Thursday 30 December 2010

Good Intentions of Self-Improvement

And so we'll soon be staggering into 2011. And New Year's Resolutions beckon. What would it be useful to resolve to do as a writer?

Career goals are nice to have. A series of one's own on television in the next 12 months would be the obvious one - but we have no control over that kind of goal. We can write furiously, daily and sometimes amusingly, but what may or may not be commissioned is relatively arbitrary in my experience. Maybe your show will be get picked up and broadcast and maybe it won't. The reasons given for the show being bought or turned down will sound, on inspection, non-sensical. It's almost impossible to know whether or not a show will work until you actually make six of them, at least. It's impossible to know why it will work, if it works. Usually it turns out to be successful for different reasons than those planned. (Friends was written with Joey and Monica planned to be the 'hot couple'. Yes. I know) It's also impossible to know whether or not the Great British Public have the slightest interest in watching it. And even if they don't, the show may yet succeed. (The ratings for the highly-acclaimed Peep Show are pretty dreadful, but Channel 4, to its credit, has stuck with it since it delights its regular followers and it's nice to win awards.) So, in the words of Melchett in Blackadder II, 'Like private parts to the gods are we. They play with us for their sport.' Or, as Goldman says, 'Nobody Knows Anything'.

But some goals are achievable when they are personal ones. We have no control over what is commissioned and what is not. Be we have complete control over the words we write on the pages, what the characters say, how they talk, how they are - and what they want, what stops them and how they overcome those hurdles. How, then, can we improve those words and stories? How can we find better words, a more interesting order for them and a more original plot? Where can we find characters that a real and vibrant?

Reading. No, not by going to Reading - although that may throw up some fairly bleak and powerful storylines. Reading books. I need to read more. Fiction and non-fiction. To be honest, I find non-fiction very easy reading. I'm naturally a facts person, I think. I'm interested in almost everything, which is very helpful. But I need to read more books. And better books.

This has partly been hammered home to me through reading The Venerable Stephen Fry's latest autobiography. It seems like he turned up to Cambridge at the age of 18 having read more books than I have at the age of 35. I've read plenty of books - especially between graduating from Uni and having kids. The books I like to say I've read include most of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Michael Frayn and Tibor Fischer. But there are so many classics to read. And I've not read them. I feel ashamed and embarrassed to reveal that I've not read any Dickens or Austen. No Henry James, Tolstoy or anything of that sort. I read a Hardy at school (virtually at gunpoint). But overall, my reading list is pretty shameful.

There is no doubt that reading decent literature, and just well-written or well-researched books generally, improves one's thinking and writing. It's what all the great writers tell other not-so-great writers to do. I need to do it. But how?

Well, herein lies the poetic agony of the human condition on which the genre of sitcom itself is predicated: character flaws and failure. Sitcom characters turn over a new leaf virtually every week - trying to do something, start something or change. But they don't. They fail and return to how they were. They don't learn. And we laugh because we recognise this tragic quality in ourselves.

So to change we need to be smart. I need to read more. But I have a finite amount of time. I have a wife and two young children that I need to keep spending time with. So I can't save time there. I need to work and earn money for the aforementioned wife and two young children and landlord. So something else needs to give. And I know what it is: television.

Now, I'm a screenwriter, so I'm hardly going to throw the TV out of the window on January 1st. (I don't want to be one of those superior people who work in television but don't own one - with the implication being that TV is vulgar and for the masses. It's part of the myth that clever people and the rich people (often not the same people) enjoy live arts, theatre, opera, books, Radio 4 and Film (not films. Not film. But Film.)).

In order to make more time to read, I need to watch less television and be smarter in what I watch. I can keep watching the really good stuff - like House, Modern Family and 30 Rock. That's all fine - and very inspiring. It's the stuff that just doesn't get you anywhere that I needs to go. And that is, largely, watching panel games, stand-up comedy and tedious documentaries about the making of sitcom.

I don't mean to denigrate these forms of television. Anyone who's developed a panel game will tell you how tortuously hard they are to get right. They delight millions. And that is fine and large. But I don't find panel games nourishing. So they need to go, for now.

Likewise, stand-up is a superbly compelling form of comedy, even through the lens of TV. One man or woman - and a microphone. It's exhilarating stuff. Or can be when the comedian isn't talking about the differences between cats and dogs, or men and women. Or alcohol, recreational drug-use or commercial flights. Of all, at the moment, I find Dara O'Briain to be the most delightful - and I find it very difficult to switch off, even when I've seen it several times. (I love his 'learning to drive' routine. Love it.)

And no-one is more interested in learning about the craft of sitcom from documentaries than me. But they've all the great sitcoms have been documented. Thrice. I don't need to know any more about that chandelier in Only Fools and Horses. Or that bit in Father Ted where he goes up to Richard Wilson and says 'I don't believe it'. I get it. And I'm not thinking that more time has been spent making programmes about these shows than on the programmes themselves. A bit silly, really.

But my plan for 2011 is to stop watching these kinds of television and read more. I'm going to avoid panel games (with the exception of Have I Got News for You, obviously), televised stand-up (will happily go see it live) and comedy docs. Oh, and movies that I've seen before. And I'm going to used that time saved (maybe a few hours a week) to read those book that have been on my shelf for months, or years and just haven't been read. Yes, that stuff like War and Peace, Leviathon, The Koran. (I'm pretty much up to speed on the Bible, if I do say so myself.)

So that's the plan. It's foolproof, surely? Which it needs to be since I, like every man and woman every born, am a fool.

Monday 20 December 2010

Seriously Recommended Reading

I am currently reading a book about screenwriting that I can thoroughly recommend - On Film-making by Alexander MacKendrick. It's so good that I'm telling everyone about it and taking it with me everywhere I go. I'm only a third of the way through, and I'm rationing myself, sipping it slowly so I savour every drop of it. (Isn't it dreadful when you finish a wonderful book quickly and realise you can't go back?)

To put the book in context, MacKendrick knew about movies. He only directed Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Soon after, he gave up directing to become dean of the California Institute of the Arts. He died in 1993. But his articles, notes and lectures survive and are in this book. It oozes confidence on the subject, within tipping over into hubris. He freely admits his own shortcomings and mistakes - both in film-making and teaching. And the writing is pleasingly louche.

The book is full of short articles on specific subjects and crafts within filming-making. Lots of it is about writing, storylining and script-editing. It is, in short, a must. I can think of no other book that is 'a must'. (You could sum up McKee's bafflingly expensive paperback in three words: 'Story is character'. Or four words. 'Story is character. Kerching!')

Naturally this book is out of print in this country - otherwise the Brits might get hold of it and get good at screenwriting. But it's on Amazon's marketplace. Go find. Buy. Read. Re-Read. Learn. And do.

Monday 13 December 2010

What a Waste

In the last year or so, I've been writing shows with other people. Although the obvious down-side is that less money is forthcoming, the up-sides are considerable. For a start, it's less lonely, more fun, and you feel like you have allies. In fact, it hardly even feels like work. The other upside is that sometimes, your writing partner is working on the script, leaving you free to do something constructive. Or blog.

On top of that, my hands are tied on a number of other projects because I'm either waiting for someone important to read a script, or someone even more important to commission a series, neither of which I'm expecting to happen any time soon. (One idea that is 'in development' has just passed it's second birthday. What a happy day that was. The second script I wrote (free of charge) is still on the big desk of an important person with other scripts waiting to be read. But let's face it, if you were that exec, you'd pick up Paul Whitehouse's script first, wouldn't you? And then there's all those meetings about 'shows in development' to attend.)

And so today is the sort of day I have about every 3-4 months in which I can look through what other projects I have 'on the go' and ideas I'd like to work on. I'm looking at the list of possible shows, ideas and projects from a few months ago and realise that a number have gone nowhere and done nothing. Or that I was waiting to hear back from someone and didn't.

In this industry, people rarely tell you they no longer think an idea has potential. They just tend to stop responding to your emails. And being a writer, you never phone or arrange a meeting because that would put them on the spot. Then, you'll run into them at a drinks thing about six months later and they say 'Hey, sorry I never got back to you about that thing' and you say that you were the one who didn't do anything and that it just felt by the wayside and that it's no-one's fault. Which isn't true. It's mostly their fault.

But getting meetings in which they have to tell you straight that they've gone off your idea is more wasted time - even if it's both gratifying cathartic and crushing simultaneously. A few months of radio silence tells you that they obviously no longer believe in the project so you might as well abandon pursing that project with that producer. (Any producer reading this would protest, and say 'Sometimes we're just busy'. But you know I'm right) But this is where the slowness of the paperwork comes into its own. You probably haven't even signed anything even after all this time because legal departments move more slowly than aged glaciers. You can probably take the idea elsewhere. And go through the same process again. Unless your idea is about chairs, and suddenly BBC1 decides it wants a sitcom about chairs. Or BBC4 is having a 'Chairs season' (it's only a matter of time).

But the fact is that when you look back at the idea, you might have gone off it yourself, or realise it's been trumped by another show. Or that it just isn't funny (which apparently isn't the worse crime you can commit in comedy anymore).

