Friday, 11 July 2014

I Love This Idea - But That's Not How It Sounds

We Brits look at the Americans with envy. In the world of TV Comedy, they’ve given us M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, The American Office and plenty more besides.

Pic by Ricardo Liberato
And some Americans seem look at us Brits with envy even though we only seem to have given them Monty Python, Benny Hill, The Actual Office and some shows that became Sanford and Son and All in the Family.  I’m sure American writers look enviously at the idea of the BBC with its compulsory licence fee, noble aims to inform, educate and entertain and therefore the freedom not to chase TV ratings (don’t tell them).

To British eyes, the American system seems to be very regimented – from the calendar of when shows are pitched, pilots are cast, picked up and shot, to the hierarchy of writer-producers (for more on this, go the brilliant Children of Tendu podcast). On top of all this, The Writers’ Guild seems to have hammered out fairly clear protocol, agreements and levels of payment for all of the above. 

To American eyes, Britain must look like a shambles. Which it is. There is no real system in British comedy, apart from the annual decamp to Edinburgh, which heavily favours the writer-performer. For writers, though, there's nothing set in stone. This is partly because no-one feels there needs to be system, and I applaud that. It seems crazy that the entire US TV industry is trying to make dozens of pilots at exactly the same time.

One way in which this shambles manifests itself is the way in which sitcoms are developed. Again, the differences could not be more stark. In America, a studio decides it likes a writer, who’s probably earned their spurs writing on an established show for a few years. The studio offers them a deal. Money to develop a script. Maybe an office. (Ha! Try even getting a meeting room at the BBC, let alone an office.) You might even get some assistance. In the form of an assistant. And ultimately, you get a deadline.

Notice two things here. Firstly, the deal. And secondly the deadline. Let’s take those in turn.

The Deal
In that studio-deal system, the promise of money come before an idea is even discussed. The studio is buying into the talent of a writer and rather hoping the writer will try and deliver something good. That’s a safe assumption, given the writer wants a good show on the air, for reasons of creative satisfaction, a desire to get rich, to disprove a stupid teacher at school or appear clever to other writers (pretty much the big four reasons, I think. Discuss.)

‘The deal’ almost never happens in Britain. I had something like this with BBC Comedy for a year a while back, which produced a script and a readthrough. It all ultimately died when the exec who had championed it left. And that was that.

The British alternative to a deal is a vague ‘Hey, we’d love to hear some of your ideas’. I’ll bet you would. Nothing like ‘We think you’re a brilliant writer and we want to be in business with you.’ It’s all very low-key and non-committal.

I realise this is part of our British way. We’re suspicious of money, contracts, lawyers, business in general and talking like you’re Alan Sugar. In the main, that’s a healthy scepticism. But it leads to amateurishness, confusion and frustration – of which more in a moment.

The Deadline
Because of the rigid TV calendar in America, there’s a deadline. A line by which a script must be submitted or it is dead. There is no such thing in the UK. New TV series start on all TV channels all year round. And so there’s no hurry. For anything. At all. So everything bimbles along, then drifts…

Until a slot comes up, a new initiative is announced, a pot of money being made available, and then there’s a blind panic to get a script in and you work all hours, unsure if the contracts are going to be signed and you’re going to be paid but you do it anyway and you write and rewrite and scream and rewrite and finished and send.

And then.

The exec who announced that initiative leaves.

The development producer you were working with seems be busy on something else.

Your emails seem to vanish into the ether.

People seem hazy on what was agreed and what wasn’t. 

And it’s hard for people to care because the project is dead.

And you don't get paid properly. If at all.

Why do I mention all this?
Good question. It’s all a preamble to a particular phenomenon which seems to be happening a lot at the moment. And I wanted to get some groundwork done before launching into it, so I don’t seem like a petulant, greedy writer who thinks he’s some kind of writing deity - or at least to disguise this fact.

The phenomenon is this: A producer says ‘We’d love to hear some ideas’. And you go in and mention one or two. They latch on to one and ask to see a treatment – a couple of pages explaining the idea, which may well have been in your brain for months or years. A decent outline or treatment could be weeks of work, reading, research, writing and rewriting.

They want this for free.

*deep breath* Fair enough. You’re wanting them to get behind the idea, commission a script and pester a commissioner or controller to give you a read-through, a pilot or a series. So a treatment is just about okay, given we don’t have a dead/deadline system in place. And we're trying to sell our comedy wordy wares.

If they like the idea, they might ‘option’ it, which is a small amount of money (£500. Told you.) which means you can’t take it to anyone else for a six months or a year or whatever. It’s kind of one-page, memo-type deal. Or at least it should be. This £500 in no way covers the hours, days and weeks you’ve already spent on this idea, but it’s a start.

So. Some has said ‘I like the idea’. So you send them the treatment.

Then they might say ‘I really like the idea’. And then option it. £500 quid. Yours to spend on whatever you like. Like food. Or heating. Or your mortgage. The choice is yours. You’ve got plenty of time to think about it. The money won’t arrive for months.

They have a few thoughts on how the idea could be improved. Some thoughts are good. Others are insane and demonstrate they’ve not really understood the idea or been paying attention. Or they’re trying to turn your idea into something else that they’re more interested in, or watched on TV last night. But they’ve optioned it now. So you decide to tweak the treatment.

You spend another day on the treatment. And send it in.

They say ‘I love the idea.’

But.

Could they have some sample scenes?

FX: KLAXON

This is the bit I’m dwelling on. When I mentioned ‘amateurishness, confusion and frustration’ earlier I was talking about this bit. It’s amateurish because someone’s treating you like an amateur  - ie. not paying you. It’s confusing because no-one quite knows what the protocol should be. And it’s all very frustrating.

