It’s fantastic to hear that the BBC’s Writers Room is opening an office in Belfast. This will be great news for writers from Northern Ireland, those living in Northern Ireland and indeed Irish writers across the island of Ireland interested in writing for UK network. Okay, hands up here: I totally live in Northern Ireland so I am totally biased about what it has to offer but, I also like to think, totally in the perfect position to offer a few words of advice into the Writers Room’s delicate shell-like.
So consider this post the blog equivalent of welcome loaf of bread (or Belfast bap) or a neighbourly cup of coffee cos here’s a few rambling thoughts on what the latest blow-ins might be facing… and the truly exciting opportunities that lie ahead.
A Land of Opportunities
Every place has its landmarks and in terms of Northern Ireland’s screenwriting heartland, there are two: Northern Ireland Screen and the BBC. When they work together, they make magic but a consistent cross-over in terms of writer development (particularly for those in the heady early stages of their career) would benefit local writers greatly. Easy to say, for someone with a nice view of the outside of both, but probably worth formulating. Northern Ireland Screen are great champions of local talent and are plugged into the international market – but they can’t offer the tangible opportunities to move into network that the BBC can, if it chooses to.
It will take a variety of writers’ voices, in different genres and cross formats, to build confidence and create an indigenous culture of returnable, commissionable ideas for the BBC (and beyond) – which is surely the TV Holy Grail. Whilst BBCNI already has a strong presence in network drama, it’s difficult to get new writer’s original work on screen via that route because of the high-risk factor. Concentrating initial efforts on Comedy and, in particular, Children’s would make a lot of sense as new voices in these genres are often seen as a plus. Also Children’s programming tends to lean towards shorter episodes and longer runs so less risk too. On top of that, Northern Ireland, with support from Northern Ireland Screen, already has an established and successful community of kids’ writers, directors, animators and producers with their eyes firmly on international production.
Actively pursuing those who are already working in different disciplines could be a really smart move –and understanding how people work here would be another. If we take screenwriters in NI, as an example, they tend to lean towards film first, often self-funding, self-directing and self-producing. This has led to a culture of incredibly resilient and resourceful film-makers but it has also cultivated an unwitting talent echo-chamber – with few writers getting formal guidance from a development producer or outside production company (and not realising they might benefit from such input). Elsewhere writers, across other disciplines (and we have an embarrassment of riches here) tend to work in their own creative bubbles. The Writers Room would be well placed to bring playwrights, filmmakers and novelists together in a shared aim to create stories from here with a TV, film or radio audience in mind – for over there (or there) as well as here.
Developing Irish writers sounds straightforward – but clarity on what that actually means in terms of priority and outreach is going to be pretty essential (i.e. is the priority writers based in NI? Northern Irish writers based all across the UK? Or writers from across the island of Ireland with an interest in the UK market?). We will soon find out. It’s worth acknowledging though that the narrower that shopping list is, the narrower the window of opportunities is likely to be. Keeping those windows of opportunity wide open on the basis that this new office deserves as solid a foot hold as possible would make a lot of sense, as the saying goes: a high tide raises all boats.
The good news is: there are lots of fantastic writers in NI, from NI and from across the island of Ireland who would love an opportunity to craft their ideas, for TV, radio and film, under expert tutelage – and the Writers Room is well placed to offer that and tangible results and for that alone this welcome news couldn’t be cheerier.
It was only a short time ago that Northern Ireland’s entire production crew could just about populate a production and a half. Now, we have a booming market, we are home to the most successful TV series in recent years, Game of Thrones, and productions like Line of Duty, Dani’s Castle, The Fall and My Mother and Other Strangers – and a host of big screen movies. It’s simply a matter of time before an indigenously developed show finds its feet. And one successful returning series idea, originated here in NI, will likely breed another.
So what is there to do between now and that golden tomorrow? Here’s where I think The Writers Room could really make a difference:
- Target and develop established writers from other disciplines: playwrights, screenwriters, live theatre – help them adapt their existing body of work for radio or TV.
- In keeping with the Original Drama Shorts, consider teaming up with NI Screen to create a mentored NI writer-director scheme by teaming up exciting new writers with promising new directors.
- Get involved, or be inspired by, RTE’s fantastic Storyland scheme. In fact, keep talking to RTE because I STILL think RTE’s Love/Hate is one of the most compelling dramas of the last decade.
- Facilitate opportunities for Irish writers to work on existing shows (good writers need credits/good shows need good writers – it’s win-win) – which means developing the best possible original work sometimes just for it to be a solid calling card script.
- Identify Irish writers already in the system – not in a Donald Trump way, y’understand – but by having a coherent strategy to know Irish writers already contributing to existing shows and encourage them to develop original work. This means potentially great stones won’t go unturned. Plus anyone who has worked on a long running show knows the following to be true: of the writers working on existing shows, some will struggle to write the show they are commissioned to write for (for a host of reasons) and can get written-off as an originator of new ideas somewhat unfairly. Other writers are so busy writing for an existing show, they don’t have the time to nurture their own voice – and, by definition of their own success, have forgotten how to use it. On top of that for many writers on existing shows, their main contact in development is a script editor – someone is not always in a position to develop original work anyway.
- Finally, consider developing new writers, where appropriate, around a table with other writers. This kind of transparent collaboration is really good at addressing the “creative bubble” culture whilst offering opportunities to navigate typical script challenges (new writers often fall into the same common or garden story traps and sometimes it easier to learn about those tropes in a group where the spotlight and pressure isn’t necessarily on you). Plus writers inspire each other (inspiration often inspires inspiration) and it’s a great way to build a sense of real community within the writing community.
And with that, welcome to Belfast, The Writers Room! Hoist the sail and point the sharp end towards the horizon.