I do remember when I went in December before I took over in January, when I went to the first story conference… now it may be because it was very cold, but having been – this would be quite contentious, but having been told that the story conference was almost like the pantheon of the gods, I was thinking I’d have to be on my mettle. Well, it was a cold December morning and we were going to be meeting in the V&A in one of the big conference suites there or something. These load of people tripped in in anoraks, shuffling in, and I kept thinking to myself that they all looked as if they’d been chucked out of their local library where they’ve been keeping warm on a winter’s day!
It was an interesting dynamic, because there were three or four writers who held the court, and then all the rest were rather subdued. And it went on for two days at that point. It went on forever. And unfortunately on the first day conference at lunchtime, certain members would go over to the Stables and come back, shall we say, slightly looser and more relaxed than they were when they’d shuffled in. And the curious thing was that you could actually see stories getting chucked around and there were some master storytellers there, but then once a drink was taken, it all slightly went a bit woozy again, so stories were talked up, and then they were talked down. And then you’d spend the next day trying to pull it together again. It was a bit of an eye-opener; I was thinking we might have our work cut out here.
Can I just ask, how many people were in the story meeting?
At that time there were about 13 writers, anywhere between 10 and 13, as a pool, if I remember it.
And just to ask, is that the case today?
I don’t know.
No… well. I’ll try and ramble through it and see. There were about 13 writers. Then there was the script editing department, which basically storylined and edited the shows as they came in. There was a story editor and three assistants that worked as script associates.
What I did, which was contentious, but I decided that the power really had to be… while we could have a Cabinet- I mean, I’m very aware of what I’m saying here. It was interesting in 1997, Tony Blair took over as Prime Minister, and the Labour party… There was a feeling that whatever had been said [at the script conference] had to be passed and put through. I slightly moved away from that and I gave the power to basically script editors and story editors, and myself.
Basically, I thought, well, you had to produce, you had to push it through… I cut the story conferences down from two days to one day, and we pushed it through and when we went round the writers as before.
I basically streamlined it, I gave more power to the storyliners and the story editing. So yes, the writers were there and would come up with ideas and we would discuss them. But to push them forward, we had very clear ideas of where it went. I think arguably the story conference was alright when it was two episodes a week in the olden days, when a convivial, almost club-like atmosphere could prevail and when the programme itself didn’t have any competition – in the good and olden days.
But then EastEnders was on the go, and rightly or wrongly, the die was cast that we went from two (episodes a week) to three and three to four, EastEnders went from two to three, except it was a different machine. Writers and actors equally didn’t cope or didn’t want to cope with the pressures that were on there, and it had to become much more disciplined I think, and slightly ruthless and much more of a machine, rather than purely being the whimsy, which often was wonderful, in its day, but I needed to grab younger views and southern views to keep the ratings up. And you know, we put on three million viewers in our time. But we went for big, sensational stories. There was also a slightly, maybe unspoken convention or wisdom that once you’d done one big story you had to rest because viewers would be exhausted. Well, that was palpable crap. So we always went from one big story to the next big story. I looked around and went, well, who’s the happiest family here? It was Kevin and Sally. And I’d say, right, we’ll break them up, so we brought Natalie Horrocks in and exploded that.
I went away on holiday and I came back and we’d had – Deirdre had a new admirer or something, and we decided he was a con-man. And I remember I stupidly went away on holiday and they decided to close that down. Deirdre will go into the corner shop and she’ll find out that he’s a cheat, and that’ll be it. But when I came back, Ann McManus discussing it, she was the script executive by that time [and she went] ‘No, it’s got tons of bloody legs on this, there’s so much more you can do with it.’ And it ended up with the story being that Deirdre went to prison, and the huge publicity surrounding that, and even had Tony Blair’s press office phoning up the Coronation Street press office saying, ‘Could you tell the Prime Minister what’s happening with the Deirdre thing, because it might be mentioned?’ And we thought that was a hoax.