Sample Scenes
‘Sample scenes’ don’t just write themselves. They take at least a couple of days. Because it’s new show, and a new idea, and it’ll be ages before I could bare to show those samples scenes to anyone, it’s probably three or four days work, scattered over a couple of weeks. Maybe longer, because you're looking to write scenes that crystal key relationships and are demonstrative of the show as a whole. So, five days. minimum. So, do I want to work for five days for free? Tough one.

“Ah yes,” says the Comedy Exec, “but if a script is commissioned… and then a series… and then repeats… and then…” Stop. True. That all might happen. But the likelihood a script won’t be commissioned. And if it is, the likelihood is that it won’t be commissioned as a series, because most scripts aren’t. It took me twelve years to get a show on TV (Bluestone 42). I fully expect the next one to take at least half that time. If not more. If I’m lucky.

But we all know what’s going on here. Someone’s doing everything they can to get more for less. I understand why people do that. I try to do it at the supermarket. But Tesco is a multi-billion pound retailer. Not a writer. (I might go to Sainsbury’s if I’ve just been paid that £500)

So. A Development Producer or Comedy Executive is well within their basic human rights to ask for yet more work, this time for free. And the lack of system encourages this. But here’s why I don’t recommend it:

It doesn’t sound good. I’ll go further. It sounds bad.

The Joy of Subtext
We writers don’t just deal in text. In fact text isn’t even our main product. That would be subtext. That’s what scripts are: Characters saying one thing and meaning another; and other characters hearing something else entirely.

So, while I completely understand why a Comedy Executive may say, ‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’, this person needs to know that I’m hearing something else. I may well be wrong about most of it, but don’t forget, I’m the averagely paranoid, freelance writer. And I hear a mixture of about 5 things.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
1. 'I don't love this. If I did, I’d commission a script.' 
Speaks for itself really. If you loved it, you’d commit . But you have doubts. Why would you that be? Onto the next thing that I’m hearing.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
2. 'I can't really imagine this'.
So I’ve set up the idea, the characters and the setting. I’ve explained how it’s going to be funny – and you seem happy with this. In fact you love it. And the only reason we had the meeting in the first place is because you think I’m a funny, competent writer. So what’s the problem? Your lack of imagination. That’s a shame, given your job in development is to imagine what might be. So, could this be the real problem that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
3. ‘I don't trust your ability to make this idea funny.’
The idea is fine. Funny, in fact. Fresh. Modern. Classic with a twist. But how can I be sure this writer - who’s been nominated for a few awards, is well regarded and whom I invited in to my office - can deliver funny scenes around this idea – that they’ve come up with and nurtured?  Maybe it’s borderline but ultimately: 

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ could mean:
4. ‘I don't think you're worth my budget.’
You have a limited budget that you have to eke out over a year so you’re going to make it stretch as far as possible. So you’re going to save your boss some money and make a writer that you want to be working with write for free for even longer. Thanks.

One more thing. Is it possible that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
5. ‘I don't have the guts to stand by this or turn it down.’
Maybe. As the writer and creator of this idea, I had the guts to spend weeks of my own time on this, committing to it at the exclusion of other things – because time is finite, remember? – and yet you are unwilling to do this. That's what I'm hearing. Because I'm paranoid. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

It’s not about the money. Okay, it’s partly about the money. But mostly it’s about honesty and respect. I quite like our non-rigid, slightly shambolic system. But this is the downside.

For more on money, have a look here

Friday, 13 June 2014

Top 10 Tips on Dealing with Exposition - Part 2

In the last post, we began to think about the writer's nemesis that he can't live without: Exposition. And I promised 10 tips on how to convey exposition without resorting to dreadful, creaky, crunchy lines where characters just say things that a necessary rather than natural. And actors sometimes spot them and ask, on set, 'I don't understand this. Why is my character saying this? It doesn't feel like something they would say.' If you're answer is 'We need to explain to the viewer x, y and z' then you have failed as a writer on this occasion. Anyway, for the first four tips, go here. Otherwise, read on.

5. Have A Blazing Row
Your character is explaining a plan. The other characters listen. Boring. Annoying. Not funny. Could someone have an alternative plan? And explain their plan, or keep interrupting the original plan – and the two characters have an argument about it. Going back to Blackadder, Baldrick’s cunning plans are always really funny, and gives our hero the chance to explain a decent plan, with jokes. Although sometimes, the plan isn’t even explained. It’s obvious. When Blackadder asks for two pencils and a pair of underpants, we’re intrigued – and then we go straight into seeing them in action (funny), and then the explanation. Which leads to asking:

6. Do you Need to Tell them this?
Backstory and exposition often seems very important when you’re planning a sitcom, or outlining an episode, but when it comes to writing it, you quite often realise you don’t need to explain yourself as much as you might think. This is especially the case with backstory. Newer writers tend to get quite hung up on where the characters have been, and what they did before – but the audience are more interested in where they are going. As I’ve written before on this blog, The Vicar of Dibley just turns up. She just arrives. No back story. No past. She’s the new vicar. (NB. As a church goer, this would never happen without consultation with the church, etc, but that doesn’t really matter. Again, no explanation needed.) If you like, you can reveal backstory and hidden depths later.  In The West Wing, they do at that in Series 2, once we love the characters and want to know a bit more about their past.

7. Is Every Line Pulling Its Weight?
If you’re already got a script and are feeling it’s confusing and needs more exposition, don’t just think about adding lines. Apart from anything else, sitcom is brutal in terms of length. On BBC you’ve 28 minutes. On ITV/SKY, you’re got nearer 23 minutes. In USA, you’ve 21 mins. You don’t have the luzury or more time or more lines. Why are you needing to give the audience signposts? Is every story/routine. Make sure every scene, sequence, line – and every action - is working hard not just comically, but expositionally.

