Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2003, Part 1

Industry Forum: Making it on to the big screen- original script or adaptation?

Val McDermid opened the event by introducing herself and the panel of speakers: Stuart Hepburn, who has adapted Ian Rankin's and Christopher Brookmyre's work and written original screenplays including The Planman; Bill Boyes, executive producer at the BBC; Sandra Jobling, executive producer at Coastal Productions and Robson Green, also of Coastal Productions and Sandra's business partner "who briefly appeared in some famous drama called Wire in the Blood" - joked Val!

Val McDermid explained that what they would be talking about today was the process of adaptations; how do you start off with a novel and then end up with something that works on television?

Sandra Jobling talked about the initial process of how the idea of making a drama from a novel actually comes about, and how that progresses to getting it commissioned for TV. Starting by working with the novelists agent and then, in the case of Wire in the Blood, it took 12 months to get ITV on board with the project. Ultimately, after working with a drama daily from its initial conception, and becoming passionate about "the baby" - it makes you blind to the views of the public and you never know how it's going to be received until it's actually been shown.

Bill Boyes talked about the process the TV networks play in commissioning these dramas, including the costs that are involved. Asking himself about the characters that are presented to him is very important - "do I want to spend the next hour or so watching them on TV and do I want to tune in next week to see what happens to them next", that's very important. It can cost up to three quarters of a million pounds to show an hour of drama on network TV in Britain at the moment, making it important that he's passionate about what he commissions. It's a lot of money to invest in an idea only to find when it goes out on TV and it bombs - that's the pressure faced.

Stuart Hepburn talked about the process of getting the actual novel transformed into a screenplay, and how he needs to reduce 500+ pages of a novel down to about a 100, and then that will eventually become 40 for the actual screenplay. He works in 3 stages - reading the novel for the first time from a readers perspective, then going back and reading it again with a highlighter for dialogue and relationships between the characters and then, for a third time, reading it again to pick out the plots and sub-plots. He will forget the novel and not go back to it so that he can write the final screenplay from scratch, with the details he has highlighted from his readings, ensuring that the writing works as a screenplay and not what people have read in the actual novel.

Val commented on this aspect of the process. The novel is stripped back to a stage where sometimes it is barely recognisable, which is where her close involvement with Coastal worked so well as she was involved at every stage along the way, ensuring that everything was true to the characters even though the story may change.

The final stage of the process is where the actor comes in. Robson talked about how important the writing is and how easy his job becomes with good writing. He liked the fact that with Val's books the excellent visual grammar was already there and it wasn't hard to learn. Val asked if he had to "look inside" himself for aspects of characters like Tony Hill and the answer was absolutely not - he met Julian Boon, a psychologist, and took from him what he required for that aspect of his role and all he needed was himself - joking that his "body was his tool"!

Val then asked the panel if anything went wrong in the process and Sandra recalled an incident which was reported earlier this year in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. The director had wanted an explosion scene in an old hospital - but it had to be one particular hospital, which they could only use for two days as it was due to be handed over to the health trust and then demolished on the third day. The scene was all set for the explosion - camera, action - and the button was pressed. Everyone stood in awe at the explosion - until it went on... and on... and on...! Robson told us that it was only supposed to be a small explosion that blew the doors open - but it actually blew the roof off, and things became quite fraught as there were actors inside which nobody could see for smoke and dust. Ultimately, everybody was fine but the shoot was almost closed down by Health & Safety, which would have endangered the whole project because of the financial implications - but Robson joked that he "prostituted" himself and asked the Health & Safety executive if his wife liked Robson and would she like to speak to him!

The audience were then invited to put their questions to the panel before the event was drawn to a close. Val and Robson then went to autograph books and pose for photographs with the public.