BBC writersroom Q&A with Toby Whithouse (TW) & Kate Rowland (KR) 4th March, Soho Theatre, London.
Toby was writing for theatre whilst working in TV as an actor - was in House of Elliott for a while. Obviously as an actor he was sent lots of scripts to read and felt a lot were complete nonsense, so in his spare time he started writing. Initially one idea started off as a gag which then required the feed line, was expanded into characterisation and eventually ended taking him to the first draft of a stage play. Before he knew it, his writing had taken on a life of it's own, he landed a literary agent and then won the 1998 Verity Bargate Award for his play, "Jump Mr Malinoff, Jump" at the Soho Theatre. From here on, he was offered more TV writing work.
KR - How did you find writing to briefs?
TW - I found it very odd to take on another's character voices. It's a very tricky process but it depends on how well written the original piece is. i.e. Dr Who was easy to get into as the characters had been so well-written by RTD.
KR - When did you start out as a writer?
TW - It was never a plan, apart from I wanted to write a sit-com for years. TV Drama teaches you about character, constructing story over a series - by using this discipline and applying to sitcom it gives a richer experience and more 3D characters. When I got the opportunity to write a sitcom for Channel 4, I hated the experience as it felt artificial and unnatural. I have never had any plan other than getting the next job which probably stems from my background as an actor going from job to job.
KR - Was working in TV a shock? Constraints etc?
TW - The first "Where the Heart Is" followed a strict 3-act structure, with 2 commercial breaks. As the viewer shouldn't notice these breaks, the structure is tricky. My first play process took 5 years and the process in TV is quite fast but it was a novelty to be paid to do the job!
KR - "No Angels" was an exposure of the underbelly of the NHS. How did that happen?
TW - After writing "Where the Heart Is" I was on an attachment when Channel 4 announced they wanted tenders submitted for a 10 or 20 part drama. There was a total feeding frenzy with everyone doing a lot of drawer-searching. The premise I was given was a story about four nurses set in a Northern town, with dense characters, tone & format. It was entirely research based - I used to be so lazy on this but research is fantastic. It gives you so much story, which gives you the confidence in your wealth of knowledge and the amount of facts at your disposal. We met lots of nurses and heard many anecdotes which just revealed the shambolic and comedic nature of that world.
KR - How do you get started on characters and tone?
TW - I have always started with the characters - pages and pages of biog details that will never come into the show, but by knowing how they talk, it throws up story itself from the preliminary work.
- George/Werewolf transformation scene shown from "Being Human" -
KR - Onto "Being Human" - you were writing a romcom called "Mild Thing" (?)
TW - Touchpaper approached me asking for a new "This Life" flat share type thing, but I felt it was the dullest idea ever. I found the three characters fell into place from the pages of the biographies. I started to develop it all but in nearly a year, got nowhere. We decided to have one last meeting about it and thought turn George into a werewolf, Mitchell into a vampire and Annie into a ghost. I had been writing a romcom about a Jewish werewolf. I had started to develop it but went off on a tangent. The version I wrote (sitcom), was more advanced - the characters were more integrated into society. The BBC read it and asked for it to be started from scratch.
KR - Did you know this would be a pilot?
TW - I wrote it at a low budget american indie film level.
KR - Would you be happy to do a series of pilots?
TW - Not really, no - but they wouldn't get made if not!
KR - Did you write the pilot of "Being Human" as a single stand alone ep?
TW - No, it was always written as ep 1.
KR - If you were aiming low budget, did you take down your tone/story world, and how did it affect character development?
TW - It's the only time I have written to specific genre as I try to be genre-less. The feeling I have about writing/scripts is they should be like life - which doesn't ever follow one genre. This should reflect in the writing: where there's a tragedy there's a joke being made.
KR - There was a huge response to the pilot of "Being Human"...
TW - At that point I had written the series bible, the arcs for the characters, but very little ended up on screen. For example the only thing I knew about ep6 was when Herrick walked into the room George would come out of the shadows; at the end of ep2, Tully says to George "One day you will use this" and that's what was used in that scene in ep6. I had some eps mapped out but some stuff 'just happened'.
KR - The whole 'humanity' speech stuff - you work with big themes. How do you juggle that?
TW - By shifting genres - they strive to achieve. 'Supernatural' allows you to write about the humanity they are striving towards.
KR - How important are your treatments?
TW - I always write many treatment drafts.
KR - How about feedback on them?
TW - It depends - some companies have policies - you may do 3 or 4 treatments, 4 or 5 breakdowns and then however many scripts. For "Being Human" I did one draft of the treatment and then went onto the script. It was quite high pressure as I was writing eps 5 and 6 whilst eps 1, 2, 3 & 4 were being filmed.
KR - Is the next series more of a collaborative process?
TW - I have storylined series 2 and put forward the ideas for character arcs and villains. These can be rejected or expanded.
KR - This is all very high concept, dealing with sci-fi horror.
TW - Yeah, pretty high concept - that's what I love! I was a huge comic book fan. I secretly craved to write Dr Who.
KR - Who would you say are your influences?
