A few years ago, the writer Julian Simpson found himself with a nagging question. He’d written episodes for some of the UK’s biggest dramas, such as Spooks and Doctor Who, and served the lead writer on the BBC’s New Tricks, but he started to feel like there was a flaw in the way new ideas almost always had to be developed by a lone writer, at least in the UK. “What if there was a way to get a team of writers in a room to kick around the basic seed of an idea, layer the characters, build the world, and work it up to the point that it could be coherently pitched, or a pilot script written?” he wondered. That way, Simpson figured, he wouldn’t have to wait for the show to be commissioned to be able to reap all the creative benefits of working with a team as he had done in US writers’ rooms.
It sounds obvious, he told me over email recently, but “literally no one is doing it because it requires money to pay those writers, money most companies [here] don’t have until a show is commissioned.” The breakthrough he had — and the model he’s now deployed in his new venture, called Storypunk — was to think of the outfit as an “ideas factory” that could “generate fully formed, layered, interesting and unusual pieces of fiction” at a much faster rate than a traditional production company, because there’s a whole writers’ room involved right from the outset. “One of our rooms just took an idea from initial conception to first draft pilot script and season one outline and thence to market in a month, a process that can take a year or more in the traditional development process,” he said. This focus on speed also helps attract financing, because “then you can present the company as an IP generator to investors who only need one in a handful of the ideas generated to make it to fruition for their purposes.”
The part that caught my attention is the way that podcasting fits into his designs. Simpson claims that audio sits right at the heart of Storypunk’s work because of the rapid and relatively inexpensive process of getting a fiction podcast from concept to final product. “For the cost of developing a single decent-sized TV show, we can write and produce a ten-episode fiction podcast,” he said. The template is inspired by Gimlet Media’s Homecoming: the podcast can still exist as “a piece of entertainment in its own right,” but also have an afterlife on screen.
“We basically get to develop for television via the medium of podcasting. . . That idea can build an audience as a podcast and it can act as a sales tool to set up the adaptation. Even if it doesn’t get sold, we still paid some writers and actors and technicians and made a good piece of work that went out to an audience,” he said. “Speaking personally, I’d rather my ideas made it out into the world in some way than not at all. We’re so good at audio fiction in the UK and we really under-utilise that talent.”
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is the first podcast to come out of this model. It’s an adaptation of the HP Lovecraft novella of the same name, which was written in 1927 but only published in 1941 after the author’s death four years earlier. For his adaptation, Simpson has added a meta-frame oft-used in fiction podcast projects in the US — the listener is constantly addressed by the hosts of a fictional podcast called “The Mystery Machine,” who are themselves investigating a case that follows the plot of Lovecraft’s story. Part of the reason to draw on the existing grammar of the podcast landscape came from Simpson’s intention to avoid duplicating the existing straight audio adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, made by The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and of which Simpson is a fan.
The idea was pitched to BBC Radio 4 as a drama series, but they weren’t keen. ”I don’t think the fake-podcast thing really resonated with them at that time and so the show went on the back-burner,” Simpson said. He worked on a different, more conventional fiction piece for the station called Mythos, hoping to return to Charles Dexter Ward once Storypunk was up and running. Then came the BBC’s shift in strategy towards more podcast-first content in late 2017/early 2018, and suddenly the show was in demand. “The BBC called up and told us about their ideas for BBC Sounds,” Simpson said. “They already knew about Charles Dexter Ward because they had the original Radio 4 pitch, and BBC Sounds as a podcast outlet seemed like a really good fit.” It launches on 3 December as part of BBC Sounds’ first slate of original podcasts.
Simpson said that this is only the start for Storypunk — he’s optimistic about what else is in the works. His radio serial Mythos is the next to get the treatment, with plans to “make a podcast series which will then be built out and visualised as a TV show.” Bad Memories, a radio play from a few years ago, is already set to become a movie that starts shooting in 2019. Next year, there are also more podcasts planned, with finance deals being inked at the moment. With the much-hyped podcast to TV pipeline pretty much in its infancy in the UK, it’ll be interesting to see how far this goes.
We’ll be checking in to see how the “ideas factory” model pans out.