Monday, 27 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 4 - One Foot In The Grave

One Foot In The Grave is a modern classic and the one show that gives me hope for the modern-day, mainstream sitcom. It appeals to all ages with its mix of recognisable situations, absurdities and tapping into the frustrations of modern life and bad service. The show is permanently waving a defiant fist at the universe.

One might make the mistake of thinking that Victor Meldrew is a grumpy old man. He isn't. He's a perfectly pleasant senior citizen who likes to be polite, always calling Mrs Warboys by her formal title and name. Even though he finds her annoying. And selfish. Which she is. But she is also vulnerable, so we feel sympathy with her.

Meldrew just likes things done properly, but most of all, he would like to be treated with respect. And when he is ignored or taken for a ride, he causes a scene or creates a plan for revenge which usually backfires on him, even though he morally on the side of the angels, and his anger is righteous. He is turned into a monster by society.

Margaret, Victor's wife, is stuck in the middle, dutifully helping her friend, Mrs Warboys, trying to be a good neighbour but generally trying to cope with the vortex of chaos in her house - when a plant is potted in the downstairs toilet, or Victor is buried up to his neck in soil.

So it's worth noting that this show is successful because we have true sympathy for the main characters, including their long suffering neighbours. It would be easy to create a monster like Victor Meldrew and omit to make him likeable, which would make him far less appealing and funny.

The other genius of this show is its physicality. Added to all of the above, and the verbal rants, are strong physical jokes, both big and small, like this one:

It's not just small moments of slapstick, but elaborate set-ups and pay-offs that are works of genius. David Renwick is able to conceal the big reveal until the last possible moment for full impact, ensuring there are no ambiguities or lose threads. It's like a carefully stage-managed magic trick. So it's no wonder that Renwick also wrote a comedy drama about a magician and illusionist, Jonathan Creek.

It's a masterclass in plotting and one to learn from when writing our own sitcoms. Often, a script isn't going well because it's not been adequately plotted. In order to keep things jolly and funny, you've panicked and gone for short term jokes rather than playing the long game. But you need to think all the way to the end and go back and cut material, routines and jokes if they're not adding to the whole. It's painful but you sometimes have to throw out really funny stuff.

Because the plots are so well crafted and paced, with the reveals coming at exactly the right moments, with physical jokes along the way, and sympathetic characters who can boil over, you don't need that many jokes. Looking back over episodes, there are lots of lines which, on reflection, could be funnier. But Renwick doesn't need them. He is a master, holding back until the right moments, and then going all in.

So, what can we learn from this modern masterpiece? Sympathy for characters, more time on the plot. Take care of that and the comedy takes care of itself.

For more sitcom advice, and how to get the idea from your head into a pilot script, have a look at Writing That Sitcom, available for Kindle/Kindle App.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 5 - Hancock's Half Hour

Tony Hancock is the ultimate British sitcom character, almost the original on which all others are based.

His name tells you quite a lot. The character’s full name is Tony Aloysius Hancock. Two regular, everyman names, with pretention stuffed inside. Hancock is pompous, self-important and has no self-awareness. And, most crucially, his expectations exceed his ability, just like Captain Mainwairing, David Brent, Basil Fawlty, Arnold Rimmer et al.

He attempts numerous projects, jobs and schemes to unlock his genius, pull himself up by his boot straps or make a name for himself. They always end in failure. Hancock is insistent that the world is against him. Which it is. And that’s how it feels to us. But we can at least comfort ourselves that none of us are as deluded, frustrated and bitter as Hancock.

The central character is so strong that he works in almost any setting, which is handy because the show is very erratic in its situation. Given the sitcom form had not really settled down, it seems no-one felt any need to impose any kind of continuity between episodes. The result, looking back over the  TV episodes that survive, is that you’re never quite sure whether the guy who’s gone to give blood one week is the same guy with all the radio kit another week. But you don't care. It's just funny.

The central character is so strong that he works with any characters, which is also handy given the real Hancock was so paranoid and insecure that over time, he had every regular cast member removed, most notable being Kenneth Williams and Sid James. But it didn’t matter, because the character at the centre is rock-solid – a small-minded, moralising also-ran who embodies all of our prejudices, neuroses and cowardice. And yet somehow, you care.

The central character is strong, but he doesn’t work without the writers, Galton and Simpson. The star killed the geese that layed the golden eggs, firing Galton and Simpson, who’d written 150 episodes for TV and Radio. So they'd probably had enough anyway. But from that moment on, Hancock’s days, comedically, were numbered. And sadly, literally, as it turned out.

