WGGB: The Writers' Union - AGM 2019

AGM 2021: ‘Covid must not be an excuse to treat writers badly’

That was the warning from WGGB General Secretary Ellie Peers at this year’s AGM, which for the second year took place online (on Tuesday 29 June 2021).

The past year has been hugely busy for WGGB staff and activists, advocating for writers in TV, film, theatre, radio, books, animation, comedy and videogames, all severely impacted by the pandemic.

Hot topics on the union agenda had been shaping Covid safety measures on film and TV sets; fighting for screenwriters on soaps who had seen a loss of 30% of their work; issuing guidelines for theatres during their closures on best practice when streaming work digitally; opposing radio drama cuts; sexism in the videogames industry; and safeguarding writers’ rights in the light of the rise and rise of the SVODs.

There was positive news too, Peers said, pointing to the “heartening” number of members who were attending the AGM, the unprecedented rise in membership to nearly 3,000, and the increasing number of members and activists who were engaging with their union, particularly around campaigns and issues such as Black Lives Matter and cuts to Higher Education arts funding.

Due to the power of Zoom, WGGB was “more visible and accessible than ever before” and reps in the nations and regions had dramatically increased engagement with the devolved governments and regional leaders such as Metro Mayors.

Her words were echoed by WGGB Chair Lisa Holdsworth who paid tribute to the WGGB staff and the “army of volunteers” in the form of union elected reps who had risen to the challenge of the last year to improve the lot of writers.

“Our success is in many ways reflected by the number of members who have come forward seeking support,” she said, urging any member who needed help to contact WGGB and calling on those who would like to get more active in one of our Craft or Regional Committees or Equality & Diversity Committee to contact the relevant chair via the website. Despite it being a huge period of upheaval, she concluded “we can stand strong together.”

The AGM heard how the theatre sector had been devastated by Covid-19, but the first speaker of the day, Tamara Harvey, Artistic Director of Theatr Clwyd, while acknowledging what a “horrendous time” it had been for so many people, pointed out that it was OK to see the “silver linings” too.

In fact, Theatr Clwyd had won Regional Theatre of the Year, paying tribute to their community work which had been established prior to Covid, but had been cemented further in the past year.

Covid-19 had seen the theatre deliver food donations, provide creative packs to “feed people’s souls as well as tummies”, become a creative hub in the school holidays for vulnerable children, live stream pantos to local hospitals and hospices, and operate a blood donation centre which had saved an estimated 2,000 lives. “It’s really important that we are a space where anyone is comfortable, whether or not they think that theatre is for them.”

She said reading through the applications for the theatre’s bursaries scheme was the hardest task she had to perform during the pandemic, particularly reading the stories of those who had fallen through the cracks of support, financially or emotionally.

While not being able to be in a theatre for a year was heart-breaking, the new digital opportunities afforded by Covid was becoming a “really powerful tool in terms of widening accessibility to our work.”

The second guest speaker of the day, best-selling writer and WGGB member Antony Johnston, spoke about his journey from writing graphic novels and comics to videogames, a relatively young industry when it emerged 50 years ago.

The games industry was evolving on a daily basis and as a freelancer working in it you had to embrace and thrive on the chaos. One day you might be working on 10 two-minute scenes covering hours of events, the next on branching dialogue, half of which may never be seen by the player. “You’re never bored,” he commented and it can be “hugely creative.”

The industry was starting to recognise and act on the work it needed to do on diversity and there was still lots to be done to protect writers, partly because it had started out as an industry without writers, and remained largely hostile to unions. The work of WGGB in issuing best practice guidelines and pressure put by union activists like himself and others was having an impact in terms of ensuring writers were credited and paid properly by studios.

The role of the writer had diversified as the industry had evolved and there were an increasing number of specialisations such as narrative designer and scenario designer which could mean different things in different contexts – “It is like trying to nail jelly to a wall.”

But the lack of precedent in the industry did mean that writers can take advantage of this and the UK was in unusual in that WGGB is the only union/guild in the world with a dedicated videogames committee.

WGGB Craft and Regional reps and Officers presented individual reports (you can read all these in our annual report). Sukey Fisher, Co-Chair of the Equality & Diversity Committee, reported back on the growing strength of the committee which was only set up two years ago but now consisted of a committed group of over 20 people, with a new dedicated disability sub-group that was currently working on a disability access audit and had been involved in the union’s “powerful” first Zoom event for disabled writers.

In her closing remarks, WGGB President Sandi Toksvig OBE said “How lucky we all are to have the support of the Guild and each other” and how important it was to remain vigilant, with intellectual property in the wake of Brexit and the future of Channel 4 just two of the issues of the moment.

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).

  • Deputy Chair
  • Chair of the East Midlands 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: Em Fitzgerald