Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #024 with Phil Davies.
Phil and his story embodies everything I set out to capture with this series – behind every credit is a person. He’s balancing writing with a fascinating day job and still has time to proactively network, building a reputation as a key member of the writing community. A love of comic books, sci-fi, and unique art pieces; Phil has a unique story that’s also very relatable. You know, like a good script.
When did you start writing?
It’s the old cliché, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. I can remember writing a poem when I was around 5 years old (something about the sun coming into my bedroom) but it was when I was school and college that I really started.
I wrote a creative writing piece in 5th year (year 11 I think it is called these days?) which the teacher told everyone was the first ‘A’ he’d ever given. Then at college my lecturer told me that I really should think about writing professionally after I entered a poem for a local competition.
As it happens, I saw him a couple of years ago and was able to say thank you for his early support and told him what I was doing now. I also said how I remembered very clearly what he’d said about me writing professionally. It was a genuinely lovely moment. A little like meeting the past. He asked me to call him by his first name, but I said I’d still prefer to call him sir. It didn’t feel right otherwise!
Are you a full-time writer or do you balance alongside a day job? If you’re balancing, how do you make it work?
I am a full-time writer, but perhaps not in the sense people may imagine. As well as scriptwriting, I’m also a Funeral Celebrant (it’s this that keeps me in fizzy water). I’ve been in the funeral industry for over 16 years now and been a celebrant for 4 ½ years (self employed for 3 ½). This role sees me speaking to families and then writing the full funeral script everything from the welcome to the final farewell. In this sense, writing is a key part of what I do as every script, every story I hear is individual.
Balancing the screenwriting alongside this is interesting at times as the funeral side of things can become busy and deadlines (in all senses!) loom. As for how I make it work? Long days. There are times when I’ll be in front of my laptop by 6.30, chat to a family at 10.00, funeral at 12.00, then back writing until it’s all finished.
Your website lists your services as “scriptwriter, script development and something a little different”. Can you explain what it is you do?
The something a little different is what started my professional scriptwriting career (which sounds so much worse that I mean it to!)
I create large collages. Each one is about A1 sized and is about a particular esoteric subject, things like fairies, witches, the Yeti. On first glance they appear to be a collection of random objects, things like newspaper clippings, sketches in notebooks, diary entries, random bits and pieces (all made by hand and aged appropriately- I made Yeti pelt from old cuddly toys!)
However, if you take the time to read over the bits and pieces that make up the picture, and study it a little, you’ll find they tell a story. Usually, it’s a mystery or some tale with a twist relating to the subject at hand.
After they’re finished I give them away to friends and family as presents. One I gave to a friend who had connections with the BBC and it was that which saw me starting down my TV scriptwriting career.
You refer to your career as a writer beginning when you were invited to join a week long residential Cbeebies Writer’s Room. How did this come about and what did it involve?
The answer to the first part is through the collages I make, the right person saw it and asked me if I’d like to go on the writer’s residential course and I leapt at the chance! It was a retreat where the first thing we had to do was write a pitch for some existing Cbeebies shows. The first day, they pulled the pitches apart and then over the following few days built us back up again.
It was intense. Lots of workshops, watching shows, chatting to fellow writers- both established and new ones like myself. I have to say I spent most of the time wondering how the heck I got there amongst these other writers who all seemed to have it going on, whereas I was just a funeral director who made odd pictures!
At the end of the week, with all that we’d learned, the team running the retreat asked us to repitch our ideas and it was this that saw me seeing my first script commissioned- Changing Rooms for Furchester Hotel!
I’m not going to lie, Phil… I’m incredibly jealous. I’m a huge fan of anything Jim Henson, I even got engaged in the lighthouse from Fraggle Rock! You must have grown up with Sesame Street and The Muppets, what was is like getting the opportunity to contribute to that world?
It was mind blowing. I had the privilege of being invited onto the set when my script was being filmed. To see characters I’ve grown up with and adored saying my lines, was simply incredible. Hearing David Rudman saying the ‘COOOOOKKKIIIIEEE’ that I’d written was beyond words. It was a fantastic moment. To think that there is some small part of Sesame that I contributed to is almost too big to think about.
