An ill-fated journey into the world of TV writers (contains sex and violence)

The BBC bigwig was shouting at me. Every time I started to speak in the debate, he came barrelling in, objecting and refuting. The audience of writers gathered in the lecture hall seemed, rather to my surprise, to be on his side. After repeated interruptions, I said with mild exasperation that I was very glad I never had to pitch ideas to him. “So am I!” he bellowed.

It had all seemed rather different when I had first been invited to a convention of TV writers. The two-day event was to discuss matters of common interest and concern, one of which was the depiction of violence against women on TV. I had written a column in the Independent about the way TV tends to glamorise the psychopath and the stalker. Now I was being invited was invited to be a guest participant in what was described as the keynote debate. It was an off-the-record, writer-to-writer occasion, I was told – an informal pub chat of a convention.

I accepted, of course. I’m a freelance. My default position is “Yes”. There was a time when this professional promiscuity was caused by financial insecurity; now it is an excuse to get out of the office. It would be interesting, I thought, to hear about an area of writing in which I had no experience. Besides, it seemed rather feeble to lob hand-grenades of opinion from the bunker of a newspaper column without now and then engaging in the hand-to-hand stuff.

The convention was indeed fascinating. One tends to forget that writers live in separate villages. In one the novelists live, in another the children’s writers. Over the hill, there is a sprawling suburb of journalists and bloggers. Playwrights must have their own village, and of course you can hear where the poets live from the sound of raised voices and broken glass. The inhabitants of these places are more different from one another than one might think.

Here is what I discovered about the TV writers’ village. Most of them wear smart white Converse trainers, as if they might pop down to the gym at any moment. They are generally better turned out than the inhabitants of other writing villages. Compared to book-writers, made edgy by hours of solitude, those who write for TV seemed friendly and open, at least to one another. The atmosphere was entirely different from a literary festival or book fairs, where a certain scratchy competitiveness is evident, and authorly bloody-mindedness never far away.

No doubt, I will be corrected by society members who write for television, but it seemed to me that the business of having to work with – and for – non-writing colleagues, had made them more generally collegiate and co-operative. The sessions I attended were marked by a tone of professional respect and mutual admiration. The one row I witnessed involved the only village outsider who was present – me.

What went wrong? I had, innocently in retrospect, thought that my point of view was hardly contentious. It had seemed to me for some time that television and film drama has been over-dependent on what publishers used to call the “women in jeopardy” genre. How many more stories of sexually motivated killers do we need to see? Surely the idea that a man who murders women is, in the manner of Hannibal Lecter, devilishly clever and perverse in a fascinating, even sexy way has not only become something of filmic cliché, but is also belied by details of real murder trials, in which the killer invariably emerges as a miserable, grubby loser.

There is a mismatch between fiction and reality here, I thought. When TV makes murder alluring and interesting, it is not only creatively lazy, but sometimes socially irresponsible.

Within a few minutes of our keynote debate, it became clear that not only was this view widely rejected by the TV professionals, but that even to articulate it was an outrageous slur against honourable writers and directors. The BBC bigwig shouted down my opening statement. I was proposing censorship, he said. How dare I come to a writers’ conference and accuse them of laziness?

It was a high-powered panel on stage, with a senior producer, a successful writer of TV crime and an eminent director involved, but, when it came to this topic, I was on my own. The director invoked Aeschylus and the human fascination with evil. The writer explained how the intercutting of two scenes in the BBC series The Fall, one involving the heroine having hot sex and the other showing the killer playing games with the body of a female victim, was not glamorising murder at all; it was essential to the plot.

Both, it seemed to me, confirmed the point that I was trying to make: that we all, without the slightest loss of integrity, can become so absorbed in making our stories work that we lose sight of the effect of what we are doing.

It became even more peculiar. When the conversation moved on to nudity on TV, I remarked that I was never particularly bothered by bare flesh. In response, a member of the audience (another BBC employee, I later discovered) expressed her outrage that I accepted the objectification of women on TV. She was loudly applauded. The discussion was more pub brawl than chat, and not much was resolved. Attending other sessions, uneasily aware of my outsider status, I cursed myself for bunking off work for reasons, I now saw, that were more to do with vanity than a genuine desire to change minds.

My time was not completely wasted, though. I was reminded that one should be careful before one agrees to these things. I was given a startling insight into the curious combination of insecurity and arrogance with which the modern BBC responds to criticism. Above all, I learned that one enters another writing village at one’s peril.

It has never felt better to be back in my office, writing, alone.

Autumn 2013.