Words by Colin Bradbury
How a Cornishman, born and bred, found himself writing some of the best-loved TV shows of the last 25 years.
Image by Colin Bradbury
You wouldn’t naturally associate the genteel surroundings of Falmouth with the dark deeds of Silent Witness. But from a desk in his house looking across the waters to Flushing, Cornish writer Graham Mitchell has created many of the scripts for one of BBC television’s most iconic crime dramas. As well as Silent Witness, which has become a national institution, he has also written dozens of episodes of other long-running drama series, from The Bill to Casualty and Holby City.
He got his start in the entertainment business the old-fashioned way – through the theatre. Graham moved away from his Redruth home at 18, first to Bristol and then London, where he worked with the Interplay Theatre Company.
“Theatre was a great training ground”, says Graham. “You did everything - performing, writing, directing.“ Gradually though the writing took over, and his first TV break came with a job as a storyliner, developing plots for an ITV daytime soap. Before long he was writing scripts himself, the beginning of a career that has lasted more than 20 years.
His next step up came in 1995 as a scriptwriter for The Bill, which, as those of a certain age will recall, was set in the fictional Sun Hill police station in east London. Since each 60 minute episode was an original story there was a voracious appetite for fresh material, and the producers welcomed script pitches from new writers. Graham laughs: “It was madness really. 40-odd weeks of one hour shows every year - nobody would take that on now! There were up to 30 writers, with a core team of a dozen.”
He would go on to write 26 episodes over an 11 year period for a show that became one of the UK’s longest running TV dramas. During that time he also wrote for a who’s who of programmes, including Casualty, Holby City, Waterloo Road, Holby Blue and London’s Burning.
Scene from Casualty, courtesy of BBC
Graham regards this as the golden age of TV soaps, providing an entry point into the industry for aspiring scriptwriters. “Soaps in those days weren’t seen as second class citizens in the way they are now. You could cut your teeth on them and move on to ‘bigger things’ if you wanted.”
Graham’s break into the Silent Witness team came in 2014, since when he has written 10 two-hour episodes. If you’re one of the very few who haven’t seen it, the show centres on a team of forensic pathologists and scientists in London, with two 60-minute episodes following each investigation. Now in its 23rd year, the series has become a national institution.
For those of us content to flop onto the sofa in front of the TV without giving much thought to the process behind our favourite shows, Graham’s description of the writer’s role is an eye-opener. You might assume that once the script is handed over their work is done. In fact, Graham is involved throughout the six weeks it takes to film each episode. There are read-throughs involving the cast, particularly lead actor, Emilia Fox (Dr Nikki Alexander in the show), who is also a producer. Graham also sees the ‘rushes’ (the raw footage shot each day) and sometimes goes to London to watch filming. Mind you, directors aren’t always keen on having writers on set, in case actors consult them and come away with ideas on how to play a scene that contradict theirs!
In a world of disposable television, Graham has an interesting perspective on why a 20-year-old show still gets six-to-seven million viewers for each live episode and another three million watching on iPlayer. Faced with endless box sets that demand a huge time commitment on the part of the viewer, Silent Witness is unusual in offering a complete story in two parts. That’s how TV used to be, and younger people are discovering the format in the same way that they appreciate listening to music on vinyl records. And at the end of the day, everyone still loves a good ‘whodunit’.
When it comes to seeing the fruits of his labours on screen though, Graham never watches his episodes when they are broadcast live. “I can’t bear the thought of six million people sitting in front of their TVs,” he admits. But perhaps surprisingly in a world where social media can be a mixed blessing, he avidly monitors responses to the episodes on Twitter.
“Watching the live Twitter feed is fascinating. You get reactions like you’d get from a theatre audience, and becoming part of people’s experience is joyful.” Before social media, newspaper reviews were the only feedback available to a writer, whereas now Graham can see how ordinary viewers are reacting to plot twists and turns in real time. “The puzzle aspect is the fun of writing shows like this. Trying to blindside the audience is entertaining.”
