Wednesday, December 16, 2009

BBC Writersroom update

In the latest blog post about this year's BBC Writers Academy, Ceri Meyrick (from BBC Continuing Drama) explains how the scheme fits in with BBC Continuing Drama's policy for 'the training and protection of new writers in this department'.
We've been doing some sums here. Five years ago most new writers on their first commission for Continuing Shows failed. The current failure rate is down drastically to 20%. 92 new writers have developed (and sustain) regular careers with us since 2005. Not bad in the current climate.
Update 21.12.2009 (Post corrected following comment, below, that this was about BBC Continuing Drama policy rather than BBC Writersroom policy)


  1. Anonymous10:40 pm

    But surely the balance has shifted too far. I know many, many good, experienced writers who can't get arrested for that department now. They haven't done anything wrong, they didn't screw up their scripts, they just got cast aside to make room for academy writers, often callously so. A friend was fortunate enough to be at the CD writers meeting last week where John Yorke denied there was a policy of employing acadamy writers. Well, the credits say otherwise. My friend pointed out an interesting statistic. Casualty. 11 of the first 12 episodes of this series were written, or rewritten, by academy writers. That says there is a policy of hiring academy writers at the expense of everybody else. So how about Ceri, in her new position as writers ombudsman, takes an interest in the protection of the experienced writers who've given a great deal to those shows. I think John's sincere in what he says, but his producers are clearly favouring academy writers.


    It wasn't always the fault of writers that they failed in their first commissions. The other option is that writers weren't briefed properly in the first place; could be given conflicting notes and opinions resulting in a ludricrous number of drafts; couldn't square the circle and were caught in a system that has since been somewhat improved.

    I wish Academy writers well, but BBC long running series have also turned their back on some of their more experienced writers, often those who won awards and plaudits for them. A cynic would say new writers are cheaper and less willing to speak up when trouble hits the fan.

    And though the BBC say that there might be only 8 new Academy writers a year, please remember that's exponential. With last year's 8, that becomes 16, etc, etc. Let's hope we don't find ourselves next Xmas with no room at the inn.

  3. P.S. It also goes without saying that the WGGB zealously protects the rights of ALL writers, both Academy and non-Academy. God bless us, everyone.

  4. Ceri Meyrick2:18 pm

    Anonymous - your friends should come and see me.

  5. Ceri Meyrick2:37 pm

    Gail -

    You seem strangely biased against Academy writers as if they're different from other writers in some way. They're not - they've just undergone some preparation for the task (whereas before writers used to get none).

    It is nuts to suggest that a producer would chose a less good writer over another because they were cheaper or less likely to speak up. That's not the way it works at all. Ask them.

    As for the shows turning their backs... hasn't this always happened naturally? They're not shows that writer spend their writing lives on.

    Then again, if there is actually evidence to support this - hopefully someone will come and talk to me about it.

  6. I promise, Ceri, I'm not biased against Academy Writers. I spend a lot of my time defending and negotiating writers' rights... for ALL writers. And I know the BBC doesn't hire chopped liver.

    I'm pleased to say the Guild will be meeting with John Yorke and Ben Stephenson early in January, so all the comments we've received from members can be aired. I'm sure all of us look forward to starting the New Year positively.

  7. Anonymous10:49 pm

    Ceri, anonymous here, sheesh where to begi? Producers and script editors know how things work. If they make the boss happy, they survive. How do they do that? Be seen to make the academy work.

    As for why don't I and my friends contact you? The issue is trust. People are afraid for their careers and their livelihoods. With good reason. If you had addressed what I said about Casualty and that academy writers have clearly been placed at the front of the queue, then I would suggest to my friends that they, we, should trust you. The stakes for us are too high.

  8. Anonymous11:25 am

    Another anonymous poster here, agreeing with Anonymous above. I've been writing for television for almost a decade now, and on at least two occasions I've got close to getting on one of the Big Three (EE, Holby, Casualty) only to be told that there are no slots - or, rather, that what slots there are will go to Academy writers. Nothing against Academy writers - good luck to them - and I've got nothing against training for the job we do. But it's reaching the stage where there is passive discrimination against non-Academy writers - and I can't blame the producers, script editors, et al, because the sense is that Academy writers have been trained for those shows, and are therefore a safer bet. Even on Doctors, where I work regularly, I am told that there are less slots for 'newbies', and even the old guard, because of the Academy.

