How to pitch, develop and make your first TV series
Irreverently funny Scottish filmmaker Duncan Cowles recently landed his own TV series on the BBC – a pipe dream for most creatives. Duncan takes us through how he made it happen.
- Duncan Cowles
- 20 April 2021
“How on earth did you manage to get your own BBC TV series?” is a question I’m being asked quite a lot these days. The answer I usually give people is: “I’m not quite sure, but let me try and figure it out by writing a really useful, informative and occasionally witty article for It’s Nice That where I reflect on how my first ever TV series, Scary Adult Things, came about, and attempt to impart some advice to fellow creatives at the same time…”
Most folk don’t reply for some reason.
Any good advice article (according to this article I read on how to write a successful advice article) starts with some background on who is writing it so… Hello, my name is Duncan Cowles. I’ve spent my 20s making a whole bunch of short films and documentaries, many of which look at things from my own personal POV. Some of my films have done alright (eg. Taking Stock) and sent me around the world to film festivals and won me a bunch of awards. Others have done nothing and generally I never mention them because I don’t want people to think I’m a massive failure. In fact, I’ve already said too much.
All you really need to know is I film stuff and I recently made a six-part documentary TV series called Scary Adult Things where I look at millennial issues, now available on BBC iPlayer.
How did it all come about?
When BBC Scotland was gearing up to launch back in 2018, I was told they were looking for ideas and filmmakers. So I looked up the commissioning briefs and got in touch with some ideas and links to my previous work.
Now, I’m not about to pretend that it was as simple as emailing the BBC and next thing you’re on the telly. Of course what followed was months of meetings and development work, refining a pitch, a 30-minute pilot, then some more development work before I was actually commissioned. However, proactively taking that first step is basically my first bit of advice to anyone.
Tip One: Put yourself out there
If you want something, whether it’s a TV series or decent haircut, you have to ask for it. You can’t just sit about hoping for it to happen, you have to put yourself out there in order to be in with some sort of chance.
Where did the idea come from?
The original idea for Scary Adult Things was born out of my own feelings of insecurity around still living at home with my parents in my late 20s. On social media, and in one case literally outside my bedroom window, I saw people from my school year buying houses, having kids and enjoying the no doubt countless benefits of having their own personalised number plates. I couldn’t help but feeling I’d somehow failed, or that I was doing something wrong by still living with my parents.
I thought that if I maybe turned my insecurity into a documentary mini-quest of sorts, where I went around and spoke to other millennials who still live at home with their parents, I could maybe (if nothing else) make myself feel a bit better about it. “Basically a sort of Scottish version of MTV Cribs where millennials show me round their parents house” was what you’d probably call my “elevator pitch”.
Feedback on the initial idea was really positive. I was encouraged to think about the concept as more of a series of me investigating different topics, and not just about folk living at home. The ideas for other episodes then began to emerge; episode two on Side Hustles came from my fear of financial instability; episode three The Sesh came from my worries about drinking too much; episode four Gaming the System was motivated by feeling embarrassed to admit that I play loads of video games.
Tip Two: Be a bit vulnerable
I’ve always thought that the best creative work feels like the creator has opened up their diary and turned it into something unique. Whether that’s an authored TV programme or a sculpture of a cat, I think the same thing applies regardless of form. It’s terrifying to put something personal out there, but it’s also rewarding. I think that often it’s when people can begin to really relate to what you’re feeling.
Style and approach
I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to only showing the good bits of my life online. For example, the film I made for a local council about new parking restrictions is not on my website. However, with this TV series, I was keen to show an honest portrayal of young people's lives, and indeed what it was actually like when I went out to meet them. I wanted to show genuine conversations that were real, not polished interviews edited for sound bites.
Therefore the making of the show, no matter what happened, would be interwoven into the narrative. The long drives, meal deals in supermarket car parks, being refused permission to film something, and all the other human mistakes that happen along the way. This would make the show unique, different and genuine. I wanted a viewer to feel like they were right there with me on my shambolic journey.
Tip Three: Embrace failure
I’ve spent my life failing at stuff and many of those perceived failures paved the way for future success. Most people only focus on the successes, but I love to draw attention to what hasn’t worked. It’s a more honest and satisfying way of telling a story. People see through the bullshit, so be honest with your audience.
Making a pilot
When I was commissioned to make the pilot, I knew I was going to need a bit of help to develop the idea and give it the best chance of becoming a real, legit TV show thing.
I approached Edinburgh-based Studio Something with the idea, who I already had a good working relationship with from doing short VTs (short films that slot into larger TV shows) for the BBC Scotland series, A View from the Terrace.
Studio Something were growing from being just a creative agency, and developing a broadcast arm to their company. I liked that they weren’t your usual TV production company who churn out lots of traditional programmes. I wanted Scary Adult Things to be important to them, and for them to really care about the series, which they have done. Their experience in advertising and marketing was also something I felt would really help when it came to developing the programme.
Tip Four: Work with the right people
Working with people you like and trust is half the battle if you ask me. If you’re going to be spending months or years with folk on a project, it helps to genuinely enjoy working with them, especially if it’s on something you care about. At the risk of starting to sound a bit like I’m doing a seminar for LinkedIn on “developing good business relationships”, I’ll not labour the point. But yes, work with decent people when you can. It’ll help grow both you and the creative project.
Making the actual show
When the series was actually commissioned there were some minor delays due to the global pandemic. It wasn’t ideal, but to be honest, this just gave us a little more time to develop the episode ideas and make sure we were definitely ready to get cracking when the situation allowed.
Then, when it was safe to do so, it was a case of just sort of getting on with it. I took it one day at a time and tried to make the best TV series I could each day. When I remembered to, I enjoyed myself. Regular coffees and frequent danish pastries were an important part of that process.
Tip Five: Enjoy yourself
It sounds a bit daft and cheesy, but it’s so easy to forget to have fun whilst you’re stressed on tight schedules and non-stop shoots with very few days off. In amongst the hard work were some really good days, spent with some great people, connecting and chatting about life. I hope I’m lucky enough to do it all again in the future.
Wrapping it up now…
I got my first grey hair towards the end of making the series, which I realise isn’t that big-a-deal in reality… it just felt like it’d be something symbolic I could mention at the end of this article. I was trying to find a way to tie it into an inspirational statement that combined all of the five advice points I’d mentioned together, but I failed… maybe should have asked for help with it, ah well, hope you still feel inspired to get out there and go after what you want in life.
Either way please watch my TV series Scary Adult Things on BBC iPlayer.
Duncan Cowles: Scary Adult Things (Copyright © Duncan Cowles, 2021)
About the Author
Duncan Cowles is a BAFTA Scotland Award winning documentary filmmaker whose short films have also won a selection of awards at festivals such as Glasgow Short Film Festival, Open City Documentary Festival, BFI Future FF, Hamburg Short FF, Kyiv Short FF, Szczecin European FF and been featured on platforms such as BBCiplayer, Short of the Week, Vimeo Staff Picks, BFI Player and MUBI...
Duncan has also been commissioned to write and direct documentaries for broadcasters and organisations such as Channel 4, STV, BBC Scotland, BBC Radio 4, TED, Adobe and Red Bull. Most recently Duncan has been commissioned to make six episodes of his own new documentary TV series Scary Adult Things which looks at the struggles of the millennial generation for BBC.