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Issues of Authorship in TV Drama
(I wrote this essay as part of my assessment for the "Television Drama" module that was taught by Catrin Prys Jones at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, during the 2001/2002 session.)
(Note added 27/12/2007: I've just recently learnt that Catrin sadly passed away in October 2006. As one of her former students I'm sure I can speak for all of us when I say that she was a popular lecturer, who was easy to get on with, and who was very knowledgeable about her subject. This essay would not have been the same without her teaching. Aber has surely been a sadder place without her, and my sympathies go out to her friends and family.)
“Locating the author in a work of literature is usually a straightforward task, but in television drama the subject of the ‘author’ is a complex and confusing issue.” Discuss in relation to television drama of your choice.
People don’t have any problems in identifying the author in a work of literature, it’s the name on the cover. That person created all that is within the covers (perhaps with a little help in the form of constructive criticism from people like an editor, but, predominantly, they created all that is within the book). However, with films and television dramas, it’s not such a straightforward task. Whereas the creative effort in a book all comes from one person, with films and television dramas it can come from several. This essay will attempt to find where the “author” lies in television dramas.
In his book “Television Drama” John Caughie has said,
Cinema has been dominated by Hollywood, which grew out of a studio system churning out films on a Fordist factory line principle. Every film had to be similar to ones that had gone before it in order to be popular, but contain enough differences to draw the same audience in. In this atmosphere directors were challenged to try and do things differently, to try to be artistic in the way they shot their films and had them edited, but still keeping the familiar elements in their films to draw in their audiences. There wasn’t much freedom to be artistic. Television dramas, however, weren’t made in such a factory line fashion. People involved in television drama were given much more freedom to be artistic.
“It has become a commonplace of television studies that, whereas in classical cinema authorship is invested in the director...in television drama the status of ‘auteur’ has historically accorded...to the writer.”
(Caughie, pp. 127-128)
Another point worth making when comparing films to television dramas is made by Julian Mitchell,
Films are more suited for stunning visuals such as sweeping camera angles, predominantly the domain of the director. They tend to come off better when shown on a large cinema screen. Television dramas, shown on a much smaller screen in the home, aren’t suited to such stunning visuals. Due to the restrictive nature of the television screen the focus is much more on the characters, and, therefore, the story, predominantly the domain of the writer.
“In modern movies, the words are often deliberately inaudible; the director wants to tell his story with pictures and sound, not pictures and dialogue... But in TV large-scale effects simply don’t work; the screen won’t take them. What the screen will take is people talking comprehensibly to each other.”
(Julian Mitchell, as quoted in Millington and Nelson, p. 53)
What I hoped to have demonstrated above is how the director is commonly associated as being the main creative force in films, and the writer as being the main creative force in television dramas. However, the director is not the only person involved in making films, and the writer is not the only person involved in making television dramas. Both forms involve a collaborative process. I shall now leave films, and focus solely on television dramas.
To look at the collaborative process that goes into a television drama I shall be using “Boys From the Blackstuff” as a case study. I shall be looking at how the scripts came about, and then how other people involved with the production contributed to it. I shall be using Bob Millington’s and Robin Nelson’s book “Boys From the Blackstuff: The Making of TV Drama” as the main source of information.
When Alan Bleasdale wrote “Boys From the Blackstuff” his scripts were turning out longer than they were originally meant to be. The series’ producer, Michael Wearing, was determined to try and stay with Bleasdale’s scheme for the series, and so Wearing had to find extra money to produce them. This helps to illustrate how the writer was considered important from a very early stage.
Eventually, a 5 part series was written by the end of 1981. It is from around this time that evidence for the collaborative process of producing television drama can really be seen. Millington and Nelson say,
In talking about Wearing and Saville they go on to say that,
“In November 1981 several informal meetings were arranged to enable Alan Bleasdale, Michael Wearing and Philip Saville [the director] to meet and discuss.”
(Millington and Nelson, p. 57)
Again, this illustrates the importance placed onto the writer by the director and the producer. However, in commenting on the collaborative process of writing television drama Bleasdale has said,
“The refinements they proposed to the shape and structure of the series were very much in keeping with the writer’s original ideas.”
(Millington and Nelson, p. 58)
Whilst Wearing and Saville considered Bleasdale to be important in creating the series, Bleasdale believes that he wouldn’t have been able to make it the best that it could be by himself.
“There’s never been a piece of mine that hasn’t been massively improved by contact with other people, by consensus and talk and their ideas.”
