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Friday, 14 August 2015

ARVON COURSE - WRITING TV DRAMA - LUMB BANK



‘These are life-enhancing weeks.’ - Simon Armitage.

This is the quote on the home page of The Arvon Foundation’s website. I would add that these courses can also be ‘a life-changing experience’. 

On Monday 3rd August I turned up at Lumb Bank near Heptonstall for the start of a five day course on Writing TV Drama. The tutors were Simon Block (writer) and Eleanor Greene (TV producer). 

I’d gone along with an old university friend, Margaret. Neither of us had ever attempted to write a script before. It soon became apparent that all but one of the other course participants had, which was a bit intimidating. Even more intimidating was the fact that two of the other course participants had worked in TV - one as a producer of documentaries and the other as a runner on the Bridget Jones Diary feature film, as well as series producer of Billy Connolly’s Route 66. Another lady had been writing plays for fifteen years and had them performed both here and in the States. There was a well known TV actress amongst us, a university lecturer in Script Writing, a Brit School gradate and ex-Sunday Times journalist and press officer for Shell. How on earth could this ex-teacher turned short story writer possibly hold her own amongst such talent? Well, I couldn’t! But I tried my best.

Actually everyone was lovely and we spent most evenings chatting and drinking wine in the garden after dinner. I laughed a great deal, and I also shed more tears than I have in a while (mostly in private!). I imagine most people find Arvon an emotional Haribo mix of a week.
Door to Margaret's Room (mine was on the opposite side)

Lumb Bank is the former home of poet, Ted Hughes. It’s a beautiful, large stone built farmhouse with spectacular views and not another house in sight. There’s a lovely stone barn conversion (I shared a ‘suite’ there with Margaret), a small cottage (for the tutors) and a converted coal-house for a couple to share. Lumb Bank even has its own cat visitor, the lovely Ted. He’s a very sociable cat and had plenty of laps to choose from during our week. There were twelve of us on the Writing TV Drama Course. 

A meal and wine was provided for us on the first night, then three of us had to clear and wash up afterwards. There was an introductory talk by the tutors in the upstairs area of the barn, then everyone disappeared to their respective rooms only to be ousted a few minutes later by the fire alarm. We all had to gather at the Fire Assembly Point near the lane to await the fire brigade. Thankfully, there wasn’t an actual fire and the sight of two hunky fireman jogging down the lane with a torch was rather nice. It turns out that spraying large amounts of deodorant around sets off fire alarms (I won’t mention any names). 

After breakfast on Tuesday, we gathered around the dining table to share our TV Drama idea with the tutors and the rest of the group. I hadn’t come up with a definite idea (I had two or three bouncing around), thinking that we’d have a session to help us generate ideas. So... I thought I’d try and adapt my crime novel idea. I was immediately shot down in flames when the tutors both agreed that my idea was too complicated and I had to simplify it. I felt absolutely gutted. Everyone else’s ideas were amazing and I felt as if I’d turned up at the wrong wedding or came dressed as a bear for a fancy dress party when it was a black-tie do. It was only Yolanda’s kind words (she sat next to me) and Sophie’s winks and encouraging smiles that stopped me walking out to pack my case! I also realised at this point that I’m not good surrounded by a lot of people. I’m so used to spending most of the day on my own.

Eleanor Greene (tutor) was lovely to me and told me to sit with her at lunch and she’d help me simplify my idea, which she did. She’s a very clever woman and has the ability to see straight to the heart of any story in an instant. I can’t tell you how much she helped me that week. 

I was on clearing away and washing-up duty again after lunch and it was a rush to get to the 2pm session in the barn. Eleanor showed us the first episode of one of her all-time favourite TV Dramas, Catastrophe, which I highly recommend. She paused it after each scene and asked questions. It was easy to see how the twenty-six minute episode was put together. The writer and comedian, Sharon Horgan is one talented lady and very funny! We learned to look out for the inciting incident (a one-night stand), the impediment and learned that each scene has a purpose. We learned about genre, sub-plot, obstacles to happiness and conflict. Everything must relate to the central theme. For each of their wants, there’s a ‘but’. And so much more....And a brilliant quote to pin up on your noticeboard: ‘Sub plot is a relevant distraction.’ We then did a writing exercise to explore our characters in more depth.

If that wasn’t exhausting enough, I was then on cooking duties with Margaret and Sarah. Sarah lived near Rugby when growing up and went to the Girls’ High School. We had several friends in common (mostly musicians), so had a lovely chat while prepping and cooking a main course, garlic bread and dessert. Once we’d served dinner for fifteen, we were able to relax over rather a lot of wine. We all met up in the barn at 8.30pm to watch The Eichmann Show, which Simon Block had written earlier this year. By 9.30pm most of us were so tired that we had to go to bed (or in our case relax in the garden with a nightcap!). 

A better night’s sleep and nice chats over breakfast on the Wednesday, but I couldn’t get my head around writing a one page summary of my story (I’m not a morning person and was too busy cooking the night before). At the 10am session, Eleanor asked me to read mine out first. I had to confess I hadn’t done it. I was the only person who hadn’t done it and the only person who had nothing to read out. I felt so cross with myself and that I’d not only let myself down, but the rest of the group. Eleanor was very good about it and told me not to worry. I then was able to get my head together and make notes on what my story should be. I realised I’d got so bogged down with my novel in recent months, that it was blocking me from making the most of my Arvon experience. A novel is a world away from a script and once I realised that and came up with a different story, everything clicked into place. Over lunch Simon Block told me not to worry about writing my one page summary and go straight to the next task which was to write a monologue from one character’s viewpoint. This I found very easy to do and it seemed to go down well when I read it out the next day, but I had to write that one page summary as well, just for my own satisfaction. When I told Eleanor at dinner, she hi-fived me and said I was like a different person. Yes, it took me until Wednesday afternoon to feel comfortable and come out of my shell. 

