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?


Kind of.


Can we take the long view?

Indulge me?

Thank you.


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:
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.

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.
For updates on future posts and links for sitcom stuff, follow me on Twitter here.

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.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Season Sitcom Writers No.1 - Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall has written more sitcom episodes than you could shake a suggestively-shaped stick at. He co-wrote Whoops Apocalypse, Hot Metal and If you See God, Tell him with David Renwick. Then he went on to create 2point4 Children which ran for eight series between 1991 to 1999. Yes. Eight. Somehow, he also found time to write two series of Health and Efficiency (1993-95) and two series of Dad (1997-99). This man knows a thing or two about sitcom. And this was after he had written for Not the Nine O’Clock News, Kenny Everett, Spike Milligan and Alexei Sayle. Most of us would settle for a quarter of his career. Owing to what I can only assume is an administrative error, or poor judgement on his part, I got to ask him a few questions.

So, Andrew, what or who inspired you growing up?

Well, first of all, let me say that I'm not really under any illusion that anybody would desperately want to know these details about me, but since you ask, it was radio and TV comedy itself that I became enamoured with at around the age of 10 fuelled by Round the Horne, I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, Do Not Adjust your Set and later, of course Python, Laugh-in and The Goodies.

At what point did you realise you were a writer/comedy writer? 

Being a Comedy Writer looked like fun - after all Dick Van Dyke had a nice life - and was, in those days, pretty much the only entry point available to a person like me. I was aware the Barry Took had taken a course something like that, but unaware he had been a Variety Standup in his early days. That would have put me off. This is hard to explain to people these days, but I had no desire at all to become famous, only to make comedy. In fact, I still don't. When I have to make occasional appearances for one reason or another (such as demonstrating that I'm not dead yet) it still requires tremendous effort.  Sadly it is periodically necessary.

I started sending in scripts when I was about 11ish I think, and made contact with Humphrey Barclay, Ian Davidson and David Hatch, who were all encouraging.

When did you first receive money for something you wrote?

I can't remember the first thing I sold, but I would have been about 14-15. I sold a whole lot of terrible "quickies" to Braden's Week and Dave Allen at Large.

So for you, it's all about the comedy, rather than the industry or being famous - or even making a lot of money. Do you see Comedy as a riddle to be solved? I sometimes see needing to make an audience laugh and each joke/storyline/plot is a way of solving that puzzle - and hearing an audience laugh means you found the right answer. Maybe that's just me.

I don't really know what drives a person to want to make comedy, but driven is the word. I think for me, it's possibly a deep desire to please, surprise and delight people, and in some ways I almost feel it's something like an essential public service, like the electricity supply. It makes people feel better, puts things into perspective, and it feels like a useful thing to have been put on earth with a knack for supplying. Yes, I think more than anything, it makes me feel useful to the world, a feeling I like.

I think the reason probably varies from person to person, which is why your riddle solving story doesn't chime with me. I rarely need to think about what's going to get a laugh, I just seem to know most of the time, heaven knows why.

So it is just me. Fair enough. What gives you most pleasure about the things you've written?

I rarely feel that a finished show gives me pleasure, exceptsofar as being completed. Sometimes a finished script, though, being in it's "ideal" that is to say imagined form, does. In general, the idea that I'm pleased with my body of work overall is not accurate. I'm usually wanting to continue in the hope of doing better next time. I rarely go back in thoughts about completed work, when they're done, they're over.

Your first TV sitcoms were Whoops Apocalypse and Hot Metal - which were clear about big subjects and could be seen as very satirical. Were these things you felt passionately about - or where they big structures on which you could hang jokes, develop characters and escalate stakes?

The three satires David [Renwick] and I wrote, "Whoops", "Hot Metal" and "If You See God.." were from genuine anger about the subject matters. When I wrote my first (narrative) solo material, I'd had enough of being angry for a while and wanted to present something optimistic, as a more uplifting kind of experience. It was also a conscious move from writing from "Up Here" to writing from "Down There" as Dennis Main Wilson once cleverly defined the two viewpoints. Less elitist and more democratic, if you like. I tried to avoid any flavour of the writer saying "look how clever I am" and tried to simplify the style as much as possible. Again, I'm not sure I entirely achieved that.

