Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Mind the Gap

Following the last two blogposts about The Rise and Rise of the Writer-Performer Sitcom (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), David Isaac had some thought. So I invited him to write up. David Isaac is a comedy writer based in Manchester. His TV credits include Lunch Monkeys, Not Going Out and Life of Riley, amongst others. He also teaches a six week commercially focused course entitled Writing and Selling TV Comedy. (The next one starts in London on July 12th. More info here.)

David Isaac writes:

Writing a sitcom script is very hard. Writing a great sitcom script is even harder. Writing a great sitcom script that turns into a great sitcom episode is so hard it is literally beyond your control. All you can do, as a writer, is do your best to transfer what is in your head, into your fingers, through the keyboard and ultimately on to the page.

Pic by R. S. Donovan via Flickr
The problem is that there are too many gaps in the process from the wonderful sitcom that is floating around inside your mind, to the award –winning show that appears on the world’s TV screens 4 years later.

Gap 1 - Imagination & Ability
The first gap is the gulf between your imagination and your ability. What you think of may actually be better than what you write. The best way to bridge this gap is practice. Quite simply, the more you write, the better you get. Learn the art. Watch great shows, read great scripts and keep writing. A producer can also help with this bridge by guiding you with notes to make your script better. Important advice: always listen to your producers. Chances are they are more experienced than you, and ultimately they want to help you build that bridge so that what is in your mind can cross the gap and appear on the page.

Gap 2 - Writer & Actor
The next gap is the one between writer and actor. This isn’t necessarily a bad gap, but it is a gap nevertheless. What the writer puts on the page is open to being interpreted differently by the actor. The actor will put their own spin on your words. Great actors will make it better, not-so-great actors may make it worse. At this point, take a break from reading and go and find a Friends script. Any script will do. Make several copies, invite some of your own friends over and have a little read through. See how the jokes don’t flow, and don’t leap off the page. Or maybe they do, in which case you should contact a casting director and get yourself some work in sitcom.

Now go and watch that episode of Friends and watch how some seriously talented comedy actors bring that script to life. Watch how their actions inform the words; listen to the subtle intonations; watch as their comic timing and reactions get more laughs from the audience. Many of these moments will not have been scripted, but those brilliant comedy actors interpreted the script in that way.

One way of bridging this writer/actor gap is to use the same people – writer-performers. They write their own words and then perform them, so no gap exists. In a script written by a writer who doesn’t perform, the job of bridging this gap is not down to you Mr (or Mrs) Writer; it is down to the director. The director is the one who will help the actors understand how the words on your page should be performed.

Gap 3 - Writer & Director
This brings us neatly on to gap number 3, that between writer and director. Writers tend to work in words, directors work with images. Obviously, as writers, we try to think visually, but sadly we are restricted to expressing those visuals via the medium of script. If only people could just see inside our heads, life would be so much easier.

A director must look at your script in order to work out what is going on. Once again, they will probably interpret what you have written differently from how you intended it to ultimately be seen.

A director will also want to change things. They will have their own theories of how the moving image should be presented and much of this will be down to their personal taste and experience. A good director will spend time talking to the writer about the script and hopefully will develop a mutual understanding of what they are making together. This is the process of building a bridge to cross the gap between writer and director.

Strangely, where writer-performers are becoming more common, this doesn’t seem to happen with the writer-director relationship. Broadcasters remain keen to keep these roles separate. Graham Linehan (IT Crowd) and Peter Kay (Phoenix Nights, Max and Paddy) and Ricky Gervais (Derek) are the only examples that spring immediately to mind. It seems that fusing these roles is seen as more of a risk than keeping them separate, and that the sole writer/director role is reserved for those writers who have reached such a high level of success that they can demand, and also justify to broadcasters the benefit of having just one person in sole control of the interpretation of the script.

Indeed, there is an argument that the merging of the various roles in sitcom creation can itself create more risks. Making a sitcom is by its very nature a collaborative process. Each person involved will bring their own experience and skill to help improve the overall product. So maybe it is a good thing that some of those gaps exist. To ensure that there is some objective reflection on the script itself and that we writers are forced to really dig deep and produce the best work that we can.

The Abyss
The Bottom Line
If the stars align, and the gods are just, then all the gaps can be bridged and your sitcom will be a roaring success. However, if not, and just one gap remains yawning, everyone could fall screaming into the abyss dragging your sitcom with it, along with the million or so pounds it took to make it.

