TV SCRIPTWRITER TELLS ALL

Martin Day

I interviewed TV writer & author Martin Day who has scripted Doctors on BBC1, Family Affairs on Channel Five, Fair City (RTÉ), and was lead writer on CBBC’s Crisis Control. Martin is also the author (or co-author) of twelve novels and audiobooks, two audio plays and eight non-fiction books, mostly concerning television in general and Doctor Who in particular. Martin, who has taught creative writing at Bath Spa University, has also written comic strips, short stories and journalism.

Leslie: Can you give a brief guide to your TV writing, please – different types of writing & the range of shows you’ve written about and scripted. Which ones stand out as seminal? Why them?

Martin: My first TV credit was on Channel 5’s soap Family Affairs; I wrote nine episodes in a year and learned a lot about characterisation because writing dialogue was pretty much the entirety of the job. You were encouraged to participate in story conferences, but the show had a storylining department and by the time you started work on an individual episode, the plot and structure were pretty much set in stone.

I then spent about nine years on Doctors, another soap, but with a ‘story of the day’ component which means you’re effectively given carte blanche to write a little twenty-minute play with a limited number of characters and locations. That aspect of Doctors really stands out for me – effectively you’re learning how to tell a story and I often found myself pushing at the boundaries of what was expected or allowed. I did a time-travel story, and a story about psychogeography, and a rom-com in miniature.

I also worked briefly on the Irish soap Fair City and was the sole writer on Crisis Control, a CBBC series that mixed live-action game show challenges with dramatic interludes. There were a variety of natural disasters, plus a meltdown in a nuclear power station, a mystery illness on the International Space Station and a problem with the Thames Barrier, and the teams of young people had to sort everything out! (Such a shame it was never recommissioned – perhaps we blew the budget…)

Leslie: How did your interest in TV-related writing begin, grow and develop? What have been the most significant developmental experiences in your career?

Martin: I’ve always written and wanted to write – other than spaceman, being a writer is the only job I ever wanted. The best Christmas present I ever had as a kid was my first typewriter! And I love television – it’s always meant slightly more to me than film, to be honest – so I was always thinking about trying to write scripts and so on. But the key there is that I was thinking rather doing, and I certainly wrote more prose than scripts when I was in my teens. By the time I was earning a little money from writing – record reviews for the NME and some co-written books about television and film – I’d pretty much told myself that there was something magic about scriptwriting and that it was only done by ‘special people’. I’d worked in publishing for a couple of years, but I didn’t know anyone in the TV industry, and my first proper script – a horror film, if I recall correctly – was so utterly atrocious that my original literary agent was staggered anything could be that bad. But I heard about a scheme called Television Arts Performance Showcase – run by Diane Culverhouse and the late and sorely missed Jill James – and I submitted a new, much more character-based, short script. And they liked it, and it was performed by actors in front of an invited audience – still one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had as a writer! – and I got some training and input. Diane ended up being my first proper telly agent and got me that gig on Family Affairs. And everything else extended from that, really.

Since then it’s been a roller-coaster, albeit a rather long ride, given that it started over twenty years ago. The good experiences – seeing your words brought to life, going into the studio, hearing that someone watched your stuff go out and they liked it – are second to none. The bad experiences… Well, each one feels like it might be the end. Getting booted off shows (sometimes fairly, sometimes less so), nearly getting onto a major series or even having something of your own in prime time – oh, the near misses…! I’m not going to pretend otherwise, those rejections and mis-steps still hurt, and things are pretty quiet on the TV front at the moment. I can’t guarantee I’ll ever return, or that television will ever have me back, but you never say “Never”, and something’s brewing…

Leslie: What aspects of yourself have you had to train, encourage and curb in order to be a successful freelancer?

Martin: I think I’m a slow learner, and to some extent everything I’ve done has been to try to mitigate that. I was a bit precocious as a child – I’d fill exercise books of stories where most of my friends would struggle to complete a page – but if that develops into any sort of skill or talent, I don’t believe it gets you all that far. You’ve got to be determined, got to be prepared to fail (which is why I mentioned those early, awful scripts), and got to be prepared to carry on. And that doesn’t come naturally to me. However, in recent years, I’ve made myself try new forms of lemonade production as life kept lobbing lemons at me. When the TV stuff went quiet, I started lecturing in Creative Writing and switched my emphasis back to prose again – and I kind of wish I’d done that years ago! But persistence is key for the freelancer – far better writers than me are no longer working simply because they gave up.

Leslie: What are the differences and similarities between writing a script for TV and a book about a TV show?

Wooden Heart by Martin Day

Martin: I’ve written original novels based on TV shows – Doctor Who, that sort of thing – and I’ve written a novelisation drawn directly from something on television (Merlin), and I guess the differences between both and writing my own scripts are partly technical, partly conceptual. So – and it’s stating the obvious of course – you can move more directly into your characters’ minds in prose than on television, but on TV generally everything comes from dialogue and action. And, in prose, you’re responsible for sketching in locations and physical appearances and everything – there’s nothing else but the words on the page and the imagination of your reader. You’re working on the end product directly, like an artist or a sculptor. With scripts, only a few people will ever read your words in that form and you’re a cog in a machine – an important cog, but you’re very much at the mercy of the actors and the director and a whole team of people. (They can make a bang-average script sing; conversely, they can kill stone dead something that had potential.) I love the collaborative nature of scriptwriting – you end up with something you could never have done on your own, and most actors and directors that I know are superb alchemists, somehow capable of turning the base metal of words into pure gold. But I love the intimacy of other forms of writing – you’re not hiding behind anyone else. Your story or novel will either fly, or it won’t, and you can’t really blame anyone else whatever happens.

