GABY’S FINEST – Career in film and TV script writing

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Gaby Chiappe, 53, is a screen writer and the daughter of William and Mary Chiappe. She was born on the Rock, but the family moved to England when Gaby was three. They lived in Brighton; Gaby went to Cardinal Newman comprehensive school where her mother was a teacher. Mary taught her A-level English and so it became Mrs Chiappe at school and Mum at home. She went up to New Hall, Cambridge to read Archaeology but after a year, transferred to English Literature. She did as much acting as possible during her three years at university and when she came down, she felt the urge to continue. For the next decade, she had a succession of different jobs such as teaching English as a foreign language, selling vintage clothes in Kensington market, reviewing plays, reading scripts and doing bits of journalism in order to earn enough to survive whilst working in fringe theatre. She was part of a women’s theatre company called Trouble and Strife (cockney slang for wife), together they wrote two plays; Now and at the Hour of Death and Next to You I lie.

At the end of the decade, she decided although she was enjoying the bits and pieces that she was doing, it was not a career. Fate intervened. A move to Leeds with her husband Dominic Gray (an undergraduate at Cambridge at the same time as her) coincided with a lucky break – through a friend who was connected with the TV show Family Affairs, she was given the chance to write a ‘trial script’ for the programme. This, in essence, is the chance for the writer to write an episode of the show; if acceptable then a commission will follow. Pregnant with her first child at the time, she got the job and was writing her second commissioned script when she unexpectedly went into labour. Rhys was born (a little earlier than planned!) in 1997.

With her husband Dominic Gray at the Scottish BAFTAs last year

Having realised that script writing was the culmination of all that interested her during her decade after Cambridge, Gaby was anxious not to let the door shut on the opportunity she’d been given. Her own parents were living in Spain, but her parents-in-law came to the rescue. They arrived to stay and took the baby out for lengthy walks morning and afternoon enabling Gaby to write another three scripts for Family Affairs during the course of the year. After this, sufficient work was commissioned to keep her more than busy. Following Rhys, Bryn was born in 2000 (as shown by the two Christian names, their father is a Welshman).

For the first few years of her career, Gaby did not have an agent but then a friend recommended Christine Glover and she remains her agent to this day.

Once a writer has an agent, work comes from two directions; through the agent and their many contacts in the business – and through the script editors a writer has worked with. The industry is relatively small so script editors know many producers and other script editors thus the word gets round that so and so writes well, and also meets their deadlines. Script editors also move to other productions say from Casualty to Eastenders and a good relationship might result in a commission for an episode in the new series.

Gaby talked about the different kinds of input required by the different types of programme she has worked on.

For a soap such as Eastenders, the writer is given the story line as episodes are plotted months in advance. It is then their job to structure the outline and make it a good and satisfying story.

In a long running serial such as Casualty, there is a different balance. Stories involving the “regulars” (characters who are seen every week) will be planned months ahead by the story lining department. But the script writer has to originate and write the story lines for characters who only appear in one episode (“guest characters”). Gaby very much enjoyed her time on Casualty and particularly enjoyed working with the medical advisors on the programme.

In other shows like Lark Rise to Candleford, the writer inherits the regular characters, will know them intimately and has to come up with a story for that episode which has to be approved by the producer.

These shows are all originated by someone else. The other option for originality is when the writer comes up with the idea and creates the show themselves. This happened with The Level which Gaby co-created and wrote with her friend, Alex Perrin. She readily admits that it takes considerable time to write for so many disparate shows.

Gaby started working on her first screenplay (an adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half) when her eldest son, Rhys, started secondary school. The film was shot when he was in the sixth form, which gives you some idea how long film development can take. Gaby found there wasn’t too big a difference between writing scripts for television and film. TV is in essence a visual medium whilst in film, the script has to leave space for the director to weave their magic. The biggest difference is the way in which the story line moves and is structured – film is a larger canvas with a potentially bigger time span and different rhythms.