For more sitcom analysis, and how to get the sitcom from your head onto a page, why not have a look at Writing That Sitcom, available for Kindle/Kindle App now?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 6 - Red Dwarf

Probably my favourite series
Following my previous choice, Mr Don and Mr George, was a one series wonder, I ended up on social media, swapping the names of other one series wonders which never quite got going – or that did, and were cruelly axed before their time. Looking back, though, it feels that up until about fifteen years ago, most series were given a second chance, so that lots of sitcoms one remembers as being ultimately a failure or shortlived actually ran for two series. (eg. Joking Apart, Curls on Top etc)

With hindsight, Red Dwarf feels like it could easily have been one of those shows. The first two series undoubtedly showed promise. I’m sure one or two die-hard ardent fans think it went down hill in Series 3. But I’ve never met anyone who thinks that.

At the start (after the very slow set-up), the show had most of the key ingredients, blending brilliant science fiction ideas with extremely relatable characters, even if one of them was a hologram and the other essentially a highly evolved cat. And of course, there’s the wonderfully deadpan on-board supercomputer, Holly.

Characters are fine, but you need relationship and conflict. And you have that in Lister and Rimmer, who were just very petty towards each other, and it really worked. Lister would go out of his way to annoy Rimmer, who was very easy to annoy. And you had just enough sympathy for Rimmer to care. Just.

As we saw in Mr Don and Mr George, it’s easy for a comedy to lapse into a melange of just funny ideas, but Red Dwarf avoids that. No matter how clever or insane the ideas are – like time travel, stepping into photographs, or catching luck viruses – the show is always about the characters, their struggles, quests, vanities and vulnerabilities.

And for that reason, I’ve always preferred it to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, in which the ideas dominated and you had Arthur Dent in the middle, generally moaning about his fate, with characters around him with whom he never really connected. I never really had any affection for Ford Prefect or Zaphod Beeblebrox, much as I like the ideas and the tone. I’m sure you couldn’t have had Red Dwarf without Hitchhikers, but gimme Lister over Dent any day.

The Joy of Kryten
The only weakness in the set up of Red Dwarf, for me, was that Cat was never quite calibrated to be able to carry stories. He was always good for jokes, and proved to be the amusingly unreliable ally, but he could never quite push the show forward. So it was a stroke of genius to co-opt (and recast) everyone’s favourite droid, Kryten who has all my favourite one-liners from the show. (eg. ‘Aah. Smug mode’) Kryten is also brilliant for Lister and Rimmer’s relationship because he becomes a battleground for them, as they war over his soul – or at least Lister’s quest to find him one.

Once Kryten is in place, we’ve got four whole series of untrammelled joy before the wheels start to come off for a variety of reasons, although I’m pleased to say the wheels have been found and successfully reattached. But all my favourite episodes are in Series four, five and six. My all time favourite is probably White Hole – briefly featuring Talkie Toaster - but I also love the one with the Holovirus, the Psirens and the Emohawk.

Limitless Confinement
In those first six series, you’ve also got the confinement you need in any sitcom, where the characters can’t escape each other, but you’ve also got the freedom of the entire universe. Lister isn’t just trapped on a space ship, which is massive but largely functional. He’s trapped by being the last human alive, so no matter where he goes, or whoever he meets, he’s doomed to loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is a great recipe for a sitcom. When they begin to tinker with that (with the return of Kochanski) things started to go wrong. That said, the latest series was a real return to form, so who knows what the future holds for this truly wonderful show?

For more sitcom analysis, and how to get the sitcom from your head onto a page, why not have a look at Writing That Sitcom, available for Kindle/Kindle App now?

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 7 - Mr Don & Mr George

Mr Don and Mr George is a sitcom spun off from the sketch show, Absolutely. It was completely devoid of bad language and innuendo, and played at 10.30ish on Channel 4 on a Friday night. The show was not a huge success, as you might imagine. It was hardly 'edgy'. It only ran for one series. But I utterly loved it. And still do.

It's just a wonderful world of silliness, jokes, self-defeating set-ups and pay-offs, all based around a slightly abusive relationship of bullying Don and submissive George.

What I love about it most is its comedy purity. Everything in the show is either a joke or a set-up. And it didn't feel like any sitcom I'd ever seen before.