In a sitcom, everything happens for a reason. It’s there because you’ve decided to put it there. So use all these tools to tell your story. Let’s consider the work of some real comedy legends, Esmonde and Larbey and their blissfully odd sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. (More on the title later)

Every time, Martin Brice walks in and fiddles with the phone in the hallway. He untangles the wire, or turns the phone round. He does this a lot – pretty much every episode. This tells you at least three or four things. He’s essentially obsessively compulsive. His wife, Anne, isn’t, for it is obviously her who puts the phone down the wrong way round. She is clearly happy to do something that she knows her husband will correct. And Martin is prepared to do it week after week and force a smile afterwards.

Anne comments on the phone thing in the first episode – which is well worth looking at. Watch the first bit of the first episode. It’s genius. All you need to know about the show is in the first three minutes. By then, you know all about Martin and Paul, which is ultimately the key relationship in the show. Every line and action builds and builds. He’s shouting cheerfully after the boys who’ve just been thrashed at football. He wipes his feet for ages. He does the phone thing. He talks to Paul in an overly knowledgeable way. He thinks he’s winning at life. There’s an interesting moment at 2.58 when Paul reacts to something Martin says – and looks to Anne who doesn’t see anything unusual in this comment. This is the world we are in. It’s masterful. Please. Take the time. Watch it.


8. Use your Opening Title Sequence
The opening titles of Ever Decreasing Circles (because you watched it, right?) is bold. It’s all metaphor, obviously. You’ve got an opening title sequence. That’s about 20-30 seconds that you can use to explain the premise of your show, conveying a couple of essential pieces of information or highlighting a key relationship. My Name is Earl had a brilliant, lyrical, brief opening about a winning lottery ticket and karma, which includes a car crash. (Have a look here if you like) It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch all of it. What really stand out is the end bit when he says, ‘I’m just trying to be a better person.’ That’s all you need to know. He has some money and he’s trying to be good.

9. Use the Title of your Show
What’s your show called? I’m not referring to the title of the episode, which is largely meaningless. (All the episode title, and one sentence summary, does is tell the audience whether or not they’ve seen the episode before.) I’m talking about the name of the show, as they should do at least some expositional work. If your show title is a reference to an obscure TS Eliot poem that you happen to like, and it doesn't help you, I suggest you change it.

Miranda Hart’s show is called Miranda because it’s telling you the show is about her. She’s in every scene and the show is entirely from her point of view. So the audience subconsciously knows that every character in the show is defined by their relationship to Miranda. Him and Her – is about him and her, and their relationship. Ever Decreasing Circles is telling you this is about a man who’s going round and round and slowly going insane. Your show has a name. It’s another tool in the armoury. Use it.

10. Cheat
If you’ve still got a whole ton of exposition to crunch through, you might just have to cheat. Cheating’s fine. Two of my favourite shows do it. Modern Family and Parks and Rec have a very murky, ill-defined documentary style that is wildly inconsistent with odd looks to camera at very points. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I don’t know why. It just doesn’t. I think they’re able to get away with this because of the language and grammar of television has been heavily influenced by ‘Fly on the wall’ documentaries and reality TV in the last fifteen years, and then The Office.

You can cheat by having a narrator. This is how Arrested Development crunches through an amazing amount of story in such a short time. Ron Howard’s voiceover is never really explained (It is? Does it need to be?) but again, it doesn’t seem to matter. More cunning and less cheaty is the voiceover in Desperate Housewives who is a character speaking from beyond the grave. Nice move.

You can have a character talk directly to camera. Miranda does that, and it’s incredibly useful from a story point of view, as she can relate previous incidents in her life, announce the story of the week and give us a heads-up on foreseeable problems, which will hopefully lead to unforeseen ones. Miranda’s pieces to camera also give her an extremely deep connection with her audience.

Finally, you can cheat in the most brazen way possible by having a character called Basil Exposition. It was only on the third time of what that movie that I got that joke.

So, there are ten tips on dealing with exposition. If you have others, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Top 10 Tips on Dealing with Exposition

I’ve just written a novel. Okay, okay, I’ll stop banging on about it. (Four quid on Kindle etc) But I’d like to write about writing the novel for a moment – because there are two aspects of it which are quite interesting for a sitcom writer.  And it’s more interesting than putting receipts into a spreadsheet which is what I would otherwise be doing.

Size Does Matter
The hardest thing about writing the novel is the length of the thing. 80,000 words is a lot. But for me the problem was not thinking of those words or the story or character or anything. Once I had the idea and the characters and the basic structure, writing prose wasn’t that hard. (You be the judge of whether that prose is any good).

What I wasn’t used to was not being able to remember what I’d written. You need to have what you’ve written in the back of your mind because it informs what you’re going to write. You want to avoid repeating yourself, or assuming you’ve established something earlier on when you haven’t. You have to go back and check previous chapters to make sure you’ve kept the continuity or whatever – and it can take ages to find the chapters, read what you wrote, resist editing it and go back to what you were writing 40,000 words later. This was a new experience for me.

Some Memory Sticks. Clearly.
The problem is you just can’t retain a novel manuscript in the back of your mind, or even the front and the sides, without it dribbling out of your ears and nose. A sitcom script, being about 5-6000 words for 24-28 mins, requires about 100 MB of mental memory. And that’s about the size of my actual memory, or back of my mind, or bit where scripts tend to lurk. So when I’m writing or re-writing and I need to check on a line or a prop, I can usually find it within a few seconds and I’m back writing. But a novel is about 1.5 GB of mental memory – and it’s not super-fast flash drive memory, but old school hard drive-type whirring-moving-parts memory. Finding what you wrote several weeks earlier in a chapter you can’t quite remember was like wading through treacle.

