Friday, 29 April 2016

Notes for Newbies

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote that ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ If you’re a screenwriter, you can add one more thing to that list: Notes.

It is fashionable for writers to laugh at notes, stupid notes and the stupid people who give you stupid notes. And it’s funny when real industry pros like Rob Long talk about it. You can read examples in his two excellent books that I highly recommend, Conversations with My Agent and Set Up, Joke, Set up Joke. But he’s sucked up his fair share of notes in his time, and written episodes of Cheers. So he gets to talk like that.

The fact is that sometimes, you do get really silly or arbitrary notes. Writers are always swapping stories of daft notes they’ve had. It’s a way of the over-educated powerless writers asserting their intellectual superiority. I know. Pathetic, really. And although moaning about notes is fun, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

If you’ve written a script, sent it to a producer, development executive or script editor and they want to meet up, they’re most likely going to give you notes. You’re going to have to get used to this. If you want a career as a writer, you’re going to have a lifetime of being told that what you’ve written isn’t quite right – or is way off. If you don’t want that, or can’t handle it, do something else. Farmers get crapped on. Nurses are vomited on. Writers get notes. It’s an occupational hazard.

Let’s say the producer is interested in your script and it has potential, and wants to take it to an exec, but would like you to take a look at some parts of the script first. They have notes. How to respond? How does it work?

I’ve been a script editor on several series of radio and a few series of children’s TV – and given a fair amount of notes, as well as being on the receiving end of them so I’ve seen this from both sides. We’ll get to a few specifics in a while, but first, a few general points.

Bear in Mind
You are very attached to your script. You’ve given birth to it. It may well have taken nine months and essentially feel like a child. And parents don’t take negative comments about their babies very kindly. So understand that you are an overprotective, overly sensitive person when it comes to your script. And remember that it’s not a baby – an inherently valuable being made in God’s image – it’s a script. Just a script. Words on a page. About made up people.

It’s good that you care about it. But don’t let your attachment to it blind you to its flaws. And there will be flaws. It’s not easy to hear negative comments and react rationally, but you must. I have to take a deep breath before every notes session, and prepare to suppress my rage, whilst trying to keep an open mind – even with notes on a fourth draft of a third episode of an existing TV series where, essentially, I’m winning.

It would also pay to remember that at this stage in your career, the note-giver is mostly likely vastly more experienced than you. They’ve been there, done that, and made their mistakes – and may be giving you the opportunity to learn from theirs.

Moreover, the producer or script editor wants the same thing as you: a funny show. Even better, a funny, successful show. He (or she) doesn't want to make the show worse. And he (or she - you get the idea) doesn't want you to remove good jokes. He wants you to remove bad jokes, or cut things that get in the way of the jokes. Or streamline things that are confusing. Or ensure that everyone's motivation is clear and defined. He may be wrong about some of these things, but not all of them. So assume he’s right about some of them. Maybe even most of them.

Also, the script editor or note giver is busy. They’re almost certainly working on lots of projects or have their heads in something else. They may make a mistake in their notes, or misremember something. They may forget the names of some characters or get a set piece scene the wrong way round. This may be the third script they’ve fed back on that day. Your script is not at the centre of their universe. So if the notes are a little non-sensical, or contain errors or contradictions, try cutting them some slack.

And if they don’t find a joke funny, they can't help that. They might realise that others will find it funny. Or they may have reasons for cutting it.

Remember that without notes and suggestions for improvements, your script cannot improve. And if it’s a first or second draft, there’s no way that it’s good enough or ready to be shot.

The Best Kind of Note
The best note is an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along. There’s been a consistent weakness in a character, a scene or story that you’ve been wilfully blind towards, and you can’t face fixing it because you’re worried it’ll mean losing a whole load of funny stuff. Well, that chick has come home to roost. Time to address that which has remained unaddressed. The consequences may not be as bad as you think. But they may be worse. Essentially, though, this note is a blessing.

The Worst Kind of Note
There are lots of worst kinds of note. (I know logically this can’t be the case. But this is notes. Logic does not apply) The very worst note is the one given by someone with nothing to say, but a desire to justify their salary. So they seize on random things in the script and undermine them. You can sometimes spot these notes because they’re just bizarre.

A Common Bad Note
A more common kind of bad note is one that appears to be about one thing, but is actually about another. This is why experienced writers advise rookies to think about ‘the note behind the note’. Sadly, the note behind the note is often ‘I hate this idea’ or ‘I wish this episode were about something else’ or ‘I’ve never liked this character’. These notes are profoundly annoying and unhelpful because they're dishonest. Worse, you can't really do anything about them.

