BBC’s Kirstie brings script tips home for Borders school kids

BBC screenwriter Kirstie Swain offered P7 pulis at Eyemouth Primary a masterclass in script writing last week.
BBC screenwriter Kirstie Swain offered P7 pulis at Eyemouth Primary a masterclass in script writing last week.

SHE may not have realised it when she was doing her work experience at the Berwickshire News, but Kirstie Swain feels the stories she heard and read in the newspaper office started her on the way to becoming a BBC scriptwriter for Holby City and Eastenders.

“I must have been in fourth year,” she remembers. “That was my first foray into professional writing. It was great fun.

“I actually went on to work as a journalist for a year in Glasgow after university, but I think I prefer making things up.”

She laughs: “Plus, I used to worry about publishing something in the slightest way inaccurate, all the time.”

Right now, Kirstie is working on her second ‘Holby City’ script for the BBC.

And her highest-profile writing gig to date is about to appear in the living rooms of millions, when her first ‘Eastenders’ episode is broadcast on September 4.

Kirstie returned to the Borders last week to pass on some of her writing know-how to pupils at Eyemouth Primary, where her mother Fiona teaches.

She helped the children get to grips with the basics of script-writing, focusing on the basics of dialogue and stage direction.

Primary 7 pupil Alice Ellwood particularly enjoyed the mini-workshop. “I loved it, “ she said, “She had answers for all our questions.”

Kirstie herself enjoyed supporting the kids, even if it meant dispelling a few illlusions.

“The first thing they asked was how many famous people I’d met,” she says, “and then they wondered if I liked getting recognised in the street. I had to explain to them that writers don’t really get that sort of treatment.”

Kirstie’s mum remembers that her daughter was attempting to create dramas quite different to those of most little girls, at an even younger age.

“She was always writing, even when she was a wee girl, at the age of five,” says Fiona.

“I would say goodnight to her and it would be ‘lights out’, and then I’d go upstairs to check up on her later, and I’d find her scribbling away.

“I suppose my husband and I passed on a bit of something that gave her her way with words, because her father’s very good when it comes to writing letters and things.”

“I have to confess, I watch the programmes. I’m quite a Holby City convert now. It’s even more interesting to see them now that you know someone behind the scenes.

But even the mother-daughter bond doesn’t get Fiona the scoop on upcoming storylines.

“Oh, I never get any tips or anything like that,” she says, “not even a hint.

“My class were amazed when I couldn’t tell them what was going to happen in Eastenders.

“It’s worse than the Official Secrets Act! Kirstie had to sign a non-disclosure clause in her contract when she started with the BBC. She’s not allowed to tell anybody anything.

“I thought I could get things out of her if I kept on at her, but she’s been really good and held out.”

In the accelerated storylines of a TV soap, dozens of writers are used to keep the narrative moving along, and the amount of thought and work that goes into each episode means Kirstie often puts in more than a ‘9 to 5’.

“I have to start writing a bit earlier, from about seven or eight in the morning,” she says. “It takes me a long time to get the ideas out of my head.

“And I have to be very disciplined, otherwise like a lot of people I’ll get distracted by things like Facebook and Twitter.

“Deadlines depend on the show. For Holby City, you usually get about four months to write an episode, while for Eastenders it’s a bit less, closer to three months.

“And it’s quite a process. For Holby I get a medical advisor to work with. They talk to the doctors and surgeons and so on. There’s a person who just suggests what the characters might be talking about on the ward at that moment.”

The writer in Kirstie appreciates the opportunity a series set in a hospital offers for ‘life-or-death’ dramatic moments, but she is sure that the storylines and character arcs would work just as well anywhere else.

“It’s hard to tell a story and then fill the medical situation in. That info has to be there from the start, really, so that when we come up with stuff, we’re able to run the story smoothly.

“I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, so perhaps that helps with the dramatic side of things!”

It also helped Kirstie on her first scripts for the BBC, when she was still training.

“I started at the BBC’s Academy around this time last year, and as a part of that I had to write two episodes of Doctors – they haven’t been screened yet.

“It also meant a lot of lectures and visits to sets. I met with a lot of people in the business, not just on the writing side.

“I love this job because I always used to watch programmes like Holby and Eastenders. I think when I was eight or nine, my mum told me I couldn’t watch Eastenders. I managed to watch some of it behind her back, but then she caught me!

“I feel very honoured to be working on these shows.”

That doesn’t mean that Kirstie doesn’t fancy creating her own characters and branching out from BBC hospitals.

She says: “I would really love to go on and do my own stuff. There’s an idea I have, about a young girl growing up in a seaside town, a bit like Eyemouth.

“That would make a change from writing for cockney characters! I do enjoy that, though, even though I worry they might come across as a bit ‘mockney’ sometimes. I’m very interested in dialects and the way people speak, I really enjoyed studying phonetics as part of my literature degree.

“It would be great to get some Eyemouth accents on the TV.”

And after months of writing and rewriting, does Kirstie still watch the finished programmes?

“I’ll be settling down on my sofa next week to watch my Eastenders episode,” she says. “This will be the first time I’ve seen it, so I’ll be watching, probably with a glass of wine to calm my nerves.”