However, there is an upside to writing a novel that makes it waaaay easier than a sitcom script.

Exposition.

Exposition is the screenwriter’s toughest, thorniest, deadliest foe. In a sitcom script, you have scene descriptions and dialogue. That’s it so you have conveying exposition and all relevant information using these tools that doesn’t involve stupid lines like ‘So, tell me again, what are we trying to achieve here?’ or the ultimate: ‘So how long have we been brothers?’ And some people try and fix the latter with a stage direction which is ‘JOHN turns to PETE, his brother.’ Great. You’ve told the cast and crew these two guys are brothers. You haven’t told the audience.

The joy of writing a novel is that you just tell the reader stuff. You don’t even need to be in the first person to justify it. You just describe what happens – as well as the reasons for it happening, what went before, what comes after. Easy. So so easy.

But this is not a novel-writing blog, or even a screenwriting blog. It’s a sitcom-writing blog. And in sitcoms we have to do our exposition much more subtley. So here are 10 tips on doing exposition, at least the first four:

1. Show Not Tell, blah blah blah
You know this, but Show Not Tell is easier said than done, ironically. But it is worth going back over your scrip and checking it over with this in mind. Are characters saying how they feel? Or do we see it? Are they saying they are angry, or are they doing things in anger? Blah blah blah. This is all very well, but how to do we explain plot, highlight quests, specify goals and convey relevant backstory?

2. Write a Joke
It’s a sitcom. A few decent jokes go a long way and cover a multitude of exposition. And there’s no better than Curtis & Elton on this. A certain Blackadder line could read:
George: Are we going to attack the enemy? How exciting!
Blackadder: Yes. And we’ll all die in the process. This war is a completely waste of time.
That’s exposition. And not funny. Here’s the same exposition with jokes:
Lieutenant George: Great Scott sir, you mean, you mean the moment's finally arrived for us to give Harry Hun a darned good British style thrashing, six of the best, trousers down?
Captain Blackadder: If you mean, "Are we all going to get killed?" Yes. Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
Not only is the latter version 1000% funnier, it also gives us so much more information about their characters. We’re only four minutes into the series when these lines crop up and these are brand new characters for us, since the previous series was set a hundred years earlier where George was the Prince Regent and Blackadder was the butler. Now Blackadder is a Captain. George is a Lieutenant – and calls him, sir. We also learn in the two lines that George is insanely patriotic and overly optimistic – so probably a bit thick given how previous attacks have gone. We learn that Captain Blackadder is a realist, cynical and unimpressed with the general directing the battles and their futility. This isn’t just exposition.

Clearly, the tone of Blackadder doesn’t suit every show, but a joke can really help. So cover some exposition by writing one. If you don’t want to write jokes, write a drama. But you’ll still have this exposition problem, so read on.

3. The Value of Supreme Idiocy
Blackadder is surrounded by idiots. Baldrick, George, Generals, etc. In series 2 there was Lord Percy, too. Idiots are very useful – partly because they are often joke machines. But another good reason to have an idiot-character in your show is because they can get the wrong of the stick and then the other characters have to explain or clarify what’s going on to them, which will also clarify things nicely for the audience.

I wrote a sitcom set in Bletchley Park during World War 2, called Hut 33. In it, I had a character called 3rd Lieutenant Joshua Fanshawe-Marshall, possibly the stupidest man on earth, brilliant played by Alex MacQueen. I did that because codebreaking and the job they actually did in the huts at Bletchley is really hard to understand. So I needed a military person, not an intelligence person that would need explanations. Joshua is colossally stupid who thinks that German already is a code and the enemy should play fair and speak English. But Joshua also needs to know what’s going on because he’s sort of in charge, being the embarrassingly inept son of gung-ho Patton-like British general. So his idiocy, position and backstory all made him a character who needed stuff spelled out to him. This was very useful for explaining exposition – and generating jokes at the same time.

4. Why You’ve Gotta Love a Man in Uniform
Who is everyone? How do they relate to each other? What they’re wearing can explain an awful without a word of dialogue. One upside of military comedies – at least ones on television – is that they all wear uniforms which indicate rank. And even if we don’t know what rank slide means what, you can tell who’s in charge given who calls who ‘sir’ or, in the case of Bluestone 42, ‘boss’. And who snaps to attention when someone walks in.

Thinking about costume applies to all screenwriting.  What do the characters wear? What does it say about who they are – and how they relate to other characters? Do some people have to wear a uniform and others get to wear 'managament-style' suits? Do someone wear their clothes inside our, or back to front, or refuse to wear the right thing? What they are wearing says a great deal about where they’ve come from and, more importantly, where they’re going – both literally and figuratively.

So that’s four. Six to go. Numbers 5-10 in the next blog post.

In the meantime, buy the novel that's full of exposition. In a good way.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Endless Wormhole of World War Two

I am an over-educated thirty-something man. There is, therefore, a good chance that I’m obsessed with World War Two. I am. This is partly why I wrote a sitcom set in Bletchley Park, called Hut 33, and more recently written a novel about D-Day, called Crossword Ends In Violence (5).

