Belfast Telegraph

The secrets of creating a television blockbuster

The latest series of The South Bank Show profiles some of Britain's most successful TV drama writers, such as Jed Mercurio, Heidi Thomas and duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. But what's the secret to reaching such substantial audiences? Georgia Humphreys finds out

Melvyn Bragg and Line Of Duty writer Jed Mercurio
Melvyn Bragg and Line Of Duty writer Jed Mercurio
Heidi Thomas

By Georgia Humphreys

If you've ever wanted to get inside the head of a TV writer, now's your chance. Airing since 1978, and edited and presented by Melvyn Bragg, The South Bank Show is the longest-running arts show on British television. And the latest series, which will air on Sky Arts, explores how TV dramas - arguably one of society's biggest talking points - are currently commanding huge numbers of viewers.

Each episode focuses on a different popular British television drama writer (or writing duo) working today, with Bragg taking us behind the scenes and revealing how their work comes to life.

Subjects include Heidi Thomas, creator of Call The Midwife; Jed Mercurio, the man responsible for Bodyguard and Line Of Duty; and Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who both pen and star in Inside No 9.

Here, said writers discuss the joy of storytelling, the challenges they face, plus their influences and inspirations.

ON WRITING ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW...

Jed: I've had an unusual route into writing for TV; I went into medical school and I practised as a doctor and got involved as an adviser initially. So, I was very fortunate that the first thing I wrote was very much about my primary experience of working in the NHS, in hospital medicine, in the 1990s.

It was revisionist of the dramas that were on that time. They're still going, those juggernauts that will last forever - Casualty and Holby. Other medical dramas which try and approach it differently just come and go. I was reacting against something that was already a part of the TV orthodoxy, even a TV dogma, so I had an enormous advantage.

ON DISCOVERING NARRATIVE EVERYWHERE...

Steve: You watch a football match - that has an incredible narrative to it. The Women's World Cup recently... Or, you know, the Tory party leadership conference has got an amazing narrative. You want to know what happens next! Or wish we could actually change the story...

You'll find narrative in everything and what we try to tap into is just serving that up to an audience who might be curious to see what happens next, and see if we can entertain them and inform them along the way.

ON NOT ALWAYS NEEDING STRUCTURE...

Heidi: It's about texture. You go by feel; you think, 'Does it feel as though it's dragging?' I'd like to say one learns to trust one's instincts but, inevitably, the more experienced you get, the less you trust your instincts because the more often you've seen it go wrong - or right.

It's also about constantly questioning what you've accomplished so far within the body of an hour, which is roughly, for a first draft, about 65 pages, that I then cut down as I get further on. But, rules about structure don't help me.

ON FINDING IT HARDER TO CREATE STORIES NOW...

Reece: Everybody's so sophisticated and the tricks you find yourself employing are apparent to people now. And I think everyone's attention spans are so short as well...

You've got to really hook people in and I think that's hard, especially with writing the way we try to write, which is to surprise, and write the things that we used to enjoy watching ourselves, where you can't half-watch it, you've got to properly engage in it.

It's exciting and if you can do that to an audience and hook people in and take them away from their business of the day, that's a lovely thing. It's a service.

ON TAKING ON ADAPTATIONS...

Heidi: There's two big terrors in adaptations. One is you can't let the book down and the other is you can't let the readership down, because people expect certain things of a book they know well.

I couldn't resist the offer to adapt Little Women, but I knew there were 10 million women worldwide who'd bay for my blood if I got it wrong. And that took a lot of the pleasure away.

But, it is about trying to identify that which is sacred within the book and nurturing that to the best of your advantage, knowing that ultimately every adaptation is judged not by what you put in, but what you leave out.

ON HAVING TIME LIMITS FOR EPISODES...

Steve: It's changing, with the streaming services - I think we're all quite jealous. We don't write for Netflix, but the idea that you could have an episode one week which is 69 minutes and the following week 49 minutes...

I do find it attractive on the one hand, but equally, when we're writing Inside No 9, we know we've got to hit that 30-page mark, and I like that. I like having a structure to an episode ... I think putting a box around something makes you more creative sometimes.

ON USING COMEDY IN DRAMA...

Jed: I tried to get a lot of humour into Cardiac Arrest, the first series I wrote, and inevitably a lot of it got cut out for time reasons.

There was definitely a desire to have comedy counterpoint the darker elements of that. Also, the gallows humour felt like something that was important as a way of challenging the very earnest way in which people talked on medical dramas.

ON PERSONAL EXPERIENCES INFLUENCING SCRIPTS...

Heidi: There was a scene in Little Women which, in the novel, is just one line where it describes how Jo used to go to her father for consolation after the loss of her sister. I lost a teenage brother when I was still in my teens and I was able to put words in their mouths that existed within me but had never found their expression before.

So, I suppose that was a case of me using something from my personal lexicon, if you will, to create dialogue and put something on the screen.

  • The South Bank Show will air on Sky Arts and NOW TV from Tuesday, 10pm

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