    I absolutely respect the intent behind the Academy, as a *parallel* way of training writers for a particular job, but it is now de facto pretty much the *only* way to get in and/or advance. Surely we need a multitude of ways onto the Big Three, or we run the risk of missing out on the next generation of Tony Jordans, et al.?

  9. Anonymous11:49 am

    Anonymous 3 here, agreeing with my namesakes above. I used to write for Casualty, pre-Academy; now I seem to be out in the cold. And for those of us not young and unencumbered enough to take periods of unemployment lightly, it's very cold indeed. I've spent 20 years writing and helped the series I've worked on build their audience and win awards. Now I'm struggling to make a living, to support my young family; lying awake at night terrified about where the next commission is going to come from.

    Writers in my position laugh when it's suggested the Academy hasn't put older, more experienced writers like us out of work. Of course we can't prove it, but come on, we didn't just fall out of a tree. I would never wish to stand in the way of younger writers and will always offer support and advice when asked: but no-one would blame the writers themselves for this situation.

    There are fewer and fewer slots and commissions available to TV series writers these days. An argument could easily be made that even having an Academy, turning out the exponentially-growing number of writers Gail mentions above, serves broadcasters not writers: I've had to write for breathtaking small script fees recently, knowing it's either that or lose the job to someone who's happy to accept it. It's happening: we need to move the debate on from whether it is or not.

    And why is this the first time I've ever posted a comment to a forum without using my real name? Once again - I didn't just fall out of a tree...

  10. Ceri Meyrick1:12 pm

    Hi Anonymous (x3)

    As I said - you should come and see me. My job is to resolve disputes and help writers in the department. I can't do that with anonymous accusations. Give me some evidence and I'll get stuck in. Until then my hands are tied.

  11. Or writers can turn to their trade union, the WGGB, in droves as they have done in the last months. We are not just dealing with one or two malcontents.

    The fact that writers feel they have to be anonymous and are fearful is part of the problem, which the Guild is currently addressing with the BBC. The WGGB exists to protect members when they feel they can't resolve problems themselves. I'm sure, all of us working together, will.

  12. Anonymous4:10 pm

    Ceri, anonymous 1 again.

    Its a fair point to say bring the evidence, but what we're saying is that there is no evidence other than the huge representation of academy writers on the shows. I once had a meeting with a producer where I was told that even though my scripts for that show were great, and continued to be great, I wouldn't be getting any more work, because they had to make room for incoming academy writers, graduating academy writers and other writers new to that show. Even though producers and script editors argued that dropping me was both stupid and unfair, I never worked for them again.

    I don't think that you can change that culture with individual complaints. Its about the leadership of the department deciding the balance has tilted too far. I'm one of the lucky ones. My career suffered but I continued to get work and there are even positive signs of recovery. I even see signs that some of the CD shows have come to realise that they've thrown a lot of very accomplished and talented babies out with the bathwater. They're trying to bring some experienced writers back on board. Problem is, there are so few slots left after academy and core writers have been accommodated that they struggle to employ the ones they want.

  13. Anonymous5:38 pm

    Regarding The Writersroom: I attended a roadshow in Brighton. When it was time for the Q & A session, a writer asked how many scripts had been commissioned from the thousands sent in over the years. Pause. "Well, none, actually"!
    This was qualified by an example given of two writers who, judged on the quality of their work, were given opportunities to write for ongoing drama - soaps.
    When exactly did soaps become respectable? I remember working as an actor in eight episodes of a soap in the mid-Sixties. I never included it on my CV because it was considered demeaning and damaging to one's career.
    So, my point is, has the Writersroom been set up merely to occasionally discover young talent to write for ongoing drama shows? I find it hard to believe that not a single original idea in all the time Writersroom has been going was worthy of a commission. Come on, Writersroom, who are you lying to?

  14. Well, to be fair I think the writing on continuing drama series is often extremely good, if often unsung. I've seen episodes of Holby and Coronation Street that wipe the floor with so-called event drama. There's good writing and there's bad writing, just as there's good acting and bad acting. Continuing drama is far more collaborative and the individual writer's voice can sometimes be harder to discern, and I could talk for hours about the different technical challenges of feature films, single TV dramas, radio plays and soap. But as it's Christmas I'll spare you that!

