Dead Canny, DAVE – Broadcast

From Broadcast, 5 September 2022

Sarah Balfour staring as Kay.

TriForce’s Fraser Ayres explains how the initiative which created its comedy pilot sought to platform new and underrepresented talent. Dead Canny, which tells the story of a girl from Consett in the North East whose talent for talking to the dead embroils her in a police investigation, was one of four comedy pilots to grace our screens on UKTV’s Dave last week. All four pilots were written by entirely new writers, none of whom had previously had a broadcast credit and all but one were unrepresented. Behind this TX week of giggles was a cavalcade of inclusion across the board, permeating all aspects of the project, from the development process to the crews that delivered them, and it was all achieved in just 12 months. 

It all started out quite innocently. Pete Thornton, head of unscripted at UKTV, and I were discussing bringing the WriterSlam pathway (a TriForce Creative Network/ initiative) to UKTV. This pathway for writers ends in a guaranteed commission with our partners – a way of ensuring tangible outcomes and avoiding the horrendous trap of ‘schemes’. Pete has supported WriterSlam in the past and has always been an advocate for inclusion in practical forms. But he and I share similar misgivings at some of the solutions our industry has put forward over the last couple of years – the endless dead-end schemes, unsupported talent, mining of trauma for pennies and the resurfacing of databases that do nothing to address the constraints of time and resource that line producers and productions face, to name but a few. Given all this, Pete was keen to ‘supercharge’ the WriterSlam, asking ‘what could we do that’s truly impactful?’. 

In our position working across the TCN/, we have a unique overview of our entire industry; we have 25,000-strong pool of production talent at all levels from across the UK as part of our recruitment network and are currently working with over 60 production companies and SVOD’s to support them to hire inclusively on everything from Made in Chelsea to Bridgerton. This work, which we have been doing for two decades, allows us to very clearly see the issues around inclusion and, for those in our industry who are serious about it, what the solutions look like. In response to Pete’s question about being truly impactful, my response was that it would require an entirely open and level playing field – so not asking for full scripts but samples, selection based not on previous experience but on people’s fire and passion, and ensuring that the opportunity is spread far and wide. 

This would mean an enlisting army of readers, processing and filtering to find the gems, but would also ensure access to all, no matter their circumstances. You would then need to take those writers and start paying them. In terms of development, you would need script editors who understand the writers and the worlds they are portraying, ensuring they felt valued and on a very basic level, could pay their bills, focus on their projects and make the best of the opportunity. The writers would also need to receive mentoring, preparing them for their journeys after the pathway, so that they weren’t falling through the cracks once all the noise had subsided. And once you have wonderful projects and writers that have been ‘brought up to speed’, it would be vital to engage key partnership production companies who had a passion for inclusion and for the projects, to ensure they come to screens with as much polish and professionalism as possible. This would be achieved by providing full, not ‘token’ budgets. 

And Pete Thornton, and UKTV, said: ‘Yes. We should do that’. And this is where we find ourselves in the current climate of diversity and inclusion; where some are saying ‘No, we don’t need more inclusion’, ‘No, the talent isn’t qualified/ready/there’, but there are also those who are saying ‘Yes’. You’re either doing it and benefitting from it, as many currently are, or you’re not. 

If you’re still talking about the problem, then you simply aren’t engaging with the solutions that are available and are already operating at volume – take the TV Collective’s work with breakthrough leaders and fledgling production companies or Mama Youth’s industry-based training where you’re guaranteed incredible talent. There’s also DANC’s enormous, supported network of talent and their work to make our industry more accessible to disabled talent, and even our work at DANDI, placing talent in their thousands each year and changing the makeup of our production teams. Production companies and broadcasters are very much saying ‘yes’, (and the American SVOD’s are saying ‘YASSS!’) like never before and appreciating that if we are to be truly inclusive, then the work needs to be done with proper funding and support. 

So, can you find four writers with incredible stories to tell and take them straight into paid development, and have their shows professionally produced and on our screens in 12 months? 

Turns out if you say ‘yes’, then you can. 

Anna Costello, writer of Dead Canny 

Having been a secondary school teacher for the majority of my adult life, I never dreamed that one day I’d have a pilot on the actual telly. As someone from a working-class background in Consett, Co. Durham, the thought of being a professional writer didn’t seem like a possibility for me – it’s something ‘other people do’. 

When I found out I was a finalist, I was excited, terrified, and overwhelmed by imposter-syndrome. However, Fraser was adamant that the process of creating a script for broadcast should be demystified for writers, and that supporting and protecting writers should be the priority throughout. 

I was paired with the most incredible script editor, Micheal Jacob, who taught me to do ‘more with less’ – how to take the characters and world I’d created, and make it concise, allowing the story and humour shine through. I learnt that it’s necessary not to hold on to ideas too tightly – sometimes, gags need to be sacrificed for the sake of the story, but you can make it ‘funny’ elsewhere. I gained so much from the re-drafting process. When receiving feedback, I learnt how to identify the ‘note behind the note’, and how to find solutions to issues whilst still remaining true to the characters’ voices. 

Each finalist was partnered with a production company, and I was partnered with TriForce Productions. I was introduced to Jon MacQueen (producer), and Theresa Varga (director), two insanely talented individuals who brought so much creativity, knowledge, and insight to the pilot. 

More than anything, I learned that a good script is just the start – what makes a great pilot is an  incredible team of people (production, cast, and crew), who each bring something that could never be captured on the page alone. Someone once told me that the script is the blue-print for a TV show  – working collaboratively with the team is what really brought Dead Canny to life. 

I’m so, so grateful to Fraser, [Triforce co-chief executive] Minnie Ayres, and UKTV for launching this initiative. The industry needs more people that meaningfully champion diverse voices, and help people have their stories heard and worlds seen.