in London on 27 June. It was produced by the RTS, Directors Cut Productions, Sky Arts and Premier. A longer report will appear in the July/August issue of Television.
All photography by Paul Hampartsoumian