TV Writing: Interview with Tony Morphett

TV Writing, and more specifically Serialized TV has caught much attention lately. This is due to the success of such top-notch shows as “Breaking Bad”, “House of Cards” and “Borgen”.  I was lucky to get a chance to catch up with Tony Morphett. He created or co-created many Australian television series. Among his track record: DynastyCertain Women, Sky TrackersBlue HeelersWater RatsAbove the Law and Rain Shadow.

Tony Morphett has written or co-written seven feature films. Among his TV writing are ten telemovies, twelve miniseries, and some hundreds of episodes of TV series drama. He devised or co-devised seven TV series. He has won 14 industry awards for TV writing.

TV Writing in Australia

Q: Vince Gilligan sent in his episodes of X-files. He then started writing and co-producing X-files. That’s how he broke into TV writing.  How do writers typically break into TV writing in Australia?

Tony-Morphett-TV-WritingA: Vince Gilligan followed a route a lot of aspiring screenwriters in LA try.  Write a spec script for a successful series and hope to get a gig. For him it turned up trumps. It’s a case of “many are called but few are chosen”.  But what the hell, it’s one way of getting past the gatekeepers.

Shane Brennan, now showrunning both NCIS series, was a successful screenwriter here. But he had an urge to work in LA. Every year he’d go over and pitch and finally pulled it off in a sensational way.  David Williamson came into screenwriting from stage.  He segued into movies and his first TV writing was on my 1970’s series Certain Women.  I’d seen The Removalist and was blown away and recommended him to our script editor Glyn Davies. 

Laura Jones also got her first TV writing gig on Certain Women after doing a screenwriting course. If memory serves, that was in Canberra. Debra Oswald, known for her TV writing on Offspring, I think, started as a stage playwright. Peter Gawler – Underbelly and lot of other credits – got a job at Crawford Productions. I think he was a 3rd Assistant, segued into the script department, became a script editor, then the great writer he is today. 

Crawford’s was an amazing hot-house for TV writing talent.  A lot of people got their start there but there’s nothing quite like it today.  The film schools are turning out writers, some better than others.  The problem with some of the film schools, is that they encourage their students to follow the auteur filmmaker myth.

Directing and screenwriting are two very different disciplines. Each can take years to master. There are some who can do it, but not many.  Daniel Krige went to AFTRS to do screenwriting and segued into writing/directing.  His West is I think a good film, and he may be an exception to my rule.  He came to me when he was about 16, had left school, with a big lever arch file with the first handwritten draft of West inside. 

I agreed to read it and found to my horror that it was a good script. It needed work, but don’t they all? With a lot of nagging some friends, I got him into AFTRS when he was only 19. 

The problem with some of the film schools, it seems to me,
is that they encourage their students to follow the auteur film maker myth.

Me?  I’d written a novel called Dynasty about a media company owning family.  I’d spent 10 years in TV as an interviewer/documentary man and thought it’d make good television.  I pitched it to David Goddard, then head of ABC-TV drama, he commissioned a pilot. 

Then he went back to England and his place was taken by John Cameron, one of the best heads of drama I’ve known.  He commissioned a further 10 eps, then a further 13. I really learned TV writing on those series, primarily from Glyn Davies. He was my script editor, who had worked in the UK on No Hiding Place and The Rat Catchers.  I owe Glyn much, he was a mentor and friend.

I suppose the lesson in all this is to get noticed somehow. And … to have the work to back it up when the chance comes. The one characteristic that all writers possess is that they write.  It’s not “one day when I get time I’ll sit down and write my novel/stage play/screenplay.”

It’s “sit on your arse and do it now.”

Writing for TV: The Showrunners

Q: Do show creators generally come from the ranks of staff writers?  What sort of staff writers generally rise up to create and run their own TV shows?

vintage-TV-writingReg Watson was on Grundy’s staff.  More recently Bevan Lee on staff at Seven has developed  great shows – A Place To Call Home, Winners and Losers, Packed to the Rafters.  Crawford’s shows were all, I think, developed in-house.

I’ve created or co-created seven series.  Debra Oswald won a NSW Premier’s award for the telemovie pilot of Offspring.  The pattern these days is for shows to be created in-house or by indy poducers. Blue Heelers was by me and Hal McElroy, Water Rats by me and John Hugginson, both freelancers but done for Hal McElroy.

Q: Does TV writing require a particular personality type?

A: Creating a show needs a writer’s brain. Running one needs a producer’s brain.  Some people like Shane Brennan and Bevan Lee  have both and can switch from one to the other. It’s a hard trick, and I’ve never been tempted to do it because running a show would take away from my TV writing time, which is my first love.  

Q: As you mentioned, the audience is more segmented than ever. How is the rise of social media/YouTube/VOD impacting on how TV shows are funded?