When people think about careers in television, they often imagine it means living in places like London or Manchester. Your based in the Midlands, what opportunities and limitations has this created for you?
I like to think it hasn’t made too much of a difference. The great thing about Shropshire is it’s quite central. I can be in London in 3 hours or so, Manchester in a little over 1 ½ hours, Birmingham is only an hour away, Sheffield and further north is also easy to get to. I can have a choice of big cities and yet I have the joy of living in a rural location.
I would certainly hope it hasn’t held me back at all, especially as the last 12 months or so have taught us how physical location holds less meaning these days. We can Zoom/ Skype/ message anyone around the world instantly.
On that, how has your work been impacted by the Covid pandemic? How have you had to adapt?
Both sides of my writing have been impacted. The funeral writing has been considerably busier, and the screenwriting has been considerably slower and I’ve lost out of some opportunities due to studios winding back. However, it has given me time to focus and work on some of my own projects which is no bad thing.
The funeral work has been challenging. Not just in the amount, but the way funerals have changed. Those I looked after last April were amongst the emotionally hardest I’ve taken in all the time I’ve been in the industry. Just brutal.
You do visits to schools. This is something I’ve thought about before. How did this start and what does a visit involve?
It the funeral side of things that saw this start. A family I looked after had been told by the funeral director that had instructed me that I also write for children’s television and after the funeral ceremony, they asked me if I’d like to come to a careers day they were having at the school of one of the grandchildren. When the school heard I was coming they also asked me if I would mind putting on a couple of workshops for the children afterwards, which I did.
I’ll be honest as it was primary school, so I wasn’t too sure what benefit a careers day would be for the children (I wanted to grow up and be a dolphin when I was that age!) but they seemed to gain a lot from it (and me too!) The workshops afterwards were an absolute joy too, there was some fantastic creativity on display.
Do you have any particularly memorable school visits?
That first careers day was wonderful. I was stood with a Health and Safety exec and a salesperson. Then a vet with a dog came in and we all thought we’d all be having a quiet day. Who wants to talk about working at heights and writing when there’s a cute doggie in the room?!?
As it happened, when the children found out what I did, I was quite busy too! It was a humbling moment watching children’s eyes widen when I told them which episodes I’d written and they said some of them were amongst their favourites.
One of the little ones told me to wait (I wasn’t going anywhere!) and brought back her friend so I could tell them too. They even asked for my autograph! It’s moments like that which make all the hair pulling rewrites worth it.
A week of so afterwards, I received a few thank you letters from the children which was wonderful especially when one of them said how she had originally wanted to be doctor, but now wanted to be a screenwriter!
Can we talk a bit about building pitch bibles? I feel like this is an aspect of writing that is often missed. When you look at how to books and podcasts and all of that stuff, it’s very much focussed on the craft of writing a script. But I’m finding these days that a lot of the work offers I’m getting are for development projects and it’s been a case of using common sense, experience from developing my own scripts, and learning from the teams I’m working with.
What’s your experience been like with development and what advice do you have for writers who land their first job?
I’ve been involved in various writer’s rooms developing new shows and also been invited to create pitch bibles as well as make my own. I think we as writers tend to forget how important these can be- not just as a tool for pitching our ideas, but also as a way to dig deeper into what we’re pitching. Alongside all this, bibles are also a great way of engaging ourselves creatively and differently. I like to make a bible that reflects the show I’m pitching.
I’ve been developing one of my own shows which is set in a bookshop and so I’ll make that bible look like a book- anything to help those reading it immediately engage with what the show is about. We all play with words to create images and it’s easy to forget the power of a simple image.
When it comes to working in development the key thing I’d suggest is never be afraid of saying what you’re thinking. There are always a group of people involved and what you may be thinking is a daft idea could easily spark off others. I would much rather be in a room with lots of weird and wacky ideas flying around than sat in silence and I’m sure producers would rather this too. Nothing worse than inviting a group of creatives together who then sit there drinking tea and ruminating! Also it certainly doesn’t hurt your prospects if you’re seen as someone willing to be involved in the conversation.
Another essential skill for a writer is the ability to write a good spec email. What advice do you have for people when they reach out to producers and script editors?