That said, in hindsight, it wasn't a long way away from Sean's Show or Father Ted. But both of those shows were more successful. The latter, became a classic and still endlessly repeated on More4 or E4. So, much as it pains me to do so, I have to look at why this surreal gem wasn't not a hit.

Here's where I think it fell down. It wasn't as emotionally engaging as Sean's Show or Father Ted. Both shows were crammed with jokes and oddities, but we rooted for Sean, who'd built up a live fanbase through being a successful comedian on the circuit. They went with him as he attempted to deconstruct the sitcom. And of course, who doesn't love Fathers Ted and Dougal?

Ultimately, we never really cared about Don or George, because the show always went for the joke rather than play any extended emotional beat. Being eighteen years old when I first watched it, I didn't care about this. I just wanted jokes. And I got them. And they will stay with me forever. Even though I taped over my VHS tapings of the show by mistake. Thanks to Youtube and 4oD, the demented world of Mr Don and Mr George lives on.

Is your sitcom idea emotionally engaging? For more thoughts on writing that sitcom script, see here.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 8 - Black Books

I missed Father Ted. It was on while I was university, three years when I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I’m not sure I’ve caught up on all of them, but they are episodes of beauty, silliness and demeneted joy.

Because I was on catch-up, I don’t feel that Father Ted is one of ‘my shows’. But I’m more possessive about a show in the same vein: Black Books. When I saw trailer for it, I thought ‘Yup, I’m going to love that. Dylan Moran is funny. Bill Bailed is very funny. And that Tamsin lady looks like a find. Hoorah.’

I was not disappointed.

A Channel 4 show.
Released by BBC Video.
Of course
I think I saw almost every episode as it went out, or very soon after. An appointment to view. And those were the heady days of Videoplus. I could have punched in the four, eight or twenty digit number and gone out, but no, I stayed in with my then girlfriend, now wife, and watched this lovely show.

It was only with us for 18 episodes, running from 2000-2004, but that’s nine hours of Bernard Black shouting, drinking wine and pretending to read books with Manny and Fran running around after him.

What can we learn from this show?

Creating a World
As with all shows in which Graham Linehan has a hand, Black Books created it's own world. It wasn’t a big world. Quite the reverse. It was a tiny world, mostly a bookshop, a tiny kitchen and tinier flat. But it had it’s own logic and rules – in which a bookshop run by a shouty misanthrope that never sold books or did its accounts could stay open.

When writing a sitcom, you need to know your world, and what the rules are. You can do whatever you like, and maybe push things further than you think, if the rules of the world are clear to you - and the audience There’s no way that anyone would put up with the treatment Manny gets from Bernard, but in this world, he does. And that’s fine. On that note:

The Power of Three
Linehan and Moran created three characters were emotionally dependent on each other. You could argue Linehan does this in Father Ted and IT Crowd. But there’s something about a triumvirate that can work really well especially if there’s a natural leader to the three who calls the shots.

And those three characters are all you need. I barely remember any other characters. There was some show-off explorer. And a summer girlfriend. And Simon Pegg’s deranged cult-like rival book store manager. In fact, looking it up on wikipedia, there are quite a few other characters who pop up. But I don’t really remember them.

What I do remember is funny scenes in which Bernard, Manny and Fran talk, argue, drink wine and play off each other. Having picked two sitcoms (Bread and Allo Allo) with enormously creaking casts, it’s nice to show how things can and should be done with a much smaller cast. The plots stuck brilliantly to those three characters and their relationships with each other. It's a real masterclass on that score.

Oh, and this clip starts with one of my favourite visual jokes ever. (I couldn't embed it in the blog. Soz) And I love this scene too:

Therefore, I salute writers Dylan Moran, Graham Linehan, Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, and declare their show, Black Books, by 8th Favourite British Sitcom, by far one of their smallest accolades.

For more sitcom analysis, and advice on getting an idea out of your head and onto a page, try Writing That Sitcom, available now for the Kindle/Kindle App.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Bluestone 42: Over and Out

Statement from James Cary and Richard Hurst, Creators/Writers of Bluestone 42

We’re sad to announce that Bluestone 42 will not be returning for a fourth series. Overall, it was felt that the show had run its course, with the return of the troops from Afghanistan, and the move of BBC3 to an online platform.

Bluestone 42 ran for 21 episodes over three series, was critically well-received, and was repeated on BBC1 and BBC2.

Its most recent series achieved higher audience figures than the first two, with a total of over two million viewers tuning in on average each week.

