Visible Women

10 brilliant British female screenwriters whose work you need to watch

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Moya Crockett
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Women make up just 16% of screenwriters in British film – but that’s not down to a dearth of talent. 

Hire more women. That’s the conclusion of a damning new report by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB), which analysed the number of women screenwriters working in film and TV in the UK.

The research doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Women write 28% of TV episodes and make up just 16% of film screenwriters in Britain, and are systematically shut out of the highest-profile writing gigs. Less than 15% of primetime television episodes are predominantly written by women, a figure that drops dramatically to below 7% for UK feature films with a budget of over £10million.

“I have been asked about the dearth of female screenwriters in this country ever since my first feature film put me in that endangered species bracket,” said Olivia Hetreed, the WGGB’s president, who is best known for adapting the screenplay for 2003’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Hetreed added that at the start of her career, she hoped that things would change with time. They haven’t, at least not in any meaningful way: she observes that “the number of women writing films has flatlined at abjectly low levels”. 

Call the Midwife: a smash-hit show with a female-led writing team 

As Hetreed points out, this report is far from the first time that this issue has been raised. It’s been a topic of discussion for years [link]. In February, more than 70 writers signed an open letter to TV commissioners, accusing them of failing to hire women to work on primetime shows. “Why are you not making drama by female writers?” they asked. “Come on, tell us the truth. We can take it.”

Crucially, the problem isn’t a lack of interest, nor a lack of ability. Research by the British Film Institute (BFI) shows that women make up a much higher proportion of screenwriting students than professional screenwriters, indicating that producers are failing to nurture new talent and relying too heavily on tried-and-tested male voices.

Neither can we excuse the failures of commissioners and studio heads by saying that female-written TV and films simply aren’t as popular as those written by men. According to the WGGB’s research, films written predominantly by women tend to make more money at the box office. 

We should feel outraged at these new stats, and what they tell us about TV and film bosses’ attitudes towards gender equality. But we should also celebrate the achievements of those women who are making waves – as well as brilliant films and telly – in an industry where the odds are stacked against them.

Read on to learn more about 10 of the best and brightest British female screenwriters working today. 

Lisa McGee

Derry Girls (Channel 4) 

Derry-born playwright and screenwriter McGee has written for a laundry list of beloved TV series, including supernatural comedy Being Human, sitcom London Irish and period dramas The White Queen and Indian Summers.

Most recently, she created and wrote Derry Girls, the raucous and rapturously-received comedy series about a group of Northern Irish teenagers growing up during the Troubles. It became Channel 4’s biggest new comedy for nearly five years, pulling in viewing figures of more than 2.7m for its first episode, and was the most-watched series in Northern Ireland since modern records began.

Watch one thing: Derry Girls, ‘Episode One’

Camilla Blackett

Camilla Blackett 

If British women are underrepresented generally in screenwriting, the barriers are even greater for women of colour – something noted in the WGGB report. Reading-born screenwriter Camilla Blackett cut her teeth on the first two series of Skins before relocating to LA, a move made by many black Brits who want to make it in TV and film. (Again: do better, UK.)

Blackett went on to write for the wonderfully sparkly and silly Zooey Deschanel sitcom New Girl, Aaron Sorkin’s political drama series The Newsroom and acclaimed TV comedy Fresh off the Boat. She’s currently working on the script for Taking Flight, a biopic of ballerina Michaela DePrince – which Madonna is slated to direct.

Watch one thing: New Girl, ‘Prince’

Andrea Arnold 

Andrea Arnold with Sasha Lane, the star of American Honey 

Arnold, who grew up in Kent, is the writer and director of some of the most interesting women-centric films released in the last 15 years. Her movies Red Road, Fish Tank and American Honey have all won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival; in 2011, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to the film industry.

“Usually when I start writing, I don’t have an intellectual idea about it,” she has said, describing her writing process. “I just write about the characters as truthfully as I can, using my imagination.”

Watch one thing: Fish Tank  

Heidi Thomas

Heidi Thomas at a gala in New York City 

A legend in British TV, Thomas has been nominated for four Baftas, two Primetime Emmys and countless other awards. She specialises in deliciously cosy period dramas set in the 19th and 20th century: think Upstairs Downstairs, Cranford and I Capture the Castle.

Best known for being the creator and chief writer of the phenomenally successful Call the Midwife, she most recently turned her hand to adapting Little Women into a three-part BBC miniseries.