Wednesday afternoon’s session with Simon Block was my favourite of all. It was a collaborative exercise, which made me realise that this is the sort of writing I like best. There were some great ideas flying around the room. Simon had witnessed someone shoplifting at Kings Cross Station on Monday and asked us to write a scene together about a shoplifter. He asked us lots of questions about the character, the story, the inciting incident and so on. We had such a laugh during this session and came up with a great, action-packed scene that was truly an original and exciting idea. 

Our guest on Friday night was Ben Newman, a former runner and fairly new script-writer who has written a couple of episodes of Shameless, episodes of Strike Back, Miss Marple and Poirot as well as the screenplay for AD The Bible Continues. He was an entertaining and enthusiastic speaker, and we learned how to submit scripts to script editors. After his talk, I had a lovely chat with Yolanda about Cucumber (written by the brilliantly talented Russell T Davies), a drama series we both loved and then another chat with Lita, who admitted she felt as out of her depth as I did on Tuesday. I also managed to stop my friend Margaret dancing on the table. 

On Thursday morning we had a workshop on dialogue and the ability to listen. Live To Listen! is my new motto. I decided that in future I will go to write in caf├ęs, jotting down gems of dialogue in my notebook. We watched the openings of three films: Sunset Boulevard; Broadway Danny Rose and All Is Lost. We then had to write a conversation we’d recently overheard, keeping the action to a minimum. 

Thursday was great, because not only did I have a one-to-one tutorial with Eleanor Greene who asked the right sort of questions so that I ended up with a detailed storyline, but we also had the afternoon and evening free to write. I bashed out the first scene of my script, while sitting in the beautiful and well stocked library at Lumb Bank. 

Thursday was also good for another reason. My son, Matt, phoned to say that he’d passed his driving test. Thursday wasn’t so great either, because it was the funeral of Roy, my ex-brother-in-law, a lovely man. Matt went to support his auntie and cousins at the crematorium in Rugby and in the evening some of the other course participants at Lumb Bank joined me in raising a glass and drinking a toast to Roy. 

Thursday evening after dinner was quite a rowdy one, as most of the women on the course sat at the dining table, recounting naughty and revealing stories about their lives, including a story about having an orgasm in a taxi. I think we shocked the two twenty-something girls who joined us. I was disappointed we didn’t trek off to the pub in Heptonstall, but to be honest we would have been even more exhausted the next day had we have done so and.. there was plenty of wine left. 

You know you’ve had a good night when you’ve still got last night’s make-up on when you wake up. The workshop at 10am on Friday was on genre and plot. We watched the opening scenes of All The President’s Men as an example of good plotting. ‘A good story is both entertaining and universal.’ Each scene has to convey only one or at most two pieces of information. End a scene on a hook. We then looked at two genres - rom/com and family drama, then broke them down into the main plot and the rules of the genre. This was another interactive session and very useful.


We also had a free afternoon on Friday in order to write the first few scenes of our script. I sat in the library again and was joined by Yolanda. She asked me to read a few character parts in her script (she’d written loads... oh, to have the stamina and energy of youth!), which was great fun. I got about four scenes completed, having scrapped my original first scene, as Eleanor helped me discover that it should be the final scene in the episode, not the first! I then had a one-to-one tutorial with Simon Block. He commended me on how I’d turned things around during the course of the week and said my story idea was brilliant (I’m not convinced). We talked it through and he helped me discover the theme and how best to portray it. It was a beautiful sunny day again and we sat outside taking in the breathtaking view of the valley. 


Friday evening was a celebration of the work we’d done so far and a chance to present our opening scenes. A lot of course participants asked others to help them read various parts. The poor actress on our course was very busy that night! She has a wealth of regional accents and characters to draw on. It’s no wonder she won the Gold Medal at RADA. 

Despite a small technical hitch, my presentation was well received. The tutors pointed out that I had a bit too much exposition in my dialogue and a bit too much dialogue, but my scenes flowed really well, my characters were vividly described and there was a warmth to my scenes. I was pleased with that, considering I’d never attempted to write a script before. It was a wonderful evening and everyone’s scripts were amazing. Sarah from Doncaster (there were three Sarahs on the course), although shy and retiring, produced the most amazing comedy and had us all roaring with laughter. She didn’t crack her face throughout. Her dry delivery and perfect comic timing made the whole thing even funnier. I think the whole evening, if not the whole course can be summed up so well in an extract from the email Simon Block sent us on Monday this week:

‘It is very easy for tutors to conclude the week by telling all the students how wonderful they are, and how terrific their writing is. I've seen it done several times. However, while people are generally wonderful on the courses I've taught (and you were a genuinely lovely group to work with), the writing people put forward on the last night is not always uniformly strong. You were genuinely a very strong group. All of you have very strong, very clear ideas that could be realised in script form. But both Eleanor and I were blown away and surprised by the quality of work we heard on Friday night. We expected you to have taken on board what we tried to convey about telling your stories in a sequence of scenes, etc. What what we hadn't accounted for was the quality of dialogue. Very unusual, and very impressive.’

We were lucky in that we had two very talented and inspiring tutors. They complemented each other beautifully. They were kind, generous and patient. What more could you ask for?

I was genuinely sad that the week had come to an end so quickly and reluctant to say goodbye to every single one of the lovely people who took part to make it an unforgettable week. There was talk of a reunion, but even if there isn’t one, I’ve already connected with a few of these inspiring people on Facebook, Twitter and via email and text. 


Would I attend an Arvon Course again in the future? Quite possibly.