From shy teenager to BAFTA Award winning writer, Guy Burt (R90) shares his journey
When I came to Charterhouse I’d never boarded before; I was painfully homesick and also an awkward, odd kid who, in retrospect, seemed almost determined not to fit in. It took a while for me to get used to the School and the School to get used to me, but by the time the Sixth Form rolled round we’d reached a state of mutual tolerance that meant I was genuinely able to enjoy myself. I ended up editing the Greyfriar magazine, which in those days was a scurrilous photocopied rag – the smell of hot ozone from a laser printer still reminds me of late evenings in the photocopying room churning out pages – and I got into music in a big way, both classical (which was kind of mandatory) and also electronica and jazz for the first time.
I loved Art, taking it for A-level, but hanging around Studio on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t entirely born of selfless dedication to the craft. Robinites at that time was under the wonderfully quirky authority of Ian Blake (BH68-94), and one of our more arcane rules was that TV at the weekends was a privilege not a right and had to be earned. If you wanted your Hill Street Blues fix you had to have done something suitably worthy during the day or you’d be sent to bed at nine with only books and the radio for company (stereos were also a privilege not a right, and one for which it took me a while to qualify).
Just to add the kind of uncertainty that deranged Skinner’s pigeons, the criteria for TV were only posted on the House noticeboard when there was ten minutes to go – and they changed week by week. You were almost certain of a spot in the common room if you’d represented the House in sports, but my talents emphatically didn’t lie in that direction. Luckily, spending two hours in Studio or the RVW was usually a good bet for a TV pass. Studio won out by virtue of having a nicer, brighter communal area in which to hang, and coffee. It was also something of a haven for misfits so you could end up having genuinely weird and wonderful conversations with all sorts.
My writing career owes a huge amount to my time at Charterhouse. I mentioned that my first year was a tough one. As part of coping with that, I threw myself into the displacement activity of writing a novel. This was when I was 13. Even if things weren’t going well in the real world, I could immerse myself in an imaginary fictional landscape that was under my control. The result was a fantasy story called Jo’s Game that ate up most of an A4 binder. To some extent I think it saved me, though it also got me into quite a lot of trouble: some very poor Calling Over grades and at least one Extra School for “writing in Geography”. As well as acting as an unpredictable gatekeeper to Saturday night television, Ian Blake was a wonderful English teacher and mentor. I think the Extra School tipped him off as he was not just understanding but actively encouraging. When I’d finished the book, he read it and showed it to his friend, a literary agent. She wrote back that it wasn’t for her but that if I were ever to write anything else, she’d be interested to see it. This was all the encouragement I needed.
Fourth time round was the charm. I started After the Hole during my gap year and the setting is a barely-disguised version of Charterhouse, right down to the mysterious spiral staircase beside the English block that leads down to the Hole. It went out to publishers and was taken up while I was in my first year at Oxford. Later it was filmed and although I didn’t write the final screenplay for it, I did have a couple of stabs at early versions – I had to stop in order to revise for Finals – and that in turn introduced me to the world of writing for screen. All of that stemmed from Ian Blake’s faith that the odd little 13-year-old in trouble for “writing in Geography” deserved more than a sharp reprimand; which is why the book is dedicated to him.
After graduating with a First in English Literature, I taught for five years and published two more novels (Sophie and The Dandelion Clock) before making the jump to full-time screenwriting.
Two of my favourite experiences so far have been writing The Bletchley Circle and The Borgias. The Borgias was Neil Jordan’s project, and he had a clear idea of the over-arching storylines; I ended up writing five episodes across two series. While it wasn’t my show, I felt connected to it from the start: Renaissance Rome and larger-than-life characters who were a joy to engage with. The show was also being produced for a US cable channel – which meant that we had a very healthy budget. I could type “the insurgent army attacks the walls of Rome” and eight months later, that was what the crew filmed. It was astonishing. I was, very briefly, spoiled rotten.
Bletchley by contrast had hardly any budget (we had to cut a budgerigar from one scene because it was too expensive to hire the bird and a wrangler to look after it). But it had a stunning cast playing the code-breaking women, and it was entirely my own story. The idea had been humming around in my head for ages: top-flight minds who had helped win the war, relegated to domestic banality – whist evenings and book clubs. As well as writing what I hope was a diverting serial-killer drama, I tried hard to depict what it must have been like not to be able to talk to your family about the part you’d played in changing the course of history.
And then there was Harriet’s Army. The brief was to come up with a drama for CBBC to commemorate the Centennial of the First World War, but with the focus – of course – on children. Scouts and Guides volunteered their services for the war effort the moment war was declared in 1914, and Government accepted almost instantly: they were put to work guarding railway lines, bridges, harbours, anywhere at risk of sabotage from enemy agents. From that starting point I worked up a story of spies, espionage and misplaced suspicions, and developed a leading character, Harriet, who is kicked out of the Guides (for punching a boy in the face) but who is determined to do her part. I wrote it in part because, by this time, I had two children of my own – then aged 7 and 5 – and I wanted to write something they’d be able to enjoy.
