Monday, July 20, 2009

Tinniswood/Imison shortlists announced

Nominees for the Tinniswood Award (best new original radio drama broadcast during 2008) are:

The Switch by Ali Smith (David Jackson Young, BBC Scotland)
Goldfish Girl by Peter Souter (Gordon House, BBC Radio Drama)
The Heroic Pursuits of Darleen Fyles by Esther Wilson (Pauline Harris, BBC Radio Drama, Manchester)
Far North by Louis Nowra (Judith Kampfner, Corporation For Independent Media)

Nominees for the Imison Award (best new original drama by a writer new to radio broadcast during 2008) are:

Flaw in the Motor, Dust in the Blood by Trevor Preston (Toby Swift, BBC Radio Drama)
Girl From Mars by Lucy Caldwell (Anne Simpson, BBC Northern Ireland)
Cobwebs by David Hodgson (Gary Brown, BBC Radio Drama)

Winners in October!

Playwriting tips

Found this on the Bruntwood site of the Royal Exchange Theatre: Thanks guys!

1. Use stimuli such as music, photographs, a newspaper article, an object etc…to help you come up with the idea for a character or story.

2. Start off by trying to write a stream of consciousness. With paper and pen (or computer) give yourself 15 minutes, and just write anything that comes into your head. Try not to censor or stop certain thoughts, just give your mind and pen freedom to wander. You may surprise yourself as to what you come up with. Some, or most of it, may not be of any use to you, however, you may find that you stumble across an idea, or a little nugget of inspiration that you could develop. This may be a good exercise to do each time you start writing, or even when you hit a brick wall and don’t know where you should go next.

3. Listen to the way that people speak. Eaves-drop on conversations and note the differences in their voices and the way they speak e.g. accents; repetition; interruption; pauses; volume; vocabulary; what they say; what they don’t say; length of speeches etc… These ‘things’ are the tools that a playwright uses to create individual voices for their characters. It’s important that each character you create has a distinct voice.

4. People watch. Whenever you are out and about observe other people, how they act and interact. Make notes, and attempt to write down an exchange you have witnessed, or think you may have witnessed, even though you couldn’t actually hear it. Think about them as characters and try to work out what their stories might be. Consider the 5 ‘w’s – who, what, where, when, and why? One of these characters, or situations just might provide the spring board for your play.

5. Write a piece of dialogue between 2 characters, in which each character can only speak 3 words per line. The purpose of this exercise is to force you as a writer to focus on exactly what your characters want and are trying to say with each line of dialogue, and doesn’t allow for any rambling or exposing back story.

6. Write a scene with 2 characters, in which the first character (A) wants a physical object from the second character (B), but B doesn’t want to give the object away. Create characters and decide why A wants the object and why B doesn’t want A to have it. Think about not only what they say, but what they don’t say, how they relate to each other physically, how they move etc…
7. Re-write the above scene in a totally different location. What setting would raise the stakes for one of or both the characters? Could you switch from a private to a public setting or vice versa? Think about how this particular setting affects the dialogue, what is said and what is left unsaid, and the way the characters move /relate to each other.

8. To develop a character, (or all the characters in your play), try to write a list of 50 things about them, without letting your pen leave the paper. You can write about anything, such as where they live, who with, what they like, what they dislike, what makes them angry, what they had for breakfast…absolutely anything. Try to let go of your imagination and write whatever comes into your head. You want to get to know them, and the world they inhabit, inside out and back-to-front.

9. With a character you have developed, think about what it is that they want most in life. Think of a moment or event in their life when this ‘want’ is magnified for some reason – the stakes are heightened. What obstacles stand in their way (may be other people; something in themselves, such as fear; or a physical obstacle, such as being trapped in a room). Decide which other characters are in the scene and develop them (exercise above). What do they want? Write this scene.

