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Writing for Auntie
by George Olden

Whilst browsing in a second-hand bookshop the other day, I came across a small pamphlet entitled ‘Writing for the BBC’, dating from 1968 and subtitled ‘A guide for professional writers on possible markets for their work within the British Broadcasting Corporation.’ It was bound in a faded, grey cardboard cover reminiscent of those old exercise books that one used at school, and printed on the kind of heavy, thick paper that modern economics have long since done away with.

It paints an intriguing picture of the BBC, and indeed the business of writing, from thirty years ago. Whilst the world has obviously changed a lot in three decades, a surprising amount of the advice in the pamphlet remains completely credible. The observation at the beginning that "the potential scriptwriter must study his market" may seem very obvious – and yet how many scripts are still sent off in hope and not based upon a realistic examination of the market place? Even in 1968 the BBC was receiving around 13,000 unsolicited manuscripts every year.

However, the pamphlet is dated in its mildly patronising ‘establishment’ tone. We are firmly told that it is a research tool, not a learning manual. It is not "intended to implant literary talent in any would-be author. It cannot teach anyone to write. What it can do is help those who have the ability to write to write for the BBC." It then identifies three categories of writer it can help.

Firstly, there is the professional writer with work to sell and an established reputation, who will probably just use the contact addresses in the last chapter. Secondly, there is the "spare-time writer" who balances writing with some other occupation. And finally there are the "‘kitchen-table writers’… who feel called upon to write about their opinions or experiences once or twice a year, or a lifetime." This rather patronising category includes, we are told, "many house-bound mothers of families and retired people of both sexes" who will always remain "amateur writers." Clearly, then, if there was a year 2000 revision of this pamphlet some updating of its potential users would be required, with the increased professionalism now evident in the trade at all levels and the diminishment of these stereotypes.

It is in the detailed description of the structure of the BBC and the potential for writers in which it becomes evident just how much has changed. The chapters deal with writing for radio and television (with the emphasis firmly on radio), and writing for education, religion or the ‘external services’ (which includes the World Service). The very inclusion of a chapter on religious writing (of the Christian faith only) indicates how much the broadcast content has changed to reflect society.
‘Writing for Radio’ really does describe another era. There are four BBC radio stations, but Radio 3 is still called ‘The Third Programme’ and Radio 2 and 4 have just changed from ‘The Light Programme’ and the ‘Home Service’ respectively. The interesting fact that does stand out, however, is that the individual identities of the stations are pretty much intact, and their content is not radically different.

The aspiring writer for radio is advised to write drama, as all the stations except Radio 1 broadcast many hours of drama every week, and within this category there are many different opportunities for one-off plays, serials, long-running series and new writing. Alternatively, he is advised to write ‘General Talks’, a broad category covering all current affairs writing. These are best, we are told, "where the speaker is burning to communicate some idea, or to recount some experience" and avoids "cumbrous technical jargon." Even more specifically we are told that ‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4 is in need of "more contributions from those under thirty" and that "macabre items on death and disease" are "inappropriate" for ‘Home This Afternoon’, a programme "with older and retired people in mind." There is even a gentle reminder that "letters from listeners are sometimes read on the air, but are not paid for." (Their italics!)

The prospective writer is also censured to make sure that their work is "not too light-weight" and to demonstrate "real originality of thought and treatment." What, one wonder, would the writer of this pamphlet make of our daytime television now, with its vacuum of intellectual and original content? Writers are also warned to expect a three-month delay between submitting their manuscript and receiving a reply, so even then there was a slow turnaround. Short stories are welcome, as long as they have a "strong story-line" and avoid "gloomy subjects, and stories which offend against good taste." Similarly, poetry read on the radio must be limited to around thirty lines long, "and have a clear and simple structure." Even more strictly, we are informed that "verse commemorating national or private anniversaries, and poems written as a form of private therapy, are unlikely to be accepted." It is all very polite and very staid, and shows that how no matter how progressive and liberal the 1960s became, even at the end of the decade BBC Radio remained firmly traditional and served the establishment. No wonder the likes of Radio Caroline found a huge gap in the market to fill.

Moving on to ‘Writing for Television’, the prospective writer is immediately offered several caveats. This is a market, we are told, for the professional or semi-professional writer, the demands of audience size and standards of work being too high for the ‘kitchen table writer.’ As with radio, writing drama offers the best opportunities, as the Television Drama Group produces 600 separate dramas a year. Within this, there are again opportunities to write plays, serials or series. Ideas are submitted in the form of a synopsis and sample of dialogue. A writer would normally be given just three weeks to write a 50 minute script. The emphasis is firmly placed on the writer keeping characters and settings to a minimum to save on production costs.

Writers must also "think and write visually," and remember that "television is appealing to a mass audience and is, incidentally, competing for it with a rival channel." That is ITV, and of course, only fourteen years later Channel 4 would start up. But this seems strangely prescient for modern television, and it is here that some of the greatest changes are evident.