TW - Alan Moore, Joe Ahearne (Ultraviolet), PJ Hammond, Aaron Sorkin (The Wire)...
Q - How difficult did you find it to re-establish the character of Sarah Jane Smith?
TW - The whole show was reinvented and Sarah Jane had to move along too. She was easy it was K-9 that was hard! Totally anachronistic - pain in the ass! My work on "No Angels" was part of the reason they asked me to do it as Sarah Jane was such an iconic 70s character - young, fresh, sexy journalist who was ahead of her time - I had written the 'feisty woman' stuff.
Q - How did your relationship with other writers on "Being Human" work?
TW - For example one of the stories - ep4 - Mitchell befriending a local kid - was one of the first stories taken from the bible. All I knew was we'd have that scene with the kid & mother in the hospital, and then the scene when he goes into the room with Herrick and says "I'm in". That was handed to one writer. Ep 3 for example, was very different to the original but much better for it. We spend a couple of days with the writers and discuss the shows and then storyline with them individually, give notes on treatment then notes on the scripts.
Q - Did you choose the writers?
TW - I knew their work well and knew they would bring the right tone to the episodes.
KR - You seem to keep that Comedy element - goes from dark to very funny instantaneously.
TW - I have to write scripts with gags. When you write a drama with 20 gags everyone says - "Isn't he funny?" but if you write an hour long comedy with 20 gags, no-one will find it funny...
Q - How do you feel about the issue of completion in one ep versus continuing?
TW - During the period of 'story of the week', everyone hated the idea of a serial arc, but viewing habits have changed - we didn't have 'appointment television' then, you would just drop in and out. There was no audience loyalty and therefore they would have missed a story arc. "Linda Green" is a great example - you can watch the eps in any order as each is story of the week. Viewing habits have now changed: due to on demand, i-player, DVD box-sets etc it gives more opportunity to catch up, broadcasters are physically now allowed to tell longer stories, and so we can use serial arcs and character stories together.
Q - There were a slight changes from the "Being Human" pilot to the series...
TW - Because it wasn't commissioned straight off, we had to recast due to the actors' commitments, which changed the dynamic of the characters. This had a positive effect as the pilot vampires were a bit thin (a bit too Anne Rice). Adrian Lester was brilliant, but it caused a re-think. It was a good opportunity to do that.
Q - Do you prefer writing for stage or TV?
TW - The main difference between the two is that on stage you can write about anything. In TV you have the financial restrictions, you have to tell the story, less experimental and brave. In my 2nd play I had only two scenes each 40 minutes long. Theatre is very liberating but there is no money in it! If I have an idea for a play then it couldn't work on TV.
KR - How much control do you have over your ideas?
TW - Total autonomy over my work! When I was sent a copy of the "Hotel Babylon" I wrote, it was very different to the script. "Mild Thing" was my first effort towards directing too as is gave me more control over my work. I wouldn't lose gags because of the wrong stress etc. I actually did 18 months of stand-up as I have total control over my output that way.
Q - It's an observational character driven, uber-epic story about vampires, pulling characters in 2 different directions...
TW - We had to decide on how we were going to do these vampires, which rules we would follow. The pilot was too gothic, not real enough. We asked if vampires and werewolves were real, what life would they lead? They would have ancillary jobs, live on the fringes of society. If you have a race of immortals if would be natural for them to then think "I'm sick of this", giving Herrick a job as a policeman is the utter mundane and anonymous. Allows tension between the two worlds.
KR - Did you do much research in to werewolves, vampires etc?
TW - I did all my research when I was a kid!
Q - You like to have control over your work - there were tone changes in eps 3 and 4 of "Being Human". Where you present at all? Were these writer/director changes?
TW - The tone of the stories will inevitably change. The last two eps (two parter) the number of scenes was considerably higher than for example, ep 2, I was there for all the process though. Ep 3 had a lighter story - involving the 1980s ghost; in ep 4 the main story was the hate campaign. It's good to have gear shifts within a show and scene. The writers were very good at adopting and understanding the style and tone of the show.
Q - What factors determine the number of episodes? (compared to U.S. series that run for 20+ eps)
TW - Money! Series 2 will have 8 x 1hour eps though. In the States if something doesn't perform well, then it is just pulled. They have far more revenue from advertisers and sponsors than we do, which enables them to make long runs.
KR - How would you feel if you had to do 22 eps?
TW - Terrified! 8 is bad enough thanks!
KR - Tell us about the transformation to werewolf in "Being Human"
TW - Because of our budget, we ruled out CGI and everything was done with prosthetics and animatronics. In a way it actually makes it more tangible as it actually exists. The light falls on it all in a 'real' way.
Q - What differences are there between writing the pilot and a 1st ep?
TW - Writing 1st eps is always difficult - you need to set out the whole series as well as the self contained story. You have to do it twice with a pilot and "1st ep" - repeated but gentler in 1st ep.
KR - You used a funeral parlour as a location - wasn't that a bit obvious?
TW - But that's the genius of it! Cliche! It was all we could afford!
Q - What was the gap between the pilot and being commissioned?
