case studies

recent projects

  • Going Postal
  • The Queen
  • A Very British Sex Scandal
  • Blackbeard

Terry Pratchett's Going Postal

Lipwig - Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

Tx: Sky 1, May 2010
Production Company: The Mob Film Company
Writers: Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle
Director: Jon Jones
Script Editor: Merle Nygate

Terry Pratchett's Going Postal was a challenging project for many reasons. With upwards of 55 million books sold world wide in 36 languages, Pratchett is the second most read author in the UK and the seventh most read in the US.

It was the third novel that Sky were adapting with The Mob Film Company and part of the brief to the writers was to write a script that would not only work for the Pratchett fans but would also attract an audience who didn't know anything about Discworld or the author's body of work.

I am a great admirer of Pratchett's work and I've both laughed aloud and been fascinated by the intriguing and fresh ideas in his books. However, when I put my script editor's hat on, I was concerned. How could one successfully adapt such a complex literary work to the screen? Moreover, a literary work, where philosophy is juxtaposed with slapstick; and where the humour is often in the footnotes and neat word puns.

There are significant differences watching a screened narrative on TV, at the cinema and on-line. Watching TV is a domestic experience, with interruptions, advertisements, and user control. Film is often social, concentrated viewing in a dark, non-domestic environment.

Any adaptation has to recognise that it's a completely different experience for the 'consumer' of the narrative. The experience of reading a novel, with the intimate one-to-one dialogue with the writer is not going to be the same.

But the aim was to be true to the spirit of the narrative and the author's intentions and I think this was achieved.

The writers, Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle were hard working, talented and highly professional. Three hours of screentime is the equivalent of two full-length screenplays. In other words, it's a lot of writing.

Each treatment and draft was circulated and pored over and rewritten before being sent to Terry Pratchett for his input. This long process of adaptation was very much about collaboration and also compromise. The writers were taking notes from seven people and this was way before it went into production and they had further notes from the director.

Some amazing sequences in the book had to go, and not simply because there wasn't room. It was also because they worked better on the page than on the screen. Moreover, new storylines were introduced and sequences enhanced that would work better for the screen.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

We discussed at exhaustive length what Lipwig, the con-man protagonist's emotional journey might be. What did he want to achieve by the end of the narrative? There was an array of dramatic possibilities. Was his goal to best Vetinari, the slightly sinister, patrician and head of state? Or perhaps, beat Reacher Gilt, the piratical captain of industry? Or maybe, cheat people and escape?

Lipwig does all these things in the book at different points. But because of the conventions of the medium, there needed to be a clear and overriding goal that the viewer would be able to follow and thus be engaged by the drama.

We settled on Lipwig's overriding goal being Adora Belle, the feisty, fearless, chainsmoker. She is a primary character in the novel but we developed Lipwig's motivation so that winning her love was his most important goal. It's what drives him onward so that he gradually changes from selfish conman to selfless hero.

Once this decision was made, the theme became clearer. It was to be a tale of redemption as we see shallow, Lipwig redeemed through the love of a woman.

The next challenge was to establish enormous amounts of backstory. Not only did we have to establish the world of Ankh-Morpork and the characters who go from book to book, but also Lipwig's past and showing how he reached the present point where the story kicks off.

In essence, part 1 became the character set-up and part 2 is the narrative. We talked at length about Lipwig being haunted by the letters in the Post Office and we likened it to A Christmas Carol. Thus part 1 became a haunting story where - by the end - Lipwig like Scrooge has an anguished moment of realisation.

In Going Postal, Lipwig realises that all the bad things he's done in the past were not victimless crimes as he had believed, but that he had really hurt people - including the person he would least like to hurt, Adora.

How were the writers to get across, Lipwig's backstory? We didn't want to use flashback and voiceover, but the writers came up with the great idea of using an elegant framing device.

At the beginning of part 1 we hear the voiceover and see Lipwig writing a letter. It's only at the end that we see him give her the letter, in which he confesses his part in Adora Belle's family's misfortune and lays his heart on the line. In addition, the confession letter leads to the 'boy loses girl' moment when Adora who till then, was close to liking Lipwig, now hates him with a passionate vengeance.

So the character focus of the second part is 'boy gets girl back' and the dramatic focus is the race to Genua.

A few days after the transmission, I read a review of Going Postal on a website. A Pratchett fan complained that the script seemed rushed. This truly wasn't the case, as the story and script were pored over and agonised about and debated with passion and then written and rewritten and rewritten at great length.

The pay off was that - I think - an engaging, exciting narrative was produced that is true to both the source material and the author's intention.

Hopefully it will engage an audience even if they've never read a Pratchett book. And it may introduce new readers to the pleasures of a great British writer.

The Queen

Channel 4 - The Queen

The Queen Episode 3 (1986 Susan Jameson)
The Queen Episode 4 (1992 Barbara Flynn)
Production company:
Tx: Channel 4, November 2009
Writer/director: Patrick Reams
Script Editor: Merle Nygate

As I write, I'm in the curious situation of not having seen the final cut or indeed any of the footage from the two episodes that I script edited. There is nothing unusual about this. My work is on paper; phone and computer screen.

