tue 30/11/2021

Good Cop: From Page to Screen | reviews, news & interviews

Good Cop: From Page to Screen

Good Cop: From Page to Screen

The creator of the BBC's new police drama outlines the ABC of screenwriting

Warren Brown as PC Rocksavage in Stephen Butchard's new BBC drama

On Thursday the BBC will screen the opening episode of the television drama Good Cop. I finished writing it back in August 2010, and on the strength of that story and ideas for a total of four episodes, the series was green-lit in February 2011. We completed filming (pictured below) by the end of December 2011, then came post-production. Now at last we have our transmission date and it will be broadcast to the world.

Those who watch will see a series of pictures, naturally, perhaps not realising that each of them began life as words on a page - not that it’s important that they make the connection. What’s important is that they are engaged and stimulated by what they see and hear. Making a film or television programme is a collaborative process, a fusion of images, sounds, stories and emotions. But it all begins with the script, and I feel massively privileged to say that’s where I come in.

I spend a lot of time staring into space. I’m working, honestly

If I’m asked what I do for a living, I say writer. Having started in theatre, then radio (God bless Radio Four drama), I now mostly work in television and, very occasionally, film. Regardless of the medium, I always think in pictures. Even if it’s just a man in a room, sitting down, the image always comes first. How is he sitting? Is he relaxed? Tense? What’s his expression? Should the expression be a lie? What is he hiding? And then there’s a knock on the door, or the phone rings, or his wife calls from the kitchen, or he cries, or we cut. He is only allowed to speak when he has something to say or a colour, an emotion, to impart. Screenwriters think in pictures, not just words; this years’ film BAFTA for best screenplay went to a silent movie. It goes without saying I spend a lot of time staring into space. I’m working, honestly.

What I’m searching for in that middle distance is something that initially excites me, something that will engage; something truthful, something that can carry an emotion, something new. It is the role and responsibility of a screenwriter to find that elusive something new; if brand new isn’t possible, then something fresh, different, a reinvention, a twist – but never a lie. Lies lead to melodrama and melodrama destroys plot, character and the bond between screen and audience.

When writing, I think always about the people watching the end product. The only way I can judge even the first few written pages of a script is to switch roles and become a member of the audience: are the pages telling me a story, hinting at more to come, asking me questions, are they making me feel the story, do I care about the characters, am I being surprised, do I want to know what happens next, am I engaged, have I forgotten it’s a story, am I hooked? And draft by draft, you keep writing, re-writing until you believe the answer to all of these questions is “yes”. If the answer is “no” – if what I’m reading is utter rubbish, then that’s okay too! At least I know it – and now I can change it.

You have to work hard in television to win your audience. In cinema and theatre, the audience have bought a ticket, they are stakeholders and they’re already on your side. But with television, instead of a ticket in their hand they hold the remote control. The laptop, the iPad, the kettle, the kids and 57 channels are all competing for attention. You have to grab them, or gently take their hand. Both work.

I believe the only real way to engage an audience is through the characters on the screen. Without believable and interesting characters, any story or sequence, be it action, domestic, romantic or criminal will be underpowered, it will always feel pretend. Characters are the screenwriters’ conduit to the audience – a friend in danger is always more affecting than a stranger in danger – characters allow the audience to live the film through them. The aim is always to make an audience feel, not to just sit and watch.

And as the creator of the character, I must believe everything that they do and say; same goes for story. The screenwriter must never abandon creative responsibility for either story or character. I have been lucky enough to work with a lot of excellent people, who want nothing more than the script to be the best it can be. Script-editors, producers, executives and directors will have notes; good people will give good notes, but it is the Screenwriter who must ultimately assess and control the notes and decide when and how to action them. There are always external ideas, suggestions, requests and pressures, all of which the screenwriter has to assess – some will be embraced, others rejected, one or two may be unwanted but necessary - but it is the screenwriter who must take the lead in finding a way to manage the change, addressing these issues without ever losing control of the script, without damaging story or character. The closer a script approaches production, the more people become involved and the more pressure on change there will be; it’s a fact that must be dealt with.

Something I tell myself is that writing is ABC. A is for art, and (apologies for sounding grand) but art is me, the writer – that’s my voice, that’s how I see the world, that is where the originality will hopefully begin. C is for craft – my craft, how I tell my story, structure scripts, and the tricks of my trade. But right in the middle is B for business – which isn’t necessarily B for bad. If a screenwriter wants their work to end up on screen, they have to learn to respect and understand that business is important. It will apply constraints and pressures. There will be limitations in time, budget, locations, the number of actors, language, night-shoots, day-shoots, personnel, none of which can be ignored and all of which have to be resolved in order to help protect (or even enhance) story and character, it is important that the writer is party to the solution. Creativity and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive.

II deliberately wanted Good Cop to be about the man, a good man doing a difficult job. I wanted to avoid the more familiar police procedural questions and forensic examinations and concentrate on the human aspect of being a policeman – and then really, really push it as far as I could. Much of what I’ve talked about above came into play. In really pushing the stakes, I had to be ever conscious of always ensuring truthfulness. As my Good Cop's journey became darker and more dangerous, I had to ensure that we understood exactly how he felt, sharing his angst, fear and release.

In writing a hopefully complex, humane and morally ambiguous story, I also wanted to keep the promises made to the BBC that there would also be thrills, spills and humour. I wanted Good Cop to be different. I wanted it to be ambitious in tone and content. I wanted it to be a drama that gripped first, provoking thought and questions later. I wanted it to be a drama that stayed a while in the minds of the audience – and I want the audience to care about the characters. Above all, like all screenwriters, I wanted to be trusted.

Good Cop begins at 9pm on Thursday

It's the role and responsibility of a screenwriter to find that elusive something new

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