As we look forward to our first WriterSlam event, we want to share with you a success story from a pilot writing initiative we ran two year’s ago with the BBC, All Mixed Up. Similar in format to WriterSlam, the event looked for new voices in TV writing. One of the winners was Sophie Petzal, now a successful TV writer. We asked Sophie about her professional journey since All Mixed Up.
How did you find out the All Mixed Up competition?
I used to trawl the BBC writersroom competition page regularly for things I could enter. I was at university at the time, on a screenwriting course, so I was always writing, and always searching for places to send stuff I’d written. It didn’t matter whether it was any good or not, (most of it wasn’t) I just wanted to get some practice at and experience of the relentless tsunami of rejection and feelings of inadequacy that are the staple diet in most writer’s careers.
Luckily for me, All Mixed Up was a joyous exception. I found the competition on the BBC Writersroom website, summer holidays at the end of my first year at University.
Had you written much before the competition?
I’d been writing in one sense or another, for years. I was always writing stories, stupid short YouTube films, or little plays for fun or for school etc. But when I wrote for All Mixed Up, I had just enrolled on the screenwriting BA at Bournemouth University, so I had a couple of rubbish short films and half-baked scripts here and there, but – thinking back on it – I think my All Mixed Up script (The God Committee) was the first proper ‘pilot’ script I’d ever written. I’ve never actually thought about that before… It sounds horrifyingly presumptuous! I’m not sure, were I starting out now, I’d have the guts to send out the first proper thing I’d ever written. But ‘now’ me is pretty lucky that ‘then’ me was so charmingly ignorant/blaze about the potential for humiliation and failure. ‘Now’ me is probably much more of a wimp…
How did you find the process and the event itself?
On the run up to the event, we were given notes on how to improve/adapt the scripts for the space in which they were to be performed – The Soho Upstairs, I think – and that process was lovely. I’ve always liked notes and I’ve always loved working with great note-givers and ideas people. So, given I was so inexperienced, working with the likes of the Triforce team, and Michael Jacobs at BBC Comedy was an absolute joy, a huge learning curve and in general just an unforgettable experience. Those situations can make or break you, I think, particularly when you are just starting out, so to be pushed so hard and yet feel so protected and encouraged and not at all like a big fat fraud, does a huge credit to the teams involved in setting the thing up.
The performance and ‘judgment’ day itself was terrifying. My heart was in my mouth the whole time. I remember having to give myself a time out in the bathroom for ten minutes on the day because I thought I was going to pass out I was so nervous! Haha!
All in all – the process was detailed, exciting, writer-orientated and above all, hugely enjoyable. I felt very looked after, which can be rare in these big competitions, and it’s a quality to be celebrated in those that do it.
What happened as a direct result of the competition?
My script was optioned to BBC Comedy for 6 months. I wrangled my way onto the writing team of a Ragdoll (Rosie and Jim, the Tellytubbies) show for a new CBeebies show called Abney and Teal. I’m not sure anything I did was ever used – it was my first gig, and I had no clue what I was doing – but I got that just by emailing the Ragdoll teammate, off the back of All Mixed Up, writing a little excerpt for them and meeting with them.
It was also Michael Jacobs’ recommendation that got me my fantastic Agent, Fay Davies at the Agency. So that was a direct result of the competition, and to this date, the most important result for my career, probably.
I always think of competitions as spotlights. They give you a brief moment of attention and interest, and it’s up to you as to how you make the most of it. You can’t win something or do well in something, then sit back and wait for the milk and honey, you do really have to hustle. Competitions make it easier for you to get into rooms with people, or get read by people, but they don’t guarantee any success beyond that. All Mixed Up was an enormous springboard for me, and could not have been possible without the dedication and genuine interest of the people behind it, in myself and the other writers they supported through the process.
And what’s happened in your career since taking part in All Mixed Up?
Oh wow, I’ll try to be brief!
At the end of my second year at University, I got onto the BBC Production Traineeship. Through that I got involved with CBBC Drama, where I worked as a Development Assistant before being invited onto Wolfblood s2 as Assistant Script Editor, under Producer Foz Allan and Script Editor Jonathan Wolfman. Around that same time, I won the Peter Ustinov Scriptwriting Competition. So when Wolfblood got wind of that, they very kindly offered me the chance to write the online prequel (a ten min Iplayer webisode) for WBS2. Once WBS2 concluded, I wanted to take a few months out to concentrate on writing some new spec scripts, but I was then offered two episodes of a new CBBC series Hetty Feather, based on the books by Jaqueline Wilson, and two episodes of Wolfblood season 3. I’d gone from ‘I want to give this a go’ to writing four episodes of television in a couple of months…
So from then on, including those four, I’ve written an episode of dumping ground, Dangermouse, and two episodes of new Irish police show Red Rock. Last year, Foz Allan (a recurring theme! He’s a real champion) and Charlie Higson brought me on to ITV’s new big budget fantasy drama Jekyll and Hyde, which is just shooting now.
I’m also writing on a new show with Big Light and Rai, about the Medici Family, and writing two episodes of Wolfblood s4. I now have stuff of my own in development too, with ITV, and Big Talk and Red Planet.
It’s all happened incredibly quickly… And I’m always very wary that it could all unravel just as quickly. I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing (don’t tell any of my employers, I mean, this is just between us right!?!?) but whatever it is – I love it, and want to keep doing it, better, and better, every time. So that means, a load of work, a load of stress, and a load of late nights. I have very little time off these days, haha. But I wouldn’t change it for anything.
What I have achieved though, I owe entirely to the individuals who have pushed me and supported me throughout, people like the guys at Triforce, BBC Comedy, CBBC, the Agency… Without them all, I would be…probably still wasting as much time as I currently do, procrastinating and tweeting too much, but I wouldn’t have the makings of a half-decent career and a set of wonderful, talented colleagues… So that alone has got to be worth celebrating.
And if the rug does get pulled tomorrow, I can say I had a pretty epic couple of years!