On my writer’s group page Script Advice Writers Room the fabulous Lucy V Hay of http://www.bang2write.com and I coined a word for what script editors/writers who are also mothers do every day as we balance the juggle of the writing bit with the muddle of the mother bit – we called it a juddle.
And this is what I was doing today. Writing a treatment for a children’s animated series, making a papier mache alien for my five year old, and servicing the requests and questions I get from my website.
I was denied the joy of being able to blend together these three important facets of my life by telling a writer how to make a wobbly alien with shiny antennae, but no writers needed to know about that – however, if anyone had asked me, I would have been there like a shot with the Prit Stick.
So like so many of us these days, I multi-tasked; constructing an alien (no takers as to how I did this apparently) but also constructing a story for my treatment and this is what a lot of you seem to want to know about.
Having spent a large part of my career script editing and producing television drama; ostensibly telling writers how I would like them to change their scripts to fit my slot or show’s requirements, I am now attempting to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I write stuff too. The project on the go right now is a children’s idea that I am aiming at pre-schoolers. This is partly because (via being a mum for the past 5 years) there is no cranny of the Cbeebies output that I have not poked around in and also because I genuinely love children’s drama.
I produced in 1998 an award winning drama for CITV entitled My Dad’s A Boring Nerd by the marvellous Joe Turner. We won best children’s comedy with it for that year and at the LWT award ceremony, I met Tom Jones and he shook my hand in a very manly way and said ‘hello lovely’ which was just about my highest point until having my son nine years later.
The most important thing I learned then, producing a children’s drama, and going on to work on a number of popular ‘grown up’ dramas like Holby City, is that there really is very little to separate telling children’s stories from those transmitted way after the Cbeebies Bedtime Hour has been and gone.
Toby’s Travelling Circus (Channel Five Milkshake!) and Holby City have more in common than you might expect.
Both are ensemble pieces, where we see a returning regular cast of characters that we have grown to love lots, or not so much, and both have a familiar backdrop, or precinct to their worlds.
The place, or precinct in which the weekly stories are played out, determines the type of stories that are told there. So in Toby’s Travelling Circus, Toby and his circus gang have circus-related problems (the metal Strong Man is rusted, the naughty monkey has stolen Toby’s Ringmaster hat) and these have to be fixed before their nightly show in the Big Top. Of course, the stories in Holby City are life or death in many cases; the stakes are high and there is always the miasma of the medical world to circumvent in order that the stories feel ‘true’ but in the main, the essence of both are the same.
Toby and his gang are a warm, flawed, talented group of characters who suffer divisions and mal-practise in their ranks on a weekly basis. Their goal is the same, they are ultimately from the same tribe and for this reason, the show has a real soul and a truth that not only my five year old resonates with. His mum does too.
I believe the first series of Holby City was 1998 (the same year My Dad’s A Boring Nerd was winning its award and I was beaming at Tom Jones) now, fifteen years later, their stories have really come into their own and the structure of the episodes is now pretty much flawless week on week. The characters, like those under Toby’s Big Top, are flawed, talented, intelligent, risk-taking people who care and who aim for a single goal. Their precinct (the hospital) both protects and challenges them and the same applies to the rather more flimsy Big Top in Toby’s Travelling Circus.
Each episode holds at it’s centre, a key story; (the A) and one that will colour and affect the storylines around it. The tone and theme of that episode is directly influenced by the content; ‘the meat’ of the story. There can be up to five or six storylines running at any particular time in an episode of Holby City which form the narrative through line, or serial element of the episode and the series as a whole, and it is around these that the A, B and C storylines are wrapped. Toby’s Travelling Circus has less story material to construct, (in that the format is 15 mins as opposed to the juggernaut that is Holby and it’s 60 minute format length) but the construction remains the same. There are serial elements that need threading through each episode and there is a story of the week (the A) with smaller stories (the B and C; usually a comedy storyline) running parallel to it.
The construction of a storyline differs little in both types of shows, mainly because both are ensemble, precinct and serialised.
But what about the emotional stuff? A good story has to have both a solid construction and a heart. The human quality is very strong in both shows. And it is the constant interplay between what the heart feels and what head says, that makes Holby City and Toby’s TC essentially human and ultimately engaging.
Toby’s Travelling Circus has a single, older mum character; a Barbara Windsor crossed with June Whitfield. Dolores is non-judgemental, sometimes forcibly jolly and a worrier. She frets a lot about Toby and flirts in a ‘aren’t you strong?’ type of way with Thor the Metal Strong Man. Her subtext is love her text is fretting and talking too much. Holby City has a stony faced, ice maiden type character called Jac Naylor. She is pushes away soft emotions, and batts off closeness by flinging acerbic one liners at her co-workers. The episode where she reads an ailing ex-newspaper reporter’s subtext and subtly gives him a newspaper scoop that would momentarily give him a lift, is touching and delicately written.
Watching these women tackle their daily lives, battling both with their natures as well as the jobs they have to do, seems to me to encapsulate the essence of what a really good story is about.
Because ultimately, good story telling is a combination of two things: structure and understanding what it is to be human. The head over the heart stuff.
Television dramas express and explore this constant state of being with varying degrees of success, via numerous vehicles and following several formats, the attraction, the engagement, the resonance and the enjoyment of millions (in the case of Holby) means that we all at the end of the day, want to learn more about what it is to be flawed, kind, sad, funny and well, human.
The alien’s name is John Alien by the way.
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