So those are the extremes. Now, let’s have some specific Dos and Don’ts:

Do Ignore Some of the Notes
As we’ve established, not all the notes will be right or helpful. But think twice before ignoring any note completely, because there's probably something in it. If a line or moment you think works fine is questioned, maybe it doesn’t quite work fine. Take another look at it. Maybe it’s flawed in a way you and the notegiver hadn’t spotted.

Even the silliest most deranged note (like 'Hey, could the hero die on page one?' See clip below) is worth considering for a moment or two. A script is a moving, mushy thing. Nothing is set in stone until it's actually broadcast and out there. At least try it their way, even if you end up switching it back.

Do Question Notes
But do it politely. A note may make no sense to you at all. It may seem strange, utterly nonsensical or wilfully negligent. Don’t rant and whine to your spouse or loved ones. It may not be a conspiracy or even a cock up. It may be something that’s been badly explained. Or even a typo. They’re easily doen. (Ha ha!)

You are more than entitled to say to the Script Editor or Producer ‘I’m confused by this note, because...’ or ‘I’m struggling with which way to go on this. We've talked about two ways and I'm still not clear why you favour the second option...’ A dialogue for clarification is fine, and may be fruitful if done with proper care and respect.

Don’t Give Notes on the Notes
If you’re emailed some notes, you don’t need to go through them all on the email and say whether you agree or disagree with them - or give the lines a backstory. I’ll go further: Don’t do that. It’s really annoying. It sounds defensive. And when you’re giving this redundant feedback, don’t simply reject notes with non-specific excuses lines like ‘You told me to cut that bit but I really like it. I don't know why. Just feels right.’ Why do you like it? Why should it be kept in? Every single line of your script needs to fight for its right to survive. You can’t keep bits in because of some non-specific affection. If you want to be a pro, act like a pro. Defend the line with a concrete reason, or cut it.

Don’t Crow
It’s quite likely that a script editor will suggest something for your first draft, that they will suggest removing after draft three. Maybe she’s forgotten that it was her idea. But then, she’s read two drafts of ten scripts since she gave that note. Cut her some slack and don’t make her feel like an idiot with a ‘Well, I only put that in because you told me to’. Grow up. And remember that when she’s dishing out extra commissions for scripts, she might remember your notes on her notes and your crowing and decide to go with someone else.

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Advice like this and much more can be found in Writing That Sitcom, available as an ebook for Kindle & Kindle App. 

Oh, and of course the best thing about awful notes is this amazing sketch from Mitchell & Webb:

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Mainstream Sitcom: Situation Report

Tomorrow I enter a brief comedy nirvana, in which I will be surrounded by other sitcom geeks. I'll be at the Craft of Comedy Conference in Llandudno where we'll do very little but talk about comedy, writing and writing comedy. And one thing I hope to find out more about is attitudes to mainstream sitcom which is not currently hitting the heights of our friends/rivals in drama.

In previous blogs, I've noted that there's an awful lot of decent drama around. I've recently been loving The Night Manager and The People vs OJ. And when Hugh Laurie was finally despatched, along came Line of Duty to take it's place. I'm being well served by drama. No question about that.

If we look at the ratings that are churned out by various agencies, we will see that drama is dominant, and if we squint a little, we may be able to make out a victory dance.

I've been poring over these numbers as provided and filtered by Broadcast magazine in their 'Consolidated Figures' list, which includes catch-up, PVRs and the like, and I've been trying to arrange them into something useful. So here's something: if not a snapshot, then a slightly longer exposure than that.

Look out. They've spawned a monster.
Let's look at the consolidated ratings of mainstream drama from 4th Jan to 20th March 2016. You'll find 7 ‘What I call’ Mega-Dramas doing huge numbers (7m+):

Call the Midwife (10.89m), Happy Valley (9.34m), Night Manager (8.56m), Death in Paradise (8.09m), Silent Witness (8.4m), War and Peace (7.4m), Vera (7.3m)

Only one sitcom is competing with these murderers and midwives. That would be the one with our Granville: Still Open All Hours (7.88m).

