Marine Furet reports from a day of discussion on industry and craft at the BBC Writersroom Festival in Cardiff.
The air is still buzzing from a keynote given by Russel T. Davies. In the entrance hall of the National Museum of Wales, experienced showrunners, budding screenwriters, and busy executive producers are rubbing elbows under Dippy the Dinosaur’s tail, desperately trying to get through their cup of scalding tea in time to attend the day’s next showstopper, a plenary panel given by the creative team behind His Dark Materials. Everyone is a playwright with a business card at the ready. Congratulations, you have made it to the 2019 edition of the BBC Writersroom Festival.
The BBC Writersroom is a redub of the TV Writer’s Festival. First created in 2010; the event has gradually expanded to include comedy and, this year, radio drama. The Festival is an invaluable hub for anyone wishing to meet industry leaders and gatekeepers while garnering advice from some of the BBC’s most successful writers. It is also an opportunity to showcase some of the BBC’s new writing talents. Last but not least, it is a TV and radio geek’s paradise. This year’s events included a flurry of prestigious names and newcomers. This was the festival’s first stop in Wales, and at a time of expansion in the Welsh arts and media scene, the event undeniably had a lot of questions to answer. The first, and foremost, is perhaps to know whether we are now to expect a more diverse cultural landscape.
The day was certainly a testimony to Welsh presence in the media. Half of the parallel panels had a Welsh focus, and even those events with a less local flavour testified to the BBC’s current effort to root itself in the Welsh landscape. In addition to including some guest-talks by revered Welsh figures, such as Russel T. Davies (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Queer as Folk), Rhiwbina-born Andrew Davies (House of Cards, Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables), Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon (Gavin & Stacey), the programme put the spotlight on a number of Wales-engineered production successes. One of the first was evidently His Dark Materials, the BBC’s current hit adaption in collaboration with HBO, produced by Cardiff-based Bad Wolf.
For an enthusing hour, Bad Wolf’s co-founder Jane Tranter, script editor Xandria Horton and production designer Joel Collins go through their creative process. It was hard not to feel some degree of excitement every time the trio casually referred to Philip (Pullman). We quickly got into the practical details of bringing a show of this amplitude to the screen from inception to end. Tranter emphasized the Britishness of His Dark Materials – a ‘complex, knotty, gnarly’ work – and the importance of a good, visual writing to bring the books’ universe to the screen. Tranter remarked that this often implied going in and out of each volume of the series, rather than reading them linearly, and occasionally embracing their gaps and inconsistencies. Joel Collins also brought fascinating insights, particularly about the role of design to crack open visual issues in the book and script. Mrs Coulter’s apartment, in particular, was fully brought to life in its full icy luxury. The set was a mix of Cardiff locations and London views, and employs Welsh skills and craft, partly thanks to a partnership between Bad Wolf and Wales’s Higher Education sector.
Tone was also of great concern – allegedly 46 drafts had to be binned before the show came to life – particularly for a show employing a huge team of creatives, and aimed at a public potentially unfamiliar with science fiction and genre drama. In Tranter’s words, His Dark Materials functioned not as a democracy, but definitely as a collaboration. The desire for authenticity of tone and for a univocal feel to a show strongly came through in another panel on writing multilingual drama, which featured Welsh writers Roger Williams (Bang) and Caryl Lewis (Craith/Hidden). Writing in Welsh and English with a team of writers comes with its own host of challenges: not only to ensure that all writers ‘get it’ and do not divert the show from its natural voice, but also to find the right balance between the shows’ idioms Both Bang and Craith allow for experiments with language and identity, and as Caryl Lewis observed, some ideas can feel different in English and Welsh. Less present in the discussion was the question of what representations of Welshness are perpetuated on screen: at a time when the National Theatre Wales, for example, has introduced Located residencies that question, among others, the role of migrant communities in constituting contemporary Wales, such discussion might have also proven a relevant addition to the day. This debate, however, is also determined by material considerations. For example, all present agreed on the difficulty to produce a show entirely in Welsh, particularly in view of the financial constraints involved in such an endeavor. Even despite the success of bilingual enterprises like Bang and Craith/Hidden, sourcing the necessary funds for a show in English and Welsh remains a challenge, and an all-Welsh screenplay risks being met with raised eyebrows.
Indeed, the financial implications of writing and producing were a recurrent topic throughout the day. In short, savviness to the funding market is a must, and multiple bids are needed to finance a single show. While His Dark Materials owes a great deal to Welsh locations, the involvement of international funding, a prestigious cast, and high production quality mean that the show balances both local and global scales. It is, as Jane Tranter put it, ‘a mighty amount of money’, which meant for example that the show’s pilot had to be ready for money to be secured. The same preoccupation weighed on BBC Drama commissioning editor Ben Irving, whose presentation was a reminder that good television is also a number-crunching game. The current scarcity of $$$ is of course the reality of all areas in the creative world. The academic in me could not help but shiver at the mention of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, one of the biggest funding organisms for higher education, during the panel on radio drama. However, the finance question is a particularly significant one for Wales, as the new concentration of production societies and artistic talents of all provenances in the nation can only be perennial if followed by an expanding funding pool.
From masterclasses delivered by industry giants to an exhibition fayre including BAFTA Cymru and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, the day was an opportunity to hear from some major figures of the television and film industry. In a context of increasing competition, the concerns of young authors in the audience were telling: the question of how to best pitch your writing is on everyone’s lips. Andrew Davies had the last word on this, encouraging writers to “stick up for [their] own ideas, producers and editors don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about” – much to the delight of said producers and editors, no doubt. Davies’s charisma and his knack for storytelling shone through even during a Q&A-style conversation, but insights on the craft of writing also came from less established players. On a panel dedicated to audio drama, writer Janina Mathewson (Within the Wires), writer and composer Timothy X Atack (Forest 404) and Welsh actor and filmmaker Darragh Mortell (I Am Kanye West) reflected on the intimacy of radio storytelling, and its connection to musical composition. With I Am Kanye West, a podcast fiction dedicated to the famous rapper, Darragh Mortell experimented with a mix of narration and sampling. Mortell’s suggestion that the audio drama sits halfway between the film and the novel was a good way to think about ways in which we consume radio both as an immersive and mobile medium. As an expanding form allowing for forays into narrative experimentations, the podcast genre has drawn much attention to itself in the last few years. With the development of new technologies, coupled with the BBC’s desire to address itself to younger and more diverse demographics, it will be interesting to see how radio drama develops into new and experimental shapes in the next few years.
Overall, the festival reflected the tensions and transformations currently changing the writing industry. In the last few years, Cardiff and Wales have increasingly claimed their own seat at the table, and the crowd in attendance on the day was a testament to the bustling creativity waiting to be tapped into by the industry. The BBC’s gradual turn towards new mediums and technologies, and its asserted desire to speak to new audiences may also be an opportunity for creative talents of all kinds in Wales and beyond. While a success of the scale of His Dark Materials should give us hope for the future of arts and media in Cardiff, the city’s growing creative scene must now rise to the challenge.