More lessons from reading scripts

I read at least one script every day and, yes, I do it to learn from them. Really I do it because I enjoy it gigantically, but there is an element of education there. And so as we near the end of the year, I’d like to offer you my top five scripts –– and what I’ve learned from them.

Let me be as clear as I can given that this is a bit muddy. These are my top five favourite scripts of 2020, but they aren’t of 2020. They range across decades and I just happen to have read them this year.

Speaking of this year, I didn’t do any script reading for awards judging panels. Chiefly because there were no awards. I’m surprised to say that’s knocked about 100 off the typical number I read in a year.

Also, it means that the scripts I read were entirely selected by me. It was what was available times what I fancied. No plan, no direction, just interest and hopefully then enjoyment.

I wanted to do some maths here and break down the totals but I’ve got stuck on a detail. So instead let me tell you that it is gold when you hit on a whole series of TV, radio or film scripts and completely fascinating when you can read how a show developed over several years.

But it can also be disappointing. I found a collection of James Bond movie scripts and thought that was me set for a week or two’s reading. I only made it through the whole of Dr No by promising myself chocolate at the end and I gave up a few pages into a couple of others. I don’t remember which because I didn’t finish them, so they don’t count.

Whereas I do remember that The Simpsons episode called You Only Move Twice was very good. And the Only Fools and Horses episode called Diamonds are For Heather, well, it had a great title. (If you click the link for that Only Fools scripts, be careful: the site has all the show’s scripts but it is riddled with popups and links that misdirect you into adverts. Exasperating.)

In all then, I have so far read 523 scripts this year. Which means the following top five marks 0.956% of them. Told you I tried to do some maths. Here’s the one statistic I can be confident of: all five are TV scripts. I’ve apparently read around 30 film scripts, 50 radio ones and 30 stage ones, but by chance it’s five TV scripts that cut the deepest into me.

Here’s my top five in reverse order for no reason other than to try to build some tension.

5. Mrs America: Gloria by Dahvi Waller
I am singling out this one script from the whole of the Mrs America series, but solely because it’s the only script from that show that you can get. The series is about the efforts in the 1970s to pass America’s Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, and the efforts to stop it, too.

I just relished the show for its tension and how well it explored the arguments for and against. It was also deeply uncomfortable in its depictions of 1970s male attitudes.

But it also made me think a lot about creating likeable, admirable characters –– who you completely disagree with. It made me think about people with opposing views to yours can be great people. So Mrs America is ostensibly about the 1970s, but it felt very modern, too.

4. My So-Called Life: Father Figures by Winnie Holzman
I re-read all the MSCL scripts you can find online because a friend, Genevieve Hassan, interviewed one of its stars, AJ Langer, on her Celebrity Catch-Up podcast.

If you don’t know My So-Called Life, I profoundly envy you having it still to watch. It’s the story of American teenagers in the 1990s and I’ve just made it sound somewhere between Beverley Hills 90210 and even more boring. But I promise you this: you’ll have a time.

As a script, I think what I learned or at least am still trying to learn is how quietly you can shout. On the one hand, this is a low-key series with no great twists, but on the other hand every moment is compelling and makes you feel small surprises as giant shocks because you get what they mean to these characters.

3. Motherland by Holly Walsh, Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan and Helen Linehan
Specifically the pilot episode, though again mostly because that’s the only script you can get. I relished the series as a whole and it’s the one show I’m looking forward to seeing in this Christmas’s TV lineup.

Motherland is about being a working parent, I think that’s about all you need to know and I think that is just the smallest sliver of what it’s really about.

A producer I like mentioned to me that she’d found the series weaker than the pilot. At the time, I hadn’t even known there was a pilot so I’d come to it a bit backwards. Somehow that’s meant I can’t assess the differences because to me the pilot was a treat of an extra episode after the rest.

There is one thing I have definitely learned that I want to hold back from you for a second because I learned it too from the scripts that follow. But specifically and only from Motherland, I think I learned about writing crushing pressures on characters and how those pressures can be both forcefully real and very funny.

2. Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
It seems like eleventy-billion years ago now, but last Christmas I was given the book of these scripts. So it was the first I read this year and it was the first complete series I got to read. Do go get the book. But you can also read two episodes online via the tremendous TV Writing website.

This had that thing I’m holding off saying, but it’s also a two-series-long adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag stage show and it’s the conversion that I think I learned from the most. Don’t get me even slightly wrong, I know I learned from all of it and this is a series of scripts that upset me as much as they made me laugh.

But it’s also a series of scripts that do not include one key moment from the stage show. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that didn’t transfer, what difference it means to the characters. A year on, a COVID year on, I’m still thinking about it.

1. In My Skin by Kayleigh Llewellyn
Scripts for the whole five-episode series are available online. It’s about a teenage schoolgirl in Wales.

And let me stop there. For this is what I learned from In My Skin, Motherland, Fleabag and I now realise actually also from My So-Called Life and Mrs America.

I am not, never have been and never can be a teenage schoolgirl in Wales but the right script can make me feel as if I am. All of these scripts took me places I don’t know and into characters I cannot be, and they made me feel.

I wish to God I was as good a writer as any of those in this rundown. Don’t count me out yet, though, I’m working on it.