Where does this obsession comes from? Is it the astonishing amount of war documentaries that fill the schedules on all those cable channels? Are they there to meet the demand, or are they just passable cheap television? After all, there’s plenty of footage of the war available to pad out the show, and plenty of war veterans still alive happy to talk about their experiences. These interviews can be very difficult to focus on as as you spend most of the time trying to work out how old they are before deciding whether or not they look good for their age. Add some reconstructions with non-speaking actors and, hey presto, you’ve got some cheap, interesting-ish telly.

You can make hours of this stuff because, as the name suggests, the War took place all over the world. So you can cover the Western Front, the Eastern Front, The War in the North Africa, the Pacific, the Far East and then there’s Resistance, the spying, the technology and the list goes on. On top of that, every year brings a new anniversary commemorating everything that took place from the invasion of Poland in 1939 until the fall of Berlin in 1945. All of the above produces books, films, computer games, memorabilia, tours and, erm, my novel. Hence this blog.

There’s also the simplicity of the war – at least that’s how it appears at first glance. Allies good. Axis bad. Easy. But the more you read, the more you realise it was a lot more complicated than that. Stalin was our friend, but with friends like that, you don’t really need enemies. Stalin was one of a cast of instantly recognisable leaders that are kind enough to have been really easy characters to understand. They are, what we call in the sitcom world, larger-than-life characters. Characters like Churchill, with his cigar and defiance, Montgomery, with his implausibly large beret and arrogance, and Patton, with his Yosemite Sam spirit, would be criticised as clich├ęs were they to be invented and portrayed on a big screen. The same could be said of Hitler, who has been a reference point of evil for over seventy years. 

There's also something about the 'board game' phenomenon too. Hitler invaded country after country like he was playing Risk. In a similar fashion, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt decided the fates of entire continents on scraps of paper passed across tables, bargaining with countries like betting chips. You can almost imagine Stalin saying, ‘I see your Moldova and I’ll raise you a Ukraine.’

Maybe the biggest attraction is not just arguing over what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Russia (Germany would have won the war. No question), or getting excited about experimental aeroplanes introduced in 1945. Al Murray does this brilliantly in Watching War Films With My Dad, which I highly recommend.

Within many of us, I suspect, is the question: ‘What would I have done? How would I have coped? Would I have done my bit?’ It’s a terrifying thought, and in our days of lattes, wifi and therapy, we fear the worst. That generation seem so different from us. So much braver. More stoic. Less prone to assert their rights. More prone to give them up for the Greater Good. Happier to even believe in the Greater Good.

But the war wasn't just full of action men assaulting machine gun nests, or going behind enemy lines. And Crossword Ends in Violence (5) is more about the more bookish types. The indoor-crowd. Crossword setters and code-breakers, both in 1944 and the present day. Sure, there’s the odd Luger and a bit of fighting. Churchill puts in a couple of brief appearances. There’s even a guy trapped in a gulag. But it’s not so much about the heroes who fought D-Day, but those who made it happen, planned it and somehow, miraculously, kept it a secret. People knew how to keep secrets back then. That's another they can do that we can't.

When crucial codewords appeared in the national newspaper’s crossword days before you land a million men in occupied Normandy, you’re going to at least look into. This is an amusing version of that story. At least, I hope it is. You be the judge.

The book launches with the assault on Sword beach – on June 6th. Buy it HERE.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Let's Talk About Money

We are the warriors.

We’ve seen terrible things.

We’ve developed iron discipline, ruthlessly suppressing our emotions and impulses in order to survive the cut and thrust of the brutal onslaughts that come for us. We are the unsalaried.

(Game of Thrones reference? No? Please yourselves.)

Being a freelance writer is tough. Being a freelance anything is hard enough, with all its variables and uncertainties. But scraping a living with your jokes, word power and/or storytelling ability is doubly difficult.

Now, even though professional writers talk about little else, I don’t write about money very much, partly because I do okay, having worked in television and radio for at least a decade and lived off the proceeds. Also, writing is an impossibly luxurious thing to have time to do, let alone be paid for it. I’m never sure the casual reader has any sympathy for us literary types. My father was a farmer all his life and in all previous generations that would have been my lot. So I’m just happy to have a job that takes place indoors.

I have written about money before, like back in 2010 where I wrote, with unusual clarity:
“The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write - like a decent word-processor, a chair and some drinkable coffee.”
So why now?
The incentive to think about this again came from Robert McCrum’s interesting article in The Guardian about the troubled times that novelists now face – or at least a reversion to the norm now the fat-cheque feeding-frenzy has subsided.

Do we feel sympathy for literary novelists? Well, a bit. Someone enjoys those books. (Rarely me, sadly). But I can imagine the frustration. It’s very annoying to be part of an industry where the only person who’s actually creating the work is the only person who’s being chronically underpaid. (I wrote about this in another post in 2011, which is my third most popular blog posts, mainly because of the Harlan Ellison clip at the bottom, which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.)

Writers aren’t interested in money. They’re interested in writing. And the biggest frustration is that everyone’s getting paid but the writer. The only way to make a living in the media is to not be a writer. If you want to work with stories for goodness sake don’t write one. It’s financial madness. The only jobs that make financial sense are all the salaried ones surrounding the writers. Be an editor. Or an agent. Or be on staff at a literary festival. If you want to work in TV, work in 'development' on 'formats'. And become an executive. Whatever you do, don’t write. You probably can’t afford it.

Coming soon from Piqwiq
I think writing books is even more ruinous than writing TV or Radio, although maybe that’s just my own experience. A few years ago, I wrote a novel called Crossword Ends in Violence (5), a comedy thriller about crosswords, D-Day, codes, chess and Bletchley Park. It’s sort of Robert-Harris-meets-Terry-Pratchett.