This million pounds or so is why commissioners are so concerned by those ‘gaps’. Gaps represent risk. All sitcoms are risky. They are Marmite. No sitcom can please everyone. For every person who loves Curb Your Enthusiasm, there are millions who would prefer to curl up with Mrs Brown’s Boys. So commissioners like to do all they can to reduce the risks of their latest commissions being unpopular with viewers. One of the ways they do this (possibly sub-consciously) is to address some of the gaps mentioned above.

Using writer-performers is an obvious way to bridge the writer/actor gap. Many stand-up comedians have spent years honing their comedy skills on stage. They are adept at making people laugh. They do it every week. It is a natural step to transfer those skills to sitcom-writing, and for commissioners it reduces the risk of failure. They know comedy, and what’s more important – the viewing public knows them, and so are more likely to tune in to watch. A well-known stand-up will come with a built-in audience of several hundred thousand people at least for the first episode. This massively helps reduce the risk of commercial failure for a sitcom.

There is a long history of writer-performers writing sitcoms and this has increased proportionatly to the explosion in popularity of stand-up comedy over recent years and whilst many of these have become classics, there is still a place for writer-driven sitcoms as is proved by the current tsunami of team-written American shows such as Rules of Engagement, Two Broke Girls, New Girl, Scrubs, How I met Your Mother and possibly my favourite ever sitcom, Big Bang Theory.

As a writer, all you can really do is keep hammering away at bridge number 1. Keep writing, keep honing your skills and maybe one day you’ll get a series commissioned that is a perfect vehicle for the latest, hot stand-up act coming out of Edinburgh.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Rise of the Writer-Performer Sitcom Part 2

This post follows on from the previous one about sitcoms by writer-performers. Read that here.

About ten years ago, the BBC made a big fuss about which sitcom was the best. After quite a lengthy survey, the top ten was announced. In fact, they published a list of the top hundred but let’s focus on the top 10. In fact, let’s stretch to the top 15. They were: Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Vicar of Dibley, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister, Porridge, Open All Hours, The Good Life, One Foot in the Grave, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Last of the Summer Wine, Steptoe and Son.

Now, it’s not an infallible list, obviously. These are not necessarily the 15 truly greatest. There’s no Hancock’s Half Hour, Reggie Perrin, Bread or To the Manor Born (the latter two racking up truly stunning TV ratings that make Jack Whitehall look like a small town in Surrey).

But of all those shows just mentioned, how many were written by writer-performers?

Go on.

Look.

I’ll tell you. Precisely one and a quarter. Fawlty Towers, obviously, and the first series of Blackadder (conceived by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis before Ben Elton was brought in for series 2-4).

Now hold on there. This does not automatically mean that writer-led shows are better, funnier and/or more successful than shows by writer-performers. But it’s worth noting most shows of serious of quality that have stood the test of time, and born much repeat viewing are written by writers. Porridge is so enduringly popular that, when you Google it, it comes up first. Ahead of actual porridge.

The Faceless Megastar
But there’s something else. Let’s bear in mind that John Cleese, a comedy giant, literally, wrote 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers. Compare him to the writer who sort of wins on that list: Roy Clarke, who is on the list 3 times. He’s written 26 episodes of Open All Hours, 44 episodes of Keeping Up Appearances and 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine. (Okay, point taken. But I couldn’t even type that many scripts in a lifetime, let alone put jokes in them.)

Sulilvan's sublime Dear John - Pic from BBC here.
John Sullivan’s on that list with Only Fools and Horses (63 eps). He also wrote the hugely popular Just Good Friends (22 eps) and Citizen Smith (30 eps) and the little gem, Dear John (14 eps). Plus the spin-off show, Green Green Grass.

Carla Lane, who wrote the Mrs Brown’s Boys of the late 80s, Bread (74 eps), also wrote The Liver Birds (86 eps) and Butterflies (30 eps).

Esmonde and Larbey who wrote The Good Life (30 eps), also wrote Ever Decreasing Circles (27 eps) and, among other things, Please Sir! (55 eps), Brush Strokes (40 eps). Oh, and Bob Larbey also knocked out 4 series of A Fine Romance and 9 series (yes, nine) of As Time Goes By.

And we’ve barely even mentioned Marks and Gran (Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman, Harvey Moon), Clement and Frenais (Porridge, Likely Lads), Perry and Croft (Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Are You Being Served, Hi-de-Hi), Eric Chappell (Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh, Home to Roost, Duty Free) and the godfathers of sitcom, Galton and Simpson (Hancock, Steptoe & Son).

The point I’m making is simple. Great writers can really deliver big. Not just big hits, but hits that run for 4 or 5 series. And then repeat that a few times. Writer-performers struggle with volume, not least because of the immense pressure of doing both. And they have other calls on their time, like 100 date tours (extended because of the success of their TV show) and books, ads, voiceovers, panel games, movies… Being famous is exhausting.

