Friday, 7 May 2010

360° Festival Report 1: Tony Jordan and the Red Planet Prize...

Hi guys

I’ve been thinking about doing an occasional series of reports I have on the BBC NI/Tinderbox 360° Festival (which I wittered on about here and here), as they may be of interest to some people. And, what with the Red Planet Prize 2010 about to be announced any day now

(“When? When? WHEN….?” I hear you cry.

Ok, calm down…)

I thought I’d begin with this little article up, which seems particularly timely. It’s an edited and updated version of something I wrote last year for Sharpshooters, after the first festival opened with a talk from Tony Jordan on all things writing and Red Planet… So, with no further ado…

(But, oh, isn’t that a weird little expression? What the hell is “ado”? Where did it come from? ADO. Like Agadoo. Kind of… Anyway, I’ll shut up now. You just want Tony, don’t you..?)

So, with no further ado… over to Tone….

The BBC Writer’s Room roadshow in Northern Ireland was tied in with a 4 day writer’s festival run by BBC NI, the Tony Doyle Bursary (for new screenwriters from Ireland) and Tinderbox Theatre (a new writing theatre company in Northern Ireland). And rather splendid it all was, too!

This is what happened, from your reporter on the ground….

Day 1

Tony Jordan

The man himself took time out from Red Planet Prize-ing, inventing new shows, producing, writing and generally saving western civilization as we know it, to tell us how he does it all. He’s a great speaker – funny, warm, full of interesting stories and insight. But more than that, what sets him apart, and what you really come away with, is a feeling of the man’s passion. This man LOVES what he does.

He started off talking about “the secret” and the fact that when he first started in TV, and specifically EastEnders, he felt as if everyone knew something that he didn’t – the secret of writing. And that if he knew that secret, he’d be a writer. Many courses, screenwriting manuals and episodes of EastEnders later, he realized that no-one has a clue, there is no secret, and everyone is just trying to work out how to write a good story. Once he realized that, he was off! His message being, no-one knows anything, let’s all admit that, and try to work out together how to tell the story we’re trying to tell.

Mr Jordan then gave a breakdown of what his process is…..


Character is king. Not story. Work out who they are. Tony normally spends a couple of weeks developing his characters until, as he put it, his forehead bleeds. Some things to think about when developing character are:-

  • something they will always do
  • something they would never do
  • apply for a job in their name. He meant this literally. He REALLY applies for jobs in his character’s name. It forces him to answer all those questions on the application form that are really useful in understanding the character. He even posts them off sometimes…
  • Paradox for the character and their situation. This paradox creates a natural conflict within the character that will (or wont) be resolved. Bit it makes them interesting to watch. The example for this was a man who wants the finest things in life, is a wannabe, a snob, hates “lower class” thinking. His paradox is that he works in a run-down, crappy second-class hotel. Therefore he is going to hate his customers. And thus Basil Fawlty was born. The more extreme the paradox, the better (for comedy or drama).
  • I loved this one… 30 secs before you fall asleep at night, you reveal the real you. The raw thoughts you have. That’s when we have all our secret little thoughts that we don’t tell anyone else. What does your character think about just before falling asleep? What does that say about them? How can you use it?
  • Who fits with this character? Friends? Good marriage/relationship? Bad? Who are the group of people around them?


Write about what you know about. That is the best research you can ever have. Use the internet. Talk to people. If you want to know about cab drivers, talk to one. Just tell them you’re a TV writer. If they ask what you’ve written for, just ream off a list of TV shows. They’ll never know you’re lying and will be only too pleased to help!


What does this character need? Do they want to win the 100 metres? Do they want to save their marriage? They must need something. Drama is:-

Character + Dramatic Need + Obstacles.

There is also dramatic need and dramatic want. A character’s WANT is

“to win the 100 metres

which they would admit and tell you.

Their NEED is:

To win the 100 metres to please their father because they NEED an expression of love from him which they have never had.

This need may not be something they necessarily realize (but we do). Whether (and how) they achieve this need is what we as an audience and writer are interested in. Between their need and want, they could also achieve one and not the other (win the race, but dad doesn’t show love or lose the race, but dad expresses love for the first time, etc)


The type of obstacle that you give your character will determine the genre and story. For example, your character wants to save his marriage. Whether the obstacle is then

him finding out his wife is having an affair

his inability not to have an affair

a series of mishaps on his surprise “save-my-marriage” holiday

will determine whether it is a comedy or a drama.

