From non-fiction to drama with David Eldridge and Hallie Rubenhold

Last week, we welcomed dramatist David Eldridge in conversation with author and historian Hallie Rubenhold, chaired by Jamila Gavin, at a special Broadcasting Group event.

The discussion centred on the collaboration on The Scandalous Lady W, originally a historical non-fiction book by Hallie Rubenhold, adapted for screen by David Eldridge. Hallie and David were able to give insight into how collaboration between an author and a screenwriter begins, how to pitch a project to television companies and the challenges of adapting from non-fiction to screened drama.

Here's a taster of what we discussed on the night.

Hallie, at what point did you realise you could use the historical material you’d learned as a novelist?

Hallie Rubenhold: I am a historian as well as a novelist and so have a foot in both camps. In most stories, even in non-fiction, there is a natural narrative and it’s just a matter of finding that narrative thread. With biography, there’s a sense that you have to write a cradle to grave story, but that’s probably something you should never do because in anyone’s life there will be a singular defining incident or a handful of defining incidents which are highly dramatic and should be the focus of a life. For Lady Worsley, for example, it was when she ran off with George Bisset and the trial that ensued. So using that as my starting point I could then see how I could drive a narrative around this. This is how I try and tackle all the non-fiction I write. I think there’s a way of reaching a wider audience with history and I think the better you know your subject matter the more you can reveal certain elements at dramatic moments and really tell their story.


David, when did you first read Hallie's book?

David Eldridge: My old professor of drama from Exeter University, where I’d done my degree, was a bit of an eighteenth centurist and had read Hallie’s book. He got in touch with Hallie and had a dialogue about whether it might make a play and suggested I read the book. The following day, when I should have been doing something else, I started reading Hallie’s book and couldn’t believe what I was reading.


There are so many strands within the book. At what point did you know you were working to a 90 minute format for screen?

David: I finished the book and got back in touch with Hallie and said I don’t think it’s theatre, I think it’s TV, partly because of the scope of it and the fantastic visual world. I explained to Hallie that I wasn’t a writer with lots of resources and couldn’t option the book myself but would she mind if I bought six copies of the book from Amazon and showed it to some producers? One of whom was a producer at Wall to Wall, who had the same response as me to the book. Originally we conceived it as a three-parter, as three one-hour episodes. We got into a discussion with the BBC, who thought the material was fantastic but in terms of the slots there were at that time (mid-late 2011) there was more of a push at the BBC to make more single films. The BBC felt the really exciting part of the story was to focus on the court trial and there would be a better chance of it being greenlit if it was a single that focused on that aspect of the story. I then re-thought the format and Hallie gave her blessing.

Hallie: Having done work for television before I know that you have to twist a story into the appropriate format. I knew that when I let this book go, I was letting the book go. As much as it pains you, TV will do what it wants to do with your book. Part of what you are agreeing to is to allow them to do that. You have to let it go and allow it to become something else. It’s an evolutionary process. It’s not just David that’s shaping this – it’s the commissioner, the producer, the editor, the actors, and everyone has a say so you cannot conceptually hold on to this thing you’ve given over and you must accept that.


In terms of the blend between history, source material and craft, there’s often a back and forth between what’s true and authenticity – did you find going between the book and the screenplay that you were trying to create worlds that did seem real within the context of the medium?

Hallie: We tried our best to stay as authentic and accurate as possible. I don’t think there was any point in the narrative at all that didn’t feel authentic. I was looking at drafts all the time. One thing that I did quibble – they hired an actor with a beard to play an army officer and I knew they would never have had beards. In the eighteenth century all men were clean shaven, almost without exception. In terms of authenticity a lot of television and films get wrong when it comes to period drama is that the drama itself, the story, the characters, the way they behave, doesn’t come out of history, history is layered on top like the icing on a cake. This won’t work. You cannot make a chocolate cake by injecting chocolate into a vanilla sponge. It has to be baked into it and with this, you have to start with the history. If anything, rather than being restricting, it opens up more possibilities and you have something which from the very outset is authentic.


Was there any point where you had a disagreement with the production company or broadcaster if they were going in a direction you didn’t want them to be going in?

David: It’s all a normal part of collaboration. I think you have to be tactical in being a writer. The summer before we shot the film I think there were three or four drafts when it was being pushed in a certain direction and I didn’t think it was quite right. But I knew that we had an early read-through and I would take it in that direction for three or four passes, even though I thought it was over-explaining, and that on the read-through I would have my red pen on my own script and take that as an opportunity to say what we didn’t need.


Do you have any advice on how to get TV companies interested?

David: Having a fantastic part for a leading actress/ actor is always going to be something that makes a difference. All you can do as a screenwriter is to make your best work and be alive to what the channels say they want. They also change their minds all the time about what they say they want and, I’m sure you’re aware, that the BBC have had two changes in controller of drama in the last eighteen months. There’s been all change at ITV and Channel 4 and so you can often find you’re a year into the development of a project and people leave and new people come in with a completely different idea of what they want for the channel. In all of that change what you can do as a writer is make your best work and try and have integrity and hope that the planets align.


How was it funded?

David: We were lucky that the BBC drama and factual departments were having conversations about collaborating on a project and we came in at the right time.

Hallie: So many dramas are co-funded, usually with the US and sometimes with Europe. So if you’re looking to do a big series, other networks may carry this. From what I understand, if you can get American funding for a series in development you have a better chance of getting it off the ground.


Once the television programme had gone out, was there an upsurge in the book sales?

Hallie: Yes! TV does not understand what it can do for authors. It changes everything. I just wish there was more opportunities for television to work together with authors in this way. There seems to be a wall between the two industries. It really does make a difference to the career of an author.

The next Broadcasting Group event is Dead Clever: Making Crime Pay with Elaine Collins, Jamie Glazebrook and Justine Potter, chaired by Elizabeth-Anne Wheal. Join us for this very special event on 3 November 5.30pm-8pm, SOA Offices, 84 Drayton Gardens, London, SW10 9SB.