But writers aren’t famous. No-one wants come to the O2 to watch us bitch about the BBC for two hours. No one wants us to write our autobiographies, sell weed killer, appear on Would I Lie to You? or make a British film about a wedding. So we’re free to knuckle down and create the one thing you need for a sitcom. Funny scripts. Loads of them.

So what?
So, I’m not saying that the rise of the Writer-Performer show is a bad thing. Not at all. What I am saying is that channels, corporations, commercial networks and providers of satellite TV services need to take the long view. It’s fine to have shows by popular comedians and performers that run for a couple of series. But they tend to stop doing them. And you can’t keep launching new ones. You need some shows to run and run – and a show that an audience truly takes to its heart is a wonderful thing. And the Brits do that. We will watch shows again and again. It’s just a shame that the shows on in bulk, now, tend be Americans ones like Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. We could produce shows like that in the UK. But that would mean handing some power to writers. Is that really such a bad thing given what they can do? Why is only American writers who are trusted with this level of responsibility? (I have some thoughts on this. For another time.)


The fact is comedy controllers need quantity as well as quality. And you can have both, especially when truly great writers are writing for truly great comedy actors - like Briers, Barker, Eddington, Hawthorne, Kendall and Keith. Really big name actors wanted to be in sitcoms in the past. And they regularly were. Even John Thaw. Today, when two great actors like Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellan want to do a sitcom (Vicious), it’s a big news story.

Do great actors lack confidence that they’re going to be given great scripts? Most big names would probably rather be a TV detective, which is understandable. For a start, critics don't disportionately pour vitriol on these.

If we want those great scripts, we need to nurture writers. Are we doing that? Now, the industry, even the BBC, doesn’t owe anyone a living. But if we’re taking the long view, maybe going ‘all in’ on the Edinburgh Fringe, where writer-performers are kings, isn’t the way to go. Maybe some more money for scripts from out-and-out writers. And hey, some rooms to plot, plan and write the actual scripts in. Just a thought.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Rise of the Writer-Performer Sitcom Part 1

There has undoubtedly been a swing towards sitcoms by writer-performers recently. BBC1 has always had shows by writer-performers. Absolutely Fabulous by Jennifer Saunders. dinnerladies by Victoria Wood. But currently BBC1 has at least four of them: Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Not Going Out and Citizen Khan, all of which have the writer-performer-creator in the lead role.

The majority of BBC2’s half hour comedy narratives have been by writer-performers: The Trip, Inside Number 9, Count Arthur Strong, House of Fools and The Wrong Mans. Tom Hollander has more than a hand in writing Rev. And let’s not forget Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Sue Perkins’s Heading Out. And Paul Whitehouse’s Nurse is to come (having done Bellamy’s People, Help and the much-forgotten but brilliant Happiness). And going back a little, there’s Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon, which started on BBC4, a channel which is also giving us Jessica Hynes’s Up The Women. Episodes, W1A and Hebburn are writer-led, but they are the minority on BBC2.

You might expect BBC3 to have gone down this route – having made it big with Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain, but they haven’t so much. Clearly one of the channel’s biggest hits at the moment is Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education. But the rest of their sitcoms - Uncle, Bluestone 42, Pramface - are writer-led, as was Him and Her. And Channel 4 currently has Toast of London, Man Down and Derek in the writer-performer department.

Now, writers normally have a chip on their shoulder about writer-performers, as I’ve said here. (In fact writers have a chip on their shoulder about everyone so don’t take it personally) I think it’s something to do with not respecting people who seem to want attention. Writers avoid the bright lights, like the undead and the lycanthropes.  (Does that work? I’m not up on my horror, I’m afraid). So my instinct is to decry this inexorable slide towards to writer-performer-led shows, but let’s look at the facts.

All of the shows mentioned above are decent shows. They are not all to my personal taste (NB: Critics, if you don’t like something, it doesn’t mean it’s bad) but most of these shows found an audience and didn’t create calls for public hangings, which is increasingly rare for the BBC in these troubled times.

Dazzled By Stars?
It’s not as if a commissioning executive was all starry-eyed and let someone famous make show that turned out to be nothing but a horrendous Battlefield Earth-type vanity project. All of the above are by experienced comedians with a proven track record of making audiences laugh time after time for years in a variety of formats and settings. If Paul Whitehouse, one of the great writer-performers of our age, wants to do a show on your channel, you’re going to need a good reason to tell them he can’t. (Although the Paul Whitehouses of this world would probably argue execs are very creative when it comes to reasons why they can’t.)