So, today, I'm trawling through the files, reading my old lists and realising that some things are dead in the water and one or two things have a new relevance. But most of it is fine, but not fantastic. Comedy is a wasteful business - mostly in terms of time, but also in ideas. It takes years to get used to it. I'm still adjusting.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Mind the Baby

This evening, I got round to watching Raising Hope, the comedy comedy from Greg Garcia, one of the guys behind My Name is Earl (which was a show that I liked very much). In fact, it's a cross between My Name is Earl and Raising Arizona. And it's funny. I can't fault the jokes and characters and the pace and the script and the direction and the casting. It's the set-up. In particular, it's the baby. The baby makes me worry.

Let me briefly explain. The set-up of the show, done brilliantly in the first ten minutes, is that a poor young guy, who wants a new challenge, sleeps with a girl who is then convicted of double murder and executed (which is funnier that it sounds). Before she is executed, she gives birth to a baby, who is then given to our hero to look after. He is totally unprepared for it, and his family tell him leave the baby at the fire station to be taken in, but he refuses. He's going to raise this baby. On hi own. And his family refuse to help or get drawn in.

And so we have a guy who doesn't know about car-seats, or nappies or anything to do with babies, trying to raise the baby by himself. The guy is great and good and kind and sensitive. And the baby is gorgeous. But the whole set-up puts me on edge. What is at stake in this story? Theoretically, it's a quest for our hero. But his quest depends on the well-being of a baby. And it makes me worry. And when I'm worrying, I'm not laughing.

I'm sure this is because I have a toddler and a baby of my own, and I'm such a wuss, my heart goes out to any little child on the TV. But there's nothing I can do about this instinctive reaction. I'm unable to enjoy this show. I wish it well. God bless it, and all who buy the boxed set. But, unfortunately, I'm out. (which is fine, really. I have about 17 eps of Modern Family on my Sky+ box. But we'll leave that for another post.)

Monday 6 December 2010

The Tricky Fifth Episode

Last night, BBC7 broadcast Episode 5 of Series 2 of Hut 33. It's called Getting Heavy and the official blurb said:
Hut 33's record is the worst in the complex. Charles is mortified with shame, Archie is desperate to prove himself and Gordon wants to impress a girl he has just met. They break into Hut 7b to get extra information on a message they are decoding, which turns out not to be a good idea.

Getting Heavy was easily the mot difficult episode to write of that series. And it happens every series I've ever done. You write episodes 1 and 2 fairly slowly, as you're just character's voices into your head and feeling your way. Then episodes 3 and 4 are written in fairly good time, as the ideas are flowing and the characters are talking. Then comes Episode 5, which is like pulling teeth. It takes lots of drafts and just doesn't want to settle down - leaving you about a week to write Episode 6.

One of the problems for me is that with episode 5, I start writing the script before the story outline is in place. Flush with the 'success' of writing episodes 3 and 4 quickly and con brio, the temptation is to dive in to writing dialogue when the plot doesn't actually work. There's also the desire to save time and cut corners - but this normally backfires and I often end up deleting pages and pages of dialogue.

I'm aware that others write differently from me. One writer I spoke to the other day, who writes a much loved Radio 4 series, starts with a couple of slightly garbled pages of an outline and then writes a very very long script before he starts cutting and redrafting. I tend to start with a fairly long and detailed outline with some key jokes and bits of dialogue in it, so the process of actually starting to write the script isn't too painful. Sometimes, I abandon the ending and come up with a better one en route. But I have to start with something in place.

So Getting Heavy was one of those tricky ones that took six full drafts to crack. It was only in the fifth draft that I deleted a whole plot strand about radioactivity, which is was one of the reasons I wanted to do an episode in the first place. It thought it would be funny if our characters not really understanding Uranium, touching some and then being bundled in a van and taken off to some secret facility where they would be tested, poked and prodded. There was even a part where they thought they might have special super-powers as a result of the exposure to radiation based on Gordon's comic. This sounds rather preposterous but let's not forget that in 1941, not an awful lot was widely known about radiation. The first H-Bomb was still to be invented. In the end, we had a Quarantine episode in a different show, so the idea of being sealed off was covered in the series.

What I was able to retain, however, was the rivalry about sex-lives between Archie and Charles - and then Gordon. Archie is full of bravado, but short on delivery. Charles is aloof and unimpressed by innuendo, but has finally given into Mrs Best's pestering. Then step forward Gordon, who becomes the star of this show. Once he finds his woman, loses his virginity - he thinks - he becomes a man.

Two parallels spring to mind. One is Arnold Rimmer's alter-ego in Red Dwarf who is known as Ace - and says 'Smoke me a kipper. I'll be back for breakfast' played by the splendid Chris Barrie (who, let's not forget was also Brittas in the hugely popular Brittas Empire). The other is Harry Enfield's whining Kevin character, the teenager who hangs around with Kevin and complains about everything. He radically transforms once he's had sex, becoming polite to his parents and very contented.

Then, of course, comes undoing this transformation since one of the rules of sitcom is that they end up back where they started (unlike in movies where characters are changed by their 'journey').

The Views of the Author
I should add that I don't share this view about losing one's virginity. It doesn't 'make you a man' or turn you into a contented polite person. We're back to the theme of myself as the writer having different views from the characters that I write. I hope, if anything, that this episode demonstrates that the hypocrisy and lying that goes on around sex is rather feeble and very pervasive.

And let's be honest about this. There was War on and people weren't sure when their time was up. So there was a lot of it about. In Hut 33, I was hoping, where possible, to painting a picture of Wartime Britain as it was rather than how we would chose to remember it. If there's no truth in a show, it's just jokes and won't last. If there's no jokes, well, that's another story...

Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Monopoly on Comedy - and Character

Episode 3 of Hut 33 is called ‘Yellow’ (at time of writing being here). And it starts with one my favourite scenes of the series. It throws the character into a simple game of Monopoly.

Our regular three characters, Archie, Gordon and Charles, plus Mrs Best, play this relatively new game and it should be no big deal. But it’s a great opportunity to express character, prejudice, snobbery and general anger. It was useful to the plot of that episode because it highlighted what a terrible Christmas they were having. And therefore the prospect of having to spend New Year’s Eve together in Quarantine would simply too much to bear. (This is what happens by the way. They are Quarantined with suspected Yellow Fever, which gives rise to tunnelling and escape plans.) In the first scene, though, the game of monopoly turns into a large political dispute about the ownership of property which was true to the characters. And the audience seemed to enjoy it – because they were starting to know the characters as well as I did.

In essence, one of the main tricks of sitcom is taking characters out of their comfort zone – without it seeming contrived or ridiculous. (It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve been successful in that.)

Mistakes in Writing Sitcom
Along the way, then, we can note that this is an area where many first-time writers fall down. New writers are tempted to make their characters sit around and say ‘funny things’ rather than get up, move around and ‘be’ funny. Witty characters swapping jokes and witticisms is okay for three pages – Hut 33 attempts to have our characters in the Hut for the first three or four pages talking about stuff to set up the episode and reintroduce the characters – but it doesn’t sustain for forty pages, which is what you need. Plus, they're not swapping straight jokes but revealing amusing character traits.

It's a good test of how well you know your characters. When I was setting up Think the Unthinkable, I tried to work out what sort of coffee each of the characters would order at Starbucks. I didn't actually have them order coffee in Starbucks until Series 3, I think, but you need to know everything about your characters, or at least be able to work it out. Where do they shop? What newspaper do the read, if any? How would they go about organising a hen/stage night? What would happen if they woke up in Narnia or Alice's Wonderland?

This is why my current practice is to think up storylines quite early in setting up a new sitcom. Once I have my characters in some rough shape or another - sometimes it only needs three adjectives - it's worth thinking up scenarios, scenes and sketches, and then combining these characters with other characters in the show. After some time spend doing this, one often finds that one character has nothing to say, or little to add, or just isn't very funny. This character is normally expendable. If your show is focussed around this character, you've got a problem (and no show).

Ban Backstory
Doing this also avoids falling into the trap of backstory and background which is often irrelevant. You have no hope of conveying in a script and is therefore pointless. Characters need to be straining forwards, not harking back (unless their main characteristic is being nostalgic/reactionary). Remember, what did Geraldine do before she became the Vicar of Dibley? We don't know. We never really find out. Only very late on do we meet one or two people from her past. What drives our characters forward in any given situation? That's what we all need to know for all our characters.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

A Busload of Quakers

‘Pigs n Spivs’ is the title of Ep 2 of series 2 of Hut 33 (now on iPlayer here) I'm not convinced this is the best title,since it implies that there is more than one pig and one spiv in the episode, when there isn’t. There is one spiv who sells our starving codebreakers a job-lot of bacon. Which is still in pig form. Unfortunately, they discover the origins of this pig and could be in serious trouble.

The difficulty in writing Hut 33 is always finding our characters things to do that the audience can understand, since they don't really have a hope of comprehending the actual codebreaking part of their work. I've read several books on the subject and I struggle to retain the necessary information in my head simultaneously to put it all together. The chance of doing this and getting laughs is almost impossible. Episodes about codebreaking in Hut 33 are fairly rare.

