Bottled Up by Kate Stonham

Welcome to the Southwest Scriptwriters summer special, a review of the group’s events and activities since last September.

We began our tenth anniversary year by welcoming Michael Jenner as our Honorary President. Michael is a prolific television dramatist with credits including Soldier Soldier, Heartbeat, Dangerfield, Peak Practice, Holby City, Dalziel & Pascoe, and Taggart. He is also the South West representative of the Writers’ Guild.

Our meetings since last September have attracted an average turnout of 26 members. The biggest meeting was on 13 January when 40-plus of you packed the Siddons Bar for a reading of Ann-Marie McCormack’s television drama, Gas and Air.

We’ve tried to programme more complete (or near-complete) readings of scripts in our 2003/2004 seasons because the group can give more comprehensive feedback on hearing a whole work than on listening to extracts. As well as Ann-Marie’s, we’ve featured scripts by Andy Graham, D J Desmedt, Maria Edey, Barbara Compitus, Pete Kesterton, Jeremy Risdon, Daniel Cull, Brian Weaving, Bev Williams, Margaret Crump, Matt Cooper, Joel Harper, Marion Reed, Jack Hyde and Heather Lister.

We’ve been pleased to welcome four guest speakers to the group since last autumn. In October, David Prescott, Artistic Associate with the Theatre Royal Plymouth, came to explain the proactive approach the Theatre takes in programming new writing in its studio space, The Drum. While The Drum provides one of the best chances for playwrights in the south west to have work commissioned and developed, David was keen to stress the many other opportunities open to dramatists throughout the region, including touring, fringe and amateur theatre companies as well as the building-based professionals.

Simon Reade, Bristol Old Vic’s joint Artistic Director, joined us in the Macready Room in November to outline David Farr’s and his vision for the theatre’s production programme. He explained that they had made a deliberate decision not to commission new plays because their experience is that commissions often spend a long time in development without ultimately seeing the stage. While there might be a place for new writing in the New Vic Studio, the aim in the main house is to present a classical repertoire that establishes an international reputation for the theatre.

In March, Pete Atkin, former sitcom script reader at Hat Trick Productions and co-songwriter with Clive James, was anxious to impress on the group the near impossibility of getting a TV sitcom produced. While one or two of the many hundreds of scripts he read while at Hat Trick had potential, none of them was finally produced and the company no longer accepts unsolicited script submissions.

Jonathan Meth, director of writernet, the UK’s leading organisation for the promotion of new dramatic writing, answered questions on the work of writernet and the development of writers’ careers at a meeting in May. The discussion covered subjects including the role of literary agents and the difficulties facing dramatists who have already had work produced in gaining further productions.

Since last August, Southwest Scriptwriters has developed closer links with writernet. The group is a founding member of the Playwrights’ Network, a collective of new theatre writing organisations from all over the UK, brought together by writernet to promote new theatre writing nationally. The other member organisations are the East Midlands Theatre Writing Partnership, Menagerie, New Writing North, North West Playwrights, Pier Playwrights, the Playwrights Studio, Scotland, Script, Sgript Cymru and Yorkshire Playwrights. Earlier this year, writernet also established a regular forum for new theatre writing in the south west, bringing together individual writers, representatives of theatre production companies, South West Arts and other organisations with an interest in new theatre writing across the region. Andy Graham and John Colborn represented Southwest Scriptwriters at meetings of the forum in Exeter and Truro in March and June. We’re also grateful to writernet for administering the judging of our competition this year.

We devoted a meeting in May to members’ proposals for the BBC writersroom and South West Screen joint initiative, Breakers. Members attended the launch of the search for strikingly original single TV dramas at the Tobacco Factory, where a panel including writersroom’s New Writing Co-ordinator, Jessica Dromgoole (who, in her former role as Paines Plough’s Literary Manager, spoke at a group meeting during 1999), and former Scriptwriters’ Honorary President, Lucy Catherine, fielded questions from potential entrants. The scheme received 250 entries and group members Virginia Bergin, John Colborn, Eileen Elsey, Miv Evans and Kate Stonham made the top 40 long-list. If you did too, but haven’t yet told us, please get in touch! Lucy Catherine is on the short-list of six writers in final contention for a seed commission of £1000 and three development awards of £500 each.

Several other members also enjoyed success this year. After her radio drama, Falling Through, was one of the finalists in our 2003 competition, Shiona Morton had her stage play, Baby Bank — which was first read at the group last year — accepted for a full production in The Other Space studio at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre during January. Also on stage, Ann Gawthorpe and Lesley Bown self-produced their farce, Over Exposure, at the Alma Tavern at the end of March. Over Exposure was a feature of our 2000 New Writing Festival in the New Vic Studio and its latest outing was a complete sell-out.

Also in March, I was delighted to receive the Television Arts Performance Showcase (TAPS — recently renamed the ‘Training and Performance Showcase’) Drama Writer of the Year Award 2003 for my play Bacon Sandwich, first performed at the Alma Tavern in May 2001. I received the Award from Paul Marquess, Head of Drama at TalkbackThames and Executive Producer of The Bill, at a ceremony in the Princess Ann Theatre at BAFTA in Piccadilly. TAPS developed my script as one of six from more than 400 submissions for its Full-length Script Development Course last year, and it was selected for the Award by an independent panel of television industry judges. The organisation also accepted Ann-Marie McCormack’s Gas and Air for its most recent Full-length Script Development Course and TAPS will be showcasing Ann-Marie’s drama at events around the country in the autumn.

Another major award this year went to Ray Brooking, whose Doctors script, Say a Little Prayer, was voted Best Single Episode at the British Soap Awards hosted by Paul O’Grady (who plays Lily Savage) at BBC Television Centre in London on 8 May. Ray had to share the limelight with the Doctors cast who stormed the stage when the Award was announced, but with the episode beating off competition from all the major soaps, there was plenty of limelight to go around.

The group’s most recent success is Theatre West’s selection of Mark Breckon’s play, The Fun Factory, for production at the Alma Tavern in the early autumn. We’ll be announcing Theatre West’s full autumn line-up in our next newsletter.

The highlight of the year was our New Writing Festival, which we held at the Alma Tavern in early July. We received 20 entries for the competition to select scripts for the Festival and were able to stage script-in-hand performances of five of them. Radio drama dominated the winners this year with the top three scripts — Wingless Victor by Bruce Fellows, If Possible, Make a U-Turn by Linda Ewles and A Pint On the House by John Colborn — all written for the medium. Bruce’s achievement with Wingless Victor means that our competition has now produced overall winning entries written for stage, screen, radio and television, showing that success is possible whatever your preferred medium. The big and small screens were also represented among this year’s winners with Kate Stonham’s TV drama, Bottled Up, and Patrick Makin’s Abraham in joint fourth place.

This year we were grateful to be working with two national organisations in presenting our Festival. As I mentioned above, writernet took over the entire judging process this year and provided helpful feedback in two reader’s reports for all 20 entrants. Thanks to Michael Jenner, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain also helped out by awarding us a grant of £300 for the rental of the Alma Tavern theatre. We were pleased as well to be working again with many local actors and directors who have featured in our previous Festivals and appreciate their continued support.

We begin our 2004/2005 session on Tuesday, 14 September 2004 in the Macready Room at the Bristol Old Vic. Our next newsletter will include full details of our early autumn programme and we’ll issue it at the start of next month.

See you in September,