The emphasis for writing for television is firmly on drama, and yet this is now a much-reduced aspect of television. A recent poll conducted of terrestrial television output ranked programmes by kind and from 1980 to 2000, ‘Drama’ had dropped from 2nd place to 10th, supplanted by "new types of programme, barely screened twenty years ago." These include quizzes, chat shows, morning television and docusoaps. This is amidst claims of ‘dumbing down’ by television stations, the replacement of current affairs, drama and documentaries with more chat shows, game shows and pet or gardening shows (which are all, incidentally, very cheap to produce). The range of opportunities that existed in 1968 for writing drama for the BBC are now incredibly diminished, and few of the series listed for writers back then even exist today.

What drama is produced today would have been unacceptable in 1968 according to this pamphlet. Under ‘Writing for the Regions’, we are warned that "plays of a homespun kind, set in the countryside and depicting a life no longer lived…will not be acceptable." No Ballykissangel, Heartbeat or Whiskey Galore, then, definitely no Jane Austen or Dickens adaptations. And furthermore, the BBC would rarely be interested in "the type of script in which farms are still worked by horses, and railway lines by steam trains." No remakes of The Railway Children, then, and no series like The Darling Buds of May. Perhaps the only area for drama that exists today is in detective programmes and soap operas, and these are hardly prospective programmes for the freelancer.

But in 1968, this pamphlet presents us with a world in which large numbers of freelance writers can still knock out a drama or two, tailor them to a particular ‘slot’, and submit it with reasonable chances of success. How different, then, the BBC of today, where researchers and presenters put most of the contents together for an average television show, and where increasingly independent production companies use professional teams to create shows which they then sell back to the broadcasters.
Which brings us neatly to money. Back in 1968, a novice writer could expect to earn one and a half guineas per minute of radio drama or documentary, whilst a "well-known writer" could earn three guineas a minute. Poems would earn the writer one and a half guineas for every eight lines, (more for a famous poet), and documentary information earned a fee of 25 shillings per minute for new writers, going up to two guineas per minute for experienced contributors.

In television, the guidelines were much less specific. The basic fee was £87.10s for fifteen minutes of a script, going up to £360 for a full sixty-minute drama; an established writer could expect double these amounts. We are reminded that "the range of flexibility in fixing fees for television is even greater than in the case of radio." Nowadays, according to the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook, a beginner could earn around £4500 for a sixty-minute script, and around £6500 writing the same for ITV. In both cases, selling a script would just about buy you a new small car.
In three decades, then, clearly much has changed. There is now more competition, more channels, and more money available. Most importantly, television now plays a much greater and more significant part of most peoples’ lives. But it is also harder now, as television is more competitive, more businesslike, and less inclined to take risks (especially with new writers).

Thirty years ago, the BBC was different almost beyond recognition and the change may have been slow over the past three decades, but it has been effective. Whereas back then, regional accents were a hindrance and discouraged, the politically correct broadcasters of today carefully give us a balance of accents. Thirty years ago Trevor McDonald wouldn’t have read the News At Ten and Goodness Gracious Me would not have been a hit comedy. Ethnic minorities were ignored, are not even mentioned in the 1968 pamphlet, just as they were excluded from the closed world of the establishment which the BBC then represented.

The intriguing question is whether or not the BBC has changed as much as the times have. Critics would say that it remains a stuffy, elitist, bureaucratic institution, something of an anachronism in the modern competitive world with its reliance upon the licence fee. But on the other hand, presented with this old pamphlet, one wonders what Greg Dyke would make of it all. After all, the BBC is about to embark on a period of the biggest change that it has been through for some time – there is a revolution of sorts coming, and in thirty years time, the BBC may well have changed dramatically again. It will be interesting to find out.


August 2000 A readers response:

I felt moved to respond to this article, solely for my own personal satisfaction of telling my own experience with 'Auntie' which has given me a sort of writers-bloc! Some years ago I, an amateur writer, wrote a short story about a child who becomes seriously ill and the story is related in her thoughts... it is her discovery and her perceptive narration of the reaction toward her, of her illness and her understanding of her family - one shares as a reader/listener how simply children understand and rationalise death. I was encouraged by those who had read my draft to send it 'in' (in particular by a professional writer who had been given a copy and wrote a very flattering critique. Spurred by this I sent the story in to the Producer of Morning Story at the BBC. Having adapted it to be read in 15 minutes, preferably by a child actress. In a short time I received a letter from the BBC. The Producer of the prorgamme replied to me saying he was very interested in the story & would like to broadcast it, even though he hitherto used only published authors. I was thrilled, my well wishers were impressed. However, there was a request. Before he acould agree to use it, I would need to re-wite the ending. He said it was a'sad' ending (in my opinion it was open-ended)but he wanted a happy ending. I complied reluctantly, and re-submitted the story. He wrote back, saying sorry but the story no longer 'works'. I knew that from the start. I was lifted up and dashed down in a short space of time. For years since I have not written anything. Recently I have started again, being older & wiser. Reading George Oldens article made me realise that I have wasted a lot of time. I know I'm good. I just need to keep on until, perhaps one day I will write the 'right' story and be lucky enough to find the 'right' publisher/producer.
Jane Lesley.

Jane we wish you luck and get writing!

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