Women of colour in Film and TV: Script Editor Naz Ahmed on defying the odds

MY JOURNEY AS A CREATIVE WOMAN WHO DEFYED THE ODDS…

As with any journey, I guess one should start right at the very beginning. So, nearly thirty years ago, I remember telling someone about my hope to work in television someday. He laughed at me and said the closest I would ever get to a career in broadcasting would be using the minicab radio to call all the taxis back to base. As you can imagine, that hurt me deeply. Someone pissing all over your dream like that! But, I am a strong and resilient person. That made me even more determined to achieve my goal. I wish I still knew him now so I could look him in the eyes and ask ‘sorry, what was that you said?’

My real journey actually began in radio rather than TV many years later. I was sat at a desk, temping as an Executive PA and literally bored out of my brains. The boss was always abroad on business and managing his diary was quite easily the most mind numbing thing I ever did. So, I was sat there wondering if this was going to be my life now when I chanced upon an advert online. The BBC were looking to launch a new radio drama to go out on the Asian Network. It was going to be ground breaking for the audience and get them to embrace speech drama – a kind of Archers for the Asian community only grittier so more like Eastenders. As I sat there pondering whether to apply, I got an email from my boss asking me to book yet another meeting in next week. That was it! Time to apply and save myself from a life where the most creative thing I would ever do is book a plane ticket.

So, I applied. I didn’t have any experience of working in drama, the BBC had always been this huge beast of a place for clever people with degrees. All I had to rely on was my wit, personality and the hope that I had some ‘transferable skills’. Imagine my delight when weeks later I was invited to an interview. Woohoo! I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet and might still end up on the switchboard at the taxi firm, but it was something…

The interview went brilliantly. They needed someone to set up some systems and do some coordinating to begin with. But I would get to contribute ideas for characters and stories. Well, being a PA I told them with great pride about my time management and organisational skills. I also showed them a glimpse of my wonderful personality and sense of humour. But was it enough? For the next few weeks, I waited with bated breath for a call. Was it coming or not? And then just as I was about to chalk this one up to one of those things that nearly happened, I got the call. They offered me the job!

Asian Network Live Events

The next eight years were amazing. I worked with some fabulous creative people who were never short of ideas. I organised them, made sure writers and actors got paid on time, sat in studios taking timings while brilliant episodes got recorded. I learned everything I could about the process and provided endless flasks of coffee at meeting after meeting. And then I decided I wanted more. I wanted to be a Producer but had I got enough under my belt to impress them? Well, if you don’t ask you don’t get. So the next time an opportunity came up I asked away. They gave me the opportunity but it didn’t mean I knew everything. It meant I had a whole new range of things to learn. So, I got stuck in…

It wasn’t long before I was directing which was utterly amazing. I got to tell actors if the takes were good enough and if they could do it better. Not because I was on a power trip but because we shared the same passion and commitment to the show. We wanted it to be the best it could possibly be. All went well for a while and then one day somebody rocked up and told us the show was being axed for ‘budgetary reasons’. It all crashed in around my ears. Looked like I was going to end up in that cab firm after all. But no, wait. The Asian Network at the BBC offered me a lifeline. Did I want to turn my hand to producing Live Events instead? They couldn’t do it long term but the offer was there if I wanted it. Phew! Saved by my wit, personality and those transferable skills again. I spent the next few months working on melas, live music sessions at Maida Vale and various other events. Loved every minute. But of course, despite the amazing journey so far, I was still no closer to my dream job in television…

Silver Street at Edinburgh
Naz in the earlier stages of her career when working at the BBC Asian Network.

So I started applying for the roles. I was confident. After all, I knew a lot about character and story. I could work with big personalities and I knew my way around a music stage. I’m not sure the latter one was relevant but hey – it could be an interesting talking point at an interview. It wasn’t easy. I got all the ‘blah blah blah’ about how radio experience was great but it was a bit of a poor relation to the sexy world of TV. I went for the jobs right at the bottom but I couldn’t even get those. They said I had too much experience having worked as a Radio Producer/Director. I wouldn’t stick around for long, I’d get bored etc etc etc…. Nothing I said would change their minds and once again, I could feel that taxi firm beckoning.

And then like any great drama you see on TV – there was this huge turning point for my character. BBC Doctors offered me some cover work as a researcher. It was only for a couple of weeks but I finally managed to get my bloody 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…. I did a Prince 2 course in project management and passed with flying colours. I was a thousand pounds poorer and I had no job but I knew that call would come – wouldn’t it?

