Finding the right fit
Howard Overman is one of the UK’s leading screenwriters, with recent credits including BBC1’s Atlantis and E4 cult hit Misfits.
It has taken him around 10 years of perfecting his craft to reach the front rank of the profession, although his entry to the industry didn’t necessarily hint at his future success.
“I was doing a job I hated,” he recalls, “something in marketing. So I decided to go and do a course at college. I chose screenwriting, but I might just as easily have chosen cookery classes. I was just looking for a new direction and that’s what was on offer.”
Soon after, he entered an ITV screenwriting competition, which resulted in him being given the chance to write an episode of Clocking Off for Red Production Company’s Nicola Shindler.
“It wasn’t used because the show finished. But that episode was passed around and got me my first television writing jobs,” he says.
Starting in 2005, Overman has written for shows such as Hustle, New Tricks, Moving Wallpaper, Hotel Babylon and Spooks: Code 9. A major gearshift in his career came with BBC fantasy series Merlin, for which he wrote 11 episodes.
“But the big turning point was definitely Misfits,” says Overman. “It won a Bafta in its first season and was well received in the US. I learnt so much about storyline, plotting – everything – as a result of running that show for five years.”
Apart from a few episodes, Overman wrote all of Misfits. He also created and co-wrote a pilot for a US version of the show. So does he prefer the European auteur approach to the US writers room model?
“They’re very different. In the US, they are working with bigger budgets and more episodes – whereas Misfits was only around six episodes per season. I’d probably give the writers room approach a try, but with Misfits I’m not sure it would have worked because it was such a genre mash-up, combining teen comedy, superheroes, horror, time travel and so on. Even with a traditional show, it’s tough to find other writers who can write your show in a way you are happy with. Everyone thinks they can write but it’s harder than you think.”
Alongside Misfits, Overman wrote comedy-drama police procedural Vexed (which didn’t do especially well) and Dirk Gently, a BBC4 adaptation of the novels by Douglas Adams.
However, the next big breakthrough came when he was handed the task of delivering a Saturday-evening hit for mainstream channel BBC1 (perhaps more of a reflection of his work on Merlin than Misfits). The result was Atlantis, a fantasy adventure created by Overman, Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy via their new production company Urban Myth Films.
The show ran for two seasons but was axed earlier this year having failed to really ignite the Saturday evening schedule. While some observers believe the BBC was premature in its decision to cancel the show, Overman is philosophical.
“Atlantis was a slightly troubled beast,” he explains. “We thought it would play in early evening but it went out at 21.30, where it didn’t really sit that comfortably. If we had known it was going into that slot we would have done it a bit differently.”
Post-Atlantis, Overman is currently developing a range of feature film and TV projects via Urban Myth. On the TV front, he says he is working on a dark comedy for ITV2 about a young man suffering from a terminal brain tumour. He is also writing a “Dickensian period piece” for the BBC about bare-knuckle boxing in the early 1800s.
He says: “It’s set in Regency London and follows the experiences of a black fighter. It’s loosely based on a real-life fighter from the era called Tom Molineaux who was born into slavery in Virginia but came to Britain to fight successfully for years. Bare-knuckle fighting was hugely popular back then and could attract crowds of 15,000 or more.”
Looking back over his career, Overman believes his progression counters the notion that TV is an inherently nepotistic industry.
“I didn’t know anyone in the business when I started,” he adds. “I’ve always found it to be quite a pure industry in that respect. My experience is that producers don’t give a monkey’s where you’re from as long as your writing is good. This business is all about having the desire, ambition and drive to do it.”