‘She’s the real deal’: top TV writers on mentoring the stars of the future

Kate Kellaway
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

There has never been a better time to be a screenwriter. This is what playwright and screenwriter Lucy Prebble describes as “a golden age of television”. Alongside established channels, new streaming services such as Apple and Disney jostle competitively with Amazon and Netflix for viewers and hits. “They’re approaching everybody, going: work for us, work for us, work for us,” Prebble says (in her case, this is no surprise as, with HBO’s Succession, she is, as writer and co-executive producer, the hottest of properties).

And yet, a report from May 2018 on gender inequality, which gathered data for more than 10 years, revealed that only 28% of all UK TV episodes were written by women (a dire statistic that has begun to shift with more top female screenwriters – among them Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel and Sharon Horgan – making headlines). A 2018 open letter from female TV writers to drama commissioners noted, too, that “our BAME colleagues are consistently conspicuous by their absence.” Film director Steve McQueen’s recent outburst against the controversially non-diverse Bafta film awards could equally have been lobbed at television commissioners. The industry remains claustrophobically elitist. It is depressing to hear Paul Abbott and his mentor describing script editors at the BBC as predominantly Oxbridge, even if Abbott concedes that this is starting to change.

How do you identify screenwriters who will truthfully reflect contemporary UK society on TV? And once you’ve found the talent, how can new writers be helped? For let’s not be fooled: despite the demand for screenplays, it remains hard for newcomers to break in. This is where a new TV bursary scheme, funded by the industry body ScreenSkills with the UK-based production company Dancing Ledge, comes in. The proactive idea of the ScreenSkills New Writers Programme has been to invite a selection of Britain’s top screenwriters to mentor a writer of their choice.

The scheme was not set up just to help with developing scripts. It is about industry introductions and – “the biggest hurdle” – getting commissions. ScreenSkills’ Kaye Elliott explains that because of the huge sums of money involved in producing prime-time TV, producers are nervous about the gamble of investing in new talent. Jack Thorne who, like Prebble, is not about to be out of a job, urges the industry to commission more “entry-level dramas built around new voices”. And Paul Abbott makes the point that “‘commercially ready’ should not a be dirty phrase. You need to teach writers to be ready to sell.” Laurence Bowen CEO of Dancing Ledge emphasises that the “genius” of the scheme is the “nurturing, cherishing and support.”

I met a selection from the remarkable group of mentors and mentees at a London hotel: Paul Abbott mentoring Yero Timi-Biu; Jed Mercurio mentoring Daniel Brierley; Lucy Prebble mentoring Temi Wilkey; Jimmy McGovern mentoring Tony Schumacher; Jack Thorne mentoring Sharma Walfall, Levi David Addai mentoring Nicôle Lecky; Amanda Coe mentoring Rose Cartwright; Kay Mellor mentoring Grace Night, Sally Wainwright mentoring Scott Mather.

Brilliant young, female writers (some of them interviewed )below – hearteningly – abounded. There was also 52-year-old Liverpudlian original Tony Schumacher, new to scriptwriting, who made me laugh, telling me how Jimmy McGovern , first over a pint and then after several days in McGovern’s kitchen (“Jimmy’s a great listener which is what makes him a great writer”), encouraged him to write a screenplay about his life. Schumacher is an ex-copper who had a breakdown, became homeless, and went on to become a salesman all over the world –“underpants in the Caribbean, trucks in the UK, jewellery…” – before becoming a writer. I was also fascinated by the fearless articulacy and courage of Rose Cartwright, author of the C4 series Pure about a form of OCD that involves not being able to suppress inappropriate sexual thoughts and now exploring a new subject. I was impressed, too, by the poise of Daniel Brierley who has written a script about the Metropolitan police bomb squad and had to cordon off my questions because a broadcaster is already interested in his work.

