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.