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...