In that same time period, there are 5 more dramas that have done some very decent numbers (5m+):

Midsomer Murders (6.47), Grantchester (6.3), Endeavour (5.94), Shetland (5.8), Doctor Thorne (5.7) 

Only two sitcoms are competing with these: Benidorm (5.95), Birds of a Feather (5.34)

Now maybe this is an unfair time period. If we went back to 2015, we'd be able to include Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas Specials, Car Share and Count Arthur Strong. But then we'd also be including dramas like Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Doctor Foster, Sherlock, And Then There Were None, Doc Martin, New Tricks, The Syndicate, Partners in Crime, Inspector George Gently, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Ordinary Lies and Poldark. Another very respectable list.

So why is this happening in mainstream, when there's probably as much comedy on TV as there's ever been looking across all the channels? What's happened to the mainstream sensibility? Why are household names like Steve Coogan and Harry Enfield still making comedy for BBC2, not BBC1 or ITV? And why are these highly acclaimed, well-made, award-winning shows on BBC2 and C4 rarely beating reruns of Dad's Army? Why are great British comedy writers winning EMMY's for Veep and not BAFTAs? Why is the writer of Men Behaving Badly, Simon Nye, writing The Durrells, and not a sitcom? Why aren't big stars queuing up to be in sitcoms any more?

I really and truly don't know. I don't even know if it's possible to know. 

Maybe I'll get some compelling theories at the conference. I hope to share the thoughts of the assembled comedic throng soon.

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For practical advice on how to actually situation comedy, get Writing That Sitcom, a how-to guide from someone who's actually done it. For Kindle/Kindle App.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Learning Lessons from the Giants

Who are the true greats in comedy? The word great is bandied about a lot so let's be careful here. Clearly any sane list should include Peter Cook, Ronnie Barker, Peter Sellers and Eric Morecambe. Leonard Rossiter (dressed as Rigsby) might somehow worm his way into that A List. They are the Kings and Dukes of Comedy. But not far behind, the Earls and Counts of comedy must surely include Ronnie Corbett. He is up there with the Frankie Howerds, Bob Monkhouses and the Eric Sykeses.

An awful lot about Ronnie Corbett will already have been said. But this is a blog about sitcoms and writing, so let's say a couple of things about that.

Ronnie Corbett was naturally funny, brilliant performer with amazing charm, surprising range and a fantastic diminutive stature that provided easy jokes on the way to harder ones. But he was not a writer. People don't like to mention this sort of thing as we now live in an age where people like to believe the magic people on TV come up with all of this stuff (on the spot in front of three cameras whilst interacting with actors). And for I reason I can't fathom, the press doesn't like to ruin that illusion.

Mr Corbett himself would've been puzzled by all this, I'm sure. When you're doing a juggernaut weekly TV show, with a monologue, as well as sketches, you need material. You need writers. And The Two Ronnies had some of the best. This why, sketch for sketch, I'd probably choose the Two Ronnies over Morecambe and Wise.

Corbett evolved his own chatty, jokey style that was unlike anything else - but the words were written. Just like Frankie Howerd's routines were. They just didn't look it. Because the writing and performance were working in perfect harmony.

And when you look back at Sorry!, which ran for seven series from 1981-88, you won't find an overlooked classic. You will find a show that was very watchable at the time, spawning a household catchphrase (Language, Timothy!), entertain millions of people over the course of 42 episodes. This, we should remember, is no small thing.

Sorry! was written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent. They had written for The Two Ronnies and Ian Davidson had been the Script Editor in 1978. Along the way he came up with a popular vehicle for a much loved mainstream sketch actor. The Two Ronnies was also a place where the likes of John Sullivan (Fools and Horses), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave) & Andrew Marshall (2.4 Children) and David Nobbs (Reggie Perrin) got some TV comedy miles under their belts. Add up the numbers of episodes of TV sitcoms written by his crowd alone (remembering to include John Sullivan's Just Good Friends, Dear John, Citizen Smith and The Green Green Grass, (and those other shows by those others writers)). We have hundreds, possibly thousands, of episodes of TV enjoyed by millions. Sometimes tens of millions. Some of these episodes are truly great. Many other episodes are just watchable and enjoyable. Again, no small achievement.

We really love to celebrate 'the greats', and 'the classics' and wonder how we'll ever achieve those heights again - and remake them assuming we won't. It seems odd to me that we don't really do the things that brought about these classics. Armstrong and Miller have run for a few years on BBC1. But not Mitchell and Webb. (Why not?!) Tracey Ullman's show has been on at 10.40pm. This huge sketch comedy shows are the launchpad for huge sitcoms. Is it any wonder we're not getting these big, crowd-pleasing, mainstream sitcom hits when we just expect them to appear out of thin air?

But I digress. For now, let's celebrate the late great, but tiny, Ronnie Corbett. I wear this T-Shirt today for him.