A: Yes, the audience is now segmented but TV goes on. I’m not up the business end, but my understanding is that advertising revenue remains strong.  Screen Australia will invest in telemovies and in miniseries but not episodics.  This policy can distort the nature of the show.  A natural episodic idea will now usually need a spine running through 13 episodes turning it into a miniseries. You can do this only 5 times (=65 eps) before ScreenOz cuts off investment funding. 

Sea Patrol and Underbelly both did this which is a factor in why both series ended at 65 eps apiece.  Generally speaking new technology doesn’t kill old.  Radio didn’t kill books, TV didn’t kill radio, the internet and smartphones and X Boxes have not killed TV.    

Q: Are Australian TV shows profitable in general?  What is being done to increase the profitability?

A: That depends on the ratings. If a show on commercial TV rates well it will attract advertising.  If a show doesn’t rate well, you’ll see it moved to a later time slot, and usually a different night and it won’t be picked up for another series.  No one promised us a rose garden and life in the jungle is tough.

 Q: Are there any Australian TV shows that do a great job of integrating social media and the internet to reach a greater audience?  How is this impacting the advertising model?

A: Like everyone in media, I’m watching social media/internet.  With downloads and YouTube and so on the way, ratings are counted has changed.  These days you get the Overnights and then the Consolidated Rating which gives you a better idea or how many people are watching but it doesn’t and never has tell you if anyone’s in the room or paying attention.  Kids multitask – they watch TV and their X Boxes simultaneously.  No system’s perfect.  

Q: How is TV writing changing in the age of digital media?

A: It’s perhaps got crisper and faster moving but the fundamentals haven’t changed since we sat around in caves telling stories to each other about the last Mastodon hunt.  Humans want to be told stories.  Why we do is a two bottle argument. My own view is that fiction is a training ground for real life.  You learn strategies for living from stories and live many other people’s lives.  

Q: What in your view, as a long-time successful practitioner, are some of the upsides and downsides of the change in the landscape of TV writing in Australia?

Family-TV-writingA: In many ways  we’ve become a coarser society.  In my youth, men generally didn’t use profanity in front of women, they kept it to the public bar.  Men were in that sense functionally bi-lingual, and women didn’t use language that would make a sailor blush. That age is now gone. 

The trap for younger writers in this is to  take the easy route when it comes to expressing, say, anger.  There’s also what I call the Fucking and Killing Sub-Genre which can get boring.  Think of the American studio films of the 40’s and 50’s. They didn’t need it to get their effects.  Deadwood, the most profane miniseries I have ever seen, was both beautifully made and suffered poverty in its dialogue.  Fuckety-fuckety-fuckety.  Noel Coward it is not. 

Q: Do you have an idea in the works that you’d like to see as a series.

A: Half a dozen which I won’t tell you about because they’re not yet as finished as I’d like.  If you want to see some of my orphan ideas, which have never seen light of day, go to and click Bottom Drawer then Miniseries and/or Episodic. 

It’s a heart-breaking old town, is it not?

Q: What is a project you’re working on currently?

A: Several, with several producers.  Also a science fiction novel which is a sequel to my Starship Home, now available as an Amazon Kindle eBook if I may for a moment indulge in blatant self-advertisement.

Q: As a female, I’m curious to find out whether the actresses in Australia have the same problems as in Hollywood.  That is, there are too many actresses (more women than men study drama) and not enough leading roles.

A: I think it’s the same here.  What may change it is the trend for more and more women becoming heads of drama and/or development.  This has come about, I think, because for several decades women have become producers, script producers and script editors for TV writing.  Sue Masters, Caroline Stanton, Susan Bower, sister of the late great Lynn Bayonas. She was also distinguished in this field. Kim Wilson, the list goes on and on. Having said that there are some women who bring audiences with then. To name a few,  Lisa McCune, Asher Keddie, Rebecca Gibney, Claudia Karvan and Essie Davis, currently tearing up the set as Phryne Fisher.  She’s had an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress, and a Tony nomination.  She was the stand-out actor in The Slap, and I’d happily watch her read the phone book.  These are genuine stars in television

 Q: You’re an author of science fiction novels too.  What do you think will be some of the things we’ll see in the future?

Technology changes but human nature remains the same.  In the 50’s, it was a convention in SF that computers would get bigger and bigger – sometimes planet sized.  The chairman of IBM once said that there was maybe a market for 5 computers to service the world. These would be 30 ton Godzillas.Then Jobs and Wozniak put together the  personal computer and couldn’t get Atari and Hewlett Packard to come aboard.  Then Facebook came along and I thought it was a campus fad. Kid stuff. 

Then Twitter and I thought “what can you say in 140 letters or less?”  1984 and Brave New World were once thought of as either/or visions of the future but it turns out that both Orwell and Huxley were right.  For me, the best SF tells speculative stories in exotic, imagined  locations.  It’s like historical fiction played out in imaginary worlds.

But I wouldn’t bet the house on any of it coming true.  

Thank you Tony for agreeing to this interview, and providing such insightful answers about your experience in TV writing.

-Eda Utku

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