The U.K. industry may be at the top of its game globally, with creative talent cleaning up at major award shows and becoming engrained in Hollywood, but the British system is far from an equal playing field for those trying to break in from different socioeconomic or ethnically diverse backgrounds.
No one knows this better than Bisha K Ali, a former domestic violence support worker turned TV writer, whose impressive credits include “Sex Education” and the forthcoming “Ms. Marvel,” but whose unconventional career path was devoid of the cultural capital afforded to those entering the industry from privileged backgrounds.
Ali is the driving force behind a new screenwriting fellowship jointly supported by streaming giant Netflix and Sky, the Comcast-backed European pay-TV operator. The program will provide six U.K. writers with a £22,568 ($31,820) bursary, support network, and — most importantly — a job in a Netflix or Sky writers’ room that can provide that vital first TV credit.
Ali was inspired to start the fellowship after spotting a five-year-old Facebook memory in which she’d polled other writers about how they afford the basic networking that can lead to gigs in the U.K.
“I was asking other writers, ‘Are you guys facing these problems as well? I don’t have the money to spare to go around taking meetings!'” she explains, noting she didn’t have the extra funds to take time off her full-time job and come into London to network.
“Like, how much does an Oyster [travel] card cost? It’s so expensive. And those costs were just adding up. How many people have the financial backing to be able to launch yourself and become known as a writer in our field without a big sum of money that you just have access to?” asks Ali.
The Hounslow-born Ali, through her agents, scored her first writing job on Netflix’s “Sex Education” before heading Stateside to work on Mindy Kaling’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” for Hulu and eventually landing the head writer gig for Disney’s “Ms. Marvel” series, about a New Jersey-raised Muslim teenager who realizes she has superpowers. The show, which introduces the studio’s first Muslim superhero, is a significant turning point for Marvel and representation across its franchises.
Ali was relaying her experiences to Anne Mensah, Netflix VP of original series out of the U.K., when the former Sky executive — a long-time champion for representation in the British industry — suggested that the deep-pocketed SVOD could help with setting up an initiative.
“When the fellows come out of this, I want it to have real measurable impact,” notes Ali. The bursary allows them to more easily focus on their craft, while the addition of Sky as a partner opens up the fellows’ pool of connections within another broadcaster, which also happens to be a key domestic player.
The writer was also keen for fellows to have their first television credit by the end of the fellowship: “Getting that first credit is so hard,” admits Ali. “It’s one of the biggest hurdles when you’re breaking in.” Within 18 months of starting the program, Ali hopes each fellow can secure agent representation.
Ali credits schemes born out of the U.S. studio system, where writers emerge from programs with extensive experience and exposure to different parts of the production process.
“The benefit of the U.S. system is a built-in apprenticeship for writers. You can be a writer’s assistant or a showrunner’s assistant in a writers’ room, and you’re surrounded by writers doing the job of writing for 20 weeks minimum,” says Ali. “There is an expectation in that system, then, that that assistant will go on to become a staff writer for the subsequent season, or get recommended to be a staff writer on a subsequent season of a different show.”
As writers’ rooms become more commonplace in the U.K. and more apprenticeships also develop, Ali hopes there will be similar opportunities. The question is whether the industry can grow without “doubling down or recapturing some of the existing biases” and instead ensure that “inclusion is built into the expansion.”
While the first year of the Netflix-Sky fellowship will focus on selecting writers from Black, Asian and ethnic and racial minority backgrounds, Ali highlights the importance of recognizing barriers to social mobility, and the challenges facing those from working class backgrounds looking to work in film and television.
“There are some walls that people who are part of the establishment, as part of the status quo, don’t realize even exist,” says Ali. She notes a personal experience in which she was asked to meet a producer at a member’s club, but didn’t know what a member’s club was.
“I didn’t know that existed, and that’s part of the elite structure,” notes Ali. “Most of these production companies are doing their meetings at member’s clubs, or taking you for drinks or dinner. Even that space is an elitist space.”
There’s a mismatch in life experience, she says, and that’s a problem — one that’s not talked about enough in Britain.
“When someone who’s not from that world goes into that meeting, and doesn’t know what the space is, and the space is kind of hostile towards them, and frankly, they don’t look like other people in those spaces, we’re dealing with six more barriers to entry just for one meeting,” says Ali.