The novel took me about six months to write, spread out over a two year period. On an average wage, that’s about £12k of labour (ignoring the fact I have a degree, live in Hammersmith etc etc). My agent – who is experienced and works for a good agency, especially for books - was unable to find a publisher. Apparently it's neither a comedy nor historical fiction and therefore unpublishable. You can't do both. There is no market for funny history, which is odd given Blackadder, Horrible Histories, Monty Python, Dad's Army - and my own Radio 4 sitcom Hut 33 about code breakers and Bletchley Park. Still that's what they said.

Do I regret writing the novel? Not entirely. I wrote the novel because I wanted to. I had to. And now I’ve got the chance to do something interesting with it – which is e-publish it for Kindle via Piqwiq. (Available soon).

Working for Free
Writers are often happy to work for free. I write this blog and get almost nothing out of it financially. It helps me organize my thoughts, establish a reputation and plug the occasional book I wrote once in a blue moon. The fact is that I love writing about writing. It’s a heck of a lot easier than writing situation comedy, which is what I’m paid to write.

But my decision to work for free is my choice. Being asked to do so, especially by someone on a salary, is infuriating. Writers hate it when, as is so often the case, they are the only person in the room not being paid for the thing they do, especially when the only reason everyone’s there is because the writer has written something. Joanna Harris has written about it on her blog with regard to festivals.
Festivals never question the fact that they have to pay for room hire; catering; advertising; transport; photography; insurance; sound and lighting. All these things cost money. Everything has to be paid for, in fact, except the people whom the audiences are coming to hear - that is, the authors themselves. 
I'm getting the sense that it's so bad that many writers don’t feel like they're colleagues of the salaried publishing/producing types. They don’t even feel like the tradesmen who come in the back door and have to take their shoes off. No, tradesmen are paid. Writers are feeling more and more like animals to be herded and crops to be harvested. Something from which other people can make their living. It’s horrible.

Again, I stress that I’m fine and very luck to be skilled in an area and medium with pays well. If I had the equivalent skills at poetry, I’d be making a tenth of what I currently earn. So I am lucky. I realise that. But if we talk about being lucky too much we can easily overlook a writer’s talent and experience. Being a good writer is a craft to be learned, practised and honed.

Too Many Competitions
One problem is the media has so many scriptwriting competitions that it makes it look being a writer is not a job or a trade. It’s winning a competition. "You could write the next Only Fools and Horses!" Argh! No. Writing a sitcom is hard. Writing one script can be fluked. Writing six takes talent, skill and experience.

It’s same in the music industry with all of these tiresome talent contests where a range of musical skills, like song-writing, mixing, editing and just being able to play an instrument, is being overlooked by as the shows focus only on the voice and the stage presence of someone who's walked in off the street and has an interesting life story.

Week after week on these contests, they sing songs written by skilled songwriters who’s work has stood the test of time. Usually two middle-aged men who spent years churning out songs from a studio in Motown, or a little known singer-songwriter who spend years in Nashville learning her craft.

Competitions have their place - they're mostly TV shows rather than anything else - but when this seeps into the writing world, it gives the impression to newbies and ignorant execs that anyone who writes professionally should thank their lucky stars they’re getting paid at all. Writers regularly feel very patronised by the salaried who hold out the hope of a career because they don't actually have any development money to pay the writer for their time. This is not how any industry should work, creative or otherwise.

Too Much Competition
The problem is, of course, that there are too many of us; wannabee screenwriters and novelists as well as actual screenwriters and novelists. And yet producers (and book editors?) are constantly moaning about the lack of decent manuscripts. I wonder how that can be.

So, how about investing in people, rather than waiting for scripts to come to you? That's how the American TV studios do it. They offer writers deals and put them on contracts: because it makes financial sense. But not in the UK. The excuse that’s often given is that times are tough. The internet’s killing everything. No-one’s prepared to pay for content.

This may be true about lousy content. But people are prepared for pay for decent content. And they do. Tens of millions pays for their licence fee. If the content of the BBC were uniformly awful, people wouldn’t pay it, or would throw out their TV, or the licence fee would be scrapped. But they pay for the content because, ultimately, the BBC isn’t all that bad.

People also pay willingly for Sky. In their millions. And on top of that, they pay for DVD boxed sets, HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime/LoveFilm, iTunes and cable. People will pay for content. I'm hoping they'll pay for my novel. Can we stop using this as an excuse for a reluctance to invest?

You can have compelling, must-see content. But the people who will give you that aren't the development producers, festival managers or editors - it's the writers. The unsalaried. 

You wouldn’t expect your watercooler to be replaced by a guy for free with the promise of a chance to bid for providing water in the future.  You wouldn’t expect your boiler to be fixed for free – with the promise that he might win a boiler-fixing award, which would really help his business. Why would you treat a writer this way? The writer is crucial to your business.

If the writer wants to work for free, that’s their choice. Not yours.

So, to all salaried people in the creative industries, on behalf of the unsalaried:

Pay the writer. Properly. On time.

Thanks.

Now watch that Harlan Ellison clip again (NSFW). And cheer.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Season Sitcom Writers - Pete Sinclair - Part 3

We're concluding the conversation with Seasoned Sitcom Pro, Pete Sinclair. Last time we found out the lessons learned from writing two sitcoms that didn't make it to a second series for a number of surprising reasons. Read about that here. This time, Pete's talks about the writing of hit sitcom, Lead Balloon. (Spoiler: Jack Dee comes out of this annoying well)

Sitcomgeek: Did you manage to apply any of the lessons learned from All Along the Watchtower and Mr Charity to Lead Balloon? What was the process on that show?
Pete Sinclair: I absolutely did!  Although the idea was Jack's, when it came to the execution – in terms of the naturalistic tone and the fact that it was non-audience – Lead Balloon was the polar opposite of my first two sitcoms.  And the other lesson I learnt (especially from Mr Charity) was that if I had any doubts at all about anything, they had to be addressed!  If something was wrong, it was no good hoping that it would resolve itself or that it wouldn't matter that much.  I knew from bitter experience that it would end in tears.  So, for example, when it came to decisions about casting, I was far more ruthless than I would have been before.