When you think about it, commissioning shows from writer-performers makes a lot of sense. Writer-performers have lots of first-hand experience of what works for their persona. I’ve written with Miranda Hart for television and Milton Jones for radio, and both of them have an instinctive sense of what will work for their onstage character, and what won’t. They’re almost always right. And it’s not really a surprise, given this talent has come through years of playing that kind of character. My job as a writer is to help them generate new ideas or help them to get their ideas to work with their persona.

It's All About Tone
Because the writer-performer has often played this kind of character, or version of themselves, there’s a consistent comedy voice from Day 1. That’s a big plus. When you’re writing for others it can be tricky. Richard Hurst and I on Bluestone 42 took a long time to establish a tone, a house-style and ways of talking. And we had to shoot 8 episodes not fully confident that we’d got it right or even consistent. Writer-performers are at advantage here, I think.

Writer-performer-led shows tend to revolve around one big central character like Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Edina, Miranda, Mrs Brown. Just reading those character names you know exactly who they are. You can picture them and know how they’d react in any given situation. And you probably understood the characters having watched them for about ninety seconds.

Having a character like this means the audience can relax because they know what the show is about, who the important person is and where the jokes are coming from. Putting your audience at ease is critical in comedy, and a show with a network of characters can be off-putting or feel like homework. Maybe that’s why the mainstream audience never took Arrested Development.

From a commissioning point of view, the writer-performer makes sense too. The TV channel forking over the money for the show already know roughly what they’re getting. They’ve seen this character on stage, or in a sketch show. They know what the comedy sensibilities are – and how to promote it.

Plus, there’s sometimes a ready-made fan-base too. Jack Whitehall can tweet when his sitcom is on BBC3 – and immediately get through to over 2.3 million fans (the population of Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow combined). What channel wouldn’t want a piece of that?

Everybody's Happy
And what writer-performer wouldn’t want a bit of telly? It means that they can play big arenas on tour, sell out in minutes, add extra dates, sell books, do adverts and start making some serious money. Everyone’s happy: The channel; the writer-performer; the writers that help the writer performer; and the audience – who simply don’t care whether the show is written by the star or two over-educated misanthropic men in a largely defunct BBC building (or an expensive new building which doesn’t have enough rooms to work in.) Why would they care?

So. Long live writer-performer shows, right?

Yeah.

Kind of.

But.

Can we take the long view?

Indulge me?

Thank you.

*coughs*

Come back tomorrow for the next post.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Offensiveness of Talent

One of the most offensive terms bandied around by TV executives is the word ‘talent’. It’s the term for on-screen performers. Actors. Comedians. The famous people. The people the public get excited about.

Pic by Memaxmarz via Flickr
I understand their importance. As far as the audience goes, these guys and girls are the show. They have no idea who all the names at the end of the show are, and they don’t care. Why would they? I don’t much care who boxes my cereal or slaughters my roast chicken. I just want to eat.

But to imply the on-screen cast are the ones with the talent and that the rest of us just have skills, or ‘uses’, is stunningly rude. I’m not saying that the writers are the ‘real talent’, but picking out one set of skills and labelling them ‘the talent’ is divisive. Anyone who works in television knows that it’s a team game, and the show only works if everyone pulls their weight.

You have to pull together to make a show for the decreasing budgets for BBC sitcoms. It’s all part of an initiative called Delivering Quality First – which naturally involves cutting 5% from a show’s budget each year, regardless. Yup. You reward success with a budget cut. That’ll help deliver quality first. Brilliant. What was the salary and pension of the person who thought of that?

So in telly we all pull together. The truly talented can easily be overlooked. One of the most talented members of the Bluestone 42 team is Harry Banks, our production designer who is in charge of how the show looks. Shamefully overlooked by the BAFTA Craft Awards, Harry created a small fleet of military vehicles and bits of Chinook that even fooled the military viewers. And of course
Harry would be the first to modestly pay tribute to his talented team.

I mention this because TV people and the people who surround the industry love to focus on the on-screen talent who are, to be fair, normally better looking than the rest of us who sit and watch monitors when the filming starts. In a sense, it was ever thus. Movie stars and matinee idols are as old as the industry. They are always the public faces, and effectively the ones selling the shows or movies.

Recently, Comedy TV people have increasingly fallen in love with writer-performers – who are, in many ways, a one-stop talent shop. And this, as an overweight, scraggy bearded, off-screen writer with stained teeth, is slightly troubling, although it’s taken me a little while to work out what I’m worried about.

