what's it like... Writing EastEnders
By Andrew Collins
I cannot tell a lie I killed Nick Cotton's son. I murdered Ashley
Cotton in cold blood. It was me who drained the brake fluid out of
Mark Fowler's motorbike the night before. Ashley, in a fit of pique
after an argument with Mark that I instigated in the Queen Vic, hopped
on the bike and revved it up. It was me who arranged for the keys to
be conveniently left in the ignition. Then off he roared, narrowly
missing Dot Cotton, his own grandmother, outside the Vic, and smashed
into the laundrette, coming off the bike and landing in a heap on the
road.Even Dr Trueman couldn't save him.
Throw on the bracelets, guv, it's a fair cop. This all happened
on Thursday 14 June, 2001, when episode 1149 of EastEnders was first
transmitted. It was one of mine. I wrote it. All of it. It was I who
penned the fatal stage direction, "DR TRUEMAN EXAMINES ASHLEY'S HEAD -
WE SEE FROM HIS EXPRESSION THAT IT'S NOT GOOD."
Oh but it was good. In total, I wrote 11 episodes of Britain's
premier soap opera over a two-year period: that's six and a half hours
of primetime television drama, watched by around 16 million people,
give or take the odd 0.2 million. EastEnders was the best and the
hardest job I've ever had. More fulfilling than running Q magazine,
and more arduous than collecting trolleys for Sainsbury's in
Northampton town centre week in, week out, when I was doing my
A-levels. (Come to think of it, harder than doing my A-levels as
Of all the potentially glamorous and exotic gigs I've had within
the media since arriving in Big Town from the provinces in the
mid-1980s, becoming an EastEnders writer has generated by far the most
interest and inquisition, from people in and outside the biz. A friend
of my sister's in Northampton actually accused her of lying when she
told them what I did. Acquaintances who half-know me say they saw my
name on the credits at the end of an EastEnders and assumed it must be
another Andrew Collins. They can easily conceive of me interviewing
Paul McCartney or pontificating on Radio 4, but writing EastEnders? No
way! That's "other people", isn't it?
Well, it was me for a while there, a small but significant cog in
the giant perpetual motion machine that is EastEnders. And being asked
to write the episode in which Ashley Cotton an established character
and spawn of Walford's long-time arch villain Nick drew his final
breath on the back of a motorbike was my proudest moment. (I also
introduced a brand new character, but it was only a pet goldfish
called Posh so as you can imagine the folks back home in Northampton
dine out on it a lot less.)
How did I come to be writing EastEnders? That's always the first
question. (Can you bring Dirty Den back? that's always the second.)
How did a music journalist with no qualifications even to be a music
journalist end up moving Phil Mitchell, Steve Owen and Kat Slater
around Albert Square like pawns in a giant game of soapy chess? And
what's it like?
To get to Albert Square, we first have to pass through Brookside
Close and a place you may never have heard of called Charnham. Whilst
working at Q in 1994 I despatched myself to the suburbs of Liverpool
to write a short piece for the magazine on the inexorable rise of
Brookside (this was body-under-the-patio time).
I watched the C4 soap religiously, and genial series producer Mal
Young, having given me a thrilling tour of the set, suggested I might
think of writing for the programme. Me? But I'm a humble music scribe,
I protested. I review sleeper albums.
Mal explained that many an untrained scriptwriter had found
employment at Brookside (it was that kind of community-minded, rather
1980s set-up) indeed they encouraged new people to try out. Watching
the programme religiously, he said, was sufficient qualification.
I thought nothing more of it. But when Mal was poached by the
fledgling Channel 5 in early 1997 and brought down to London to launch
their five-nights-a-week soap, he called me up again. With a limited
budget and an unforgiving turnover (the other Britsoaps were still
only on a leisurely two or three times a week back then), they needed
as many keen writers as they could get their hands on, and wanted to
start one or two out from scratch.