Lucy Prebble & Temi Wilkey: ‘Temi has been brave enough to do a new thing in a new way’

Co-executive producer and writer on Succession, Lucy Prebble first met Temi Wilkey when Wilkey was performing on stage in west London

‘There are two things I look for in a young writer,” says Lucy Prebble as we wait for Temi Wilkey (she has been held up at the first day of rehearsals for her debut play, The High Table, opening at the Bush theatre, London, next month). “Do they write good line-by-line dialogue? And is what they choose to write about exciting? If you have both things, you’re a real writer. Temi can do both.” And that is not all she can do. When Prebble first met her, it was after watching her act in a Lars Norén double bill at west London’s Coronet theatre, directed by Anthony Nielson (Prebble’s partner). Prebble could see that, as an actor, she was “compelling yet vulnerable”.

Wilkey is a Cambridge University English graduate who trained with the National Youth Theatre’s rep company, has acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre and founded Pecs, a drag king theatre company that explores gender and sexuality in sellout shows.

As the two women chatted in the Coronet bar that night, Wilkey had no clue who she was talking to until the conversation turned to Succession, the HBO series (which has won Bafta, Golden Globe and Emmy awards) on which Prebble is co-executive producer and writer. “You’re Lucy Prebble?” Wilkey gasped. Prebble, meanwhile, had noted Wilkey’s “strong take on contemporary issues” and found her very funny. “I really liked her. She had a lot to say about things not talked about enough – to do with her generation and sexuality and politics.”

For Prebble, this is key. To write a good play you need to identify “a gap between what you see in the world and what is being truthfully represented on stage” and “rush to fill it”. That is what she achieved so brilliantly with Enron (2009), The Effect (2012) and, most recently, with A Very Expensive Poison, based on the assassination of the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. She has also written and co-created with her friend Billie Piper I Hate Suzie for Sky Atlantic, which will air later this year. It is important, she believes, to be obsessed with your subject and not to make the mistake of committing yourself to a project if your heart is not in it.

“There is a saying,” Prebble continues, “that you can do a new thing in an old way or an old thing in a new way. Occasionally, you can do a new thing in a new way – and that’s what Temi has been brave enough to do.” The High Table is about a lesbian marriage that the Nigerian parents of one of the women refuse to attend. It is only when the ancestors get involved that the tables – high or not – have a chance of being turned.

Wilkey, 27, has a radiantly intelligent presence. She grew up in the suburbs of north London, the daughter of Nigerian parents. As a child, she was always “scribbling poems – which, because I grew up as a Christian, were probably a bit elegiac.” Prebble laughs: “I wrote terrible poetry too – really angsty.” It was at Cambridge that Wilkey’s thinking about religion changed and she discovered her bisexuality. And it was through Pecs – although she appreciates the collaborative pleasures of devising – that she developed a hunger to find a “singular voice”. In 2017, she got on to the Royal Court playwriting course: “It was brilliant and felt like group therapy – because I never thought I’d finish a play.”

For the ScreenSkills scheme, she is writing a script about an assassin’s assistant who is only in it for the money. Prebble has made “amazing suggestions” including reading graphic novels for inspiration and offering ways to make the script more realistic and original. But she is not, Prebble insists, telling Wilkey how to write. She sees a mentor’s aim as enabling a voice to become more like itself, to help writers say what they want to say.

Prebble regrets never having had a mentor herself. Her protectiveness towards Wilkey is sympathetic. She talks about the importance of emotional support as well as practical help and suggests that female writers can be taken for a ride when they do not understand the industry. “As an experienced and mature artist and woman, I look back at things that have happened to me and think: ‘That was not normal.’ I wish I’d had someone to ask at the time: ‘Is it normal? Is it all right’?”

She talks about the need for a thick skin in a cut-throat industry: “Unfortunately, it is the inevitable battering that brings about a thick skin. That’s why it matters so much to find people who care that you are OK.” Wilkey’s level-headed rejoinder is that as an actor she has been trained to expect rejection.

