To: Ken Chubb
Re: Television Drama Series Writing Workshop for Professional writers with experience in another medium,
Thanks for the invitation to apply for a position in the upcoming T.V. writing workshop. But after reading the recent Globe and Mail piece (March 23/91) quoting you about why writers from other mediums so often find television a painful experience, it’s difficult to get up any enthusiasm for entering into a situation which seems to confirm my worst fears about working within a Canadian broadcast context.
Not that I have anything particular against series such as Urban Angel Street Legal E,N.G or Neon Rider, but I’m not sure any of them are worth the aggravation of “writing by committee” as you mentioned in the article. The case of Urban Angel is a good example of the problems involved. One of that show’s producer/writers, Don Truckey, sent me a couple of scripts which went on to become episodes. The central character, Victor Torrez (nee Malarek), came off a juvenile not to mention a racist stereotype which thinking people would most likely find offensive. First of all he keeps claiming to have done some kind of hard time, but with his slight build and baby Elvis looks, the whole tough guy schtick is pretty far fetched. Secondly, contrary to the skewed opinions of the Anglo-Canadians who wrote these schoolyard melodramas, first generation Canadians born here don’t necessarily tawk like dis all da time. Especially if they’re allegedly writing highly charged investigative journalism.
Anyway, when I read in The Montreal Gazette that Urban Angel cost $1.1 million per episode to produce since the “gritty look is hard to get”, it seemed a little absurd the CBC is not willing to pay some money up front for story ideas from published authors. A little money in the beginning could save the corporation from producing these over-priced clunkers.
For instance, I was thinking of something inexpensive and organically developed. Montreal was wasted as the setting for Urban Angel since it would have been perfect as a backyard for dealing with the issue of whether Canada is even going to stay in one piece. There’s no need for Victor and his buddy leaping around in their brand new leather jackets babbling the usual boneheaded machismo nonsense. “I dun time fur you, man, I dun time fur you! (Yeah, yeah, shut up…)
You could begin with a depanneur owner, of East Indian origin say. A middle aged character worried about what’s going to happen. After all, he came here from Guyana to get away form racial tensions and watching the deteriorating political situation not only effects his business but the security he came to Canada in search of. His family comes into the picture, a teenage son or daughter born in Canada, how he or she deals with being trapped in a culture and language debate which excludes those of non-anglo, non- franco roots. Then begin to develop the neighbors. Immigrants, Anglos, Quebecois who exchange gossip and problems while shopping or hanging around the East Indian’s place, a number of them complaining about how the areas has changed while others welcome the influx. Plenty of room there for strong interaction surrounding issues which concern most Canadians who are not running around busting up drug rings or convincing women to quit the street a la Urban Angel. You could throw the cops into the equation, the wary balance they have to maintain in the neighborhood.
Say the depanneur’s son or daughter gets arrested on a drug charge and how the family deals with it. Or a campaigning politician coming round, the whole glad handing spiel, the local’s reactions, arguments, the skepticism. Canadians are beginning to be known for in regard to probes, polls and party hacks in general. How about affluent young trendies? Media types who have gentrified the huge Montreal apartments which were once occupied by the large families out of Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. In fact, if the show had enough brains to it, you might be able to get a Richler, a Leonard Cohen or other well known Montrealers to make cameo appearances. A lot could be done with the vivid mix of the cultures which make up Canada’s urban population. I mean, haven’t we had enough of the building of the railroad, The Wars and rural Canadiana? There could be a lot of very funny, very relevant stuff worked into a production format which would not need a million bucks an hour. Even serious adult sensuality could fit into the scenario if handled in a plausible manner. I don’t think audiences or critics are tired of common human themes, just the two dimensional treatment they usually get. Why not challenge the viewer and get self-referential once in a while? Have a cheap black and white T.V. in the East Indian’s depanneur. Him and a few customers watching when the Journal comes on. A grizzled old Irish-Montrealer buying her quart of beer and under the counter smokes, and bitches about the politicians Peter Mansbridge is covering, “them and their bloody royal commissions – crisis mongers…”
Maybe this is too dull a concept for the more Hollywood-minded producer but since the corporation is fighting off budget cuts, it might make sense to have a look at doing more with less.
A useful example of what I’m trying to get at is East Enders, a series produced by the BBC (reputed to be the mother of the CBC). It’s nothing more than the doings of an average neighborhood struggling to get by in an increasingly senseless world. The basic human need for a community and what goes on when people try to hold it together.
I understand the CBC is attempting to do something worthwhile with these workshops but it brings me back to the issues of money. Not the cash per se but when one sees a $1.36 billion a year corporation trying to draw professional writers with this type of offer, the obvious thing is to wonder whether it really is a privilege worth competing for. Even the publisher of the second novel I’m currently working on had the minimal faith to put up a decent advance. If the CBC wants to be taken seriously as anything other than a massive drain on the taxpayer, they ought to begin thinking about how to deal with the most important asset in film and television, the writer (as every producer will tell you with sober reassurance).
My intention here is not to offend or to reprimand but just to voice a few ideas about workable possibilities. Of course, these kinds of notions are usually pointless in the face of the monolithic bureaucracy they would have to be part of but it is time the CBC gave honest consideration to the demographic changes reshaping the country it supposedly serves.
I have included a copy of my first novel, “The Hook of it is”. Hope you enjoy it and let me know if there is anything which might be worked out.