As this year’s Red Planet Prize gets into gear, I thought it would be nice to have a quick chinwag with last year’s winner Jonathan Neil. Jonathan won with his script, Darby & Joan, a terrific spy drama set in the 50s. Jonathan was also a Broadcast Hot Shot of 2013. Y’see, the industry’s good at recognising talent! Let’s ask him a few questions to see how he’s getting on after such a fantastic year.
(Jonathan with his prize-winning cheque, kerching! and a few people eager for him to buy the first round at the bar, namely Simon Winstone from Red Planet, Vicki Delow & Alison Jackson from Kudos)
Congratulations on winning the Red Planet Prize! What’s your winning script called – what’s it about?
Thanks! It’s called Darby and Joan and it is about two MI5 agents posing as a married couple in 1960. The two are already connected through the woman’s late husband, who had been partnered with the man on previous operations. Eventually their mission would lead them to a Communist splinter group and chemical weapon development in the Uk.
Sounds awesome (and indeed it is), where did the inspiration for the idea come from?
I liked the idea of telling a love triangle story where one character is dead, but still ever present, and I thought watching a false marriage play out on screen could be fun, a chance to discuss ideas about identity and duty. Plus, espionage and high jinks with guns are always pretty cool things to write about.
How long had you been writing the script prior to the Prize?
I started it for the prize. I had been through a break up and a writer friend of mine suggested the competition as a way of throwing myself into work – always good advice. Around the same time I had been reading about the Cold War era and watching old episodes of The Avengers, which inspired a certain aesthetic. I was lucky, it all came together quite naturally.
How about those all-important first ten pages – did you give much thought on how to write them for the competition, or just go with the flow of your story?
I did write a couple of openings and I ended up going with the most dramatic. I suppose the lesson there is ‘be bold’, but a slow, reflective opening ten pages to any story is probably not a great idea. I wanted to set the tone as quickly as I could and then find a quick way to surprise the reader.
What do you think it was about the 1st ten pages, and the overall script, that you think made it stood out for the judges?
It’s hard to say what people see in your work. I hope I was successful in setting the tone and style of how I wanted to tell my story. I also tried to summon an idea of nostalgia and to imagine how different peoples social situation were fifty years ago. I enjoy trying to find the balance between how much I should be describing in a scene through the page and what I should just ignore. I try not be overly pedantic about controlling and directing the scene as that’s not a writer’s job, but I think script is an easy medium to be lazy with as it sometimes looks like a lot of ‘chat’. I think the judges liked my characters and I hope they were surprised by some of the choices I made. It was the first TV script I had written since I was a student, so maybe my own excitement about the competition helped infuse something in the story. It was hard to stop writing and by the time I found out I had won the prize I had finished three episodes of Darby and Joan.
(Danny: here’s what the reader said about the 1st ten pages: “Nicely detailed, the story has potential while the relationship between Marcie and Ray intrigues. Good dialogue.”)
What’s happened since you won the Red Planet Prize?
The most important thing the prize offered for me was the chance to be introduced to an industry I could see no other way of getting involved in. TV is a very hectic place and it’s incredibly infuriating when you are starting out to hear people simply don’t have time to read your work. When I started to meet people in the industry I began to understand how hectic and busy it actually is, but people have been very generous and helpful with me. I feel very lucky.
The prize also helped me get my very first agent and most importantly gave me the sort of validation I needed to start taking my TV work seriously and cement my ambition. I have been meeting with several companies to discuss potential projects and my theatre work has picked up too, and last week I got the opportunity to meet Annie Griffin, (Festival, The Book Group, Fresh Meat) whose work I am a huge fan of, to brainstorm with her – all this stuff came from the prize and trying to keep a momentum going after it. I was a ‘struggling writer’ before and I still am one. The prize was an absolutely fantastic leg up but what follows is a long process.
Tell us a bit about your background, and/or how you started writing.
I was always writing as a child, I just like telling and hearing stories, anybody’s. I am fascinated with narrative and voice and it lead me to The University of Leeds to study Creative Writing. When I relocated to London five years ago I focused on the theatre as it felt like the most practical way of getting to see a project actually completed. Thank God for fringe theatre and student film! I went through the Royal Court Young Writers Programme and then did a ‘Without Decor’ scheme at The Kings Head around the time I won the prize.
Are there any genres or themes you’re particularly drawn to?
Most things, I think. It’s easier to say what I’m repelled by; Westerns (unless the cowboys kiss), disaster movies and global catastrophe, and police dramas. I like to focus on family units however they may take shape, and tend to write a lot about faith, violence and people finding enlightenment in one form or another.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am trying to tell a ‘Girl Detective’ story to an adult audience, through lots of violence and gross out comedy. It has been an enjoyable struggle. I am also writing a surreal play about the occupants of an approved premises or ‘bail hostel’ as they are commonly known.
What’s next for you?
Now? I’ll probably just get a bowl of ice cream or something and go to bed.
And finally, what tip(s) would you give to new writers or anybody entering the competition this year?
In my opinion the worst piece of advice anybody ever gives writers is ‘write about what you know’. The best thing I find is to introduce yourself to something completely unfamiliar and see what it triggers in you. There are stories in everything so find something new that excites you, find out why it does, do as much reading as you can and make up the rest. Another piece of advice a teacher gave me once was ‘wait a day’, but that one I like. Sometimes redrafting or revisiting your work isn’t really possible until you can see it afresh. Enjoy your work, too, if a script starts to feel like a chore it’s probably dying on you.
Thanks Jonathan! And don’t forget, you can enter for this year’s Red Planet Prize here.