Nothing comes from nothing

Compare and contrast, would you? Earlier this year I worked at a media careers fair where certain schools had pulled out and refused to allow their students to attend. It wasn’t any complaint against the fair, it was something to do with the cost of getting them there and the staff time it was going to take up. Whatever. The key thing is that a handful of those students came anyway.

I don’t know if they lied to their teachers, I don’t know if they pulled a sickie, I just know that effectively they said screw the school, we need this. And they did something about what they needed.

No question: you know they’ll go far and you would hire them on the spot.

Then last night I was talking with some university writing students and they were great: I mean, they were funny and cheery and they’d come some distance to attend a Royal Television Society event. But they also told me about a problem they’d had which is that they’d been assigned to write substantial projects in groups and some of the other writers didn’t always show up.

Now, they were adamant that some of those writers had really good reasons to be absent but these were their friends they were talking about and they were nice about them.

I’m not.

You don’t show up, you don’t matter.

I’ve always believed that the show comes first. All that’s changed as I’ve got older is that I’m more careful which show I pick. Once you’ve agreed to do it, though, you’re doing it. That seems so obvious to me when in my case I’m being paid but these absent students have spent a lot of money to study at university so if money were the only factor, you’d expect them to be making the most of their investment.

Apparently the university knows as well as you do that some writers are going to let their colleagues down and actually that’s part of the teachable moment. And as one of the two I talked with described what she’d had to do, I did realise that she’d just learned a little about becoming a producer.

That’s great for her but it happened because she showed up.

I have no idea whether her writing is any good or not. But you do know that it’s better than the writing these absent writers failed to do.

You need good people

It is shockingly hard to get good people and so when you do, you hang on to them. I was in a phone call just now with a producer who admitted that this is a thing with him, that loyalty is precious. Now, I liked that conversation because I am loyal to this guy and he’s been loyal to me back. But it’s weird that it should’ve come up now because I thought I knew this yet I think I re-learnt it this week.

I’ve been doing a bit of work with the Royal Television Society, popping in to some of their school education days. They’re there to show kids that there are more careers in media than you would imagine, that there are skills you need for media work that help you in every type of job. I go in as a writer, I mock my own old school and praise the one we’re in – as invariably, just invariably, these schools are better than mine was – and I help out during the day’s main exercise.

Oh, you would wish your school had done this exercise. By the end of the day, the kids present a pitch. This time there were 65 kids and they were divided into 10 groups. There have been more, there have been fewer, but that’s the usual group size. All of the kids are typically aged around 14 so they’re just at the point where they’re really looking at their future career prospects.

The pitch is for an eight-minute feature to be made for City8, the forthcoming television station for Birmingham. Des Tong from City8 and Jayne Greene from the RTS brief the kids on the types of ideas needed and how to pitch. Each group of kids has to come up with an idea, then assign roles – writer, producer, designers and so on – then prepare and present a pitch to a little panel of judges. Des is always the head judge, on the days I’ve been there I’m chuffed to say I’ve been a mini-judge too.

But for me the kicker, the thing that makes this not just a fun and good idea but a vividly great one, is that it’s for real.

This is not some paper exercise, it isn’t some classroom contrivance, it’s real.

If your group has a good enough idea, if it’s viable and workable for television and if you present your pitch persuasively enough, City8 will do it. Now, they’re committing to doing one – I think it’s only if there is one that is good enough – and with the RTS they’ve been talking to a lot of schools. Each school’s best idea goes forward to a final next month and after that, City8 will produce and broadcast the feature.

Do this right and you’re on air.

I know adults who’d kill or at least maim for a shot at doing this, so to have it offered to schoolkids along with help to get it right, I’m deeply impressed with the RTS and City8. I’m deeply proud to sometimes be there and I take this seriously. I speak to the kids at the start, I go around every group listening to the ideas and asking questions.

But this time, on the last of these sessions and for the first time, I interfered.

There was this one group that at first were so clearly on the ball that I sat down and practically got right back up again immediately. They hadn’t got an idea yet but they were discussing it like a professional production meeting and I thought the young woman acting as the group’s producer had a real handle on all this.

There were ten groups today so it took me a time to get around all of them but on my way looping back, I stopped by that first table and things were very different. On the good side, they now had an idea but on the bad, it wasn’t going to happen. They were not going to win this because they were not going to be ready to pitch.

I need to be a little circumspect here because this was a school and I don’t want to identify anyone. But what had gone wrong was this particular group. There was a small set of kids who didn’t want to do anything at all, there was a small set who wanted to work but refused to pitch. It was nerves and shyness and you see this, you understand it, you try to help these kids along. Sometimes – fortunately rarely – you recognise that there is nothing you can do in the time, so you just have to leave them to get on with it or not. There are groups you can help, who will take the help. Naturally, then, you help them.

But this time was different because the young woman producing was doing so well. That’s an odd thing to say when she’d lost control of her team but the unfairness of that rankled with me. The school picked the groups and there was a specific plan to break up friends and thereby get everyone working with new people. That’s more than fine, that’s a good idea but in this case, it just seemed strongly clear to me that she was saddled with a tough group. I could see the frustration in her and it was just wrong.

So I took her to one side for a chat and we discussed what she was doing so well, we talked about the problem with the team.

As she gets older and if she wants to do this more, she will need to learn how to control a group better. But for now, I split her group up into two. Her one had all the kids who were willing to work and I created a second set for all those kids who didn’t. That splinter group didn’t get to pitch an idea, I have no clue what they did for the rest of the session and actually I didn’t even think about that until right now. Talking to you, I wonder what they did. But at the time, they were out of my head because they were out of the game.

That’s what happens outside school, that’s what happens when you are pitching for real. You can cut yourself off from consideration, you can waste opportunities.

It’d be great to tell you now that this young woman’s team won but they didn’t. It’d be great to tell you that she has a career waiting for her in the BBC if she wants it – and she does. Except she doesn’t want it. She’s set on a completely different career and I know she’ll get it.

The group that did win deserved to. I voted for them and it was right that they came out top. They had a good idea and I’ve seen before how that can carry you over many a bumpy hurdle, but they also just worked together very well. They rehearsed well, too: got the idea on its feet and used the time they had, used the space they were given to perform in.

You can’t be sure what teams will and won’t work well together but you can be sure what a difference it makes when they do.

Lots of people are involved in this Royal Television Society work but for the days I’ve contributed, it has felt as if I were part of a good team myself. You often don’t get that as a writer, you often don’t get that feeling because you can be finished with your work before anyone else starts, because you can hand over a script and be on to the next project. So I’ve enjoyed this a lot and it’s mattered to me. I hope I get to do it again next year.