My biggest piece of advice (and one I should listen to myself and take more often), is to do it! To send those query letters. Although I’m not sure there is a magic formula to these things as producers are all individuals and what works for one, won’t work for another.
It’s easy to think that people will come to you, but this really isn’t the case. Yes, it’s likely you’ll have a rejection to your query (or worse still, just silence!) but you might get a yes! Maybe it’s fear of rejection that stops us from sending these emails? And yes those no’s do sting, especially when they can sometimes be quite blunt! But don’t let that rejection come from yourself. Remember: every email you don’t send is already a no.
Your one of these writers who seems to really understand the benefits of social media and use it really effectively to network. One thing I’ve noticed you get involved in regularly is #PipelinewritersUK.
What is it and why should others join the discussion?
#PipelinewritersUK is a twitter meet off shoot from Script Pipeline. It meets on Twitter every Friday night at 7.00pm and is usually hosted by the awesome Amanda Graham (someone whom I had the immense privilege of meeting way back at the BBC Writer’s Residential) and the equally awesome David Lee Stokes (who, lucky for him hasn’t had the dubious pleasure of meeting me in real life).
It’s a brilliant opportunity to meet fellow writers, catch up and swap stories. More often than not, there is also a guest of sorts, someone involved in the writing industry, be they pro writers, producers, agents etc. I’ve no idea how Amanda and David pull it all together, but it has been a wonderful way of meeting an interacting with a great variety of people in the industry.
All you need to do is look for hashtag #pipelinewritersuk on Twitter on Friday night from 7.00pm and you’ll find us there.
You recently hosted a #pipelinewritersuk discussion on the subject of working for free. I’ll link to it here as I think people will find it useful, but what is your best piece of advice on writing for free?
Be aware of what you’re getting into. Sometimes what seems like a good thing can be anything but. Also try not to think of ‘free’ as being unpaid. There are also other benefits, such as experience and honing your craft. It may be having the opportunity to write for a team, or a producer provides feedback that you may not have had.
I’m also a big believer in giving things back. If someone is looking for script notes, (as long as I’m able) I will give them. We are all in this together. We are all trying to make that break. Some of us have been lucky, some not quite so, but if I can help fellow writers I will always endeavour to do so.
As well as Twitter, you have a LinkedIn profile. How useful has this been for you as a professional writer?
LinkedIn is far more professional. It’s a lot more low key and I tend to use it as a far more focused version of Facebook where I’ll post up what I’m doing/ have done in relation to my writing, there’s less peripheral bumf. In a way it feels a lot more like advertising.
I’ve found I much prefer the immediacy of Twitter and I can be more ‘myself’ here. There is a fantastic community of writers on Twitter and I feel I’ve made far more connections over the last few months here than I have on LinkedIn.
You’ve worked on some of Cbeebies biggest shows. I was at the Albert Hall back in 2019 for the CBeebies Prom with my kids and sitting in that space with the atmosphere… it really hit me how much it means to so many people. Cbeebies is everything.
What does it mean to you to work for such an important audience?
It’s a little bit overwhelming to think that I’m a small part of that legacy. I remember the impact that the shows I watched as a child had on me, that they STILL have on me. To be trusted with such an important audience is extremely humbling.
I find I tend to write on BIG subjects for Go Jetters and a lot of my episodes focus on strong environmental issues, so there was the pressure of trying to cover things in a way which highlighted their importance, but didn’t come across frightening or preachy. It really showed me the impact that we as writers have on our audiences and to be writing for the youngest generation and the responsibility that comes with it, is really something.
For those with an interest in writing for kids TV, can you explain the process of writing an episode for series like Go Jetters or Love Monster?
It all starts with an idea. A show such as Go Jetters where there are over 150 eps this is the tricky bit, but it goes for all shows. You need to consider whether the location/ idea been covered before? Is it a country or continent that has been visited a lot? Then the big one- WHY? Why is the action taking place in this location? What has brought everyone together? And finally, what are we learning?
Following that, if the team like the idea, it then goes to full outline. This is usually around a page and details the main story beats. Then there’s notes and questions to answer and invariably a revised outline needed.
After this it’s then the scene by scene, which is as you’d expect a breakdown of every scene and what’s happening in it. This is reviewed and further notes given it’s only when this is cleared that you can think about writing the script itself. And there will be multiple drafts of this where you try one thing, the team suggest trying something else, or you realise a particular scene isn’t working as well as it could be. It’s very much an ongoing process.