I've found that writing with someone else hardly feels like work at all, whereas writing on my own is a real battle. Did you find writing things on your own to be a struggle or something of a release?

I assure you that collaborating with David feels very much like work. But in a good way. I commented to David at the time that I thought it was more than twice as difficult doing it by myself. 

Did you have a David Renwick in your head for at least some of the time sharpening your solo writing?

Hopefully we both carry elements of the other's perspective with us as we continue.

How come you stopped writing together?

At one point when we were writing together, David had a bad car accident, and it forced me to consider whether I'd be able to write big narrative things by myself if I had to. He already did a certain amount by himself, so it was no problem for me to try.  We never quite managed to coincide things again, because either one of us was busy on one thing or another, so that came about quite organically, rather than as a decision of any kind.

2Point4 Children (pic below) was a huge rollicking success. Did it feel like that at the time?

I don't think at the time there was any feeling about it's success. Of course the Cast had a better idea, they were recognised in the street, but (luckily) the Writer remains completely anonymous wherever he or she goes. So, no, there wasn't really any feedback to me at all, other than the figures. We seemed to have a tiny budget too, compared to some other more prestigious shows, which was slightly annoying.
We never had any funds for composed music, for example, meaning we had to use records, the copyright clearance of which now make dvd releases financially unviable. And we didn't get paid a lot of money. The fees were quite low as it was the BBC, and there was no automatic buy-out. I wish we had, I could have given up by now!

Big family sitcoms always bring out the sneeriest side of critics. Did that really take the edge off?

Gary [Olsen] was once very upset when the BBC mounted a "Best Comedy of All Time" Extravaganza, to which no-one from our (still running) show was invited, but seemingly everyone else was. I'm afraid I rather expected that, as it was somewhat par for the course. (In case you're wondering, it was won by "Men Behaving Badly" - a great show - but the best of all time?) I rather suspect the management, in company with the critics, never actually saw the show, but formed their opinions from the title and perhaps a trailer or two.

And overall, was it the show that you hoped it would be?

As always, I felt the quality of the shows was variable. Some episodes still make me shudder, others seem great fun. There are myriad reasons for that, some attributable to me, some not. I did feel Series 6 had a great improvement in consistency and style, but as before, nobody really noticed, as they'd all long since decided what they thought about it.

I feel overall, that it pretty much achieved it's goals, albeit with the normal ups and downs of a long running series.

Looking back at comedy in the 80s and 90s, it seemed like that there was an awful lot of half-hour comedy on TV - especially given for most of this time, there were only four channels. And fewer people trying to be writers. Did it feel easier to get a show commissioned back then?

I don't really know whether it was relatively easier to get a show commissioned in the nineties, as, to compare I'd have to be of an age and experience again that I was then and try now. Which is impossible. But it does seem particularly hard to penetrate the system at the moment, according to most people I know. There are probably less slots, less money, and less opportunity to take a risk. Hopefully funnier times are around the corner.

What would the 50-something you say to the 20-something you?

You're going to need reserves of determination, and persistence, now, during the high points and right up to the moment you retire, if that ever happens. So, don't be put off easily. You're never too young, too inexperienced, too familiar, too old, too traditional, too radical, too uncool, too black, too female, too weird, too conventional, too deaf, too Portuguese, or too anything for anyone to stop you making the comedy you feel driven to make. And if you don't feel that, then you shouldn't be doing it.

Andrew Marshall, thank you.

If you'd like to spend more time thinking about writing situation comedy with me, there are a few places left on this course on Friday next week (21st March) in London (sorry - it's a nuisance for me too as I don't live in London either, but London is probably easier than Shepton Mallet). More details here.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

What To Do With Thirty Million Quid

A few thoughts on BBC Three, situation comedy and how to spend £30 million. It seems to meander a bit. And it’s nearly 1500 words. But stick with it.

I have quite a lot of Gardeners’ World on VHS video in my loft. There is a reason for this. Back in the 1990s, it was on BBC2 at 8.30pm on Thursdays or Fridays (I forget which), and at 9pm there was comedy. And I was taping it. After all, comedy was my favourite thing in the world. And BBC2 had loads of it.