And let's have a listen to Matt Berry and his band playing the theme from Sorry! (in memory of Ronnie Hazlehurst who died back in 2007).


Monday, 14 March 2016

The Danger of Constantly Celebrating the Past

I was on the Today programme on Friday. It's here (about 2hr47mins in) but don’t bother listening unless you really want to. Clean your ears out and you'll miss me. I was on after some package that Justin Webb had made about the dangers of rugby crowds singing the song ‘Delilah’ that clearly had to be played out before the weekend.

What's not to like?
The reason for this was some idle speculation about a BBC celebration of classic sitcoms from the past called ‘The Landmark Sitcom Season’. There will be new episodes of Are You Being Served?, Porridge, Keeping Up Appearances and, erm, Up Pompeii! There will be recreations of lost episodes of Hancock's Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe And Son on BBC Four. There will be a documentary called British Sitcom: 60 Years Of Laughing At Ourselves. A panel game called We Love Sitcom. A live episode of Mrs Browns Boys. (And five new sitcom pilots for BBC2 that you rather hope they would have done anyway.)

You can understand the reasoning. People love sitcoms. They’ve historically done very well and commanded massive TV audiences. They’re not doing very well at the moment (more of which below), so let’s make a lot of noise about the old ones that will be a ratings smash.

I get it.

Nostalgia. Easy promotability. A blend of old and new. Low risk. Lots of press. And a brand new half hour to be written by Clement and Frenais, writers of the near-perfect Porridge. What’s not to like?

As a consumer of comedy, I’m fine with all of the above obviously. As a writer of comedy, my feelings are slightly more mixed. We already live in a world in which:

Kevin McNally as the very late extremely great Hancock

  • Two of the biggest sitcoms on at the moment are the revived sitcoms: Still Open All Hours and Birds of a Feather.
  • One of the biggest non-terrestrial sitcoms is Red Dwarf on Dave.
  • BBC1 recently remade Reggie Perrin.
  • BBC2 keep broadcasting repeats of Dad’s Army (and made a drama about it) which gets more viewers any other sitcom on BBC2 or Channel 4 practically every single week. 
  • ITV3 are showing every episode of Rising Damp (a truly brilliant show), and making a documentary about it.
  • UKTV recently made more episodes of Yes, Prime Minister.
  • There’s a Some Mother’s Do Have ‘Em sport relief sketch coming. There was a Vicar of Dibley sketch in the last Comic Relief.
  • Radio 4 have already been remaking lost Hancock episodes (see pic). 
  • Almost any evening, you can find an episode of Father Ted or Blackadder somewhere on Freeview.
  • Any of the above are available on DVD, iTunes, the BBC Store or BitTorrent.
  • I could go on.

We are not in danger of forgetting great sitcoms. It makes business sense to promote these shows. We can’t get enough of them. That much is clear.

The question is whether the BBC should be piling in on this. Is the Landmark Sitcom Season a good idea? Comedy writer, Jason Hazeley (Newswipe, Mitchell & Webb, Ladybird books etc), recently said this in the Express, and it is hard to disagree:

Ouch. Now, the BBC would obviously argue they make more original comedy than anyone. In the grand scheme of things, they are not really the bad guys here. They do develop new writing with The Writers Room and I pointed out on the Today programme that there was a new sitcom pilot on BBC1 after the news called Stop/Start (written by one of my comedy heroes, Jack Docherty, about whom I wax lyrical here). The Comedy Playhouse season – which produced Are You Being Served? among other hits – is, without doubt, A Good Thing. (That said, I believe they really didn't like Are You Being Served? and it was shelved, only to be played out to fill dead air because of the Munich Olympics massacre.) More pilots are coming to BBC2. But I share the frustration that money being spent on projects looking back is money taken away from projects looking forward. There is a limited pot. Now more than ever.

Learning Lessons
I have decided mixed feelings on this subject, then. I suppose I’m fine with a one-off lavish celebration and recreation of old comedy hits as long as we learn the right lessons from them. And we need to learn those lessons fast because in this golden age of TV, comedy is losing serious ground to drama. Look at the ratings.

Slightly and briefly more popular
than Mrs Brown, apparently.
In the week ending Sunday 6th March 2016, Call the Midwife got 9.2m, Happy Valley 6.37m, The Night Manager 6.19m and Grantchester 5.3m. That's four dramas topping 5m. The highest performing comedy show on any channel that week was a repeat of Mrs Brown’s Boys, which got 2.82m, putting it just behind Monday’s 1 O’Clock News. The next highest comedy was a Dad’s Army repeat getting 2.05m. Obviously that’s just one week, but if you look at previous weeks, comedy – and sitcom in particular – is not delivering anything like the ratings Drama and Entertainment are getting. Sometimes a sitcom special like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys wins Christmas, but this isn’t happening week in, week out. (There's a bit more on that here.)

