In this instalment of A Chat With, I talk to writer and dramatist William Gallagher. William has had his work featured in many publications including, The Independent, Radio Times Magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Today I converse with him about his early journalism work, his time penning scripts for The Doctor and how he filled The Blank Screen.
Hello William, thank you for taking the time to have a chat with me today, but before we get into the creative stuff, could you tell the reader a bit more about yourself?
A bit more about myself… Well, I was doing an event at a school the other day and I asked the kids to write an article about what we’d done that afternoon. One kid wrote: ‘Today, a random, un-famous man with no dress sense came to our school.’ And I thought, yep that about covers it. I heard another good description of myself recently. I had a meeting with a friend of a friend who I’d never met before, but when I walked in she recognised me from across the coffee shop, because our mutual friend had told her to, ‘Look for a man who looks like everyone’s favourite geography teacher.’
You’re career is a very eclectic and diversified one, spanning across almost every facet of writing from journalism and prose to TV and radio scripts. But you must have started somewhere, what made you want to become a writer?
Wow, I suppose I have been around a bit. (Laughs.) But I’ve never written poetry, though I love it. Some of my biggest writing influences are poets, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, but I’ve never been able to write it.
Anyway, I guess it all started without realising it, at a time when I was reading every book I could and watching every TV programme. But I wasn’t aware that shows were written, they were just there. I distinctly recall the first time I consciously realised that something had been made; crafted for entertainment. There was this one American TV show called Lou Grant. It was all about newspapers and journalism and that’s what I wanted to do. What I loved about Lou Grant was the fact it was a very talky show, usually with one journalist interviewing one interviewee, but the writers managed to make it very different from week to week. I adored how brilliantly they made something that could have been very flat very dramatic and that’s what I liked. I love TV shows where two people are arguing in a room and they’re both right and that can only be conjured in good drama. I was obsessed with that and I wanted to write something like it.
Who would you say are your biggest inspirations?
A gigantic inspiration for me was Alan Plater who wrote over 300 TV, radio, film and stage scripts before his death in 2010. One of my first big Journalism commissions was from The British Film Institute Magazine to interview Alan about a TV show called The Beiderbecke Affair. 20 years later the first book I wrote was about The Beiderbecke Affair and was also commissioned by the British Film Institute. It always feels like a key part of my career, alongside meeting Alan and his wife Shirley Rubinstein who became close friends.
I know Alan Plater as one of the writers of Z Cars among many other things. Plater truly was a legend of British screenwriting. Would you consider him a mentor, and did you pick up any advice or writing know-how from him that you could share with the reader?
I feel slightly grandiose calling him a mentor; he worked with lots of people more closely than me, but he did have a big impact on me. He had a particular style… Critics who didn’t like Alan Plater said that nothing happened in his writing which in a way is true, as far as in an Alan Plater script you are with some characters who you really like for a while and then suddenly it’s over. But in every script he takes you somewhere, moves you along and involves you in the story, he does masses of things but in such a subtle way. He’s not a showy writer, he came to prominence around the same time as Dennis Potter whose writing was more, well, loud I suppose. I preferred Alan’s work because he wrote about people’s lives, what they were doing and their personalities. I’m nowhere near that but it’s what I aspire to do.
I vividly remember sitting around Alan and Shirley’s table having dinner with them and talking about a new script I was working on. I was young and I believed plot was everything. I’d worked out this really intricate plot that I was discussing with Alan. He told me he didn’t care about plot, all that mattered to him were the characters, and I can remember really disagreeing with him. I tried to defend my plot, and all he said was: ‘It’s not compulsory,’ which is actually a recurring line from the Beiderbecke series. He said that if the characters are good enough the plot will build itself around them. His comments stung, but it was that stinging that got me started on the path I’m on now. I too don’t care about plot, for this reason, I’m really into dialogue. I have to believe that characters in movies or television shows I watch are three-dimensional and what they’re saying is real. If I don’t believe in what the characters are saying and I feel that the writer is using them as a tool to tell me something, I am thrown out of the story and I couldn’t care less what happens to them. But if the dialogue is authentic enough and I’m not thrown out of the story, then I’m a fan.
You’ve also worked for the British institution that is Radio Times Magazine, what was it like writing for that publication? And can you impart any nuggets of journalistic wisdom from your time there?
