Realism, that thing that gives drama it’s impact, often involves writers going to a source or special consultant to enrich the content of their work. Two such sources Jackie Malton on who’s life Lynda La Plant based Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect and Pete Salt the inspiration for Casualty’s Charlie Fairhead joined Casualty co-creator Paul Unwin to talk about the process of being an expert source.
The relationship between fiction and fact is very distinctive. At the end of the day, says Paul, audiences want to switch off the TV and still be able to feel that the world is okay. Given that, how does story work with facts to create realistic drama?
For Jackie she was brought a script by Lynda La Plante who’d been referred by a mutual police acquaintance as she was looking for a high ranking woman detective to authenticate the character and crime she was writing about. There are police advisors who can check facts for writers but Jackie had never really wanted to do that, however she did have an interest in the stories behind the crimes and people she came into contact with. Their process became that she would be brought a script to read through, then meet with Lynda to talk about what was incorrect in the procedure or behaviours described in the writing. Jackie says that talking to Lynda was like going to therapy. Lynda never wrote notes, just allowed her to speak asking questions when appropriate. Then she’d go away and when she came back a while on all sorts of things Jackie had revealed would have emerged inside the new draft.
For factual correctness there’s a fine balance to be achieved as to what’s healthy for the public to see about professions that deal with life and death. Jackie wouldn’t want for instance to reveal too much about actual police tactics for dealing with serious incidents that might endanger them solving future crimes. That’s where artistic licence can take hold. For Pete, the whole premise of Casualty is to be as accurate as possible but there are things that might be medically unsafe to put out there that he’d prefer to hold back on. Even if something really happened it’s not always wise for it to be included in a drama and care is taken to scrutinise story that might cause distress to viewers who’ve experienced loss or hurt.
The way Pete works in his role to advise the Casualty writing staff is to get hold of the basic story outline for an episode and what’s going to happen medically in it as soon as possible so he can see if the medicine the premise is based on will work for the story. If someone’s had a serious head injury they’re not going to be better by the end of the episode and massive multiple injuries most frequently leave patients unable to speak for some time. Either there’s a solve or alternative in the medical facts that can work around a problem, if not then the story may need to be changed. Usually he’ll look over about five drafts of a script during the writing process. Sometimes a show has it’s own ‘grammar’ that shades what the storylines should be, like Casualty’s medical accuracy. Jackie worked for 13 years advising on The Bill that had a grammar of ‘crime doesn’t pay’. Both Jackie and Pete point out that their job is to advise about the more complex aspects of their work and not as proxy writers or encyclopedias for people too lazy to do their own work and research. The best writers take the notes they are given on board, not so good writers hold onto their stories no matter what.
Over time long running series can sometimes become gratuitous but the reality of situations of life and death can be very visceral for the people involved says Jackie. Society fails people and some of those people are the people who become criminals. Writers aren’t touched by the emotions that stay with police, doctors and other crucial professons. Maggots on a corpse will likely trigger real life memories and emotions that remain with a person who’s seen a fellow human being in that state. It can be harsh spilling information, it exposes you. The story of character Jane Tennison’s life and alcoholism is Jackie’s story, she had internalised much. Though she hasn’t had a drink for 22 years the crimes she worked, the people involved are still very real to her.
Writers, hungry for stories, conflict, drama and grit often want to know what the worst thing is that a source they speak to has experienced on the job. Pete has learned that quite often when he’s gone there, he’s just upset them. The worst of life and death professions can be very bad indeed and people don’t really want to watch distressing horror on their screens. He recommends writers ask instead about the incidents that most impacted people. Often it might not be the horrific thing you’d expect to hear but something small that is still dramatic because it holds rich human story in it. Jackie says you have to have empathic curiosity, stand in the source’s shoes, ask questions that are deep and you’ll find the emotional drama.
Sources it’s clear bring a huge amount of experience to scripts. Over time consultants become adept at advising on points of writing accuracy and that’s something that should be valued and approached with humility. Recognise always that sources are being courageous in what they tell you and in some situations, especially if you’re writing about things like injustices or national policy their own jobs could be affected by speaking out. Most people like to see their professions well represented and will want to help if they can and it’s easy to go into a police station or hospital and politely ask if someone can answer a couple of questions you have about procedure even if you don’t have personal contacts to tap into. Many people are in these jobs in the first place because they are predisposed to help others.
I for one, recognised the huge helpfulness of Jackie and Pete in coming to speak to us today, one of the most invaluable sessions I’ve experienced this weekend and a great final seminar to wrap up on, because in sharing stories (as William Nicholson said wonderfully earlier this weekend) we transmit values within our society and it’s well worth remembering and including feedback from the real life people who are very much a part of that society we represent on screen.