Inside The World of British TV & Writing For Award-Winning Shows: An Interview With Nasreen Ahmed

Friday 20 September 2019

Nasreen Ahmed is a script editor on the popular show Doctors and has worked on nearly 300 scripts as well as storylining some big themed weeks for the show (Homelessness 2016 and Mental Health Awareness Week 2018). 

During the course of her BBC career she has also produced and directed a radio drama called Silver Street for the BBC Asian Network and won the British Muslim Award in 2017 for Services to Media. 

Nasreen got her first TV Producer credit working on a special episode featuring an all singing, all dancing Bollywood style marriage proposal! That sequence won ‘Scene of the Year’ at the British Soap Awards in 2018.

Nasreen, welcome. 

Q1. How did you get into script editing? Tell us a little bit about your writing journey. 

After working as a Producer/Director in radio drama for many years, the production I worked on came to an end. 
I decided to take my skillset and make the move from radio into TV. I sent my CV to BBC Doctors who eventually offered me some cover work as a researcher. It was only for a couple of weeks but I finally managed to get my foot through that door into the world of TV. It was a wonderful introduction to the world of scripts. 
The fortnight was over in the blink of an eye but it made me more determined than ever to work in the industry. I was gutted to leave so quickly but always hoped for another call. I kept myself busy with other things while I waited including doing a Prince 2 course in project management which I passed with flying colours. 
Eventually my efforts and prayers paid off. 
I joined the team at Doctors as an assistant script editor. My job was mainly to be highly organised and check the continuity was right across all the scripts as well as generally supporting the script editors. 
The role helped me to acquire new skills, improve my communication techniques and to show the team that I was capable of being a great script editor someday. 
I put the hours in and was always looking for solutions not problems. I eventually earned my stripes and became a script editor and that’s when the real magic started to happen. I could be creative, develop new stories with writers, give notes to hopefully make things stronger. 
I loved every minute of getting to know writers and earning their respect and trust – two extremely vital components in the relationship.
I have also storylined a couple of big themed weeks for Doctors as well as script editing them. We did one on Homelessness back in 2016 and last year we did a Mental Health Awareness Week which, as an anxiety sufferer is a subject very close to my own heart.
I have had a couple of short breaks from the show during which I went off to work on Coronation Street and Eastenders – before returning to Doctors armed with new experience and skillset. 
I have just started an exciting new role as ‘Story Producer’ at Doctors…
Q2. Diversity on screen and in the industry is incredibly important and most writers know the importance of representing society as it is in real life. Do you have any tips for creating a diverse cast? Are there character types we still do not see enough of? 

I think there is a still a lot of work to do across the industry but at the same time, I am proud to say that Doctors do a brilliant job of representing diversity in character and story. 

Every episode of Doctors features a contained ‘story of the day’ and this is a great platform for telling stories that represent people from all walks of life. 

We regularly depict characters and stories that tackle cultural and religious barriers, gender representation, sexuality and prejudice towards certain communities and groups. 

To be honest, I think some of the big soaps are doing a great job on this right now and the depiction on screen seems much healthier than it used to be. 

As a script editor, I am always looking for interesting characters and stories that make our audience think about their own potential prejudices and how they might learn something that could challenge some of their views. 

Q3. I adore Bollywood. Love the bright coloured clothes, the dancing, the signing, the fun! Was the Bollywood style proposal your idea and how did you approach this for a show like Doctors? 

We were doing a storyline in which Doctor Heston Carter wanted to propose to his partner Ruhma who plays a midwife. What he didn’t realise was that she was thinking of proposing to him too. 

In early discussions, we realised the transmission date of that episode would coincide with the annual BBC Music Day. So then I suggested our couple might propose to each other with a bit of help from Bollywood. Ruhma and Heston (played by Bharti Patel and Owen Brenman) are much loved characters and we wanted their big moment to be as memorable as possible for the audience. 

We got to thinking of ways in which we might go about achieving this challenging production. Naturally, the first question was – where do we get the music from? So, we decided to approach an established British Asian Songwriter but the second question was who? It didn’t take long for us to decide we wanted to work with Navin Kundra.

