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BAFTA TV Sessions 2021: Writer: Drama

20 May 2021

Danny Leigh: I‘m Danny Leigh, and welcome to the BAFTA Television Sessions for Writers of Drama, supported by TCL. This virtual series celebrates the nominees from this year’s Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards and the British Academy Craft Awards. So thank you for joining us, I’ve got a tiny dash of housekeeping to get through: You can join the conversation on social media using @BAFTA. If you have a question please ask it, you can use the Q&A function on Zoom, or on Facebook or YouTube please put your questions into the chat. Closed captioning is available, you can turn it on at the bottom of your screen with the ‘CC’ button. And that’s the housekeeping.

Among this year’s nominees for Writer: Drama are Michaela Coel for I May Destroy You, Alastair Siddons, co-writer of Small Axe and Lucy Kirkwood for Adult Material, and of course the two writers who are joining us tonight who I’m delighted to welcome. We have first of all Lucy Prebble, writer of I Hate Suzie, who should be joining on screen.

Lucy Prebble: Hello.

DL: Hello, how you doing?

LP: I’m alright.

DL: Good! And we also have the one and only Steve McQueen, co-writer and director of Small Axe.

Steve McQueen: Hello, hi.

DL: Hello Steve, how are you?

SM: Not bad, it’s not raining.

DL: It’s dry! It’s dry and sunny. We’ll see how long it lasts. Listen welcome to both of you, thank you so much for joining us. I’m going to start with a giant cliché which is the old one about television as the writer’s medium. For both of you, is that true? In 2021, does TV belong to writers in a way that feature film or the stage simply doesn’t?

SM: Well I don’t know. You know, I’m not sort of—words, talk. Most times people start talking it’s often it’s space, time. With writing for a film or drama for television or whatever it’s always about pushing the narrative forward. Often it’s the case for me that it’s never about words, it’s about movement or action or situation. So I don’t necessarily think, you know, it has to necessarily be a writer’s domain—usually it’s about a certain time, 60 minutes to tell something, or half an hour to say something. Often words are much more economical to move the story forward rather than people moving around, getting from A to B. But I think for me what we did was slightly different in the sense of having a set sort of situation where it didn’t have to be sixty minutes, it could be two hours or whatever. So we had time to do what we wanted. I think people also are educated in the way they weren’t necessarily before, looking at film or TV because there’s so much of it so therefore people are so much more sophisticated to look at sort of how a narrative pans out. So no I don’t necessarily think it’s about how you tell a story – two people can tell you a story and one bores you to tears, one got you on the edge of your seat – how you do that, it’s up to you. How you get people at the edge of their seat and wanting more. Not necessarily a writers’ medium, I don’t think so.

DL: Lucy how about you? As Steve mentioned TV is kind of changing underneath us all anyway, lengths and formats breaking down a little bit; Steve says he doesn’t think there’s anything unique about the relationship between TV and writers, how about you?

LP: Well—

SM: Woah, woah, woah, woah, it’s not little sound bites, please don’t do that. But apologies for interrupting please answer.

LP: I think that, when I first started in TV it was much more of a situation where you hand your script over to a producer—or that’s what it felt like to me—and someone directs it and some actors do it, and you’re kind of a stage in the relay race of creating a piece of television, and that didn’t really work for me. My sort of attitude to it is different or maybe just unhealthily controlling, but I like to sort of go through every stage of it, which actually came more from theatre for me. In theatre it’s completely expected that if you write a play you’ll be in the auditions and all the casting of it and stuff like that, and you’ll be in at least of some of the rehearsals, probably most of the rehearsals. I feel like now in TV, my job, what I do and everyone’s different, it isn’t just being a writer. It’s interesting what Steve says about it being the written word or the script—I like to, you know, when I can oversee in a more show running way which means casting, things like being on set, things like the edit and stuff like that. So in a way I’d say it’s more than a writer’s medium now. The job that you do or the job that is available to you is bigger than that. It might not always be like that, I think there are writers out there who do want to write screenplays and have people direct them who join the process later, but that’s not me.

DL: Thank you Lucy. We’ll have writers with us tonight, lots of writers, who are hard at work on scripts doing the whole blood, sweat and tears thing. To give them some context and maybe some hope as well, purely as writers how long are your creative journeys with I Hate Suzie and Small Axe? Lucy, I’ll come to you first.

LP: Oh ages. I mean we—so it’s a show I created with my friend Billie Piper who stars in it, and we started talking about it—It really was a conversation where Billie said I think we should do a show together, I think you should write something and I should be in it. That was maybe 2016, something like that. It took me a while to come around to it, to find the initial idea; you know I needed to find what the show was about. Then I did so many drafts of the first episode, which is something I often do, but I’m talking thirty quite distinct drafts, as in there was a number of different shows there and it could have been any of them but I needed to write the pilot over and over again to try and find what it was. And then it took a while actually to get it made. We rather arrogantly thought people would want it and there was some of that but there wasn’t a lot of it, and that was partly because we were coming with something we wanted to make ourselves and then try and sell it and actually there are a lot of people out there in TV whose jobs are to develop and make things, so it’s sometimes not such a good position to be in to turn up with something you’ve already written. So that took a long, long time yeah. Five years.

DL: Steve, how about you? I’ve seen eleven years mentioned, but as we’ve already found out tonight journalists do tend to get their facts wrong and misquote people so let me double check that with you.

SM: That’s accurate.


