Scriptwriter, author and tutor, Russ Gascoigne on studying scriptwriting for Cardiff University (continuing and professional education department) and online scriptwriting workshops

One of his students, Jodie, at The Edinburgh Festival.
1) Can you tell me about yourself, your own writing/script/screenwriting?

Most of my work has been in television drama. After leaving university I worked as a script reader and script consultant for numerous TV and film companies. These included the Movie Acquisition Corporation, where I reported on major US/UK feature films, The European Script Fund and the BBC. I then became a BBC Drama script editor, working in both production and development, my credits including the Royal Television Society’s award-winning Selected Exits starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and a series of short films/animation for BBC2 Wales on which I was producer. As a scriptwriter I’ve written for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C, my credits ranging from soap through to the top-rating A Touch of Frost. I’ve had original work commissioned by BBC Wales, BBC Scotland and BBC Northern Ireland, YTV, STV and Carlton Television as well as numerous independents. I’ve also written for both stage and radio.
In addition to my scriptwriting I have published both fiction and non-fiction. My first Young Adult novel Rebels (Walker Books) was optioned for feature film development by the BBC. I am now working on further YA titles as well as developing a number of new TV projects.

a) How long have you been teaching for?

I’ve been teaching scriptwriting for ten years now, almost exclusively though Cardiff University’s Continuing and Professional Education department. Basically, this means I teach adult learners rather than undergraduates – although I also get a few of those, generally students studying English or Creative Writing who have a specific interest in scriptwriting which isn’t well covered on their wider degree. Many of the writers on my courses have some sort of media background but others are complete beginners who have no previous experience of scriptwriting whatsoever. I also run the Scriptwriting Workshop Online, providing 1-2-1 script editing and script development support for writers working on their own scripts. This is open to writers at all levels across the UK and beyond. I’ve been doing that for about seven years.
Links:
Scripting a TV Drama: http://bit.ly/2toVMGG
Scriptwriting Workshop Online: http://bit.ly/2szja6Q
My profile and links to other interviews etc: http://bit.ly/2ueHbju

b) Do you have a title at the university – if so, what is it?

No, not really. Scriptwriting tutor covers it.

c) How do you balance teaching and family life with your own writing?

Writing, family, teaching, they’re just my life. I don’t consciously have to balance anything. It all just happens. Thinking about a family holiday from my sons’ point of view resulted in an idea for a series of YA novels. Listening to my students telling me what they love – or hate – about writing, what their favourite films or TV dramas are and why, constantly inspires me. I find out about things I might otherwise have missed. Walking with my wife – talking things through, hearing about her work etc – it all goes into the writing. Beyond that, like a lot of writers in my position, I only teach part-time. That suits me perfectly. And who would want to write to the exclusion of everything else anyway? Teaching is a break from the day job. And it makes me reflect on how I’m approaching my writing. I can’t stand in front of a class and tell them to do things I’m not always doing myself – although I give it my best shot. More broadly, my usual routine is to set myself a few goals each day: pages to be written, books or scripts to be read etc. They vary between the easily attainable and the ridiculously ambitious. Sometimes I’ll work into the early hours of the morning to reach them. On other occasions, to be honest, I’ll abandon them altogether. But the drive and desire to keep on writing is always there. Anything I drop, I soon pick up again. It all gets done eventually – because I love doing it.

2) What are the qualifications (and grades of qualifications) needed to get on the course? Do your students tend to have other qualifications before they start this course?

None. As in the real world, you don’t need academic qualifications to be a scriptwriter. You simply need the ability. The writers I work with – whether it’s on the scriptwriting course or the Scriptwriting Workshop Online – aren’t generally studying for either a degree or diploma anyway. They only want to improve their scriptwriting and learn about the industry. A passion for that is all they need.

3) What are you looking for in your students? What would a ‘perfect’ student be like?

I’m not looking for anything in the writers I work with. It’s much more a case of what they’re looking for from me. I’m as happy working with people who simply want to find out what it’s like working in TV drama as I am with those who have already gained full professional credits. On the latest course, for example, I worked with writers who had never completed a script through to a writer who has regular commissions for a well-known soap. There were undergraduates and a PhD student, a poet who also writes for the New York Times, an actor, a TV researcher and a former BBC lawyer. The owner of my local diner was on it too. It’s always an interesting mix. Always. And that’s the way I like it. It’s exactly the same with the Scriptwriting Workshop Online. I never know who’s going to sign up to work with me. I’ve worked with writers who have subsequently discovered scriptwriting isn’t really for them (but have given it a go) through to those who have gone on to win scriptwriting competitions and gain either representation or commissions for their work.

4) With the cost of courses so high, either via student loans or not – how do you ensure you have a diverse cohort?

Working in the HE environment I do, ensuring a diverse student cohort isn’t an issue. It’s the norm. As I said earlier, the writers I work with aren’t undergraduates (although I have taught undergraduates taking a scriptwriting module at another University). They’re people from across South Wales and beyond who want to learn about or improve their scriptwriting. All ages. From a wide variety of backgrounds. With different levels of experience and ability. On recent Scriptwriting Workshops I’ve had a documentary maker, some writers who’ve completed my scriptwriting course and everyone from a complete novice through to someone who’s been shortlisted for Channel 4’s Coming Up and the BBC’s Writersroom – from across the UK.

5) There has been a proliferation of creative writing courses of late, and this has led to accusations that work is ‘safe’ and ‘samey’. Do you agree or disagree with this? Explain your reasoning.

Disagree. There are as many different teachers as there are courses, each bringing their own particular skills and outlook with them. Some are inexperienced writers themselves while others are published or produced, have agents and are much more industry-focused. There’s no conspiracy to produce homogenised work at all. At least not in my experience and among the creative writing colleagues with whom I work, certainly. They all have their own individual – even idiosyncratic – approaches to their work.

6) As there are so many writing courses available, both online and in red-brick universities and colleges, what advice would you give to a potential student trying to find a course?

Be clear about what you want to get from it. Some writers only want to feel they’re part of a supportive group, receiving feedback and advice from their peers, for example. Others want something more rigorous and demanding. When it comes to scriptwriting there are degree courses at universities (although, as I’ve already said, an academic qualification doesn’t qualify you to become a scriptwriter), informal and short-form courses offered by individuals or other institutions and some supported by the industry itself. In each case, however, I’d suggest aspiring writers should also look at who is actually doing the teaching. Does whoever is leading the course have good script credits? Don’t just take their word for it, find out for yourself. Do your research. You’d do it for a script you were preparing to write. Do it for whatever course you’re considering.

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