Leslie: How do you ensure high-quality writing, both in terms of the genre’s requirements and your own personal voice? What facilitates and hinders your best writing?

The Sleep of Reason by Martin Day

Martin: High-quality writing often comes down to time and effort, pure and simple. The more time you have, the better something will usually be – which is why working on the soaps is such fun, because that’s the one thing you don’t have! When people talk about a writer who produces (seemingly) effortless prose or dialogue, it’s almost always a result of agonising hard work behind the scenes. But there has to be a spark too, and you need to keep that alive, especially if you’ve rewritten something so often, you can’t even remember what the point of it is any more. And the best fiction, within any genre, has one eye on the spark – your own voice and interests and way of doing things – and one eye on the ‘rules’, even if you’re pushing against them a bit. Easier said than done, but those bits of writing I’m most pleased with – some of those odd Doctors episodes I mentioned above, my Doctor Who novel that’s actually about a self-harming bipolar young woman – generally have that twin focus.

What facilitates my best writing? Someone to believe in my work when my own self-belief falters and, as much as possible, a freedom from anxiety – the pram in the hallway, the mounting bills… I mention these things because my wife’s a busy (and wonderful) GP, so the deal was always that I looked after the kids when they were growing up, and she would provide the lion’s share of the familial income. And while I wouldn’t have missed all that time with my children for the world, she’s also been my most dogged champion. (Thankfully, there have been others!)

Leslie: What have you learned from having taught and studied creative writing at university ? What are the psychological differences between lecturing and being a student?

Martin: It’s a cliché, but I’m sure I’ve learned more from my students and from teaching than they’ve ever learned from me. Often with writing, so much of what we do is instinctive and/or comes with experience, so to work backwards and try to teach what we do is incredibly illuminating. I also learned a lot from being a student – some lecturers taught me a great deal technically, others encouraged me to leave my comfort zones behind. To be honest, I also think I learned a bit – either directly or by anecdote – about how not to do it, or how I would prefer not to do it. Of course, any degree, any exam or period of learning, should be taken seriously, but if you’re not careful, the teaching of creative writing – of anything, I guess – can instil rather remove fear. And I just don’t think that’s healthy. It might sound like I’m setting the bar pretty low, but it seems to me there’s enough self-doubt in the heart of any writer – and more than enough abuse and unfairness and disappointment out there in the creative industries – and I simply don’t want to add to that.

Leslie: How do you entertain your audience while still trying to inform and educate them?

Martin: It often comes down to character – and that’s the great thing about writing for the soaps, people are already invested in these fictional people, and they’re happy to go on a bit of a journey with them. Sections of an audience will, rightly, react against being lectured or hectored, but I always assume they’re interested in new thoughts or ideas or they wouldn’t be watching or reading in the first place. Having said that, I think you’ve got to stick to your guns sometimes – there’s a very human tendency to want to retreat to the familiar and the safe, and occasionally you’ll provoke a very extreme reaction when you’re going into areas that people find disturbing or threatening. But entertainment usually comes first – and if you can’t entertain, you should at least follow the old writer’s mantra: don’t be boring.

Martin Day in the studio with Frazer Hines and Simone Lahbib for a forthcoming Doctor Who audio production.

Leslie: How do you want your work to affect the reader or viewer? Where do you find the most ‘added value’ for society in all the work you’ve done?

Martin: I feel sometimes I’ve impacted people more through my teaching (and through my current role with the Royal Literary Fund) than through my writing directly. Of course, that might be a function of rarely meeting or interacting with your audience when you’re writing a script or a book. I’m certainly aware of those episodes of Doctors, say, that had some negative feedback from the viewers (I wrote an episode that was quite a frank discussion of teenage sexuality, wrapped up in a story of illness and doubt, but unfortunately it was transmitted during a half term when all the kiddies would be home from school). And, let’s just say, if you write something within the world of Doctor Who, and a fan doesn’t like it, they’ll often find a way of telling you! But when it works, or it means something to someone, it’s very satisfying – some of the reaction to the afore-mentioned Who novel about mental health was gratifying, and often somewhat vulnerable and personal. And I’ve tried quite consciously to look at those big themes – mental anguish, warfare, illness, what have you – because of course you want your work to be about something, to mean something. To return to your question, you want what you do to affect people – otherwise, why are you writing?

Leslie: Setting aside money & employment, why do you write?

Martin: As I said – and very sadly! – money and so on barely come into it. At least, they haven’t for me – it was very distressing a few years back, when I averaged out my income over a couple of decades and worked out I’d probably have been better off if I’d worked in McDonald’s that whole time. (I have nothing against people employed by McDonald’s, of course – I’ve worked in retail myself.) I think I hinted earlier that affecting people – emotionally, psychologically, dare I say spiritually? – is perhaps at the heart of the drive to write, to dare to believe that other people might somehow be interested in the contents of our little minds. To take people on a journey, to entertain but also to introduce them to new things and differing views – how exciting is that?

But ultimately, I just don’t know what keeps me writing. I joke that it’s both a calling and a compulsion – or maybe even an illness. I can’t not write. (Whether other people are interested in what I write, well, that’s an entirely different matter.)

Next week I interview disability activist Gaele Sobott who has written short stories set in Botswana, and a biography of Wiradjuri man and champion boxer Wally Carr.

ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:

  1. Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.                                                                   A signed copy of Love’s Register is available in pounds sterling here.  The paperback in other currencies is available here.                                                   Ebook for Kindle in £s here and in $s here.                                                           For other ebook reading devices here (all currencies). 
  2. Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
  3. The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.

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