Life

Female TV writers voice their “fury” over lack of opportunity in powerful open letter

Posted by
Megan Murray
Published

Over 70 women have called out TV bosses at both the BBC and ITV, for failing to develop and progress female writing talent.      

The lack of support for female writers, directors and producers in Hollywood has been highlighted recently thanks to A-listers like Natalie Portman, who used awards season to point out how few women behind the camera are being nominated. 

But although glitzy ceremonies have been making headlines and, rightfully, shining a light on the need for more female-focused talent in film, over 70 female TV writers have now taken a stand with an important message. Women working on the small screen are also being desperately underrepresented. 

In an open letter to “UK TV drama commissioners”, nearly a hundred female TV writers have voiced their “anger and confusion” at figures, that suggest less than 10% of new dramas released by ITV and other major broadcasters in 2018 have lead female writers. 

Entitled, “Why won’t you work with us?”, the letter which has been published in full on Broadcast Now, addressees why “talented and hard-working female writers remain an untapped resource.”

Referring to an article on cultbox.co.uk, which details ‘Every drama series ITV has planned for 2018’, the letter notes: “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.”

Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor Who

The letter continues to look to the BBC and its “flagship” shows, like Silent Witness and Doctor Who, both of which have scarcely employed female writers. 

“Flagship shows like the BBC’s Silent Witness, [have] 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,” it uses as examples. 

Exploring why there’s such a lack of female writing talent being developed, the letter theoretically questions if there’s a correlation between lower ratings and female writing, and if that could be the reason. But, of course, it isn’t. 

The letter openly queries: “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.”

Bringing the well made point home, it continues with some unarguable facts: “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 post-turkey 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?”

The letter praises ITV for making “female characters front and centre” in some of new dramas being launched this year and agrees that “it is great to see that women’s stories are now being told.”

But it’s clear that the fact remains: “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.

“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.”

BBC One’s Call The Midwife, which has achieved huge success with a female writer at its helm 

The BBC has responded to the letter, saying: “Women have written more than 40% of the drama BBC One’s head of drama Piers Wenger has ordered since taking up the role a year ago.”

ITV’s head of drama Polly Hill said: “Recent drama on ITV - Bancroft, Victoria, Next of Kin, Girlfriends and Vera - have all had female writers, with strong female leads.

“The list referred to does not represent the full picture of ITV commissions. We have four new dramas written by women that have not been announced yet, as well as female writers working on forthcoming returning series.”

She added: “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.”

The powerful letter reinforced the outrage of its authors with its sign off: “Yours in confusion and anger”.

Over 70 signatories can be found underneath the letter, as well as a note explaining that “many others gave their support but didn’t wish to be named at this time.”

Images: BBC One / Colin Hutton at BBC