I’m not saying that popular sitcoms are better sitcoms. As it happens, I tend to enjoy mainstream comedy more than offbeat ones. But let’s at least note that the seven sitcoms being honoured by the Landmark Sitcom Season were monstrously, and sometimes pub-emptyingly, popular. There were fewer channels back then, yes, I know, but may I remind you that the Bake Off gets more than 10m+ views, and Doctor Foster was getting 7m? And Countryfile is huge. Yes, Countryfile. Big ratings are out there. Our sitcoms are, by and large, not getting them.

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
So, if we’re going to revisit Steptoe and Son, Hancock, Porridge, Til Death Do Us Part, Are you Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances and, erm, Up Pompeii!, let’s not only enjoy them, but learn the right lessons from them. As we look back, rather than conclude ‘Ah, they don't make 'em like that any more', let’s try and figure out why. And as we do that, we’ll see that the BBC has an awful lot more to celebrate and be proud of than it first appears.

Let’s have a think about these seven shows and what unites them. There are obviously some titanic central performances by some of our best comedy actors, with the likes of Tony Hancock and Ronnie Barker, plus some big hitting actors with plenty of acting chops like Routledge, Corbett, Bramble and co. And there’s the superb Frankie Howerd holding the fort on Up Pompeii! But what do we notice here? None of them are writer-performers. Sure, Barker could write. But he didn’t write Porridge. Frankie Howerd was a superb performer who looked like a comedian. He didn't write his material. It was a writer wot did that.

What this landmark season teaches is that writers are the key mainstream success. Writers. Not comedians. Not writer-performers. Writers. Ugly, awkward, eye-contact-avoiding writers.

It's All About Writers
I don’t need to burble on about the comparative merits of writers here. I’ve done so here, here and here. Writers can normally manages runs of more than six episodes at a time. And they come up with ideas that are not tied to a central performance – so you can employ the very best actors, like they do in drama. Imagine only commissioning drama written by actors. Stephen Berkoff would get a lot more work. (Now a Berkoff sitcom I would very much like to see).

There must be something wrong here. We’ve got some brilliant Emmy-winning writers like Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and more besides, but the problem is they’re winning Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Not Baftas. (For whom writing is a craft award. I know. Baffling)

Young Talent
And there’s plenty of young talent out there too. If only the BBC could find a way of bringing on comedy writers… Apart from that huge cultural behemoth known as BBC Radio. Wait a minute!

You get the idea. The BBC already has a jewel in its comedy crown. BBC Radio, the original home of Galton and Simpson and too many other comedy writers to mention (myself included), is a powerhouse of comedy. Not that you’d know, but recent successes like Count Arthur Strong, Citizen Khan and Miranda have passed through BBC Radio, which has a track record of finding hits, as well as a mandate to encourage new writers. Stop/Start, the comedy playhouse show I mentioned earlier, began life on BBC Radio 4.

Don't they look smart?
Almost every week for decades, there has been a topical comedy show on air that literally anyone can have a go at writing for. Currently that show’s Newsjack. In the past, it was Weekending and The News Huddlines. Through shows like this, writers with no contacts or performing ability – just pure comedy writing talent – can get a foot on the comedy ladder. Shows like these have been key to the career dozens of well known comedy writers (as well known as comedy writers ever get). I always suggest rookie writers get involved in those shows. (As I did here)

Unsung Success
BBC Radio’s comedy successes are rarely heralded or appreciated. Radio 4 has three comedy slots. Three. RAJAR figures are hard to get hold of, but 6.30pm shows probably get more listeners than all but a couple of TV comedies get viewers. Seriously. Radio comedy is huge. So huge, that they’ve stuffed another channel with radio comedy, Radio 4 Extra – which is now an even bigger station than BBC 6Music, with its quasi-hipsters 40somethings constantly playing music by bands you’ve never heard of. (Cheap shot. I’m sure 6Music is great. I just don’t listen to it.)

The BBC occasionally runs radio trailers on TV, when it tries to advertise all of radio in 30 seconds with some Ludovico Einaudi in the background. But couldn’t we have something more ambitious?

