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Interview With Guy Hallifax
Interviewed by Jenna Glatzer

Guy has had a diverse career as a writer and director in London.  He's written a top-rated children's TV series, children's books, corporate videos, strip cartoons, animation, claymation, promotional brochures, theme park characters, magazine articles, CD-ROMs... get the picture?

How did you get started as a writer?

I always wanted to be a director and while I was working as an AFM at the BBC in the Drama Series department, I saw an internal advert for a 6-month director's training attachment to children's dept on Play Away. I decided I wanted the job. I found out who would be on the panel and wrote a sample script of Play Away and sent all the panel a copy before the interview. That was the first time I really wrote anything in earnest. I got the job. I sold my first script, a 4-minute sketch, to Play Away while working on the show.

You've written for all sorts of media. Can you give us a briefing on the types of things you write and why you've chosen to be so diverse?

I haven't really chosen much at all. I just say "yes" when people ask if I can do stuff! For example, I wrote funny poems to keep the team amused while working on a TV documentary series, so people knew I could write. Then Michael Rodd, with whom I was working, said that a contact of his wanted someone who could write something amusing for kids, but who had to have a grasp of technical things, such as computers. He recommended me.

 I went to see the head of children's promotion at a company called Option One who did all sorts of promotional work for children. My first job was to devise and write a game to go on the wrapper of the Wall's Mega-Bite ice lolly. Oh yes. I then did a variation of that same game for Ready Brek. It was a sort of Dungeons and Dragons game featuring 'glow'. I really had fun with that, and the set of four games were well received. Then, because I was the incumbent, jack-of-all trades children's writer at Option One, I was asked if I would like to pitch to write a magazine for the WHSmith children's club. And so it went on like that. Not so much a question of my choice, more whatever I was asked to try. 

I didn't even pitch to do Orm and Cheep. I was simply introduced to the creator and graphic designer, Tony Martin, by a mutual producer friend. I wrote a sample script, then another, and before I knew it, we had a commission to produce 13. Because I have learned to write a pitch and a treatment for my own TV show ideas, I then found I was being asked to do the same for other people's material. And of course, the more you do, especially commercial work, the more professional and commercial your own work becomes.

I suppose I have made a choice to pitch and write children's TV series. Not that I feel I have really cracked it yet. But there is nothing better than having an idea, pitching it to a producer, and having that producer be inspired enough to put his or her own money into the project. 

So to sum up, I really enjoy the different disciplines of different media. I also think that if you just write long-form, then you can lose the snappiness and punch of, say, a 5-minute animation. As for making a success of it all, I think writing strip cartoons, or verse stories, or animation, or comedy, drama or even a novel is really about researching and understanding the medium and, more importantly, I think, understanding the target audience.

Why do you focus on writing for children?

Mainly because I really enjoy it. Adults have so many hang-ups. Children see or read something funny and they laugh spontaneously. That is just so rewarding. I also think that we should all try and do our best work for children, even if it is only a small part of our output, so that future generations will grow up with a love of reading and of the entertainment world. No, that sounds too pious! Just let's say that I never grew up and I write to amuse myself.

You also write and direct corporate videos. How do you advertise your services and gain expertise in this area?

I was lucky enough to be working on something else at the right time and in the right place to be given the opportunity. Then I made a success of it. When corporate videos were in their infancy I had enough training at the BBC to be credible as a director, and was working within a company large enough for me to make mistakes and not fall flat on my - shall we say - face. 

All the clients really wanted then was a Tomorrow's World report : basic presenter piece-to-camera and cut-aways. Oh, and usually with a voice-over commentary over the graphic bits or the pack shots. Easy, really. I worried about going freelance and losing the security of a monthly paycheck, but was getting frustrated by the working environment within the company. I decided that if in my first year freelance I could match my in-house salary, then it was worth the move. As it happened, I doubled my income in my first year in the big, wide, corporate world. What's more, I started finding more and more interesting work, such as comedy drama. And I travelled the world as well. Being paid for it! Great life!

As for advertising my services, I formed a self-help group with 9 other writer/directors and we marketed ourselves by mailshots to leading production companies, as well as recommended each other for work. That worked well for about 4 years. Basically, word of mouth gets me most of my work. That and the fact that I am punctual, professional and reliable. Maybe not inspired, but the most important thing for most companies is that I didn't go over budget, because I knew exactly what all the costs are and the cost implications of every decision. I think my background in production management was a huge help. 