Once the script is signed off I'm out of the picture. Occasionally, when the shoot is underway, I get a phone call about a dialogue issue but it's rare.

For me, the Queen was a most interesting project. The idea was to take five separate years of the Queen's life and mix 30' drama with 30' documentary. Five different actresses would play the roles but this intriguing casting was irrelevant to the development of the script.

Previously, I hadn't followed the fortunes of the Royal family with a great deal of interest. I didn't think their behaviour - good or otherwise - truly affected the social and political landscape. However, I learnt through the superlative research carried out by Blast that this wasn't the case. They are a hugely influential family, who are in a unique position.

Unlike my previous collaboration with the writer, where we started from treatments, when I came on board there was already a draft script of the 1986 episode. This was the year when sanctions against South Africa caused division in the Commonwealth. The script was much too long and needing cutting.  Moreover, the writer was under pressure to write the script for the episode that was set in 1992: the annus horribilis story.

In retrospect, I think rushing to a first draft script created extra work for the writer but he successfully and extremely swiftly wrote, rewrote and rewrote until there were two strong scripts.

The Queen obviously sat at the heart of both scripts, but there was a curious dramatic issue that I can only describe as constitutional. The Queen's constitutional right is to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Thus by the very nature of her role, she is reactive to external events.

Channel 4 - The Queen

Of course, being reactive is undesirable for a central character who is supposed to drive the narrative. I suggested a way round this issue would be to give the impression of her taking action by making her 'top and tail' the scenes. And if there was an action to be taken, such as a television to be turned on, or a question to be asked, she does it.

It wasn't difficult to settle on what the Queen's motivation might be. We were comfortable with the idea that she's driven to do the best she can to maintain the monarchy.

Harder to define was her goal within each episode and an overall theme. We concluded that 'family' would work as a dramatic device for both.

Thus in episode 3 the Queen's clear goal is that the Commonwealth family remains intact in spite of Mrs Thatcher's actions on sanctions.

In an early draft, there were scenes with the Queen watching televised news reports of riots in South Africa. I asked the writer if he thought her attitude to sanctions were born out of compassion.

After some consideration, he concluded that, while she may have been compassionate, she was probably more driven by duty and the desire to maintain the Commonwealth family and the monarchy. It was important to establish this consistency in her motivation.

In Episode 4, the concept of family again featured and we decided that her goal was to try to get the family back together. A goal that failed but nonetheless gave the episode structure.

Channel 4 - The Queen

Episode 4 was particularly hampered by there being too much wonderful dramatic material. Among the events were Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York's failed marriage; Andrew Morton's book; Camillagate and the Windsor fire. It was painful to have to consider cutting or skimping on anything as each event had the makings of a drama on its own.

Cuts had to be made and one casualty was a particularly evocative sequence that climaxed with the Camillagate revelations. There was simply no room for it and more seriously, it took the focus away from the Queen.

In this episode, we also had to decide what the core relationship was supposed to be. In Episode 3, it was clearly the relationship between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher. However, Episode 4 threw up many rich choices.

Was the core relationship between the Queen and her mother who was also a significant dramatic character? Or was it between the Queen and her daughter-in-law, Diana? Again, that was a fascinating relationship to explore and it was tempting. After great thought and long conversations, we settled on mother and son as the core relationship: the Queen and her heir.

We tried to be as true as we could to the research material and the facts provided, but ultimately only the real royal figures will know how well we succeeded.

A Very British Sex Scandal

A very British Sex Scandal

A Very British Sex Scandal
Production company:
Tx: Channel 4, July 2007
To view: Channel4 OD
Writer/director: Patrick Reams (BAFTA Breakthrough Talent Award)
Script Editor: Merle Nygate
Associate Producer: Marcy Cox

A 'Very British Sex Scandal' went through various name changes and actually started out as 'Nothing Left to Hide'. Whilst different titles were suggested and then rejected, the project was referred to as 'Monty'.

'Monty' was a drama documentary about the trial in 1954 that ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

The defendants, in what was the most sensational trial of its day, were diplomatic editor of the Daily Mail, Peter Wildeblood; Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Montagu's cousin, Michael Pitt-Rivers. The prosecution's case was based on testimony provided by two RAF servicemen who had turned Queen's Evidence.

When I went to the first meeting with the writer/director and associate producer, I was given the original proposal that had won the commission. This was a good starting point.

Although the 'Monty' proposal was far from a blank page, the three-pager was more story trigger than a fully formed narrative where everything was set in stone. Before going to script, the writer did three extended treatments during which all the big questions were nailed down.

A very British Sex Scandal

Part of the research source material was the book that Wildeblood had written based on his experiences. Unfortunately, his voice was not only dated and riddled with cliched metaphors, but more seriously, Widleblood sounded pompous and unsympathetic. A voice-over lift of dialogue from the book was not going to be an option.