I was still sceptical. My only experience of script-writing had
been a few radio comedy sketches, plus I was by now the Editor of Q, a
full-time job, with car and everything. But Mal is a very persuasive
man. I went to some early meetings, where the characters and stories
were being thrashed out, and was given a commission, my own episode
(#19) of what was now called Family Affairs and set in fictional
Charnham which may or may not have been just outside Maidenhead and
later miraculously grew its own tube station to make it seem more
metropolitan. (It's still running every weekday on C5, by the way,
which is more than can be said for poor old Brookside.)
They gave me a couple of sample scripts by professionals from
which to ape the page format, and a "story document" providing the
bare narrative bones for my "ep". (Let's call them eps, it's what
people in telly say they also shorten cliffhanger to "cliff" and
break stories down into "beats", ie individual events. Now we're
continued on page 8 continued from page 7
All of a sudden, I was a soap writer..
It's important to note here that soap writers don't, as a rule,
come up with the plots. This would not be practical. For an "ongoing
drama" (the BBC are still quaintly shy of the term "soap") to work,
storylines must be plotted way in advance, the major ones - a murder,
a pregnancy, a new family, anything above a new goldfish across
months, sometimes a whole year. There are teams of people working
full-time on this called storyliners. In conjunction with producers
and script editors, they form the engine room of any soap. Writers are
generally freelance, but a big soap like EastEnders will have 50 or
more on their books, and the work can be regular enough to constitute
"a living" (unless of course you fall out of favour, as I eventually
did at Family Affairs after two and half years and over 30 episodes).
A commission will mean a meeting round a conference table
with stewed coffee and Danish pastries. Here, all writers and script
editors working on a given week of programmes will converge to discuss
their eps with the storyliners ask questions, suggest changes,
sometimes swap "beats" with other writers (hey! jazz!).
The 70-page story document, from which everyone works, lays out
an entire month's storylines these snake through the eps like
lettering in a stick of seaside rock. I always think of an individual
episode as a slice of salami cut from a huge ongoing sausage the
writer's task is to move the action along for 26 minutes and leave
everything in the right place for the next writer.
Eps must of course join up, seamlessly, and continuity is
paramount, so even though writers go off and write in tortured
isolation in their garrets, constant recourse to the bigger picture is
required, and at least four drafts of each script are built in to what
can be a ten-week writing and editing period.
At EastEnders, six months pass between Danish pastries and
transmission. (This is why fireworks night and other public holidays
are always celebrated in soaps it's the only way to make them seem
current and topical.)
The planning or story document contains important information
like "TX" (transmission) dates, all key deadlines inbetween
(commission, first draft, second draft, final draft and "rehearsal
script" which is the one the actors actually get to see, about a
month ahead of filming), plus sunrise and sunset times for the week
the ep will go out, and "other info", such as characters' birthdays
and school terms.
In your idealised writer's world, you imagine Bridge Street
market swarming with the entire cast like a scene out of Oliver!, but
actors have rights, and holidays, and you can't expect June Brown to
be on standby just so that her character Dot can deliver one withering
aside at the Fowlers' fruit stall. EastEnders weeks are shot in
overlapping fortnights week one: outside on "the Lot" and permanent
sets only (the important ones: pub, laundrette, cafι); week two:
permanent sets and studio only (all other sets are erected and
dismantled as required, but for practical reasons have to stay up for
no less than two weeks). Of the ep's 26 minutes, 19.5 minutes should
be shot in studio and 6.5 minutes on the lot. Keep up.
One surreal feature of the commissioning meeting is haggling over
sets: each week's writers must "inherit" three existing sets, and add
three of their own choosing ("I can live without the B&B, but I must
have Pat and Roy's kitchen"). Then, just when you think you're getting
somewhere, under all the sunsets and birthdays on the cover sheet you
reach the dreaded "CAST RESTRICTIONS".
Eek! It reads, "Pat Week 2 Only." That means Pam St Clement,
who plays matriarch Pat Evans, is unavailable for the first week of
filming and can thus only be seen inside. No chats in the market, no
quiet words outside the Vic, and bang goes that dynamite exchange
you'd envisaged when she comes out to pick up the milk from the step
in her dressing gown.