Prebble got the taste for playwriting while she was studying English at Sheffield University. Some students who she considered more glamorous and cool than she was, commissioned her to write a play. “I wanted to impress them but had never shown anyone anything I’d written. Writing was very private – shoebox-under-the-bed.” The play was called Liquid – and “quite bad”. Then, in 2002, her first professional play, The Sugar Syndrome, about paedophile chat rooms, was produced at the Royal Court and won several awards.

In Temi Wilkey’s life, everything is happening at once: the acting work, High Table, hosting a podcast with the Bush theatre, and she has recently been in a writers room for Series 3 of Netflix’s Sex Education which helped teach her “not to be afraid of my own ideas”. You might think there’d be no time left to work on a new script but my bet is that the more Wilkey does, the more she will do. She is exceptionally focused and, as she later explains in an email, motivated by “the importance of human connection, the way telling stories brings people together, helps people empathise with people they would not ordinarily understand and the belief that generally – deep down – people are essentially good, trying to do their best”. KK

Levi David Addai & Nicôle Lecky: ‘You can always feel that her characters are rooted in something powerful’

Best known for Damilola, Our Loved Boy, Levi David Addai first met Nicôle Lecky a decade ago

When one of Nicôle Lecky’s family members moved house not long ago, they presented her with a box they had found of her early writing. It contained reams and reams of stories, songs, poems and illustrations she had written as a child, as well as a newspaper called Lecky of the World. “Literally, this big 40-page newspaper,” she recalls, laughing. “I’d written all these fake news articles – what was I doing? Very bored child. Didn’t have phones then.”

Now 29, Lecky continues to create stories, albeit on a slightly larger scale. Last year she performed her first play, Superhoe, a nuanced one-woman show about sex work, empowerment and exploitation, to great acclaim at the Royal Court. She has written for the BBC3 EastEnders spin-off, E20, and a short film, The Moor Girl, which she also directed. Her acting credits include Death in Paradise, Fresh Meat and the Wachowskis’ Sense8. Over the past year, she has been mentored by the playwright and screenwriter Levi David Addai, whose work includes Bafta-winning television film Damilola, Our Loved Boy, E4 comedy drama Youngers, and most recently BBC One’s Dark Money, a fictional account of a minor abused by a Hollywood film producer, written before the #MeToo scandal broke.

Addai and Lecky first met a decade ago, when she did a reading for one of his plays. At the time, she still didn’t consider herself a writer. “I was dabbling: I’d written a little bit, but I was saying ‘I’m an actress’, and writing in private.” It took years for her to admit even to herself that she was a writer. “Maybe it didn’t feel like a realistic career. Where I’m from, which is Stratford [in east London], no one said to me: ‘You should write for television or film.’ If you’re good at drama, people go: ‘Oh, you’re an actress.’” Although she could see people on the television, she couldn’t see behind the screen at who was writing and how they were making a living out of it.

The idea of being a writer began its “slow trickle” into her brain when she saw a play by Bola Agbaje at the Royal Court theatre, London, when she was a teenager. Eventually, it dawned on her that writing could be a realistic proposition: “It was just: I know I’m a writer – I keep on writing, and I really enjoy it.”

Originally enrolled for war studies at King’s College London, she switched to drama at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in south London. Encountering students who could rely on their parents for finances and connections was a culture shock, but her own parents – a nurse and a DJ –“instilled a kind of confidence in me that has made me feel enabled to walk into certain rooms and go: ‘Actually I don’t care where I’m from, or what you might think of me. I’m here and this is what I want to do.’”

Addai says he chose Lecky as his mentee because she is “one of the most talented young writers, actresses, singer-songwriters in the country right now”. He responds to her work because “she writes from characters first – there’s a real strength within them. Whether they’re minor characters or whether it’s the lead, you can always feel that they’re rooted in something powerful, which, to be honest, I don’t really see that often.” He smiles. “And it helps that she’s a decent human being as well.”

