Top UK Showrunner on How to Create TV Gold

After reading this article, this particular TVWriter™ minion has a new ambition: To get my butt in gear and move my life and career over to where excellence matters. Yep, I’m talking about the UK.

Here’s why:


by Gerard Gilbert

Sally Wainwright must be doing something right.

And I don’t mean because of the swish-looking Jaguar parked in the television script writer’s driveway when I pay her a visit at her Cotswolds home. I mean because of the viewing figures she’s able to generate for prime-time show after prime-time show.

Her self-described “feminist” buddy cop drama Scott & Bailey, starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp, was the most successful drama launch of 2011 and has now gone to four series. The following year, BBC1 began broadcasting Wainwright’s Bafta-winning inter-generational drama Last Tango in Halifaxabout former childhood sweethearts Alan and Celia (Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid) reunited via Facebook; returning for a third series in a couple of weeks, it has been a ratings winner on both sides of the Atlantic.

And earlier this year, her BBC1 thriller Happy Valley attracted viewers, controversy and some of the year’s best reviews with its graphic depiction of kidnap, rape and murder in Hebden Bridge; Wainwright is now busy working on the scripts for the second series.

Given her outstanding run of form, what exactly goes into creating a sure-fire television hit? Below are some guidelines from Wainwright herself:

Begin with an emotion

“My story ideas start out tiny and then I build up layers …Unforgiven [her 2009 drama with Suranne Jones as a young woman released from prison 15 years after being convicted of killing two policemen] came from somebody trying to sue me for plagiarism at the time. She thought I’d copied a play that she’d written and it was a completely ridiculous claim but at the same time it was scary and stressful and it made me think ‘how awful it must be to be on the wrong side of the law’. That was the starting point.”

Stay true to your roots

“Happy Valley was successful because it made Yorkshire sexy… it gets mentioned now in the same columns as Breaking Bad, and part of the success of Breaking Bad is that it’s absolutely true to itself. I think Happy Valley has done something similar… people were absolutely buying into Yorkshire. I was talking to a couple of American journalists and both of them said ‘I’m sorry to admit it but I watched it with the subtitles on’, and I thought that was fantastic… that they took the trouble.

“I [also] don’t like setting my dramas in fictional places… someone complained about Happy Valley that I made Hebden Bridge out to be a drugs den and my response to that is that most of rural England is a drugs den these days – I wasn’t singling out Hebden Bridge. Their point was that if you’re going to make somewhere out to be terrible you ought to fictionalise it, but for me it’s about being authentic.”

Don’t go transatlantic

“Most British [shows] base their research on watching American cop dramas – even Broadchurch, where David Tennant is supposed to be a detective superintendent and he goes out on to the street interviewing people, which really wouldn’t happen [in the UK]. [Before Scott & Bailey] I was lucky because I met Diane Taylor, a detective inspector with Greater Manchester police, socially, and she made sure the procedure in the series was absolutely correct.”

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