Before you can sit down at your PC and open a new document
entitled "EastEnders/ep#1149" and type in :"SCENE 1. COTTONS', LIVING
ROOM. INT. DAY LIGHT. 07.30" there are so many factors to, well,
factor in. You require Peggy to be in the Laundrette in Scene 5, and
behind the bar of the Vic in Scene 7 - would she actually have time to
get from one to the other while Scene 6 is playing out? It's a
logistical minefield, and requires military planning to get right and
One of EastEnders' most revered veterans is Tony Jordan, a
master-writer (untrained, used to be a barrow boy) who began in 1989
and now occupies a consultancy position. He offers invaluable
workshops to new writers where he'll run an old EastEnders from the
Arthur Fowler years and break down exactly why it works, drilling into
you the idea that structure is everything, dialogue is just window
Back at five-nights-a-week, corner-cutting Family Affairs, few of
EastEnders' planning luxuries were afforded. I don't recall ever
having to do even a second draft until I went off the rails towards
the end. No time for such fripperies. Three months between pastries
and TX, none of your six. As a result of the tight schedule, very
little leeway was given to writers when I was there individual
scenes were plotted out for you. It was basically a dialogue-writing
job, window dressing, although a priceless apprenticeship in the craft
and the pressures of the process.
I loved Family Affairs, there was a real have-a-go spirit there.
Plus, it allowed me to fulfil the old clichι and actually give up my
day job. (Interestingly, you are always getting told off for using
clichιs in soap, apart from the ones that soap invented, like nobody
in East London having a washing machine.)
The other great thing about Family Affairs is that nobody watched
Channel 5 then, so it was like paid training without the
embarrassment. (Actually, an unprecedented amount of people watched it
when most of the cast were spectacularly killed in a barge explosion,
as per the ratings-grabbing plan of the new producers. Pity they
didn't tune in again the next day. Or the next.)
I got my EastEnders call in July 1999: an invitation to "try out"
for the show, engineered, it must be said, by a Mr Mal Young, who had
by now been poached by the BBC as head of drama series. After 30 eps
of Family Affairs, I felt I had paid my dues, but the journey from C5
to BBC1, from a million viewers to 16 million, was far greater than
the unlikely tube ride from Charnham Common to Walford East
To use another transport analogy, being able to drive a car does
not automatically qualify you to fly a 747. However I passed my
audition it's a bit like applying for a university: there are a
certain number of "places" available, and hopefuls must pass an entry
exam, which involves writing a full scene breakdown and half a dozen
actual scenes of dialogue based on a real EastEnders story document.
My first actual, commissioned ep was #931, transmitted on 24
January 2000. You're sure to remember it Jeff got a mobile phone
("Very posh!"), Barry and Natalie came home from their honeymoon and
Terry bought a car. I know. Not a ground-breaking or ratings-grabbing
episode (it was a Monday; Mondays rarely are), but ideal for the
Square virgin. I even got to work in my own self-contained sub-story,
in which then-landlord Dan Sullivan kept asking punters to help him
with a crossword. It was Pinteresque I tell you.
While creating my first ever ep I absorbed the ancient wisdom of
Walford, all contained in the oracle-like Writers' Guide. There are a
number of hard and fast rules. Never write phonetic "Cockneyisms" in
your script (ain't, 'ere, dunno, darlin', innit) leave that to the
actors. Equally, try to avoid "Can I have a quick/quiet word?" it's
a phrase that has been overused and is thus banned until further
notice. Don't use exclamation marks too often, it only encourages the
actors to over-act. Never start a line of dialogue with "Listen" or
"Look", as actors tend to put these tics in anyway and need no
encouragement. Characters can't say "God knows" or "Jesus Christ!"
because of the Sunday afternoon omnibus. Come into scenes late and get
out early: in others words, don't waste time with hellos and goodbyes.
End each scene on a reaction shot eg. OUT ON JIM, FUMING.