My worry is that BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky, C5/Comedy Central and UKTV are scouring the Edinburgh Fringe and Youtube for the TV stars of tomorrow, when under the noses (or whistling past their ears) is a writing academy and hit factory that’s been running for decades.

Singing Success
See? Benedict Cumberbatch really is in it.
So when this Landmark Sitcom Season is done, maybe we could plan a new season of TV specials of radio sitcoms being written, rehearsed, re-written recorded and/or revived like Fags, Mags & Bags, Elvenquest, Ed Reardon’s Week, Shush!, Old Harry’s Game and a lovely show by Will Smith that really should be on TV called Mr and Mrs Smith. Or even a special episode of the Best Sitcom of the Last Ten Years That Most People Haven’t Heard Of Even Though It Stars Benedict Cumberbatch (It Really Does): Cabin Pressure.

In my opinion, comedy is not the poor relation of drama on radio. Far from it. Comedy is the prime time favourite on Radio 4, and the bedrock of Radio 4 Extra. The writer of Cabin Pressure was John Finnemore who was just named Radio Broadcaster of the Year for John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, a truly brilliant sketch show, who, for some reason, isn't writing a sitcom for television.

It seems a shame to be going back to the Greats again and again when there’s some really good stuff already kicking around the BBC that could be great given a decent nudge in the right direction.

Incidentally, this is why I'm excited to be at the Craft of Comedy Writing Conference on 8th & 9th April. There are lots of radio people there, including Sioned Wiliam, Commissioning Editor for Comedy at BBC Radio 4, who probably commissions more comedy than every TV controller combined. Her predecessor, Caroline Raphael, now i/c audio at Penguin Random House will also be there. Dave Cohen and I will be doing a live podcast and there’ll also be Jason Hazeley (from the Express quote above) and Joel Morris kicking around along with some other tremendous and delightful folk.

This blog post wasn’t written to plug that conference. I’m just genuinely excited about it, just like I’m genuinely excited about comedy. I’m really looking forward to a new episode of Are You Being Served?, a reboot of Porridge, a reshoot of Hancock and even some more Up Pompeii!

But because I’m a sitcom fan, I just want people to realise that Radio Comedy isn’t just the past. It’s the present. And it’s the future. It frustrates me that the BBC don’t celebrate and champion this anywhere near enough.

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For more of this sort of thing, listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here. And/or buy Writing That Sitcom by James Cary, part how-to guide, part-intervention for those wanting to write sitcoms, available for Kindle/Kindle App.


Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Trying Something New

I'm typing this blogpost in a Holiday Inn Express, somewhere between St Andrews and Edinburgh. I'm on a tour of a play wot I wrote called The God Particle, a romantic comedy about science and religion.

I've also directed this production.

And I'm producing it.

And here I am, touring with the show doing the lighting and the sound.

Why on earth would I be doing something like that?

You might think I'd have better things to do than slotting parcans onto a lighting bar in an Episcopal church in Scotland. But you'd be wrong.

There are two reasons why you'd be wrong. The first is that I have a variety of scripts  and ideas in development and there's nothing I can do with them at the moment. This is mainly because comedy execs, controllers and commissioners have been playing yet another game of musical chairs, and while they do that, we comedy writers have to patiently wait for the music to stop, and for the execs to sit down and get comfortable. Then we have a precious eighteen month window to get a show commissioned, or moved onto the next stage, before the music starts again. Given how subjective, taste-driven and tribal comedy is, the constant moving of execs is incredibly disruptive. So I'm using this enforced hiatus to do something. And it's something quite important: Do Something.

And this is Something.

The God Particle is a play I wrote a few years ago, and it's done two small tours and a run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. But this is a new production, with a new cast (Anna Newcome and Joshua Leese. See pic below) I've never directed before. So I thought I'd try my hand at directing. I don't want to be a director, but it's been a really interesting experience, helping me to appreciate how directors see things. I assumed the writer in me would want to constantly change the script to make it work better, but almost every time, the cast and I have found a way of making the script work. We've only tinkered with a couple of lines here and there, which has surprised me.

It's also been wonderful to rehearse something more than twice. That's how much time you get to rehearse in radio comedy. Half a day for two episodes. In single-camera TV, you don't even get that. You just get a read-through, when you're more worried about the integrity of the script than anything else. You're not really looking at performance - or at least not the nuances. For this production, we've had two weeks of rehearsal, and then we get to tweak and tinker as we do the play each night. It's great fun.