The biggest draw-back of that world is that, like an actor, you have to wait for work to come to you. I couldn't ring up the NatWest or Nestle and say how about another programme? They had to decide to make a video, then the production company they chose had to decide to call me. Not much security there. When things are busy, everyone wants you. When the economy dips, the first cut is in the internal communications or promotions budget. Make do with the old video until things improve. Rats. I prefer to be more in control of my destiny. 

How do you gain expertise nowadays? I would recommend two things. Trail someone who is doing it now. Be an unpaid assistant. Watch everything and ask why it is being done that way of everyone, all the time. Then do it yourself. Borrow a camera and make one or two videos yourself. I actually started this way at the BBC, writing and directing comedy shorts with a chum. We shot on Super 8 film, then 16mm. It is not really until you are in the edit that you realise what you should have done, or how you should set it up next time. That's what film school is all about too. Trying. Getting your hands dirty. experimenting. Finding your strengths.

Tell us about the experience of writing ORM AND CHEEP.

I was working as a writer/director at Blackrod, an independent production company, making corporate videos when Tony Martin got the commission from Lewis Rudd at Central. Lovely man! The deadline was, as ever, yesterday. Tony Martin (designer), his ex-wife Jan Martin (director), David Hamilton (producer) and I sat down and talked about storylines. A brainstorm session, you could say. I then went away and wrote about 20 episode ideas at paragraph length. We then whittled them down to an agreed 13. I really didn't have time to do step outlines, I just went for it. 

After the first 2 or 3 I got a feel for the length. I just churned them out at the rate of one a week. It meant working all weekends plus evenings, because I had a full-time job. I would sit down usually between 8.30 and 9 in the evening and write until 12 or 1am. I had to be up at 7 for work. I would try and do 200-300 words a night. For rewrites, the other 3 would scribble on the script where they wanted changes. Luckily for me, none of them could write verse at all, so they tended to leave the narration alone, and they liked my characterisations, so there were not too many things which needed changing. I did complete all 13 in 13 weeks. We did make a pilot, and the only significant change was the theme song. ITV didn't like it. Bummer, as I had co-written it with my chums Rod, Jane and Freddy.

When the show was such a huge success (Number 1 children's show, with 7.15 million viewers on its best week, reaching No 68 in the week's Top 100 programmes) we were re-commissioned. The second series of 13 was slightly less time pressured - 2 weeks a script - luxury. As the characters were so solid by then, I really just let them speak for themselves in whatever situation I was putting them, so the step outline was the key stage this time. It was such fun. It was a bonus to be asked to write the books as well.

The 6 storybooks were just re-versioned stories from the first series, two in text form and 4 in verse. The Annual was much more enjoyable. Tony had a lot of input, as it suited his graphic nature. But for the first time I wrote text stories, strip stories and did puzzles, games, recipes, etc. My wife actually wrote the recipes, and I characterised them. I never met my book editor. She just asked for occasional tweaks, but just accepted everything I sent. I couldn't believe how easy it all was.

I didn't do well financially out of the show. I was paid a fee for each script, but made the mistake of sinking my royalties into a holding company - Orm and Cheep Ltd. I technically owned 10% of this company. But the first series went way over budget in the studio (entirely out of my control), and all subsequent income, even the merchandising, went into paying off those losses. I never saw another penny. Be warned. Do not invest your interests where you have no control over them.

Why did you decide to form your own company, and what services do you provide?

I was introduced to my partner Ian Ellery by his then boss, Mick Wells, about 10 years ago. I was looking to place my second major show 'Slim Pig' and needed an illustrator. Mick and I kept in touch, as did he and Ian separately when Ian went freelance soon afterwards. Then about 4 years ago Mick got a call out of the blue from Unique - Noel Edmonds' company. They were looking for someone to work with them creating new licensed characters. Basically, they wanted another Mr Blobby. Mick asked if Ian and I would be interested. We agreed that we would do a joint pitch. Ian and I worked on the pitch for 3 days solid, then Mick drove us down to Noel's country seat in Devon. 

Basically, the presentation was all very civilised and ho-hum, so I thought. I'm buggered if I'm working for 3 days, getting up at the crack of dawn, driving for 4 hours just for this, so I went for it and enthused all over the desk about our characters and story ideas for about an hour and just about knocked him dead. We won the pitch. So there we were, about to start work with Noel, but as a loose group of individuals. So we decided we would formalise the arrangement and started Phew!! I had a dormant company of which we just changed the name and used that. Phew!! is of course an acronym for Personnel Hallifax Ellery Wells. But you probably worked that out already.

