Wednesday, 3 September 2008


Next April, on Tuesday the 21st, the BBC will be broadcasting episode 27 of the 11th series of their continuing drama series, Holby City.

Right now, that episode consists of nine pages of commissioning document. Let me take you through it...

On the front page it gives the names of the producer, script editor and researcher. Doesn't mention the writer, for some reason. It notes the shoot dates (15 Dec to 26 Jan - so they're shooting over Christmas and New Year) and the transmission date (21 April). And it gives the three main story locations - three different wards in the hospital. And in each of those locations, it tells me the name of the ongoing stories which make up this episode - catchy, shorthand titles for the three storylines.

And, for reasons which are not at all clear to me, the front page also informs me that the day of transmission is the Queen's 83rd birthday. Well, three cheers for Her Majesty!

The next two and a half pages tell me the A-story, broken down into five acts. It's quite a detailed account (almost scene by scene) of what happens to the main characters in one ward during this ep. This is the A-story, so this is the meat of my episode. It tells me about our characters and what's happening in their lives. And, as is often the case with A-stories, it's a crucial moment in the lives of one of them.

What it doesn't do, is tell me about any of their patients, or the medicine and surgery they get up [well, actually, in this particular instance it does a little, but only because it's directly relevant to what's happening with the regulars].

Then I get one and half pages of B-story, in five acts. We're on a different ward now, but it's much the same idea. This is what happens to the folks working in that part of the hospital. It's the B-story, so it's not as important as the A-story. It tells a mini-story of it's own, but it's not a big crucial moment in anyone's life. It's building momentum for an episode further down the line when these same characters will hit a crunch moment - and in that episode, they'll get the big A-story.

And finally, pootling along in the background, we have a page of C-story. Just three acts for this one. We're somewhere else again and, frankly, we're just keeping a story pot bubbling on a back burner. Quite often C-stories can feel a bit light, but that's almost how they're meant to be. You can't put huge emotional moments into a C-story because you're investing most of your effort and directing most of the audience's attention to the A-story. Often, the C-story will provide some light relief from all that serious emoting going on in the other Wards.

After the story outlines, there's two pages of notes describing each regular character and their "state of play" by the end of the episode. This is quite useful. I can look at the state of play of my characters at the end of the previous ep, then see where they start, and where I've got to get them before handing on the baton to the writer of the next episode (Abby Ajayi, in this case - a fellow student from my year in the BBC Academy).

And finally, there's a page or two of scheduling notes, letting me know which actors are available and whether there are any limitations on the sets I can use etc. Tedious stuff, but there's no point writing a great scene for Elliot if Paul Bradley (the actor who plays him) is on holiday the week they intend to shoot.

And my commissioning document comes packaged with episodes 24 to 29, so I get to see what happens before and after my episode. And the whole thing is stamped "Top Secret and Confidential" and is programmed to self-destruct ten seconds after I turn the last page. Cunningly, I have left it open on the penultimate page - clever, eh?

In all seriousness, these are very secret documents which is why I have told you what they look like without mentioning anything that happens. Even my passing reference to Elliot might have been a red herring.

Right now, this little document is all we have. Tomorrow I go to a commissioning meeting to discuss what happens next. I have to explain how I think these three stories can be made to work, I get to quiz the team on anything I haven't understood or anything that I think might cause problems, and I have to pitch a few ideas for "guest" stories that might go alongside our three regular stories.

This, I confess, is the bit that scares me. On Casualty, it was my guest stories that did for me. I need three stories (A, B and C, again) to set in each of the three wards. These stories will weave in and around the main stories I've already been given. They'll be medical, focused on the patients that our doctors and nurses are dealing with. They need to mesh with the serial, without being too clumsy in terms of "resonance". They need to be interesting, but not so much that they take away from the important serial stuff, and not too contrived or gimmicky. They must be self-contained because we've not seen these people before and we'll never see them again. And I've only got six guest actors (and a few non-speaking extras)to spread across the episode.

So, better get on with it. Can't waste the day away blogging.