Race, screenwriting, and the media with the face behind EastEnders: Sarah Phelps

Image credit: Hrutvik Kanabar

‘I would love to write something where I could get out all my fury about how we view the past... I would like to write a great big ugly series about how we try and whitewash our own guilt and responsibility.’

When Sarah Phelps sits down to begin her Q&A event for the Watersprite film festival, she is immediately a force for life – chatty, fully engaged and refreshingly down to earth. A prior English student at New Hall (Murray Edwards), she has since gone on to find screenwriting success in the TV industry with writing credits for Eastenders and has also been behind recent adaptations of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Her path into TV screenwriting can be fittingly described as round-about. She started as a dresser for the stage but writing a play whilst at university provided the required foundation to be offered the EastEnders gig. Her entrance into world of adapting for period dramas occurred at a stroke of luck. The BBC were incredibly close to production when in need of a script writer and approached Phelps ‘because they knew they needed someone who could write fast.’ Since then, she hasn’t looked back and has distinguished herself by railing against the safeness audiences have come to expect from traditional period material, embracing the  often obscured grittiness of the past.

When Phelps sits down with TCS, it becomes clear that the way the past has often been approached is one of her biggest frustrations and the catalyst behind many of her creative choices. The casting of the brilliant Sophie Okonedu as Nancy in the 2007 adaptation of Oliver Twist is highlighted and Phelps is immediately gleaming, ‘I knew that I wanted Sophie Okonedu. I knew I wanted that grace, that intelligence, that subtlety... I didn’t want her to be white because.... I have this perpetual wrangle with the way the past is perceived and the whiteness of our history, even if we are talking about the whiteness of who we thought we were back then to the whitewashing of our history which is that nobody took drugs, nobody had sex and nobody swore and we are all the same people. Black people have been in this country since the Romans. My struggle is always to say there is a different history and we must engage with it. Show me the page that says Nancy is white.’

Phelps describes herself as a strongly ‘visual’ writer when putting the page to screen. Character detail and development is everything in her approach. Again, grittiness and detail is at the forefront of her agenda,’ Why is Oliver always this blonde little boy that always speaks in a received pronunciation? Because if not then middle class people kind of feel that if they took him in, he would shit on their pillows and strangle them. He had to feel like one of them. Then considering the anti-Semitism behind Fagan... don’t just hate him, look into why he does what he does – because it is illegal for him to do anything else. ‘

This desire to shake things up is also evident in Phelps’ consideration for new talent looking to enter the industry. ‘TV has changed radically and you do get very different people working in that environment who don’t come from that privileged background... but unfortunately unpaid internships now mean for many balancing how to afford living in London, unless you parents are really wealthy and can make sure they subsidise you...’ She makes a point to emphasise that all interns on the Agatha Christie production were paid a wage, ensuring talent from diverse backgrounds wishing to work were able to gain that crucial experience.

But for Phelps, positive changes are already demonstrating results, ‘there are really exciting things happening in comedy, with voices that are much more diverse and hopefully then the drama will happen later especially as people go digital more... I mean already you have Chewing Gum, Derry Girls... both coming from voices that might not have got that media platform.’

The positive outlook Phelps has for the creative future of the TV industry is consistent with her approach to her time as a student at Cambridge. While describing it as ‘rather odd’ navigating issues of class, she ultimately found a great deal of joy in her work and studies. There is no question that her passion and uniqueness has made her an impactful voice in the industry.

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