Certain among the cast are well known for polishing their own
dialogue, but this is a privilege well-earned. Mike Reid, once star of
the show as Frank Butcher, would famously add his own choice phrases,
like "What do you take me for? Some kind of pilchard?" (How I wish I'd
Each new scriptwriter is also equipped with a handy map of the
Square and what's known in most TV dramas as "the Bible", a fat
document giving all the characters lengthy and detailed biographies
(their "backstory" if you will). Herein, you will discover that
Pauline Fowler had childhood dreams about marrying Stewart Granger,
and that Ian Beale took up boxing as a boy to please his Dad, touches
that have never been seen or mentioned but add to the reality of the
show. What's telling about the Bible I was given in the summer of '99
is how many of the characters are now gone (Conor Flaherty, anyone?
Lenny Wallace? Lilly Mattock?). There is also a full-time 'Enders
archivist and two researchers, whom you may consult at any reasonable
hour to find out if Terry and Irene have an ansaphone and other such
Another potential niggle you learn is that you can't use real
names. When, in my first ep, Barry and Natalie came back from what was
obviously Eurodisney, we had to call it Theme Park Continental. I
invented the name of Dot's favourite hair salon for one episode
Mario's and this had to be checked out against every existing
hairdressers in the country to avoid a clash. Inevitably, there
already is a Mario's, so I had to come up with a new one. Bernardo's
(named in honour of the great Italian film-maker Bertolucci) was fine.
The truth is, you have to live and breathe EastEnders to
successfully work for it. You must find the Mario's/Bernardo's
conundrum vital, even thrilling (lucklily, I did). You must watch the
programme religiously at the expense, I would suggest, of any other
soap, indeed any other programme that might interfere with your total
absorption in the task ahead.
A single draft of EastEnders takes two weeks (there is no
deadline-surfing here). Now I'm the type of indecisive multi-tasker
who likes to have a number of plates spinning at one time, but I soon
found out that writing EastEnders is not something you can "tap away
at" between other jobs when the muse strikes. You must wake in the
morning thinking of your episode, and go to bed at night similarly
focussed: eat, drink, breathe, dream, shave EastEnders (like you've
got to time to shave!). It's the only way to fully immerse yourself in
what is, lest we forget, a tough job creating a workable 26-minute
drama that will not only stand up to the scrutiny of crack script
editors but also some of telly's most hardcore viewers, who
(Ital)will(unital) notice if Terry and Irene suddenly acquire an
The first draft is the hardest: structuring the story so that up
to seven storylines interweave logically and dramatically and every
single scene "moves the action along". The average script is 8,000
words long that's approximately 70 pages, comprising around 30
scenes. Usually, you'll find you're still on Scene 20 when the
word-count moves into the final 500; cramming it all in is the big
problem. Using the Jordan Method, you will have drawn a grid with all
the scenes on and used different coloured pens to mark the "arc" of
each story. By the end of the first draft, this will look like one of
Russell Crowe's crazy maths calculations from A Beautiful Mind.
It's difficult to think about anything else when you've gone
native in Walford. Getting Sonia home from college in order to
accidentally bump into Zoe and Jamie on the market without making it
look like she just came home to do this is the sort of stuff that
haunts you. What if there was a burst pipe at college? In August?
Perhaps she forgot a folder? She forgot a folder last week! Like any
good drama, the audience must never glimpse the gears going round.
You, the writer, sometimes feel as if you are caught up in the
mechanism like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.
When you've finished a draft you then have to endure the mental
torture of waiting for your first set of "notes" from the script
editor - usually some bright young thing many years your junior.
(SCRIPT EDITOR SITS DOWN FOR MEETING WITH WRITER WE SEE FROM HIS
EXPRESSION THAT IT'S NOT GOOD.)
These notes can go on for pages, even if your draft works. It's
like being back at school, with teacher applying ticks and crosses to
your work. Draft two is like draft one, except with twice as much
information to process ("Can we change Janine's reason for coming in
the Minute Mart").
