Friday 9 May 2014

Season Sitcom Writers - Pete Sinclair - Part 2

I'm continuing a conversation with Pete Sinclair, a Seasoned Sitcom Writer. Last time we looked at how he got start with punk poetry (which stood him good stead for Never Mind the Buzzcocks), and graduated to writing for Radio 4 and Rory Bremner. 

Sitcomgeek: You really hit on gold with Lead Balloon. But before we get to that, you had two sitcoms on before that: All Along the Watchtower and Mr Charity. How did they come about and what did you learn from writing them and seeing them make it from script to screen?

Pete Sinclair: All Along The Watchtower and Mr Charity were both written with Trevelyan Evans, a writer/director who was introduced to me via my agent.  Trevelyan had been at the National Film and Television School and one of his ideas had been optioned by a production company.  They felt that it would benefit from having a more experienced writer involved – and even back in the early 1990s that was me!  God, that makes me feel old...

The idea was a brilliant one – it still is! – scripts and treatments were commissioned and we so nearly got it on.  At one point Granada, ITV and Disney were all involved in high level discussions as to how they could make it work financially, but in the end it fell through.

All Along the Watchtower
Having discovered that we worked well together, Trevelyan and I continued to think of ideas – and the first one that we managed to sell was All Along The Watchtower.  It was a sitcom set in the Highlands of Scotland on an RAF early-warning station that they'd somehow forgotten to close down at the end of the Cold War.

A pilot script was commissioned by BBC Scotland in 1996 – but it was a long and tortuous journey before the series made it to the screen three years later.  We originally had a well-known comedy figure in mind for the lead role and he agreed to do a read-through.  It went well, but it proved impossible to get a decision from him about doing a series and eventually we persuaded the BBC to let us re-cast it.

We assembled a cast of actors who were relatively unknown but very good.  The filming and the studio recordings went well and everyone was pretty optimistic about our chances.  That optimism increased when the first reviews appeared.  Unusually for a new sitcom, they were generally positive – and some were better than that!  The Daily Mail said: “It is fresh, original, has hilarious, well-defined characters, and it's very, very funny.”  I remember thinking we had a hit on our hands.

Some of our readers may be unaware of this show. I guess it wasn’t quite the hit you thought it might be. What went wrong?
Looking back, I think the key thing that scuppered us was the decision to broadcast it on Sunday afternoons in the Last Of The Summer Wine slot.  From memory, that had been getting around nine million viewers at the time, whereas we started at five million, then dropped to just over four million and held from then on.  Nowadays of course, those figures would be great – especially for a brand new sitcom with a relatively unknown cast – but by the standards of the time they were considered disappointing.

There then followed an agonising period of discussions, consultations, focus groups and general dithering as to whether a second series would be commissioned.  In the end, the BBC said no.

When the dust had settled, Trevelyan and I set about trying to come up with our next idea. We were determined to learn the lessons of All Along The Watchtower – and the main one, we felt, was that we had to create something that would have an immediate impact.  It seemed to us that sitcoms were no longer being given a chance to grow.  What was needed was a big, bold idea that would provoke a strong reaction.  The result – Mr Charity – certainly did that, but unfortunately the reaction, from the critics at least, was overwhelmingly negative!  One critic described it as “a pile of fossilised poo from sitcom's dark ages.”  (Yes, I keep the bad ones as well...)

What do you think was the problem with Mr Charity?
With hindsight, I'd say it boiled down to two things.  Our first mistake was the clash between a very dark subject matter (essentially satirising someone who was using charity for his own ends) and the old-fashioned traditional sitcom format.  Mr Charity was originally commissioned for BBC 1, but when they decided that they didn't want jokes about cancer and dying kiddies on their channel (even if it was done with satirical intent) it was taken on by BBC 2.

At that point, we should have realised that we had to change the style.  An old-fashioned looking audience sitcom with wobbly sets sat uneasily at 10.00 pm on BBC 2.  The tide (certainly amongst TV critics) was turning against audience sitcoms – and the few more traditional voices who weren't put off by the mainstream format, hated the content.  One such critic described it as more offensive than the Brass Eye paedophile episode.  That was one negative review I was much happier about!

The other main problem, looking back, was a lack of clarity in the central idea.  Although our main character was the head of a national charity, his office was located above one of the charity's shops and he was constantly getting involved in the day-to-day running of it.  I think that would be fine as a one-off gag but to have the focus split between two very different worlds perhaps damaged the believability of the idea.  In retrospect, we should have gone for one or the other.

On top of that, there was one key question about the central character that we never really addressed – was he really a self-serving shyster who was simply using charity for his own ends, or did he genuinely believe that he was ultimately doing it for a good cause?  Trevelyan and I leaned towards the former, whilst Stephen Tompkinson, who played the role (and played it well in my opinion) thought the latter.  At the time, I remember thinking that the ambiguity might actually help us.  With hindsight, I think it would have been better to be crystal clear.

For all its flaws, I would still argue that Mr Charity was very funny in places.  In fact, the recordings went down so well with the studio audience that the late great Geoffrey Perkins commissioned a script for a second series on the strength of them.  I sometimes wonder how the series would have been received nowadays, when audience sitcoms that paint with a broad brush are back in fashion.

Right, that's enough for now, thanks Pete. Plenty to think about there. Next time, the rise and rise of Lead Balloon…

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