    The best TV director I've worked with to date worked on Casualty, Jimmy Mc Govern, Paul Abbot and Russell T. Davies all cut their teeth on soaps.

  15. Anonymous8:09 pm

    Anonymous 4 here - I can only echo the other anonymous comments, in that I am repeatedly told by my agent that by the time core and Academy writer slots have been allocated there is precious little left for anyone else.

    That said, I have written a single drama that won an international award and know I have a huge amount to offer in terms of both experience and ability - yet where CD is concerned I am made to feel as though I am scratching around for the crumbs, so much so that I am considering leaving TV drama altogether. That would be a travesty because it is my first love and something I am really, really good at. But how can I continue when I have not had a TV commission in over a year? We all need something that will pay the bills while we try to develop an original project - a process in itself that can take many, many years to come to fruition.

    One of the things that an experienced writer can do is fix problems that script editors, storyliners and producers don't know exist - and consequently never even realise have been fixed. And we don't even trumpet the fact that we have fixed them, we just quietly get on with doing a damned good job. Yet despite a proven ability in the field we are still made to feel as though we are being squeezed out and consequently find ourselves having to consider alternative careers.

  16. Anonymous11:13 pm

    It's all about making money for those who own the means of production. Where do writers fit in? Most are the detail workers on the mass production line called "Soaps". They generate more wealth (surplus labour value) than they are paid, especially as too many writers chase too few jobs. (supply v demand) and that is how our Capitalist mode of production works.

    It has been a few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution - you should be used to it by now.

  17. Anonymous 4 - "One of the things that an experienced writer can do is fix problems that script editors, storyliners and producers don't know exist - and consequently never even realise have been fixed. And we don't even trumpet the fact that we have fixed them, we just quietly get on with doing a damned good job. "

    I completely agree. I also think writers get praised the most for the thing that requires the least effort - writing the dialogue. When the real blood sweat and tears comes from creating a structure that works on more than one level, and keeping the pacing bang-on.

    That's why the Guild reinstated the WG Awards, to celebrate writers, and their often unsung achievements.

    Anonymous - feel free to vent, but do remember the Guild is a trade union that protects writers' pay and working conditions. Tilting at windmills falls outside our remit.

  18. Anonymous 5:38

    I'm not sure who answered your question on the roadshow, but there are a couple of things I'd like to try to clarify.

    The BBC writersroom isn't set up to find scripts for production, it's there to find new writers.

    It's extremely rare for a writer to get a direct commission from an unsolicited script anywhere, including here. Our job is to find and develop good writers and to help them in the early stages of their career, not to find scripts suitable for immediate production.

    While there have been a few people (less than a dozen that I'm aware of) who've got a commission directly from a script they've sent in, it's extremely rare, and every time that this has happened that I'm aware of has been for radio rather than TV or film.

    And we receive thousands upon thousands of unsolicited scripts every year.

    So as we're not trying to find scripts, but writers, then I think a better question is: How many writers have gone on to being commissioned after being involved with the BBC writersroom (via the unsolicited script system, or competitions, or schemes that we've run).

    So I dug up some figures for that the other day.

    TV (and film, but mostly TV) - 100
    Network Radio - 180
    Local/regional radio - 35
    Online - 8

  19. Piers, many thanks for clarifying that.

  20. Anonymous11:18 am

    For Piers: how many years do these figures span (to help give us a yearly average)?

    How many actual commissions are awarded on an annual basis?

    I was selected twice for a TAPS course on the strength of my script writing yet only get rejects from the Writers Room. Although on one occasion I got feedback as I sent my C.V. which included membership of the WGGB.

    I've sent better work (opinion of an established Professional Writer, third party) to the WR without a C.V. just to have it flung back with a standard reject letter.

    Twice over the last few years I've mentioned a new writing event to them over the phone to be told they are on holiday or cannot make it.

  21. Anonymous1:40 pm


    I get told I must get my work performed even before I could try for the academy. Which is getting harder in this day and age. But I was selected for a TAPS course and other courses by the strength of my writing. When is the BBC going to stop going for the CV and actually go for the writing?

