With a BBC Radio 4 play under her belt, Mandy Redvers-Rowe writes about the experience to write a television drama for BBC televisions Moving On series.
There is no getting away with it, writing for television requires you to pitch.
Pitching is a word that has always filled me with dread and fear. Having to condense your idea into a single sentence, or short paragraph, seems impossibly restrictive. And if this isn’t bad enough, the consequence of doing this well enough to get you through to the next stage, then requires you to sit in front of a group of Producers and present your idea verbally.
How is any of this fair? Surely they want writers, not Sales Reps.
Why put us under so much pressure!
But last year I did pitch my first idea for a television drama. I got through Long listing, Short Listing and was finally commissioned to write a 45-minute original drama for BBC1 as part of the Jimmy McGovern Moving On series 11.
My drama has now been written, filmed and edited, but it has not yet been broadcast, which means I’m unable to discuss the plot or storyline. However, I thought it might be useful to share with you some of the things I’ve learnt.
In November 2017 I was commissioned to co-write my first radio play Blind School with Sarah McDonald-Hughes. And yes, we had to pitch to get it, but as the more experienced writer, we’d agreed that Sarah would lead on this.
It had taken me years to get this first drama commission and I needed to make the most of it; use the opportunity to get further work. With this in mind, I attended a ‘Pitching For TV’ workshop in June 2018. It had been set up by the Disabled Artists Network Collective (DANC) and was held at Home in Manchester. It was led by industry professionals: Justine Potter, LA Productions; Debbie Oats, writer for Coronation Street; Lindsay Williams, Story Producer for Coronation Street; and Usman Mullan, BBC Writers Room.
The advice given was useful, the team clarified terms and helped us understand how Pitching can work for you as a writer. Basically, if you can’t sum up your concept in a single sentence, then your idea isn’t strong enough and you need to keep working on it until you can.
I knew this in theory, of course I did, but I’d always found it difficult to start with a clear idea. I often need to write first, find my way through. However, my experience working on the radio play was already having an impact on the way I worked. We were writing and re-writing scene by scene outlines. Developing ideas and working through the structure. I was beginning to see how this enables you to ensure that you are telling the story you want to tell, before you actually begin creating dialogue.
So, I took it on board, determined that I would give this approach a go.
One of the most re-assuring pieces of advice, was that if you do get through to meet a producer, a verbal pitch is not a stressful interview. You won’t be put under pressure to outline your plot in a matter of minutes. No, it’s more of a conversation about the idea. They are already interested, otherwise you wouldn’t be there. This is their chance to meet you, see if they can work with you, see if your idea stands up to scrutiny.
At the end we were informed about opportunities, crucially for me, one from Justine at LA Productions was the next Moving On series. Moving On is one of the few TV dramas offered as an open commission, meaning that you can apply whether you have an agent or not. I went for a chat with Justine after the workshop and she suggested I tried putting in a joint pitch with my radio co-writer.
Pitching for Moving On
Sarah and I agreed to put in a joint pitch. In July she got in touch as LA Productions had opened the round for series 11, but this time it wasn’t being offered to everyone just writers who had already pitched for earlier series. Sarah had pitched previously so she’d been contacted. She emailed the producer, introduced me and said we’d like to offer a joint pitch.
We now had to come up with an idea. With my workshop notes in front of me, I shifted my approach and focused on the concept. What is it I’m writing, what am I trying to say, why?
Sarah and I exchanged a few ideas, but none of them seemed to work for both of us. Then, just before the deadline, she was offered a commission and realised that she wouldn’t be able to do it but said that I should go ahead on my own.
As I hadn’t been directly invited, I needed permission to do so. I decided that my best course of action would be to pitch my idea in a few sentences via email. Amazingly, the Series Script Editor, Sarah Deane liked the concept enough to invite me to put in a full pitch.
Step One: The Written Pitch (150 Pitches Submitted)
The full pitch required the title, a single sentence log line and plot summary. All contained on one A4 page. I also had to send a CV and a sample of my writing.
I knew which idea I was going for; it was one that had been buzzing around in my head for months. I’d talked it through with a few friends, but I now had to clarify it, tell the story, create characters and plot.
I only had a few days to complete the pitch, so spent lots of time thrashing everything out. I wasn’t sure how to present the plot, so in the end I did it the only way that made sense to me, in bullet points, like scenes. I re-created the drama the way I imagined it would play out on the TV.
Step Two: Longlisting (15 writers through to this stage)
At the end of August, I was longlisted and was invited in to LA Productions to meet Jimmy Mcgovern and Sarah Deane. I was of course terrified but remembered what had been said at the workshop and went in ready to discuss the idea. They were both lovely, it was very relaxed. They liked the concept and we spent a lot of time exploring the storyline, imagining how it would play out.
One crucial thing that Jimmy said was: “Of course, if we go with this, you do realise that it won’t be your story any more, it’ll be our story.”
As someone who loves collaborating, I fully understood. Together we’d come up with some really strong ways to develop the storyline, ideas I wouldn’t have had on my own. I was so inspired, relieved. They asked me to go home and re-work the pitch so they could send it to the BBC for the next round.
Step Three: Shortlisting (10 writers through to this stage)
In October I was shortlisted and invited back in to pitch, this time to Jimmy and Sarah, but also to Dan McGolpin, BBC Daytime Controller: Julie Shaw, Commissioning Editor; and Helen Munson, Schedules Manager, as well as LA Production’s Executive Producer, Colin McKeown MBE andProducer, Donna Molloy.
There were a lot of people in the room! But very nice people, so that was okay.
I was asked to pitch my idea. So, I went through my story plot-point by plot-point. Then a wider discussion took place. It was more intense than the previous pitching experience, but I had Jimmy and Sarah very much on my side. It felt as though all three of us were fighting for my drama, willing it to get through.
Step Four: A Commission to Write a First Draft (6 writers through to this stage)
At the end of November, I was finally commissioned to write a first draft. Six writers were commissioned, but only five would get a second commission that would lead to final production. So, I wasn’t safe yet!
I decided it was time to give up my job and focus on writing. If I was going to get through this last stage it would take all my time, effort, commitment; everything I had. The first draft deadline was February 2nd which only gave me a couple of months. I had to work my notice and so in reality I only had one month part-time and one-month full time to write the best script I’d ever written.
Step Five: A Full Commission (5 Writers through to this final stage)
As it happened, the deadlines shifted, and I did in fact have a few more weeks than initially expected. I submitted my first draft at the end of February and was told at the beginning of April that I had got through to the final stage. I had been commissioned to write my first original TV drama!
I was so happy!! I actually cried!
My gamble of giving up my job, dedicating myself to writing, had all paid off! As I celebrated the end of this process, I was reminded by Sarah, that it was now time for the hard work to really begin!! She was right, of course she was…
But that’s another story.