Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Top Heavy

There’s a lot of text being generated about a post by a nice man whom I’ve spoken to once or twice called John Warbuton who had a bad experience making a pilot of a pub-based comedy called Inn Mates for BBC3. It was so bad, he left television altogether. I have some sympathy with his frustration. I remember watching the show when it was broadcast and it didn’t quite hang together. And given the show had departed from John’s original creative vision, it must have been frustrating than he didn’t get to make the show he set out to make.

This has whipped up an anti-executive feeling among some writers, resulting in some big guns like Graham Linehan, Sam Bain and James Corden going in to bat for the execs – although no one is pretending all execs everywhere are fonts of script wisdom and good notes. There is a summary of all the above here.

Pic by Recovering Vagabond via Flick
Is TV Comedy Top Heavy?
My first contact with the BBC as a writer was in about 1998 and in the last 15 years, I’ve met quite a lot of Producers, Executive Producers, Development Producers, Script Editors, Heads of Comedy, Creative Heads of Comedy and Commissioning Executives. Is TV Comedy top heavy? Given that none of those job titles I’ve just mentioned are made up, probably. But let’s put things into perspective.

Some politicians are nice, some tactless, annoying or in the job for the wrong reasons. And none of these attributes dictate how effective that politician is. And it’s the same in NHS, MOD, BP, BBC, BA, Honda, Channel 4, Paperchase, The National Trust and Sky.

Some TV Comedy executives are just plain bad at their job. That’s okay. There are plenty of terrible writers too. Some TV Comedy executives are bad at parts of their job and good at the bits you don’t see. Or they’re good at the script bit, but they didn’t get your show commissioned because they weren’t pushy enough with the Channel Controller who probably would have given in if they’d pestered for long enough.

It's Complicated
There is more to being a TV executive than giving notes. Why? Because TV companies have shareholders and need to make money. Because BBC gets a licence fee it has to justify and is crucified by a sneering press every time it’s deemed to put a foot wrong. And if they’re going to make 6 x 30mins episode of your show, they’re going to be spending at least £1.5million on making your jokes appear on the telly. That’s a lot of money. You’re going to get notes. And questions. And last minute idiotic flights of creative fancy from tired, scared people who don’t know when to keep their mouths shut. It's how the business works. It's how business works.

All of the above means that I’m not surprised that in the last 15 years, I’ve had perfectly good shows turned down for bad reasons. I’ve written sitcom pilots that were aimed at the wrong channel. I wrote a pilot script for BBC3 a few years ago for an initiative that was specifically designed to find hits that could crossover to BBC1. And was told my script had been turned down because it felt ‘too BBC1’. It happens. I’ve received notes that I knew at the time were wrong, but I acted on them and made the script worse. I’ve had scripts commissioned or ideas optioned that probably weren’t a very good idea in the first place. I’ve had decent shows that I’ve loved vanish into thin air because a key person has left the corporation or company (I had one of these last year. It was annoying and painful) and their replacement had no discernible interest in me, my work or that idea.

I’ve had good experiences of executives – some who worked at the BBC and some at indies. At BBC Comedy, I’m having a very good experience with Bluestone 42. A key executive early on liked the basic idea and let us get on with it – and then backed our vision once we had a script. I’ve had some good experiences at indies, like Big Bear Films, writing for My Hero for BBC1. And by 'good experience', I mean that I got notes on every draft of my script from Jamie Rix, who’d also collated notes from Paul Mayhew Archer (Writer, Vicar of Dibley), Paul Mendelson (Creator, May to December), John Stroud (Producer, Game On), Marcus Mortimer (Director, Alexi Sayle’s Stuff). That was a lot of notes. From people who know a bit about comedy. Even so, some of their notes were still wrong and my job was to weigh up which. So I repeat, if you want to be a screenwriter, get used to getting notes.

Ultimately, you’re the writer. You’re name is at the front of the show. You don’t have to change stuff if you don’t want to. But if you’re just starting out, it’s hard to be 100% certain of your creative vision – and you’re better off listening to advice. Likewise, if you're older and experience, you might be quite bad at listening to good advice. If you really don’t want to make a change, that’s fine. But if you dig your heels in and it fails – which is likely, even if you know what you’re doing – you only have yourself to blame. And that can be even more painful.

And on the other hand, there are some things that comedy execs do that are really annoying. Here are the 7 Deadly Sins of Giving Notes to a Comedy Writer.


  1. Another typo 3rd-to-last para, last line - you mean 'no discernible interest'

  2. Ok, there are too many layers of commissioning editors and producers, especially at the BBC. What's worse, some of them suffer from a fear of failure which leads to lots of second guessing and unnecessary tinkering, that's is death to a project. If you get caught up in that it's disheartening BUT not all execs are like that. I've had the good fortune to work with people like Humphrey Barclay, Geoffrey Perkins and Paul Mayhew Archer. Their inspiration, insight and faith made work a joy. Maybe it's a case of keeping going till you find the exec who believes in you.