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10 August 2021

Clare Alan: ‘Reread your script before sending it off’

by Jennifer Kerslake Screenwriting, Writing Tips

Clare Alan is an experienced script editor and producer who has worked on a range of TV and film projects in the UK and Ireland, including Solomon & Gaenor, factual drama The Investigator, Dangerfield, Silent Witness and The Vice. We’re thrilled to have Clare as a tutor providing feedback to aspiring screenwriters on our eighteen-week Writing an Original TV Drama Serial course.

We caught up with Clare to find out how she got her start in TV production, what she’s watching now and her tips on script editing.

Could you tell us a little about your background and how you became a script editor?

Growing up in the seventies and eighties I was obsessed with cinema and dreamt of being a director. I studied film at Art College – the focus of the course was non-narrative and experimental and I felt as if my lecturers were still living in the ’60s. On graduating I had become disillusioned with arthouse cinema. After travelling, reinvigorated, and now certain I wanted to work with narrative drama I looked for work in television. Faced with the choice of training as a BBC film editor or starting as a secretary for the head of Drama Business Affairs I chose the latter which gave me access to all the projects and producers looking for co-production finance. The role introduced me to script reporting and six months in I secured an attachment (an historic BBC training scheme) to work for producer Ruth Caleb and her team of script editors. Still harbouring an ambition to direct Ruth advised me that the traditional route for directors was to climb the Assistant Directing ladder. I left the BBC to freelance as an AD.  After two years I had had enough: I rarely got near the camera to watch the set ups; the work involved escorting actors, stopping traffic and dealing with tantrums. I also witnessed a long time AD get their first shot at directing an episode, and it was such a mess that it was abandoned. What I really missed was the scripts. A former script editor who had set up her own Drama Department at an Independent Production Company offered to train me up and secure me the all-important onscreen credit. I’ve never regretted my time as an AD as it proved invaluable when I started producing. And I don’t regret not becoming a film editor as shortly after joining the BBC in the early ’90s they made all their in-house editors redundant.

What does the role involve?

Reading. Keeping track of different writers – be they screenwriters, poets, playwrights, novelists, bloggers, journalists. Establishing relationships with writers. Bouncing ideas. Liaising with agents. Offering feedback on script content, structure and format. Finding technical or legal advisers. Preparing pitches for raising finance. Receiving and relaying feedback from all relevant parties on a project (e.g. producers, director, cast, financiers etc.) to the writer. Receiving revisions. Keeping track of drafts. Liaising with lawyers on copyright/broadcaster requirements – and ensuring scripts comply. During production working closely with the production secretary to provide revisions for the production, and producing copy for the art department. During post-production preparing synopses for marketing.

What are the most common mistakes you find when editing scripts, and how do you address these? 

Spellings or speeches assigned to the wrong characters – writers might be surprised at how much this interferes with a reader’s engagement with their work; stumbling over typos interrupts the reader’s flow. Yet this is so easy for the writer to get right. Reread your script before sending it off. You might even ask someone to read it for you first…

You’ve worked on a range of TV and film projects in the UK and Ireland. Is there a script you’ve worked on of which you’re most proud?

This is such a difficult question as every project carries proud moments. However – I would choose C4’s talent scheme Coming Up in general, and Doughnuts by Ishy Din in particular – I was actually the Exec Producer rather than script editor but I remember there was a crunch point on Ishy’s script and we were all about to break for Christmas to shoot in the new year. His characters were superb but the story was stalling. We had to identify the problem and persuade the writer to reframe his idea and rewrite. We were able give him a little time to regroup by pushing the shoot to the end of the schedule and I was very impressed with the results. I think sometimes having the very real pressure of a shoot date can inject energy to work that has stalled for some reason. Having a decisive commissioner was a big factor.

I also have fond memories of an emergency episode of The Vice that writer Clive Bradley and I were given a week to get ready owing to a potential issue with Ken Stott’s availability. The availability issue went away and the episode was never filmed but I remember it was all set in a surveillance van and was very claustrophobic. I sometimes wonder what the audience would have made of it.

What TV dramas have you enjoyed recently? Is there one that all budding screenwriters should be watching?

This is Us. I also restarted The Sopranos a few weeks ago. As for UK dramas, I was particularly impressed with the last series of Unforgotten.

What has been the most rewarding part about working with the students on the TV course?

Watching the students’ writing develop; seeing them realise fundamental truths about their scripts and perhaps unlocking ways forward. It’s rewarding when the students are prepared to keep trying things out.

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