The Craft of Heidi Thomas

I was too young for the original Upstairs Downstairs, so the new series, over Christmas, had no nostalgic appeal. But given the choice between watching it or the the rubber-clad racism of Come Fly With Me, I opted for Heidi Thomas’s revival, and was absolutely hooked from the start. It’s certainly more deferential than I’d like, but then so is The King’s Speech: revolution seems to have no hold on the British imagination, not with more Etonians than women in the Cabinet and a royal wedding on the way. But I loved its ambition, its emotion and its sense of moral purpose: it’s a series that’s equally engaged on the intimate and national scale, and that gives equal weight of feeling to every character, particularly my favourite, Lady Persie (the ever-excellent Claire Foy, left). Here are some highlights from Heidi Thomas’s recent interview with the BBC Writers Room:

Writing historical drama I like to write about interior landscapes. I like to write about people, I like to write about small lives, I like to write about marriages and bereavement and love and how you do it and what it does to you. And people don’t necessarily want those stories set in the present day, at least not in terms of feature length drama for television, or dramatic series or serials for television. And I just find that there is an appetite from commissioners and from the audience to see stories of that nature put to them, but set in another time. And I think the appeal is not that we’ve all changed greatly and that drama set in the past, even in the recent past, is escapist, but it gives us something that we recognise. I think nowadays we’re terrified of the future. We don’t know where we’re going to be as individuals or as a society, but if you look at something like Cranford … everybody is convulsed with similar fears, and you think actually a hundred and fifty years on we’re okay, we’re still worrying about the same things but we are still here to worry about them.  I like that sense of continuity as well, it’s about what resonates from the past, not what we look at through the wrong end of the telescope.

Writing for long-running television series I think what you have to do is burnish your craftsmanship in a way that does require humility. You have to accept that characters already exist.  You may get the privilege of introducing new ones, as I did, as I went along, but all of the original work that was commissioned from me at about that point in my career was from people who’d seen my episode of Soldier Soldier or Doctor Finlay and felt that there was a definitive voice coming through, whether it was a touch of comedy or the fact that I worked with female characters in a sort of quirky and non-clichéd way. I don’t know. I like to think those were some of the things that I was demonstrating. But you know for whatever reason, I was able to present or write scripts that represented those series well. But I didn’t deliberately use my own voice. You have to learn to shut up, it’s not about pyrotechnics, it’s not about showing off or making your work distinctive, it is about craftsmanship and elegance and subtlety and learning all the time.

Adaptations vs. original stories If I’m doing something original I will always do a treatment. I’ll normally do a couple of pages which I show to the producers who are interested in it, which I call notes – I never call it a treatment at that stage. And then they’ll probably commission a treatment from me, or the understanding is that I will provide one – it’s not always a separate arrangement – and that might be about ten pages. But when I’m doing an adaptation, obviously you have the raw material there, you know you have that in common with the producers or the director. I’m working on an adaptation of Middlemarch for Sam Mendes at the moment, so he and I have that book in common. We sat and talked about it rather than exchanging lengthy written documents, although I did do a kind of summing up, which he signed off on. I keep that on my desk, those agreed points, what we will keep and what we will leave out. I think there’s a much more sort of spiritual issue of what do you seek to do when you adapt. The thing is, you have to assess what the essence of that novel is, what makes it magical, what makes it loved, what has made it last over perhaps a hundred and fifty years?  Why is this a classic, or why is it not a classic? Why has this lovely book just  kind of lain there mouldering? And I find myself using religious language when I talk about this. It’s not that it’s a religious act, but it’s a very respectful act and it’s a very loving act that requires a great deal of thought. And what you have to do is identify the sacred moments.

Creating historical dialogue I’m passionate about nineteenth century history because I think we can see so much of ourselves in it. But many nineteenth century novels are relatively light on dialogue. What you do is look at what’s in there, and it’s a register of language, it’s literally a different form of English . So you look at the words that people use, not just in the dialogue which is recorded on the page but the words Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford) uses herself. I mean she loves a long word. And her characters love a long word too, so you look at that. I never ever look at a critical study of a novel that I’m adapting, but what I will do is I’ll go and look for ephemera, I look for advertisements from the period. I’ll look at the Bible in the King James version, because that is the literature to which those people were most frequently exposed.  Even people who didn’t have books at home – and very few people had books at home then – they would hear the Book of Common Prayer, they would hear the King James Bible every Sunday, and that leads to a richness of language and certain cadences, and certain figures of speech that people would use. I’ll always have a little gathering. I’ll go through my own bookshelves and I’ll put together a little pile of books that might have belonged to the characters of that period. In Cranford for example I had a wonderful old manual of how to raise children, and it was full of things, and I was reading it and thinking what a lovely way to bring up children.  It says, “Do not put them in stiff stays, let them wear soft clothing and run about in their bare feet,” and you’re thinking, this is great, this is my son.  And then it says, “If they misbehave give them poppy water,” which of course is opium, so they’re dosing their children with opium.

Being a producer as well as writer I think there is a vogue at the moment for too much input from the production team. But nowadays, now I’ve got a bit of a track record, I often get an executive producer credit on my shows, and I do fight for that. And it’s not that I want to have power over my work, but with Cranford it took seven years to get it to the screen, and with Upstairs Downstairs I’d been writing it for six months before we even brought the rest of the team on board. You know that project well, you know the world, you know the characters, you know the people, you know the tone, you know the style. And a director will come in, often straight from another job, and be fighting blind for the first three or four weeks, when some of the biggest decisions are being made. I’ve seen my role then as being the one who says, ‘Well actually have you looked at it this way or not?’ During shooting I try and take a step back, but as an executive producer I do have a seat in the edit and I can say things like, ‘I don’t think you should edit out that scene because such a scene further down the line won’t make sense.’ But it’s always about trying to help. If you just try and keep control over your work people will resist you and not respond to you as a fellow collaborator. It is about people management. That’s the thing with writing drama; whether there’s script editors involved, whether there’s producers involved, ultimately it is going to be handed over to actors, and the director and the editor, and the director of photography, and if you don’t have a collaborative mindset there’s no satisfaction to be had. If you can’t collaborate, write novels.

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One thought on “The Craft of Heidi Thomas

  1. As a long form, long term television writer….thank you for reprinting this article. The writing is exquisite and Heidi Thomas is someone all new writers should study and aspire to be.

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