Friday, 1 May 2009

MA Screenwriting: Unit Five - Life on Mars

This – 'Writing the TV drama episode' – was one of the biggies, and one of the challenges I was most looking forward to on the course. As not much value is placed over here on writing spec scripts for existing series, it was another chance to experiment in a format that I probably wouldn't have bothered with otherwise.

We were given the choice of Life on Mars, Without a Trace or Heartbeat, and were given a screening and introductory lecture on each of the series.

As you'd probably expect, there were a few chuckles and quite a bit of eye-rolling when Heartbeat came up. 'Cos if you're not on the edge, you're taking up too much space, right?

Actually, our lecturer – Jan Weddup – made a very convincing case for the series, highlighting the skill of its storytelling and pointing out that for all the derision it attracts for its 'cosiness', it remained (at that stage) an enduring cornerstone of TV drama. (I think it has now been replaced on the course by Doc Martin).

I considered doing Without a Trace, as I totally 'got' the key elements of the format and enjoyed the focus on plot. However, I eventually plumped for Life on Mars – partly because of the high concept, and partly because I was in tune with the arena; I grew up in Granadaland in the '70s, and was also a big fan of the 'muscular' TV of the time – not just The Sweeney, but also stuff like Trevor Preston's Fox and Out.

Before starting the unit, I was lucky enough to head off to Hong Kong and Australia for three weeks, for a family wedding. Along the way, I watched LoM exhaustively and broke down every story beat and character note. I also watched all the DVD extras, to get a feel for where everyone from the writers to the costume department were coming from.

To generate a story idea, I started looking for an everyday part of life that Sam Tyler would find very different between 1973 and 2006. Thinking about the male-dominated nature of Gene Hunt's CID, it came to me: a stag night. Back in the day, it would be an insane and potentially debilitating piss-up literally the night before the wedding.

I kicked around a few Very Bad Things-style scenarios before coming up with something that might have been influenced by watching Without a Trace: what if the groom – a peripheral DC in the department – failed to show up for his wedding after the drunken chaos of the previous night, and foul play was suspected.

From there, I built up the plot by finding new ways to work in the show's familiar returning elements (Test Card Girl as the death wish, information bleeding through from 2006, the budding relationship between Sam and Annie), while incorporating various story elements I had floating around my head.

  • By making the bloke's fiancée from MCR's large Chinese community, I could contrast Gene's confrontational coppering with Sam's more empathic approach to immigrants – especially with Sam also seeing himself as a 'foreigner' in 1973. Some of the 1973 views on mixed-race relationships would also raise the issue of Sam and Maya.

  • Because Gene is so totally identified with the grimy cityscape of 70s MCR, I wanted to take him outside that environment and see how he got on. So, I made the missing DC's dad an influential senior officer in the force, dragging Gene into the alien world of leafy Cheshire suburbs and private golf clubs: classic 'fish out of water' stuff.

I know it's a bit of a cliché, but my favourite thing about writing is when something suddenly surprises you and you realise the work is developing a life of its own. As I was working on the script, another theme suddenly developed – relationships between fathers and sons, and the fact that for all his bluster, Gene acts as a father figure for his 'boys'.

Anyway, with expert help from my tutor Line Langbek, I developed the script to the point where I was quite pleased with it. It did well with the markers as well, nabbing a distinction-level mark. Here's the final draft.

We didn't really get a resource list for the unit, but here's a watch list we were given for lectures on portmanteau, doppelganger and alternative reality narratives that had a bearing on the Life on Mars scripts.

(Previous units)

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