But now I’ve had a think about this phenomenon which is not new, but certainly on the rise. So over the next two or three blogposts (mainly because it’s about 2000 words), I’m going to share those thoughts.

So, read on.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Lunch With Bob Larbey


I was very sad to hear about the passing of a truly great sitcom writer, Bob Larbey. There's not a bad obituary in the Telegraph here, but I wanted to reflect the genius on this blog from the point of view of a comedy writer. I knew there was another who could do so much better than I: Jason Hazeley (Touch of Cloth, Weekly Wipe, Framley Examiner, etc). Jason had lunch with the man a few years ago. So I asked him to write something. And he did. And it's rather wonderful. And here it is.

Jason Hazeley writes:

A few years back, I decided I owed Bob Larbey a pint. I’ve long thought Ever Decreasing Circles is the best there is, and with John Esmonde having died in 2008, there was only Bob left to thank.

So I sent him the one and only fan letter I’ve ever written. It started

Dear Bob – I’ll be honest. This is fan mail. That’s an awkward thing for a 39-year-old writer to admit. But I’ll get over it. I hope you will too.

I went on to dollop praise on Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-89), while putting in a good word for the Please, Sir! film (1971) and one particular episode of The Good Life (1975-78) called ‘The Wind-Break War’. But mainly the letter was a 500-word thank you.

With the letter, I enclosed a DVD of the one and only Play For Today that Esmonde and Larbey wrote, called A Touch Of The Tiny Hacketts – a lovely, quirky little piece that I suspected he hadn’t seen since its first broadcast in 1978.

About a week later, I had a reply. It started

Dear Jason – Thanks for your letter and of course I’m all in favour of fan mail, particularly from a virtual stripling, as most of mine these days seem to come from old ladies. I wrote a fan letter of my own many years ago – to Galton and Simpson, who were my comedy heroes. When the BBC began what looks like its terminal decline, some young suited nerk was going on about the move to ‘edgy’ comedy. I suggested that he should finish his prep and watch an episode of Steptoe And Son – now that was edgy.

A few weeks later, we met at his local in an impossibly picturesque village in Surrey, which was freckled with snow at the time, as if to ram home the point that I could never afford to live somewhere so pretty. He recommended the fish and chips and a local ale, so we had identical lunches.

And we did what all writers do when they meet in a pub: moan. But not for long, because he was such a cheerful sod, and seemed to have as many questions for me as I did for him. I asked him the usual shop-talk things, about process and structure, and especially, how things were commissioned.

He gave me a typical example: he and John pitched up at Television Centre one morning and met up with a commissioner, saying they’d like to write a sitcom about national service. The BBCer listened, and liked it, but said no. So John and Bob got into John’s Mini and drove over to ITV, where they suggested the same idea to someone who said yes. And Get Some In! (1975-78) was born.

Obviously, I told Bob that what he was describing sounded like the ramblings of a dizzy oaf, and went on to explain how TV had made that three-hour process from idea to commission into a two-year process – something he found dispiriting and inexplicable. In later years, he said, he’d ended up in a ‘totally uncreative’ meeting at which there was much talk of demographics. ‘I thought they were Greek soldiers,’ he said.

Getting A Touch Of The Tiny Hacketts commissioned was even easier. The director, James Cellan-Jones, simply asked Bob and John if they’d like to write a play. They said yes. (And they asked if one of their comedy heroes, Nat Jackley, could be cast in it, just so they could meet him – another yes.)

I asked him what he’d done with his many scripts. Binned them, he said. He didn’t have a single copy of anything he’d written. This slightly shocked me – although, given that he wrote (or co-wrote) north of 450 TV episodes, each running to around 50 pages, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

I asked him about ‘The Wind-Break War’. It’s an extraordinary episode of The Good Life, because the story wraps up about 21 minutes in. When I first saw it, I thought, ‘what happens for the rest of this episode, then?’ And the answer is: the characters get drunk. Bob told me, chuckling, that Richard Briers had come up to him and John one lunchtime and said, ‘Lads – you know what? I’d love to play drunk,’ at which the other members of the cast all leapt, saying, ‘Yes, I do a good drunk!’ – and Bob and John were never going to turn down an opportunity to write four great actors a whole drunk scene.

Mainly, of course, I asked him about Ever Decreasing Circles. He told me that Richard Briers and Peter Egan would still phone each other up in character. ‘Hello, Martin.’

Ever Decreasing Circles (Bob said it was nearly called ‘The Proper Trousers’) is a series that was much-loved, then slightly forgotten, and is now firmly re-establishing itself in the public consciousness. Too right. It is sublime. It is so funny, so wonderfully funny. One of the things you can tell from watching it – and this is comparatively rare – is how much the writers made each other laugh as they wrote it. You can hear it in the dialogue.

