As I wrote nearly 150 episodes for this series over 5 years, there’s clearly far more to discuss than I can fit into one article here. But I’ll start by talking about how I joined the series and my first experiences of it as a shaky newbie! For most people making their start in the industry, that’ll be the most useful part to read about anyway. Here’s the surviving BBC Silver Street website, to give you a feel for the series.
The project that springboarded the first wave of commissions of my career, which I’ll cover in another article, was being Head Writer and Co-Founder of what was apparently the country’s first successful ongoing student soap opera. After winning the highest possible award in student radio from Radio 1, we embarked on a publicity drive which I mostly inherited and took on when the Executive Producer secured himself a project for Radio New Zealand. By that point he’d prepared a quirky marketing campaign aiming to launch our team’s careers in radio drama and production, and also secured several of us placements at Radio 1 (the world’s biggest and most influential new music station). On the whole, the connections and experience I gained as a result of all this didn’t result in very much of lasting benefit. Except for one thing.
One recipient who was keen on what we’d achieved was the Editor of the world’s longest-running radio drama series, The Archers on Radio 4. Affectionately loved and teased in equal measure in Britain and followed in many other countries, the series follows the ebb and flow of life in a fictional English rural village and county. And Vanessa, who was extremely supportive and generous to me, invited me to come and watch them making the series for a day, which was a fascinating experience at BBC Birmingham’s much-missed former home at Pebble Mill. I learned about the series’ staggeringly extensive archives and the fans who insist on adherence to them, met many of the cast, and sat in on that day’s studio recordings. I’d like to talk about the production processes of The Archers at more length in a separate article at some point.
Vanessa took me to lunch, where she asked me what I’d been up to since graduating, and afterwards she game me lots of links and guidance of how to take my career forward. The connections and advice she gave me during that lunch brought me nearly £50,000 of commissions over the following years.
At one point during this meal, Vanessa asked me if I’d heard that there was going to be a new soap opera for BBC Asian Network. “Oh, Silver Street?” I said with interest. I’d read about it in a media publication, by happy coincidence, and had thought “Wow, that sounds right up my street. Shame I couldn’t write for a show like that.”
Well, now it turned out that actually I might be welcome to write for this new drama about a predominantly British Asian innercity community. And what’s more, I was being told to get in touch with the Producer, Naylah Ahmed, on the recommendation of a highly influential radio drama producer who had worked with her a lot before. So I followed up happily, emailing to introduce myself and Vanessa’s recommendation, and saying that (unless I heard otherwise from her) I would give Naylah a call on a particular date to discuss further. (Which I think has proved to be quite a non-intrusive way to go about introducing yourself and following up, if you’re thinking of how to do that at any point in your career – so that’s a tip.) The resulting chat was extremely warm and positive, and as requested by Naylah I followed that up by sending a script I was working on to her.
This script was actually pretty terrible, in hindsight. But I got lucky.
I didn’t find this out until years afterward, but soon after the series launched, there was a falling-out between some of the existing writers which resulted in many of them leaving the series. Which meant that the series – still very new – needed a second wave of new writers. Already. And by happening to be put in touch before the series went live, I was already in the right place. Which was the sort of luck that doesn’t come by that often.
I got a call while I was at the Edinburgh Fringe with a play, and was asked if I was available to write for the coming ‘block’ of scripts for Silver Street. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and what did I have to say? “Sorry – I’m busy with a play for another producer at the moment.” But the series Editor, James Peries, who I was speaking to, didn’t sound too worried and said they would be in touch for a future block.
Now, in practice, this play was just the sort of independent drama project that the Silver Street editors encouraged their writers to have. But at that point I didn’t know that, and wasn’t sure they really would give me a second chance. But they did, a month later, having given another aspiring writer the slot they’d planned for me. So, by a combination of lucky/deserved connections and not messing up two phone calls, I joined the series, and seem to have also been the first non-Asian to write for the series too. Silver Street became the mainstay of my work for five years; and the identity and credibility that gave me seemed to contribute to most of the other commissions and projects that I got in that time too.
But the adventure could, and maybe should, have ended before it had even got going. Setting a pattern that I would unwittingly perpetuate throughout my time at the series, I over-committed to taking a minor plotline to a much stronger conclusion than it was supposed to, and ended up taking a scene into very dark and dodgy territory which even then I should have known to self-censor. My editors were always very polite and diplomatic about it, but really, they would have been fully within their rights to drop me from the series for overstepping the mark so much. Here again I was perhaps lucky that the series was new and short of established writers.
I’ll talk more in future about all that was achieved at the series, and the contrasting production processes of Silver Street and The Archers. But for now I’m just talking about how I got onto the series in the first place. Shortly after I completed my first block of scripts and watched them directed in studio (including a cameo part for myself as a fashion scout in one of my episodes, which was again somewhat shaky!), the BBC Writers’ Room arranged for a Writer In Residence to join the series. I had no idea whether I was established, credible or relevant enough for the role, but I did apply (the only one of the series writers to do so, I think) and I did get an interview.
As I was leaving the series, and in the years since, I had a few heart-to-hearts with the series Producer and Script Editor Naylah Ahmed, who by the end had graduated to Editor of the show. She’s told me that her abiding memory of me was still the Writer in Residence interview – me giving the impression that “I can be anything you want me to be, just tell me what you want me to be.” I think that’s probably a very accurate perception of me during my early career and consequently too (see this article for more).
Not getting that opportunity didn’t feel like a rejection by any means, though of course there are things I wished I’d done or said differently; I continued to enthusiastically (often over-enthusiastically!) contribute to the series on the same basis for another four and a half years. But it did put a cap on what up until then had been a steady upward spiral since I started my career. And it’s that glass ceiling – caused by my own inability to commit to a single compelling identity for myself – against which I’ve spent the following years hitting my head repeatedly.
Somehow, at the time I left the series, I happened to be the longest-serving writer active on the series. That again was just an undeserved coincidence, though I had always done my best and contributed as fully as I could. Despite all I positively achieved on the series, on the whole I find it hard to look back on my work for the series nowadays without mixed feelings.
So next time I write about Silver Street, I’ll tell you about all that it achieved. How the series was made and broadcast, the awards and plaudits we won, how far I progressed thanks to the patient and wise tutelage of Naylah and James among others – who I still have great respect for – and all of the great things that we did achieve during those years. After all, the series was about a heck of a lot more than me, and I’m still proud to have been a minor part of it.
If you’d like me to deliver projects like this for you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! (As you might notice, I’m still not very specific about my professional identity, am I?)