What the BBC Writer’s room is looking for…

As a leading UK script consultant and scriptwriter for hire I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about why scriptwriters were getting spec scripts wrong, the post has had a lot of views, so I thought I’d follow it up with some further insight.  For clarity – I’m not and never have been a member of the BBC Writer’s room team, and really a lot of this is conjecture, based on professional experience. But it’s right…

The BBC Writers room, for all its faults over the years, is THE MAIN avenue for aspiring scriptwriters in the UK to get their scripts read by professionals, and receive a leg up on their career.

The BBC is a behemoth of a broadcaster, and needs a regular supply of new scriptwriters – ALL THE TIME. One of the ways it finds script writers is through the Writersroom and the various initiatives it runs on there…

Shows like Eastenders, Casualty, Doctors, Holby City need scriptwriters to jump on the writing teams.  That’s what the BBC Writersroom is looking for, new scriptwriters at the top of their game, ready to learn the ropes and join shows like these, brimming with enthusiasm and ready write up a storm…

On the BBC Writer’s room Script room page – the BBC explains what it’s looking for:

‘We look for what the script tells us about the writer. We see all scripts as a calling card to showcase a writer’s talent, ability and potential to be developed and produced for BBC broadcast. Script Room is not looking for projects to commission or produce. We are looking for writers to develop rather than specific projects.’

NOTE – THEY ARE ‘not looking for projects to commission or produce. We are looking for writers to develop…’

Yes, they want to read a great script, well written, well plotted, showcasing a writer’s voice and style. But they’re not going to make that script.  That’s not the purpose of the BBC Writersroom. And never has been.

The purpose is to take writers with a decent grasp of screenwriting techniques, and turn them into professional writers – for shows like Casualty, Holby and Eastenders.

So… The script you send in needs to show your originality, but it also needs to show your professionalism, and believe me, SCRIPTWRITING is a
profession. FIRST AND FOREMOST.

A professional script writer needs to be reliable, knowledgeable about their craft and dependable to deliver a finished product that works. Works as a piece of drama, but also a script that the production team can deliver under the constraints of each show. AND EACH SHOW WILL HAVE MANY CONSTRAINTS.

Script writing is an art SOMETIMES, but more than not it’s a craft, and a scriptwriter is like any other FREELANCE worker with a MARKETABLE SKILL. You’re hired not to create art in the first instance, but to write a script for a product (the show is the product, to be consumed by the audience) and your script will need to have the same flavour, style and ingredients familiar with the product.

The BBC is looking to hire and develop scriptwriters who can take their skills and put them to use on their existing shows.  These shows, for whatever reason, can churn or burn through writers at a furious rate sometimes.  So, the BBC needs new blood all the time, to step in, and churn out an episode or three or four or two hundred, of shows that only exist because professional writers are there to deliver FILMABLE scripts that WORK WITHIN THE FORMAT of the show. 

A professional scriptwriter’s primary job is to deliver scripts that work as drama.  On shows like Eastenders and Casualty you need to work within the format, but also be aware of technical things like scheduling – you’ll be given a set cast, you’ll be given specific locations (and sets) which are available, you’ll have constraints around which actors are available on what sets and locations, and you’ll even be told when sunset and sunrise are so that you can work your script around the constraints the the crew will shoot it under (and the hours the crew work – which is why for years Bonfire night on Eastenders took place in sunlight – because it was shot in July and the crew would have to work till very late to get night shots, and they wouldn’t).

These constraints are requirements for delivering a script that works as a drama, within a format of the show, and the scriptwriter needs to be able to do all of this QUICKLY.

I once asked to rewrite an episode of Eastenders over night when a member of the cast was ill–THE DAY BEFORE SHOOTING WAS DUE TO START.  Without the ill cast member–there was very little the crew could shoot as the whole episode hung off this character.  So, as a pro, I had to rewrite fast, and come up with something shootable, which also worked within the string of episodes which my script sat, and chiefly, I kept the same remaining cast members, locations and other technical details–so that changes wouldn’t impact the actual shooting – bar the ill cast member). And this was done in about 7 hours, from 9pm in the evening, until I delivered a finished draft around dawn for the director, story producer and series producer to read before it went to the actors at around 8.30am, who at that point didn’t know the cast member was ill and the episode rewritten without them.

You have to be a professional.  Prepared to do things like this and not fazed by the requirements of GIVING THE CREW a filmable working SCRIPT.  Which at the end of the day is YOUR MAIN RESPONSABILITY. So, in many ways, forget ART. It’s a job, and you need to deliver.

And that means feedback too, given brutally and quickly by script editors, script producers and the team.  Sometimes scripts or stories are ripped up and started again.  Its part of the job, all pros understand that. Just get on with it. Take it on the chin, and move forward with the new notes.

So, scriptwriting is a skill, but at the top level it’s also a trade, you’re in the business of delivering scripts that work as drama – but also fit around the constraints of shooting, and the style of the show you’re working on. Knowing your trade means reliability, means working with others to overcome problems. It means at the end of the day you can write stuff that works on all the levels required.

So, when you’re putting together your spec script, remember it’s a calling card script, designed to show your skill, your unique voice, but also your professionalism and the fact that you understand and know your trade – a script writer is a professional dramatist, a tradesperson who understands what makes script work, and a member of the team, open to rewrites, easy to work with, and having a good grasp of production techniques etc.  It’s a lot to get into a script, and remember, this script (your calling card script) will not get made, at least, not by the BBC writers room, who are in fact, looking for new blood, new people, to work on shows that are often hard to write, but pay well, for the right people, who can deliver.

Matthew Cooper has been a scriptwriter for hire, UK Script editor  and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. His UK script coverage service, Script reading service and script development service are highly sought after.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham was released in 2020. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

You can contact Matthew directly to purchase his ebook The UK Soap Opera Script Writers Handbook.