10. Once you have written a scene, read over it, or even better ask friends to read it out, and ask yourself the following questions: does the dialogue wander aimlessly, or is it driven by the characters need for something? Does the dialogue contain lots of back story? Are the characters believable as people? Do you think the scene will leave the audience wanting more? Answer as truthfully as possible and then re-draft as necessary. Be ruthless, even if it means cutting large chunks of writing you feel attached to.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sitcom tips from Paul Feig

Top US sitcom writer Paul (Freaks and Geeks) Feig gave the Guardian his top tips:

1. Nice can still be funny

"The first series of The American Office really struggled to find an audience. The producers soon realised that American audiences didn't really warm to unlikable lead characters. Michael Scott [Steve Carell] didn't have enough redeeming features. I came in on the second series and directed an episode called Office Olympics, which was a turning point. Steve's character Michael was having a bad time trying to buy a condo and, to make him feel better, his staff let him win a trophy at the office Olympics. I encouraged Steve to get emotional when they presented him with the trophy. He suddenly had this vulnerability that made people warm to him. I think it's important for shows to have a sweetness at their heart."

2. Stop sneering

"For me, the worst sort of comedies are the ones where the writers or the actors seem to be looking down on the characters. There are so many comedies that portray people living in the suburbs as living ridiculous or hypocritical lives. But I grew up in the suburbs of Michigan in midwest America and tend to think that everyone is just trying to get through life as best they can. You don't have to sneer or poke fun at them to get a laugh. Most laughter comes from people seeming real and giving the audience recognition. Freaks And Geeks was a reflection of what it was really like growing up in a suburban environment. It was partly a response to all of those 80s teen movies where the characters didn't really talk or act like real teenagers."

3. Make them cringe

"Regardless of where or when your story is set, it's important for the peoplein any comedy to act just like real people act. That means not speaking in a constant stream of pithy one-liners. It means getting into the same sort of horrible, awkward situations we all get into every day. Easily the most funny, fascinating and cringeworthy time in anyone's life is school. It's the only time that you get lumped in with a whole bunch of people without any filter; it's not to do with skills or interests, just age. And you're forced to spend every day with them for years. With Freaks And Geeks I wanted to write scenes that people would squirm while watching because it would seem so familiar. Seeing people cringe is the jackpot for me. The thing is, not everyone wants to sit through the exact same situations they already had to go through at school. So it's the jackpot that nobody wants to win!"

4. Cut the jokes

"A script packed full of jokes is what a network executive will sign off because it will seem funny on the page. But it won't work when you shoot it because people don't really act that way. A great comedy is about real characters who make you laugh because you appreciate their personalities and how they react to particular situations. They have to be believable human beings, not just vehicles for gags. Will Arnett, who played Gob in Arrested Development, was a dramatic actor before he got that part. Gob might have been a dumb character who did stupid things but Will played him in this serious, believable way which made it so much funnier. I ruined more takes by laughing off camera at Will than I did on any other show. But that's why I love my job."

5. Slow it down

"Watching TV comedy is a sharing experience. People like to look at each other after a funny moment to show they both got it, and maybe even repeat it back to each other. Arrested Development was never a big hit in the States because it didn't allow people to do that. If you stopped to look at each other after each laugh you'd miss the next three jokes and four set-ups. Mitchell [Hurwitz, the show's creator] never wanted to drop a scene so we ended up with shows that were so dense with laughs that it left you with no room to breath. It required a lot of labour on the part of the audience just to keep up, and there just isn't enough people in the States who are prepared to put that sort of labour in. The Office has been more successful because it has a slower pace; there are actually long moments of silence so audiences can consume the whole thing easily."

6. Hope the boss likes you

"The truth is, it sometimes doesn't matter how funny your show is. What matters is who is in charge of the network it's on. If he loves your show then it will survive long enough for you to build the characters and build an audience. The guy in charge of NBC when Freaks And Geeks was on never liked the show so we knew it never really stood a chance. But 30 Rock is an example of a show that had huge support within NBC which is why it was allowed to ride out its difficult early days, when it didn't get much of an audience. Tina Fey helped that; her profile grew thanks to the Sarah Palin thing so the bosses warmed more to her show and they moved it to an 8.30pm slot on a Thursday night. In America, Thursday night is comedy night, and so if you get a prime time slot on a Thursday, you've got a great chance of being a hit."