During the first meeting, the associate producer came up with what seemed to me to be an extraordinary fact. It seemed that some of her interviewees - young homosexuals - believed that being homosexual in the 1950s would have been exciting and cool.

Of course, this wasn't the case and we aimed to make this clear.

The first treatment established that it was Wildeblood's story. The climax would be the moment in his life when he publically announced that he was homosexual. It would be the end of the emotional journey for a character who had previously denied his sexuality in public and even pleaded not guilty in the trial.

There was also the strong love story. This was all documented. Part of the humiliation for Wildeblood must have been when his love letters to the young serviceman, McNally, were read out during the trial.

Early on in the script editing process we questioned what the piece was about thematically. One of my notes on the first treatment was the suggestion to the writer to consider discrimination as a theme.

We were both comfortable with this idea. It was both accessible to a wide audience and also true to the facts. We drew the comparison between Jews living in Nazi Germany and homosexuals in post-war Britain in the 1950s.

The opening dramatic sequence shows the police bursting in on a couple who are in bed juxtaposed with black and white newsreel footage of the Queen, Prince Philip and their young children. This was supposed to show theme and context. In other words, the couple in bed were ordinary people in an ordinary domestic setting being discriminated against, contrasting with the idealised version of 1950s domesticity: the Royal family.

One of the frequent problems with drama documentary seems to be that as soon as you start researching, there is too much rich and dramatic material. This was certainly the case with 'Monty'. Besides Wildeblood's personal story of love and betrayal by McNally, there was the flash forward narrative set during the Wolfenden committee.

Balancing both strands was challenging and in retrospect perhaps the Wolfenden committee suffered. The historical background and individual characters were certainly fascinating in their own right. Equally, the trial itself was another rich vein that couldn't be completely milked for every dramatic nuance; there simply wasn't enough screentime.

We held the focus on Wildeblood; his professional ambition and his love for McNally, who turned Queen's evidence but who nonetheless loved him in return. It was a doomed relationship where both men were ultimately victims of the society in which they lived.

So far in my career, this is the programme I am most proud of working on. Besides, the overall look of the show and the moving performances, I think it said something that was both notable and correct.

Blackbeard, The Real Pirate of the Caribbean


Tx UK July 2006 - BBC1 2100
Production Company
Writer: Andrew Bampfield
Director: Tilman Remme/Richard Dale
Script Editor: Merle Nygate

Edward Teach, originally from Bristol, became known as Blackbeard in the few years of what is known as the Golden Age of Piracy. He had a short but glorious career and is the most famous pirate of all time.

I heard that Dangerous Films were going to produce a factual drama about the historical figure Blackbeard and I was keen to be involved in such an interesting project.

When I came on board, the writer had already written an expanded treatment with some scripted scenes. This enabled me to assess the tone of the piece but meant that going back to the core of the project was that much harder.

The main problem was that Blackbeard's historically documented behaviour was often illogical and at times aberrant. For example, he had the perfect opportunity to sack the wealthy port of Charleston. There was a blockade and he was holding a number of prominent citizens as hostages. What did he do? He exchanged the hostages for a chest of medicine and then sailed away.

Dramatically, this action seemed like a big anti-climax but this was factual drama and we had to stay with the facts.

It would have been too easy to portray Blackbeard as a psychotic monster. Moreover, if Blackbeard was deranged, how could an audience possibly engage with him or his journey?

Blackbeard ship

The solution came from a series of discussions about Blackbeard's motivation. In other words, what Blackbeard was trying to achieve in his life. Many different solutions were examined at length including the possibility that Blackbeard had syphilis. A lot of pirates and sailors did. Syringes with mercury, an early cure for syphilis, were discovered in many shipwrecks.

If Blackbeard had syphilis, he might have had poor judgement, memory loss and progressive personality changes as well as psychosis, mania and depression. Thus his illogical behaviour could be neatly explained.

But would audiences be engaged by the death struggles of a sickening and progressively more psychotic man? Perhaps. This was one possible route for the writer to take.

Another possibility was that Blackbeard was more of a flawed hero, and there was historical evidence to support this idea. Many of the pirates were privateers on British ships during the War of Spanish Succession. In 1713, Britain pulled out of the war leaving seaman stranded in America with no way to return home. It's a short journey from privateer to pirate when one attacks ships from one's own nation. Perhaps Blackbeard was one of them.

Blackbeard map

With those facts, I came up with a possible parallel for the pirates who were democratic and had a distinct code of behaviour. The parallel was with the Hell's Angels who were often 2nd World War ex-serviceman who felt alienated - flawed heroes who reinvented themselves and took to the road as well as taking to crime.

We asked ourselves the question: 'What if Blackbeard's motivation was to be remembered? What if he had served the British Empire but was alienated from his homeland that he felt had betrayed him? And he wanted to go down in history and be seen as a glorious adventurer.'

This is the direction we followed, and the writer went back to the script and seeded this motivation throughout the final drafts. Of course, it is the more romantic solution: a man who has lost his country and identity and reinvented himself.

But it's a solution that also rings true: Blackbeard is the most famous pirate in history, so perhaps he did achieve his goal.