Breaking British: Inside UK Screenwriting with Writer and Story Editor Philip Gladwin

Philip Gladwin speaks about breaking in, why emerging writers have gotten better over the years, and the differences in US/British writing.


Terri Viani got her professional start as a screenwriter with Jumbo Pictures/Disney in New York on ABC’s Brand New Spanking Doug, and worked as a freelancer at Disney and Vigilante Advertising before becoming a columnist for The Westerly Sun in Rhode Island and later, as a journalist for Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers. Follow Terri on her website, Instagram and Twitter: @thewriterink

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Breaking British: Inside UK Screenwriting with Writer and Story Editor Philip Gladwin

Take heart, American writers. Misery loves company, especially writer misery, and somewhere across the pond, your UK screenwriting counterpart is as freaked-out as you are.

What if I’m not good enough?
What if I can’t get a manager?
What if I never sell a script?
What if I’m too old?

This last question, first on the minds of emerging American writers, is also one of the top concerns of emerging British screenwriters, says Philip Gladwin, script editor, writer, and founder of the popular British screenwriting website, Screenwriting Goldmine.

I hear from a lot of writers who are worried about being too old,” says Gladwin. “But the truth is, I think almost whatever age you are, you will get a little period where you can be hot, where you can come in as a new writer, and if you’ve got a great project, you will get a window of opportunity. You just have to make the most of it.”

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Gladwin is no stranger to making the most of opportunity. After a solid career in the nineties as a story editor for the BBC, ITV, and World Productions, he decided he’d learned enough about what makes a story work to let him turn his attention to full-time writing.

“After about five years of script editing I thought, well look, you either become a writer or producer after you’ve been a script editor, and I’ve always wanted to write. It’s time to go do it.”

Gladwin spent the next few years scripting episodes for various long-running British TV dramas, such as The Bill, Grange Hill, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Trial and Retribution. Returning to story editing in 2012, he has amassed over 70 broadcast credits as either writer or script editor. In 2007 though, tired of the solitary writer’s life and frustrated by the bad advice being handed out to writers, Gladwin decided to forgo another writing contract to set-up Screenwriting Goldmine. He did it, he says, as a way of “putting things right.”

Screenwriting Goldmine founder Philip Gladwin talks emerging writers in Britain and the differences between American and UK screenwriting.

Philip Gladwin

“I’d seen some very bad advice out there,” he says. “By people who probably hadn’t done a lot in the industry. So, I set this thing up to correct that – and it took off. First of all it was just simply to sell a book I’d written (Screenwriting Goldmine) then I started a blog, and the blog got quite lively, and then it turned into a big forum. For a long time it was the number one screenwriting forum on Google.”

Ten years in, Screenwriting Goldmine has expanded to include monthly industry magazine Open Door as well as a prospering TV drama script contest. “We’ve got enormous support from senior industry figures in Britain,” Gladwin says. “We’ve had writers come through the competition do very well, and start careers.”

Script recently chatted with Gladwin about breaking in, why emerging writers have gotten better over the years, and the differences in US/British writing.

Has the success of Screenwriting Goldmine surprised you?

A little, for sure – but I’m always grateful! When I started thinking about the Goldmine back in 2006 the idea of an online business was up there with the idea of a moonshot for most of the people I knew, so it all felt a little far-fetched. Yet something took hold and we grew.

Right place, right time?

I think one of the core values that helped over the years is that I’ve only ever involved people on the advice side who have really been at the coal face of TV drama for an extended period, and who have had significant success in their own careers. That means the advice and information is always based on the cold realities of the UK TV industry. Looking back, I’m pleased we’ve helped so many writers – and I’m very thankful to all the fantastic people who have been involved along the way.

You’ve had success as a story editor and writer but let’s talk about what all writers want to talk about. How did you break in?

I started out as a teenager writing bits of song lyrics, and then when I was about 21-22 I wrote a short story for a national competition in the 80s. It got short-listed, this was a real boost to me and I thought, “Oh, I could probably do this then.”