I was thrilled to win the Best Writer BAFTA for it. Before the ceremony I was playing things very cool, telling myself it was lovely to be nominated but then they started announcing the winners and suddenly I was in a complete lather of nerves and realised I was hugely proud of this show and really wanted it to win. Which was painfully uncool of me, I know.
Since Harriet, I adapted Joanna Nadin’s novel Joe All Alone for CBBC – and that also won a BAFTA for Best Drama. (Possibly I should have been doing children’s stories all along.) I enjoy the process of adapting other people’s work almost as much as writing original ideas. It’s not always easy to do though. Having been a novelist and seen my own work adapted, I’m sharply aware of how strange and potentially intrusive the experience can be for the author of the book, so it’s really important to me to get it right.
Right now the big project is adapting Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider novels for television. The first season is already available and I’m well into scripting season two. This is tremendous fun: taking a series of much-loved books and expanding them for wider appeal. I’ve written for adults before, and for children, but this is the first time I’ve done something with a broad family appeal. I’m also Executive Producer on the show, which means I get a say in some of the more interesting behind-the-scenes decisions – casting, editing, music choices, that kind of thing.
If I were giving advice to young Carthusians or OCs embarking on a career in writing then I would say the most important thing is that you have to write. By which I mean put words down, every day. Planning and thinking and talking and researching and structuring and so on are all well and good and often necessary… but they can also be seductive ways to procrastinate. Write, and keep writing; usually a lot of it will be bad, but you can throw it away or rework it. Rewriting is essential. Hemingway told us the only kind of writing is rewriting. John Steinbeck, another American whose work I love, wrote five hundred words a day. It’s not very much. But he wrote every day, without exception, without fail, birthdays, Christmases, all of them. We should all be so dedicated.
I try to find places and atmospheres that draw me in – at least for novels. If I can latch on to a sense of place, then imagination can kind of take over and gradually people it with characters. The characters grow from nothing, bit by bit, until in the end you know them incredibly personally and entirely; you live with them for months and months and they occupy a huge part of your life during the writing. And then you finish the book and have to say goodbye to them. It’s very strange, and it can be very sad too; but they kind of stay friends. They’re still there. Reading is like that too, of course.
The skills for both screenwriting and novel writing are also very different, both in terms of the discipline of writing and the formal structure. With a novel, the style and construction of the prose can be central – as important, or more important, than plot – whereas in screenplays it’s secondary. Novels can be as conventional or as experimental as you want: there’s very little in the way of a received structural template that you have to follow – the form is open-ended, malleable, extensible. Screenplays, on the other hand, are extremely formulaic and inhabiting that form is central to the writing process. Nowadays there is often a pre-title “cold open”, then three or four acts punctuated by stings (and perhaps ushering in ad breaks if you’re on a terrestrial channel), and then a climax which, if the story is a serial rather than a series, should include a hook to draw the viewer on to the next episode… and that same structure can be applied more or less equally to character dramas and to sci-fi space operas, to police procedurals or coming-of-age comedies. When I say “formulaic”, I don’t mean it in a derogatory sense. A lot of art is formulaic: a minuet and trio follows a conventional structure and is none the worse for it, and so – with allowance for improvisation – does a jazz standard. And of course here I’m talking about television screenplays; film scripts follow their own equally well-documented and venerated structural conventions. You mess with this stuff at your peril.
Finally, of course there’s the simple difference that with a novel, you’re entirely on your own; whereas with television, the writer is only the first domino in a long cascade – script editors, production team, designers, musicians, directors, actors, crew, editors and many many more – all of whom have to work together to create the final result (and have to be on top form for that result to be any good). Though it’s still a pretty solitary occupation by most people’s standards, it’s nevertheless far more collaborative than the hermit-like existence of the novelist. And it also means that writing is just one skill you have to hone: pitching ideas, meeting deadlines, not laughing when the actors can’t pronounce words like “burial”, dealing with clashes of egos, solving problems like not being able to afford budgerigars at short notice, discouraging the star from tinkering with the script… these are all skills of which the novelist has no need.
On balance I would say that I do prefer writing novels, both for the control and the language. I took a very long break from them – essentially set them aside after The Dandelion Clock in order to focus on screenwriting – but I’m ready to get back to them now and have been working on something, on and off, for a while. I feel as if the past twenty years have been necessary in order for me to decide how I want to write. And writing for screen has undeniably influenced this, so that the concision and economy of screenplay writing (which is often almost a kind of shorthand) has come to flavour how I construct prose. So I hope very much to write another novel soon.