Watch one thing: Little Women, ‘Part One’

Amma Asante 

Amma Asante in April 2018 

Former Grange Hill kid Asante wrote and directed her first feature film in 2004: the critically-acclaimed A Way of Life, about a teenage mother living in a Cardiff council flat. Since then, she’s directed two films exploring the subject of race in Britain (2013’s Belle and A United Kingdom in 2016) and was appointed an MBE for services to film in 2017.

Her screenwriting talents will next be seen in Where Hands Touch, an upcoming drama starring Amandla Stenberg as a biracial teenager in Nazi Germany, which Asante also directed.

Watch one thing: A Way of Life

Abi Morgan

Abi Morgan at an Oscars launch in London, October 2017  

If British drama had a high priestess, the Bafta- and Emmy-winning Morgan would be it. Most recently, she created and co-wrote The Split, a pleasingly soapy six-part drama about a family of divorce lawyers for BBC One.

Her CV also includes female-focused films like Suffragette, The Iron Lady and Brick Lane - but despite her toweringly high profile, the Welsh writer doesn’t like being the centre of attention. “There is an invisible aspect of being a writer, none of it is about you,” she has said. “It’s about your work and that’s what it should be. I’m very much second-in-command. I love standing next to the captain, next to great directors.”

Watch one thing: Suffragette 

Michaela Coel 

Michaela Coel photographed for Stylist, December 2016 

Former Stylist cover star Coel is the creator, writer and star of Chewing Gum, which tells the story of Tracey, a deeply religious virgin living a sheltered life on a London council estate with her mother and sister. The core of the script is drawn from Coel’s own experiences growing up in Hackney with her mother, and while the show was dropped by Channel 4 after two series, it has since been picked up by Netflix – helping Coel build a small army of Stateside fans.

Speaking to Stylist in 2016, Coel said that she relishes writing things normally considered ‘unsayable’. “I’ve had times where I’m typing and I’m like, ‘No way I can’t do that!’” she said. “But my fingers keep typing and I’m cringing just writing the words.”

Watch one thing: Chewing Gum, ‘Sex and Violence’ 

Sally Wainwright 

Sarah Lancashire as Sgt. Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley 

Wainwright started out as a playwright and scriptwriter on The Archers before creating her first original series (At Home with the Braithwaites, a drama about a Leeds family who win the lottery) in 2000. Today, she’s best-known for creating and writing the BBC One series Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, both of which are also set in her native Yorkshire.

While often praised for writing ‘strong female characters’, Wainwright – like many other women working in TV and film – is not a fan of the phrase. “When people talk about my work, and talk about me writing for women, or strong female characters – it’s made me realise how badly women have been served in the past,” she said in 2016. “I just invented characters I wanted to read about, blissfully unaware that I was doing a feminist thing.”

Watch one thing: Happy Valley, ‘Episode One’ 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge 

Screenwriter, actor, playwright and director Waller-Bridge is a bona fide star in the US now thanks to the success of her shows Fleabag and Killing Eve. The second series of Fleabag – a sad, savage, sharp and very funny sitcom about a 30-something single woman in London, which Waller-Bridge also stars in – is expected to air on the BBC later this year.

Killing Eve, which sees Sandra Oh and Doctor Foster’s Jodie Comer play an MI5 officer and a psychopathic assassin, is a world away from the arch everydayness of Fleabag, but scored similarly glowing reviews. Waller-Bridge adapted the script from the Villanelle novels Luke Jennings, and has said that she had to push to include several female characters in an espionage series.

“There was a meeting at one point where someone actually said, ‘We can’t have too many women,’ meaning it will look unbelievable,” she said. “I was like, ‘What the f**k are you talking about?’”

Watch one thing: Fleabag, ‘Episode One’ 

Sharon Horgan

Sharon Horgan photographed for Stylist, October 2016 

Horgan is Irish, not British – but since she’s created some of the best British TV of the last 15 years, it would seem churlish not to include her on this list. She got her first break with BBC comedy Pulling in 2006, a sitcom that now seems light years ahead of its time (in 2006, there weren’t that many TV shows about not-always-likeable women who drink, swear and don’t have enough money).

Since then, she’s created and written the universally adored Catastrophe (the fourth series of which is currently in the works) and Motherland, a sitcom about the “trial and traumas of middle-class motherhood”. She also hopped across the pond to write HBO drama Divorce, starring Sarah-Jessica Parker, as you do.

Watch one thing: Catastrophe, ‘Episode 1’

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images / Channel 4 / BBC One. Photography: Tom Van Schelven

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women's Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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