Lifting the lid on continuing drama by Abbie Heathe


This brilliant session is like sitting down in the Queen Vic with a pint, listening to a couple of mates chatting, and feeling a part of the conversation. It gives you a real fly-on-the-wall insight into the way soaps are written and made.

Both Philip Lawrence and Lisa McMullin have written for EastEnders, so there’s double the value to be had in a really lively, fun hour – and a ton of useful advice.

Achieving The Dream

Philip is the LSF poster boy for the route to writing success. At the 2014 Festival he made a public announcement of his intention to write for Continuing Drama. Six years later, he’s there.

He talks about the time and work he put into that journey, and makes it seem eminently possible: meet people, ask for advice, build up contacts – and make sure you’re vocal about where you’re heading, as people will help. 

‘Get Outta My Kitchen!’

Running one of Philip’s recent EastEnders episodes, with both writers commentating, wasn’t just FUN but truly fascinating. It revealed a lot of behind the scenes detail about the making of the show, and how some practical elements of filming can impact on the writing, in ways I’d never have thought of.

Don’t include too much phone text, for example – or include too many ‘stunts’ in an episode. Think about the practical implications of making life too complicated for the director, which is something Philip says he learned from being on set to watch his episode being filmed. 

It also gave us a chance to follow the storyline from beginning to end, and for Philip to talk in ‘real time’ about decisions he made on the script. And there are some wonderful stories about the cast, characters and set. 

The Workings Of The Eastenders Machine

Again, both Philip and Lisa contribute their experiences (with some Doctors and Casualty background thrown in). Obviously, the show is huge, so as a writer you’re only ever seeing a fraction of what’s going on.

They break down how the writer’s role fits in around those of the storyliners and script editors, the way a block of episodes is put together, and how the commissioning meeting then hammers out the fine detail.

And then it’s down to the writer – a first draft is pretty much completed in two weeks. ‘Learn to write really quickly’ is a salient piece of advice. 

The Writing Process

There’s so much detail on craft in this session. Philip goes through his process for the script, from first meeting, through structure (he uses John Yorke’s five act structure) to beat sheet and scene by scene.

There’s a fascinating discussion about how to write for existing characters – who is easiest, or most fun to write for – and how different it is from writing your own spec scripts. Lisa and Philip talk about how much can be added by an individual writer, and how much subtext needs to be added. It’s fantastically detailed and again, there are some great anecdotes. Sausage Surprise, anyone? 

Both writers talk about how to cope with unexpected last-minute changes to the script – when actors become unavailable, new characters are introduced as you’re on the third draft, or a General Election has suddenly been called.

And there’s a conversation about the different approach to writing Casualty and Doctors, where there are more opportunities to bring in your own story ideas.

End Every Scene On A Hook…

This session is packed with great advice – on the craft itself, on the workings of Continuing Drama Series, and on how to get there in the first place.

The biggest takeaway was Philip’s three recommendations: ‘Be patient, be driven… and always be nice.’ And that’s the key message: he and Lisa are just so lovely, it’s a real pleasure to spend time listening and learning from them. They make it sound not just achievable but really fun as well.

I’m off to brush up my EastEnders knowledge in the hope that maybe one day, I too can write dialogue for Sharon Watts. 


 

Abbie Heath is a screenwriter who writes comedy and drama about change and hope. Life changed forever after Talent Campus 4. She’s on Twitter @AbbieHeath9

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