Obstacles give the ability to test your character and everything you have developed in research about that character. Therefore, choose obstacles based on character. What is the obstacle that will really test them (thinking about what they would never do, what they think about when they go to bed at night, etc.)? They are uptight, never show their emotions but want to get a dream job? Give them a job interview which is a “workshop”, where they have to “share”. Then pair them up with a touchy-feely type who is more qualified for the job than they are. Then have them turn up late. Then they lose their voice. And on it goes….

Also, character is ACTION, not what they say. They may say they would never steal, but you might show them doing that.

Then we came to


The door is what Tony called that part of our minds that we need to look at, the part that other people don’t see. We have to look inside ourselves, as deep as we can, to discover the truth of whatever it is we want to write about. That’s what’s behind the door… We need to open that door as a writer and look inside in order to reveal something, vomiting it out if we need to. That is what makes you a writer. He gave the example of a child abduction story in EastEnders that he had to write. He could have written the “stock” version. Instead, he chose to think of his daughter and what would it be like if that were to happen to her. He thought of horrible things, things that disturb him to this day, and then sat and wrote the story, typing on a keyboard full of tears and snot and fag ash, because he was so emotional but wanted to get it down. He was incredibly passionate about this. It really struck home for me how important this is to our writing (probably because, deep down, I think it’s something I could work on. Although, to be honest, that’s the point. You have to be working on this ALL the time) and fundamental to writing something that is both truthful. Ultimately, it’s also what sets you apart. It’s your…


Protect, at all costs, your voice. Tony gave the example of being asked to come in and speak to the Casualty people. They liked his work on EastEnders and asked him to pitch an idea. He had an idea for a disaster at a fancy dress party. A guy, dressed as Frankestein, is brought in, nearly dying. The team have to shock him with the paddles, at which point he sits up. “He’s alive!” You get the idea. Tony loved it. It was his sense of humour but they thought it was silly, to which he replied, “Why have you asked me to come in and do ME when you don’t like what ME is?” He walked away from the job. Protect your voice.


Part of working on continuing drama is that you have to take notes. There is a game and you have to play it. The only question that you have to ask yourself is, “Will it change my script dramatically?” and “Does it go against the character?” Okay, so it’s two questions. Anyway, if the answer is no, take the note. After all, working in TV is about collaborating. Take the 9 notes that don’t matter and save your fight for the note that you really DO disagree with. Tony said there are lots of TV writers out there that are better than him, but they aren’t working because they are difficult/couldn’t take notes. People want to work with writers that they get along with and are going to have fun with.


Writers receive a story document which gives a detailed outline for the episode. How detailed this is depends on the show – anything from a few pages to 20/30. His big advice was to NOT just write what is in the document. Those writers who are still doing soaps after years, who are kept on, and who progress onto other things, are those who do something more, who add something of themselves. That’s right. You’ve guessed it. Those who bring their original voice to the script/show. Therefore never do everything in the story document in 30 mins, if the show is 30 mins. Do it in 25 and leave 5 mins for your own stuff. Show them your original voice.


If you want to send an unsolicited script to Red Planet, they do accept them. Probably better to wait until the Red Planet comp however, but if you do want to send one at another time, you can. He did, however, say that they were changing their policy, as the amount of scripts they receive makes it unfeasible. Therefore, in future, they are going to ask for a two page treatment. If they like that, they’ll ask for the full script.


Tony Jordan – lovely, passionate man! So, when they make the announcement for the Red Planet Prize 2010, keep all that in mind.

And remember THE DOOR...


  1. Excellent writeup. Cheers mister!

  2. Thanks, matey!

    All we need now is for them to announce the next comp. You entering?

    I hear it's a joint Red Planet/Kudos thing this time. Wonder what difference that will make?

  3. Thanks John, great report as always and Tony's talks always contain new gems!

  4. Yeah, this one's from a while ago now, but it's full of good stuff! And he's an entertaining speaker.