John Yorke is Controller of Drama Production and New Talent at the BBC. He has been coming down to Falmouth for a number of years to give lectures to UCF students about how to break into the world of scriptwriting, particularly within the BBC. Before his lecture last week Suzie Cunliffe managed to grab him for a quiet ten minutes to get his take on how to make it and learnt that he loves to be approached by new writers who are good because he needs to find so many each year…
What do you think makes good drama in 2012?
I wouldn’t be specific to any one year. Good drama is good drama and it’s a really simple answer, which is good characters and a good story. Every year what is topical changes and zeitgeist is a terrible word but good drama will always tap into the way we live now. That said it doesn’t just have to be about that – good stories are universal.
You recently said drama, and Eastenders in particular, isn’t always realistic. Do you think drama sometimes veers away from reality?
Well, I was wildly misquoted there! The point I was trying to make is that obviously Eastenders is not realistic and if anyone spent any time in the east end they’ll know it’s not realistic. Coronation Street isn’t like Manchester either but that’s not its job. It is hyper-naturalistic if you like; it’s a construct within which you tell stories but the idea that a community exists with that level of interdependence where everybody goes to the pub every night is clearly not true and nor should it be – it’s not built to be that. It’s the illusion of reality. And that’s what important – that it appears real. It isn’t a criticism to say it’s not real – I believe it is one of it’s great strengths.
As well as working on Eastenders you also look after E20, the internet spinoff of Eastenders. Do you think internet drama will be the future of television?
I think it’s an interesting adjunct but the problem with internet drama is that it’s very hard to make money out of it and economics drives everything. At the moment in a commercial world it’s a luxury most stations can’t afford. The BBC can fund it of course and I love it, the immediacy of the five minute hit but I can’t see it taking over. Obviously more and more people will watch television on the internet but with internet only dramas it’s a lot more complicated.
Is the purpose of E20 then to drive younger audiences?
That and to workshop young characters and new writers. All the writers are under the age of 24.
Moving on to writers – what’s the best way to get into writing drama?
There is no one way. You need a combination of luck and skill and you have to go out of your way to maximise both those assets. But if you’re good you will get discovered. You have to study really hard and practise your craft – that’s really important. Getting yourself out there will then hopefully get you noticed and cause the luck element.
To bring it down to one thing just write. Write every day.
And remember that we need new talent – I am always looking for excellent writers and I need that so I hope we make the entry points as easy as possible.
Do you think it helps to enter competitions like those on the BBC Writers room website?
Some people are sniffy about competitions but I wouldn’t be. If you’re good you will get there. It’s obviously important to decide what kind of writer you want to be but once you’ve decided that you just need to head for that goal with everything you have.
I know that after you finished the BBC directors course in 1996 you struggled to find a job for a long time. What advice would you, John Yorke, Controller at the BBC, give to people who find themselves in a similar place?
I spent two years trying to be a director and failed miserably and in the end gave up and went back into storyline. But none of those two years was wasted because I learnt so much during that time about how the world works and what life’s like. The freelance world is really brutal and that was a good education. I spent three years on the dole after I graduated and the material I got just from living was used when I storylined Eastenders single-handed for a year – all of that was based on my experiences.
You seem very approachable for a bigwig. Do you think that comes from your life experience?
Everyone’s different but I think people in management should be accessible because we need new talent so it would be absurd of us not to make the entry point as simple and easy as possible and to be approachable is a part of that. I always remember that people were nice to me when I was starting out so I feel it’s important I am equally personable.
Finally, you’re obviously a very busy man but you choose to come and lecture at UCF Falmouth every year. Why do you do that?!
Because it’s lovely and people are really nice. I lecture a lot at different universities because in talking you learn what you think so I find it a valuable discipline. It’s always good to take stock and reflect. Also, there’s a graduate from last year who’s now working on Doctors for us and I’m hoping to get people excited because I need the next generation of talent. We’re here and we’re not scary.