Spark Lab Productions – Melanie Harris

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Melanie Harris set up the northern base of BBC writers room developing talent for TV, film, new media and radio for four years there. Melanie now makes award-winning programmes for all BBC radio networks, at Spark Lab Productions, as well as audio books, audio trails and audio for arts projects. She was awarded the Sony Bronze for RIP boy (2011).

Are there themes in mind when you look for new writing? Or do you wait to be grabbed by something?

We rarely commission new writing. The Radio 4 drama commissioner wants ‘something different from indies’, i.e. ‘high end’ writers. He commissions most of the new work through in-house teams.

 

Do you prefer to work with new or established writers?

We mostly work with established writers, because that’s what Jeremy Howe (the commissioner wants). But my background is in new writing, so I wish we could develop more new talent.

When you first receive an idea of a couple of paragraphs from a writer, are you looking for the structure of the story or an original idea?

We want the idea, and what it’s about (not what happens in it). If we like it enough we’ll then ask for evidence that this writer can write it. We’ll ask for a biog, and an example of a drama they’ve written.

What stages does a pitch go through? Do you personally work with a writer to oversee the process of the script development?

We ask the writer to write a 300 word pitch, put that in an offers round (one big round annually in the spring). If it is re-requested, we then ask the writer to write a page to a page and a half, and then enter this into the system. The whole process takes about 4 months to work through. Then we hear if our pitch has been successful, and begin the hard work of developing the script. The producer/director works very very closely with the writer, talking through each draft of the script, discussing casting, sound, music and so on.

Do you have a time-scale you need to adhere to, in order to complete a radio drama script?

I think writers need 6 months to write a good script and allow for enough drafts for it to get as good as it can be. Sometimes we have to work more quickly than this, especially if the writer is late with drafts. And then for recording we allow a full day for every half hour of script, and the same again for the edit, plus a day or two to really mix it well with FX and music. We have to deliver a finished programme 4 weeks ahead of broadcast.

Thanks Mel, I am really grateful for your time.

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