Yeah, oh my goodness. It just took a while, you know. It was a want, a must and a need at the end of the day, but the initial idea happened when I wanted to turn the lens on the black community in London, the generations. At that time a lot of people were passing and saying—you know, West Indian community is all about family, where I grew up it was all marriages, people getting married, and christenings. Then of course you know there’s a big jump and it’s all funerals and it’s like where are these people, their traditions going? So I had to get it all down. At first I thought it would be fiction, a fictional situation. Then I thought no, no, it needs to be true stories. Somehow doing the research it was like these are incredible true stories why am I fictionalising this? Then set about getting a writers’ room, we had a writers’ room initially. That we sort of went for a good few months with that. In that writers room was Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland, the two writers that I worked with on Small Axe as well as Alex Wheatle, who was part of the writers’ room but what happened with him was that we emptied all our handbags on the table and he told his story and I thought, my goodness, this is actually incredible your story, but he didn’t want to tell it. So what happened is Alastair and myself jumped on board and with his help wrote his story, and Courttia you know I worked with on Red, White and Blue and Lovers Rock. I’m dyslexic so how I write is I dictate a lot, I get someone to dictate to and I listen back, so for me it’s all aural and I write sometimes because the person’s not there, or I record on my phone and write it down. One of those things where it’s sort of a patchwork of things, images, and it’s like I’ve got it. If I listen to something I can see it, and if I listen to something I can hear if it’s wrong or right. It’s like music in a way, language, music or writing. I’m going on a bit, but what happened was that’s what happened and we started to get going, but the writers’ room was this place we could throw ideas around and it just happened to be these two writers who I wanted to continue with, Alastair Siddons and Courttia.

DL: I’m curious for both of you how much those first thoughts, those initial drafts for you Lucy, or Steve those initial conversations with writers, how much of that ended up on screen and survived the creative process? If we’re watching I Hate Suzie or we’re watching Small Axe now, how much of those initial thoughts or initial conversations are still up there?

SM: A lot. A lot for me. It was like, you know, it was the first time people had a chance to say things, talk about smell, food, things we never saw before on British film or British television. Things we knew instinctively about but hadn’t been given a platform. Our intimacies, our unique ways of how one does things can now be put on screen and be made universal. There was a real rush to put things on screen, and also it’s part of our history, British history that hasn’t been given a platform before because we weren’t wanted. But we’ll talk about that later, sorry.

DL: Lucy, how about you?

LP: There’s an overlap there that’s interesting with what Steve just said, which is that the things that really survived are the things that we put up on—there was one sort of board that we put up on the wall when me and Billie were coming up with stuff and its title was Things You See In Life But Never See on TV. We would list things from our experience or from life, stories, just like—almost all of those things made it in because our kind of ethos for it was ‘no telly.’ By which we meant nothing that you really, really recognise as being a trope of television that you never experience. That was a guiding principle really, and it was a bit brutal sometimes because I would write these drafts and Billie would read the scripts and occasionally put a note in the margin and put ‘telly?’ and she was always right and it was a cheat I was doing as a writer to get somewhere I knew we needed to go. But actually it’s bullshit. I think that was a really good practice.

DL: Lucy you’ve talked a bit about your professional relationship with Billie and also your friendship, you’re very good friends in real life. I’m curious as to whether that made it easier to find the voice of Suzie, or does friendship also throw up risks and complications?

LP: Yeah, it was a really, it’s really double-sided, or actually it was much better than I feared. I went into it quite cautious going Billie this is really dangerous, and she, in typical Billie fashion, went very headstrong into it going no this will be fine. Annoyingly as ever she was right, it was pretty good, fine and easy. There were elements—it’s hard to compromise; I’m used to doing the work I want to do as a writer and author, and if there is conflict normally that’s easy with a colleague but if it’s someone you care very, very deeply about and are very enmeshed with, that conflict can feel incredibly difficult because you're like ‘oh God I don’t want to lose a friend but I really feel like I know what’s right here.’ But actually that happened way less than I thought it would, and when it did happen we were pretty good at talking it through and so I was relieved by that. And there are ways in which it’s so much easier, there were these lovely moments where because we know each other so well, I’d come up to her on set after a take sometimes and just go ‘you know it’s erm—‘ and she’d go ‘oh, yeah yeah, yeah,’ and then she’d just got an do another take. It’s like, I only said ‘it’s!’ but the form of communication becomes incredibly short, which helps the work be is better because take less time to get where you need to go.

DL: During that writing process, I’m curious as to how practically you were working with Billie, how closely you were working with her. Steve mentioned on Small Axe coming out of conversations, verbal collaborations, that’s where the ideas came from. Was that true for you as well? Were you sending each other ideas, texting, WhatsApping? Or getting a draft together then having a conversation?

LP: It was an order of—we spent some time in a room together, about a month we spent three days a week in a room together for that month coming up with stuff, putting stuff on the walls. Then I went away and wrote the script and sometimes stuff from the room was very much there, sometimes I’d come back with something completely different for a whole episode because it didn’t work, and that’s what I felt my job was to do. Then Billie would note the scripts and say ‘here’s what I think about this, about that,’ and I would then go away and write and either do something different or often kind of her instinct was really right. Actors’ instincts are nearly always right, or their instinct about there being a problem is almost always right. Then sometimes it’s a writer’s job to find the solution.

DL: Steve, I mean you’ve touched on your use of images already and I really want to dig more into that. One of the things we know you as is this extraordinary, visual filmmaker. Every single one of your films—I was going to say every single Small Axe film but it’s true of your entire body of work—there are images there that are unshakeable, so I think of Mangrove and I still think of the colander and you holding that shot and holding that shot and holding that shot. As a writer, I wonder how much of those kind of images are already in your mind at script stage, or is that something that happens when the camera is there?

