Tony Jordan: Lessons Learnt From The Scriptwriting Trenches

IMG_8464Veteran Writer Tony Jordan joined us to discuss the span of his career and the things he’s learned along the way. Beginning at aged 32 he was a market trader with no real knowledge of writing prior to being hired to write for the soap EastEnders on the back of a spec he’d submitted. Though he was from Liverpool they had assumed he was some kind of cockney barrow boy who would add an authentic voice to the drama. Taking advantage of the assumption Tony assumed a Dick Van Dyke accent and faked it till he made it and for some years nobody was any the wiser.

His first battle he says was to hold onto his own emerging voice in the midst of an established writing style and format for the series that was imposed on all the writing. Figuring out that in the filler bits that led through to major plot points he could have about 20 minutes of drama to make his own and fill with his own stuff. All his episodes became what he wanted to write about. Many of the Spain episodes were his for instance because he loves Spain, and lots of the juxtaposition of male/female group conversations in The Old Vic scenes too because he found that amusing.

At 34 entering writing, Tony had already lived a bit, he understood people, was of the people and his dialogue reflected this and was a popular part of his writing that he says saved him. Talking of script editors, he said most are good and there to help and you want to hold onto them, but there are some not so good ones too and you have to try and get away from them as soon as you can. One such, who we will call ‘Andrew’ left a mark on Tony that he has not forgotten. Don’t be an Andrew he warns us.

Moving from EastEnders onto 60 minute drama, Tony found himself again coming in at the bottom of the writer’s pile and having to fight the same battles to impress, prove and improve his writing while ever conscious of retaining his own voice. For years he thought that those more successful had some kind of secret that they would one day share with him, but tells us there is no secret, noboy has this thing, it’s not there. All he knows or can share with us is that he knows how to write truth on a piece of paper. It’s this very forthrightness that I suspect has been the bedrock of Tony’s great career.

The industry has changed a lot since he began in it, back then they just wanted writers to be writers, to write and then go away and leave them to get on with making it. There were often set formats for shows, showing that they didn’t want unique voices, they just wanted the same thing they were making. Things are changing nowadays though, writers have more involvement and there are more showrunners appearing.

Hustle was Tony”s first big foray into working with an outside company (which was Kudos) and they respected him as a fellow creative and allowed him his first involvement in production. The writing though wasn’t as straightforward, Tony had read some thirty books about conmen and cons but imparting that to an audience without a horrific and impossibly long amount of exposition wasn’t working. Instead of giving up he was encouraged to persist and finally came up with the technique of deliberately breaking the fourth wall and having the characters just tell the audience what they needed to understand.

Not all his scripts got picked up straight away though, but he cautions that just because someone says a script is not for them doesn’t mean it’s not good. If five or six places say it’s not right then don’t waste your time sending it to a hundred more but don’t be afraid to leave it in a drawer until the universe aligns to want it, or until you get enough clout as a screenwriter that people are asking you what you want to do next. Life on Mars was rejected as ‘silly’ at first. It had been an idea generated on a three day beano in Blackpool where Kudos had given Tony funding to take three screenwriters, put them up in a hotel and give them a supermarket carrier bag with a grand each in cash to spend. This was an idea he’d come to from the EastEnders team being taken away for very fun filled breaks to fuel their writing. Tony loves writers and continues to go on away days and come up with mad ideas as they hang out. The Blackpool trip had generated six ideas in total and aside from Live on Mars, written because they wanted to write for The Sweeney which was no longer being produced, there was another drama ‘Legion’ which laid around for fifteen years and is going to be coming to our screens soon.

In true London Screenwriters’ Festival style life happened during the interview where extraordinarily a BBC commissioner phoned Tony right in the middle of his session (yes, he answered!) and then later agreed to give a grand to and picked out three members of the LSF audience to go do some idea generation on a mad weekend of their own. But it’s being able to handle the big picture like this that has made Tony Jordan do so well with his company Red Planet. Using his own money to set it up it’s a truly independent endeavour. He still writes, however as much as he used to and there’s lots of projects coming up including ‘Dickensian’ which is all the Dickens characters from his various novels in one place but with new stories that are a take on the originals. “Part is me, part is Dickens. We’re kind of co-writing it.” Tony jokes, but he goes on to explain how he’s made it fully his own. I can’t tell you about it here on the blog as it’s a confidential story line and a secret. Sometimes what goes on at the festival, stays at the festival.

Perhaps the best advice we heard from Tony today was to go with what you feel and if a script editor that isn’t so good is pushing you and you make changes that you know in your heart are wrong then you’ll not only get a shit script but even if it gets made you’ll have a body of work that is not you and will lead you nowhere. If you can hold onto your truth though and know when advice is good you will build a career. Leaving us with these words of wisdom.. “You can learn the craft, it’s the voice that’s the thing.”

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