Inside the World of Screenwriting: Interview with Abby Ajayi
Having gone from studying law at Wadham to writing screenplays for the BBC, Abby Ajayi can attest to the full range of opportunities opened up by an Oxford degree. She chatted with me from London via Skype and recounted her unique journey into the world of film and television. She has written episodes of Eastenders, Holby City and Casualty, and was selected as a Broadcast Now Hotshot in 2008. In 2010, her original drama, The Future WAGs of Great Britain was broadcast on Channel 4 as part of the Coming Up series, which aimed to promote the work of new writers. At the moment she is writing a relationship driven anti-rom com and a legal drama series, which was optioned by ITV this summer. She had the idea “in some form or another for four years”, but the success of American series like The Good Wife, Homeland, and Damages, finally enabled her to pitch it to an executive at ITV. Now that she has written the first episode, “it hopefully might go somewhere, you never know.”
The Future WAGs of Great Britain is one of the projects she is most proud of; she explained that “I don’t really see myself represented on the screen as a black woman so it was great to be able to do that”, and added, “it was great to write something about the armpit of north London where I grew up and just be able to say ‘this is what it’s like’ and have a bit of fun with it.” On the subject of genres, she said, “I don’t ever write things that are just really dour,” since “humor is key to telling some of the most miserable dramatic stories.”
She has always wanted to write in some form. While at Oxford, she reviewed films for the Cherwell, edited a college magazine, and travelled to the Edinburgh Festival as part of a program called Television and Young People. After graduating, her aim was to get a job because she couldn’t afford to go to film school, so she got the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and set about e-mailing every production company. She remembers that “one of my things was that I couldn’t have a shower until I’d written 15 letters,” and “I got as far as the letter S and no one had responded.” In her view, one of the greatest hurdles facing screenwriters is “the constant need to keep exposing yourself in a sense by e-mailing strangers, saying ‘Advice? Job? Help?’”
Of the fifty to sixty letters she sent out, two people responded with “we have nothing yet but we’ll keep your CV on file” and only Georgina Abrahams from a “tiny production company” called Friday Productions said “come in for a chat”. When I asked Abby Ajayi if her Oxford degree had aided her career, she replied with a resounding affirmative. Georgia Abrahams took all her interns from Oxford because she felt that was a “stamp of quality”. Abby Ajayi continued to work for the BBC for three years, reading scripts by the likes of Andrew Davies, at which point she felt she had what she would have got from film school. She started out not knowing a single person, but showed people in her department her work and they grew to like it. Her first commission was to write an episode of a children’s television program called The Story of Tracey Beaker; she recalls that “they came straight to me and said ‘we want to commission you’, so I was able to e-mail an agent and show that I’d got my first commission so I was able to earn money”. She emphasized the importance of agents not only as a form of legal protection but as “conduits to lots of producers, lots of soap operas”. But she added an important caveat; “your agent is only as effective as you are hot at that point. Your agent can’t make you hot but if you are they can capitalize on that.” Until you have an agent, she recommends entering contests as a way of lifting your work off of the dreaded “slush-pile”, particularly those on the BBC Writersroom website.
She described longstanding soap operas like EastEnders and Casualty as “machines” that are “slightly conveyor belt-ish” and admitted that “you can struggle to keep your voice.” Although “you get given a lot of information that’s been storylined,” “the truth of the matter is, you’re supposed to get the information, throw it up in the air and make your own narrative.” On Casualty “you get to create the big accidents and all the general regulars. You’ll get told that this doctor is having an affair with that doctor but you get to create the people coming into hospital so you can create all these crazy, outlandish accidents and injuries.” On EastEnders however, “you have much less control”. I asked her if she thought it was important to actually care about the projects you are working on, and she said no. “For soap operas, you are probably doing it just for the money and you can find a way to care.” She recommends finding one character where you can say, “ok, this is where I’m really going to give it some”; in her episode of Casualty, for instance, she felt she “said something about how we perceive pregnancy.” On the other hand, “if it’s a film you might work on it for six years if it goes. If it’s a television series it could go on forever. You’ve got to find the motivation to get out of bed every morning, if it takes working from 9 am from midnight on it. If you hate it that’s a really miserable place.” She added that, “I tend to try and avoid those situations because I just don’t think it’s worth it, really.”
She acknowledged that life as a writer is “famine or feast.” But as a writer, “you’ve got to find a different way of measuring success to most people.” Since “it would be really miserable” to measure success by how often you got paid, she recommended measuring success by “how many scripts you finish, how much you write.” Given the cost of drama and the tough economic conditions of the recession, “there’s no development money, so more and more people are writing on spec, which means not getting paid and taking the burden and the risk.” I told her I thought it would be amazing to be a screenwriter, but admitted that I had always wondered if it’s possible to make a living at it. She affirmed that “it is possible, I’m still doing it, but it is tough, there’s no denying that. But if you really want to tell a story and if you love film and TV, then it can be really rewarding.” She advised “finding a balance that makes you feel emotionally settled and comfortable.” For some people, that means “doing a day job somewhere and writing at night,” and others who are more financially able can “just go at it”. She currently has two years of money and high hopes of selling something in that time. At the end of the day, “if you want to write, go for it. It keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure.”