A letter written by more than 75 female British TV writers, including How To Get Away With Murder writer Abby Ajayi, The Secrets writer Sarah Solemani and Fresh Meat writers Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, urging British TV drama commissioners to order more female-penned series has received widespread support from top industry executives, creatives and politicians.
The group published an open letter earlier today urging broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky to open more doors to female writers, pointing to the success of shows such as Call The Midwife, created by Heidi Thomas and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.
“We know that there are plenty of female-led projects on your development slates. And yet very few of these shows are making it into production. The gap between being commissioned and being produced seems disproportionately large when it comes to women’s work. And we’d really love to know why,” they asked in the letter.
The letter highlighted of the nine dramas that ITV has announced for 2018, only one of them had a female lead writer, suggesting that less than 10% of its slate will be written by women. “Perhaps you can now understand our rage?”
ITV drama chief Polly Hill responded: “As we look to offer audiences the greatest range of drama, we will always support and commission female writers and take representation on- and off-screen seriously.”
Elsewhere, BBC drama controller Piers Wenger noted that women have written more than 40% of the dramas that he has ordered, pointing to series such as BBC1’s The Wilsons, written by Anna Symon. “It used to be that continuing drama was the only place to get a BBC1 gig as a new writer, but it’s not as binary as that now,” he said.
The letter has been supported by a number of high-profile writers including The Last Kingdom and Medici writer Sophie Petzal, who said: “There were many times where I wondered if I would hurt myself in signing, then I realised the fact I even asked the question was exactly the reason that I should.
“This isn’t just about putting aside spy and crime shows and commissioning women to write about motherhood or cancer. Give women the spy and crime shows. You’re so confused about how to spice up tired genres – change up the people writing them,” she added.
Elsewhere, support has come from the likes of British politician Tracy Brabin, who previously starred in Coronation Street, and Emma Ko, co-leader of Women’s Equality Party Camden Branch as well as male writers including The Tunnel’s Jamie Crichton and Doctor Who’s James Moran.
The letter in full:
Dear UK TV drama commissioners,
In recent years, a new tradition has been established among us female television writers. It starts with one of the channels announcing their drama commissions for the coming season.
A list of projects full of promise: some will become new favourites, some will be flops and some will mysteriously never quite make it to the screen. But, without fail, they will overwhelmingly be written by men.
And once again our irritation will boil over on to Twitter and Facebook and another day of writing will be lost to another collective social media howl of pain and frustration.
We howled again when cultbox.co.uk proudly listed ‘Every drama series ITV has planned for 2018’.
Of the nine new dramas listed, only one had a female lead writer. In fairness, the article was by no means definitive, as since it was published, ITV has announced two further dramas for 2018. Both by male writers.
That suggests that less than 10% of new drama greenlit by ITV for this year will be written by women. Perhaps you can now understand our rage? Less than 10%.
And the statistics are not much better when you start channel-hopping. And so, we want to ask you, the commissioners, a very simple question. Why? Because we are at a loss.
Is it because there just aren’t enough female writers out there?
No, it can’t be that. UK soap opera writing teams have plenty of women who write for the nation’s favourite characters on a daily basis. Women who are sharpening their skills and discipline on the most exacting shows on British television.
Soaps are the boot camps of TV writing. They demand unrelenting creativity, consistency and a photographic memory for years of story and enormous casts of characters. And yet these talented and hard-working female writers remain an untapped resource.
They do not seem to be ‘graduating’ onto next-level shows where they could develop their skills further and raise their profiles. Flagship shows like the BBC’s Silent Witness, which has employed only five female writers during its 20-year run. Or Doctor Who, which managed to go five series without an episode written by a woman.
So, maybe it’s about the ratings? Perhaps dramas written by women simply don’t put bums on seats?
If anyone truly believes that, we have three words for you: Call The Midwife.
This ratings behemoth has a female showrunner, the mighty Heidi Thomas, and a female writing team. For the past two years it has won the Christmas Day ratings battle, with 10 million viewers tuning in to have their hearts warmed by something other than postturkey heartburn. And that isn’t just a Christmas miracle.
The show hit the ground running, with its first series averaging more than 10 million per episode and it has maintained that audience across another six series. Surely you commissioners pray for that kind of audience loyalty?
And those lovely nuns are not outliers. The second series of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley attracted 1 million more viewers for its second series, averaging 9 million-plus. Her other award-wining BBC1 series, Last Tango In Halifax, averaged 7.5 million.
We know that there are plenty of female-led projects on your development slates. And yet very few of these shows are making it into production. The gap between being commissioned and being produced seems disproportionately large when it comes to women’s work. And we’d really love to know why.
Once again, we are left desperately looking for a bright side. It is encouraging that many of the new ITV dramas have female characters front and centre. It is great to see that women’s stories are now being told. It’s just that we feel we might be better qualified to tell our own stories.
And this goes double for our BAME colleagues, who also seem to be consistently conspicuous by their absence.
So, we pose the question again. Why are you not making drama by female writers?
Come on, tell us the truth. We can take it. We look forward to hearing from you.
Yours in confusion and anger