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
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
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 Womans 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."
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
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
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 wouldnt
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.
© GEORGE OLDEN 2000
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 we wish you luck and get writing!