Laura Neal is a British writer whose TV credits include Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Tiger Aspect/ITV2), My Mad Fat Diary (Drama Republic/C4) and Tatau (Touchpaper/BBC). She has also written multiple episodes for Netflix projects including the Idris Elba series Turn Up Charlie and the international hit Sex Education.
Laura has written on the third series of Killing Eve (Sid Gentle/BBC) and has recently been announced as the lead writer and an executive producer for season four.
There are some people whose presence and personality fill the room and leave a lasting impression; Laura Neal is one of those people. I’ve known Laura for many years and it has been no surprise to see her career go from strength to strength. Most artists would testify that making your way in the creative arts industry is no easy task, and that’s as true for writers as it is for actors, directors and every creative in between. When Laura was at an earlier stage of her career, I recall how the all too familiar struggle of being an artist turned her eye to the Met Police. Whilst I have no doubt that she would’ve made a fantastic detective, I’m delighted that her perseverance has paid off and now sees her as an executive producer and the lead writer of BBC’s Killing Eve. I have every faith that her interest in criminal investigation will be satisfied through her work on the show’s MI6 security operative, Eve Polastri!
I was lucky enough to catch up with Laura in between trips to LA.
Could you give us an insight into the process of creating a high-budget TV show in the UK?
If you’re being trusted with a high-budget TV show, chances are you’ll have a few solid credits under your belt already. Even so, there will probably be several months, if not years, of development. You might come up with the idea yourself and pitch it to a production company, or a production company will approach you with an idea or, more often, a piece of IP they’ve optioned. From there, you’ll spend time working together to create characters, storylines and, normally, an episode one outline (or script). At some point in this process, a broadcaster or network will be approached to buy the idea and fund the remaining development. This is a big milestone! Once they’re on board, they can either “green light” the series straight off (rare) or ask for more development (common). Once a green light is granted, the remaining scripts are written (and rewritten!), either by you, the creator, or with the help of a team of writers. Later, directors are brought on board, heads of department are hired, actors are cast and the production begins. For a UK series, the filming process usually takes about three months, followed by a post-production period of a couple of months. The final product might not be on TV screens until two or three years after the idea was conceived!
Could you take us through the journey that brought you to where you are now?
I always liked drama at school, and did both acting and writing (but I was better at writing). I did the Royal Court Young Writers Programme in my teens, followed by various schemes for new writers run by places like the Old Vic and Paines Plough. Around this time, I also went to Bristol University to study drama and carried on writing there, both for university societies and for theatre companies back in London. One of the first full-length plays I wrote had a rehearsed reading in London, which some TV producers were at. Afterwards, they offered to mentor me and, months later, gave me my first TV commission on Secret Diary of a Call Girl. That commission, combined with completing some other more screen-focussed schemes such as Channel 4’s Coming Up, secured me an agent. After I graduated university, I carried on writing (and waitressing!) until I built up enough momentum to write full time. Gradually, my number of professional credits grew and now I work both in the UK and America, on shows such as Sex Education and Killing Eve.
How much/often do you get to work with actors? And what does that entail?
Traditionally in the UK, TV writers don’t have a huge amount of interaction with actors. The scripts are generally written in advance of production starting, so conversations with actors are often done by the director or executive producers. If you’re the creator of your own TV show and you hold an executive producer credit, you’ll have much more involvement but for your average jobbing writer on a TV show it’ll be minimal. However, this is beginning to change. British writers are having increasingly greater exposure to the American system, where writers are much more involved in production… and that idea is beginning to take hold here.
Here’s a hypothetical: I’ve written a TV pilot that I believe has huge potential, what do I do now?
Firstly, make sure it’s in the best shape it can possibly be in. Leave it for a few days. Read it again. Rewrite it. Get other people to read it. Rewrite it. Know what happens after the pilot finishes. What is it about the series that’s unique and different? What journeys will your characters go on? How does the series end? Is there a series two? Three?! When you know the answers to these questions, send your script out! If you have a literary agent already, get them to read it and distribute it. If not, there are several schemes out there designed to give new writers a leg-up into the industry. Kudos, BAFTA, Channel 4 and the BBC all have them. These schemes are often the best way to get an agent. The BBC Writersroom website is also a valuable treasure-trove of advice and opportunity. Don’t give up. If this script doesn’t yield results, write another one. It’ll be better than the last.
What has been one of the highlights of your career so far?
Getting a job as a writer on the third season of Killing Eve and being able to write lines for Fiona Shaw, who I love.
Who and what inspires you?
Early on in my career I was inspired by playwrights like Lucy Prebble, Sarah Kane, Dennis Kelly and Anthony Neilson. Once I started working in TV, I was inspired by the people who mentored me through my first jobs; great executive producers such as Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitsky and writers such as Tom Bidwell. Great producers make a huge amount of difference to a writer – they can help bring an idea from your brain onto a page, they can advise on structure, characterisation and plot and, most importantly, they’re responsible for actually getting the thing made! When I started watching American TV, I looked up to show runners (writer-producers, who do both the job of a writer and an executive producer) like Vince Gilligan, Jenji Kohan and Liz Flahive. Nowadays, I’m inspired by shows with great female characters, dark humour and unique takes on the world, like Killing Eve and Sex Education. I’m also, like everyone, obsessed with Succession. If I could create and write something like that, I’d die happy.
Finally, if you were assembling a team of superheroes, which TV characters would you put together (no actual superpowers required)?
Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale for her bravery, Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation for her can-do attitude, and Midge Maisel from The Marvellous Mrs Maisel for her GSOH. Oh, and the Hot Priest from Fleabag just… because.