(Alan Bleasdale, quoted in Millington and Nelson, p. 58)
The producer, director and writer had no qualms about collaborating on the revisions on the scripts, but what impact did they have on Bleasdale’s work? I shall look at two examples that Millington and Nelson have looked at in the 5th chapter of their book.
The first example concerns the end of the fourth episode, “Yosser’s Story”. In the original ending that Bleasdale wrote Yosser is taken to a police cell where he attempts suicide. Wearing felt that this was a little unrealistic, as the police wouldn’t have left a man in his state in a position where he could attempt suicide. It was Saville that came up with an alternative idea, namely to have Yosser return to the lake that appeared in his dream sequence at the start of the episode, and have him attempt to commit suicide there. Bleasdale agreed to this, and the original dialogue from the police cell was moved to the police car. This illustrates how the producer and director added their own thoughts and ideas during the creation of one of the episodes.
The second example concerns the third episode, which was originally to have been called “Pulling the Plug Out”. It dealt with Chrissie and Loggo as they got revenge on the Department of Employment. In the episode there was a scene between Chrissie and his wife, Angie. Millington and Nelson say,
It was Saville that suggested to Bleasdale that he rewrite the episode, focussing on the relationship of Chrissie and Angie, and to show the women’s point of view of life on the dole. In talking about the director’s affect on the series, Millington and Nelson say,
“The relationship between Chrissie and Angie...was completely undeveloped.”
(Millington and Nelson, pp. 59-60)
Also, Wearing had problems with the episode as well. As Millington and Nelson say, in regard as to one of the reason’s why Wearing rejected the episode,
“Saville’s proposal was attempting to steer the series more towards his own interests, to give his own creative impulses more scope.”
(Millington and Nelson, pp. 60-61)
In order for the first and last episodes to be made how Bleasdale had written then, the new third episode, “Shop Thy Neighbour”, was written as a domestic play. And so most of the original third episode had to be left out; the significance of Loggo’s character was downgraded, and the character of Mrs. Sutcliffe was more developed. This illustrates how a technical problem spotted by the producer forced the writer to write within technical limits, which had a knock-on effect on the characters.
“...its episodic style using eleven separate locations and several mobile vehicle interiors outmatched the OB [Outside Broadcast] facility.”
(Millington and Nelson, p. 60)
So, we can see that the director and producer did have an impact on the series. It is thanks to them that the series takes into account the female perspective at all. However, it is worth noting that, in these examples, although the director and producer spotted the problems and suggested alternatives, it was still down to the writer to do the actual rewriting.
There were also other problems that lead to Bleasdale developing some aspects of the scripts further which Millington and Nelson talk about in their book. For example, there were problems finding a suitable location for the building site in the first episode. Once a suitable location was found, Bleasdale had to make some modifications to the script so that it would fit the location. A tiled staircase was found at the location, and Bleasdale was able to incorporate this into the script. On the staircase was the shoddy banister, which eventually leads to Snowy’s death.
Also, Bleasdale had originally scripted a montage sequence where Yosser looks for his children in the fourth episode. This would have taken too long to film, and so a new scene was written where Yosser broke down in the doctor’s room. Millington’s and Nelson’s comment on this is that,
Millington and Nelson consider these revised scenes as “some of the most memorable moments in their respective plays.” (p. 66)
“The rewritten scene is more dramatic than the original. Instead of repeating a sequence of increasingly frenzied search scenes for the children, the father is required to register the impact of their loss.”
(Millington and Nelson, p 65)
Bleasdale was still able to add “memorable moments” into his scripts at late stages. However, Saville was also able to do this whilst making the programmes. At the start of the fourth episode, Yosser loses his children one by one in a dream sequence. This came about when one of the child actors didn’t want to go back into the water. Saville says that,
I hope that I’ve been able to demonstrate by now that, whilst the writer is the main creative force in television drama, it is a collaborative medium, and people like the director and the producer can contribute creatively as well. It is also worth noting that other members of the team, such as the actors and designers, also had an effect on the series, although I don’t have time to go into detail on their contributions here.
“The idea came to me that he could lose one child at a time, which in a dream would be even more likely.”
(Phillip Saville, quoted in Millington and Nelson, p. 120)
In terms of authorship, “Boys From the Blackstuff” has commonly been seen as being by Alan Bleasdale. However, in more recent television dramas, especially those from America, it is harder to credit just one writer as being the author. Various programmes employ a team of writers to develop a series. To illustrate this, I shall now look at “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”, the main source for my information coming from interviews and online chat transcripts on BBC Online with some of the writers.