I've learned that lighting
is more complicated now.
There's this thing called DMX?
And then there's the lighting, which is not something I've ever done before. There is no doubt in my mind that this play is never going to win any lighting awards. It's not that sort of play anyway. And our options are often limited given the lights we can afford and the 'unforgiving' venues we're playing: normally churches built hundreds of years ago with enormous pillars and immovable pews. You need an act of parliament to move anything. So finding a different solution to each space every night has been fun, challenging and interesting.

And then there's the schlepp of packing it away, putting it on the van and getting back on the road, which I'm sure does me some good. And talking to the audience afterwards. And trying to sell them a copy of the script or an audio CD.
The Open Road

There is also the fact that I'm close proximity with with a cast of two, who are fifteen years younger than me and who have different perspectives on the world. There's lots of talking and swapping of anecdotes in the van and in downtime. Plus our hosts have often been from very different backgrounds and countries: Scots, Episcopalians, a Latvian-born American, academics. And I've now seen Dundee and St Andrews for the first time.

In short, it's all stuff to write about and perspectives to weave into the characters of the next sitcom. More points of references and more anecdotes. In a way, I'm almost grateful for the latest infuriating spin of the Comedy Controller Carousel.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to drive a van to Cumbria and tonight I stay in beautiful town of Keswick.

By the way, the play can be seen at these venues.


Rev Dr Gilbert Romans (Joshua Leese) & Dr Bex Kenworthy (Anna Newcome)


Sunday, 7 February 2016

Bluestone 42, War and Comedy

A few weeks ago, I was asked a few questions about Bluestone 42 for an article on the BBC Website by @NicholasLBarber about comedy and war, prompted by the Dad's Army movie. I thought some people might be interested to read that e-interview in full.

Did you have any doubts about writing comedy about such tricky subjects?
I’d grown up watching M*A*S*H so once you’ve seen a show set in a military hospital in the Korean War you realise that, in sitcom terms, anything is possible. And quite often, the more extreme and incongruous the situation, the better. Though not always.

Were there any particular angles or insights that made you believe that you could do it without alienating viewers?
We realised that we had to get the tone exactly right, but we were optimistic we could achieve that if we did our research properly, and spoke to actual soldiers. Especially those who had recently been in Afghanistan. We did our best to make sure our material was gleaned from first hand witness and reliable sources rather than war films. In the end, almost every episode of Bluestone 42 has stories, scenes and moments that are firmly rooted in fact. The irony is, of course, that soldiers themselves watch a lot of war films and are heavily influenced by them. But overall, we wanted to show how these professional guys and girls go about their work in a very odd and stressful situation.

Did you come up against much resistance to Bluestone 42, before or during production, ie, did anyone think the topic was off-limits for comedy?
I think straight away most people realised the upsides and downsides. When the show was announced, before we’d even made it, we had a few MPs and tabloids say that this was completely inappropriate. As the show was being made and broadcast, the BBC were nervous at times, but we stuck to our guns (if you’ll pardon the pun). In the end, we probably got more criticism for not being satirical enough about the war and their view of it’s legality. We would happily have written a more satirical show but given soldiers were our main focus, we discovered that they weren’t all that interested or concerned about the rights and wrongs of the war in Afghanistan. They were keen to use their hard-won skills in a place where it mattered. I think that comes across in the show.

Looking at it from the opposite angle, what is is about warfare which is actually an attractive subject for comedy?
In a sitcom - or indeed any drama - you’re looking for high stakes. You want people’s actions and decisions to matter - and what could be higher than ‘if you make a mistake you’re dead’ or worse, ‘if you make a mistake, someone else is dead because of you’? War gives you that on a plate. And war also gives you a lot of time to sit around and talk, and make you’re own entertainment because you’re away from home. You get the best of both worlds. Also, groups and teams are put together by the military authorities, so you have no say over who you’re serving alongside. This means they’re just like a family - and you have no say over that either. But just as families love each other, soldier have a mutual respect and affection which can often be every bit as close. They are literally brothers in arms.

Is it easier to be funny about a 60-year-old war which most people believe was noble and heroic than a contemporary war which is more divisive?
History certainly gives some perspective, and after the Second World War, we realised that the Nazis were even worse than we thought when the concentration camps and death camps were found. What this means is that you have very clear ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ narrative that means you don’t need to have any concern for the bad guys. Indiana Jones can shoot as many as he likes and it’s fine. With a mainstream sitcom, you want simplicity so that confusion or ambiguity doesn’t get in the way of the jokes. Nuance is for comedy drama or novels, where you can also hear or read peoples' thoughts and internal monologues.

