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Burke and Hare - The West Port Murders

In December 2021 I began the journey to write a screenplay on the true story of Edinburgh serial killers William Burke and William Hare. Having been raised in Edinburgh, the story was well known, but I always felt there had never been an onscreen production that had done the story any justice. Yet this was a story that possessed all the attributes for a seriously good dark suspense drama.

 

Having bought the book "Burke and Hare" by William Roughead (published in 1925), I read it thoroughly, which included the transcripts of the trial. Of course, with so much online material also available (including drawings and plans) I spent long nights searching for any snippet of information.

And so, in January 2022, I began writing my first screenplay. 

Writing had always interested me and when I was 20 back in 1982 I had written a full length story incredibly similar to the story "Ghost" about a ghost that helps reveal a murderer. At the time, I asked my boss (who knew someone who worked in the publishing industry) if I could get some review of my story. In response I was told the story was of a "pulp" quality but I had a good grasp of dialogue.

Needless to say I never became the next Stephen King or Hunter S Thompson. Life moved on and thoughts of writing disappeared in the ether.......until now.

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For the last two and a half years and over multiple drafts, a four part television screenplay has been developed that will draw the audience into the harsh, brutal world of early 19th century Edinburgh where the chasm between rich and poor pushes the underclass into deprivation and survivalism. Life is cheap and each day brings new challenges.

It is a dark tale that touches on the social inequalities, where the rich and privileged see themselves as a law unto themselves, the hypocrisy within a society that espouses new opportunities and advancements but looks down on the poor and immigrants. The brutal underbelly of Scotland's capital city, in the shape of the Old Town, is a world away from the Georgian architecture and gaiety of the New Town. Organised criminal gangs run the streets and rob the graves while an ineffectual and rudimentary police force dare not enter many of the streets at night.

Into this world enters William Burke and William Hare. Two Irish immigrants who have met on the construction of the Union Canal and who now reside in dilapidated hovels in the West Port area of the city.

It is taken for granted by those in Edinburgh, if not Scotland, that the story of Burke and Hare is known around the world, but recently I had friends over from Madrid who had never heard of the story. We take for granted that it is a story that has been passed from generation to generation.

With the support of their female partners they would go on to murder at least 16 victims, mainly by suffocation, but it is also the anger that was palpable within the population on their capture. That Dr Knox would never be charged with his implication in the murders because of his status drew fervent anger resulting in near vigilantism, while the trial would drag political cause into the defence teams of both Burke and McDougal, with the Whigs (Cockburn and Moncrieff) keen to get one over the Conservative government by defending the accused.

A full length feature, as had been produced in the past (to disappointing results) could never fully capture what this story offers, but by creating a four episode mini series, there was the opportunity to create a storyline and plot that would capture that period between 1828 and 1829.

Within 8 weeks of solid writing, I had the first draft of the screenplay completed. If I had any thoughts that this was job done, then I was way off the mark as I reviewed and reviewed followed by re-draft after re-draft. 

The next question was, "where do I go from here?". I had something but how do I get it to the next level?

That is when I came across the book "Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them" by John Yorke. This really was an eye opener and the first game changer. So back I went and re-drafted again.

Now I was starting to formulate a 5 act story containing the protagonists and antagonists, a cohesive plot and characters with depth. No matter how much you think the job's done, there is always something else required to take it to the next level.

Eventually I hired a professional reviewer to provide feedback and raise any perceived weaknesses. This was what I really needed. Asking friends will not achieve your objectives of getting an honest response.

 

The investment was worth it as the reviewer questioned scenes, provided suggestions which I always took on board. Sometimes I would agree. Other times I wouldn't, but by the end of the process the screenplay was sharper and flowed better with some scenes shortened or removed and new scenes added to join up the storyline.

By June 2023, I now had what I considered was a piece of work that I would not be embarrassed to present. Due diligence had been done. It had been constructively reviewed and improved upon but it now required some peer acknowledgement and recognition that here was a screenplay that was a viable project. Once it was made public (at least within the film and television industry) would it fare well against other work from around the world?

To measure the quality of the work I set up an account at FilmFreeway, an industry site that supplies information and applications for film festivals and competitions around the world from the less known to the major and everything between.

This would be the litmus test of how good was the work.

By January 2024 and the following weeks, applications were made to enter competitions, while I would continue to make (what I would consider) subtle improvements. Slowly the results indicated an improvement.

  • New Jersey International Screenwriting Competition: Quarter Finalist

  • London International Screenwriting Competition: Semi Finalist

  • Cambridge Script Festival: Finalist

  • Lost Angeles Film Awards: Best New Screenwriter

  • Los Angeles Festigious: Best TV Script

Meanwhile the first review, from Screen Craft, came in to create a buzz. Here are some of the extracts though the full review can be found in the link below.

"One of the qualities this project has that makes it stand out from other projects are the really interesting, distinctive, and compelling characters, and their complicated relationships. The characters’ needs are clearly revealed, which is necessary in order for us to understand why Knox does what he does, and why Burke and Hare do what they do.

The writer is not afraid for the characters to cross over into the dark side. One set of characters lives with prestige and money. The other set of characters live with degradation and poverty, which creates a wonderful contrast that drives not only the characters, but the story, as well. We are drawn into the two different worlds of privilege and the other of the lower class and want to witness what happens as these two worlds begin to merge.

The distinction between these two worlds is wonderfully rendered, and we experience the war between the classes on an emotional and visceral level.

 

The dialogue is one of the strongest qualities of the writing. Each character has their unique voice, and we hear the different lilts in the dialects."

Screencraft review in full.

Cannes Film Festival Review (extract)

"Everyone fits into the greater story and the individual interactions make for good entertainment. Even more specifically, the dialogue is particularly well written. Not only does it capture the place in time and the accents, but it often feels authentic and gets to the point of the scene with plenty of great subtextual meaning and character progression."

Cannes Film Festival Review in full

The coming year will be about ascertaining whether the screenplay has that X Factor to attract a production company to take the project on. Someone I met who worked in the film industry said, "Period dramas are expensive.", which I understood, but if the quality of the screenplay surpasses the bar and has what it takes to attract a global audience then an expensive, dark, suspense period drama is there to break records.

Hopefully someone, somewhere is ready to help me see this project fulfill its potential.

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