Now we were a proper company, we looked strategically at the market and what we could offer. If Noel was having trouble finding anyone to create new characters, there must be others out there also in need of our services. So that was our starting-point : creating, designing and developing licensed characters. Of course, Ian and I also had TV, animation, game show, etc. ideas, so we soon changed our logo to include 'The Ideas Company'. We didn't want to be a production company. We want to be the people the production companies - or anyone, come to that - come to for ideas. It's always a slow business getting started, but we are getting our name around now, and people are coming to understand that we can offer specialist help with their characters : moving them into other media, or expanding designs or logos into characters. Certainly, there is a surprising amount of corporate work out there.

Basically, I do the words, Ian does the illustration, Mick does the sales and administration, and Ian and I do the ideas. Works well. Be warned and don't set up in business with strangers ...

Writing for children can be tricky because you must walk the line between writing on the child's level without talking "down" to them. How do you handle this?

I really don't see a problem here. Either you are saying 'Now, children, do this ... do that ...' or you are telling stories. The former way is not something I could ever do, either in life or in my work. I don't think the way I tell a story changes much regardless of the audience. I might use slightly shorter sentences for younger people, and I might not employ such a wide vocabulary for the very young, but story-telling is story-telling as far as I'm concerned. Most of my adult friends who read my children's stories do not put them down unfinished!

Considering that you've broken into many fields of writing, you must be great at pitching your work. Any tips for starving writers about pitching?

Pitching is the key to getting work. If you are the greatest writer in the world, but cannot pitch, it will take much longer - if ever - to get into print. OK - tips. Firstly, watch the film 'The Player'. Pitching film ideas is like pitching anything else. Can you sum up your idea in a paragraph? How about in 20 words? How about 10 words? 3? Yes, the shorter your basic pitch, the better. It helps if you know the genre and the market of what you are pitching, especially so when they say 'There's another talking marrow show out there' you can come back with the obvious riposte 'Ah but, mine's from Mars.' It's the Ah Buts that will carry the day. 

Next, find out who you are pitching to. Check the address and spelling of your recipient's name. (Phone his/her secretary). Just think how you would feel if someone had phoned you first and said I have something perfect for you, may I send it? Compare that with the dear Sir/ Madam approach. No contest.

So what do you send? Your pitch is in 3 parts. Firstly, a document of 4-5 pages. This should comprise your concept, style, target market, basic storyline, characters and some thoughts on development, especially if it is not a single play, story or novel. Also put in something about yourself and your writing work. NOT your education or other job experiences, unless they are strictly relevant to the project you are pitching. If you are doing an SAS story and you were in the SAS, then mention it. Otherwise stick to relevant experience. Even 'This is his/her first comedy drama series' is better than how long you spent as a gravedigger. Next you want a 1-page version of the same. Treat it like a poster. Headline it. Sell it.

Finally you want a covering letter. This should feature your shortest possible pitch (the 3-worder), plus details of how to reach you. If your first approach is professional, spellchecked, attractive-looking and with a zingy title, then at least it will get you to second base. Then it's down to talent.

I have the advantage of Ian's illustrations. A great illustrated pitch will obviously be an attention-getter. But words alone can do it. When I am pitching in person, all I do is show Ian's pictures, describe the show (the 20 word version now) and I leave them the words to read later. Mainly I listen to want they say they want. It becomes a partnership from this point, and you have to be seen as someone who can take a note and be fun and easy to work with.

Obviously, if you are invited to a meeting, do practice your pitch on friends and family until you KNOW what you have written and how to make it sound the funniest, wackiest, most cuddly (delete as applicable) show ever. In this market, those are the only ones with a sniff of a chance. Finally, brevity is really best. Work on some catch-phrases. DON'T ramble through the details of the plotlines which have taken you forever to knock into shape. All you are pitching is the high concept.

What's something you wish you'd learned about this business earlier?

I wish I had done more writing courses. Writing is a craft, and that craft can and should be worked on until whatever ideas you want to express are done in a professional and efficient way. I also wish I hadn't listened to what people said, but done my own research. When someone tells you that you are the best writer since (insert hero here) and then tells you to sign here, RUN! I wish I had realised sooner that, although the basic work is done alone, writing is teamwork.

