❉ The TV, animation and Doctor Who audio writer tells Dan Judd about his writing journey so far…
From exploring the perils of a simple garden, to escaping the deadliest planet in the galaxy, Darren Jones has forged a stellar career in scriptwriting. We caught up with him to discuss his work to date and reflect on how he got to write for Dennis the Menace, Peter Rabbit, Tree Fu Tom and Doctor Who.
“I was always writing and wanting to be a writer. I was working in animation production and was badgering people to let me have a go. I knew there was a new show coming up called Frankenstein’s Cat and I was in contact with the producer. After a few attempts she relented and said, ‘Well, we’ll let you do a treatment for an episode and see how it goes. No promises.’ And they liked it and I did two or three episodes.
“That started the ball rolling; the head writer on that took me on to the next show that he was on. But I was always writing though. The challenge is going from writing your own spec scripts to being commissioned.”
From writing Frankenstein’s Cat, Darren soon became established as a writer for children’s animations. He explains what the challenges of writing for a young audience are.
“In some ways it’s freer because you can go down the fantasy route. There are restrictions in what you can show, what you can have characters do, especially for the preschool audience. You can’t have anything that puts a character in danger. If it’s even vaguely copy-able by small kids, you can’t do it. But those restrictions make you think of other ways around things and make you more creative in your storytelling. It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity as well. I think that’s the main thing, but also be aware of the audience, and make sure the language is appropriate for your audience and that the stories are understandable.
So, you’ve been approached to pitch for a series, what can you expect next?
“You’ve probably been given a document already outlining the show and been give the characters, locations and the sort of stories they want. At the meeting you will go into that in-depth. You’ll probably have come up with ideas before the meeting and you’ll start pitching them. Every show is different; the structure of every show is different and they may have decided how many episodes you’re going to do. But other times it’s just a free for all where there’s 20 people in the room. It means that if everyone gets the feel of the show right, there might only be a couple of episodes each. We did two series of Bob the Builder back-to-back. Of the 100 plus episodes I think I did 20.
“They don’t usually give you storylines, they give you the basic premise of the show. Everyone knows Bob and he’s a builder. With that show they went down the educational engineering route and so what Bob made and the principals involved had to be accurate. We couldn’t just make it up. We had a building consultant and we had to do our own research to make sure what we had included could be done.
Of the many projects and hit shows he’s worked on what’s the one he got the most out of?
“I really enjoyed Peter Rabbit. That was really good fun. I think because it was trying to keep to the spirit of the original books which are quite nasty. Foxes eating, or trying to eat rabbits. Of course, it’s preschool so you’re pulling it back and making sure it’s at a level they can understand. But it was really the upper end of what we could do. It was very much pushing it as an action adventure as well. It was a good time to do physical stuff.”
Sometimes a voice over artist or the fantastical can lift an adventure to a new level, as Darren explains.
“With Bob the Builder they got one of the actors from the sitcom The Inbetweeners, Blake Harrison, to voice one of the machines and it was really funny. It really lifted it up. I also enjoyed one of my Doctor Who audios where there was a giant clam and Donna had to hide inside to survive. That was quite fun.”
Conquering the worlds of Doctor Who, the perils of Mr McGregor’s garden and the slingshots of Dennis the Menace, what’s left for Darren to achieve?
“I really wanted to do Thunderbirds and Danger Mouse, but I just couldn’t get on their writing teams. Now it’s a good time to try other things. At the moment I’m trying to write live action. You could just sit back and look out of the window. Everyone wants to do their own thing, to write their own show. That’s always been the ambition. It’s the thing that keeps you going. The idea of creating something and seeing it through from beginning to end is what I’d like to do.”
Would-be writers should take heed of some useful advice.
“If you want to get into animation writing watch animation or any TV. Read scripts and keep writing, obviously. I don’t think there’s necessarily a need to have written TV. You need to be writing something, whether it’s theatre or fiction. You can cross over from different areas.
“What’s more, don’t just write one script and keep rewriting it. Give yourself a deadline. When it’s done that now move on to the next one.
There’s one thing in the (writing) universe that Darren’s had to conquer and that’s a challenge many of us struggle with.
“I know people are terrified of networking. It strikes fear into the hearts of many people, including me, but I got to the point, several years ago, when I realised that networking is just having a chat with people.
“Some people fall into the trap of thinking networking means that got to try and convince people to employ you. Firstly, that’s not what you really should be doing. It’s more about building a relationship, chatting with people, and finding out what sort of people you might want to work and just getting your name about. That’s the important thing to remember.
“It’s not just doing it once you have to keep doing it. It’s like topping up the tank. New people arrive and people forget you, but I think there is a way to make it less scary and a bit more relaxed.”
❉ Dan Judd has worked for the BBC on websites as diverse as Comic Relief, EastEnders, and Strictly Come Dancing. He loves old programmes with a murder or spaceship in them (or sometimes both!).