This is why the theme of Pigs and Spivs is shortages and hunger. It's something that we can all identify with and get our heads around. Food was in short supply for the whole war and an unpleasant reality for all but the wealthiest. World War Two ration were meagre. Most of us today could eat their weekly ration in a day. So it's good to keep coming back to that.

Quakers, Baptists and Jokes

There is one other point of minor interest on this episode. Hopefully my explanation of it will give a small insight into how you sometimes make a joke fit the context. I spotted a comment on someone’s blog about Hut 33. (Clearly during the original Radio 4 transmission of Hut 33, I’m regularly googled ‘Hut 33’ in order to find out what people think of it). This blogger, a wife of a Baptist minister, blogged about her irritation that the writer of Hut 33 seemed ignorant of certain religious groups and their drinking habits. This is particularly poignant as I am not ignorant of certain religious groups, since I cheerfully belong to one myself (yes, I'm a Christian. There. I've said it) and I studied theology at University, so I know a bit about all this stuff.

The joke in question is Archie’s joke in response to his discovery that the pub has completely run out of alcohol. He says “So we’re now standing in the world’s first teetotal pub. We expecting a bus-load of Quakers?”

The audience, as I hope, laughed at this joke. But, in a sense they were wrong to. The blog pointed out that it is Methodists that refrain from drinking, not Quakers. I knew that. Honestly, I did. But I chose Quakers for the joke because I knew it would work. Why?

Shared Knowledge
Comedy relies on shared knowledge and simplicity. If the audience have to think about a joke for too long, or are unsure about any part of it, they can’t laugh. And they don’t laugh. Simplicity and clarity is everything. This partly explains why people get upset about stereotypes. They are a reality in comedy because it relies about compressing information and leaving plenty of things unsaid. (eg. Cab drivers are racist. Builders are Polish. Rich people are dim. In fact, when one breaks a stereotype, that in itself can be the starting point for a sitcom eg. one of the first women vicars in The Vicar of Dibley. The joke was, at the start, 'it's a woman! And not a man! You know, like a normal vicar would be.' I over-simplify naturally. But that's stereotyping for you.)

In this case, I chose Quakers because I’m not sure how widely know it is that its Methodists don’t drink. It’s also the case that many Baptists don’t drink either. How widely known is that? Less so now than before. I judged that the audience would have no problem believing that Quakers don’t drink – partly because in my mind there seems to be some kind of overlap between Quakers, Puritans and the Amish, at least in terms of their public perception. In reality there are vast differences between these groups of Christian believers. The puritans in particular were a remarkable bunch of Christian folk who were nothing like the the adjective named after them - 'puritanical'.

Returning to the joke in question, we have to bear in min that this was a joke for 2008. So I chose Quaker. Even though the joke is set in 1941, when the vast majority would have been clear that Methodists don’t drink.

Add to the equation the fact that characters are the creations of writers – and do not represent the views of the writer, or share their factual knowledge. So Archie, Charles and the team, and especially Josh, say plenty of things that are wrong, or grammatically incorrect. They hold religious, social and political views that I do not. It seems obvious to point this out, but occasionally one needs to.

Incidentally, the Quaker website says:

One testimony that Quakers have had to give careful thought to is our testimony on moderation. In the nineteenth century Quakers saw the bad effects that drink and drunkenness had in society. Along with other Non-conformist Christians they campaigned against alcohol. Many Quakers were active in the Temperance Movement - a movement of people who "took the pledge" (promising that they would never drink alcohol) as a witness against the evils it caused.

So I wasn't that far off anyway, was I?

The tricky part is where joke reinforce stereotypes that are unfair, oppressive or nasty. There, my friends, we have to use a thing called judgement. And then your producer will probably thumb through the BBC Producers Handbook Guide (Vols 1-9) and then just delete the joke.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Guardian Guidelines

Sitcomgeek is pleased to have written for an institution as august as The Guardian - in the Guidelines section here. It's a breezy and facetious piece about the recipe for sitcom success including the following:

"Writing a sitcom is a black art. Like baking. But without scales. And in the dark. You do what you can, put it in the oven and hope to hell that it rises. If it doesn't, it will invariably be dreadful."

If you've just found this blog because of The Guardian article, hello. This is a blog about mainly British situation comedy - the nitty gritty and the tricks of the trade. The author's credentials are to your right. The idea is to keep things friendly. It's best not to assume that if something is popular that it is bad. Likewise, niche comedy isn't necessarily superior. Horses for courses. Don't be sneery.

You can follow sitcomgeek on Twitter here, which will keep you posted on new articles here, and developments in the British sitcom world. In the meantime, have a look around.

Monday 8 November 2010

The Inspector Episode

For a while, I wrote a blog about my radio sitcom, Hut 33. There is an blog post on there that pertains to this week's episode of Hut 33 that was on BBC7 on Sunday (and on iPlayer here). Here it is (with a few tweaks and changes).

The Royal Visitor - the blurb for Episode 1 of Series 2 of Hut 33 is as follows:
A royal visitor is coming to inspect Bletchley Park, but the top brass are worried that this particular royal is a Nazi sympathiser. Hut 33 has to delay him and make sure he doesn't see any of the code-breaking machines.

Since this blog is about the boring mechanics of situation comedy, allow me to fill you in on how and why this episode came together without, hopefully, deconstructing the whole thing into a joyless series of components - although if I do that, so be it.

The Inspection Episode
The 'inspection' episode is common sit-com device and also a very useful one. Characters are sent rushing around getting things ready. Cleaning, polishing and tidying. In the process, skeletons can be found in cupboards, difficult tasks can be comically compressed and plenty of dirt can be swept under the carpet. See the effect of the Inspector in JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls in which the presence and prospect of an Inspector causes lives to unravel.

Another advantage of the 'Inspector' episode its simplicity. Simplicity is everything in comedy, especially in half-hour sit-com. If the audience is confused, even slightly, they can't laugh. In that sense, sit-com is contrived reality, over-simplified and sign-posted. The audience is normally happy with this because they understand the genre and that real life is more complicated. The trick is, within the contrived situation, to make the plot and events seem as organic and uncontrived as possible. We start with something believable, and through a series of believable steps end up somewhere original and bizarre, so we're left thinking 'How on earth did we get here?'!

Inspections are a reality of life - audits, royal visitors, tax men - so we have a believable, clear goal that we can all understand - everything has to be ready for the inspector or special visitor. It's a variation on 'The Boss Comes to Dinner' episode that's common to many domestic sitcoms.

The Twist
The trick of sitcom, then, is to take a familiar situation and push it further, into unfamiliar areas, involving characters that we are familiar with. As you would expect, World War Two threw up plenty of these. And so when I came to consider the inspection episode, I tried to think of what the twist would be. As the blurb of the show suggests (so I'm not spoiling it) what if the Royal visitor cannot be trusted?

This taps into the very real concerns during the war that some members of the aristocracy could not be trusted and were well-known for Fascist sympathies. It is a running theme of the series - partly embodied in the character of Professor Charles Gardiner. As a well-connected Oxford professor, he moves in elevated circles and was friendly before the war with high-ranking Nazis and sympathised with some of their views. Every episode, Archie normally makes jokes implying that Charles played some kind of sport with a prominent Nazi. And Charles has to concede that he was friendly with the Von Ribbentrops, the Rommels and even Mussolini.

And so as I was thinking about which Royal visitor, real or imagined, could visit Hut 33, I stumbled across Prince George, Duke of Kent. If you read up on the man, you will see that he was a very worrying figure for the British Establishment. Given the extraordinarily secret nature of the work at Bletchley Park, the Prince's visit would have to be frustrated in some way. If news of the breaking of Enigma was leaked back to Germany, it would have proved disastrous for the Allies.

German High Command had no idea that the British were reading their messages so a hint to that effect would have been catastrophic for Bletchley. 1941 was a difficult year for the Allies. Britain stood alone against Germany and was on the verge of starvation. The convoys in the Atlantic bringing food and supplies from America were a lifeline. This, then, gives an intensity to the story that hopefully makes it play and gives good motivations for our regular characters who are instrumental in keeping the prince away from the code-breaking machinery.

Hopefully, this creates a twist on the Inspection episode. Our characters frantically prepare for a Royal visitor, making easy-to-understand displays so that the inspection will explain exactly what they do at Bletchley Park, giving our characters a clear and comprehensible focus for their activities in which the comedy can play out. But when it is discovered which member of the Royal Family is coming, they have to frantic undo everthing and obscure that they are doing at Bletchley.

Guest Star
Fans of Radioactive, KYTV and Trevor's World of Sport will recognise the voice of the Prince. He is wonderfully played by Michael Fenton Stevens (who also played alongside Robert Bathurst (Charles) in My Dad's the Prime Minister).

Thursday 28 October 2010

Escaping Our Certain Fates

I was in a meeting recently when someone who makes more money than me told me not to be cynical, and to hold fast to original ideas and not make my ideas fit into holes that I may have perceived commissioners and controllers think they have in their schedules. It is infuriating to be told this - not least because they were right and one needs to hear this now and then. Even though holding to an artistic vision or a central idea doesn't put shoes on the feet of your children, it is ultimately all writers really have.

