Five takeaways from Ashley Walters and Ronan Bennett’s Top Boy Academy talk

The actor and writer both sat down to share their experiences and advice with young people at a free event organised by NTS and Netflix

GIVING BACK: Ashley Walters shares his knowledge with young creatives at NTS and Netflix's Top Boy Academy (Image: Laurence Howe Photo)

1. There are a wealth of opportunities in TV

In the past few years more and more big film stars are taking on TV projects. Ashley Walters puts this down in part to the restrictive budgets that films require – executives and studios are far less likely to take risks at this scale. Others point to greater access to more complex and progressive roles for underrepresented groups on the small screen as a huge factor in driving the shift. 

Whatever is behind it, it’s important to understand the trends so that you are aware of the climate in which you’re producing and pitching as this may influence the format of the project you want to make or career path you take. And with streaming services like Netflix, there are more avenues for those interested in working in TV than ever before.

“There was a time where a lot of us actors had to make a decision well do we want to continue to struggle to try and get films made and make films or we were going to move over to TV. If you watch now some of the biggest film actors are doing TV shows these days.” – Ashley Walters

2. Prepare for the long haul: “It’s a marathon not a sprint”

Anyone who has had or tried to get a TV show made will tell you that it’s a very lengthy process. No matter how good your idea, it can take years from the moment you pitch to seeing it on screen, if that even happens. Perseverance is key, as is the awareness that things will move slowly even when there is interest in your work or it gets the green light. 

“The first thing that I ever did for the BBC was a 90 minute film and it probably – from the first conversation to being on screen – was about 12 months and I thought, that’s not bad, that’s really fast, I don’t know what people are complaining about. I’ve never had anything made as quickly as that ever again. And so Top Boy [having a] six year break, that’s kind of unusual but actually six years of development it’s not unknown. It’s going to be a minimum of two to three years between the first conversation you have about [your project] with a producer or a broadcaster and seeing it on screen. And the only thing I would say to people is that this is – it’s that cliche – it is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. You might be lucky and things might happen very fast but more than likely that won’t happen and you just have to be prepared for it.” – Ronan Bennett

3. Don’t compromise on the integral elements of your art and values

Ashley Walters told the audience that during the process of pitching Bulletproof with Noel Clarke, their buddy cop TV show which was eventually picked up by Sky, they were told that only one of the main characters could be black. Determined that two black men would head up the show, they held on to the script for years, unwilling to compromise on the identity of their main characters because of how integral that element was to their vision and the message they wanted to send with their project.

“Me and Noel at that point were like, ‘oh well, no one’s getting it then, this will it will go to the grave, it’s going to die’…the script it stayed on someone’s shelf for like four years or something like that and then Sky were asking around producers and writers…and someone was like, ‘you remember this from five years ago?’ And that’s kind of how it came about. 

TOP BOY ACADEMY: Ashley Walters and Ronan Bennett address a room full of young people interested in the arts (Image: Laurence Howe Photo)

Going through that process and getting the green light and get the show ready to shoot was an amazing experience but it’s a difficult experience it takes a lot and it takes a team.” – Ashley

4. Work on more than one project at a time 

Given the lengthy development process of TV shows, it can be hugely deflating for writers when the one show that they’ve been working on and pitching falls through. If you’ve invested all your energy into one idea and it hits a wall, it means that you’ll have to start from square one, which can be extra hard when you’re dealing with all the feelings that come with this.

“Because it takes so long it’s definitely advisable for people to develop more than one thing because if you just have the one thing it might happen it might not happen and then you’ve got to start all over again. So I would always say to people be thinking about two or three things at the same time.” – Ronan

5. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas

Sometimes job titles and roles can make us feel boxed in. But if you have an idea of how something should be improved, you should have the confidence to share it. Obviously how you communicate your thoughts is key and can determine how well they are received. And while it doesn’t mean that each time you voice your opinion things will go your way, it’s important to remember that the arts are all about collaboration, as Ashley and Ronan explain below. 

“If I’m honest there’s times on set where me and Kane were like, ‘nah, we ain’t saying that. We’re changing it to this, we’re doing that’ or whatever and then Ronan might just turn up randomly, which he does, and he’ll be on set or whatever and we’ll be like, ‘yeah, we’re going to stick to what he said’ or whatever but it’s a process.

“There are times that he’s very specific about what you should stick to but then there’s a lot of freedom as well.” – Ashley

“The whole thing with the dialogue is that, I mean, obviously it’s not the language that I use but that said, when it’s on the page it’s not terrible. It’s been through first of all my attempt at it, then I get people in to look it over to make suggestions, make improvements, then it goes to the actors, the actors will workshop it, it’ll get revised. Then, on the day, if something comes up…it is alive and as long as the sense and the nuance is there, I don’t mind what the actors do and particularly because they know the language better than me.” – Ronan

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