SM: I think, I don’t know—I don’t know you know, again for me it’s about instinct, what works, what doesn’t work. What feels right, what doesn’t feel right? To take, again, a lot of this stuff, you just take words out, you change a scene because you know you’re in a trajectory anyway and why do I need that, It’s obvious. Allowing things to happen, how you right things—that’s what I mean about TV and writers, it’s what works and what feels right and what it wants—what the project, what the film wanted to be. It will tell you what it wants and you’ve got to be sensitive enough to be that thing, that’s the force or power of something. People bring, again, people are sophisticated, they see if something is stiff or forced or whatever, so if you can give over to the actual process and the process is of course words, structure that you have, but also allowing things to sort of come into it and take over. Like Lovers Rock there was a lot of dialogue that was just cut because what happened was that the thing too over and also in the moment, you know, when you’ve got a moment with John Boyega doing something it’s like hey, that says it. Cut, let’s move on. It’s about you know what—it’s about the power of the piece as it occurs and that’s it. The best idea wins. I’m not precious about that.

DL: Each of the films is one piece but it’s part of a larger whole as well. Small Axe is a suite of stories, they’re kind of independent of each other but also deeply interconnected. I wonder how much you were thinking or could you think of any of the films individually when you were writing them and bringing them together without thinking of the other four as well?

SM: No, because they’re all related to each other because again you could think of them individually but there’s a time from ’68 to you know ’73, you’ve got ’83, you know, ’81. You’ve got this trajectory but also you have what’s going on with policing, what’s going on with you know in the supreme court, and you can go back and forth, to Red, White and Blue and you see this fake court at the Hendon police training centre and the fact his father never gets to be in court, but then he has his day in court. In the first one Mangrove this whole massive show trial in the highest court in the land, the Old Bailey, for a demonstration coming out of a café. The Old Bailey was for terrorists and high treason and murder and they’re being tried in that court. Again, you see all the dots of law making and stuff like that, it’s all there. You can talk through it, all kinds of things that are a little more local and things that are a little bit more new. It’s all there. Intimacy and formal situations.

DL: And Lucy, how about you? How do you feel about each individual episode of I Hate Suzie in relation to the eight episodes? Are you thinking of them as standalone episodes or do you have to watch them in the order they went out to properly appreciate this?

LP: Well it’s interesting, the eight episodes of I Hate Suzie each have a different title, an emotional title of the different stages of trauma, and they each have a different style in terms of how they’re shot and how they’re written. It’s interesting to me that this year does celebrate a lot of work that feels, I mean obviously Steve’s films, Michaela Coel’s incredible I May Destroy You has similar feeling to it in terms of some of the episodes feel very self enclosed like they’re artistic works of their own and that’s definitely something we endeavoured to do with I Hate Suzie and it’s just interesting to me that that’s happened. I think it’s something to do with television at the moment, something to do with online life where people are used to consuming things in discrete packages. Not to be a twat about it but like Twitter but also how you visit webpages, that you move through life with quite strong experiences that are singular from each other but bonded together on a screen, and there’s something about that in terms of television or that film and television are combining in a way that they are forced to do because the only things in cinemas now are the massive, massive Marvel movies and stuff. So I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s notable. And yeah I think they do standalone and all I think they all feel different in Suzie and I do feel quite proud of that. I think people are a bit used to a kind of narrative where you’re feeling like you know where it’s going all the time because people watch so much television now, almost like you can sing along to it. sometimes there’s a pleasure in that, shows that do it really, really well, but I think sometimes it begins to feel like ‘yeah I know what this is now, I’ll move on to another show.’

DL: So a question for both of you in that case: How important is the chronology, how important is it—for you Lucy, one to eight, for you Steve, you mentioned the historical settings of the stories but you’re jumping about through time actually and you don’t start in one part of the chronology and move through the timeline. You clearly gave a lot of thought as to how these five films were going to be put—

SM: Having things in order is not a bad thing. If I jumped into the middle of the series I wouldn’t know where to start because you know, you’ve got to see the first one, the second one, the third one… You can’t just jump in to three or four because it could be different and look differently but I wouldn’t even know where I am. That’s great, the fact that you’ve got it in chronological order, that’s fine. Small Axe is like songs, and you know you’ve got the album and you go through that but you’ve got three and you can go to five and that’s how we did it. Doesn’t make it better, just different. So you know, I like the idea of people seeing it in order but if they don’t that’s fine, they won’t get lost. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, you go back and forth and see the connections between each one. If something’s done in chronological order that’s fine, doesn’t bother me. It’s not about sort of mucking it up. In order to form a narrative you have to go one, two, three four, that’s just how it is. It’s not a problem.

DL: And Lucy how about you because as you say you know the viewer has the power now because episodes will drop and once and then it’s over to them so you don’t have that sense of things dropping in kind of neat weekly segments that you used to have.

LP: No, although some shows do that and you can see recently obviously Line of Duty has been unbelievable, incredibly popular and that has something to do with the event television mould coming back. I feel yeah, for me I wanted to do I Hate Suzie in emotional stages or thematics so the last episode, Acceptance, has a structure with a voiceover in it and none of the rest of the show has a voiceover in it, very specifically for the reason that thematically Acceptance is about looking at one’s own life, building an interior monologue, having perspective on it… So I was just interested in can you make theme and emotion the drive of an episode rather than chronology, time or character? And you know that’s sort of what the show was trying to explore, but I also think that the viewers don’t actually want—they don’t want so much choice that they’re creating the show themselves. The whole point, what art is, is a series of decisions. Or at least, creating a piece of work is a series of decisions and if you’re not going to make those decisions as an artist eventually audiences are going to be quite annoyed because they may as well be doing it themselves. If you know, if you’re going to be like ‘you can watch these in any order and that’s what’s cool about it,’ at some point audiences, if that was the everything of it, would be like do your job. Make choices on my behalf.