Lead Balloon first came about when I was working with Jack on his stand-up tour.  I had worked with him before on shows like Jack Dee's Happy Hour but it was the first time we had worked together on our own.  He told me that he'd had an idea for a sitcom and asked if I'd be interested in writing it with him.  As I always say – it's the easiest question I've ever been asked in show business!  I knew that with the involvement of a star name like Jack, the chances of getting it on – and almost as crucially, being allowed to have creative control over it – would be vastly increased.

Why BBC4? Surely Jack Dee would want a bigger audience?
Right from the outset, Jack was adamant that it should be aimed at BBC 4.  He didn't want to be under the pressure that a sitcom on BBC 1 (or even BBC 2) would bring – partly in terms of viewing figures, but also in terms of the general weight of expectation.  As it turned out, it was a very smart decision – not only did it get a BBC 2 repeat before the end of its BBC 4 run, but also the fact that we were on a lower-profile channel meant that we enjoyed far more creative freedom than we might have done.  I'm sure the fact that Jack was a big name also helped, but we had virtually no interference from above.

To give one example, when the director of the pilot was unavailable to do the series, we really wanted our producer Alex Hardcastle to direct it.  Although he had directed his own short films and had ambitions to be a director, Alex had never directed a TV show before.  I very much doubt that we'd have been allowed to take a chance on him if it was for BBC 1 or and BBC 2, but as it was, we got our way.  Suffice it to say that Alex is now out in America, directing some of their top shows including Parks and Recreation and the U.S. version of The Office!

So, how was it working with ‘the star of the show’?
As far as the writing process was concerned, it was an equal collaboration between Jack and myself.  Considering he was the star and the creator of the show, Jack displayed an amazing lack of ego throughout.  He would never overrule me on the grounds that it was 'his' show.  And always mindful of the character traits of Rick Spleen, he would often say “That's too funny a line for Rick, we'll have to give it to one of the other characters.”

One key difference in the writing process compared to my previous sitcoms was that, whereas Trevelyan and I would always write the first draft of the script together, Jack and I adopted a different approach.   We would work on the story lines for an episode together, right up to the point where we had a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown, complete with some of the gags and key lines of dialogue, but at that point Jack would then go off and write a first draft of the scenes, which I would then read and make notes on.

Sometimes I would have to grudgingly admit that Jack's first draft was almost word-perfect – and sometimes I would gleefully be able to report that I thought it needed a lot more work!  Sometimes we had to go back to the drawing board, as the process of trying to write a first draft served to identify that there was actually something wrong with our scene-by-scene breakdown.  But crucially it meant that we didn't sit there endlessly debating which one of the characters should speak first or rewriting the opening sentence twenty times before we moved on to the second one.

So that was how we arrived at a first draft of each script.  Jack would go off and write two or three scenes at a time, then once I'd read them and made my notes, we'd meet up and rewrite them together.  Once we were happy with them, he'd go off and do a first draft of the next couple of scenes.  Different writers may find that different ways work for them – but that's a process I definitely wish I'd discovered when I first started co-writing sitcoms.

So what did you do with the first draft?
Once it was finished, we'd show it to Alex, take his notes on board, and then Jack and I would write a second and third draft together.  At that point, we'd rehearse the scripts with the cast, who – especially as time went on – came to know their characters well enough to be able to challenge us if there was anything that didn't ring true!  By the time we came to shoot the scripts, they were pretty much polished and ready to go.

Lead Balloon is without doubt the thing I'm most proud of to date in my writing career.  But of course, as a writer, I can still find things to gripe about!  For a start, one of my favourite episodes, a two-hander with Jack being held as a hostage by Robbie Coltrane, attracted 1.6 million viewers on first showing – a pretty healthy figure for BBC 2 at 10.00 pm – and yet it's never been repeated.  And as far as I'm aware, the BBC wouldn't even have to pay anything to show it again.  (The schedulers do read your blog, right...?)

One last thing, I recently blogged about Writer-Performer sitcoms. Do you worry that non-performing writers are in danger of being overlooked? Are you a bit gloomy about getting another of your own sitcom on TV, do does that not bother you?

I read your blog and I thought there was a great deal of truth in it.  Although, having said that, I then read Dave Cohen's blog disagreeing with you, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of the points in that!  I must admit, I never really saw myself as Nick Clegg...

I suppose in a way I have a foot in both camps – in the aftermath of Lead Balloon, I've written scripts with Jack Dee, Mark Steel and Nina Conti, so technically, they count as writer/writer-performer sitcoms!  (Although actually, the Mark Steel one isn't a sitcom.)  I've also had my own solo script commissioned.  As to what lessons I can draw from any of that, the only thing that all four projects have in common is that, so far, they've yet to make it to TV!

I do think that non-performing writers are more easily overlooked, and if I'm honest I would have hoped that co-writing four series of a hit sitcom like Lead Balloon would have opened more doors for me.  But I think these are difficult times.  Money is tight and broadcasters are understandably reluctant to spend money piloting things unless they're pretty sure of them.  And I can see why trusting an up-and-coming comedian with a proven fan base is an attractive option when it comes to commissioning a new sitcom.