I shouldn't have needed to be have been reminded of this since I'd just finished reading Stewart Lee's fascinating and splendid book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate. Lee is rightly held in high regard by comedians, writers and industry folk. He shames many of us by refusing to compromise on his artistic endeavours and the way he would like to do stand-up comedy. The problem is that the way he would like to do it is not the way it is conventionally done - and furthermore, it is not to everyone's taste.

The book is an encouraging story of how a comedian can build up a following and become commercially viable through creativity, persistence and bloody-mindedness. But this comes at a cost personally and financially. The big bucks are to be made in The Hammersmith Apollos all over the country. It seems unlikely that Lee would play the Apollo five nights in a row - or even one night. (He may be able to fill the place, but I'm not sure he would be interested in playing a space which lacks intimacy - unless he was in some way able to turn it into a big joke that ultimately the audience would have been better off not coming and waiting for the DVD, since that would probably feel more personal that sitting six hundred yards away from a man with a microphone.)

Despite his frosty on-stage persona, and air of pretention and disappointment - which he admits is a blurring of an onstage persona and an offstage personality (although I've met him a couple of times and found him to be thoroughly polite and courteous), the book shows the humanity of the man - and a comedian who thinks deeply about his act. He is not motivated by money, although is rightly peeved when he is treated unjustly in the realm of finance. Lee does not really crave the adulation of an audience - highlighting dry patches in his shows which are intentionally joke-free. No-one can accusing of being a crowd-pleaser. He seems, at best, uninterested in the opinions of critics, and sometimes sympathises with their frustrations at his material or shows. He doesn't even seem that bothered by the opinions of other comedians, by whom he is very well-respected (in turn pays homage to others he considers greater or more pure than he). What comes across is that the only person he is seeking to satisfy creatively is himself. And it turns out that he is very hard to please.

We can all learn from this. Stewart Lee keeps pushing himself to find new ways of performing, new routines, turns of phrase and ways of managing audience expectation. I regularly write - and watch - comedy that feels rough, drafty and, at best, sufficient.

We are all in awe of Stewart Lee because he has very high standards. And we know that if we were to have such standards, and cling to our original comic visions, we might be less popular or make less money. When this impacts on spouses and children, it can seem indulgent, but we have to find ways to keep going, keep writing and creating worlds that we want to inhabit, or else, why bother? We'd probably make more money doing something else.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Strange Times for BBC

We live in strange times.

Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a long speech about various austerity mesaures, cuts and savings that the government was making. In it, he announced that the Licence Fee would be frozen for six years. What a curious thing to do. Lumping in the cost of a TV Licence with this Spending Review is a serious category error and demonstrates how utterly muddled the thinking is in government about the BBC, government, broadcasting and what the whole thing is for.

Undoubtedly, the TV Licence is a weird anomaly that's a throwback to a past age - like MCC or John McCrirrick. But, unlike John McCrirrick, it is a nice anomaly that most people are prepared to live with.

Comedy writers have to pay close attention to the fortunes of BBC, sadly, since it spends more on comedy than all of the other channels combined. (I've just made this statistic up. I'm not a journalist so that's okay.) It's good to see that Sky are spending serious money on comedy, but when BBC sneezes, we all catch a cold, and then whine about it, although to be fair, we were probably whining already. So I merely mention all of this since it should be of interest to all of us.

Let us leave aside threats about paying for the free licences for the over 75s aside (the irony being that the over 75s are the greatest consumers of TV. And yet are least served by the BBC who, like all the media, are obsessed with the under 30s.)

It seems particularly odd that BBC is now expected to fund the World Service itself. All £340 million of it. No-one outside of Britain pays a licence fee. BBC has no contract with the people of Uganda or Java. There is no doubt that the World Service is a truly wonderful thing that that undoubtedly makes the world a better place. I regularly download their documentaries as podcasts. But BBC itself has no incentive to provide this service. If I were Mark Thompson, I would simply announce that on Jan 1st, The World Service Will End. He won't do this, of course. But he should.

In order to save that money, BBC will probably insist on making the same number of programmes for slightly less money. The good programmes and the bad ones. Already underpaid broadcast assistants and runners will get even less. Creativity will be curbed. Ambition for interesting television will be tempered. And anyone earning over £250,000 a year will no doubt take a long hard look at whether they should really collect their whole bonus this year.

The fact is that BBC could make some very easy cuts that no-one would miss - and do a deal with the private sector at the same time. BBC's daytime schedule, and some of the evening schedule that resemble daytime programmes, is almost totally pointless. A couple of days ago, BBC broadcast the following gems on one day: Cash in the Attic; Bargain Hunt; Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is; Flog it; Escape to the Country; Instant Restaurant; Cowboy Trap; Animal Park; Snog Marry Avoid; Don’t Tell the Bride; Traffic Cops; Homes Under the Hammer. This is six hours of television that do not education, inform or entertain. Why does BBC make them? Given that it's almost impossible to legally make an hour of broadcast television for less than £50k an hour, there's £300k right there spend on lousy TV that is cheerfully produced by the private sector on other channels. In one day. Over one year, that's approximately £109 million or 203JBs (JB = Jana Bennetts). And we've not even touched Doctors or the importing of Diagnosis Murder.

Would we really be so impoverished as a nation if we did not have all these cheaply-made, hopelessly contrived, idiotically conceived, falsely-jeopardied moving pictures? Especially given that they are available on commercial channels, and therefore being paid for by advertisers?

If you really can’t live without Homes Under the Hammer, why not just sit in a branch of Foxtons for half an hour at no expense to the licence fee or the taxpayer? The characters are much more amusingly grotesque, better looking and they might even give you a bottle of mineral water. You may be talked buying a three-bed semi in Deptford but that’s all part of the interactive element.

Instead of these programmes, BBC could broadcast the wonderfully educational, informative and entertaining programmes that it does make and systematically hides on BBC4. Or documentaries by David Attenborough. Or costume dramas. Or just dramas (remember them?). Six hours of decent TV from the millions of hours of archives stretching back decades

If repeat fees were too high, pages of Ceefax could be broadcast. Or BBC Online. Or a picture of Tess Daly. Or simply a succession of suggestions like 'Have you tried reading a book by PG Wodehouse? They're an easy read. Go on.' or 'Isn't it time you put up those shelves?' or 'Have you thought about watching Channel 4? It's where we got half our daytime formats anyway.'

Or they could leave the screens blank and broadcast the truly wonderful, rich and cost-effective BBC World Service. Made for us. And then shared with the world. Just a thought.

Wednesday 20 October 2010


Last night I got round to watching another episode of Whites. I watched the first episode a while ago. Then downloaded another on iPlayer which expired before I got a chance to see it. Then last night I watched Episode 4.

What I like about Whites is that I believe it. It feels like a real kitchen and that the characters really are who they say they are - even though they are all very familiar faces. One could argue they are too familiar. But then who wouldn't want Alan Davies, Darren Boyd and Katherine Parkinson in their sitcom? They are fine comedy actors - as are the others. But let's be honest: it's a non-audience show, shot on location, so there's no excuse for it not being believable, although it does happen occasionally.

If you read the last post on this blog, it wouldn't surprise you to learn that overall, I didn't really go for Whites. It didn't make my wife laugh at all, although I chuckled on a number of occasions. But Whites is part of this enormous raft of non-audience comedy programmes that have been broadcast recently - Rev, Him and Her, Grandma's House, Roger and Val and now Whites. All of these shows are all good in their way, although not all to my taste.

But the fact that they are non-audience seems to provide some kind of safety net. Because they are well-shot and directed, filmed on locations and played out like dramas, with jokes in them at various intervals (you be the judge of how often), they don't make one cringe in a way that an audience comedy can. If one took the last five audience comedies and compared them, the failure rate would be much higher, certainly in the opinion of our beloved critics. But the hits would also register higher too, I think.

The believability issue is crucial. Sometimes audience comedies shot in studios with contructed sets just aren't believable, parodied rather brutally (and unfairly) in When the Whistle Blows (why does Gervais do this? Anyone?) But, as I often point out, if the jokes are there and done in the right way by the right character, the audience don't care. They know that the IT department in the IT Crowd isn't real. But they don't care because they love Moss and Roy and Jen. When they do believe the situation and premise and you have great characters and jokes like in the Office, you have the makings of a real hit on your hands. When the jokes misfire and we don't take the characters to our hearts, it's like watching a car crash. Strangely, it's hard to spot this in the studio, where there is a closeness and a bonhomie that gives you little indication of whether you have a hit on your hands or not. It's only when you sit down at home, and the show starts up and you watch your work that you have any indication of whether the show will be a success.

The fact that the show was non-audience meant they could get away with the fact that Episode 4 was the 'Health and Safety Inspector' episode. It's surprising that given the characters and calibre of actor that the Inspector Card needs to be played quite so early in the game. I have to admit I was disappointed by this - even though cleanliness is obviously a critical facet of the kitchen's operation. But in this instance, there was a decent pay-off, in someone pretending to have Parkinson's in front of someone who's dad has actually Parkinson's is pleasingly morbidly funny.