He also enjoys the build-up to the show. “In the theatre you get the audience coming in and sense the anticipation. You miss that with TV, but with Silent Witness, people are on Twitter saying they can’t wait for 8 o’clock and that’s great to hear.” Of course, that only happens with shows that have achieved ‘event television’ status, but there’s little doubt that Silent Witness is in that elite club.
Scene from Silent Witness, courtesy of BBC
Amidst his busy writing schedule, Graham has found time to work with the next generation of scriptwriters studying on the TV and Film course at Falmouth University. He’s been energised by the students’ enthusiasm and ambition, an antidote to the weariness and cynicism that can accompany solitary writing work, and happily admits “I probably get more out of it than them!” He’d love some of the BBC’s commissioning editors to emerge from their offices, come down to Falmouth and sit in a room with the young people and experience the “rich and fresh ideas” bubbling away in their minds.
Those students will eventually have to find their way in an industry that’s changing rapidly. Happily, Graham is excited about the way the business is going. For one thing, TV is no longer the poor relation to film, as evidenced by the stream of movie stars flocking to appear in big budget, small-screen productions. Both Sky and Channel 4 are investing significant sums in original productions, along with the likes of Dave and Gold who already have a ‘digital space’. And that’s before we get to Netflix, Amazon, Sony, Apple and even YouTube. On that basis, the demand for quality scripts won’t diminish anytime soon.
But in this global business, you have to wonder whether being in Cornwall is a disadvantage for Graham. Since he returned home in 2001, has he felt out of the loop not being in London? While technology helps to bridge the gap, he agrees that it can be harder in some respects. TV is an industry that thrives on networking, and if you’re in London, “you can go to the parties and drop into the restaurants where people meet.” It’s not an insurmountable problem, though. His twice-monthly trips to London are carefully planned and his agent makes sure to get plenty of meetings in the diary when he’s in town.
Speaking of Cornwall, Graham is keen to do more work related to his home county. He has no issues with Poldark or Doc Martin, the series that people elsewhere in the UK associate with Cornwall, but is often frustrated when he tries to do more ‘challenging work’ set here.
“We still have the Poldark thing where the main characters speak in BBC English, so affairs of state are conducted by people who talk ‘properly’ rather than in a Cornish accent. Local characters have a bumbling naivety, they’re a bit Baldrick from Black Adder.”
There’s also a suspicion that ‘up-country’ TV people are reluctant to have their image of Cornwall challenged. Graham has pitched The Catch, his drama based in the fishing town of Newlyn to the BBC, but they appear reluctant to take it on. It’s a contemporary take on smuggling, a common theme in historical Cornish fiction. The police are the modern day equivalent of the excise men, and this time it’s drugs that are being illegally imported. As Graham says: “That kind of criminality in Cornwall is very different to how it would be in Manchester or London. But I don’t want the characters to be yokel-locals.”
However, he’s encouraged by the critical acclaim heaped on local filmmaker Mark Jenkin for his recent release, Bait. The movie, which tackles the thorny subject of the conflict between locals and incomers in a west Cornish town, was given a rapturous reception at the Berlin International Film Festival and has received a slew of five star reviews in the British press.
“There’s a whole bunch of us down here trying to write stuff about Cornwall”, he says. “In a way Mark has done it for all of us.” Graham is hopeful that the film’s success might ease the door open just a little for everyone else.
Above all, he wants to use his work to explore the things that bring us together rather than divide us – something we are very much in need of in Britain at the moment. “I’m inspired by conversations I’ve had with people I seek out, whose lives are very different to mine but with whom I always find common ground. Most apparently fundamental differences aren’t really so.”
Meanwhile, fans are eagerly awaiting his forthcoming Silent Witness episodes, titled ‘Deadhead’, to be broadcast next January. He lets me have a sneak peek at some pictures on his phone of what I will just call a large set piece shot involving wreckage. He recalls that while his description of the scene takes just a couple of lines of script, some poor member of the production team had the job of turning it into reality. No wonder many writers prefer to keep a low profile during filming.
But for all his involvement with the occasionally glamorous world of television, Graham’s happiest now that he’s found his way home to where it all started. “When I left at the age of 18, I wanted to get away. I was trying to find my place in the world, only to realise that the place was Cornwall after all.”