With Dad’s Army, even though it wasn’t on long after the war had ended, you have that clear ‘Goodies/Baddies’ narrative. And you can increase that polarity with the idea that the Home Guard are not only the good guys, but the underdogs because they’re old and ill-equipped. But they’re plucky, brave and patriotic. So they really are the good guys - and therefore if they behave badly, or foolishly, we’ll forgive them because they are good people.

One aspect that separates a contemporary war comedy from one set in the World Wars or Korea is that that combatants aren’t conscripts - they’ve chosen to be there. Does this make them harder for a civilian viewer to identify with?
I think it just changes the tone. We might feel pity for a conscript who is fighting somewhat against his or her will. That particularly comes across in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, where they’re clearly not cut out to be soldiers but are serving all the same (albeit after the war). One thing I enjoyed writing in Bluestone 42 was the fact that our soldiers were used to being a war zone, and they responded to gunfire and threats like soldiers rather than civilians. And that makes it bit more interesting to me, at least.

So that's it. If you want more, there's more on military accuracy here, and more on the origins of the show here. And you can get all three series as a boxed set here.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom?

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom? When it's a Movie.

Discuss.

Okay.

At the moment, there's lots of press about the Dad's Army film, which I have not yet seen. I make no comment on that film in particular. The reviews already seem to be very mixed, but that doesn't mean a whole lot.

It is, however, worth thinking about why movies based on sitcoms tend not to work, or at least not satisfy. Clearly they can work, or at least be extremely profitable in the case of The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown's Boys. But it's a tall order.

To help us think why, let us consider for a moment the Fiat Panda 4 x 4.

Yes. There is a variety of Fiat Panda which is designed to go off-road. See pic.

Yep. And off-road Fiat Panda.
Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that is literally insanity on wheels. The Fiat Panda is a small urban run-around car, perfect for parking in tight spaces and keeping the bills down. And if I'm driving one around Hounslow or Hampstead, I'm not thinking to myself, "I wonder how this thing would cope off road." Nor would I be wondering how to turn this dinky little thing into some kind of Landrover.

But someone did think that. And they worked for Fiat. And they created the Fiat Panda 4x4: The small urban runaround that can hack steep hills and muddy meadows.

I mention this because it reminds me of the sitcom/movie divide.

Sitcoms are not movies. Movies are not sitcoms.

And it's not entirely clear why you would want to turn a sitcom into a movie (eg. Porridge, Rising Damp, On The Buses, Inbetweeners, Bad Education, Alan Partridge with Ab Fab to come). Or a movie into a sitcom (see M*A*S*H, which was originally a book. Or The Odd Couple, which was originally a play).

Okay, I do know the real reason: money. A successful British sitcom makes you comfortably wealthy for a while, but not mega-rich. A runaway box-office smash like the Inbetweeners means that someone could probably buy a nice big house, the type with crunchy stones on the driveway. (That person may or may not be the writer of the movie, but that's a question for another time).

But here's problem: The sitcom and the movie are completely different beasts.

The sitcom is the dependable urban runaround: a recognisable world with regular characters who make the same mistakes every week and always end up back where they started, so you can do it again next week. And every week.

The movie is the weekend off-road adventure: a character leaves their familiar recognisable world to go on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery, in which they are fundamentally changed and nothing will ever be the same again.

Can you spot the differences is there?

The two do not go hand in hand. They can barely even touch each others' hands, so far apart are they. And it also explains why the standard sitcom movie is 'Our regular characters go on holiday and have an amazing adventure' like you get in The Inbetweeners or On the Buses or Bad Education, or there's a big event like a hostage situation, as in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

You get a similar dynamic with TV sitcom Christmas Specials, which try to scale up, so they normally take the characters away to another place where extraordinary things happen (only made for a quarter of the money and usually watched by more people).

This is also part of the discussion about why 'last ever episodes' are so tricky to get right. And why the last episode of Peep Show was, for me, bang on the money. And the last episode of Seinfeld, my favourite show of all time, was bafflingly misjudged. More on that another time.

I'm not saying the sitcom movie is doomed to failure. It can work. It can bring delight to an audience. (I enjoyed Alpha Papa, especially the second time) It can make money. I'm just saying that turning a sitcom into a movie is like turning a Fiat Panda into an off-road vehicle.

But you know what? It looks like Fiat pulled it off. Top Gear magazine gave this ludicrous machine eight out of ten. But even they acknowledge this success is a surprise.

For slightly more specific, practical of writing on sitcoms, rather than movies, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.