I started as a freelance writer for the (Radio Times) website and due to complications with the budget they asked me to go on staff, but only for a couple of days a week. In reality though, between writing for the website and articles for the magazine I was fully employed by the Radio Times. I don’t really have any nuggets of wisdom to share only because I had no interest in pursuing that career path and soon moved on. What I can tell you though, is that I thought I knew television brilliantly, I was quite cocky about that.
I can remember sitting in the first editorial meeting and looking around at all these perfectly nice, normal people who knew so much more than I did. I found it impressive, daunting, sobering and quite thrilling actually.
We have a mutual love of classic TV, did your borderline-encyclopedic knowledge of classic small screen drama come in useful while you were at Radio Times?
It did, while I was there I covered a slot called On this Day, about what happened on that particular day in television history. I spent a phenomenal amount of time going through the archives and old issues of the Radio Times. I adored finding something that we now know was extremely significant but wasn’t considered important at the time, and I find that juxtaposition riveting.
One of the things your best known for is writing Doctor Who radio plays for Big Finish. How did that all start for you? Tell us about your experiences writing for the Time Lord.
I adore writing the Doctor Who scripts, but I am the smallest cog in the Big Finish machine. I’ve written four (radio plays) for them so far and I hope to continue doing them forever. What I can say is that it was a long process getting involved. When I was working for Radio Times they had a sister title called Doctor Who Adventures, they wanted me to cover write for somebody on that publication who was on holiday for a week and that’s where it all began. You can’t see the words Doctor Who and Radio Times in the same sentence without realising that I’m a radio drama nut, so they put me together with Big Finish. About two years later they replied to my email and basically said: ‘Remember that idea you had? Are you still up for doing it?’
I tried to play it cool but I ended up saying, ‘Yes, hello, it’s me of course I would.’
You’ve written for Colin Baker’s and most recently Peter Davison’s Doctor in an episode entitled Doing Time that recently premiered on Radio 4 Extra. What was it like meeting those people in the flesh, were you star struck at all?
The Doing Time episode was my first on radio four extra that premiered this year (2015) but it was the first Doctor Who script I wrote back in 2010 so it was a crucial half-hour for me.
I was fine with meeting Peter (Davison,) after all, I’m cool, professional, a journalist, do this all the time. (laughs) but just as I was about to shake his hand Sarah Sutton walked by who played Nysa (the Doctor’s assistant) who I am not ashamed to say I had a huge crush on. And I swear Peter backed away from me a little at that moment
Now let’s talk about your acclaimed book series The Blank Screen, a comprehensive handbook for writers and creators, filled with advise to help increase productivity in the creative process and get the most out of your kettle. The books have not only spawned a blog, but a franchise of successful workshops based around the advise within them. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if I hadn’t discovered your extraordinary books, so how did The Blank Screen get filled?
A few years ago I had so much going on, I was writing this massive, massive, MASSIVE book, about 170,000 words long. A Doctor Who deadline came in early and I was working on a stage play as well. I had to produce 10,000 words of good, comprehensible writing every day to meet the deadlines and I thought, ‘If there was a book to tell you how to cope with this I’d buy it.’
I was thinking about it on the bus over to my Mum’s house and by the time I’d got to my stop I’d written the first 1000 words. I emailed it to my wife Angela on my iPad and she emailed me back and said, ‘Where is the rest of it?’
At its heart it’s a book about productivity for creative people, time management with the objective of giving you as much time to create as possible. Every writer has that one novel or script they’d love to write but they don’t have time. Bugger that, you do have time, and this book will help you make time.
As I was writing the first book, Writing West Midlands asked if I could craft a workshop around the concept for the Birmingham Literature Festival that year, (2013) so I self-published it in order to have a finished book to show people at the event, and it snowballed from there. I’ve now done countless Blank Screen workshops all over the country and I’ve realised that all creatives from musicians to journalists have subtly different needs from the workshops, and that’s how the blog got started. As a place to share the new techniques I’ve learned from people, as well as what they’ve learned from attending the events. The third book, The Blank Screen: Blogging has recently been released, so it’s all become a little beast in itself really.
It’s been wonderful talking to you William. Thanks for abandoning your keyboard for a while to indulge in some Books, Films and Random Lunacy.
Thanks for having me. Now when do we get to talk about what you’re writing, hmmm?
To find out more about William, keep up to date with the latest articles on The Blank Screen and read William’s weekly blog Self Distract click this link http://williamgallagher.com
If you wish to improve your productivity, create and run your own blog or just have a good laugh. Check out the links to all three volumes of The Blank Screen books below.
Thanks to Leanne Ashford for helping transcribe this eccentric natter between two tea-swigging writers into something coherent.