7. Milk your cast

"If you're trying to make a great comedy, most of your time and effort should go into casting. Find the right actors and let them do their thing. Some writers and producers can be inflexible: they write their scripts, think they're hilarious and won't let the cast change a single word. But it's important that the actors feel natural in what they're saying. I prefer TV to movies because you can shoot a pair of actors with two cameras, let them play off each other and see what happens. That's when the funniest stuff usually happens. I could write 1,000 gags into Freaks And Geeks but none of them were as funny as Martin Starr [who played Bill] just responding to someone by saying 'Huh?' 'Huh' doesn't sound funny on paper so you have to write a joke to get it past the network bosses, then let the actors do their own thing."

8. Create a family

"A great sitcom makes you feel like you're part of a family. You'll hear viewers refer to characters by their first names as if they're close friends. They'll say, 'I hope Jim gets together with Pam!' or, 'I can't believe Michael did that!' and that's when you know you've got a success. One of the most important things in building this family atmosphere is having one main location."

9. Thank God for DVD

"The popularity of DVD box sets has saved many sitcoms. Networks have persevered with slow starters like 30 Rock because they know there's the potential for them to make money and build a wider audience through DVD sales. Plus, if there are scenes you've had to cut, you can always put them on the DVD extras!"

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Last year Torchwood marked the switch-on of CERN with a radio special, available for download. This year the controversial cutdown Children of Earth on TV (only five episodes, only one week) is preceeded by three radio specials (Afternoon Play, R4, July 1-3), also available to download for 7 days after broadcast.

The first, Asylum, was about a teenage girl who falls from the sky having been burned out of Cardiff AD2069 because she's a 'ghostie', half human, half alien grey. Things are all 'skillaboo' until the final twist: she was pulled out of her burning house by a Torchwood operative. Intriguing start. Good enough. Notable use of internal monologue for the girl, Freda.

The second play, however - The Golden Age by James Goss - was much closer to the best of Torchwood, using Jack's immortality to merge history and sci-fi. Jack, Gwen and Ianto (one striking element is that we don't in any way miss the two team members killed in TV series II) are drawn to Delhi by massive energy spikes. They find Torchwood India frozen in 1924, just as Jack left it. The jilted Duchess has used alien technology to freeze time, feeding it on India's greatest resource, the collossal (dispensable) population. "You're no longer human!" Jack cries. "But I'm still British!" she declares. Tremendous stuff.

The third, The Dead Line by Phil Ford, was beached somewhere between its two precursors. Great teaser - "Jack's dying!" - and neat echoes of Jack's past, but it ended up about computer viruses, and that's always too easy in current sci-fi. Really, though, it rendered itself second rate by having Jack in a coma for slightly more than half the running time. In fact, looking back over the three days, Jack wasn't exactly front-and-centre in any of the eps. Odd...

And then came Children of Earth, stripped across five nights, BBC1 9pm. Great premise - Midwich Cuckoos with a twist - and some agonisingly dramatic moments - the death of Ianto (totally unexpected) and the round-up of kids to be sacrificed, transforming the school bus run into a plangent echo of Auschwitz. But there were also problems carried over from the radio run - Jack sidelined for the whole of Episode 2 and a clumsy 'magic box' computer solution bolted on at the end.

But for all that, this was the best British sci-fi since Deathwatch in the 70s. Important issues; very clever (or fortuitous) references to hot issues of today, such as government spin, swine flu and the death of childhood; and the cliff-hanger ending to end all cliff-hangers. Just two Torchwood staffers left standing - one off to the stars, the other about to start maternity leave; the Cardiff hub blown to smithereens. Will there be another series? How can there not be, when the audience figures for Day 4 topped 6 million? How can Moffat top Russell T's crowning glory?