How to write for the BBC: Q&A with Henry Swindell, BBC Writersroom

How to write for the BBC: Q&A with Henry Swindell, BBC Writersroom Image

Henry Swindell from the BBC’s Writersroom has worked with writers his whole life. He’s also worked on many of the UK’s best-loved soaps and dramas including Coronation Street, Casualty, Doctors and Hollyoaks. We talk to him about spotting talent, staying focused, unfunny comedies and undramatic dramas.

As a development producer for the BBC Writersroom – the BBC’s talent development centre – Henry and his team are responsible for sifting through over 10,000 scripts submitted every year.

Their aim is to to spot TV writing talent such as Jack Thorne, writer of The Fades and Dominic Mitchell, writer of In The Flesh. Both BAFTA winners and both discovered by the BBC Writersroom.

Getting your script noticed: voice and originality

Henry Swindell

So what does it take to get noticed by the Beeb? “Good scripts are written by people with something to say,” says Henry, “people who are excited by something, pissed off about something – people who feel compelled to write and tell stories about what it’s like being alive in the 21st century.”

Originality is important too – whilst there are only so many types of story in the world, for the BBC Writersroom, it’s about how a writer plays with these archetypes and whether they subvert things – or not. “We don’t want stories that are predictable, we want to be surprised. We like stories where you think it’s going one way then it goes another,” says Henry.

Be authentic, believable and credible

Scripts also need to be ‘authentic’ to make the grade – they shouldn’t sound like the writer is trying to ape someone else. Characters need to be believable and situations credible. Henry says: “A script could be set in ancient Rome or outer space – it doesn’t matter. I still need to believe that the characters would behave in that way. It has to make sense in that world.”

Finally, scripts need to be what they say they are. If it’s drama, it needs to be dramatic. If it’s comedy – it needs to be funny. Obvious you might think but apparently, we’d be amazed at the number of so-called comedy scripts the Writersroom receives each year which say ‘comedy script’ on the cover but barely raise a smile. Comedies should be comedies – not just light dramas or ‘warm’ stories.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of submitting a ‘dramedy’ I’d think twice – according to Henry, comedy dramas are either “unfunny comedies or un-dramatic dramas.” Best steer clear if I were you.

Live your life and write more

Whilst books and courses are great, Henry sees that they can only give a writer so much. Sometimes, he says, reading a newspaper or going to the pub is more valuable to your writing than anything else – because you’re engaging with people, with humanity. For him, that’s where the stories lie:

“I had a TV writer come to me a while ago frustrated that he wasn’t breaking through,” says Henry. “He said he was thinking about being a runner instead – just so he could work in TV. I asked him whether he wanted to be a runner or a writer and he said – writer. So I told him what he needed to do was write more. If you want be a writer you need to write. You’re much better going and working in a café and interacting with people every single day than getting a job in telly – just because it’s in telly.”

Sound advice it would seem as that writer now writes for the BBC’s children’s channel CBeebies.

Before pressing ‘send’: What’s the one thing you should consider before submitting to the BBC Writersroom?

It’s really important, thinks Henry, to make every script count. “At the Writersroom, we don’t read re-writes so it’s important that every and any script sent to us is the best draft it can be. Work on that script, feel passionate about it and compelled to write it.”

Henry offering advice to a writer

About the BBC Writersroom

Every year, the BBC Writersroom opens the floodgates by inviting anyone in the UK, Ireland or Channel Islands to send them a script. In return, they guarantee to read at least the first ten pages. They normally hold around five script calls each year each themed around certain genre or topic – such as drama or comedy. Each window can attract around 2000 – 3000 submissions. Later this year the Writersroom will be calling for radio and theatre scripts – so budding scriptwriters take note. However, they only accept scripts – no short stories, novels or poetry – and they need to be full scripts (not extracts) of 30 minutes or more.

After each window closes, the Writersroom whittles entries down to around 150 – although the figure is in no way fixed – and these are then given a full read and the writers sent notes. This number is normally reduced down again by two thirds and the remaining scripts are given a thorough read by two or more of the development producers. Only a small number of writers get through the final round but these lucky writers then receive intensive support from BBC mentors to develop their writing potential and their ideas.

Chris Smith About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.