There is a palpable sense of affection and respect between the two. When Addai talks about the limitations of mentorship – that he is able to offer guidance but not give young writers a show – Lecky interrupts with mock outrage: “What? What am I doing here if I’m not getting a show?” The two go way back: when Youngers started in 2013, Lecky enjoyed it so much that she wrote an episode of it “for fun”, and sent it to Addai saying: “I’ve written a fake episode of your show.” (She was then brought in for a young writers scheme; she has a writing credit for a 2014 episode.)

Going to events with Addai, Lecky noticed that he is often approached by young writers for advice and that he “gives people time – every time”. “I remember what that was like,” he says, “coming into the industry as a young black professional. There’s so much talent out there that isn’t getting a platform. So now that I’ve got a little bit of influence I have the opportunity to say: ‘Can we try this person?’”

Addai clearly has an eye for talent: over the years, he has worked with then unknown performers such as Arinzé Kene (best known for his stage show Misty), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and John Boyega (Star Wars). What does it mean to him to see them go on to do so well?

“Oh, everything,” he beams. “You’re pointing people out and saying ‘I think they can do something big’, and at this point they haven’t really got a CV or something for people to be: ‘Yeah, I believe that too.’ With a writer like Nicôle, it’s like: ‘She’s the real deal. Trust me.’ And it’s not because she’s won thousands of awards or done a thousand bits of work. It’s an instinct and a feeling. I feel really proud, giving Nicôle the opportunity, but now it’s up to her to run with it.” He wags his finger at her, pretend-serious. “Don’t bring my name to disrepute – behave yourself out there.”

But he doesn’t look worried. Both he and Lecky have a number of projects in the works for theatre and television, which they can’t quite go into detail about yet. Lecky smiles. “Watch this space. It’s gonna be a busy year.” Kathryn Bromwich

Paul Abbott & Yero Timi-Biu: ‘Yero has an authenticity, an extra twang of talent that made us leap’

Paul Abbott’s greatest hits include Cracker, State of Play and Shameless. He was introduced to Yero Timi-Biu’s work by a colleague

On the face of it, the odds were against Paul Abbott becoming one of the UK’s leading TV screenwriters. A working-class boy from Burnley, he and his nine siblings were abandoned by their parents before he had even hit his teens. Now, about to turn 60, he is in a sense still fending for himself with a restless, mischievous articulacy, as though mindful that, in the television industry, there is no point at which it is safe to stop singing for your supper. He has worked in TV for more than 30 years, making his name on Coronation Street and with Cracker, State of Play and more recently No Offence, but is best known as the genius behind Shameless – about the comic and dysfunctional Gallagher family. Standing beside him, 27-year-old Yero Timi-Biu comes across as a smiling, anchored, unskittish presence – as though, were you to blink, the mentor/mentee roles might almost be reversed.

It is not how Yero Timi-Biu sees herself. She admits to having “impostor syndrome”, and it is troubling how often this phrase came up among the young screenwriters I interviewed. She was born in east London, daughter of “amazing” parents who worked in the public and voluntary sectors, tackling hate crime and community regeneration. She lives in Margate now (when not in Los Angeles). She admits with a laugh: “I hate going to meetings where you have to sell yourself to production companies. I always get dehydrated and feel really weak afterwards but as a writer, you are also like a personal brand – your ideas are your currency.”

Timi-Biu’s ideas involve characters at one remove from society because of mental health or other issues. “I am motivated to tell the stories of the everyday horrors of life to make them accessible,” she says. As a schoolgirl, she had ME so severely she was asked to leave school and sit her GCSEs at home. She spent a lot of time reading and watching television: a useful immersion for a writer. She started writing at 20 and in 2018 she won the BFI Future Film festival new talent award for her ICA London/Channel 4 comedy drama Beneath the Surface, for which she was writer, director and producer, which led to another Channel 4 short film, Two Minutes, in collaboration with the illustrator Adebanji Alade. Both films were broadcast online and on TV.

