People are often asking what qualifies us to read their scripts. Why are we script readers for the BBC Writersroom and not you, or someone else? Have we been to university? Do we have nine GCSEs at grade A-C? Are we all ‘failed’ writers? If you’ve just received a “sorry you’re not progressing any further” email from the Script Room, I can imagine we might come across as a malevolent force, not unlike Sauron from Lord of the Rings, standing between you and your dreams of a red-carpeted shire.
While sifting hundreds of scripts over the past few weeks and trying to decide what makes a good scriptwriter, I’ve also been thinking about what makes a good script reader. In the comments section of a recent Writersroom blog some of you were doing the same, posting feedback on the feedback one of us readers had written (sadly, not me).
In a world where everyone sees themselves as an expert, whether they’re phoning in to a TV talent show, writing a theatre review or arguing about films in the pub (all of which I do), what makes one person’s opinion better than another’s? Is it that a television producer, newspaper editor or the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing, Kate Rowland, trusts it? Is a good opinion one that reflects the majority of other people’s? If so, what about Vincent van Gogh? He, along with many others, was only properly recognised after his death.
When he was working in the Writersroom, Paul Ashton used to describe script reading as “making subjective decisions based upon objective criteria”. For instance, most people would agree that interesting characters, strong dialogue and a compelling story are desirable things to have in a script – so much so that they have become clichés, regularly wheeled out in seminars, feedback letters and How to Write Your First Blockbuster books.
However, objectively providing examples of the above characters, dialogue and stories is a lot trickier. While many people (including The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) loved the Coen brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis, I found it slow and indulgent to a point where I’d quite happily never see another dark-haired, guitar playing bloke with a cat ever again – and that includes my boyfriend. Does this make me a bad script reader? Does it mean I could be that person who rejected the Coen brothers?
No, thinks my colleague Eric*. We were having a debate in the last Script Room and he rightly pointed out that we readers are a lot more generous assessing scripts from new writers than we are when we talk about produced films. He felt that since we are purely looking for potential in the Writersroom, this meant we could be more objective.
“Potential”, is a word that the Writersroom’s new Development Producer Abigail Gonda also used when we readers reported back on our annual test script. She wanted, she said afterwards, to see if we could spot it. Interestingly, while a few of us gave the script different verdicts, the majority said it was a “yes” and virtually everyone agreed on what aspects worked or didn’t. Maybe we are robots or clones after all! Or maybe there was simply a general consensus – and that’s the best you’re going to get from “subjective decisions based upon objective criteria.”
“Script readers are typically highly educated,” says Creative Skillset’s description of us. They also point out: “The work is not always well paid [but] is a useful entry route into Script Editing and Script Development.”
All of us in the Writersroom are already (when we’re not script reading) doing the jobs we want to do, whether this is writing, script editing, performing, directing or other things. Amongst us are individuals who regularly write for the BBC, have created their own series and even starred in an Oscar-nominated film. We don’t need a foot in the door. We’ve already got two feet, two hands, a body and a head well beyond the reception area. However, since script reading isn’t well paid, a lot of people see it as an entry level job – which is perhaps the reason writers are sometimes suspicious about whether we’re qualified enough.
So, if we don’t get paid very much and we’re not hatching a plan to break into the Director-General’s office and tip him off his chair, why are we reading scripts in the first place? One of my colleagues, Caroline*, said this: “On sift days, our lunchtime conversations pretty much always revolve around what films, TV or theatre everyone has seen recently and what was good or bad about them. It’s clear how passionate everyone in the room is about great drama.”
When I ask Caroline what else “qualifies” her to be a script reader she points out that she has “thousands” of script reports on her computer. Mine is the same. All of us have been reading scripts for years; some of us decades. We enjoy scripts, talking to each other about them, or things related to them, and discovering good ones. Perhaps this is what qualifies us the most – along with an ability to stay open to potential even if it’s 3pm and we’ve overdosed on custard creams.
Over the years, I’ve read on other script reading panels and have rarely met readers as qualified, experienced and careful with writers’ work as those in the Writersroom. Working with and talking to them inspires me to be better at everything I do, whether this is script reading or anything else. That’s why they have to remain anonymous. If they didn’t Hollywood, Channel 4 or the Coen brothers might come along and snaffle them up!
*Eric and Caroline are pseudonyms.
Written for BBC Writersroom