MARTIN: What a wonderful man their skipper is. He noticed the new hooks in the dressing-room straight away. You’d never know that he’d been run over, would you? He’s always so polite.

Three punchlines for the price of one. And all core to the character.

MARTIN: I’ve never liked being bossed about by weather.

It’s clear what an absolute roar the series was to write, especially with a character as monstrous and deflatable as Martin. In fact, when you look at the scripts, you can see that Bob and John were sniggering away like herberts.

In one episode (none of them has titles), Howard and Hilda, a pair of talking cardigans, are upstaged by a couple even mimsier than them, called (and the names sound like they’ve started to become each other) Dan and Diana Danby. The Danbys are so astoundingly boring that they depress even the unflappably smiling Paul. (Martin, of course, loves them.) Sitting around the pub table, the conversation repeatedly being brought slithering to an awful halt by the Danbys, Martin pipes up, ‘Here’s a poser,’ and twinkles at the provocative brilliance of what he’s about to ask. ‘What’s everybody’s favourite jam?’

The stage direction following this reads:
ALL THE TWATS PONDER THIS QUESTION DEEPLY.
That’s a couple of writers enjoying themselves.

But the series was also capable of being extraordinarily moving. The finest episode, in which Martin seems set to win the local snooker tournament but is scuppered by Howard, who’s undergoing some sort of personality fugue and bursts out of his apologetic self for once, has a real eye-tingler of a scene mid-way, in which poor Howard tells his wife what a loser he is.

HOWARD: Fair enough. I am one of life’s runners-up. The only prize I’ve ever won is you.  

Lovely. Nora Ephron would have been proud of that line. But this is an Esmonde and Larbey comedy. So that’s immediately followed by

HOWARD: And I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t trapped you in that ice-cream van.

To which Hilda, trying to gee up her crestfallen husband, zeroes in on his strengths.

HILDA: But you’re very popular. Everybody calls you by your name.

Esmonde and Larbey were at the top of their game while writing Ever Decreasing Circles: they went straight from that to Brush Strokes. Bob, meanwhile, had started writing on his own, and already had 26 episodes of A Fine Romance to his name. He told me he wrote at a typewriter on his kitchen table. The humility of this image appeals to me.

John’s was the dark humour, Bob said, and his was the lighter stuff. Even their appearance seemed to suggest that: John with his goatee beard and thick, black hair; Bob with his soft eyes and avuncular moustache.

Bob was tremendously good company. Very affable, clearly hugely popular locally, and radiating modesty. When I told him I thought Please, Sir! was a great first screenplay, he told me I was a fool, and that it was rubbish. He was happy to accept thanks for Ever Decreasing Circles because it was ‘a particular favourite,’ but he wasn’t taking any flannel from me about a script he thought was a total pudding.

The only sad note came towards the end of the afternoon. I’d noticed that something called All About The Good Life was coming up on TV soon, and it seemed to feature all the right people. So I asked how much involvement he’d had in the programme.

And he frowned slightly and said, ‘What programme?’

It’s not uncommon for writers to be overlooked. It is, however, unspeakably rude. It suggests that making it all up and writing it all down is somehow not an important part of the creative process.

Bob was one half of perhaps the best sitcom writing team we’ve ever had. Perhaps. Of their time, surely. We were very lucky to have them.

One last time, then: thanks, Bob.

Thank you, Jason Hazeley.
@JasonHazeley

Friday, 28 March 2014

Theoretically Funny

They never liked David Frost. The cool kids, like Peter Cook and Willie Rushton, didn’t like the fact that David Frost used to try – and wasn’t afraid to be seen to try. For them, genius should at least appear effortless. For Peter Cook, one of the greatest comic brains in the English language, it really seems to have been something that came naturally to the point where it wasn’t even fun. For everyone else, genius is the product of years of work, experience and making mistakes. Even so, the cult of the amateur still prevails in Britain.

Now, there are jobs you can’t just rock up and do. You can’t use your ‘natural flair for open heart surgery’ to get you a job cutting people open in a hospital. You need years at medical school and you have to pass exams. And you can’t just use your skills of rhetoric to ‘be a barrister’. You have to learn stuff, like the law, pass exams and be accepted by some chambers.

But anyone can write a script, can’t they? After all, you don’t need to understand every cell of the human body, or every letter of the law. You don’t need money, training, qualifications or access to highly specialised or expensive equipment. You just need access to a computer while you’re typing it. And save it as pdf. That’s one of the upsides. Anyone can do it. (See also here)

This, combined with the British love of the amateur, might lead some to suggest that writing is either easy, or simply relies on natural genius. You’ve either got it or you haven’t, some would say.

