Interviews – Media – Martha Hillier

We interviewed Martha Hillier of the BBC in January 2001 when she worked as an Associate Development Producer in BBC Radio Drama. Now 3 years later, we decided to re-interview Martha to see what has happened to her media career and if she’s any closer to her 5 year ambition of producing TV drama, script writing or storylining.

Are you still with the BBC and if so what are you up to?

I am, I currently work as a Script Editor on Holby City.

Sounds exciting, when did you start doing that?

About six months ago. Before that I was working as an Assistant Producer for Fiction Lab, where we developed 60-minute drama and films for BBC4.

Before we talk about your current role then, tell me a bit more about what you did as an Assistant Producer?

Lots of different things- mainly developing scripts and treatments, but sometimes more Production jobs like casting, working with directors etc.

How long were you doing it?

I was there for a couple of years, it was a great job. I liked doing stuff for BBC 4 but also wanted to try my hand at something more high profiles. The Holby role came up and so I decided to move.

So what do you do on Holby City?

I work in a team of 6 script editors helping the writers develop their characters and storylines. We each have 3 scripts on the go at any one time and spend up to 3 months on each. As a script editor you liase with the producers, researchers, designers and story team to ensure the script works and your episode fits in with all the others. It’s also very important that it’s scientifically accurate. You need to be very familiar with the previous, current and future scripts.

Is it hard?

It’s quite long hours- and because the show runs all year round there is a lot of output to be across. But I really enjoy it- it’s a great laugh so I can’t really complain. We work from about 8.30am – 7pm most days and sometimes at weekends as well- that can take it out of you, so having a passion about it really helps.

Is it a competitive environment?

Not once you’re in it, but to get the opportunity in the first place is. Editing is very particular skill and it’s quite hard to get in to , even if you have lots of experience in other areas of televsion.

If you could change anything what would it be?

Hmmm. I think I’d cut the hours down a little bit and ideally have more time to develop the stories. Occasionally things have to change at the last minute, which can be challenging.

What’s your proudest achievement?

Recently? It’s probably a film I worked on for BBC4 called ‘Home’ It was a brilliant experience, I worked alongside a fantastic director and lead actor, it was so interesting, I learnt a lot and had great fun. It was recently nominated for an RTS award.

Do you have any advice for graduates or job seekers wanting to get into production?

There are 2 ways to become drama producer, the obvious one being to work in any production role and build your career from there. The second way is a little less obvious, via scripting and editorial roles. Nothing is valued higher in this industry than experience but being flexible and good at communicating will help you.

If you are trying to get into scripting or writing, meet and talk to writers as much as possible .If you’re starting out, theatre companies can help, as will agents and writers groups. Ask writers if you can read and appraise their work; they are often keen for feedback. But remember- you’re not writing a review- your job is to help the writer achieve what they are striving to.

Finally, we asked you before what your 5 year plan was and you’ve kept to it, so what’s your 5 year plan now?

I just want to keep building towards becoming a Producer but ideally (eventually) with things I’ve developed myself with a writer.

Previously written Interview:

Martha Hillier, 25, works for the drama department at the BBC as an associate development producer. She is based at Broadcasting House in central London

What does your job involve?
Mostly I develop scripts with writers. They come up with a whole raft of ideas and we take them to the commissioners. Some of those ideas we generate ourselves, some with writers, some with performers. I also help cast productions and ‘script edit’. That is where you work a script into being the script you’re going to use in production ­ you take it with the writer from first draft to production draft.

What qualifications did you have for working in the drama department?
I read English as an undergraduate and did lots of drama at university. I then did an MA in ‘Text & performance’ at RADA and King’s College London.

How did you find out about the training scheme?
I saw an advertisement in the media section of The Guardian – and I thought millions of people will apply for that.

What did the application procedure involve?
First a long application form, then an interview and a short paper on television detailing which programmes you watch and why. They ask you to think of a short ten-minute item for Watchdog or something like that. So you must be aware of what kind of BBC programmes are around.

What sort of training were you given?
I joined the BBC on the Production Training Scheme which meant you got to go round all the different departments. We had four weeks’ training and then went on our first placement. There was a lot of formal training. For instance, you’re taught practical skills like how to shoot with a Digital Video Camera. Increasingly more and more people have to be quite multi-skilled.

What kind of support did you have during training?
The best kind of support system came from my peer group of other trainees. The BBC also appointed us ‘mentors’ who were great. All the mentors were quite senior within the BBC and you could go and talk them if you had a problem or you wanted advice on what direction to take.

How many hours do you work?
It depends on if we’re in production or not ­ if you’re filming or recording you can be working until three o’clock in the morning. However, if you’re developing a project, it’s much more of a ten ’til six job.

What’s a typical day?
In development, a lot of the day is taken up on the telephone to writers, having meetings with the rest of your team, discussing ideas. Or you might be in the office reading scripts all day.

What’s the achievement you are most proud of?
A high point was definitely being part of the team that wrote Grant out of Eastenders.

Would you change anything about your role?
I’d ask for more money!

Is there a down side to working in production?
If you are working in production you are rarely employed for more than three months. In fact a nine-month contract like the last one I had is considered quite long. At my stage as an assistant producer, you have to be constantly looking for work, which can sometimes make it hard to focus on the task in hand. When it comes to finding jobs, it’s nothing to do with who you know (contrary to popular belief), it’s actually about being reasonably good at it, and that’s all that really matters. But it is very stressful.

You can’t really think long term in your career?
No. It’s hard to plan specifically. On the other hand, something always seems to work out and come together. And it means that you never get bored, and you can work your way up quite quickly.

What sort of personality do you need to work in the area?
You need to love TV, and engage not just with popular culture, but with as much as the world as possible. Random and obscure things can give you ideas for mainstream shows. I suppose you also probably need to be quite gregarious and imaginative.

What advice would you give to undergraduates or recent graduates?
Watch a lot of television, and think about it. Be an active viewer, work out what you like and what kind of stuff you’d love to work on.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I’m not sure- hopefully producing TV drama, script writing or storylining.

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