It certainly seemed that BBC2 was the home of new comedy. I was only seven when The Young Ones charged onto our screens, and, naturally, it was on after my bed time. But I grew up with BBC2 being my channel. Aged thirteen or so, I stumbled across a gem about three losers on a giant space ship called Red Dwarf. When they were joined by a droid called Kryten, it became proper funny. I’ve still got the tapes – with the last couple of minutes of Alan Titchmarsh giving advice on growing brassicas. (Yes, he used to be a TV Gardener. Now he’s… well… Alan Titchmarsh). I also found a sketch show by a guy called Harry Enfield. And another one by two men called Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

Of course there were few alternatives to BBC2 for non-mainstream comedy. Just Channel 4, which, of course, had comedy too. And I watched all of it, from Desmonds to Absolutely. But ultimately, Channel 4 was home to The Tube and The Word and was far too cool for me. BBC2 was my channel.

I wonder if the thirteen-year old me feels the same way about BBC Three.  Maybe he’d shrug and say he watches all the good stuff on iPlayer anyway. Now I actually work for BBC3, writing Bluestone 42, I happen to know that only a quarter of our weekly watch the show when it airs at 10pm on Thursday. Another quarter watch repeats through the week and half watch it on iPlayer. Or so I'm told.

Now, I don’t propose to bang on about BBC Three. For me to argue in favour of keeping it would clearly sound self-serving. And to perversely argue it should be booted off terrestrial television and turned into an online-only channel would be disloyal. I’m very proud to be in the BBC Three stable. Sure, it is the home of some programmes that at least sound rather, well, tabloid – which are usually far more sensitive, responsible and interesting than the title suggests. But it is also a channel that has spawned plenty of hits and acclaimed shows, ranging from programmes I haven’t seen - like In The Flesh, Bodies, Being Human, Torchwood, The Fades – to programmes I have like Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain.

While I’m pleased that the salami slicing of programmes is apparently over, I share Ben Gosling Fuller’s concerns about online TV budgets in the future. Will BBC really stump up the £250k+ it costs to shoot 28 mins of decent comedy? (Actually indecent comedy and quite bad comedy cost just the same). Somehow, I doubt it. Some argue that this online model works just fine for loads of viewers, like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, or whoever. But bear in mind – we have no idea how many people actually watch House of Cards. Or Orange is The New Black. Or the new episodes of Arrested Development. It seems like a leap into the unknown. Which is not always a bad thing, mind.

But this article is not about the fate of BBC Three. It is, as the title suggests, about what to do with £30 million. It is puzzling that the BBC has to cut costs but is proposing spending this money on drama for BBC1. Apart from anything else, there seems to be quite a lot of drama on BBC1 already. Why is not being spent on comedy? I’m not saying that BBC1’s comedy is tanking and needs tens of millions of pounds thrown at it. I’m partially responsible for some of that comedy, having co-written a few episodes of the first two series of Miranda (although it was on BBC2 at the time). But Miranda is unusual. It’s a mainstream sitcom, filmed in front of an audience, that people seem to be really fond of. So why am I arguing that the £30 million, if it is to be filched from the pockets of BBC Three, should go to BBC1 Comedy? Stay with me.

Watch TV Like it’s 1999
Allow me to go back to the thirteen year old me, and fast-forward to the twenty-four year old me. Confused yet? Okay, it’s 1999. That’s the year I’m trying to break into comedy, and writing Infinite Number of Monkeys, a comedy sketch show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I want to get a show onto BBC2. Of course I do. It's my channel. Plus it’s still pumping out some brilliant comedy. The Fast Show and Shooting Stars have just finished (1997). The new kids on the block are League of Gentlemen. There is also the forgotten gem Hippies by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, starring the brilliant Simon Pegg who has also been in Spaced that year on Channel 4. (Correction: I'm told it was just written by Arthur Mathews. Apols) It’s the final series of This Morning with Richard Not Judy, with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. And we've just had Series 1 of the brilliant mockumentary People Like Us, by John Morton – a show which paved the way for The Office two years later.

