Heads or tales?

January 3, 1997

It's the story of a desperate gamble, of suspense and of survival in a cut-throat world. And that's just the course. Tony Tysome meets some of the budding writers on Liverpool John Moores University's new MA in screenwriting

A coin is tossed into the air, spinning. For a split second it holds its position, before gravity forces it down to a result - heads or tails. A camera freeze-frames the moment of suspense, capturing a powerful symbol of the potency of fate. For a man's life rides on the outcome.

That this image tells a story in a more powerful way than words ever could underlines the talent of its creator, acclaimed screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. It comes from the recent TV docu-drama about the Hillsborough tragedy, one of McGovern's many successes, which include the dramas Cracker and Hearts and Minds. He develops the tale over a pint in a Liverpool city-centre pub. Like Fitz, the overweight, chain-smoking and angry criminal psychologist in Cracker, the man tossing the coin is a compulsive gambler. His life in ruins, he leaves the decision on whether to end it to Lady Luck.

The students rubbing shoulders with us in the pub, if they had not heard the story before, would be sorry to have missed McGovern's imagery. They would recognise it as a classic example of effective storytelling for the screen, a craft they have been learning on a new MA screenwriting course launched last year at Liverpool John Moores University.

McGovern is one of a host of Liverpool-born scriptwriters, including such names as Lynda La Plante, Jim Hitchmough, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, who, as guest lecturers, have been providing students on the course with instruction and advice. More than 20 budding writers who joined the two-year part-time programme have been soaking up lessons drawn from this deep pool of experience and expertise. Storytelling, they have concluded, is what screenwriting is all about. But it's not so much the stories themselves that count, it's the way you tell 'em.

"We're not allowed to use words," says Diane McInerney, one of the students. She is only half-joking. In a world of tight deadlines and tighter budgets, even wordsmiths have to economise. The succinct script is a paragon of the screenwriting art. And if you can get away with not using words, letting a gesture or expression say it all, so much the better.

McInerney, like her fellow students, seems completely at home with this concept. It is one of the many realities of screenwriting that, as a teacher at a local comprehensive school, she may have only imagined before joining the course. While most of the students had some experience of writing for the stage, radio, TV or film, they had tough lessons to learn about some of the less glamorous aspects of their chosen profession.

Jaden Clark, a resident tutor for the course, describes this as a process of demystifying screenwriting and the world of television and film. And she feels satisfied the students are beginning to get the message. "We have had to perform a delicate balancing act between deflating egos while at the same time boosting confidence. At least now it feels like we are talking about the real world," she said.

What the real world has to offer, and what it expects, can be frustrating for the fledgling screenwriter. Usually a thick skin is required to withstand the potentially demoralising impact of receiving one rejection letter after another. Here, as in many other difficult areas, the advice of visiting screenwriters has proved invaluable. John Dooley, a student on the course now developing a project with Jimmy McGovern, said: "These people all have tales to tell about the difficulties of starting out. They are not all academics or Oscar Wildes, and you soon realise their success has been part of a building and learning process. Their advice arms you to face the slings and arrows out there. It's a bit like being an alcoholic - you just have to take one day at a time."

Another survival skill the course is helping students to develop is the ability to appraise their own work. Being able to see what is right or wrong about a script is made easier through the experience of teamwork.

"The relationships we have established within the group have allowed us to develop a level of objectivity," says McInerney. "Eventually the course will come to an end and you may not maintain links. So self-criticism is a very important skill to develop."

So, too, is what Brian Machin, another course tutor, calls "how to behave in people's offices". Networking is not as formally planned in British screenwriting circles as it is in America. Contracts are more likely to arise from a conversation in a lift or a pub than on the party circuit. But when it comes to the pitch, good presentation skills are still at a premium. That is why course leader Harry Pepp makes sure students accepted on the programme are confident and articulate enough to communicate their ideas effectively to agents and commissioning executives, and not just write them down.

"There were some we interviewed who just seemed too shy to cope with that. We were looking for people who had something to say about themselves, as well as evidence of some writing experience," he said.

Once students are cut loose from the course, they will find out for themselves how hard it is to survive as a scriptwriter. Visiting writers have given a mixture of views on how much of success is down to talent, and how much is about who you know. Francis Cleary, one of the students, has concluded that talent plays the major part. But writers must learn to make their own luck. "One thing we have picked up from the visiting writers is that you have to learn to reach out to the 10 per cent of luck that goes with success," he says.

Harry Pepp wants the students to be under no illusions about their employment prospects. "These people have to know what they are getting themselves into. There is no security in it. That has always been the case in screenwriting, which is why there have not been many training programmes," he says.

Jaden Clark admits that anyone deciding to invest time and money into launching a screenwriting career is taking a gamble. "My introductory speech for next year gets longer and longer with disclaimers making it clear we are not in the business of guaranteeing jobs. There is definitely an element of gambling. What we are trying to instil is the idea that you must try to make the gamble as safe as possible," she says.

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