Thursday, 11 June 2015

National Treasures

The wonderful Lilie Ferrari writes about her time as a scriptwriter for television, and celebrates the women writers who succeed in the industry. Lilie runs scriptwriting workshops for the Unthank School and next week we will post details of her courses which begin in the autumn. In the meantime read on for some great insight into the business:

“I started writing seriously when I was nine. In fact I wrote a rather bad full-length novel called THE TRAIN NOW STANDING, about a gang of kids and a disused railway station. This was followed in my early teens by a dramatic saga of unavailable mod boys, desperate youthful love affairs and accidental pregnancies. Neither of these works, I am glad to say, ever went near a publisher; but - aah, those heady days, when I wrote what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted!
I didn’t become a professional writer until I was in my late thirties, life having been taken up by single parenthood and the need to work hours that meant my son could attend school and still have a mother – so a tangled collection of half-sensible, half-silly jobs filled my days until I landed at the BBC, somewhat astonishingly, as a script editor on EastEnders. I was always a soap fan, and some of my heartbreakingly na├»ve enthusiasm for the genre must have shone through– because I entered the interview room without even knowing what a script editor actually did…. When, worn to a frazzle a year later, I wearily asked my Executive Producer (a frighteningly intelligent woman) why she had picked me for the job, she answered, without a hint of conscience, “- Because you were so keen I knew I could work you like a dog…”
That she certainly did. It’s hard to describe the massive treadmill that is working on a soap; it really doesn’t stop for anyone. Death in the family, illness, trauma, sick kids, breakdowns – the juggernaut rumbles on, crushing stragglers as it goes. My job entailed hours on the phone with defensive argumentative people (yes – writers), and nights tinkering with unworkable scripts due to be filmed the following day. If I had the ‘flu, the scripts were biked over to my flat so I could work on them in bed.  If a scene didn’t work and the writer couldn’t be tracked down to change it, I had to do it on the spot. If the producer thought the script had failed, it was my job to break the bad news to the writer that the script would be “pulled”. You’re very lucky if your domestic relationships survive that kind of pressure. I count myself fortunate that mine did, having watched so many others head for the divorce courts. Soaps take no prisoners, and my training on the job taught me everything a scriptwriter needs to know – mainly, that you are a very small (but essential) cog in a very large wheel, and that if you can’t take the pressure, no-one really cares.
Eventually I started writing for EastEnders, and then for other continuing dramas – Holby, Casualty, Peak Practice. Television has given me a good living, and has allowed me to indulge in my first love, which is writing novels. I know that by many standards, I have been fortunate to be paid to do the thing that I love. But for an older woman, getting work is tough. I am sixty-six, and when people ask me if I’m going to retire, my answer never changes from the one I gave when I first punched the keys of a typewriter: “I’ll never stop writing. I’ll write if you pay me, and I’ll write if you don’t.”
Television is now a young person’s game, and I don’t begrudge the arrival of new talent – we need it! – However I am sad that the baby is wriggling in the drain with the bathwater; people who have lived a long life have a million experiences to draw on, and yet we are called on less and less frequently to contribute to the stories tv offers. Young producers are afraid to risk their own reputations by employing someone who seems to be yesterday’s news. They are all on the search for the “next big thing” – who, it would appear, must be about to leave school or university.  I could give many examples of how this affects what we see on our screens, but here’s one I find particularly funny when I’m in a good mood, and particularly depressing when my feminist hackles are up. I was in a storyline meeting on a show that shall be nameless, the only grey-haired woman in the room. I was suggesting the arrival of a new doctor into the series.  I described her with enthusiasm – a woman in her fifties, a consultant – bright, intelligent, funny, takes no prisoners – when I realised that the room full of twenty-and thirty-somethings gathered at the table were all looking aghast. Finally, one of them spoke. “But what stories can we tell about her…?” I was asked. Another added decisively, “It means we can’t do anything that involves sex.” “Why not…?” I asked, “Women in their fifties still have sex, you know.” Expressions round the table ranged from utter horror to total disgust. “Ew!” exclaimed one of the youthful, “But no-one wants to see it, do they..?!” Eventually the female doctor was shorn of fifteen years of her life, so that she would become “acceptable” to viewers.
So every time you see a drama – I mean a sensible drama – telling a strong, recognisable story of an older woman, I can almost guarantee that an older woman wrote it. Sally Wainwright (52), Heidi Thomas (53), Lynda La Plante (72), Abi Morgan (47), Kay Mellor (64). I’m envious of their success, obviously (I’m a writer – we thrive on envy). But I want to offer a bouquet of joyous recognition to every older, female writer who breaks through the traditional barriers of tv to tell us stories that women recognise. They are our national treasures!”

Lilie Ferrari was co-creator and writer for the drama series The Clinic for RTE. She’s written episodes of Peak Practice (Carlton), Dangerfield (BBC),Casualty (BBC), Holby (BBC) and EastEnders (BBC). She has also had four novels published, and is currently working on her fifth. 

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