The Army – in particular XI EOD, the Royal Logistics Corps bomb disposal regiment – took the show and the characters to their hearts and assisted us greatly in creating a show that valued accuracy as much as comedy. Cpl Daniel Whittingham, interviewed in The Guardian, said "People who aren't in the military might think comedy isn't the best way to show what war is like. I disagree, and most soldiers I know think Bluestone 42 is spot-on, too.”

We were also proud that many of the cast raised money several times for the Felix Fund, the bomb disposal charity.

We would like to thank BBC3 for backing the show in the first place, and giving us the creative freedom to pursue our vision for the first comedy set during a war that was still being fought.

We are also very grateful for a superb cast and crew both in UK and South Africa who worked with professionalism, resilience and good humour throughout the process, especially on some very demanding filming days in very hot weather with some very tight budgets. And around some very loud bangs. Everyone can be proud of what we achieved together.

Carry on.

Top Ten Sitcoms - No. 9 - Allo Allo

Yes. Allo Allo. I loved it. And I still like it.

It's a big, broad, bawdy panto-style comedy. But just think about the show for it minute.

It's a comedy set in Nazi-Occupied France. Two British Airmen need to be smuggled out and anyone caught aiding and abetting them, or working with the French Resistance, will be shot.

It's a comedy.

The German soldiers are not cold-hearted fanatics, but portrayed as humane bungling idiots just trying to survive the war like everyone else. In the first two series, they even made their Heil Hitler's funny. Their worst nightmare is being sent to the Russian front where death is almost certain.

This show took guts.

Undoubtedly, this show couldn't have happened without Dad's Army and It Ain't Half Hot Mum, also by David Croft, and the hit movie The Producers. These all paved the way for something this subversive and yet so mainstream.

On top of this, it's all done with strong foreign accents, and we are invited to imagine that when their accents are French, they are speaking French. When they switch to plummy English, they're now speaking English. And of course the English Policeman, Officer Crabtree (Arthur Bostrom) mashes the two. It's a simple joke, but a funny one, and it keeps on giving (see below). What language the Germans and French remains a mystery, but it doesn't seem to matter. It just works.

The show ran for ten years, with over 80 episodes. It was undoubtedly a huge hit worldwide and is still repeated today. What can we learn from it, should we be minded to do so?

Complexity and Simplicity
The show is very simple to understand because the uniforms and the accents make it crystal clear who's who, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And who the very bad guys are (eg. the Gestapo, General Von Klinkerhoffen, etc). Because the writers had confidence that the audience knew exactly who was who, the shows were able to sustain ludicrously complex and convoluted plots. It became a serial, but each week, Rene Artois was able to talk to camera and explain to us, in his tired and jaded way, what was going on - and the exact location of The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies by Van Klomp. And then latterly the Cracked Vase with The Big Daisies by Van Gogh.

The painting are another clue as to the show success and appeal. Everything was on the screen. Being in the panto-style, the show had big clear props, like stolen paintings and smoked sausages, and elaborate disguises, made all the funnier when underneath them was stone-hearted Herr Flick of the Gestapo (and sometimes Helga, or Von Smallhausen). Or L'Eclair. This meant that the show was really easy to follow and understand, and comedically, that really helps. Big, silly, significant props really help in this. And if you're looking to write a mainstream comedy, it's worth bearing this in mind. I say again, as I regularly do on this blog, confusion is the enemy of comedy.

Allo Allo is riddled with catchphrases. If you took the catchphrases - and their set-ups - out of the show, you might only be left with a few minutes. Almost every character had a catchphrase that you could see coming from a mile away. 'It is I, L'Eclair', 'My little tank', 'Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once', 'I see flashing knobs', 'You stupid woman', 'Whadda Mistaka to Maka'. The list goes on and on. And you know what? The audience loved it. Every time.

What do we learn from this? Simple. Audience love catchphrases. If you, as the writer, don't decide what they are, the audience might well decide on their own. (This is what happened on Bluestone 42 where lines from the show are now on fan-generated T-Shirts)

Allo Allo will clearly divide audiences now, many of who don't appreciate the stereotyping, the cod-accents, the casual sexism and the fact that it is very formulaic. Fair enough. I loved it. They still repeat it and I sometimes watch it and still makes me laugh out loud. It was very helpful to me when I was writing my Radio 4 sitcom Hut 33 in terms of how to approach a wartime comedy, so it's in my Top Ten. At  Number 9.

For more sitcom analysis, why not look at my book, Writing That Sitcom, and listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.