  22. Anonymous 11:18

    I'll double-check when I'm back in the office, but AFAIK that's the total - so about nine years now.

    The writersroom don't commission anything ourselves - we introduce writers to producers at the BBC, send them on training courses, recommend them for eg shadow schemes. Concentrating on "How many people have got a commission from the writers room" isn't really going to help, I'm afraid, because the answer's none.

    As for getting feedback because you attached a CV, I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. You got feedback that time because the reader thought the script was good enough to get feedback on. Previous credits aren't something we look at in the writersroom.

    Anonymous 1:40

    Some parts of the BBC look at the CV (for example, you need a professional commission to apply for the Drama Academy - but only one), and you'd expect the CV to be checked before given a chance on a primetime slot, for example, but that's not how the BBC writersroom works. We only look at the script.

  23. Anonymous2:19 pm

    To Piers

    "You may include a writing CV or biography. If there is information about your background you feel is relevant, or you have any other relevant experience, then you can include this in your cover letter."

    What, in the light of what you have stated, Piers, is the relevance of the above statement on the WR website? Can you elaborate further on this?

  24. I'm not sure that I can be any clearer that the passage you've just quoted. If you want to send us a CV or mention your previous work or experience in the covering letter, please feel free.

    It will make no difference to the way your script is dealt with.

  25. Anonymous7:15 pm

    What kind of a pointless enterprise is the Writersroom if it actually rejects scripts simply because it is "not in the business" of finding do-able scripts but of finding new writers? Are the two things not connected?
    And who exactly are the readers and of what relevance are they?
    I submitted a script to the Writersroom which was considered to be so poor the reader didn't even get past the first ten pages.
    So I sent it directly to a BBC producer and it is being done next year.
    If the readers don't even know what their own employers are looking for, what use are they?

  26. Anonymous7:17 pm

    this is not anonymous anonymous but a different anonymous
    apologies to anonymous

  27. Anonymous7:56 am

    ...and exactly what award winning original shows have Piers and Ceri written?

  28. Ceri Meyrick10:13 am

    In fact, writers who have done the Academy course make up quite a small percentage of writers on Continuing Drama shows. Of the 542 episodes transmitted this year, 95 were written by writers who had done the course - that's 17%. It is misleading to claim that the Academy is the only way to get into or succeed in Continuing Drama. As I said at the top, over the last five years, 92 new writers have been brought into the department and sustained careers (and by that I mean two or more commissions per year) - of which only 22 had done the Academy course.

    Just to clarify - I'm not from the Writersroom (I'm wrongly labelled at the top). I work for Continuing Drama - so all the figures I'm quoting relate to Continuing Drama. The Writersroom has a very different role - as explained by Piers above.

  29. Ceri,

    I've added clarification about your role to the post.

  30. Ceri Meyrick10:56 am

    Thanks Tom - While you're there - it should also read "BBC Continuing Drama's policy" rather than "BBC Writersroom's policy"

  31. Done. Apologies for any confusion.

  32. Anonymous3:22 pm

    Another Anon. Haven't anonned before, but feeling nervous about expressing views in public.

    Ceri said 17% of 543 episodes were written by Non-A writers.

    Almost half those episodes must be Doctors. Doesn't really count, does it?

    What's the percentage for each of Casualty, Holby and EastEnders? Just interested.

    And since when does "two commissions a year" make a "sustained career"?

    Maybe that is the real problem. Do you really think that a drip feed of two commissions a year gives you a sustainable pool of contented happy writers?

  33. Anonymous11:40 am

    Original Anon back again, surprised this is still on the front page. Yes, Ceri's stats don't tell the whole story. Doctors does indeed affect the stats, as does EE, through sheer volume. Casualty and Holby are more revealing. Casualty is the more extreme. As I pointed out, 11 of the first 12 eps of this series are Academy writers. Subsequent eps have introduced more non A writers, but the stats are still rather staggering in favour of Academy writers. Holby doesn't seem to be as dominated. Ceri says Academy writers don't get favourable treatment, well, a couple of years ago, an inexperienced Academy graduate got made lead writer on one of the shows after writing one, yes one, episode. Its inconceivable that this would have happened to a non Academy writer.


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