With shows like Go Jetters and Love Monster with multiple production companies involved and education elements, there is a lot of too-ing and fro-ing. EVERYONE has to be in agreement and what works for one team might not work for another. There are also the facts you’re sharing that need to be considered and consultants who will check what you’re suggesting. If it isn’t correct, then it can’t happen!
What also needs to be considered are the various generic moments such as Go Jetters Funky Facts or Click-ons. These keep costs down on the animation side of things as there are sequences that can be reused, and also gives the show the sense of familiarity. With catchphrases for characters that need to be used and opening titles also to be considered, what starts out as 11 minutes and so many lines, soon dwindles quickly and you still need to tell an interesting and compelling story!
In addition to your writing for children, you’ve also written a science fiction screenplay, Mimesis. What can you tell us about it and is this something we can expect to see more of from you?
Mimesis came from a line I had pop into my head a little while ago – ‘The multiverse is infinite, space to hold it isn’t’ and I let it roll around in my head a little bit. As it was, I sat down last May with a vague idea of where it was going and let my imagination go for a bit.
I’ve always loved science fiction and have a real affection for stuff from the 1970’s like Rollerball, THX 1138, Logan’s Run. This was my homage to those films although I like to think I gave it a modern twist. I’ve had some great feedback from people likening it to be Nolan-esque and how once you think you’ve got it worked out, it twists again.
I loved writing it and the challenges that came with it. It was the single longest piece of continuous writing I’ve done which was itself a challenge. Going from 13-15 pages to 100 was interesting!
Although a lot of what I’ve been commissioned to write has been for preschool, I don’t want to limit myself. I’ve developed a show for preschoolers that I would love to take further, but I’ve got a few ideas for older children I’m looking to develop as well as some for ‘grown-ups’ too.
I love how science fiction can make us question the world we live in by expanding certain aspects of it, or removing others. And I think children are so much more receptive to this. In adult TV, there seems to have been a bit of a push back against speculative writing/fiction as being less worthy recently which is a real shame. A story is a story, be it based in the real world or otherwise, and the emotions they create are very real.
Humanity has always enjoyed stories, you only have to look at the wealth of folklore we have, or even before then- the pantheon of gods we wrote about to see that fantasy and science fiction is a fundamental part of our psyche and story telling!
Am I right in thinking that you don’t have an agent? If so, you’re a great example of how you can have a successful career without representation.
I don’t have an agent purely because I haven’t found one, although I have been querying. I am very much open to enquires, so if anyone is reading this and would like to make contact- please do! I would love to chat.
I think it’s like everything else. There is that slight nervousness about putting ourselves out there. That fear of rejection. That maybe I’m not ready yet. If Covid has taught me anything though, it would be I can’t sit back and wait for people to come to me. I have to put myself out there. The tricky thing is that the times are very strange, and past success is no guarantee of future success.
Agents of course open doors and bring contacts, but it is a two way relationship. It’s about developing each other. I hope I can offer an agent something different what with the different styles and approaches I have, and an agent would help me to develop and grow. Writing can be a somewhat solitary business so just having someone to bounce ideas around with, or to push you too is something extremely beneficial.
What’s your number one tip for creating characters or writing dialogue?
The one thing I always try and avoid when writing dialogue is having characters use each other’s names too much. It’s easily done and something I do a lot myself, but in reality, apart from when we say hello, we rarely use the name of the person we’re speaking to when we’re speaking to them.
Secondly, it’s not so prevalent in children’s writing as the dialogue is a little more constructed, but I’m a big fan of pauses and beats in speech. It’s rare that we finish our… as the people were talking to will pick up on what we’re… and invariably finish them for us.
Back in the halcyon days of being able to sit in a café and listen to people speaking, it was fascinating hearing people talk. There is always an unspoken dialogue taking place. We speak over each other, we repeat words we think are important, that we want the person we’re talking to tonotice, we tail off our sentences and leave them unfinished.
