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Wednesday, 28 June 2017 09:26

Letter from London #28

Written by Edwin Riddell
Hampstead Heath Hampstead Heath

 

What’s in a name?

Quite a lot, it seems. Of all the topics raised over the TV series on which I’m working, none has generated quite so much discussion as its title.

I had come up with the idea of The Hampstead Detectives a few years ago, with a general plotline about a new kind of officer being recruited by police forces. The idea continued to grow in my mind, but needed something to take it forward.

It was then that I came across the ‘super-recogniser’ unit at Scotland Yard. This was a specialist group recruited for their pronounced ability to recognise suspects, often glimpsed only on poor-quality CCTV or surveillance footage. That was interesting. Although all were trained police officers, they were a very mixed group of individuals. That idea led to our company considering a new title, Facehunters.

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When writing contemporary television material with a factual edge, one needs to keep a sharp weather-eye on the long lead-time involved. I once worked on a TV series which was intended to be a biopic of a well-known living author. In the course of pre-production, the author died. The whole thrust of the programme had to be reoriented into a kind of retrospective and eulogy. Not least, because the author himself was no longer available for interview.

In the course of developing our present TV detective series, we discovered that a production company in the USA had bought the rights to the use of the term ‘Scotland Yard Super Recognisers.’ As it happened, by this time our own ideas had moved on considerably, since it was generally felt that the super-recogniser focus was too narrow.  And we were also coming back round to the idea that the original title of The Hampstead Detectives suited our project best.

Subsequently, our decision was vindicated by the fact that the original super-recogniser unit had been disbanded in one of the periodic shake-ups in police organisation that often seem to follow the appointment of new leadership.

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When it comes to the matter of actually creating TV drama, there is much more to consider than in the generally lone act of writing a story. Few television channels are prepared to consider submissions from individual authors – though it must be noted that things have opened up much more in this respect with the advent of Amazon Studios, which does have a submission process for individuals.

For the most part, however, the TV writer needs to attach himself to a production company or a director/producer with a track record. That will usually entail creating what is known as a treatment or pitch, often alongside an opening episode or teaser. Different channels have different requirements. The BBC now has a formal online submission process, but for the major US networks there is still something called the pitching season, where production companies present their ideas face-to-face with studio executives. Since our series is British and European based, we don’t need to get down to the gym just yet.

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Sooner or later you are faced with the same blank screen or sheet of paper as any other writer.  Though I failed miserably when taking the super-recogniser test, I do habitually conceive scenes in visual terms, albeit ones overlain in my case by a strong recollection for the way people speak and sound. I can still hear the exact voices of my mother and father, though they died many years ago, not to mention dozens if not hundreds of people I have known to some degree stretching back over the decades.

Nevertheless, I have found myself still needing the comfort of writing a parallel version of the script in the form of a more conventional prose narrative. This, I find, can sometimes throw up nuances and elements that may not initially spring to mind when drafted as scenes in drama. Not all of these elements can be rendered into the script, but they provide a background of details, or a life outside the immediate story, for some of the characters and situations. To some this might become something almost as formal as what some writers call a concordance. To others, it might involve just imagining or sketching out scenes that lie entirely outside the immediate plot. 

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Meanwhile, about that pesky title - one recent morning I woke up with the solution. The series would indeed be called The Hampstead Detectives. And the ‘Super-Recognisers’ in it would now be known as the ‘Facehunters.’

Problem solved.

~Edwin Riddell

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