My final comment is on the creative choice of the show at the start with the central character. Kitchens are famously hot and angry places. Celebrity chefs are famously monstrous. I understand why Whites has decided to subvert this in order to be creatively more interesting and surprising. But it may have been funnier to have had a total monster since they are funnier and can be very interesting. (See also Gordon Ramsay, Gregory House MD and Brian Clough...)

I'd be interested to hear the thoughts of others on this show.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Panel Games and Sitcoms

It was Gore Vidal, apparently, who said ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. One has to admire his honesty. He went even further. He also said ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

It’s hard to work in the comedy in Britain without feeling like things are a competition. In a sense they are. Comedy budgets are limited. I follow Chortle and all those news feeds as much as the next paranoid writer, and whenever I see a sitcom commissioned that is nothing to do with me (which is virtually all of them) part of me feels a pang of envy.

But it’s a rare feeling these days, since I often see a newsflash entitled ‘New show for [insert name of comedian here]’, click on the link and discover it’s another new panel game. My reaction in that situation is the opposite to the feeling above. I always think ‘Oh, what a shame. They should have given him a sitcom.’ The first time I experienced this feeling, it took me by surprise and I realised that my gut reaction to panel game is general disinterest.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this surprise (keeping up?). With the exception of Have I Got News For You?, I gave up watching panel games a few years ago. Even though QI regularly contains comedians I like very much, I’ll only watch it if it’s on. And nothing else gets a look in. Mock the Week, Eight out of Ten Cats, this new one with highly talented Rhod Gilbert, Genius with the lovely Dave Gorman and that one on Dave with Marcus Brigstocke, who's great – I just don’t watch these shows. Occasionally it feels like there’s no British comedy on, especially audience comedy with lots of jokes in. There is – they’re almost all panel games.

So, what’s wrong with panel games?

Nothing, really. They’re often very jolly. But to me they’re just strings of jokes. Jokes without context. Some would argue ‘Jokes? What’s not to like?’ Granted, some of my favourite comedians, like Milton Jones or Tim Vine, tell jokes without much in the way of context (that’s the impression that’s given. In fact, both Jones and Vine skillfully and subtley create the right atmosphere for their jokes – with stage presence, stage craft and other jokes).

It’s context and most of all character that makes jokes particularly funny. To take the most overplayed example, a man falling over is quite funny. Del Boy trying to look cool and yuppyish, standing next to Trigger, falling through the bar, is much funnier. Characters have stories and lives of their own. Every decent joke counts double or triple when a character says it – and even more so when they say it at a funny point in a funny story. The funniest moments of our lives are not telling to jokes to each other, but moments that we can’t describe to anyone else because ‘you had to be there’. Sitcoms, at their best, create those moments.

Panel games are like bags of chips – a guilty pleasure that satisfy a basic craving, but don’t really enrich your life like a nourishing meal.

So why are you bringing this up?
I mention this because I’ve been thinking about ‘jokey’ comedy at lot recently. I’ve been trying to write one. A few, in fact. But one in particular which is in the Black Books/Father Ted territory – a genre of sitcom which is immensely popular, partly because almost all of it seems to be written by Graham Linehan, who's toner cartridge I am not worthy to replace.

Certainly, Linehan’s work is very inspiring, but I arrived at the Father Ted party very late. I completely missed it when it arrived on our screens in 1995. I’m not sure why. It’s only in the last five years that I really caught up – and I’m still not sure I’ve seen every episode. Bizarrely, I did latch on to his much overlooked work on BBC2, Hippies with Simon Pegg (whatever happened to him?). When the series first aired, I wasn’t wild about it. But I watched some repeats a few years later and really enjoyed the show (especially the episode involving the court case).

But my original inspiration was an equally forgotten show from 1993 – Mr Don and Mr George, a show I have referred to in the past. It is full of superb jokes, clever routines and wonderful silliness. Even a few catchphrases. You can watch the whole lot on 4oD on Youtube. I thoroughly recommend it.

And yet, Mr Don and Mr George was not a success. It’s largely forgotten. (It has arguably done better than Linehan and Matthews’ first sitcom from the following year, Paris, starring Alexei Sayle and Neil Morrissey. As far as the internet is concerned, this show does not exist. I’d love to see it – and I’d love to know what Mr Linehan learned from the experience, given that it’s been hit after hit since then). But I have been thinking about why Mr Don and Mr George was not a success – and Father Ted was – so I can learn the right lesson from this.

I think the reason is this: Mr Don and Mr George had tons of wonderful jokes – like any old panel game – but we don’t quite care about the characters enough. It’s a weird relationship and the characters don’t really have any context, and so the jokes are floating in the air. Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that the characters sprung from a sketch show.

Whereas we believe in Father Ted and Father Dougal. We believed they existed and we wanted them to succeed, whereas I think we were just curious about Don and George. We also cared about Bernard Black (I still do). And we care about Moss – even though we know almost nothing about him.

The thing to learn, I think, is that it’s not just about the jokes (stupid). It’s about who says them, how and why and whether it matters.

What is frustrating is that at the moment, we have panel games on the one hand, and non-audience character comedies on the other. The former are stuffed with jokes and one-liners, the latter sparsely sprinkled with them.

It’s as if British writers are convinced that single-camera non-audience shouldn’t have jokes in them but be all character (Tina Fey would show that this isn’t the case) Roger and Val is obviously the most extreme example. Again, I stress that that many people liked Roger and Val. And lots of people say nice things about Him and Her, which is not to my taste. But I find it puzzling when one reads comments like those by Claire Webb in the Radio Times who says that Him and Her is ‘Masterfully scripted and short on laughs’ and ‘more Beckett play than the zany fare you might expect from a BBC3 sitcom’. Yes, she did say that the script was masterful. And didn't have enough laughs in it. And yes, she did use the word ‘zany’.

Him and Her and programmes like that are fine. But I like stuff in the middle – audience comedy with proper jokes in proper characterful context. But it seems like this stuff is very carefully rationed. Why? 6 Miranda’s a year and 6 IT Crowd's every 18 months is not enough for me. And QI and Mock the Week aren’t filling the gap.

Monday 4 October 2010

Downton Abbey

Okay, so Downton Abbey is not exactly a comedy or a sitcom, and therefore has no place in this blog - but in my defence, I will say this: I laughed more at Downton Abbey than I did at Roger and Val Have Just Got In so it counts. (Please don't mishear me. I don't mean to say that Roger and Val is no good. I can't tell if it's any good or not. I don't get it.)

But it's worth pausing for a moment to examine a decent programme like Downton Abbey and ask ourselves 'Why is it good?' Undoubtedly the cast have to take some of the credit. They are all superb, from The Dame, through Bonneville and Wilton (national treasures both) all the way to Lesley 'Mrs Pants' Nichol, the Head Cook. The show is well shot and well directed. Classy and traditional, but not twee - at least not to my taste.

The real star is the script, by Julian Fellowes. Granted, this feels like something of a rewrite of (and improvement on) his rather fine Gosford Park - a movie nearly single-handed ruined by the presence of Stephen Fry. Downton Abbey are some great jokes - mostly spewed from the caustic mouth of the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith), who cuts people down to size and does not suffer fools, but who is also on the receiving end from time to time. Comedically, the show is exactly as funny as it intends to be.

The show is also well-paced and moves along fast enough to keep things interesting, but not so fast that we have no clue what is going on. Because of this, there is no need for clunky expositions, or restatements of the plot (eg New Tricks, which often assumes that you falll asleep for 12-15 minutes somewhere in the middle, which, sadly, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy).

But the main thing I take away from the show is that every line counts, and every scene matters. If something is shown, it isn't said. If catch a glimpse of something, it has consequences. Unless Mr Fellowes has a supernatural ability, I would imagine this take weeks of plotting, replotting, sketching, redrafting and bellowing at flipcharts and post-it notes.

And herein lies the lesson, I think. There's nothing in Downton Abbey that makes me, as a writer, think 'That is genius! How clever! I could never have thought of that!' The show is not a genre-buster or completely new approach. It's Upstairs Downstairs on a decent budget. It is a historical/costume drama with a few decent jokes. The characters feel real and talk like consistent real people. The situations are interesting. It's just the application of skill, energy and time to the task and making it not just half-decent but just right.

Friday 10 September 2010

The Most Successful Makers of Comedy in the UK

I was talking to some comedy writers last night - and we were thinking about why we liked BBC4 so much - the comedy, the documentaries and everything else. We thought it might be because the budgets are so small that anyone making a show isn't doing it for the money, but for the sheer love of it. People with passion are making TV they are passionate about, and figuring out a way of putting it on the screen. Their documentaries are superb for that reason - full of content, and people telling you stuff, rather than atmos, filler and 'coming up later, I'll be telling you about something juicy'.

And think about BBC4's sitcom output for a moment: The Thick of It, Lead Balloon, Getting On, The Great Outdoors. Throw in Screenwipe, We Need Answers and the delightful Diary of a Nobody, The Alan Clarke Diaries and Micromen it's rapidly looking like BBC4 is the HBO of British television. Has BBC4 had any out-and-out comedy failures? There were some shows that weren't to my personal taste, but there has been nothing out there that's really been bad, has there?

