Fitting The Bill

1st August 1997 at 01:00
So how do you get to write for The Bill, undoubtedly the programme most open to approaches from new writers?

1) Write your Calling Card.This is a piece of writing that proves you can write television. It bears no similarity to an episode of The Bill. In fact, whatever you do, do not approach The Bill with a sample episode of The Bill; don't approach Casualty with a sample episode of Casualty, and so on. Think about it: there is no chance of you, as a viewer, knowing where the series is in its planning stages or knowing the in-house tricks. And think harder: if your sample's any good then you've just put the script editor you're writing to out of a job.

So your Calling Card is a one-off piece for television (think of Play for Today, of sainted memory) which should be set in a modern city (nearly all series are) and feature a hard, strong, well-told story. All this screenplay does is prove that you can write television drama. And therefore it must be the best piece of writing you are capable of; it must be the story you are burning to write. That's all.

2) (Probably simultaneous with stage 1). Watch as many television series as you can and decide which you like and could imagine writing for.

3) Send your Calling Card off to script editors at those programmes. (Optional stage 3a: send your piece to agents - try the smaller, hungrier ones. Like all great 20th century inventions, you don't need one, but it helps.) 4) Hope. But also keep watching television series - lots of them. If you haven't got time to watch them all, especially if you're targeting several programmes, buy a few E240 videotape multi-packs.

5) The script editor rings you and says they like your work and would you like to come in and have a chat? So you get out all those tapes and watch them. Think about how the show is put together, what you might do (ever so slightly) differently, what you liked, what puzzled you.

6) Go in for the "chat". The purpose of this is to convince the script editor and producer that you are One of Them. This means you must show that you watch the programme (all those tapes are paying off now - you will look as though you've been watching it for months) and that you think about it. You can (mildly) criticise bits and (fulsomely) applaud others. But they'll have already decided about your writing ability; they wouldn't be wasting time talking to you if they didn't think you could cut the mustard. The chat is to see if you're simpatico.

The day I went into EastEnders for my chat there was a party in progress to celebrate a particular writer's 100th episode (100? How did he do it? The smart money's on a family of Filipinos in his attic bashing them out) and he was riding round on his present, a unicycle. Well, he was attempting it. And amid the warm-white-wine revelry, I was invited also to attempt it. I didn't refuse. I was later commissioned. Me, a whore? I digress.

7) Wait for them to ring to commission an episode from you. In the case of everything except The Bill, this will be an invitation to write episode number XXX to be transmitted on a particular date. In the case of The Bill, whose episodes can be developed and ultimately transmitted in just about any order, they will suggest you go off and work on a premise.

A premise (in Billspeak) is a half-page story outline. A genuinely testing test: if you can sum up your idea in 250 words, you've got a story. If it takes longer - because it hinges on the intricacy of that car chase or a certain convoluted relationship - you haven't got one. If they like the premise, they commission a story line from you. If they like that, they commission the script. And then all the drafts start. And the ex-coppers on staff start making life difficult for you with reality and jargon and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. But that's all a long way down the line, and by then your script editor will want you to succeed and will steer you through it. You won't need me for that bit.

* The Arvon Foundation runs highly respected creative writing courses at centres in Devon, Yorkshire and Scotland. The first 10 readers to send a TES masthead together with their address to David Pease at The Arvon Foundation, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF will receive the new Arvon brochure in January and 20 per cent off the course of their choice

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