Eventually my efforts and prayers paid off. I joined the team at Doctors as an assistant script editor. So, now I faced a new challenge. Don’t get opinionated about writers, stories or scripts. Just be organised and check the continuity is right across all the scripts. Don’t get me wrong. I was eternally grateful for the role but it wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world. But that’s not the point. It is about acquiring new skills, improving communication, networking and showing them that you’re capable of more. You put the hours in, you look for solutions not problems and then the next day – you come in and do it all over again. Much more satisfactory than calling the taxis back to base right?

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 stories with writers, give notes to hopefully make things stronger. I loved every minute of getting to know writers and earning their respect. You see, that’s kind of at the core of it all. You want to be respected. One of my first ever bosses told me that no matter where I worked in my career, I should aim to be respected not liked, that I couldn’t have both. He was wrong! I was going to aim to be liked and respected – that was the way it was done. I’m not naïve. I’m sure a lot of people along the way haven’t liked me very much but you know what? I’m pretty sure they still respected me and my work ethic. I’ll take that!

Naz

A few years on, Coronation Street invited me to attend a storylining workshop. There was no role attached to it but what a great opportunity. I grew up on Corrie as did most of my family. My mum was a huge fan. She’d sit in front of that telly in her shalwar kameez screaming at Ken Barlow to do the right thing, she loved Jack and Vera too. So attending that workshop was a no brainer for me. I went, I saw and I eventually conquered when they offered me a job as a storyliner. Wow! I was going to write stories for iconic characters on an iconic show like Corrie. Someone pinch me please! And I didn’t even have to bribe anyone.

I loved every minute of my time at Corrie. Don’t get me wrong. The hours were long and the expectations were fierce. But it was the perfect job for me at that time. I got to storyline character exits, an 80s-themed wedding and that thing we drama makers love – plenty of conflict. And that was the closest I ever got to working in a taxi firm – standing on the cobbles looking up at Streetcars! And I learned how to storyline which is brilliant. You get a fresh canvas and throw lots of story beats onto it. There’s no dialogue because that comes later but you get to create exciting stories from scratch.

Naz at Rovers
Impromptu on the sets of Corrie

I did go back to Doctors after Corrie armed with new skillset, experience and great tales to tell about treading those famous cobbles. Script editing was a whole new arena now. Very soon after my return, the Series Producer asked me if I wanted to storyline a special week on homelessness and script edit it too. Hell yeah! So we did exactly that and ended up with a very strong week – one of the most enjoyable projects I have ever worked on. And it earned me my first broadcast credit as Story Editor.

It dawned on me that at this point in my career, I had edited over 200 drama scripts. Then a wonderful thing happened. I was nominated for a British Muslim Award for Services to Media. Of course I was up against some pretty stiff competition and fully expected one of the acclaimed journalists to walk away with that one. So imagine my surprise when I actually won it.

Naz Award
Naz proudly holding her British Muslim Award for Services to Media

It was such a great moment for me and Doctors who constantly embrace and work so hard with diversity – in staff, stories, characters – across the board really! The following day a huge bouquet of flowers was delivered to my desk and people across the BBC were feeling just as proud as I was. The award currently sits in a prime spot in our trophy cabinet in reception.

With Navin Kundra at Soap Awards
Naz with singer Navin Kundra at the 2018 British Soap Awards

Having had a taste of all that, I wanted to learn even more. The following year I got to produce our famous Bollywood marriage proposal between a GP and a midwife. And I got to work with the super talented singer/songwriter Navin Kundra. It was amazing and if you haven’t seen it, google it. It’s amazing and was one of the most challenging but rewarding things we have ever done on this show. And it only went and won ‘Scene of the Year’ at the British Soap Awards. The first time I work as a Producer and that is the outcome. What more could I possibly want?

But I wasn’t done yet. In addition to all the scripts I already juggle on a day to day basis – I took on another big project. I storylined and script edited six episodes on the subject of Mental Health Awareness. It was a subject very close to my own heart and extremely important to me. Those episodes aired earlier this year and were warmly received by most of the audience. And the prize this time? My first credit as Story Producer and a great feature in the Huffington Post…

The moral of my rather long story is simple – if you really want it, be prepared to work hard and put the hours in. Impress people with your work ethic. Be creative and read and watch everything you can fit into your schedule. Sniff out those ideas that nobody else has had yet. Have a brilliant sense of humour – it will get you through the difficult times. And then, you never know what lies ahead.

So what next for me? Well, how about a new drama series about life in a minicab firm? I might even turn my hand to acting as that is something I haven’t done yet (although I did have a tiny cameo role in the Mental Health Week). I think I am going to cast myself as the switchboard operator. And my first action will be to talk into a radio as I utter the words ‘Any drivers local and free? Can you please come back to base’…

 

 

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