A conversation with Paul Dodgson on writing for EastEnders.
Paul Dodgson was the guest speaker on my first night at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. The following evening a group of us sat around the bar and I stole his guitar; there is film footage somewhere of me playing a song I wrote about the horrors of Freshers’ Week.
Paul is a writer, radio producer, composer and teacher. He has written fourteen plays for BBC Radio 4, four musicals commissioned by Theatre Royal Bath and published a memoir. He was a writer for EastEnders. It is the latter that I was instantly fascinated by, and fortunately - once I had returned his guitar - he said yes to the interview!
“I had a really lucky break, in that I sent my first radio script to someone in BBC television who just happened to be about to be made executive producer of EastEnders. I don't know whether they still do this, but they used to have a scheme where they would try out new writers on a dummy episode. I wrote one and they liked it, so that's how I got the job. It was a really incredible experience because I hadn't actually written for the screen before, so I had to learn screenwriting on air. I also had to understand this incredibly complex world of characters that exist within the show, and how they interact with each other, as well as how to structure a thirty minute soap opera. It's the hardest job I've ever had to do in writing. As a writer you need to make the episode work, make it exciting, the way you would with any other thing you write.” Of course, writing for one of the most well known British soaps is not the same as musing ideas for a new novel draft. “It's a never ending story, and you are telling a segment of that story; you can't deviate backwards or forwards in time, you can't make things up about the characters to suit your plot, you have to stick to what you're given. There are usually five different stories running at once in each episode, and you have to make them interact. So, the other night, when I showed a scene at the Queen Vic from my first episode and all the stories came together in a kind of mash up: that's what you're encouraged to do, to find that moment when everything aligns.”
“From a technical writing perspective, what is the process behind sitting down to write an episode?”
“The ideas were given in paragraph form, separate paragraphs, so 'in this episode, this character will do A, B and C’. It might be 'Robbie goes to buy a tin of beans, there are no beans, he is thwarted', and you then have to turn that into a story. There was actually a character called Robbie, I think he might have been in my shadow episode, the first one, and there used to be a dog called Wellard. I think somebody wanted breakfast, so I got Robbie to be desperate to have baked beans: he gets to the shop with Wellard, and the last tin of beans has just been taken. He's trying to negotiate with another character - Pat Butcher, I think - that he might buy the beans off her, when Wellard escapes and disappears around the square and a whole kind of madness ensues. It's escalating a very simple thing to make a story grow out of a paragraph.”
“And the feedback was pretty brutal?”
“Yes, it's a tough process. Really tough.”
“How brutal are we talking?”
“Well, we're talking about if they didn't like it, they would phone you up and say 'look, you're on the third draft, this isn't working, we're taking you off this episode.’”
This is strangely satisfying to me: a concrete ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I have developed a hatred of being mollycoddled, I explain. I think it is a mark of a good creative writing workshop leader, to make you want them to cover your work in red pen.
“I can safely say it was the opposite of being mollycoddled,” he laughs.
'You are telling a segment of that story; you can't deviate backwards or forwards in time, you can't make things up about the characters to suit your plot, you have to stick to what you're given.'
“Of all your plays, television and now memoir, which would you say is your 'passion project'?”
“I think it's memoir at the moment, because it's the thing I’ve invested most time in over the last three years, really. The story there is that I didn't sing for thirty five years; I stopped singing in public when I was about nineteen, and it kind of haunted me that I hadn't pursued the dream of taking the guitar and heading out into the world. So I stepped on stage again and I sang, and then I went off on tour, and I played all over the country - festivals, pubs, theatres, and it's the story of that happening.”
I have to ask him about the advice he would give to creative writing students, like myself, even though the question feels grey and cliche and obvious. But I am a student! We need people to give us advice!
“I think I would recognise that it is tough: a lot of people are after the same things. It’s recognising opportunities, and making the most of them. In my talk, I mentioned being given an opportunity in 1992, when a radio producer got interested in my writing and I didn't do anything about it for around eight years. That was a really golden opportunity that I didn't spot at the time, so I resolved that I would never do that again. And even now I get given things and think 'oh, I can't do that'. Followed by ‘no, this is an opportunity, go for it.'”
Paul Dodgson's memoir On the Road Not Taken is out now!