BBC4: The HBO of Britain. I salute you. (And it is really true your comedy budget has now been slashed to zero? Clever. With no budget at all, the quality should go through the roof!)

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Characters and Stories

I'm going to spoil a book for you. An expensive one. That Robert McKee book called Story, which is now an astonishing £19.99 in paperback. In paperback. That said, we tend not prize that which has cost us nothing - so you'll ignore what I say when I summarise the book. McKee argues (I seem to remember) that story is character. Character is story. Characters only exists in stories. Stories are only meaningful with characters. You get the idea. What's the plot of your film, sitcom, or novel? Well, who are the characters and what are they trying to do? Story and Character are two sides of the same coin.

It's extremely easy to forget this, especially when coming up with ideas for a new sitcom. Whenever I read treatments for new shows by new writers - and look back at my old ones when I was 'new' - I often see this being forgotten or ignored.

Most comedy writers know that sitcom is about memorable characters. But often, much light and heat is generated explaining who the character is and where they have come from - their likes and dislikes. Often, these get very nuanced and contradictory. I always cringe when a character outline contains the words 'sometimes' or 'occasionally'. Sitcom characters don't do things occasionally. They either do them all the time. Or never. Or for a funny or compelling reason.

Here is what I mean. This is a sitcom I've just invented in the last 30 seconds. It's called The Greasy Pole.

Sally is a business woman who is trying to be a success, but it's not as easy as she thought it would be. She used to work for the local council, but she was frustrated that it was slow and bureaucratic. Then one day, she met a business guru who changed her life and told her that she could be anything she wanted to be. So she bought a power suit, got a loan from the bank and started her own business - a shop selling stationery. After all, everyone needs stationery, don't they? But her life is made even harder by the shop assistant, Pavlov, the Polish friend of a friend with bad English that she rashly hired because she felt sorry for him...

You get the idea. I had to stop there, as I was getting cross just writing it like that. The reality is that there could be a perfectly decent show in there (Miranda runs a shop) - and there was lots of detail, but we don't really know anything about Sally at all. Just what happened in the past. We're left asking the question 'Why?' an awful lot. The audience will be asking it all the time if they happen to tune in to episode 2, having missed the first one.

Characters need momentum - stories. They need quests and dreams. They need relationships. Why does anyone do anything? These are very basic questions about our very existence, but the sitcom-writer needs to address them.

When I was setting up my Radio 4 sitcom, Hut 33, I had to do this. The show is about a disparate bunch of people thrown together at Bletchley Park by the war. But where are they from? What drives them? Not exterior events in the war. Or even their roles within the war. It's about who there are and what they want: Charles is a snob who wants to preserve the pre-war status quo. He is into self-preservation, luxury and being seen to be right. Archie is an inverse-snob who wants to see the likes of Charles taken down a peg or two. Even though he's an academic hanging around with private school boys, he wants to preserve his working-class roots and embraces the language of Marxism. Gordon is a seventeen-year old who is trapped in the crossfire of Archie and Charles. He just wants everyone to be friends. And he wants to be taken seriously as a 'grown-up', and fit in, even though he is a teenager among men.

Once you have characters that have a forward momentum and attitudes, you can start to throw them into situations and see how they react - restrict their food, extend their working hours, drop a bomb on their hut or threaten them with a posting to the jungle, and see what happens. Ideally, they need to be the instigators of these things. Or the instigators of other stories, which are interrupted or modified by bombs or other circumstances beyond their control.

That's what I'm doing at the moment with a number of sitcom projects. I've assembled some characters, and given them trajectories, hopes and dreams - and am now seeing what happens when things go wrong, or unexpectedly right for the wrong reason. It's only when you start storylining that your find our whether you have workable, active characters - who are the authors of their own downfall.

Let's go back to Sally in The Greasy Pole? Why did she hire Pavlov? Is it because she can't say 'no' to anyone because she wants to be liked? (like Geraldine in Dibley)? Which means that all her plans to run a business are almost certainly doomed to comic failure? Why is she even running a shop? Is she trying to prove her husband/boyfriend/mother wrong - and she wants to be taken seriously? Is she really that insecure? (she could be) Is she just passionate about stationery? If so, why? Could it be something else she is passionate about that says something about her? Could it be a haberdashery, because she likes pretty things - because she is all about looking good, rather than being good, and she hired Pavlov because he's cheap (thus making Sally a bitch, which might be funny). What happens when her personal life gets in the way of her shop? How does she manage that? On what basis does she make those decisions?

The fact is that failure to do this makes the show impossible to write, because you don't know why your characters get up in the morning. Once you have living, breathing, thinking characters, they start talking to you. You hear voices in your head (in a good way) and they go off and do things. When that happens, despite what any psychiatrist might say, you are really onto something good.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Do People Really Talk Like That?

It's a question worth asking yourself all the time as you write. Do people really talk like that? There are plenty of moments where, if you're honest with yourself, someone has only really said something in a certain way in order to provide the set-up for a joke.

A stand-out example of this for me was the much un-loved Frank Skinner sit-com Shane. I watched an episode a year or so ago and rather enjoyed it. The only bit that diminished my enjoyment was that Frank Skinner had almost all of the jokes and that everyone else had feed-lines. On top of this, the feed lines didn't always sound right or natural, which telegraphed the fact that a joke was on the way and therefore spoiled the joke (and also made one aware that the whole programme is a conceit, which is not something you want to remind your audience of). Sometimes it's hard to avoid a clunky set-up line, especially when the joke you have in mind is a real cracker. But the skill of the writer is to make the dialogue sound real, or natural, or at least real enough.

When The Office came out, the critics and the industry went wild. Here was 'real' dialogue. This is true. The dialogue did sound real (although let's not forget that the character add times spoke directly to camera, in a documentary, and the they played fairly fast and loose with the docu-format).

The Office was truly brilliant as a non-audience show. (Critics then, bless them, returned to studio sitcoms and slammed them for being contrived or fake or silly, when, as I often say on this blog, the audience do realise it's a contrivance and they're okay with that). The Office, though, had an effect though on other writers, who wanted to write dialogue like the dialogue in The Office, and number of other shows, mostly forgotten, came and went that focussed on awkward silences and ennui. Spaced was another groundbreaking show that inspired another generation of writers, and created 'a way of talking'. Let's not forget Peep Show and The Thick of It.

Likewise, monstrously successful shows like Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld have almost created a 'way of talking' that really trips of the tongue and gives a show a feeling of pace. This is fine - if you're an American writer and writing for American audiences. But sometimes this kind of wise-cracking talking finds it way into British comedy.

The reason I mention this is because one or two shows recently - and the odd movie - have felt very unreal to me because of the dialogue and 'way of talking'. It's as if the writers were writing a show that were designed to sound like other shows. It's impossible to tell whether this is intentional - either because the writer in question is writing that way because he/she thinks the audience will like it, or because he/they likes it and it sounds good, or because he/we don't realise we're doing it.

The example that made me shout at my television the most was a movie on TV called Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel - directed by a good comedy director and had funny actors in it. But it felt like the script was half-way between Hitchhikers and Hot Fuzz. That sounds like a good place to be - but it was just that and only that. It was only influences. I didn't believe any of the characters, or the set-up - and this was highlighted by the fact that people in real life just don't talk like that. What's more, the Hot Fuzz area is dangerous because it is a movie heavily influenced by other movies.

Screenwriters need to know how real people talk and write concise and characterful dialogue in that style. If you spend your life watching movies and TV, and TV influenced by movies, and movies influenced by TV, you'll end up trapped in an unreal life that doesn't connect with reality. Decent writing is about truth. If there's no ring of truth - in situation, character or dialogue - it's just someone talking cliche's or secondhand speech. If you're doing that, stop writing now and get a part-time job, get married and have a child, go into politics or just do something that isn't about TV.

Grandma's House, Roger and Val Have Just Got In, The Great Outdoors, - three brand new BBC comedies inexplicably premiered over July/August - do not fall into this trap, I'm pleased to say. Nor did Rev earlier this summer. In all those programmes, the characters feel real - like they are based on truth, not based on something based on truth. And truth, not wisecracks or contrived 'sexual chemistry', ultimately, is what keeps people watching.

Friday 13 August 2010

Happy Tuesdays: Mr and Mrs Smith

I listened to Will Smith's Mr and Mrs Smith the other day - part of the Happy Tuesdays season of pilots on Radio 4. It was a show about a married couple undergoing counselling, and starred Will Smith and Sarah Hadland.

I rather liked it. In fact, I like it a lot.

Why? Here is one reason. There were lots of jokes in it - making me and the studio audience laugh. I like it when that happens. It seems strange to point this out, but there are some comedies out there with scant few jokes in, both on radio and television. It's not that these comedy have lots of jokes that are lame, or misfiring or don't work. It's just that there aren't any in the first place - and yet the show can still be billed as comedy. Which is odd.

If you follow me on Twitter (do so here), you will have seen my mild disappointment with Roger and Val Have Just Go In - which appeared to be a well-cast, well-directed comedy, but one without any jokes in. After 7 minutes, I tweeted that I would be requiring a joke soon. And after 15 minutes, I tweeted that I was going to bed. Which I did. My problem was not that the show wasn't any good. It's just that it wasn't trying to make me laugh out loud with jokes.