When I meet her, she and Abbott are talking about Signs (a short film she wrote and directed for the BFI, now in development for TV). It is about a teenager left in charge of her senile grandfather and seven-year-old sister. It has a touching humanity and confirms a point she makes herself: “The best thing about dialogue in TV is what’s left unsaid.”

Timi-Biu is currently working on an ambitious series about the fashion industry. At 16, she got a place on a BBC documentary, Your Label (an early sign of her ability to compete), in which teenagers from around the UK made their own fashion label. She went on to study at the London School of Fashion but then decided she’d taken wrong turn: “When you get into interning – running around central London with thousands of pounds worth of clothes from designer stores, you realise: what am I doing to change the world?”

Everything is grist to a writer’s mill. Things that go wrong in life sometimes go right in writing. She told herself: “This life experience might make a really funny script one day.” After graduating, in 2013, “I ended up going to New York because I found a writing course that cost £420, can you believe it? And I had an amazing time there. It was great to be outside my comfort zone. I was 21 and everyone in my class was a bestselling author. I’d just Googled the course.”

Abbott immediately saw her potential: “Yero has an authenticity, an extra twang of talent that made us [she was picked out initially by Abbott’s colleague Henry Swindell] leap on her because, ultimately, a twang of talent translates to millions of pounds down the line.” And on the subject of money, he says that it’s essential to educate young writers about the industry’s commercial side. He explains that the jump from working on a script to seeing it in production is challenging: “Knowing what to do when you get a green light on something is quite shocking to some people. They can’t cope with it.” He recalls his own vertiginous pride on realising that 200 people were being employed because of what he had written and that “even the butty trolley” was down to him. Abbott will make sure Yero knows which side her butty is buttered.

He also has tips on the writing process – mainly emphasising that it is a process.

“The first thing you teach anybody is that good writing is rewriting.” Many young writers fail to see their first draft is precisely that. Overwriting is common: “There used to be a phrase we used on Coronation Street: ‘Buying the milk to make the tea.’ You’d see Mavis Riley buying the milk in the shop in the morning saying: ‘Derek is due home at lunchtime, we’ve not seen each other for three weeks blah blah blah.’ Then you’d get a tea-making scene where Derek comes home and then the scene in the pub afterwards where she says: ‘Derek came home this afternoon, it’s been such a long time.’ And you’d think: will you shut the fuck up?!” Fortunately, Timi-Biu knows how to make the metaphorical tea without fuss: she worked as assistant editor on Holby City (another hugely competitive BBC scheme).

But the importance of this mentoring programme for her is, most of all, about the power of a name. And Abbott knows all about this from his own experience. His career was launched in 1982 with a Radio Times drama competition where an endorsement from a writer in the industry was an entry requirement. Abbott wrote to Alan Bennett, asking him to read his script, and Bennett replied telling Abbott his play was “not the masterpiece you think it is” but said that he would be happy to put his name to it. Today, Timi-Biu is hopeful because she has not only Paul Abbott’s name but his production company, behind her (AbbottVision is Cheshire-based and with a writers studio attached). The company will help sell her series: “I have some broadcasters in mind and have had some interest – but it is all top secret.” KK

Jack Thorne & Sharma Walfall: ‘I’m driven to tell stories that you don’t often see depicted on TV’

Jack Thorne’s prolific output includes This Is England, National Treasure and His Dark Materials. He first heard of Walfall via his agent

The first time Sharma Walfall saw the name of her mentor – Jack Thorne – pop up on her mobile phone, she felt “really nervous” but she needn’t have worried. For Thorne, who has recently been described as the “bard of Britain… to modern British TV what Charles Dickens was to the Victorian novel” (the Economist) and who has won five Baftas (so far), is chronically modest. It is part of what makes him likable. He has also been described as the hardest-working stage and screenwriter in Britain. And at 6ft 5in, he is one of the tallest, with a foldaway look as though he hoped to disappear. His most recent work is typically miscellaneous: the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which won a Tony award), a forthcoming film of The Secret Garden with Colin Firth, the screenplay for the BBC/HBO television version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. At any one time, he is usually working on at least three projects. Mentors do not come more laden with laurels.

