The writers’ room has become a staple of American television production. But look to our British friends across the pond, and they’ve got other ideas. Imagine: one writer, penning all the episodes of a show. No writers’ room. No shared concept. Just single vision, single author, executed from start to finish by the creator.
“Every writer would cravenly admit they would want to write their shows themselves,” says Steven Moffat, the famed British scribe with a long list of credits, including “Coupling,” “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock.”
Throughout his career, he’s worked on series with both production models. “The writers’ room came about because we have huge volumes of episodes to make.” It’s simply more practical, he says, for shows with long runs like “Doctor Who.”
But for shorter-run series, the Brits say the single-author strategy is more creatively satisfying. Which means it fits especially well in the miniseries category.
Noah Hawley pulled it off with FX’s “Fargo.” It’s his vision from start to finish. He had eight of the 10 episodes written before the show was even cast. And though he used a writers’ room and is paying homage to the Coen brothers, there’s no question it’s an auteur-like execution. (Writer Nic Pizzolatto went solo for “True Detective,” but whether that’s a miniseries is, well, another story.)
The Brits would approve.
Take BBC America’s “Luther,” as executed by Neil Cross. “Neil Cross pitched us ‘Luther’ as a big powerful detective where you would know the murderer right at the top of the show, you’d watch him battle his demons and the murderer, and then watch him bring him to justice,” says Kate Harwood, head of drama for the BBC, which produced “Luther,” now in its third season.
There was never any question, she says, about Cross using a writers’ room. “Like a lot of British writers, I think Neil always felt this was something he owned completely. He never wanted to bring another writer in to carry the load.. This was a character he inhabited from the beginning, and a character he solely wanted to write. He has always wanted to keep that strong connection with that character he created. He has in his head a very long plan for ‘Luther.’ ”
It’s a cultural approach to TV writing, she explains. While American audiences — and writers — have been raised on 22-episode series, British TV series are traditionally shorter, running six or eight episodes. So writers enter the process expecting to — and do — carry the full load.
“You get good drama when writers are at front and center in the process,” says Harwood. “In the end you’re nothing without a good script.” And her job, she says, is simply to sit back: “The great joy of ‘Luther’ is giving a writer like Neil a free hand, and watching him grow as a writer.”
In another example of solo creation, scribe Julian Fellowes writes every word of “Downton Abbey.” “He’s phenomenal,” raves Harwood. “I don’t know how he does it!”
That’s just how his producing partner, Gareth Neame, intends it. “I want him to do what he does brilliantly, which is writing,” says Neame. “A lot of other parts of the making of the show can be taken off his hands so he can concentrate on the writing. That’s our system. The reason why our show works is that Julian isn’t being pulled into all of the other parts of the production.”
“I think it’s probably easier to maintain a clear voice for a show if one writer writes it,” Fellowes says. “I think the concept of the writers’ room is much less part of our culture.” He adds that the hit BBC series “Broadchurch” was also by a single writer.
“It is part of an American writer’s training to learn how to write in the style of a show,” says Fellowes. “They will watch 50 episodes and read I don’t know how many scripts in an attempt to pick up the style of (“Mad Men” creator) Matthew Weiner or whoever they’re dealing with. Their pride is to write an episode that will come across as one that was written by Matthew Weiner. But English writers don’t have that. When they write an episode, they want to write an episode that’s not like any other episode’s been.”
That’s why it would be frustrating, he says, to try to build a British writers’ room. “What you want is an episode that stylistically fits into the show. When a show is very much character driven and character narrative, then it’s hard in Britain to find a group of writers who would be prepared to enter into that.”
There are economic implications as well: BBC’s Harwood points out that a writers’ room carries prohibitively high costs.
“It’s a much more expensive way of writing drama, because you have so many writers involved.”
That’s just simply not how the U.K. makes TV. Explains Neame: “The British model is much more like the film model, where the producer’s job is to find a property, put together an idea and a writer, and commission a writer to write that script. It’s much more like a film producer. The British writer is much more like the writer of a screenplay. He really doesn’t tend to have other responsibilities on the show besides the script.”
Given his long career, Moffat has had a hand in both worlds: While “Doctor Who” uses a writers’ room by necessity — its seasons can run as long as 26 weeks — “Sherlock” follows a more traditionally British model (the current season was just three episodes). “I don’t think the writers’ room and the showrunner model exists as a creative response as much as a necessity,” he says. “How else would you imagine getting it all done?”
But, he admits: “It’s writing that’s quite special to me. I’m trying to carve out time to write — I’m getting quite impatient with all the other stuff.”
By all the other stuff, he means the showrunner work: It is the ultimate irony of the showrunner model that writers who by nature are often introverts are asked to take on a host of other responsibilities: marketing, publicity, directing, editing, casting.
“I will say the showrunner job isn’t for everybody,” says “Fargo’s” Hawley. “You have to be able to manage people and story and budgets — and all the things that most writers might run and hide from. That was a surprise for me that I was good at that stuff and I liked that stuff.”
That said, though, he admits his favorite part of the job is writing. “At the end of the day, that’s the purest bit of it,” he says. “I’ll find myself getting agitated and realize it’s because I haven’t written anything in a while. The minute I sit down and get a few pages in, it’s very calming. It’s also what the work is about.”
But a confluence of styles is on the horizon. As American audiences and programmers are increasingly drawn to shorter-run series, it’s clear the two models — the American writers’ room and the British single author — are going to slightly steal from each other and find the best of both worlds.
“We’re seeing a real conversion from the American model, which is a real industrial, 22-episode brilliantly efficient drama, toward the English system, which is more authored, more serialized,” says “Downton’s” Neame.
“I think we can learn from each other,” agrees Moffat. “The idea that the individual writers’ voice is so central to a series is British in origin. But what we’d really like to learn is where you get all that money from!”
BBC’s Harwood is happy to see the revival of the mini. “The glory of British TV has been the miniseries,” she adds. “There are some stories that you want to have a beginning, middle and end — and be thinking about six or eight episodes, and not how to get to (season) seven.”
When Fellowes finishes “Downton,” his next project is “Gilded Age” for an American broadcast network — and he’s agreed to set up a writers’ room. “I have to say I’m rather looking forward to it because I’ve never done it before,” he says with his trademark aplomb. “It will be quite the adventure.”