It struck me that this is tantamount to making pornography but not including any sex scenes. Now, one could argue that there are much subtler ways of creating the same erotic effect - and that the most sexually charged films do not need to contain sex or nudity but that's not the main reason people buy pornography, I don't think.

Lots of people have tweeted how marvellous they thought Roger and Val was, and that it was clever and subtle and warm et al. And that it was very funny and made them laugh out loud. So clearly, I have more mainstream preferences. (eg I'd take Seinfeld over Curb any day.) I'm pleased that the show is finding an audience, and that the BBC are not trying to sell a pup. They've made something that really connects with people. Well done, Beeb. I just wanted to laugh. And found the show wasn't interested in making me do so all that often. So I went to bed.

Mr and Mrs Smith, on the other, made me laugh out loud plenty of times. From the moment Will started quibbling about the cost of the session and the lost minutes, a refund, and then working it out on the calculator on his phone, I knew I was going to enjoy it.

But the show was more than a succession of jokes (as if that were easy to do anyway). The characters inter-played well - or at least disappointed each other again and again. The format of the characters explaining it, and cutting in to actually hear the event being explained, worked. It can be muddling, but I was never in doubt as to what I was listening to - which always fights comedy. (Confusion is the enemy) There were plenty of call-backs and running jokes too and overall it didn't feel like any lines were wasted. Every line delivered in terms of being a joke, revealing character or advancing the plot - and many did more than one of those things.

If I had one suggestion for the show, should it be commissioned for a thoroughly merited series, I would make a plea to warm up the central characters a little. This doesn't mean making them 'likeable', but making their failings and foibles more forgivable. Will Smith's character throughout the show was worried about getting back in time to see Avatar with his lifelong best friend. This was funny and he wouldn't give up on it, so provided a really good distraction and quest for him, that was fighting the romantic weekend at every turn. It's just his desire to sacrifice romance for his friend seemed a little unreasonable and hard to forgive. It might have been better if these was some extra reason why he had to see Avatar with his friend on that particular day - something stemming back to a poignant moment in childhood or adolescence. It could have served the plot well in demonstrating how Will's character is unable or unwilling to let go of the uncomplicated life of being a single man. I'd also say that his job as a would-be novelist is also a little self-indulgence and needs some sort of redemption.

But all of these changes are just a minor adjustment in detail and tone. There's a lovely show here that's properly funny. And it'll be even funnier if we care even more about Mr and Mrs Smith. More please, Radio 4.

Friday 6 August 2010

Less is More in The Great Outdoors

Comedy writing is hard. Sometimes it looks hard and complicated and watching it is intimidating. Non-audience shows particularly can be fast and complex, especially narrated ones (eg. Scrubs and Arrested Development) Plots interweave and we jump from place to place and scene to scene, often just for one single joke. The jokes are finely chiselled, the set-piece scenes well-choreographed and beautifully shot. And it looks difficult and expensive.

Comedy writing is also hard because it can look so easy - especially the comedy that's filmed in front of an audience, where the scenes are longer, the pace is a little slower and it looks a lot like people sitting around and talking. What's the problem?

I am reminded of that line in Seinfeld when George, with no writing experience, talks about writing their show about nothing and he says something along the lines of 'How hard can it be? We're talking about a sitcom here?' That is one of those jokes that funny for different people for different reasons. The audience laugh because George is being disparaging about the form of the show he is in. The writers are laughing because George has no idea how incredibly difficult writing a simple-looking sitcom really is.

I mention this because I've just seen the first two episodes of The Great Outdoors (ep 2 here) which has been tucked away on BBC Four as part of some Outdoors season. It's about a small and dysfunctional rambling club - and they go on a ramble. Each episode starts at the beginning of the walk - and they walk and talk and do stuff. Looks easy. That's why it's good. It's no effort to watch. On both occasions, the first time I looked at my watch out, at least 25 minutes had gone.

Now, why was I looking at my watch? It wasn't boredom. The writer in me was thinking 'how long have they got to wrap this story up'? What interests me is that they stories aren't really wrapped up at all. In one sense, it's because there's a series arc of sorts. But in another sense, it doesn't really matter anyway. Not in sitcoms. Writers, producers, exec producers and directors get into a real tangle over this and I often find myself alone on this one. 'The room' often says 'But what about the unpaid invoice?' or 'How do they get back to shore?' or 'If he breaks his arm, shouldn't we see him in a few weeks so that we know he's all better'. My response is usually along the lines of 'The audience won't care'. The neatness of the ending is often irrelevant. Apart from anything else the audience, yes the smart audience, realise it's a sitcom and that we start from the same position next week as we did this week. If the kitchen has been burned to the ground, it'll be as good as new - well, as good as last week - next week.

Sometimes, endings do matter. In films, the ending is everything - because the protagonists go on a journey. They learn. They change. They end up in a different place from where they started. But in sitcom, they don't learn, they don't change and the end up back where they started. Sitcoms are about the journey. Films are about the destination.

And so, when your hero triumphs or fails, the show is over. So end it. The moment your show has climaxed, and the big emotional moment has been done, you've got about ninety seconds to wrap it up before the audience is bored, looking at its watch and wondering what's on next. You can probably forget about you hero's parking ticket, or weight gain, or broken toe. You can certainly forget about the peripheral characters' destroyed briefcase, ruined party or misplaced visa. Because it's not about those things, and never was. The audience knows that all will be well - and should be back next week for the same again.

That's why I've been enjoying going on a journey with the ramblers in The Great Outdoors. What is the destination? I don't really care. I'm really enjoying the journey.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Passion, People and Money

One of the best articles I've read about how to make your way in the creative industries is by a banjo player called Danny Barnes. He has written a long piece about making a living through one's music here. It is well worth reading in full and translating to the craft of writing. Naturally, some of it doesn't apply, in particular the stuff about performing live and doing gigs. But the overall tone is interesting. It is laid-back, self-assured and calm. If I may paraphrase, his advice can be boiled down to this: Work out what your art is, and then pursue it. Make sure you work with good people. Get rid of bad people or phonies. If you can see trouble ahead, avoid it. Do your taxes properly. Get a job. And stop whining. It's not about you.

There is much to be learned from all of this. And my recent experiences have chimed with them too. Let's focus on three things. Passion, people and money.

1. Passion - it is essential to be passionate about your project, or story, or character. If you're not, writing it will be an impossibly hard slog. It's hard enough to write a half hour script of a sitcom you are completely in love with. To do that for a show that you're ambivalent about is soul-crushing. Passion is essential. Ditch the project and ideas that you're not passionate about. They might be good ideas, or clever ideas, or even original ideas, but don't bother with them. I remember once developing a sitcom idea into something that seemed original and possibly interesting for a TV Commissioner - but it didn't interest me at all. So I left it. Good move.

I was once asked to come up with a TV movie that fulfilled about seven different criteria for a notable transatlantic media company. I came up with one that ticked all of the boxes and was quite interesting, although the constraints of the media company limited it, I felt. Eventually I ended up on a conference call and we were all discussing an 8-page treatment of the idea, but eventually they said 'We're all about passion at [transatlantic media company]. We just don't feel you're passionate about this story'. This is both a dumb and a sensible thing to say. I wouldn't have come up with the idea without their preposterously long list of requirements. And yet there were right that I wasn't passionate about it. So it was best that we all walked away from it and, yet again, I had done days and days of work on the promise of money that never materialise but these things happen. It could have been worse. I could currently be banging my head against a wall trying to rewrite the third act of a TV movie I never really liked in the first place.

Passion is essential, or it's just too hard. Writing it is too hard, and getting through the commissioning process without sticking your head into a gas oven is impossible without passion.

2. The other thing I've been realising is how important it is to work with good people. In fact, if you work with good people, work barely seems like work at all. It's good fun. Plus these good people make your work better. It may mean having to turn down a better offer so that you can work with the people who really understand you and the project. It may just be walking away from people that you're just not at all excited about working with. These decisions normally prove to be the right ones to make. If at all possible, avoid working with people that get on your nerves, or just don't seem to get what you do.

3. Money follows (1) and (2). You need passion to get a project written and off the ground. You need good people to get the project to be any good. If what you do is any good, money will turn up sooner or later because most TV and the vast majority of movies aren't any good. The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write - like a decent word-processor, a chair and some drinkable coffee. So get passionate about that story, find the people to bring that story to life and sit down and write it.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Learning from Other Writers

A friend of mine has pointed me to a cracking website here chock full of mp3s containing lengthy interviews with serious Hollywood screenwriters - the sort of long drawn out chats that only people serious about screenwriting would be interested in. Fantastic. (especially when you get past the dire introductions).

Learning from other writers is really important, not so that you can emulate their work patterns or get depressed about how good at their job they are (or the opposite), but so that we can all be reassured that writing is a long, painful, wasteful process that we all thinking about giving up regularly. But then realise that we don't write because we can, or we should, but because we must. It's good to hear how entire storylines and scenes are dropped, endings changed and characters amplified or killed. Doing stuff like this is not failure but progress. And it takes such a long time to understand that a script is more like a owl of alphabet soup than a monolithic text chiselled in stone.

