I’m about to confess something: I live in Edinburgh and this year, I put my head down the whole time the Festivals were on and pretended they weren’t happening. I was in the Outer Hebrides for half the time, and when my husband headed off to France for ten days, I decided that the opportunity to get my head down and write was too good to miss.
Of course, it didn’t work like that. I cleared the box room and sorted everything in it; ditto the cupboard under the stairs; and once more the utility room. It all felt good, and the house definitely looked more organised … but work? What’s that?
I was about to settle down with the wip (honest!), when I decided I’d read the Sunday papers first – and there, impossible to ignore, was a full page article about Jed Mercurio, scriptwriter for the gripping TV drama, Line of Duty. He was in Edinburgh … and he was giving a Masterclass at the Television Festival (which runs concurrently with the International Festival, Fringe Festival, Comedy Festival and Book Festival, as if we didn’t have enough festivals in the city already). It would be sold out, surely? I checked: it wasn’t. I booked two tickets, one for myself and one for a friend who writes thrillers. We’d both benefit from this!
The first thing to say is that the Television Festival feels very different from any of the others. It’s primarily for delegates, though a few sessions (such as this one) are open to the paying public. It’s in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which is a large, specially built facility – and telly people are clearly used to a better lifestyle than writers, because compared with any writers’ conferences I’ve been to (quite a few), this was luxury itself. There was a champagne bar, for starters, plus cool spaces for downing smoothies or moccachinos, and huge TV screens everywhere. Sky Arts had a dedicated area where a harpist was plucking away, and where you could play with virtual reality headsets (I did), or have a go at drawing Rory Bremner from a large image. This was a promotion for the excellent Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition (I didn’t stop to try this – there are limits).
There were trendy people everywhere – young guys with Gareth Bale ponytails atop their heads, women with killer heels and … drum roll … I even bumped into Russell Brand on the stairs. Literally. (Sorry Russell).
This was going to be good. The seats in the auditorium were so comfortable I could have fallen asleep – and to be honest, I might have done, for this was certainly not a Masterclass in any sense I had imagined. I suppose I was fooled into thinking I’d learn something about writing because the session was being delivered by a scriptwriter, but perhaps the words Television Festival should have sounded a warning, and also the fact that he was to be chummed by actress Vicky McClure (who plays Fleming). Lots of the audience questions were about where the money comes from and how to pitch to access funding, what’s it like doing 30-page interrogation sessions in a single take, and do the women in the cast get equal pay with the men. Obviously I would have liked something much more practical (mastering timing, the reveal, the twist, characterisation, maintaining a meta narrative etc etc), but that’s not to say I didn’t glean some gems. Here are a few:
- There are some basics – the police officer under investigation has to be introduced, the characters in AC12 have to be re-established and (I loved this), Jed has to work out the elements of their stories at the time the series starts and what elements of these we can collide with
- Jed likes to keep the construction as organic as possible. The twists and turns occur as he writes, and can sometimes change as the episode is being shot – for example, if he feels a scene can be made more dramatic
- No character is safe [shivers]
- The characters are multi-layered
- There are narrow margins between success and failure. Jed tells us he’s always surprised when something works, but then, you should always find failure surprising too.
There was clearly a lot of respect and affection from everyone in the audience for the drama and there was applause when we learned that the BBC has commissioned two more series. Having to assume that each series might be the last does set up constraints in the writing and planning – so look forward to a roller-coaster ride in the next couple of years!
With six episodes in a series, Jed likes to write the whole of it himself, although he acknowledged that more episodes would certainly require a bigger team. For novel writers unused to the constraints of television, I should point out that casting, schedule, locations and much more have to be sorted well in advance of shooting, so Jed delivers three episodes, then starts to think about the last three. He (and Vicky) were proud of the fact that Line of Duty has a strong female cast (and yes, she does have pay parity with the male AC12 characters).
I could have listened for a lot longer, I would have loved to have asked a load of questions of my own. Above all, I’d have loved to do a proper writing Masterclass with Jed Mercurio over a day or weekend because boy, he’s got an extraordinary gift for drama and tension. And if I left feeling just very slightly cheated, at least I was covered in stardust…
Oh, and finally, Jed revealed that he has a company of his own within Hat Trick Productions where he works with new writers. Perhaps I should take up scriptwriting?