DL: Steve I just want to go back and pick up on something you mentioned at the top of the conversation. You were talking about Alex Wheatle and those first conversations you had, and obviously the whole of Small Axe is filmed with real people’s experiences. Alex Wheatle and the Critchley family, does that bring as a writer and a creative a responsibility?

SM: Yes and no, I’ll be honest. It’s not just about pandering to people, it’s about trying to get some sort of honesty. You want to do justice but at the same time you have to make certain decisions. I mean Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, he was very difficult. I was very difficult because at first I didn’t understand Leroy. If people haven’t seen it he chose to be in the police force at the time and what happened to his family member, it was very difficult for me to understand why he wanted to be part of that regime. Myself and Courttia, we did a lot of talking to Leroy and among ourselves to get to some sort of idea as to how to approach it. He’s a cop, so he doesn’t give much. He’s a cop, you’re playing good cop and bad cop, myself and Courttia with him, but he wasn’t and maybe we got an eyebrow raise out of him but to chisel away and get somewhere with him was very difficult. How we got through was his relationship with his father, that was our in, as such. I think—I do definitely take care but at the same time you’ve got to have your view point, your opinion—find it, in fact, not come at it with a stencil immediately, find it through the process of research and writing.

DL: I’m curious about that moment, in that case, where you must have—presumably you showed Red, White and Blue to Leroy Logan and I wonder how he felt about that? I remember interviewing the documentary maker Albert Maysles and him saying I want to make a film the subject is happy with and that always stayed with me because I thought is that, should you do that? I don’t know. How did you feel, did you want Leroy Logan to be happy when he watched Red, White and Blue or at least happy with your portrayal of him.

SM: I’d be silly to say I didn’t want him to be happy for sure. I wouldn’t want him to be bloody annoyed, that’s for sure, but you run that risk. I ran that risk with all the films, and yes he was very happy. I think the black community saw him in a way they’d never seen him before, I think that maybe changed perceptions on him in a big way. That’s the power of television, the power of film, it can do that. People sort of understood what he was trying to do more because of that picture than they ever did. Yeah. It’s a strange one.

DL: Lucy let me bring you back in. I want to widen the conversation to the industry. It feels like I Hate Suzie is always sort of pulling back the veil on how the entertainment industry really works. How important was that to you? At this stage is there anywhere you wouldn’t go, or are all bets off in terms of exposing the industry?

LP: Yeah I definitely didn’t think of it in those terms. It wasn’t an aim of the show to be satirical or attacking the industry. It was more I felt I knew what the show would be if I did it in the obvious way. I thought I could see a version of I Hate Suzie which is sort of about an actress and celebrity life in the way we normally see it on TV and it’s a bit glittery but people poking fun of themselves in a very knowing way. There’s a version of I Hate Suzie where you have like real life actors playing themselves, sending themselves up in a kind of Extras way and I was keen not to go in that direction and that it should be very personal and emotional and quite interior. It’s really about her mental state most of the time and that’s why the shots are so close and there’s such loud music. It’s very interior. That wasn’t the way that I thought of it. If the industry comes off badly, as in the industry we work in comes off badly in it, I don’t think that’s totally surprising, but it wasn’t a sneering aim, it’s just the world she happens to be in. For me nothing’s ever off limits in that way. Like we were saying earlier it just has to be something I haven’t seen before and something that’s true.

DL: It’s funny you say that actually because every woman I know says they’ve seen something of themselves in I Hate Suzie and something they haven’t seen before.

LP: That’s really thrilling, thank you.

DL: Well I was curious about the response among women and what women have told you having watched the show?

LP: Yeah I’ve had, honestly some quite moving—it’s funny, it’s never the shows you think. This show was always the skin of the teeth. I always thought it’s going to be a nightmare, really difficult. Difficult schedule, difficult budget, and we were really just going to get away with it, and it’s actually the one I’ve had the most emotional outpouring from people. I can never tell and my judgment on these things is obviously terrible, but yeah, with women, yeah. It’s been a lot of oh my god yes, that’s exactly right.  The one thing I’m pleased with on that one is there’s a lot of writing women in a way that feels like we’re being nice about women and horrible about men. I think there’s a stage we went through that was that, that we thought was a form of feminism, that we represented women as great and men or other people as not great. I think that’s really misguided artistically, and I think with what I’m proud of with Suzie is it feels like writing a woman with the nuance and depth and flaws that are as interesting as the men that get written for the screen with those things. That is what is important, is the flaws are as tragic just very specific. I think Suzie couldn’t be a male character if you get what I mean; her fatal flaw is to be absolutely obsessed with what other people think of her and I’m not saying men can’t be any of these things, I’m saying it’s a specifically female quality that I think Suzie represents to do with porousness of self and manipulation and passive aggression that I think a lot of women understood and appreciated being represented in a way that felt, yeah, like men are all the time with their flaws.

DL: Is it in that case a positive in itself that the industry is finding room for those stories now? That the industry is improving because there is space for those stories?

LP: Yeah but let’s not give the industry too much credit, there literally is more space. There’s literally more bandwidth, that’s literally what’s happening. So you know, it’s brilliant and great that that bandwidth is being filled, as it rightly should be, by people that might not have had those opportunities before and characters you might not have seen before, but that’s also you know, they need us to do that and I think that’s great that we can.

DL: Steve to bring you back in, again Small Axe is filled with astonishing things from start to finish. One of them felt the fact that these were going out on BBC One on a Saturday evening, which if you’re from a certain generation is a very traditional, meaningful place in the schedule. How important was that slot, that Saturday night, Sunday night BBC One slot to you? Did it matter?