Saturday 17 July 2010

It's All in the Execution

... as Oliver Cromwell said to King Charles.

One of the things that I've noticed new and inexperienced writers suffer from is paranoia. They are almost all worried that their idea is going to be stolen, or their hot new script is going to be ripped off in some way. When I've been approached by friends of friends who want to write and send me scripts, they are often vary cagey, or explain that they have copyrighted them somehow, so there's no use me trying any funny business, or passing it to someone who might.
Now, one would have thought that a new writer would want his script read by as many people as possible. But the young writer is inexperienced - and with his new script, truly believes he/she has written something that has never been written before, or observed something and captured it in script-form for the first time.

Well, any seasoned writer would at least agree with the verse in the Bible which says "There is nothing new under the sun." We've all be there. We've mentioned our hot new show to someone, explained the premise and been told 'Oh, like that American show from the 1970s' or 'Like that play by Alan Bennett?' etc etc.

It's all been done before. All of it. From every angle. The only question a writer should really ask of himself is 'Can I write?' That precious first script is the beginnings of an answer.

Writing is not beavering for hours in order to crack a new formula, whereafter it writes itself. It's about making the old old stories fresh, new, current and original, when they are anything but that.

I mention this because Rob Long just did an excellent bit on idea theft that you can find here. Go and listen now.

Monday 12 July 2010

Missing the Point of IT

Comedy is huge business - and it always surprises me there isn't more of it on television. There is so little comedy now that every new episode of a show is hyped and picked over to an extraordinary degree.

And then newspapers runs bizarrely pointless pieces like this one in the Guardian. I don't know if it appeared in the print issue (I do hope they didn't waste their ink).

The IT Crowd
has NOTHING to do with IT. It has no more to do with IT, than Black Books had to do with books. Bernard's bookshop in Black Books simply couldn't exist - and doesn't really exist. The show is using a bookshop as a backdrop for beautiful and daft character comedy. Clearly, there are one or two bad old bookshops kicking around that are on the brink of bankruptcy, but to ask whether Black Books resembles a real book shop is to miss the point of the show. (I'm not sure what the point of Black Books is. I loved it and dearly wished there could be more episodes. They'd done all the hard work of setting up a show!)

Moss and Roy hardly ever do any IT work in The IT Crowd - and certainly most of it can't be done from the office they inhabit. In this latest series, they haven't ventured up to the office floor to fix anything (it's quite fun when they do that, since they're so out of place). Moreover, nor should they really do any real work either. Computers are boring on television because ultimately, computers are boring in real life. People are interesting.

I faced this problem writing Hut 33 for Radio 4 (which is not in the same league as IT Crowd, I hasten to add). The show is about codebreaking in Bletchley Park in World War Two. Stories about codes, mathematics and war were few and far between because they are such cold subjects, especially on the radio. Hut 33 is a class-warfare comedy. Archie is the rising socialist whose time is coming. Charles is the falling imperialist whose time is passing. Everyone else is stuck in the crossfire. As a result, Hut 33 is about as true to life in the huts as Allo Allo was to life in Occupied France. Just as the IT Crowd is as true to life as Black Books and Father Ted.

It's worth thinking this through if you're trying to write a new sitcom. The 'sit' of a show should not be where the comedy comes from. The 'sit' will give you a canvas on which to paint. It'll give you a stage which you can fill with walking, talking, thinking, shouting, crying characters. Your setting needs only be real enough to convince us that the characters are real. And if it's a studio show, the audience do know the situation isn't real anyway. They are not stupid or totally gullible. Sitcoms are preposterously contrived (something TV critics cannot get their heads around). But the audience will cheerfully suspend their disbelief if you, the writer of the sitcom, are able to help us forget the set and the 'sit' and give us a greater truth. And a good laugh.

Friday 9 July 2010

The Creative Process

Have a look at this. Look carefully - and work out which path you would travel!

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Some Wise Words for Sitcom Writers

Paul Mayhew-Archer knows a thing or two about sitcom, having written them (eg. Vicar of Dibley), script edited them (eg. My Hero), and produced them (eg. Old Harry's Game). He's written a little gem about sitcom-writing here which is tucked away on the BBC Writersroom website. Comedy writers old and new should read it - not just on the screen. Print it out and read it. I've just had a look and here's one point about characters that's well worth bearing in mind:

Give the central character relationships that bring out different aspects of his personality. For example Fawlty is subservient with Sybil but a cruel tyrant with Manuel. Blackadder is a crawler with the Queen but a sarcastic bully to Baldrick. The simplest way to do this is to put the characters in some form of hierarchy.

It's not just a question of having a consistent character - but having a blend of characters who bring out different aspects of each others' personality. It sounds complicated, and it is a bit. But if it's not in your sitcom at the start, it'll be very hard to work in later. Wise words.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Oh my Word...

As well as writing sitcom scripts, I do script editing, especially sketch shows. I usually enjoy this role, especially as it involves liaising with new writers and writers who are just starting out. When you read something good and/or original, it's great to be able to pass on good feedback and encourage people. I've had at least half a dozen people in the last couple of years in which I've been able to write emails along the lines of 'Well done, there's some brilliant, original comedy here. You're really hit the brief and surpassed it. Thank you. Keep going. You will succeed. etc'.

The downside of script editing is discovering how hopeless people are at using Word, and if often surprises me that calling people on this doesn't go down very well.

But I would say that if you are a writer, or want to be one, you need something to write on. That thing is usually Microsoft Word, unless you're writing feature films. You will spend thousands of hours of your life using Word, so why not try finding out how it actually works? So that you're not using the space bar so that things end up in the right place (this is roughly how my dad, a farmer his whole life, does his emails and documents)?

There is, I would like to argue, an onus on the writer to be able to use his tools effectively. Sit and play with it till you've figured it out. Go on a course. Actually buying Word in the first place might be a start. It's really not that expensive, and sending non-Word files looks pretty shonky, I'd say. If I, as a script editor, want to, er, edit, I have to unpick the document and reformat it myself, which often taking ages.

Is Word really all that hard to use? Are hanging indents really as baffling as some seem to suggest? Is the Page Break a thing of great mystery? If you spend a little time with Word, you'll discover it is a very powerful tool that can make your life easier. I have a number of templates set up that make it feel like Final Draft, so that you're typing names, which go straight to dialogue formats and back to names again. Time spent in the early days when you're time rich and cash poor will reap dividends.

And we can all be grateful that we never have to use a chain harrow, a combine harvester or a threshing machine.

Why I believe in Rev Adam Smallbone

I have to declare an interest here. I'm not involved in the show. But I do go to church. In fact, I'm on my local PCC. I like the Bible and all that. (In fact, I have a degree in Theology) And as a result of all this, I wasn't expecting to like Rev, the new comedy on BBC2 starring Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman. Usually, when sitcoms or TV shows in general are made about things you know about, you can bet they're get some basic things wrong and you'll never be able to forgive them.

I had heard that they had done their research, but I still wasn't convinced it would have the ring of truth about it - until I watched it. I was pleasantly surprised. And I believed it.

There are a number of good things to be said about Rev - and I'll say some of them in future postings. And one or two here. I was interested to read that almost no reviewer was prepared to say them. Most reviews I read said 'This seems okay' or that it could be a grower. I was saddened by a review in the Independent that said that you have to be very careful about making up your mind on a sitcom too early; not because sitcoms take time to appreciate, but because you don't want to look like an idiot in the future if you make up your mind too quickly, like his mate who slagged off Father Ted after one show. Most reviews for Rev that I've seen centre around spoiling the plot for you by telling you what happens, and whether it would happen in real life, rather than having a stab at why the show is actually rather good.

So here's the reason I'm most pleased with Rev. Our vicar is a believer. He really does believe in God. This sounds daft but it must have been so easy to have created an angry vicar who resents his life situation and wishes he'd never become a vicar in the first place. Or you have a type who would never have become a vicar in the first place. Instead, we have a vicar who wants to do the right thing, but the right thing isn't immediately obvious. Does he shunt some locals' wedding to please the local headmistress so the local MP can get his son into the school having made a hefty donation to fix the broken window? How does he know what to do? He takes a moment to himself in the church to think it through - it wasn't a funny scene, but it was an important one. He kind of prays. And it's not naff. It works. I was pleased.

There's another scene where he tenderly explains why he's not too worried about Richard Dawkins - and what he says has a ring of truth to it, and isn't a simplistic answer that makes us think less of him. Ultimately, I believe in Rev Adam Smallbone. I believe he is a vicar, with a real faith, albeit fuzzy at times. And I believe that this job of being vicar is not really the job he signed up to do. He finds himself being asked to do things - rather than being a pastor. And he doesn't quite know how to move forward. (The only bit I don't believe is telling those builders to f**k off. But I also don't belive builders would just openly laugh at a vicar like that - even if that bit is based on a true story).

The show reminded me of Lead Balloon. In fact, I preferred it to Lead Balloon, since I never really believed Jack Dee's character. But I mustn't say too much more in case the rest of the series isn't any good and I look like an idiot...