Henrietta Hardy is a Middlesborough native who has written for some of the longest running and most popular series on British television. She recently attended the European TV Drama Series Lab in Berlin.
1. Which stories - films/books/comics/TV shows - do you think have made the greatest impact on you?
TV-wise growing up it would have to be ‘Rentaghost’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ as I was such a huge fan of both. A little later, I’d say things like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ and ‘A Very British Coup’ were the things that really inspired me to write. I loved Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Priest’ also. Book-wise I fell in love with this amazing romantic novel called ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ by Alain Fournier who only wrote one novel as he was killed in the First World War. I’ve never dared read it again, however, in case some of its magic has gone.
2. What was the first screenplay you wrote and why?
I wrote a 30 minute screenplay called ‘Outcast’ about a man in his twenties whose life is falling apart in Edinburgh. He had a terrible time with his mum growing up but more recently she’s got her life back together and remarried. So now his half-brother is having this idyllic childhood he never had. He kidnaps his brother and takes him up a mountain. I still love the story. (Being completely truthful I imagine I had written a few nail-bitingly awful shorts before this but it’s the first main script I remember).
3. How did you get into writing on long running television series like The Bill, Doctors and Casualty?
I went to the Northern Film School and then got a job with World productions developing a medical drama. A friend of mine was on The Bill and gave me a few tips. I approached them and started pitching a few story ideas. Compared with how tough it seems now to get your first break, I think I was pretty lucky. With Doctors I wrote a spec script to get on the show and with Casualty, I did their shadow scheme. It feels a bit backwards really i.e. I got on a one hour show like The Bill with no TV writing experience and when you have the experience, you are asked to do the shadow schemes.
4. We worked on your first Casualty episode together - can you explain your approach to the collaborative nature of screenwriting as it is the most collaborative of all forms of writing?
Initially you have to fall in love with the story you are telling. After that, if someone has a better idea than me about how to make it work, then I’m not precious about it. Obviously I’ll probably kick myself that I didn’t come up with it in the first place but that’s life. As long as I still feel that love for the story. I think if you lose that, that’s when you start to struggle. So working with great script editors, which I have been lucky to do for the most part, including yourself, really adds to the script and makes the whole process much more enjoyable. The same goes for producers. The only sad thing is that we generally don’t spend as much time on set as we could, get to know the rest of the people involved with the production, directors and crew. Sometimes not being there can mean that little things get missed. I recently heard Terence Winter tell this great story about the Sopranos, about how Christopher was thinking about leaving the mob and starting a normal family and he sees this stereotypical American couple, the guy supporting this awful mullet and it instantly changes his mind. Terence said that the person who did hair on set, firstly didn’t know what a mullet was and then, when they found out, refused to inflict it on the actor. They felt it compromised their professionalism – to be fair, mullets are horrible! The irony was that the actor didn’t mind. Anyway, with some cajoling Terence got his way but you imagine how a quick but important visual reference in a scene would be totally lost if he hadn’t been on set to pick up on it.
5. Is there a single episode of all the dramas you’ve written that you are particularly proud of and why?
Probably one of the stories in that first Casualty episode we worked on, about Frankie, who was in prison and had taken an iron overdose in order to see his mum. The actor James Nelson-Joyce, had me in tears, it was such a great performance. I just loved the raw emotion of it.
6. Is there a particular series or film that you are most inspired by and why?
I’ve recently watched ‘The Young Pope’ and have become a huge fan. I love Paolo Sorrentino’s work, especially ‘The Great Beauty’ and The Young Pope looks similarly beautiful, whilst being populated by a curious mix of saints, sinners, psychopaths, manipulators and asking some huge questions about life.
7. Who is/are your favourite screenwriter/s and why?
Steven Knight at the moment, especially for Peaky Blinders but Taboo also gets right under your skin. Sally Wainwright for her wonderful dialogue, bringing very real characters to the screen. Jimmy McGovern because he’s still fighting the cause, which too few dramatists seem to be doing these days.
8. We were both on John Yorke’s ‘Writers’ Academy’ at the same time where he took us through his five act structure. How much of writing do you think is intuitive and how much an adherence to a set structure?
I think I start with the intuitive approach and then re-shape using structure which usually helps to show up any flaws, places where the plot is flat-lining.
9. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given regarding screenwriting?
Keep buggering on! I won’t credit the friend who said that to me in case, although he’d probably laugh but it’s got me through the times when I want to quit or stick my head in a bucket. There are tonnes of other helpful things and tips I’ve learned over the years but when the chips are down, it’s KBO.
10. If there was a single piece of advice you could give to someone thinking of writing a screenplay for the first time what would it be?
To enjoy the process, the freedom that you get when maybe you don’t know so many rules. We might spend years honing our craft, hoping to get to the pinnacle of work that is the original drama but if you don’t enjoy the journey along the way, what’s the point?