I think this might break another rule of blogging, but for anyone interested in TV writing and what the job truly entails I commend this terrific blog to you, written by someone else – ! – my good friend Lisa Holdsworth – entitled They Say The Darndest Things, which decodes the tooth jangling, eyeball exploding double speak of the everyday pitch/commissioning meeting.
Click here to read Lisa Holdsworth’s terrific blog.
And when you’ve stopped laughing/cringing/screaming… well what more can I add except a few choice, related anecdotes, just in case you thought Lisa was exaggerating in any way. However, sadly, and unlike brilliant Lisa, in most of my stories, I was left completely lost for words, gulping like a beached goldfish…
‘We LOVE this, but what if….‘
Quite a few years ago I wrote a treatment for a psychological thriller about an ageing, failing Detective Sergeant, who becomes obsessed with a serial killer and ends up murdering his own daughter. The treatment was sent to a major broadcaster, and three days later (which is quick) I got a call to say that they LOVED my treatment and would I come down to London for a meeting. Suitably excited, I hopped onto the next Pendolino and soon found myself sitting opposite a senior and well known Drama Producer and, by her side, her eager and enthusiastic assistant.
‘Yes,’ they said. ‘We LOVE this! We absolutely LOVE it. But… what if… what if…
Me, cautiously: ‘Yes?’
‘No, really we LOVE this, it’s amazingly written, and especially the relationship between the father and the daughter, it’s so truthful, but what if, what IF… he didn’t kill his daughter?! What if instead of killing her, they formed a father and daughter detective partnership? And instead of it being so dark, there were jokes and banter…?’
‘What THEY want…’
A few years later, I was at a pitch meeting for a project I had been developing. I think it was pretty coherent, well-rehearsed, pithy, but layered too… I do my best not to bore people, but I could feel the producer’s attention wandering. She was staring at the venetian blinds over my shoulder. I stopped. ‘Something…. wrong?’
‘No, no…’ she said. ‘I mean, it’s a nice idea, but the reason I asked you here is because what they want…. what they REALLY want – the HOLY GRAIL – is…’ She leaned forward as if sharing the actual location of that elusive, sacred object. ‘The HOLY GRAIL… the thing they REALLY WANT… is… William and Mary.’
I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t assemble a form of words that made any kind of sense. My mental rolodex was whirring, and for the briefest of moments I thought I as about to be offered a commission for a historical drama about the co-regency of William III and Mary II from 1689-1694. Clearly accusations of dumbing down were unfounded!! Then of course sanity returned and I realised that she was referring to the popular itv comedy drama starring Martin Clunes and Julie Graham. But having got the right William & Mary I realised that I was still none the wiser…
‘William and Mary… with, erm… Martin Clunes…’ I intoned vaguely trying to sound as if I was on her wavelength, but failing miserably.
‘Yes. We thought with your experience you’d be the ideal person for this.’
‘What…?’ I was riding the fine line between question and statement – sometimes the Australian interrogative has its uses. ‘You’re making a new series of it..?’
Even as I said this I realised how bonkers it sounded. For a start, this producer had no connection to the aforementioned itv ratings hit. Also there was the small matter of William & Mary already having an extremely good writer of its own. Not to mention the fact that I had, to my shame, never watched more than twenty minutes of the show.
‘No, no,’ said the producer impatiently as if I were one of Mr Gradgrind’s slower pupils, ‘We’re thinking of developing something LIKE William and Mary because THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT.’
‘Ah, right’ I said dimly, wondering what had happened to the idea I had been pitching not five minutes ago, which tragically for me, bore no relationship to William and Mary, either historically or comedically. ‘Only it’s a bit different from… I mean to say, I’m not sure that it’s really where I want to be going right now.’
Ouch ouch ouch ouch.
‘I mean, that’s erm, that’s why…’ I’m stammering like a fool now,’…that’s why I came to you with this idea…’ I flap my hands vaguely in the direction of the pitch document, ‘which I’m afraid isn’t really in William and Mary territory. Sorry.’
‘You see,’ the Producer’s assistant piped up, eyes shining. ‘What they want – WHAT THEY WANT – is stuff that’s a bit like things they have already… only different.’
I could see the brilliant, undeniable logic of what he was saying, but in that moment I could think of nothing either witty or devastating; I just parroted like a fool.
‘Something they have already… but different… hmmm. Interesting.’
‘The One Thing We Don’t Want is any more Cops or Docs’
‘No One Is Interested In TV Shows About actors, writers or the television industry.’
This is undoubtedly true. There are no successful shows about TV writers, TV comedy actors, impressionists eating fine food, extras, people trying to get shows commissioned, people writing soaps, advertising or newsrooms. They just don’t happen.
‘I gave your script to a friend/my kids/the girl who does my nails to get a second opinion.’
Well of course Lisa Holdsworth is one quick thinking and smart cookie, so she wisely responds with: ‘It’s always good to see things through a fresh pair of eyes’.
My resemblance to the mythical cookie, however, extends only to the crumbs at the bottom of the packet.
A long time ago in a script meeting far, far away… myself and a few writers – and an executive from a large broadcasting organisation – were summoned by a famously powerful producer for a first draft meeting on a block of scripts that were due to headline a new prime time TV series. The producer turned to me and started with: ‘I showed your script to my driver…’
‘Oh yeah?’ I said brightly, happy to respond with a suitable platitude, with all the wisdom of She That Is Holdsworth.
But the producer reached into his jacket and pulled out a neatly folded sheet of A4, covered in dense scribbles. ‘And these…’ he unfolded the sheet slowly, deliberately, ‘…are his notes.’ And he proceeded to read to me, and to everyone else in the meeting (which included the script editor), the detailed notes of the company driver.
After about a quarter of a page of the ‘chauffeur edit’, I tentatively raised my hand. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, just a little tightly,’I’m sure your driver is a great bloke and everything. And I’m sure he has some very genuine and useful opinions about what he sees on the television, but this is a first draft, and we do actually have a highly trained script editor here, and really, if your driver has the skills to shape these scripts that we’re trying to develop, perhaps we’d better ask him to leave his car and come up and exec the series, and [the executive from the major broadcaster] can go down and start a new career as your driver.’
The producer paused. He narrowed his eyes, and refolded the paper… very slowly, and put it back in his jacket pocket. I had the sense that I’d better check under my car from now on.
I lasted another three months on the show, and when we finally parted company, it was, believe it or not, a happy day. Sadly I have to report that the series was not a success, and as far as I know, the driver is still plying his excellent motoring skills on the streets of our fine capital.
Reader – they do say the darndest things – but I make this plea to you – heed The Word Of The Holdsworth. Heed it, I tell you!