TW - It was about 5 or 6 weeks. All hell broke loose and took us by surprise - we really didn't expect that response. What go the BBC though was the good figures of the audience present online: this was an audience they had been trying to engage and there they were. On the message boards there were people saying this was obviously an orchestrated campaign by the producers - but it wasn't! If you saw the producers you'd understand... The BBC had kept the show 'in development' and was stated as taking an interest. We always loved it - except when we were turned down of course.
Q - Was the Bristol location important?
TW - The show is made by BBC Wales so we only had a certain area we could film in. Cardiff had become a bit overcrowded so it made sense to go to Bristol - especially with it's history steeped in the slave trade. Which I only discovered months afterwards!
Q - Are you set in stone with your characters etc?
TW - I am sympathetic and unsympathetic with actors. I always give them a character name as it look better on your CV, and I always try to give them a gag. If they say "xx says this line doesn't work for them" then I'll say "Really? It's in the script." But then there are things an actor will bring out - the character of Herrick didn't go through much of a journey from eps 1 through 6 but due to [Jason's] performance nuances the character is made better than he actually is.
Q - What team is working on Series 2? (didn't hear this question clearly)
TW - Myself, Producer and script editor. We will 'cast' writers based on the genre of the eps. If one ep is comic and the next is scary, it gives the series a natural flow.
KR - How many eps will you actually write?
TW - Four well or six not very well.
Q - Are you tempted to do a Ricky Gervais and write yourself a plum role?
TW - I would hope my writing would attract a better actor than myself! Pragmatism overtakes vanity when you see what other actors do.
Q - How instrumental would you say getting an agent is?
TW - It makes life easier and having a good agent makes life a lot easier. As you know, no production companies etc will accept unsolicited work so you have a better chance of getting jobs through an agent. In my opinion, for theatre and TV you have to have an agent.
Q - When did people start to approach you to do work?
TW - After "No Angels" people started approaching me. It had been re-commissioned twice and was a runaway success. The meetings that occurred were based purely on the re-commission: they hadn't seen the show. But some brilliantly written stuff like "Buried' CH4 wasn't commissioned, so no-one knows how brilliantly written that was.
Q - How do you think Stand Up helped you?
TW - As a TV writer, it teaches you to write speedily, to cut out as many words as possible. You get instant feedback which is exciting, and the unpredictable nature: what is a great set one night could be awful the next.
Q - Were you involved in the casting?
TW - I was sent dvd compilations of actors, and then I did what I hated (as an actor) - "Yes" "No". When you are casting there is a sense of relief when the person is right. The actor Greg Chillin read for Mitchell at first, and then he came back and read for Owen and he was that character. Perfect.
Q - How do you come up with plot ideas?
TW - No idea! The come from the character I suppose. The voices in my head...
Q - Do you have a process of day to day writing?
TW - I approach it like a job. It is. I start at 08:30 and try to get 5 pages done. I go back and revise them so they are 5 good pages a day. By 5pm I am brain dead.
Q - Do like it?
TW - It's a very solitary existence and sometimes a little too much introspection leads to dark places within yourself - and the weirder you can become! But...you have no-one to delegate to and it's very empowering and responsible.
Q - Would you be comfortable writing on someone else's show again?
TW - That's what I am writing on at the moment - but can't say anymore.
Q - In your body of work, do you have a play to fall back on?
TW - It was years before I was asked or eve had my own work made. I spent 7 years working on other people's shows and was writing on my own stuff then too.
Q - You like having control - but you are handing 4 eps of Series 2 to someone else.
TW - I still have control as I am storylining! I shall rule over them like an angry god!
Q - How do you reconcile character changes once commissioned?
TW - They have to - some of the best moments are when a character does something totally new. For example in ep5 Annie haunted Owen and until I got to it I didn't know how it would work out. The rest of the episode then wrote itself.
Q - Did you have a favourite character?
TW - Ummmmm, that's a hard one. I love them all. I suppose Mitchell just now - as I am working on his story arc at the moment!
Q - Are the characters part of you?
TW - It's inevitable - George and Mitchell are two halves of my personality. One half romantic, houseproud and the other half isn't!
Q - At the background writing stage, are you aware of the limited demographics of BBC3?
TW - The level of intervention on BBC3 is far less than on BBC1 or 2. A good example is in the episode where Annie whispers a secret about death to Owen - if that had been BBC1 or 2 I would have had to explained it, but not for a BBC3 audience.
Q - Do you deliberately write for post watershed?
TW - Yes - I think there is an amount of authenticity post watershed otherwise I would have to declaw it. I wrote one show pre watershed and I found it difficult to keep the momentum up - it's not just down to sex and horror - stories have to have breadth, be subtle and have more nuance to keep the momentum up.
Q - How do you look at your own script?
TW - Get it out of the house! Deadlines are good otherwise nothing gets done and you just mess around with the script all over, and then, when the cuts come in you're too attached to it.
Kate Rowland finished off by encouraging people to send their scripts into the BBC Writers Room - they do get read people, not stuck in a slush pile!