SM: Yes that was sort of the idea from right at the beginning that I wanted my mum to switch the TV on, something that she would enjoy and would sort of take interest in and that she could identify with on television and also the fact that it went through the bloodstream of the country, the BBC can reach anyone everywhere, it’s available to everyone in the country. That was a huge attraction. That was it really, again it’s just showing stories that—and you know again, black people in this country as far as the film and TV industry were never welcome, never wanted. Hence the ambition to fill that gap for that period of time until the early eighties with these stories. That was the ambition, to put into the canon these stories that had not been sort of given air or been seen before, and showing Britain in a way that—you know, what is a blues party, what is a shebeen in Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill in 1980. What is that? What is a working class black family, one of them doesn’t want to be a research chemist and goes into the police. For what reason? X, Y, Z. Education and so forth. It’s about these everyday stories, these heroes. They don’t have capes but you might pass them in the streets, so therefore to have that beamed out into the country was very important, the BBC, it had to be the BBC for sure.

DL: In that case how aware were you of the response with it going out on the BBC? Because those films last autumn, last summer, were blowing people’s minds. You live in Amsterdam these days, were you following that or do you put the work out there and you leave it to see what happens?

SM: I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve debuted in Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, blablabla, I’m very blessed to know that. But putting those things out on television and seeing the reaction, I’d never had an experience like that ever in my life. It was traumatic every bloody Sunday night debuting because you know, Lucy will tell you, you are in people’s homes. In fact you have been invited because they’ve chosen you, they’ve said come in, sit down, I’ll make a cup of tea. That’s what they’ve done, that’s what people have done. So the fact they’ve invited you in and said OK you are in, how do you stay in and not get kicked out? And the fact that you don’t get kicked out and the fact they sort of are giving you some sort of response and emotional response. Again what Lucy was saying in some ways of the unseen being seen. It’s hugely emotional, so when people see themselves on the screen for the first time, It’s hugely, how can I say, it’s a cascade of tears and emotion. It was crazy. I’d never had an experience like that ever debuting anywhere in the world. It was incredible.

DL: I wonder then was there trepidation or what was going on in your mind before it went out, before Mangrove went out as the first of the films on BBC One. You know, this is this huge creative journey for you but as you say there’s all this other stuff on your shoulders as well. Is that a nervous moment as well or is this just an exhilarating moment, a wonderful moment?

SM: Listen, once we had—when we got to make them and they were broadcast, because even up to the broadcast I thought they were going to screw it up, talking to the people at the BBC about how it’s going to look like, what it’s going to look like because you never know. It’s like a premiere in a film festival, it’s digital now so it’s all kind of good, but yes it was difficult. Yeah. It was wonderful, to have that and share it with so many people it was incredible, incredible.

DL: I wanted to ask you both a question actually, which was about the legacy of both projects, whether they were going to be these catalysts and do you want there to be—I was going to say young people but it doesn’t matter their ages, it’s immaterial, do you want there to be writers, creators that go out and make work because of I Hate Suzie, because of Small Axe? Again, does that matter to you?

SM: I want people to make work because they have the opportunity to, that’s it. Not because of—I don’t know about Lucy at all—not because of Small Axe, not because of me but because they can. That question, I think is the problem because you think OK they did it—and unfortunately that’s not the case.

LP: I agree with Steve. I think people are really touched by something when they haven’t seen it before so I think it’s a dodgy place to start to sort of want to be influential or influenced either way. I think it’s more of an emotional thing of going, I think when you write something there’s so much of you that’s going, in quite a childlike way, ‘is it just me?’ and I think that’s the gesture and when it’s received by people going ‘no it’s not just you me too!’ that completes the gesture and it’s incredibly moving and exciting and great and it’s that that I’d like to think, you know, when you’re a bit vulnerable in a script and I can sometimes see it in other writers’ writing as well, when there’s what I call blood on the page, where you feel like somebody’s really pushing something that they care a lot about and costs them a lot to write, you can feel it. That is what I would hope and just think oh it would be lovely to think a younger writer knows they can do that because they’ve been on the other end, the receiving end of that.

DL: In terms I think, because with both of your projects I think that will be happening with people out there who are inspired and writing because of it, but is it important to keep the pressure on the industry? Lucy you mentioned complacency with the industry earlier? Is there a sense that the industry will look at something like Small Axe and go ‘ok job done, we made Small Axe now we can go back to doing exactly what we were doing before?’ Does the pressure need to be kept on?

LP: Yeah—

SM: Erm

LP: Go on Steve.

SM: No please go ahead.

LP: Pressure being put on? Even the metaphor feels like it’s the responsibility of people who are really, really good artists to sort of to keep convincing people to politically stage them, which is not how I see it. I see it as there’s a lot of people out there who need the artistic work because it’s really, really good and original and will feel fresher than some other  artistic work potentially, not always, and that will be a centrepiece going forward because a lot of people are watching a lot of television. That’s how I feel about it. Of course I think there needs to be a constant reminder that behind the scenes it does feel like there’s a lot of people in charge with similar sort of taste that might not be as self-questioning as they should be, and there’s a lot of pressure to do things in front of the camera that aren’t happening behind the camera, but that’s a conversation for another time, but I’ll let Steve go.

SM: I think these shows, you know, which we’re all a part of and others, they’ve been extremely successful not just locally but globally so what pressure? The pressure is bringing something to the table. People want these stories, they’ve been tried, proven and tested, there you go. End of.