Is Learning to Write A Waste of Time?
This would lead some to be naturally suspicious of ‘teaching’ writing as, at best, a waste of time – especially when it takes two years at university, costs a lot of money and doesn’t offer any guarantees of paid work or success (much like most other degrees). Besides, some would argue, you’re better off studying a 'proper subject' and living your life so you’ll have stuff to write about. And given the sheer number of people wanting to be writers, looking for advantages and prepared to spend money on getting a head start, some might see writing courses or books as a waste of money. Are they? Can this stuff be taught? And is there a formula anyway? Given one of the most famous phrases in modern screenwriting is William Goldman’s ‘Nobody knows anything’, there are grounds to say the ‘Theory of Writing’ industry is snake oil.

Truby, Madly, Deeply
I mention all this because I’ve just started reading John Truby’s 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, which is, granted, an infuriatingly hubristic title. I’m still reading but so far it seems to be very useful. It is undoubtedly quite dogmatic, and disparaging of other techniques, even calling out Aristotle for being overly simplistic in his Poetics. Ballsy. 

I don’t want to go into details of Truby’s system. That’s not the point. The point is whether money and, more crucially, time spent filling your head with all this stuff is worthwhile.

I think it is. Writing is hard. It can take weeks, months or years to wrestle an idea to the ground, tame it and make it do what you need it to do and turn it into a script. To rely on ‘natural talent’ or be intentionally amateurish about this is perverse.

I’ve been mulling this for a little while as the other day I was explaining sitcom plots and actually plotted a few graphs to represent them. It sounds crazy. Plots do not need to be plotted on an x- and y-axis, but it can be a helpful way of thinking of your mind works that way, especially in demonstrating that you have to end up where you started which is a crucial difference between sitcoms and most other forms of writing where characters go on journeys and are changed by the experience. In sitcoms, you have your ups and downs, but you ultimately stay the same.

Quest to Escape Thwarted
There were three basic sitcom plots that occurred to me. The first is what I call the ‘Quest to Escape Thwarted’. This is the plot where our hero has a great quest to change their life and circumstances in some way. Like Father Ted doing something to get off the Island (like enter the National Song Contest with his song My Lovely Horse). The graph goes up and down, heading mainly up, before it all comes crashing down, the truth is revealed, a character flaw is exposed, and our character is back to square one.

Challenge to Status Quo Averted
The second kind of story is the ‘Challenge to Status Quo Averted’. In this story, the hero has done something which jeopardises everything they have and hold dear. It could all be taken away. There’s a threat of arrest and jail, or banktrupcy or a fatal blow to reputation. The hero tries to stop it, has some success, but then makes it worse. And worse. And then somehow, through letting go of some treasured thing, or a realisation, or a moment of redemption, the crisis is averted, and the status quo is returned to normal.

Be Careful What You Wish For
A third kind of story is the story See-Saw which I call ‘Be Careful What you Wish for’ which I’ve written about before here. It’s quite handy if you feel your plot isn’t going anywhere. Let your hero achieve their goal unexpectedly early, and then deeply regret it, and spend the rest of the episode trying to undo things.

We did this in Episode 2 of Series 2 of Miranda called ‘Before I Die’. Miranda, offended not to be asked to be the godmother to a child of some friends she can't stand, goes about proving her worth. She does such a good job of looking responsible that half way through the episode, she achieves her goal. And then realises she's made an awful mistake and spends the rest of the episode trying to get out of being a godmother, which involves reading Mein Kampf to kids in a library and punching a vicar.

These aren’t formulae. They’re not rules. They're models. They’re just ways of picturing a plot as a diagram, which is handy if your brain works that way. No everyone’s does. Carla Lane (Bread, Liver Birds, Butterflies etc etc) just used to sit down and write, I’m told. Well, that’s great for her. She’s a genius. Maybe you are too and find all this theory is guff. Don’t mock us. Pity us. We find it difficult and have to grind it this stuff out.

Economics uses modelling. They describe human behaviour in certain ways and use models to demonstrate and reflect it. But they can’t really be used to predict the future – and if your models and formulae dominate and you rely solely on them, they crash. In economics, nobody knows anything. No-one. Anyone who says they do – and isn’t a billionaire based purely on their own acumen without being bailed our by the government or exploiting a monopoly – is a liar. But despite all this, economic models are still useful. And you can use them to get a degree in economics and know a bit more. And feel more comfortable with money, finance, budgets, markets and all that. But it’s very different to take that theory and run a business, be a financial advisor, city regulator or Chancellor of the Exchequer. The theory only gets you so far.

