How I made it as a TV screenwriter, by ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Queer As Folk’s Russell T Davies

Russell T Davies is one of the most successful screenwriters and TV producers of his generation. In the late ’90s he created Queer as Folk, a groundbreaking Channel 4 drama series that put fully-formed, relatable LGBT characters front and centre, rather than keeping them cosily at the margins. Then in 2005 he revived the BBC’s iconic sci-fi series Doctor Who after a 16-year hiatus, serving as its showrunner until 2010 and creating the hit spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. His many other credits include Casanova with David Tennant and Rose Byrne, and last year’s BBC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Maxine Peake and Matt Lucas.

Now, for NME #Lifehacks in partnership with University of Salford, he shares his career journey and offers some advice to fledging screenwriters keen to follow in his footsteps.

When did you realise you wanted to be a screenwriter?
“Well it was slow, it gradually grew on me. In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I directed plays in the theatre, then I worked behind the scenes in TV. I even considered going into advertising. It took a long while to concentrate that down and realise that actually, all of that means I was storytelling. Maybe I needed to go through that process. So don’t worry if ever you read people saying, ‘I knew what I wanted to do in life from the age of five!’ That’s just oppressive – leave the rest of us alone! Take your time, you’ll find it.”

How did you get a start in the industry?
“First of all, I just wanted to work in TV simply because I loved watching TV, so I thought that was where I belonged. Researching, directing, producing. So I got a job at BBC Wales working on a kids’ show called Why Don’t You…? It was then a whole chain of accidents that led to a six-month contract with CBBC at BBC Manchester. And I loved it, I did everything! I learned dubbing, editing, directing, script-editing, the works. One good thing about children’s TV is that because the budgets are so small, you end up doing every job! But during that time – and in making children’s programmes, I moved from the BBC to Granada – I got to meet professional writers. And that’s when it all clicked. That’s when I realised that writing was what I wanted to do. Out of every job I’d ever seen, that was the one I envied. More than that, that’s the job I’d been doing in my own head all the time: writing stories and inventing characters and dialogue. I just didn’t realise I could turn that into a career. But when I met other writers, I realised how ordinary they are, that anyone can do it. After a while, that was followed by the realisation that, actually, they’re all nuts. But so’s everyone! I decided it was time to join in. I wrote in my spare time, unpaid, and hawked my scripts around without an agent. Because I’d already worked in TV, I had contacts, so that got my scripts read, and – people hate me when I say this, but tough – the first ever script I wrote was bought and turned into a CBBC drama called Dark Season. Starring a 15-year-old Kate Winslet!”

What was your first real professional setback, and how did you overcome it?
“There’s been nothing that really set me back. There are problems, but you just wake up the next day and get on with it. No one’s going to feel sorry for you, not really. I suppose one of the biggest surprises was when we’d planned a spin-off to Queer as Folk for Channel 4, called Misfits, which looked 99% certain to happen because of the success of Queer as Folk. And then people changed their minds and it just fizzled away. But the truth is, people are allowed to not spend millions of pounds on a project! There’s always a new show somewhere else chasing the same pit of money. So the day after that happened, I just wrote something else. Which got made. I suppose you mustn’t take these things personally. I wonder if that’s the polite answer? Maybe the real reaction is to take these things very personally and swear revenge. Yeah, that’s more fun! Whatever, you’ve got to simply forge on. No one else can see the story of your life from your perspective, so it’s no use hoping they will. Just go out and write your next chapter yourself.”

What’s the most important lesson(s) you’ve learned about working in TV?
“In the end, it’s just hard work. It’s that simple. Well, it’s not simple at all, because you’ve got to work well, and quantifying that is hard. But if you’re not working well, I doubt you’ll work hard, so that can park itself there. For the rest of us… I swear, I work with people who wipe the sweat off their brow if they’ve had to work till 6.30pm, or tell you all about the single Saturday they’ve lost. I haven’t really had a day off in about 25 years. I think I’ve worked every weekend of my adult life. And that’s because I love it – I’m being disingenuous, because I’m actually doing a job that my brain does naturally anyway, the thinking and the shaping and the cooking of stories. If my brain’s being idle, it’s still doing that. So I’m making a virtue of hard work when in fact, for writing, that’s my natural state. But to go back to when I was young, and working with an actual office job in CBBC and learning everything from scratch, then yes, I put the hours in. There were times, working on Saturday morning kids’ shows, when I’d work till 4am and get up again at 8am to go into the office. Every night. For months. And yes, I did well in the end. It pays off!”

What are you most proud of in your career?
“I suppose Queer as Folk. Obviously, I love Doctor Who, but that was created by other people and will continue with other people forever. But Queer as Folk was a mad old time, and exciting, and new, and I made great friendships on that show. And I suppose that’s where I really learned to write. My favourite thing about that show is that there’s no murder, it’s not a crime drama, or a thriller, or even a soap opera. It’s just a story about people’s lives – it’s genreless. It gets labelled as ‘gay’ by other people but that’s not a genre to me, that’s life. So, yeah, that’s a very happy memory for me.”

What advice would you give to a young person who thinks they’d like to become a screenwriter, but doesn’t know where to start?
“We’re reaching the point, to be blunt, where you’d have to be pretty dumb not to know where to start. Go online. There are a million explanations, a million career paths. Go to the BBC Writers Room resource – start there, but read the blogs and careers of a thousand writers. Look for people writing and creating and directing on YouTube, find like-minded people. To be honest, ‘How do I start?’ is a question from the pre-internet age. It’s standing in for ‘I’m too scared to start.’ And that’s fair enough, it’s always scary. That never goes away. But begin by getting the proper software – that’s Final Draft. If you can’t afford, it, save up. And then start writing. And then, crucially, finish that script – if you finish, you will already be ahead of most would-be writers. In the end there’s one piece of advice I always pass on, and it’s this: ‘Your rivals are already ahead of you, so get on with it.'”