Draft three should be a "dialogue polish" but unless you're Tony
Jordan it never is. That'll be draft four if things have gone
phenomenally well by which time they'll be baying for a rehearsal
script for the director (who comes in quite late in the game). I wrote
six drafts of the episode where Garry proposed (for the second time)
to Lynne. There was blood on the walls in that one. Mine. I have seen
writers replaced at a very late stage if the draft isn't working out.
This is not a drill, this is EastEnders.
It's all something of a mindfuck, to use some non-TV jargon. As
is keeping schtum. Beans must remain resolutely unspilled at all times
(after all, tabloids would pay good money for EastEnders storylines
six months in advance). Confidentiality was a high enough priority
when I started; it was stepped up to war footing during Who Shot Phil?
The attempted assassination of Square hardman Phil Mitchell in
2001 was shrouded in maximum secrecy. The identity of his assailant
was strictly need-to-know writers and script editors were kept well
out of the loop. Story documents were censored.
Around this time an EastEnders writer was burgled and their PC
was taken; thereafter we were all advised by bomber command to save
our episodes on disc and not the hard drive.
I was always vigilant not to put old script documents into the
Lambeth recycling bin until the episodes covered had been broadcast,
and as an extra security measure I renamed the EastEnders folder on my
desktop "Time Team"- that would keep snoopers out!
It really is like working for the secret service. Even when
drunk you must guard what you know, and I am proud to say I never
blabbed. Although it was easy when people asked me who shot Phil: I
had no idea.
The warm glow of satisfaction when your episode is finally shown
on telly is hard to beat. Most writers do it for the magic of this
moment, although the money is very nice too (mainly thanks to sales
you get an instant repeat fee for the omnibus, and further royalties
when EastEnders is sold abroad or shown on BBC Choice, and if you're
lucky enough to have a clip used on This Morning, there's £50 right
Once the rehearsal script is signed off (it's called "going to
white" as that particular draft is printed on white foolscap), your
work as a writer is done. No falling back exhausted onto a bed made of
script editor's notes though. If you're in heavy rotation you will be
deep into your next ep when your previous one is shown. Once you reach
a certain level of competence and reliability, they'll commission you
to write a double: two consecutive eps, a Thursday and a Friday, which
is a bit like being king of the world. If you imagine that a double is
twice as much work as writing a single, you are wrong - it's harder
than that (for a start, you don't get twice as much time to do it in).
I never found the time to go up to Borehamwood and watch one of my eps
being filmed, a perk that was always on offer.
I trod the hallowed tarmac around Albert Square it's much
smaller than it looks on TV, that's what everyone says but apart
from that my relationship with EastEnders was a distant one, conducted
mostly on the phone or by email. That's the way it should be. I did
meet a couple of the stars: Barbara Windsor at a posh BBC reception
(she kissed me!), and Todd Carty at the BAFTAs (I wasn't on the
EastEnders table, by the way, I wangled my ticket through the Radio
Times soap writers don't get invited to award ceremonies unless
they're Tony Jordan).
It was weird chatting amiably to Todd Carty. I confess I almost
called him "Mark" when we were introduced (the name of his EastEnders
character), proving what an easy trap that is to tumble into, soap
fans. We agreed that writer and actor should probably keep a
professional distance. What sort of conversations would you have?
"Loved the way you delivered 'I'll get my helmet' in ep 1149! You
really got the subtext."
"Thanks. Could you do me a bed scene?"
At the end of the day, you're just a writer, an interchangeable
name on the front of the latest script to land on Todd Carty's doormat
in a jiffy bag. He's the star, he's the one autograph hunters hang
around for (or did Mark Fowler has since been retired from the
Square). If you're doing a good writing job on a soap, no one will
Your agonised-over episode is just a slice of sausage.
I was eventually forced to give up writing EastEnders when I
landed a job on the radio which meant my days were no longer my own.
We parted on good terms, so it's not inconceivable that one day I
might return to the Square, like Ethel albeit hopefully not to die
like she did.
It remains the best job I ever had whether my sister's friend
believes I ever had it or not but it's a blessed relief not to have
to watch the programme religiously any more. Four nights a week? Who's
got the time? Apart from the actor who used to play Ashley Cotton,
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