Starter jobs for would-be drama writers

This article was originally commissioned by 4Talent as part of their “How to get ahead in” series.

It’s mainly about the sort of jobs that people interested in writing (radio) drama might get as a step on the way. But it also gives an insight into the odd route that has brought me to being a writer on the world’s finest – well, certainly longest running – radio drama series.

As the shoulder-padded 80s turned into the unstructured 90s, I was working as a presentation and media trainer.  After a day of being nasty on-camera to a group of senior managers in the breakfast cereal business – and teaching them how to fight back – one of them asked for a private word.

He wanted my advice about a senior public relations post they were thinking of creating.  I did my best to help, but in the end he had to reveal his true purpose – he was sounding me out for the job.  Inwardly I kicked myself for not latching on to his real agenda.  Not the level of sensitivity they’d expect from a savvy PR operator.  But I promised myself that if I was ever in the same situation again, I wouldn’t be so slow.

Two years later, my conversation with Mr Oaty Puffs (some names have been changed) returned in a blaze of neon, accompanied by screaming klaxons and flashing arrows.

Archers producer

By now, I was a BBC press officer, promoting, among other things, BBC Radio 4’s long-running radio drama serial The Archers.  And I was being told that The Archers had a short-notice vacancy for a producer.  I wasn’t actually being sounded out for the job, but I didn’t let that stop me.

Thanks to the amazing open-mindedness of the managers involved, I was given the temporary job.  A few months later I applied for the post proper.  And got it.  I served eleven years as a producer (later senior producer) and five years ago became an Archers scriptwriter.

So, what was my starter job that got me on the ladder to scriptwriting?  None of the ones I’ve mentioned so far.  Before the training company I’d worked for an ad agency – but that wasn’t it.  I’d actually done my first scriptwriting when I was an officer in the RAF, for a video presentation used in recruiting, and later writing and directing comedy and panto for station shows.

So it was that then?  Actually, no.

My starter job

The starter job for my career as a writer was the very first job I did, at the age of 13:  a paper round.  In fact every single job I’ve done (and I’ve done plenty) contributes to my writing.

As a drama writer, you have to create character, settings, plot.  You have to tell your story through the technical constraints and possibilities of the medium.  And in radio especially, dialogue is your main tool.

Many would-be writers are told:  write what you know.  It follows that the more you know, the more you can write.  The more people you’ve come into contact with, the more varied the settings, then the more you have that you can draw on.

And if you want your characters to talk like real people, you’d better start listening to real people, from as many different backgrounds as possible.

Characters I’ve met

Because of the many years it took me to find my writing niche, I’ve worked with hundreds of characters, some ordinary, some more colourful. A rapacious gay milkman. The puffed-up bank manager (yes, I worked in a bank), who told me I ‘wasn’t officer material’ – just before I became an RAF officer.  An ultra-competitive angling maniac.  The driven, alcohol-fuelled, two-Jags socialist (not that one).

I’ve worked in a greasy, macho garage, a dreary supermarket, a rough estate pub.  I’ve communed with senior civil servants and committees of accountants.  As a semi-pro DJ and drummer I’ve been backstage in ratty clubs, fancy hotels and posh marquees on country house lawns.

And every one of those experiences makes me a better writer.

In the business

Of course, there are jobs ‘in the business’ that can help.  Any way you can get near the actual production process should educate you about the technical side of storytelling.  One fellow Archers writer started as a production secretary on the programme.  Another did a couple of weeks’ work experience.  Script editor jobs are great for the nuts and bolts of story creation and what will and won’t work.

Two Archers writers are former actors.  Acting and writing can be a good combination.  Most actors, sadly, have plenty of spare time to work on scripts.  But I’d only recommend entering that bruising profession if you want to act as much as you want to write.

Just don’t be in too much of a hurry to get a job ‘in the media’.  It can be great fun, but it’s very much its own little world.

Go and discover other worlds first.