DL: Before we go to audience questions, I wanted to ask about 2020, which we still feel like we’re in even though it’s 2021 now. Both your projects came out last summer and last autumn in the year of George Floyd, in the year of COVID. After all this time putting your projects together, we spoke at the top about the length of time these projects took, are you glad that it came out in this very particular moment that they did?

SM: Someone asked me that again today. For me it was a very painful moment. If you’re talking about George Floyd, I’d rather George Floyd be alive today than dead. And you know, it is what it is, the story continues. I don’t know what to say to that really. Yeah.

DL: How about you? 2020 felt like the end of the world in so many ways but at the same time they said they had this literal captive audience and the chance to say anything they wanted to people they wouldn’t have otherwise reached. Did you see 2020 as an opportunity in any ways?

LP: No, I think like everyone else I experienced it as quite a trauma, and I think it was—I tell you, I think practically speaking I was incredibly grateful we’d managed to shoot all of Suzie, which we did a month before the pandemic started. So we did all of our post in our separate houses in our little spaces, which was really difficult because when you’re doing post you’re doing sound, you’re doing editing, all stuff that’s much better achieved in studios designed for that fact rather than people’s houses, so there were elements where you’re technically working on something going ‘I can tell, I can hear that’s not in a restaurant. I can hear that’s faked.’ There was stuff that was frustrating but I was just so grateful we’d shot it all. I was just lucky, there were a lot of people I knew who were halfway through something and didn’t get to achieve it, and just from a professional industry perspective. Other than that, yeah it’s hard to—yeah, it’s hard to feel much worse than the pandemic makes one feel. It’s hard to emotionally compete with that.

DL: Listen we’ve got audience questions coming in so I’m going to go to the first of those, which is from Erika James. She says as a young black woman screenwriter and a filmmaker I was impacted by both Small Axe and I Hate Suzie, both were transformative bodies of work. Do you have any advice for new writers and filmmakers in terms of getting your work recognised and standing by your authentic voice in your work? And that will be a question for both of you.

SM: Yes definitely keep it authentic. Again I think keep it as authentic as you possibly can but I think the beautiful thing about authenticity or whatever, is the stuff that is underneath your nerves. You’re always looking elsewhere and it’s right there under your nose. To keep it—there’s nothing you can’t say or you can do that will not be recognised. That’s what surprised me about Small Axe, certain things that were very intimate or very local or very private had so much resonance to so many people. definitely do that. It’s also to do with how you get it seen, if you’re doing it how do you get it to that person or that person? Just knock on every bloody door and be a nuisance. Be a nuisance and knock on every door to try and get people to read your stuff. That’s all I can say about that really.

LP: Yeah, I would add to that practically and say that I think finishing something, so yes keep your voice authentic, but it’s surprising to me how few writers will finish something because either you’ll lose confidence part way through or will be working on it but never finishing it, and honestly if you have a voice and you’re passionate and take the time to look at structure and look at form, just out of passion and interest, and you finish something you’re actually in like the last ten per cent at that stage, so you’re getting into a place where if you can then get people to look at it… And I would also say have people you respect look at it, do rewrites based on that, and then send that to someone you really, really think might be able to help you. I think the other mistake less experienced writers might make is just sort of sending stuff out to quite a top level very early and quickly when maybe they’ll only read it once for you. There’s also a world where you finish it, send it to a few people you respect, do a rewrite based on that and then you send it—can sometimes just be a practical thing that I think can help, just in my experience.

SM: I think that’s great what you just said, and I also think sometimes finishing it is staying with it. Sometimes you want to give up, and sometimes you know, 24 hours can make a huge difference to a script. It’s hard work, it’s work, it’s W-O-R-K, it’s just work.

LP: And it is for everyone isn’t it Steve? I feel like yeah, it’s hard for everyone to do it and don’t think because it’s taking you a number of drafts you’re not a good writer. Every good writer does a number of terrible drafts, I think it’s fair to say.

DL: There will be a lot of writers with us tonight. You guys cover all creative bases so you can speak to this: No part of making work is going to be easy, but is writing the hardest part? Is writing the real devil?

LP: I love that question, I love that question so much because I’m always going on about that. I’m always going, ‘but writing’s the hardest isn’t it?’ whenever I’m talking to directors or actors that do all three. I like to think it is because I find it very hard, so I like to self-dramatize in the sense of going only the writers know how hard it is. But probably truthfully that’s not the case.

SM: For the first time I just didn’t have a tennis partner so I just finished two scripts on my own and sometimes it was easy-ish, sometimes it was hard. But the easy stuff I’d go back and be like ‘oh God no.’ Sometimes stream of consciousness—it was the first time, I’ve just done these two scripts and it’s interesting to be alone and faced with oneself and getting it down on paper because I often feed off—like a painter you’ve got the sunflower and you’re vibing with the thing in front of you but then you’ve got the fucking… the screen or the keyboard or whatever, or your assistant you’re dictating to. But then she’s having a cup of tea or he’s having a cup of tea and I’ll scribble, ok I’ve got this—it’s heavy lifting. Heavy lifting but very rewarding.

DL: Can I just jump in and ask you about that decision to go solo, Steve? You’ve talked about collaborating with Small Axe, why become the lone writer now at this stage?

SM: There are a lot of things that have happened recently. Again, you have ideas and you sometimes just have to carry it by yourself over the finish line. It’s one of those things where I had to do it, one of those things where I needed to sort of…It wasn’t a case of just challenging or I wanted a challenge. What the fuck is that? There has to be a reason to do it other than it’s hard. Why I wanted to do it was I felt I was the only one who could tell it and that’s it. Often it’s the case that I love bouncing the ball with someone over the net, but this time I had to—well hopefully if it ever gets made one will see why.