Nobody Knows Anything
There is no formula to screenwriting. We know in our hearts that Goldman is right. So stop looking for one. Who says Aristotle is right? And that Truby is wrong? It doesn’t matter. But obsessing over the theory if all you really want to do is be a writer can be a distracting. Are those courses a waste of money? Many say the value of them is time to explore things, write to deadlines, gain experience and get feedback. Either way, it takes time to learn to be a writer – and we all learn in different ways and we all end up being different types of writer. And there are different ways of learning to be different kinds of writer. You get the idea. Do what works.

If you’re a genius, like Peter Cook, and your brain is just wired funny, I look forward to seeing your show on TV. If you’re Sir David Frost, you’ll just have to put the work in. And let's face it, he did okay.
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Monday, 24 March 2014

Four Questions

Danny Stack, who co-hosts the excellent UK Scriptwriters podcast, tagged me into ‘The Blog Tour’, in which everyone gets asked the same four questions about writing. So I thought I'd answer them:

What am I working on?
Right now, I’m working on a third series of Bluestone 42 with Richard Hurst (co-creator/writer), which is obviously very exciting. Even though it’s really hard work, plotting, redrafting, researching, writing, rewriting and rehearsing, I’m trying to enjoy every minute of it as I’m aware that I may not be this lucky in the future. We might like to think if we have a good idea and write good scripts, the rest will take care of itself. It doesn’t quite work out that like. A good script just improves your odds in the crap shoot. Any show that enjoys a run of success is partly down to good fortune and magic dust, as well as casting, directing and all the other decisions made on a daily basis to keep the show on the road. As I often say on this blog, sitcom is a dark art, not a science.

I am trying to develop other sitcom ideas too, and have a couple in the running, but again, I’m trying to get the scripts to as good a state as I can before I step up and roll the dice…

I’ve just finished writing Thanks A Lot, Milton Jones, with Milton Jones (obviously) and Dan Evans for BBC Radio 4. That was the seventh series I’d written with Milton who is, for my money, in the Champions League of joke writers. Speaking of money, it’s not great being radio and quite time consuming being a very ‘gaggy’ show, but I relish the challenge. Trying to keep up with Milton is really hard work, so it’s my comedy equivalent of circuit training.

Similarly, I wrote a couple of episodes of Elvenquest for Radio 4 between Series 1 & 2 of Bluestone 42 – and, as with Milton’s show, I love writing for shows that are recorded in front of an audience so you can hear the sound of laughter (the sound that critics really can’t stand.) You can’t beat the immediacy of writing a script that week, recording it on the Sunday night – and it’s broadcast a couple of weeks later. That’s very different for Bluestone 42, where we have ideas in February/March, write and rewrite them all summer, record them in October-November, edit them in January and broadcast them about a year after we came up with them.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don’t think it does, really. Sitcom is already quite a specific genre, so if you mess around with the format of that too much, I’m not sure the audience knows what it’s watching. As I’ve said, my preference is always for sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience. Those were the ones I watched growing up, those are what audiences at home tend to like most and the ones that are hardest to do, in my opinion. So that’s the challenge and something I’m always trying to aspire to. It was just the way it worked out that my first TV sitcom of my own, as it were, (rather than writing for Miranda or My Family) was unfilmable in front of an audience for a variety of practical and tonal reason. Richard and I approach Bluestone 42 as if it’s a studio show, in terms of trying to get a laugh everything three or four lines.

Why do I write what I do?
I write comedy because that’s what I love. Always have. Whenever those Royal Variety shows were on when I was ten in 1985 (when there was a lot less stand-up on TV), I just wanted the dancers and singers to get off the stage and make way for the comedians. I enjoy a bit of intense drama like Line of Duty or Damages, but it’s comedy that I’ve always enjoyed and admired.

How does my writing process work?

I’ve written on the daily grind here. But my writing process on Bluestone 42 involves a lot of sitting in a room with Richard Hurst, coming up with ideas, turning ideas into stories, stories into plots, plots into episodes outlines and outlines in scripts. And checking all these with our military advisor. We do lots of that together but we write the scripts themselves by ourselves and swap. When we're both happy with the draft, we send the draft to our producer and exec producer and try not to think about having to rewrite those drafts while we get out with outlining or writing other episodes.

Right. I'm done. I was going to nominate Jason Arnopp to do this, but he's already done it. So I'll nominate Dave Cohen.