When people ask for changes, they do so for a reason. It is not personal. Learning to be sub-edited or cut about is hard, but is part of what professional writing is all about. Certainly to start with, you shouldn't resist changes too much. Eventually, when you realise that you do know better this time, you can put your foot down. They'll still make the cuts, but it will not be your fault! I wish I had joined the Writers' Guild earlier. In fact there are plenty of writers groups which give good support and feedback. Join them! 

Finally, I am sorry to say that I wish I had found a good lawyer sooner. Don't ever sign a contract without taking professional advice. It may seem expensive advice, especially when you are broke and its your first big break and you are under time pressure, but it is much cheaper, emotionally as well as financially, than the alternative.

How does writing for animation differ from live action?

Most live action directors and actors delete stage directions without reading them. All right, I generalise to make a point, but you must let them do their bit to bring your words to life. Obviously, there are often important things that they should incorporate, so if your stage directions are minimal, these will stand out. If you persist in telling the actor to tap the left side of his nose with the index finger of his left hand while leaning forward and staring knowingly as he delivers the telling line you will get what you deserve.

With animation you are the actors and director. You have not only to visualise every scene, but describe it in detail. The rule of thumb is write no more than 3 lines of dialogue between stage directions. This means that, apart from the novel, the animation writer has more control over the final programme than any other form of fiction writing.

There are surprising similarities, I would like to point out. The size of the cast and the number of locations are just as relevant in both live action and animation. In one case you need to cast them, costume them, transport them, even feed them before they will do their thing. In the other, you need to have someone design then, draw them and even think how they will move and react before they work. That goes for every member of every crowd. And it goes for the props too. Think in terms of sitcoms for writing animation, with standard locations and a small group of regular cast and the budget will start to work. They will also reject far fewer of your first drafts.

What are your future goals for PHEW!! and your own writing?

Phew!! intends to build its client base and continue to expand the number of projects it has in the market-place. Our medium-term goal is to generate
enough royalty income to pay for our own new-product development. Want a character? Need an idea? Who you gonna call?

As for my own writing, I am still trying to focus on my own projects. I have not met much success writing on other peoples' projects. They seem to find me too loud a voice. Too individual. I would like to write novels. I have tried twice. Both are unpublished to date ... 

I also want to write feature film scripts, of all sorts. I am working on the Robots V Monsters feature Treatment, and I am doing an LSW course right now on a grown-up feature film script. (Mainly because I know this particular love story will appeal to adults more than children).

Anything else you'd like to add for pre-pro writers?

1. Read a lot of examples of the work in your chosen area. Get a feel for the language, length, structure and complexity. For TV and film, don't just watch them, read the scripts. Preferably before you see the show. Then forget them all and write your own. Your own voice is what is important. Anyone can copy. You're not just anyone. You can create.

2. Discuss your work. Let as many others read it and feedback as possible. To this end, joining courses and self-help groups is brilliant. What are you frightened about? Aren't you writing so others can read?

3. Set deadlines and be disciplined. When you get a commission you will be asked when you can deliver. You need to be able to discuss yourself in the third person. I know I am quite speedy, so I say so. Discuss rewrites in advance. Set realistic deadlines and be professional about them. You expect the process which follows your script delivery to be the same, so join the real world. You may be a creative writer, but you are in a world of business. Be businesslike.

4. Do the work for the commissioner. If you have an idea for a show, decide what length it should be, what slot it should have and how many episodes it should have in the first series. Have some idea about the budget and the market. Indicate which overseas markets it will appeal to. Say which Production Company you should like to have make it. Make the decision to commission your idea a 'no-brainer'. You can really do all this yourself if you research the market, buy the trade mags and ask everyone.

4. Market yourself. Get used to telling people you are a children's writer. Not that you'd like to be one. You may not have been paid to do the job yet, but every letter you type for the children's market makes you more of a children's writer. Everyone needs writers. All those commissioners and editors and producers are out of a job without you. They are your future colleagues. Be positive. And good luck!

One last thing. There is a new group which is campaigning to raise the status of arts professionals across all disciplines who work with and for children. We cannot expect tomorrow's citizens to emerge as rounded, cultural beings unless they experience and learn about the arts throughout their childhood. Action for Children's Arts (ACA) is doing something about it. If anyone wants to know more about this body, please email to acaaction@email.com. Thank you.

Visit Guy's site by clicking here or e-mail him at phew@email.com.


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