DL: Fantastic. I’m going to do to another audience question, this one from Andrew Lynch. Another one for both of you really but it’s touching on what Lucy mentioned about staying involved in the project not just as a writer: Do you have any advice on retaining creative involvement as a screenwriter in the early stages of their career. At that stage you’re obviously just excited about getting work made, so how important is it not to just hand things over.

LP: That’s so difficult because it depends so much on the people you’re working with and the project. It depends. I would say the rule with that is work with people who the vision is the same when you’ve met very early on. One of the bigger mistakes I made was sometimes working on something I was really into but in the very early meetings the visions didn’t quite match but you’d sort of go, ‘but everyone’s very nice and it’ll be fine.’ And it’s never fine. If the visions aren’t similar, the same really, very early on, and I’m talking about directors and producers really, it is so much work. And it never really has worked out for me, that. I think, so I think a really good guide is trying to work with people where after you leave those early meetings you’re like ‘God that’s exactly how I see it too, that’s exactly the references that I would use.’ And then when you hand something over it feels very much like from an early point you’ve been sharing the same shape and vision, you’re not caught out when you watch something and are like what is this, this is nothing like I imagined. I think the clues are often there quite early on and you can be in denial about them or you can not. That was important to me. of course there are occasions where one wants to say things quite strongly but I think also it’s good to be around. I think when you’re learning in the industry, be nice to have around because then people won’t mind you being around and you’ll learn a lot more as well. Of course there are times to make your point known and be strong and stand by things, but I’m saying when you turn up have it be like ‘oh great, they’re here!’ and that helps.

DL: Steve what about you? You’re a writer and a director, in those early stages of your career there’s often pressure to fit yourself around other people’s visions, so how did you navigate that?

SM: Never did. Never did and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way but never did, never did, never did. Just nah. Never did. Why is that? Because fuck it. I just thought to myself, when I made Hunger I thought that might be the last thing I’d ever make because I’d go out with two guns blazing, that was it, I never did, I never did. It wasn’t the case of being arrogant but I just knew what I wanted and this is it, this is what I want.

DL: Do you have to be prepared to walk away?

SM: Yeah. I mean look—you’ve only got one life, do you know what I mean? I was like no. Yeah absolutely, walk away or you know, they’ve got something to lose too. I’m the one doing, obviously you have no idea what you’re doing or you’ve seen someone else do it and you think that’s the safest way to go and my way is you’ve never seen it before but in a way that’s why I’m here, why I want to do what I want to do. It’s important. I cannot. I’m hoping I can talk to people, convince people and have them come along with me and understand what I’m trying to do. I’ve been very fortunate, I did in that first picture and that was it, so what’s the point? You’re going to die anyway so go out with two guns blazing.

DL: We’ve got a question for you from Jessica Mackey-Hunter who says: I love the decision to represent disability and show the parents of a disabled child. What led you to that decision? What were the factors that played into it? In television we don’t often see disabled characters played by disabled actors and I particularly loved that inclusion.

LP: Right. Do you know what she’s talking about? Oh she’s talking about Frank the son. So Frank is played by a deaf actor called Matthew who is wonderful. Very early on I wanted the son to be deaf, but that came out of the exact same thing of things you see in life that you never see on telly and it was just simply that you see quite a lot of deaf people in life. I have a friend who’s deaf and I was talking to her about it and I remember her saying that it was funny the amount of stuff she’d got away with as a kid, how she would use the fact she was deaf to get away with things. I always found that really funny and charming and interesting and like ‘oh right,’ like she’d be caught stealing and she’d be like ‘oh no, no, no,’ and she’d sign and they’d be like oh God I’m so sorry! It was very interesting. I was like you never see that. I was drawn to the idea of like, the marriage in the show is quite unhealthy and has some unhealthy elements to it, and I knew that would affect the child in some way, but I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to not see it as you’d expect to see it. Like I can imagine what a show might do as like the parents are arguing so a child is behaving like this. And I thought it would be really interesting if the child’s behaviour was different and wondered why it might be different and so it sort of led to that and with stuff like that it always just creates more creative ideas. Then I thought how would they communicate with Frank, and I thought I bet the dad would learn to sign very, very well because he would see that as a sign of his own competence and relationship with his son, whereas Suzie would want him to lip-read because that would make him more ‘normal,’ or more like a hearing child and be able to make more sense of things in the world, but also from a laziness point of view she would be like I don’t want to learn to sign. That would be the truth underneath it. There are character elements to this, they would have a disagreement about how they should communicate with their son, and that was a source of friction in their marriage. So any decision like that brings its own fruitful creative stuff with it and that just all came out of that.

DL: In a way representation and being authentic and being honest is always the best creative decision as well because it opens up all of these avenues, where if you write people as saints or demons, these are very narrow portrayals, they don’t go anywhere.

LP: Yeah and it’s not true to life and also that’s the thing that there’s this terror that what representation means is that, just represent something and then don’t focus on it and move on so we can say we have it which I think is so ugly and lazy and not true. People are talking about the fact that in the world there are lots of people who are deaf or have hearing issues, there’s issues about cochlear implants and whether or not to give your child one of them, it’s all fascinating, it’s all interesting, it’s all human. It’s not representation, it’s a story you haven’t told yet and it’s really really more interesting. It’s just a different way of thinking than just can we grab this and put it in to avoid criticism, which is not how it works. The fact it’s written like that in journalism and criticism and in social media is exhausting because it isn’t.