Navin is a talented singer/songwriter originally hailing from the Midlands and he is no stranger to working with the BBC – he has performed live on Strictly Come Dancing and has performed at many music events for the BBC Asian Network. 

He was also the first British Asian artist to be invited to perform for the Royal family at St James Palace and also has a Guinness World Record under his belt. 

Navin came in for an initial meeting with us and his energy and enthusiasm for our project was boundless. We asked if he could take his original Hindi track called ‘Mehbooba’ (meaning ‘My Beloved) and adapt it exclusively for Doctors.

It’s a great ‘peppy’ track and the perfect fit for an all singing all dancing Bollywood proposal scene. We wanted a female vocalist to feature as well as some English verses for Owen and Bharti to be able to lip sync to. Navin embraced all this straight away despite being in the middle of a very heavy schedule shooting his very first Bollywood movie – within a week he was in the recording studio doing exactly what we wanted. By this point we had also invited Navin to feature in a cameo role in the episode – he was bowled over and said yes immediately. 

The track was delivered and then the whole thing became even more exciting – three dance rehearsals later (with a tired Navin doing two-way five hour drives to be part of them), our Bollywood sequence was taking shape. 

The whole thing was filmed in one day on location and was one of the most amazing things we have ever done on Doctors. It was amazing to work with so many people across the board in achieving this episode – the collaboration was a roaring success and the most enjoyable part was how people seamlessly communicated and worked together. 

We collaborated with Bollywood choreographers & dancers, obviously Navin, four members of our regular cast, over 40 supporting artists – and of course not forgetting our amazing crew and production teams. 

Costume and Makeup did a stunning job as did our Art Department who worked tirelessly towards giving the location that much needed authentic Bollywood look. The shoot day was long and tough but the enthusiasm never faltered – everyone played their part beautifully and the end result spoke for itself.

Q4. Are there any mistakes screenwriters consistently make that you are constantly correcting? 

I always loathe to use the word ‘mistake’ when it comes to working with writers on Doctors. In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong way to tell a story but there are some things that I look out for in every script. 

Like strong plots driven through interesting characters that the audience want to invest in. Every script should start on a strong inciting incident that hooks the audience in from the off and then present a surprise or two as the story continues. 

Ideally there should always be a strong climax to the story and it should have an unexpected twist at the end. I always hope to subvert the audience’s expectations – for me that is a strong story be it medical or otherwise. 

The lead character should learn something new or be changed or challenged in some way by the end of it – good or bad. The element that I probably give most notes on is getting the dialogue right. 

That can be really tricky for both new and experienced writers. 

You want emotive words and story beats that really pack a punch. 

You want your regular character voices to be spot on and instantly identifiable. 

And of course, a bit of comedy in every story is great too but the gags have to be tonally right for a daytime show. 

Q5. How does working on a radio drama differ from the screen?

The main difference is ensuring your radio scripts are structured so that the audience don’t get lost in translation. Without any kind of visual, you have to work really hard on the clarity for every beat or scene i.e. which character it is and where they are location wise.

The audience have to use their own imagination in terms of creating the visual context for what they are hearing but you have to seed a picture in the listener’s mind.

There’s no stage direction like there is in TV and there’s no point in giving a vivid description of what a radio character is wearing because nobody can see it. One of the great things about working in radio drama is the amount of ‘fudging’ you are able to do.

I remember a ‘Silver Street’ episode in which our characters were supposedly attending a music festival with hundreds of other people present. It was actually recorded in a tiny room at the back of the recording studio and enhanced with very clever sound effects and wild tracked voices. In TV you would need a pretty massive budget to pull that episode off and need a hell of a lot of extras on location.

Radio drama is harder for the actors too in many ways. They have to remember to play to the microphone at all times and not to the other characters who are in the scene with them. There is restricted movement whereas TV allows you to move around freely while the camera is on you.

But, I also think the general creative process and skillset in generating interesting characters and stories is the same whichever genre you are working in.

Thank you for answering my questions, Nasreen. What a wonderful picture you’ve painted. All the very best with your new projects.

Emma Pullar is a bestselling and award-winning writer of dark fiction and children’s books. She also dabbles in screenwriting.

You can find Emma on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook or lurking in the shadows, spying on people in the name of inspiration and creativity.

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