But I remain optimistic that one or more of my current projects will see the light of day.  And, if not, I've already got another three or four ideas in the pipeline.  If there any qualities I've developed over the years, they are persistence, patience – and a third, funnier thing that begins with 'p'.  I'll have to get back to you on that...

Pete, we've taken up more than enough of your time. Thank you so much for baring your soul and sharing your experience and insights.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Season Sitcom Writers - Pete Sinclair - Part 2

I'm continuing a conversation with Pete Sinclair, a Seasoned Sitcom Writer. Last time we looked at how he got start with punk poetry (which stood him good stead for Never Mind the Buzzcocks), and graduated to writing for Radio 4 and Rory Bremner. 

Sitcomgeek: You really hit on gold with Lead Balloon. But before we get to that, you had two sitcoms on before that: All Along the Watchtower and Mr Charity. How did they come about and what did you learn from writing them and seeing them make it from script to screen?

Pete Sinclair: All Along The Watchtower and Mr Charity were both written with Trevelyan Evans, a writer/director who was introduced to me via my agent.  Trevelyan had been at the National Film and Television School and one of his ideas had been optioned by a production company.  They felt that it would benefit from having a more experienced writer involved – and even back in the early 1990s that was me!  God, that makes me feel old...

The idea was a brilliant one – it still is! – scripts and treatments were commissioned and we so nearly got it on.  At one point Granada, ITV and Disney were all involved in high level discussions as to how they could make it work financially, but in the end it fell through.

All Along the Watchtower
Having discovered that we worked well together, Trevelyan and I continued to think of ideas – and the first one that we managed to sell was All Along The Watchtower.  It was a sitcom set in the Highlands of Scotland on an RAF early-warning station that they'd somehow forgotten to close down at the end of the Cold War.

A pilot script was commissioned by BBC Scotland in 1996 – but it was a long and tortuous journey before the series made it to the screen three years later.  We originally had a well-known comedy figure in mind for the lead role and he agreed to do a read-through.  It went well, but it proved impossible to get a decision from him about doing a series and eventually we persuaded the BBC to let us re-cast it.

We assembled a cast of actors who were relatively unknown but very good.  The filming and the studio recordings went well and everyone was pretty optimistic about our chances.  That optimism increased when the first reviews appeared.  Unusually for a new sitcom, they were generally positive – and some were better than that!  The Daily Mail said: “It is fresh, original, has hilarious, well-defined characters, and it's very, very funny.”  I remember thinking we had a hit on our hands.

Some of our readers may be unaware of this show. I guess it wasn’t quite the hit you thought it might be. What went wrong?
Looking back, I think the key thing that scuppered us was the decision to broadcast it on Sunday afternoons in the Last Of The Summer Wine slot.  From memory, that had been getting around nine million viewers at the time, whereas we started at five million, then dropped to just over four million and held from then on.  Nowadays of course, those figures would be great – especially for a brand new sitcom with a relatively unknown cast – but by the standards of the time they were considered disappointing.

There then followed an agonising period of discussions, consultations, focus groups and general dithering as to whether a second series would be commissioned.  In the end, the BBC said no.

When the dust had settled, Trevelyan and I set about trying to come up with our next idea. We were determined to learn the lessons of All Along The Watchtower – and the main one, we felt, was that we had to create something that would have an immediate impact.  It seemed to us that sitcoms were no longer being given a chance to grow.  What was needed was a big, bold idea that would provoke a strong reaction.  The result – Mr Charity – certainly did that, but unfortunately the reaction, from the critics at least, was overwhelmingly negative!  One critic described it as “a pile of fossilised poo from sitcom's dark ages.”  (Yes, I keep the bad ones as well...)

What do you think was the problem with Mr Charity?
With hindsight, I'd say it boiled down to two things.  Our first mistake was the clash between a very dark subject matter (essentially satirising someone who was using charity for his own ends) and the old-fashioned traditional sitcom format.  Mr Charity was originally commissioned for BBC 1, but when they decided that they didn't want jokes about cancer and dying kiddies on their channel (even if it was done with satirical intent) it was taken on by BBC 2.

At that point, we should have realised that we had to change the style.  An old-fashioned looking audience sitcom with wobbly sets sat uneasily at 10.00 pm on BBC 2.  The tide (certainly amongst TV critics) was turning against audience sitcoms – and the few more traditional voices who weren't put off by the mainstream format, hated the content.  One such critic described it as more offensive than the Brass Eye paedophile episode.  That was one negative review I was much happier about!

The other main problem, looking back, was a lack of clarity in the central idea.  Although our main character was the head of a national charity, his office was located above one of the charity's shops and he was constantly getting involved in the day-to-day running of it.  I think that would be fine as a one-off gag but to have the focus split between two very different worlds perhaps damaged the believability of the idea.  In retrospect, we should have gone for one or the other.

On top of that, there was one key question about the central character that we never really addressed – was he really a self-serving shyster who was simply using charity for his own ends, or did he genuinely believe that he was ultimately doing it for a good cause?  Trevelyan and I leaned towards the former, whilst Stephen Tompkinson, who played the role (and played it well in my opinion) thought the latter.  At the time, I remember thinking that the ambiguity might actually help us.  With hindsight, I think it would have been better to be crystal clear.

For all its flaws, I would still argue that Mr Charity was very funny in places.  In fact, the recordings went down so well with the studio audience that the late great Geoffrey Perkins commissioned a script for a second series on the strength of them.  I sometimes wonder how the series would have been received nowadays, when audience sitcoms that paint with a broad brush are back in fashion.

Right, that's enough for now, thanks Pete. Plenty to think about there. Next time, the rise and rise of Lead Balloon…