Joss Whedon is credited as being the creator of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”. Whilst he does write a number of episodes for the series (particularly key episodes), the show uses a team of writers. How much of the creative development of the series is down to Whedon, and how much to the team of writers?
When asked, “Do you work out all the plots personally or do you handle it as a committee now?” Whedon replied,
So, Whedon works out much of a series’ overall story by himself. Other writers confirm this, but they also say how they add their bit,
“I tend to plot the major story points, sometimes in conversation with the writers and usually by myself. Say I figured out that so-and-so will have an affair with so and so then at the beginning of every year I sort of map it out and figure out the basic steps when this is going to happen and who will write that script and when and where so-and-so dies.”
(Joss Whedon, as quoted on BBC Online)
Jane Espenson is probable the most illuminating on the writing process of an episode of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”. When asked “How does a Buffy episode get from first idea to finished script?” she replied,
“Joss has very strong ideas about the overall pattern of the show, what’s going to happen in the course of a year. He usually comes in with a general shape and then from episode to episode the different writers pitch wrinkles on that.”
(Marti Noxon, as quoted on BBC Online)
From this it can now be gleamed that Whedon works out the general story arc for each season of the show, and then, as a team, they work out the specifics of each episode. Then one (or, occasionally, two) writers will go off and write the episode.
“That part of the process is very much a team effort. Someone (usually [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon) comes in with an idea.
“We all talk about it for a long time, trying to figure out what the emotional reality of the story is for Buffy.
“We talk a lot about her ‘arc’ – how her emotions and attitude will change throughout the story. Then we start figuring out the events of the story and how they will lay out into the four-act Buffy structure. This is called ‘breaking the story.’
“It’s considered ‘broken’ when the writing staff has figured out what happens in every scene of the episode. Then the writer of that episode is sent out to turn that structure into an outline and then into a script.”
(Jane Espenson, as quoted on BBC Online)
The show often seeds elements in earlier episodes that then get exploited later on in the series. But where do these seeds come from? Who is it that places them there?
Looking at the fifth season, in the episode entitled “Triangle” Buffy and her gang acquire a troll’s hammer. Espenson has quoted Whedon as saying, “Let’s keep that troll hammer around – we can use it later.” (Source: BBC Online) In the last episode of the series, entitled “The Gift”, the troll hammer was used to help defeat Glory, the main villain of the season.
However, Whedon isn’t the only member of the team that seeds crucial elements in a season’s story arc. Again, looking at the fifth season, in the episode entitled “Checkpoint” the “Knights of Byzantium” are seen for the first time. Espenson, who co-wrote the episode with Doug Petrie, says that she believes it was Petrie that came up with the idea of the “Knights of Byzantium”. Espenson goes on to say,
The “Knights of Byzantium” did indeed become a major element in the season towards the end, where they hamper and eventually stop Buffy’s gang’s escape from Glory. This then leads to Glory finding Buffy’s gang, kidnapping Buffy’s sister Dawn to use in her plan, and thus setting up the final conflict of the season.
“It was just a very cool idea to introduce a new element that we hoped would end up being a major element through the season. Towards the end it ended up working out.”
(Jane Espenson, as quoted on BBC Online)
And so, taking all of the above into consideration, what can be said about authorship in television drama? What I hope I’ve been able to show is that it isn’t possible to name just one person as being the author of a television drama. Creating a television drama is a creative process involving many people. However, I would argue that it is possible to name just one person as being the main creative force in a television drama; such as Bleasdale in “Boys From the Blackstuff” and Whedon in “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”. Whilst these individuals are responsible for a large part of the creation of television dramas, they do not do it alone. But they are extremely important, as, unlike films on the big screen, they are the key people in getting a drama to work on television.
Copyright © Sophie Green, 2002
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“Boys From the Blackstuff”, BBC, 1982.
“Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”, 20th Century Fox, Mutant Enemy, Kuzai Enterprises, Sandolla Television, 1997 – 2003.
Caughie, John, “Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture”, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Millington, Bob and Nelson, Robin, “Boys From the Blackstuff: The Making of TV Drama”, Comedia, 1986.
BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/buffy – interviews and online chat transcripts with Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, and Jane Espenson (links to the interviews and chat transcripts can be found at this address), all accessed 30th March 2002.
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