Their Finest

When a book is being adapted for film then the main objective is to keep its spirit. If each page is used then the film would last something like fifty hours. The essential story has to be told whilst leaving out a considerable amount. The writer has to decide what to retain and what to reject and it takes many drafts to achieve the objective. In the case of dialogue, the objective is to write as little as possible. There are few lines on a page of script whist a conversation in a novel might take several pages. The basic difference is that a novel provides access to the character’s thoughts and imagination whilst a film has to do this in a totally different way. The film shows whether the actor is distressed, happy or showing any other emotion. The writer has to find a way of getting access to the characters without having them say directly what they are thinking.

Rhys and Bryn

The writer usually does not know who the actors will be in a film. This might lead to some small changes in a script. The writer might have envisaged a small, thin actor but the producer might have signed a tall, fat star. The script has to be written to a certain point so that it is attractive for a director to want to direct it. The writer will then work with him and there will be changes which will alter the script to make it compatible to the director’s vision of the film. Another cause for change is when the scene is set outside and then on the day of shooting, it rains – in which case filming might have to move inside and the scene tweaked accordingly.

The experienced script writer knows that page of A4 script roughly equals a minute of screen time and it is easy to keep track of the page count. What’s harder is to make sure that the story spans the distance in a satisfying way so that everything is moving forward but nothing is rushed and the story can widen and deepen as it goes.

Writers in the main are reclusive and do not seek publicity. How many film goers stay behind to read the list of credits and for that matter how many know the names of the script writers of their favourite films and television programmes? How many realise that different writers write different episodes of the programme? In the same vein, how many viewers know the name of the director of photography?

When a show is in production, the timing works backwards from the start to shooting and there is little wriggle room. Gaby confesses to being a slow writer and so has to work all hours to stick to the strict deadlines.

Gaby concludes with these observations: “Broadly speaking, I’d say the deadlines in film are less punishing; mainly because it is in development for so long and by the time you’re shooting it, it’s written. In television, you’re often writing to production deadlines that are tight from the start. Hitting the deadlines has always been a challenge, but it was the one-offs that were really hard to handle as these would involve going down to London meaning an awful lot of planning, especially when the children were young. Most people know that I live in Leeds but nevertheless, they expect you to be available as most of the industry is in London. The assumption is that you’re local and available for urgent meetings. However, being a screen writer does in the main mean that you can do your work whenever you want.”

Rhys and Bryn as extras in ‘Their Finest’ film

This summary shows how much has been achieved during the past twenty years:

1997-2002 Family Affairs Talkback Thames 5, 45 episodes

2000-2003 Doctors BBC1, 7 episodes over series 1-5

2002-2004 Eastenders BBC1, 9 episodes

2002-2005 Holby City BBC1, 4 episodes including a Holby City/Casualty Christmas special.

2003-2005 Born and Bred BBC1, 4 episodes, series 3 and 4

2005-2007 Casualty BBC1, 4 episodes

2007-2009 Survivors BBC1, 2 episodes series 1-2

2007-2009 Lark Rise to Candleford BBC1, 6 episodes series 1-2-3

2011-2012 Vera ITVStudios/ITV, 1 episode series 2 & 1 episode series 3

2012-2013 The Paradise BBC1, 1 episode series 1 & 2 episodes series 2

2013-2015 Shetland BBC1, 2 episodes series 1 & 3 episodes series 3 – Winner TV Drama award – British Academy Scotland awards 2016

2016 The Level Hillybilly TV/ITV, Original 6-part series co-written with Alex Perrin.

Lissa Evans, Amanda Posey, Bill Nighy & Gaby Chiappe

Films

2016 Their Finest Adaptation of novel by Lissa Evans. This is directed by the  Lone Scherfig, the Danish director who also directed The Riot Club and An Education. Gaby did have a small part in the film and her two boys were extras in the tube station scene.

Gaby is presently adapting Dark Matter, a novel by Michelle Paver for Wildgaze/BBC films.