AGM 2020: ‘We continue to knock on doors, and we kick them down, too’

Those were the words of WGGB Chair Lisa Holdsworth, opening WGGB’s first virtual AGM on Wednesday 23 September 2020, talking about the union’s lobbying and campaigning work in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Referring to the “unprecedented times” the union and its members had found themselves in in the past six months, she reassured those present that WGGB was in great shape to continue its important work in negotiations, supporting writers and holding the Government and employers to account whenever necessary.

With sadness she noted the impact that lockdown had had on writers’ incomes, the golden age of TV drama, and the UK’s thriving theatre sector, plus publishing and videogames. The Government had failed to recognise the importance of our creative industries and WGGB would continue to remind policy makers of its vital role. “It’s an ongoing fight and we continue to fight it.”

Her words were echoed by the first guest speaker of the day, Caroline Hollick, Head of Drama at Channel 4, who recognised how difficult she knew writers had found the period since March but at the same time reassured them that at Channel 4, “we’ve started to turn a corner.” While the broadcaster had had to make huge savings as a result of the collapse of advertising during the pandemic, it had now just gone into production on five new shows and could start looking again at development: “we’re back in business”.

The “upside” to lockdown she added was having scripts “in really good shape” and that the focus on scripts “has become really intense.” There was more time to get scripts really nailed down and the writer’s voice had become “one of the most important voices in the room”.

Based in Leeds, she welcomed the shift away from London afforded by Zoom and other digital technology and this meant there had been a “levelling up… a democratisation of voices”. She added that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement there had been a “final realisation” about systemic racism and this had been considered “very deeply” by commissioners, as gatekeepers. Representation of women writers was improving and the role of the writer was vital, she said, citing new female-authored dramas like Adult Material by WGGB member Lucy Kirkwood. Representation tended to follow the writer she said as the “the writer is at the heart of the show”, adding that representation of British East Asian writers was a particular area that needed improvement.

It was important to strike a balance between commissioning new work that reflected life during the pandemic but also provided escapism. What Channel 4 did best was “distinctive, authored drama that shines a light on who we are” but which is also “transporting” as Covid-19 had “shrunk” people’s lives.

This was a theme picked up by Suba Das, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of HighTide, one of the UK’s leading new writing theatre companies. Creating new plays that don’t reflect what we’ve been experiencing during Covid will seem like we’re living in a “parallel universe”, but equally “there is a real need for joy” and theatre had always provided a “great night out”. Theatre also had the responsibility not to reflect trauma back to the audience, to trigger them, or to send them back home feeling they had to stockpile food.

The pandemic had also presented theatre with an opportunity and writers were at the centre of this as writers help us “imagine better worlds”. The huge gulf between the haves and the have nots had been revealed in the pandemic and those who were at the margins of society “see so much more clearly how our society functions”. There was room now to harness the disruption, and the opportunities afforded by new technology, and “now is the moment of greatest peril” when we mustn’t let the “bungee-cord elastic” pull us all back to March and to a status quo which “didn’t work for everyone.” He firmly believed, he said, that “world-shaking challenges are not solved by spreadsheets” but by “artists and creators” and he called on writers to “lean in” to whatever power or privilege they had and to effect change. “Protecting diversity in our sector is going to come from all of us together.”

WGGB craft and regional reps and officers presented individual reports (you can read all these in our annual report). The newly formed Equality & Diversity Committee spoke about the strides made in their first year, a period marked by the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. Sukey Fisher, Co-Chair of the Committee, said industry still desperately needed trustworthy data and that Project Diamond was not providing the necessary figures. She reported on WGGB’s upcoming work in commissioning research on representation of BAME writers and a comprehensive survey that WGGB had carried out amongst members.

June Sarpong, the BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity and the final speaker of the day, outlined the channel’s Creative Diversity Commitment of a new mandatory 20% diverse-talent target in all new network commissions from April 2021.

Unprecedented numbers of members attended the AGM – a fourfold increase on previous years, reflecting the union’s increased membership, which is in robust health and growing, partly down to the new student membership package which launched last year, and which placed WGGB in a very solid financial position.

WGGB Chair Lisa Holdsworth praised the role of the hard-working committees, all elected WGGB members, doing what they do best and “rabble-rousing” on behalf of their craft area or region. These committees had become energised in the last six months and digital technology during lockdown had enabled writers in the regions outside London to communicate more easily and members to engage with the union as a result of the Zoom boom. Elected members were crucial to WGGB’s negotiating power, which saw working writers, walking into negotiating rooms, “putting their heads above the parapets and saying ‘this isn’t good enough’.”

She reminded members that if there is something they felt passionate about, or if they wanted to get involved, to do so via the relevant committee (you can find their contact details here). And that WGGB was “here for you” whether you have a problem, big or small.

In her closing remarks, WGGB President Sandi Toksvig OBE reminded writers that “the stories that you tell are so important” and “part of the glue” that holds us all together. She concluded by saying how heartening it was to hear throughout the day how the Writers’ Guild “is always there for us.”

Results of recent WGGB elections were announced. The full list of WGGB Executive Council representatives can be seen in the Contacts section of our website.

The following vacancies still exist (members who are interested should email admin@writersguild.org.uk and put the relevant vacancy in the subject field).

  • Chair of the East Anglia region
  • Chair of the East Midlands region
  • Chair of the London & South East region
  • Chair of the North West (Merseyside) region
  • Chair of the South West (Devon & Cornwall) region
  • Chair of the North East region

You can see a summary of the AGM on Twitter @TheWritersGuild #wggbagm

Find out what WGGB is doing to support members during Covid-19 on our special advice page.

Photo of a previous AGM: Em Fitzgerald