I’m now working on a docu-drama, an eight-part series about ancient Rome. This is the first docu-drama I’ve worked on, and it’s really interesting to see how the teams of directors and producers (four teams of two, each allocated two episodes) are working to combine the elements of documentary and drama to effectively tell the story of the Roman Empire. Along the way, I’m learning how drama is written, and I’ll share a few of my discoveries with you.
One advantage of dramatizing parts of history is to bring the complex politics to life. The history of Rome wasn’t all epic battles and gladiators: the key moments of change usually involved covert conversations in darkened corridors, House-of-Cards-style. These are pretty boring to describe or to read about, but dramatize them and you’ve got yourself an edge-of-your-seat political thriller!
One of my tasks as the series researcher is to provide the Drama Producer with character briefs for the casting. This means that I get to profile these incredible figures of ancient history in a way that the actor can embody them, understand their personality and their motivations, and bring these people back to life. It’s a great privilege, and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – my previous experience in directing theatre productions has come in useful too! I find that when I read about the leaders and key figures in history, I can vividly imagine what they were like – little details here and there that we get from their biographies make them jump off the page.
But I’ve been particularly impressed by how the producers and directors are so keen on historical accuracy. It’s easy to get carried away with the sensationalism of the story – but each drama sequence has been supported by and based on at least one reliable historical source. The directors are particularly keen to put words in the mouths of their historical characters that sound believable – I’ve been looking up extracts of Seneca’s speeches so that the director can write ‘in the voice of Seneca’. I’m also working with the props department to make sure that each of the key props in the series are historically accurate – for example, that the drinking cups are typical of status and period.
All these details, coupled with the new archaeological discoveries that we’re exploring in the documentary sections of the series, are bringing Ancient Rome back to life. I’m exploring aspects of Roman life that I never covered in my degree, and what will be an intriguing and informative journey for our Channel 5 audience has certainly been that way for me. I’m so happy to be a part of this project – and I can’t wait for filming to start!
My current job at Windfall Films is a researcher in their Development department, working on their specialist factual films. This means that I look for and write up ideas for TV programmes about anything that’s interesting, from outer space to ancient remains. It’s great – it really tugs at my intellectual heartstrings, it’s supremely creative and means I’m always on the lookout for cool and interesting stories!
However, Development can also be a long, hard slog. Every idea is an ongoing project until it gets commissioned. Sometimes you can have an idea, write it up, wait a few weeks for feedback, write it up again, put it to one side for a bit as another priority appears, revisit it, re-pitch it, and so on. The Bake Off idea was in development for 10 years before it was commissioned!
So with all this continuing work, it’s important to keep concentrating and keep motivated. There’s always a better way to write something, always a new idea to find, always more research to be done. I know I’m guilty of making explanations a bit too wordy and academic, or getting so caught up in an idea that I wrap up the key content in too much context. Sometimes – and this is really silly – I get so excited that I start mixing up my sentence structure so it resembles Latin syntax more than English! Curse of the Classicist I suppose…
So I’ve thought of a few tips to help keep your work in development sharp and punchy:
- How would you tell the story verbally? I certainly find it easier to tell someone about something interesting than to write about it. If you’re struggling to find the right words, maybe go for a walk or sit in a café and dictate your verbal explanation into your phone. Then when you come back to the office you can listen back to it and it might help your write-up!
- Once you’ve finished a treatment, print it out and re-read it before you send it off to be checked. Are there any typos? Does it make sense? Have you explained the idea well enough?
- Plan out the film as though it were your project, as though you were producing the film. Visualise how the story will pan out in the finished programme – and then write the treatment.
- If someone else on your team has reviewed and re-written your work, study what changes they have made. How can you learn from what they have changed in your document? Is there a different way of formatting the information that they prefer? How have they rearranged your paragraphs to make it punchier? And most importantly, how can you apply that to your next treatment?
These are my New Year’s Resolutions for TV. Bring on 2017!
Some of you may remember my earlier post about how to make your network of contacts work hard for you and find your next TV job. Well, after the intense six weeks at the BBC, I was very happy to have a little break – but at the same time I knew I needed to find my next job. So I stuck to my system and sent out CV update emails to my contacts, uploaded my CV to a few databases, updated my CV on social/work networking profiles such as The Talent Manager…and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for Arrow Media!
I received an email asking about my availability on the Wednesday evening and by Friday afternoon I had been offered a week’s work with them. I was to help out the researchers on Animal Fight Night with their script annotating.
I have Chemistry A level, so I could bring a strong understanding of science to the job – but actually my ‘layman’s standpoint’ became an advantage when I was researching web facts for the episodes! Specialists in natural history may find certain facts about animals obvious that to the ordinary viewer would actually be really amazing. So I spent a fun but certainly full-on week finding out all sorts of interesting, gruesome and downright weird facts about every nook and cranny of the animal kingdom.
And so I’ll leave you with this: an ant can carry 5,000 times its own bodyweight. That just so happens to be the same weight as a human testicle. Or two mushrooms.
My first job was with Lion Television, a production company that specialises in historical documentaries (they also make Horrible Histories!). I was a researcher for Mary Beard’s new series, Meet the Roman Empire. Having studied Classics at Durham, this was right up my street! As a documentary researcher, you are looking for two things: the FACTS and the STORY. Without the story, there is no TV programme. But the story needs to have facts to back it up, or the programme won’t have credibility. And the facts are what makes documentaries different from fiction, where the story is the only important factor.