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From stage to screen

Mike Bartlett's Doctor Foster
Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster

Despite the funding challenges associated with staging live performance, the UK has always been a nurturing home for playwrights. And that has been a blessing for British television, too. Over the years the likes of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett and Stephen Poliakoff have all proved very adept at moving between stage and small screen.

This traffic between theatre and TV now seems more intense than ever – and there are probably three reasons for this. First, of course, TV pays better. Second, the quality of 21st century TV is such that there is less reason for playwrights to feel like they are demeaning themselves by working for the small screen. And third, there is a well-documented shortage of screenwriters. Playwrights, having proved their ability to engage an audience, are thus an obvious resource for TV producers and broadcasters.

Historically, the risk in migrating playwrights to TV was that the kind of work they did in theatres was over-elaborate compared to the taut dialogue and visual storytelling TV audiences are used to. But the modern generation of playwrights has grown up with TV and, as such, seems able to move seamlessly between the demands of the two media (a similar dynamic has also brought more novelists to TV). It’s no longer necessary to tuck them away in rarified ‘play for today’ style slots, because they can actually deliver huge ratings.

River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air
River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air

A case in point is Mike Bartlett, who has just written the BBC hit Doctor Foster. With an average weekly audience of 8.2 million, the five-part show about a female doctor confronted with her husband’s infidelity is an assured and compelling piece of TV. While it is sometimes guilty of implying there will be a Fatal Attraction-style conclusion, for the most part it is an engaging human drama about the destructive nature of deceit and the way it can poison the entire ecosystem in which we live.

Bartlett moves effortlessly backwards and forwards between theatre and TV. He won an Olivier Award for his play King Charles III and also wrote ITV three-parter The Town in 2012. The latter, which starred Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty), was Bartlett’s first foray into TV and dealt with some similar themes to Doctor Foster – namely the sense of threat that sits just below the surface of normal everyday life, and what it feels like to be an outsider in your own life. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Bartlett’s background, there is just a shade of Harold Pinter in this juxtaposition of menace and the mundane.

(Listen to this really informative interview with Bartlett).

Other TV writers who have shown prowess in the realm of theatre include Sarah Phelps (see our recent profile) and Abi Morgan. Morgan, now widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s top film and TV screenwriters, had her first successes in the theatre in the late 1990s with Skinned (1997), Sleeping Around (1998) and Fast Food (1999). Her transition to TV came in the early part of the last decade, though she really hit her stride at the start of this decade with an Emmy Award for period drama The Hour (2011). At the same time, Morgan’s film writing career took off with The Iron Lady and Shame (2011).

Lucy Prebble
Lucy Prebble

2015 promises to be another banner year for Morgan. Having just penned the movie Suffragette, her six-part TV series River is now airing on BBC1 and will soon be released internationally on Netflix. River tells the story of a London-based policeman who becomes mentally ill while in the midst of a murder investigation.

Interviewed for a BBC blog, Morgan said: “It’s about a man who struggles in all forms of intimacy and relates better to those no longer living, to those voices in his head. (It is) also about living in a city where very few people are actually from. London makes me feel connected and it also makes me feel very isolated and lonely at times. London is the best of the world and the worst of the world, so I wanted to write a character who was navigating their way through that.”

There full interview can be seen here.

Some noted playwrights, such as Jez Butterworth, have largely sidestepped TV in favour of film. But others to have heeded the call include Nick Payne, who is writing a TV adaptation of David Nicholls’ Us for the BBC, and Lucy Prebble, whose most notable foray into TV to date is The Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Tiger Aspect for ITV2). The author of acclaimed plays such as The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome, Prebble is currently developing another TV drama with Tiger Aspect.

Sometimes playwrights get to adapt their own stage work. Debbie Tucker Green, for example, won a Bafta for the TV version of her play Random. But more often they are called on to create originals or work on pre-existing series. Catherine Johnson, whose break into the business came courtesy of Bristol Old Vic, is probably best known for writing the script for the smash-hit movie Mamma Mia!. But a healthy body of TV work includes episodes of Casualty, Band of Gold and Byker Grove. She also created Dappers for the BBC in 2010, a comedy pilot about a couple of single mums living on a Bristol council estate.

Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2
Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2

As a rule, playwrights seem to move backwards and forwards between the two media – rather than viewing theatre as a stepping stone on the way to screen success. Perhaps this explains why most of them appear to favour TV serials or miniseries, since this format interferes less with their stage writing.

While the injection of playwright creativity has undoubtedly been a boon for the British business, it’s worth noting that working with playwrights requires a degree of sensitivity to their way of thinking. It’s important to remember that they probably chose the world of theatre for reasons of artistic integrity that don’t always chime with the commercial demands of TV.

One of the UK’s leading playwrights, Joe Penhall, addressed this point in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Penhall, who wrote Moses Jones for the BBC and adapted his own play Birthday for Sky Arts this year (as well as writing the screenplay for the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), makes it clear he won’t write just any old tripe: “I know people who have made so much money taking every whoring, sluttish fucking rewrite job there is. And I don’t want to be like that. If it gets frustrating, I just walk away. Because I’ve already got a job in theatre.”

Read the full interview here. Also worth a look is this article, which talks about US playwrights working in TV.

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