Sharma Walfall is an actor/writer with a Mancunian sense of humour, a direct style and bags of flair. She was brought up in a single-parent household (her mother was a teaching assistant) in Longsight, Manchester “with my little brother and just around the corner from my grandparents, where I spent most of my time”. She is developing a number of original series ideas including Out of Bounds and Ruby, a drama with Red Planet pictures. She also worked for three months on Emmerdale. But it was winning a Northern Writers award in 2015, and then going on to be commissioned to write an episode of Hollyoaks – her first TV credit – that launched her.

“When I pitched my idea to Jack, he really made me feel at ease,” she tells me. The idea was for a series – The Pru: “I’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a pupil referral unit (PRU) and my drama is around that.” According to Thorne – who came across Walfall via a recommendation from his agent’s colleague – her recreation of that world is brilliant and she has an instinctive talent for dialogue: “Sharma describes the complication of these kids. We live in this broken and embittered country and this is about broken and embittered kids. It tells the truth of how difficult these places are and how hard it is for kids to get back on their feet. Yet there are glimmers of hope and humanity – it’s also a celebration.”

People have fixed ideas about the children in these institutions, Walfall says: “I went in with a high level of respect. That’s why the kids treated me differently. Young people in a bad situation make light of it with banter. They try to put their best foot forward.” Thorne underlines Walfall’s advantage over writers from posher backgrounds, imagining worlds they have not experienced, convinced that misery alone brings their stories to life.

Initially, Walfall envisaged a “dark comedy” but Thorne asked: “Have you done comedy before?” and advised her to stick to what she knew. He understands how experience lends authority: while at Cambridge University studying politics, he became bedbound with a rare disabling skin condition and it was talking about this experience that helped sell his film Wonder, about a boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, to Hollywood.

Thorne got into screenwriting after his work was spotted by Brian Elsley, “a beyond brilliant mentor” and executive producer of the C4 series Skins, who came to see his play When You Cure Me at the Bush theatre. “Brian taught me that writing for the screen is much simpler than for the stage because you have more means to tell your story.” He learned about “camera path” and not overwriting: “Hitchcock said dialogue is the words actors say while their eyes tell the story. Take Mrs Coulter talking to Lyra in His Dark Materials – if you have Ruth Wilson’s eyes available in close up – all you need is to pan in.”

Growing up, it was her aunt who inspired Walfall: “My auntie is called Karline Smith and she’s a novelist. I loved her stories and looked up to her. I still do. She gave me my first computer and encouraged me to follow my dreams.” She continues: “I’m driven by the desire to tell stories from my world that you don’t often see depicted on TV. I want to entertain, move, change minds. I’m driven by people such as Jack Thorne, Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sally Wainwright.” And she says: “Can I add something? This scheme is amazing because I’ve never had money behind me and I’ve struggled. It’s really hard to do a 12-hour shift, then come home and try to write.”

Thorne and Walfall agree hard work is essential to success, even if Thorne sets a potentially ruinous example: “I spent my 20s working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, then got married, which changed my schedule slightly. Then I had a child – and that really got in the way!” But work makes more sense to him than networking: “I can’t do small talk. Any industry party I’ve ever been to, I’ve left very quickly. What’s most important is to have a voice that’s recognised and supported. And we all need luck, though I’ve no magic formula to acquiring it.” Thorne’s endorsement should work its own magic: “The great thing is Sharma has already sent the script out and people are meeting her and want to be in the Sharma business.” KK