Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Pressure of Perfectly Paced Plotting

BBC Radio 7 has been repeating Series 1 of Cabin Pressure - which I completely missed the first time round. I caught one or two episodes of Series 2, and enjoyed it, but am pleased to have heard almost all of the the first series. It's lovely show with an admirably small number of characters, as the title suggests - pressured relationships in one cabin of one aeroplane.

There's just a 1st Officer we know should be the Captain, but is a bit of a rogue; a Captain who's a bit uptight; the owner who's the headmistress kicking her boys into shape; and her son, the air steward who is breathtakingly dim (played by the show's writer, John Finnemore - who's a fine comedy actor as well as a superb writer. Yes another reason to dislike the thoroughly pleasant man.) There are more details about the show here and here.

In some senses, the central relationship, between first officer and captain functions a little like Wilson and Mainwaring in Dad's Army. I don't know if John Finnemore was, or even is, aware of this. Past shows influence all of us. When devising Hut 33, and created Charles and Archie, I realised I'd created a relationship akin to Glover and Figgis in Only When I Laugh. And pretty much every configuration of every relationship can be found in classic novels or Shakespeare. So this is not a criticism at all.

But it takes more than a central relationship for a show to succeed (unfortunately). In my last post, I wrote that it's important to do proper autopsies on sitcoms that die a painful death. Much can be learned. But one can also learn in an altogether more pleasurable - laughing hard at a decent show, and then thinking about it work so well.

I don't propose to list the virtues of the show. "I cannot find a single flaw in it. So top marks" said the Independent on Sunday. Praise indeed and well deserved. I've mentioned the characters. Oh, and there's the jokes. They're good. Properly funny. But the thing I'd like to praise Cabin Pressure for in particular is boringly technical - but this is a boringly technical blog. And frankly, if the boring mechanics don't work, you have a coughing and spluttering sitcom. After all, an Alfa Romeo may be fun now and then, but it's not got the boring mechanics to get you very far. Boring mechanics are only ever notable by their absence.

So here it is: the show is perfectly paced. There is exactly the right amount of story and plot to give the characters room to bounce off each other to maximum comic effect. There's not too much frantic running around at the end, ploddy bits of exposition or a mad dash to tie up loose ends in the last 90 seconds. That's what I find hardest to do in Hut 33 - but perhaps Mr Finnemore is reaping the benefits of having four regular characters (Hut 33 has six characters - and there is a war on). I'd be interested to know how Mr Finnemore does this - whether he spends a lot of time on the storylines so that they fit the show precisely, and unravel at exactly the right pace. This has the added benefit of increasing plausibility, which adds a health dose of 'this could really happen'. Which makes it funnier.

What are the temptations here, then? Why do some sitcoms often cram story in and become too frantic? It may be lack of confidence in the characters. It may be lack of confidence in one's own ability to write enough jokes. Much easier to blow up a car or lose a set of keys in the story to add extra frustation and 'mayhem'. But it may not make the show funnier. It may just make the show noisier. We can, I'm sure, think of examples in which that is the case. There are warning signs: If you find yourself typing the line "Wait a minute, there just one thing I don't understand" or "So the whole thing was covered by the insurance" or some other nebulous or unsatisfactory line. Plot is like marmite - best thinly spread.

But then, we can also watch an episode of Seinfeld and think 'How did they fit all those stories in 22 minutes?'

Sitcom is a dark art, a conjuring trick with no manual that requires hours of practice, the odd prayer - and even then one runs a serious risk of being pelted with fruit. Still, it beats real work. My dad was a farmer. I know what I'd rather be doing for living.


  1. It was interesting you found Cabin Pressure so enjoyable as it's one of two shows I mention to friends (Hut 33 being the other). My wife and I are so found of Hut 33 we came into London for a weekday taping during the last series. As we live on the Isle of Wight, our motivation to attend a taping of Hut 33 was quite high indeed. (To be honest, we were also looking forward to a meal at Won Kei.)

    Having been an airline pilot seemed to be a major reason for enjoying Cabin Pressure. However I was interested that you, as the writer of Hut 33, spoke so highly of Cabin Pressure. I've been thinking about the similarities between the two -- as a non-writer.

    Minka. Delightful character. The actress appears to be wonderful as well and we enjoyed her physical approach to her role during taping. She was spot-on when she activated her 'booby trap' in one episode.

    Minka is so clearly defined in an entertaining manner that I must admit there are times when things happen in day to day life, something clicks in my mind (or my wife's) and we 'know' how Minka would react or what she'd say. This can happen during a rather frustrating experience. Of course, Minka's reaction usually isn't the best choice for the situation, but I have a laugh, tension is released and the situation is better.

    But you were discussing Cabin Pressure. All four regular characters seem to be very tightly defined. In most any situation I'd have a very good idea of how each character would react.

    From personal experience I can say both pilots could have easily been based on real pilots. I've flown with both types although rarely to the extreme of those in Cabin Pressure (again, with exceptions).

    Mechanics? Perhaps I'd do better with a spanner and an Alfa Romeo than writing. I've been thinking about the mechanics of both shows for sometime and have only come up with what one hears in an introductory writing class.

    I wonder: If the characters are so strongly defined to where one could drop them into most any situation and one knows how they would react, does the writer need only to provide a suitable situation? Over simplified, I'm sure.

    For example in my mind I can drop Minka into the Waterloo rail station and have most trains canceled or indefinitely delayed due to the wrong kind of rain on the track. Add in the fact there is no train status information. In my imagination Minka's reaction, comments, etc leap forward.

    What about adding the Captain from Cabin Pressure as a traveling companion or fellow traveler who meet? I can imagine the two characters interacting with their different approaches.

    I expect one could also insert either Josh from Hut 33 or the steward from Cabin Pressure and they would, quite naturally, make some helpful comments.

    But alas, that's not mechanics. It's just a situation that came to mind while attempting to compare the mechanics of both shows. I suspect it's best for me to return to a subject I'm knowledgeable about. Which I shall do once I discover what it is.

  2. The only thing wrong with Hut 33 is that relentless signature tune between every scene (expletives withheld by superhuman effort). It's a perfectly good sig tune, but let's just hear it at the beginning and the end please, that's enough. If Cabin Pressure has any sig tune between scenes, I haven't noticed it, which is how incidental music should be. Looking forward to the next series of both anyway :)

  3. I'd like to read a bit more detail about the technicalities of pacing, actually. I love Cabin Pressure but mostly for the towering, dry as a Salvation Army meeting in the desert performances by Roger Allam as Douglas. Without the character or the actor the show would be so much less.