DL: We’ve got time for two more questions I think from the audience. This one comes from Adam Rawling, it’s aimed at Lucy but actually I kind of want to spin it and ask Steve as well. The question for Lucy is the final episode of the show is such a satisfactory ending to a great series because of the unexpected contradictions that felt so true to the feeling of the narrative throughout. When you starting writing, did you know the ending and the arc or the story of the character? How did that develop and become mapped out? I’d love to find out and ask about the last episode of I Hate Suzie, but Steve I’d like to ask you the same question as well because the endings of—if you take Small Axe as five standalones, every one of them ends in a perfect place. Lovers Rock ends—I don’t want to share any spoilers—but it ends perfectly. For both of you, are the endings where you begin and you write backwards?

SM: Lovers Rock was a fairy tale. It was about my aunt who used to sneak out of her house, and my uncle used to leave the back door open for her to go to blues parties because my mother would never allow her to go and she would climb back in the house in the evening to get ready for church the next morning. That was always the narrative and I had the head and I had the tail and it was working with Courttia to get the rest of it, you know going to the blues and stuff, these things were already there. That was the very simple head and tail. With most of the stories I knew how to end, or where to end. With Red, White and Blue I could’ve ended a little later but that table, getting to that precipice of these men who get to this point in their lives where they can talk about the environment they were in and were fighting each other in, and getting to a point where they can actually have that dialogue and ended it there in the middle of the story in a way rather than to go on and see how it ended because that is a point where both of them are at a point where they can actually look at each other and have the conversation about the environment they find themselves in and how they want to approach and deal with it. I imagine when you’re doing true stories as such, there’s a head and a tail as opposed to when you happen to invent a story or how you—Lucy will tell you how hers worked.

DL: Lucy how about you? You’re working in fiction so it’s a different dynamic?

LP: Yeah, it’s a weird combination of knowing and not knowing. The example I’d give is I always knew Acceptance was the final episode, I always knew it would be an episode with a voiceover and I always knew it would have a lot of flashbacks in it. That it would be her processing stuff and telling herself the story of what had happened. I knew that and that made me feel safe because I had a bookend. I had Shock, episode one, which felt very raw and explosive and present tense, and Acceptance, which would be the total opposite and feel very distanced and perspective and where we would move through time would be very slow and thoughtful. When I had that as a bookend I felt safe and I felt like I could write the show in between. I need that, I need a sense of containment. But when we first started shooting eight, we were shooting it and I was watching the dailies and I just had this moment and I said the last ten minutes was wrong, the last ten minutes is wrong, I know how to end it now. I rewrote the last eight to ten pages, this is when we were shooting, I rewrote the last pages and said it needs to be this, it needs to be this. It’s not what it was before. All credit to particularly to Andrea Dewsbury our producer, they found the new locations and we changed the schedule and we shot—we hadn’t started shooting that bit yet but it was a big endeavour to change those things, and we shot…I think writing at its best is your ability to keep that sense of certainty of what you want to do and hold the core true and strong at the middle of it and then also have the ability to change and be flexible in that moment and manage to hold both ideas in your head at the same time: That you know what you want it to be but that when you feel it’s not that you have the ability to change it and that’s what we did. I was so thrilled people made that happen because it was better for it, but it was a big ask.

DL: OK we’ve got time for one more question and it’s a real writers question because it’s about nuts and bolts of routine that goes on, at our laptops in our spare rooms. It’s William Brown, he wants to know how do you write? Are you working for set hours, a set few hours each day 9-5, at night, through the night, first thing in the morning? How does it happen for you?

SM: I never stop. It’s like your ears. You know, your ears you can put your fingers in your ears to stop listening, but it never stops, you know, you write on a piece of paper you have an idea, it’s always on. You know, I know people who start at 9 and finish at 5. Sometimes it’s hard, it’s like climbing up a mountain backwards, you know, in sandals or flip-flops. Then you never get anywhere and all of a sudden you’re lying on the couch and it all floods in. It’s about gathering pails, bits and pieces. Sometimes I’m on a stream of consciousness and I’m like—I have it I have it, and I’ll jump scenes and be like this is it. It’s just different for everyone I suppose, but I think if I could give anyone a tip, just don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop. The best time is often when you’re half asleep. Limbo is a good thing, cliché but limbo is a great thing. Limbo, half way between anything is a good thing. Planes are good, planes are great.

LP: Planes are amazing. Anything in motion, I agree with Steve. Anything in motion helps me a great deal. Trains as well I find great.

SM: The tube.

LP: Mmm. Yeah, because you can’t get Wi-Fi so you can’t get distracted.

DL: Steve says never stop. Do you ever stop?

LP: Yes, and he’s right, don’t. I mean I’ve stopped now. Well I’m writing on Succession season three, but I’m not doing my own individual thing at the moment and I’ve got to say I really struggle with it. When I’m not writing I find it very difficult to believe I’ve ever written anything and that’s what I feel at the moment a little bit is how did I do that, every time I think I can’t do it. Every time I think what happened and how did I do this. It creates a panic in me and that’s where I am at the moment is this feeling of kind of I don’t know how to do this. But the only thing you get better at is recognising that feeling from before and I recognise that every time before a project I’ve felt exactly the same thing which is I can’t do it, don’t know how to do it and every time I was clearly wrong because I did it, so that’s the only thing that I get better at is just remembering how completely lost I was before, as well.

DL: Basically don’t stop and embrace the terror.

SM: Evidence of the past.

DL: Listen I wish we had another hour but we don’t and we’re going to have to leave it there. Same place tomorrow night is the next event in this series, which is Director: Factual, taking place tomorrow at 7pm UK time. Thank you to everyone who’s joined us this evening, to our event supporters TCL, and thank you of course most of all to Steve McQueen and Lucy Prebble. Thank you both.

LP: Thank you Danny, and nice to see you Steve.

SM: A pleasure to meet you, take care as well.

LP: Bye.