You'd forgotten about this, hadn't you?
It’s worth noting that over on BBC1, French and Saunders have just had a go at a new period sitcom called Let Them Eat Cake which was definitely worth a go. 1999 also saw the second and final series of dinnerladies, which gets 15.3 million views on December 30th. Three days earlier, 14.3 million people watch Alice and Hugo’s new baby get christened on Richard Curtis’s Vicar of Dibley. Two Point Four Children, by Andrew Marshall, is getting around 9 million viewers (the sitcom cut short by the tragic terminal illness of Gary Olsen). A sixth series of One Foot in the Grave is being written by Marshall’s erstwhile writing partner David Renwick ready for broadcast in 2000.

I know. There was less competition back then. Fewer channels. More communal watching. I know. But there were some big audiences out there for big shows. And top-flight talent like Victoria Wood, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Curtis, Renwick and Marshall were going after them. All of these names ended up on BBC1 having cut their teeth on BBC2 sketch shows and knocking about on the equivalent of BBC3. There they learned their craft, and developed into BBC1 writers and performers.

Fifteen Years Later
Fifteen years on, it’s 2014. The new BBC talent is writing for BBC3 – partly because it’s in the remit of the channel. But also because the people who were on BBC2 fifteen years ago are still there.

Let's be clear about this. As a viewer and comedy fan aged 38, I have no problem with this. But these top-flight names you’d expect be entertaining the nation on BBC1 by now are not inclined to do so. The League of Gentleman are back on BBC2 with Inside Number 9, having given us Psychoville. Stewart Lee is back with his Comedy Vehicle. Vic and Bob are back with House of Fools. Graham Linehan is working on a new series of Count Arthur Strong. The brilliant John Morton has given us 2012 and is poised to give us W1A. James Corden, who has had no lack of mainstream success in Gavin and Stacey, co-wrote and starred in The Wrong Mans with Mathew Bayton. On BBC2. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are big stars – and they are coming together to make another series of The Trip. On BBC2.  And they don’t come much bigger than Harry Enfield – and his last sketch show with Paul Whitehouse was on BBC2.

More recently, big name stars that you might expect to find on BBC1 have had shows on BBC4 that have moved over to BBC2. Like Jack Dee with Lead Balloon and Jessica Hynes with Up the Women. Ricky Gervais made The Office, Extra and then Life’s Too Short for BBC2. And is now making Derek for Channel 4. Jo Brand's Getting On stayed on BBC4. The astonishingly talented BBC4/2’s Thick of It writers aren’t busy writing big hits for BBC1. They’re all working on Veep for Sky Atlantic/HBO. As would I, given the chance.

BBC1 is not devoid of comedy, as I’ve said before. As well a few popular sitcoms, there’s Graham Norton, and the joyous Would I Lie to You? But it doesn’t seem that the big hitters are queuing up write or star in BBC1 sitcoms. Granted, Peter Kay’s Car Share is heading our way. As is another series of David Walliams’ Big School and Matt Lucas is bringing us Pompidou at some point. Ben Elton had another go recently. And I’m sure Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin will come up with another gem now that Outnumbered has run its course.

So maybe I'm overplaying it. Maybe it's all fine. I hope it is. But sitcoms don't just happen. And the really big ones are usually written by people with experience of TV, comedy and life in general. Where are the old pros? David Renwick is making comedy dramas like Jonathan Creek and Love Soup. Moffat and Gatiss are making programmes about time travellers and detectives. Richard Curtis is making movies and saving the world. And there's currently no sign of Victoria Wood or Simon Nye. And John Sullivan, David Croft and John Esmond are all dead. Where are the new Dibleys and Good Lifes going to come from?

I don’t offer any solutions to why the mainstream sitcom has been such a tough nut to crack – and why it is such an unappealing prospect for the seasoned professional. But I tell you what might help fix it. Thirty million quid.

Since the above was, hopefully, not completely self-serving, here are the plugs. Bluestone 42 is on BBC Three at 10pm on Thursdays. I also co-write Thanks A Lot, Milton Jones which is on BBC Radio 4 at 6.30pm on Wednesdays. And I run comedy writing workshops with Dave Cohen. The next one about Writing Sitcoms is on Friday March 21st and there are couple of places left. Sign up here.