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Charlot speaks with Gillian Richmond...

I'm so excited to share this conversation I had recently with the hugely talented writer, Gillian Richmond. I have been a big fan of her writing for years. I was lucky enough to work with Gillian while at EastEnders and now enjoy listening to her entertaining writing when tuning into the well known BBC Radio 4 Drama, The Archers. Of course, Gillian is a writer of much more than both those shows and has written for other TV as well as plays for the stage.  Without further ado, here is my conversation...

Charlot: What do you think made you start writing, and why do you write?

Gillian: I think I’ve never not written. One of my first memories is claiming that I had a stomachache so I could stay off school and write a story I had going round my head. I’d have been about six years old. I wrote all through school and university – poems, prose, drama – often at the expense of whatever academic work I was supposed to be doing.
 
When I left university, I took part-time work so I could write in the afternoons. My evening job was ushering at the National Theatre, and I became obsessed with the dramatic form. I submitted my work to producing theatres, had some stinging rejections and a few kind words. I began being invited onto writing groups, a couple of my plays were given rehearsed readings at London fringe theatres. The Royal Court commissioned a play. Cue huge excitement. They said they liked the finished draft but said they didn’t have space to programme it. Cue huge misery. The Soho Theatre did a rehearsed reading. The Director – Sue Dunderdale – came up to me afterwards and asked if she could programme it as their Christmas show. The play, a two-hander called THE LAST WALTZ starred Celia Imrie. It made people laugh, it made people cry, the reviews were kind and it played to sold-out houses in the run-up to Christmas 1986. By New Year I was under commission to two separate television series and The Archers. And that’s how my professional writing career started.

You ask why I write? Short answer - because I am always making up stories in my head. If pushed to analyse why I might say that creating narratives helps me make order out of chaos, but in truth, I don’t really understand people who don’t make up stories all the time and want to write them down. Having said that – the writing them down is rarely easy and often tortuous.

Charlot: Why do you think we all like to read stories? 

Gillian: Here are some of the reasons (in no particular order) why I like stories.
  • I like to be entertained, to be taken away from whatever is obsessing me or stressing me
  • I like to be surprised
  • I like to enter new worlds
  • I like to meet characters I don’t meet in my ordinary life
  • I like to learn things
  • I like to feel my brain stretching
  • I like to feel some hope that things might eventually work out okay
  • I like to think there might be some order somewhere in the chaos
  • I like to put off the moment when I have to get back to the story I’m currently grappling with.
 
Charlot: Can you remember the first book you bought? 

Gillian: We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up and my mother, a greedy devourer of crime novels, was a big fan of free books from libraries. Also, she loved a tidy house and thought that too many books made the place look untidy. Consequently, the first book I can remember owning was The Collected Works of Shakespeare when I was about thirteen. I bought it with my Christmas money and read it cover to cover. I still have it on my shelves.
 
Charlot: Can you tell us about your favourite library you used as a child? And also, can you tell us your favourite place where you like to read now? 

Gillian: I was an army kid.  We moved house every two to three years, so – sadly – although my mum took us to the local library for six new books every Tuesday afternoon, I don’t have a clear memory of any individual building. At one stage we lived in Ghana. I can’t see the library in my memory, but I do still remember the smell of the books – warm and musty and tempting and delicious.
 
My working life is driven by deadlines, so these days I mostly read in bed.  The moment of settling under the duvet with my current book is the best moment of the day.  I’ve just finished Anna Burns’ MILKMAN and am feeling temporarily lost not to have it waiting upstairs for me.

Charlot: You’ve written for The Archers for a number of years, can you tell us about that? 

Gillian: In late November 1986, the morning after the press night of my play THE LAST WALTZ, my agent called to say three producers had been in touch with her and wondered if I’d be interested in meeting. One of these producers was Liz Rigbey, who’d recently started running The Archers. I met her, I liked her, she asked if I’d like to write for the show, I said yes please and away we went. I wrote for the show for four or five years, until TV and stage commissions and the demands of a small baby made the monthly trips to Birmingham too difficult to sustain.  It was my first broadcasting writing gig – and I loved it. 
 
Many many years later, Sean O’Connor was running the show. I’d worked with Sean at EastEnders on a domestic violence storyline. He was in the very early stages of the Helen and Rob coercive control story, and when he asked if I’d be interested in coming back to write for the show, I couldn’t have been happier. I love Ambridge, and there was a palpable sense of coming home.
 
The script system on the show when I was writing back in the eighties was almost identical to the system that continues today. Change happens only slowly in Ambridge. The Archers writers meet once a month with the production team.  Five writers are commissioned to write that month’s scripts, but we all discuss the storylines as a group, making suggestions and changes. The writing team is very stable – not much turnaround of personnel – so we know each other well and bring our different experiences and perceptions to the table.  
 
If you are one of that month’s writers, the meeting is the springboard for four weeks of intense work.  Bearing in mind restrictions of casting and availability, we transform the story document into a synopsis of fifteen pages or so. A week or so after the meeting, the synopsis written and delivered, we discuss it with our editor, make changes as agreed, and then write the scripts. Seventy-five minutes of drama to be delivered to the office less than two weeks later. By the time I press send on my keyboard, my fingers are always tender. A few days later the editor calls again with notes for second drafts.  These are generally quite light, though they sometimes take two or three days to fulfil. Then it’s ‘send’ again and the process (from the writer’s point of view) is done.  The following week there’s the monthly meeting for the next set of scripts, and the process starts again.
 
Once or twice a year the writers and production team assemble for a long-term story conference. This is where we discuss new stories that might reach several years into the future.

Charlot:  What one tip would you have for new writers? 
 
I don’t intend to hang around waiting. The publishing landscape is so different these days, and the opportunity to self-publish is very tempting.
 
Gillian: I have always wanted to write a novel. I’ve wondered if I could have the tenacity and vision to create a coherent world and the characters within it. For some time now I’ve been working on a trilogy of a twentieth-century family saga. After blind alleys and false starts and countless sleepless nights of self-doubt, I have finally managed to finish a draft of volume one. The task now is to try to find a publishing agent (my drama agent doesn’t represent books) and hopefully a publishing contract.

Charlot: Can you tell us what you are writing now? 

As a freelance screenwriter I’ve written for many shows – Silent Witness, Casualty, Holby City, Heartbeat etc..  - and have also developed (and am still developing) many TV projects along the way. 
 
Gillian: After THE ARCHERS, my second broadcast commission, in January 1987, was for EASTENDERS, and I went on to write for Walford, on and off, for approximately thirty years. I was responsible for several landmark episodes and in 2017 at the National Soap Awards I was given the Tony Warren award for my work on the show.

Charlot: You’ve also written for TV. 

Gillian:
Don’t give up.
Don’t give up.
Don’t give up.

Below is a photo of Gillian's writing room at the end of her garden.
If you would like to Follow Gillian on Twitter, she can be found at: @WriterRichmond 
Happy days,
Love Cx 
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