Fiction & Drama
Lisa Rookes on the inspiration behind The Gallows Tree
Answering the #FridayFive today is Andrew Blackwell, Head of Development at Tern Television.
Tell us a bit about your job?
I’m Head of Development for Tern Television. We’re a multi-award-winning production company based in Scotland and Northern Ireland, specialising in high-end documentaries, history, science, arts, adventure and popular lifestyle formats.
Development covers the period from original idea generation through until the point of commission by the broadcaster, otherwise known as the ‘green light’. Sometimes this period takes weeks, more likely it takes months. I think 18 months is my record. Development comprises a combination of pitching, researching, proposal writing, re-writing and ‘sizzle’ making (short 3-5 minute edited pieces which help sell the idea, characters and concept). At any one time we’ll have about 30 things in play and at various stages of advancement, so managing that progression is also a key part of my job.
I work from home (I live in Aberdeen) and manage a team of 5 in Glasgow. I do an overnight for face-to-face time and brainstorming about once a fortnight.
What are the key ingredients for success?
Persistence and positivity. It can be really brutal in Development and most people can’t actually handle it long term. Thousands of ideas in the team per annum might evolve into 150 – 200 proposals which in turn might equate to 20 or 30 that actually make it to commission. Often, you can work on something for weeks or months only to see it killed off. So, you can’t be too precious about rejection. It’s essential you can take it on the chin and then get going on the next project immediately. Or perhaps after a night of sorrow drowning…
Skills? Idea generation. Really sharp writing. Good design skills. A love of all sorts of TV. A good pub quiz player often makes a good developer. You’ll have a very broad general knowledge and an enjoyment for delving into a really wide variety of subjects. A typical week would honestly be as varied as finding haunted houses in Ireland, negotiating access to a street dance club, researching art galleries in Istanbul and cutting a sizzle about road rage.
Could you describe a normal day?
We start every single morning with a team call – a crucial part of the day for a team spread across three cities: Aberdeen, Glasgow and Belfast. We set the tasks for everyone and make sure the priorities are correct. From there, there’ll be a lot of email traffic, probably a Teams meeting or three (agents, talent, broadcasters, production team) plus a large chunk of the day spent on research, proposal writing and design. We relocated this onto Canva about 15 months ago and I find it the most brilliant resource for fast and creative art working, and shared viewing of projects.
All proposals are peer reviewed by the team before they go to the broadcaster. It’s always good to have fresh eyes and opinions on them and we’re all happy to both give and take constructive criticism. I’m lucky to have a very close knit and friendly team.
I have a mantra that we put at least two or three proposals out a week and that has stood us in very good stead over the last five or six years. It keeps team spirits up too, nobody gets bored being stuck on that endless project.
For those trying to break into the industry, could you explain how you got to where you are today?
I don’t think my path has been very typical at all, I didn’t even enter television programming until I was about 40. That said, the skills I’ve accrued across my career now combine rather perfectly in what I’m doing. I started as a commercial producer writing and editing adverts in local radio, then worked at Grampian Television (part of the ITV network) making programme trails in the late 90s, then ran STV’s Commercial Production department for ten years making local TV ads, then had a short stint at an advertising agency pitching proposals. Snappy writing, short form editing, project management and eye-catching design are all very much needed in what I do now.
If you were going to come in on a more traditional route as a twenty-something it would probably be as a runner or junior researcher. In that case it’s about being enthusiastic, organised, proactive and generally a nice person to spend a day with. We have many come through the doors at Tern and you pretty much know a ‘keeper’ within a week. If you’re applying, I’d encourage persistence. One mail to a company is rarely going to hit home, especially if it lands at a busy moment. Most senior people I know generally applaud someone who (politely) keeps trying and seems desperate to work in the industry.
What are you reading, watching and listening to right now?
I’m hearing great things about Sky Atlantic’s The Last Of Us so that’s stacking up on my planner for a binge. Meantime, being a golf lover, I’m on Netflix’s new golf series Full Swing. The access, and the storytelling, just like F1: Drive to Survive is absolutely extraordinary. Even if you don’t really like or understand F1 or golf I’d urge you to give them a go.
Music? I was a bit disappointed with myself when I got my Spotify Top Songs 2022 as I’d clearly been swilling about in the same old playlists, which is a bit of a failure of streaming. So, 2023 is a year of new music for me. Listen to more, listen to wider, listen to now. Jo Whiley’s show is a good source of new music and it’s amazing how quickly your Discover Weekly improves.
Reading books is my downfall. I really should read more fiction. There’s my next life tweak! I did subscribe to The Athletic this year and enjoy their well-written long reads.