Saturday, 9 September 2006


Someone out there (I have a reader!), asked me to report back on the whole process of getting my first Doctors script accepted by the BBC. So, here goes…

Spring-2003. I send in a feature script to the BBC writers room. It gets rejected.

Later 2003. Danny Stack suggests I write specifically to a named producer at the BBC who was running the New Writers Scheme for Doctors (they don’t do it anymore, by the way). She liked the script, but said she needed to see I could write half hour TV drama.

October 2003. I write a half hour TV drama and send it in. She likes it. I’m on the Scheme.

March 2004. After a frustrasting wait, I get invited up to Birmingham to see the set and talk through what they want. I send in a bunch of five story ideas. One paragraph each. Three get rejected. I’m asked to write up the other two into two-page story outlines. One of these others is a thing called “Unsuitable”.

August 2004. After several iterations, my two story ideas are formally submitted to the then head honcho.

October 2004. They’re both rejected. No explanations given. I’m well annoyed.

I took some time out over the winter. I was disenchanted with the whole process, and I had a daytime job that was taking up a lot of my time.

Spring 2005. My producer leaves Doctors. And they decide to abandon the New Writers Scheme. But, they generously take me on anyway and assign me to a script editor. I start working at things again.

August 2005. I submit seven story ideas to the script editor, including a reworking of Unsuitable. One of the other ideas is a piece called Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.

October 2005. After some work with the script editor, the two-page synopses for Unsuitable and Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow are submitted to the head honcho (second time around for Unsuitable), together with a third.

October 2005. Unsuitable and Hair are accepted. They’ve been officially “Banked”, which means that story editors can now match them up with on-going story elements and commission episodes based on my ideas. But there’s a lot of ideas in the story bank, so I’m still a long way from being commissioned.

January 2006. I get a third idea banked. But still no commission.

February 2006. My script editor leaves Doctors. I get temporarily assigned to another one. My third banked idea is “nearly” commissioned.

April 2006. A new script editor arrives and I’m assigned to him. He suggests combining Unsuitable and Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow into a single “life-saver” episode. These are stand-alone episodes that have no serial element in them – just half an hour of the story of the day. I hate the idea – it means using up two of my banked ideas, and I feel that lifesavers aren’t “proper” episodes. But, after a moan, I get on with it.

May 2006. I rework both stories. My script editor was expecting me to simply have two stories going on in parallel , but I decide to see if I can make it more interesting by bringing both stories together into one intertwining story. He likes the idea, so I get on with the Scene by Scene synopsis.

22 May 2006. I submit the first 9-page Scene by Scene of the combined stories, called Housecall.

4 June 2006. They’ve read the Scene by Scene. It’s good, but they decide they don’t like the combining of the stories. Can we go back to the parallel stories approach with two doctors seeing two different patients?

14 June 2006. I submit draft 2 of the Scene by Scene – a complete rewrite. I decide that if they want parallel stories, then that’s what they’ll get. I rework both the original stories to give them almost exactly the same beats. They’re two different stories, but they develop in parallel, scene by scene, and they play off each other. It’s a bit of a screenwriter’s conceit, but it’s quite fun. It’s now called Parallel Lines.

16 June 2006. They love it. I get a commission and two pages of notes. I also get notes from their researchers and their resident expert doctors telling me that my characters are being very unprofessional. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that this story now stars two doctors, neither of whom were around when I began the process, and one of whom doesn’t appear on screen until September, so I’ve no idea what he’s like!

27 June 2006. I submit the third draft of the Scene by Scene.

7 July 2006. I get more notes and permission to get on with the first draft of the script. The first half of my fee heads in my direction – hurrah, I’m a professional!

17 July 2006. First draft submitted. Fingers crossed.

20 July 2006. Very positive feedback. Five pages of notes, and more worries from the doc that the stars are still being very unprofessional.

24 July 2006. Second draft submitted.

27 July 2006. 3 pages of notes come back. They’re a little bit firmer this time – getting closer to instructions rather than suggestions. Fair enough – they’re paying.

31 July 2006. Third draft submitted. I submit to most of their changes, but stand up for my script in a couple of areas.

1 August 2006. More notes, but only half a page. The script editor tells me he still isn’t sure about those areas I resisted, but the series editor and the episode’s producer are happy, so he’s not going to push. Overall, he’s very happy. And so’s the resident expert doc – he particularly liked a side swipe at private medicine that I added late in the day.

1 August 2006. Final draft submitted. Script editor announces he’s satisfied, but it has to be approved by the Series editor.

August 2006. At some point it must have got the final green light because I have now been paid the second half of my fee.

And now I don’t see anything of it until it hits the screens sometime in February 2007. They have a complete right to rewrite it between now and then, so who knows what it will look like.

And finally, my script editor leaves Doctors. What is it with me and script editors?

And the top management on the series are all changing too. Apparently the series bible is being rewritten. All the banked ideas had to be resubmitted, and my only banked concept was not accepted.

So, I’m back at the beginning again. No ideas banked. No ideas in hand. New script editor. No bible.


TonyFabulist said...

Well done! They certainly make you jump through some hoops! That's two years in the making for one script.

I read elsewhere that the writer's fee for Doctors was about 4k an episode. Is that right? To my mind that's slave labour and must be questionable under minimum wage legislation! Not good.

I suppose the only way a pro writer can survive without having a 'day job' is to have multiple concurrent commissions.

Good luck for the next one. The regime change at Doctors may well be in your favour - new blood, new ideas!

Paul Campbell said...

Thanks for the positive vibes!

Actually, first time writers for Doctors get just under £3k for an episode.

It doesn't exactly keep the wolf from the door.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for taking the time to write it all up.

Two years for 3 grand and a half hour episode...the mind boggles.

Somehow, I can't help feeling you need some proper luck...hopefully the new crew will bring it for you.


Dom Carver said...

Man, that's a story worth writing in itself.

Tim Clague said...

Honestly now - is this actually worth it? How do they make a show in this way? Bring back the play-for-today!

Paul Campbell said...

No, it's not worth it. Not in the sense that you can make any kind of living in this way. If you were the most successful writer in the history of Doctors, I suppose you might manage half a dozen commissions per year. 6 x £3k equals £18k per year, if you're lucky. I'm just trying to work out how many weeks it would take to earn that much in my other job, and the answer hurts.

But it gets you experience, it keeps you writing, and it gets on your CV.

And it was sort of fun.

Danny Stack said...

It's a frustrating system for sure (I had a similar 2 year experience for my first ep) but it's worth it for your first commission and TV credit! It's important to get that ball rolling. People in the industry do take note of what's going on and other doors start to open. The soap system seems to exist for itself, not for writers, but that doesn't mean we won't or shoudn't benefit.

Anyway, well done Paul...

roger said...

Yes well done Paul. You deserve a medal, as well as a bigger fee, for getting through all that and surviving with your sense of humour and sanity intact (I assume they are). But it must be invaluable experience, and all these script editors that are leaving must be going somewhere??? Contacts for the future?

Paul Campbell said...

Thanks Roger, and Danny.

Yeah, contacts for the future. That's what it's all about.

Just so long as I get to that future before I get to retirement age!

Jamie said...

Blimey that's one heck of a development process!