One of my favourite recent(ish) examples of this is Fleabag. Natural speech is a glorious thing, but very difficult to capture on the page when using dialogue as an indication of where the conversation and scene should go, rather than a rigid structure to be followed.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
I’m going to suggest something completely left of field here.
I have been an immense comic book geek for years and years. I would suggest to anyone looking at making headway in the scriptwriting side of things to pick up a few. If the explosion of Marvel Studios (and to an extent DC) has shown us anything, it’s that there is a real appetite for them, but there are plenty more out there besides the capes and spandex of superheroes. I properly started reading comics when I discovered Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman it was then I found a great literary medium. However, comics were always seen as something for children.
Comics work as storyboards and scriptwriting is of course another visual medium/ literary exercise- we are trying to describe what we see in our heads. I see comics are the link between screenplay and TV/films. The same things we are trying to do (build worlds, build stories, create tension) are all there. The practicalities are the same (transitions, visual elements). The ideas can be immense as the only limits are skill of the artists, colourists, letterers and writers themselves.
There is an immense range of styles, genres, visuals. People think comics and think Batman, Spiderman, Superman et al, whereas it should be seen in the same light as music, films, TV. If someone tells us they like music, we ask what styles, what artist/ performers they enjoy. It should be the same with these.
A comic/ graphic novel won’t spell out your craft to you, by telling you about plotting, dialogue what works and what doesn’t. Whether we should be saving the cat or how to create a mood board. But it will show you.
What were you favourite TV shows growing up?
I adored Rentaghost. I loved the surrealness of it. I loved the sheer daftness and anarchy of it. I wanted Mr Claypoleto to be my much bigger brother. And most importantly, everyone seemed to be having so much FUN!
Saturday mornings it was usually Sesame Street. There was something wonderfully comforting and familiar about it all and I’m sure it was this show which gave me my love of pinball machines! (1-2-3,4,5…). Although I also found the gentle sedateness of it a little too gentle and for that the perfect antidote was TISWAS!
What are your current writing goals? Are there any existing series that you’d love to write an episode for?
I have a few series I’ve been developing and I would love to see one of those picked up. One is aimed at preschoolers and looks to introduce a range of historical characters and the power of imagination. There has been a real interest in the history of people recently and where we came from, what people before us did and I would love to be able to explore this a little further and introduce the impact people from the past still have on the present.
The other show I’ve developed is for older children and explores the world of online ‘influencers’ and how technology can come in between human connection. As we’ve all discovered recently, there’s no replacement for actual human contact.
Alongside these I want to develop a show based on my large collages as well as a expand a story from one of them.
As for existing shows. I’d love to revisit some of the classics from my childhood, so something like Dennis and Friends, Dangermouse to Paddington and The Wombles. I also love the energy in modern US shows like It’s Pony or The Amazing World of Gumball. Something wonderfully anarchic.
If you could travel back in time what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
Never become complacent. Not that I ever really have, but it’s easy to think that once you have those couple of scripts commissioned, once you have that award for an ep you’ve written, that’s it! You’ve made it and the world is your lobster! It’s not the case. People rarely come to you.
Also be open, be kind, but be aware.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The constant feeling that you aren’t good enough, that your writing isn’t up to standard and it’s all going to come crashing down. How it seems that everyone else has their stuff together and you don’t. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had some success, but I still can’t shake that feeling that luck is all it was and people can see through it all.
What does it take to be a writer for children? Are there common misconceptions that people have?
That it’s easy! That you can somehow get away with simply resolving everything by writing ‘mayhem and chaos ensues’ and leave it at that. There is a lot to consider. What age are you writing for? Is what the characters doing appropriate to the character and to the children watching? Has it been done before?
Children are a wonderful audience, and they will tell you if they don’t like what you’ve written. However, you’re not just writing for them, there are also the ‘grown ups’ watching too. It’s striking a balance: fun, educational, exciting, interesting!
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
Daftness. I love it when shows push the ridiculous. Not slapstick, or stupid comedy but something with a touch of the surreal, especially if it’s in character, or fits the show, when it fits the universe the show inhabits.
I love how some shows can have us buy into the most ridiculous situations and moments. Shows like Bottom, Father Ted, Toast of London, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It probably goes back to my childhood love of TISWAS and Rentaghost. The chaos and anarchy that comes with the daft and ridiculous.
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