And your career was instantly made, right?

It then took another ten years of not getting anywhere, and I was trying novels and trying all sorts of things, and I couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong.

Ten years because of the vicissitudes of the business or other factors?

Oh, without doubt it was the other factors. That first success was a lucky accident – at that time I simply didn’t know what a story was. Instead I believed a collection of nice words, and characters having various moods, and generally having things happen, in more or less random order, was enough to entertain a reader. It took working at the BBC to fix that.

What was your tipping point?

I turned one of [my short stories] into a film script. A friend of mine had made it to working at the BBC, and I sent it to her. It was my last shot really. I was about to give up and do something else. She said, “This isn’t bad. We’re not going to make it, but why don’t you come in for an interview.” And I got taken into the BBC as a trainee script editor.

You’ve edited and read thousands of scripts over the years. How have emerging writers changed in that time?

Writers have got an awful lot better. When I started in 1995, I think I’d read about 200 scripts in six months, I’d pick one out that eventually got made, and that was kind of the ratio, 100 or 200 to one. Now with the competition, if we get 450 scripts, 15-20 of those are really, really interesting. And the ones below that are still way better than the submissions I was getting twenty years ago.

Why is that?

There’s so much more training material, people telling you how it’s done. And there’s more of a community.

Has that changed the advice you give to emerging writers?

The advice is still that character is crucial. You begin with character. All the great stories have character at their heart.

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What do you see writers struggling with the most?

Structure is missing quite a lot of the time. The script that won the competition this year had a very unusual structure so I’m not a three-act fascist at all but too many scripts meander and don’t build to a dramatic climax.

Let’s talk about the differences in the American/British TV Markets.

My impression is that the idea of staffing is really vital over there, and you have a very different team writing system. Although there are always experiments with team writing and writers’ rooms in the UK, British writing still, even after all these years, seems to come from a different place, where the writer is much more of a loner. People used to say that came from the fact we had a strong tradition of theatre writers crossing over to the screen. I’m not sure that’s still true these days, but, however it works out, many writers here in the UK do still seem to prefer a more solitary process. For good or for ill, that produces a different sort of writing over here.

What other changes do you see in the British industry?

I think ten years ago we went through a period of low confidence. There was a point where we were all looking at the American shows coming across from [channels like] HBO thinking, god how do you do that, this is incredible. But I think now we’re out of that, and back to a point where there are fantastic shows coming out of Britain. Something like Happy Valley, for example, is world class.

Are the writers you work with looking to break in to the American market?

I think you’d be unusual if you didn’t have your eye on the range of what these big content distributors are giving us. It seems to have widened the palette enormously and the potential is huge. So, as a writer, you’re thinking well that’s interesting because now my pet project that wouldn’t make it on to British TV, there’s a chance.

What about the other way? American writers working in Britain?

There’s a bit of an issue in that. The voice, I can always kind of tell an American writer. There’s just not so many British shows where that voice would fit without a lot of work to help it blend in.

Do British writers have an easier time writing in an American voice, given the amount of American media the world consumes?

Possibly. As you say, we Brits encounter, from birth, a massive amount of American voice, which may reduce the number of ‘tell’s but even I can sometimes tell when a British writer is faking an American voice, so I would expect an American editor to have a very finely tuned sensitivity. It’s not just simple vocabulary, it gets down to story choices, character attitudes, tone and even pace. It’s a very subtle thing sometimes.

One piece of advice you’d give every writer?

Start with character. Give those characters very strong desires, and make sure you’ve got a super motivated villain or two. Oh and don’t think you can do this from your bedroom. Get out and meet people.

What’s next for you and Goldmine?

Our sixth annual script contest opens the doors in October, and our monthly Open Door magazine will go on giving career information and detailed interviews with current industry players. I’ve also just launched the first iteration of an in-depth training program I’m calling The Tribe. After over thirty years of thinking of myself as a writer and editor, it’s time to give back. I’m now at a point where the business of helping new writers into the industry is the most rewarding thing I do.

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