Monday 25 July 2011

Write You Write Upon a Star

Ok, that title doesn't really make sense. It's late. Cut me some slack. Anyway,on with the blog.

Over the last few years, I've had the chance to work on my own shows, where I came up with the original ideas (eg Hut 33, Think the Unthinkable). I've also worked on shows like My Hero and My Family, which were long-running, established shows with a clear separation between cast and writers. But I've also worked on shows that are 'vehicles' for other people. Happily, that vehicle has proved not to be a hearse in the case of Miranda Hart and Milton Jones. (Given my success with 'Mi's, maybe I should try and work with Micky Flanagan.)

So how does writing in this situation work - when you are non-performing writer, and the writer/performer star of the show is in the room? Maybe a few words of advice jump out at me.

Firstly, remember you are not the most important person in the room. The reason the show exists is because of 10-30 years work of building up a persona/character that someone else has put in. In my case with Milton Jones, for example, I began working with him in 2003 on The House of Milton Jones. He had won Perrier Best Newcomer in 1996 and been nominated for a Sony Award for The Very World of Milton Jones. When I sit in a room with Milton, and David the Producer, it is obvious who the most replaceable person in the room is.

But this is not about status. This is about trusting the star to know what works for them. Before I worked with Miranda on her Radio 2 sitcom, she had done dozens of different stage shows, and 'been' Miranda hundreds of times in various media, and therefore has a very strong sense of what is likely to be funny for her and what won't fly. Sometimes, it can be explained. Often, it's just instinctive. In the past, I've found myself arguing a joke to Milton saying 'It's the same structure as that other joke you do' and Milton calmly and graciously says that he's not crazy about it, and I retreat. Ultimately the star will win the battle off what ends up in the script, since their name is in the title, they're in front of the crowd and the lights. And if they're heart is not in the joke, they won't make it work anyway.

Sometimes, it works the other way - in that you toss in an idea, the star thinks its hilarious, and you can't quite work out why or how. And then they do it on the night - and it's hilarious. They make it work. Whichever way it works out, remember they get the blame if it goes wrong. Nobody really watches the credits. The only people who care who 'wrote it' are other writers, and that's so they can say '[sigh] Why didn't they ask me?'

The point is the star has a nose for what works for them and what doesn't. So embrace that reality, rather than fight it. If they don't like the joke or scene or idea, drop it.

Your Perspective
But the flipside of this is to not be too intimidated. You have a perspective on the show that is genuinely valuable and necessary - purely by dint of not being the star. And what's more, they hired you so they must care what you think just a bit.

The fact is that you don't see the show through the eyes of the performer but more through the eyes of the audience, which is helpful. You're also not seeing things through the eyes of the producer, who's not just looking at the show, but dozens of other things off camera. So you can spot things that might not work or not make sense or would be better done another way or a different order. Exploit that perspective to make the show better - probably in ways that will never be noticed or fully appreciated.

Your job is to help the star to shine - and this will happen best if all the characters, scenes and jokes are firing on all cylinders. You're a wing man. No, not a wing man. You're a mechanic tinkering with the engine and sending the star out in the car for lap after lap. And yes, the one in the car gets most of the money, all the applause and has to hold up that dreadful trophy that looks like it was designed by a man going through a mid-life crisis. But... I can't remember where this metaphor's going on.

The point is they're the star and you're not. So get over it. And it you don't like it, go off and write your own show. And then in 10-30 years time, you'll know what it's like to be pestered by snarky know-all sitcom-geeks who don't get what you're trying to do. Easy.

Sunday 17 July 2011

What's It All About?

A while ago, I was asked to write a slightly tongue-in-cheek article about the ingredients of a successful sitcom. The result of that is here. In short, a successful sitcoms needs characters, conflict, confinement and catastrophe. Crucial to success is also casting. And a catchphrase is nice too, if you can bear it.

I'm happy to stand by this. It is true. And it's possible to have a perfectly good and successful sitcom with those ingredients.

But a great sitcom has another ingredient. It's a certain je ne sais quoi. Or a certain something, as the French say. The show needs a philosophy, an attitude or a stance. It needs to capture something about the human condition, or the times in which we live. These are the shows we still want to watch on Dave or UK Gold. The hairstyles may date, and the cultural reference points change, but the show says something.

So What?
I've been thinking about this recently as I've been doodling on a few new ideas for sitcoms, and thinking of characters that seem interesting and funny, and scenarios and situations that feel fresh and fertile. But I keep asking myself the question 'So what?' It's a good question to keep asking yourself because somewhere along the line, someone is going to ask you that question - a comedy executive or a commissioner. They ask questions like 'Why would I watch this show?' or 'What's this show really about?' There's no point getting cross or rolling your eyes. They may not know why they're asking that question. They may have read in a manual that it's a good question to ask that sounds plausible. Or they may realise that good shows are about something.

The Office
The Office was about funny characters, and had good stories, conflict, confinement and all that. It was very recognisable and felt fresh. But it felt like it was about something. About being trapped in a dead-end job and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Or about the lunatics surrounding you. Tim (Martin Freeman) was really the eye of the story and one sensed that he could see his life and chance of happiness slipping through his fingers. It infused every episode. And when Tim did something about it, and finally said something to Dawn, and David Brent himself seemed to change after the love of a good women, the show was, essentially, over.

Just Jokes
If you've only got jokes, you ride or fall by every joke. And when the jokes misfire, as they will surely do now and then, the audience may realise there's nothing underneath, and that the whole thing is artifice. They already know it is, and are willing to suspend their disbelief - because a really good show is about more than characters and jokes. Look at the great sitcoms, and you'll see they're not just confined characters coping with catastrophes: Only Fools and Horses, Yes Minister, The Good Life, Steptoe, One Foot in the Grave, Dad's Army, Reggie Perrin. The list goes on and on. Great shows that said something, and still say somthing.

Friends isn't about Friends
One of the most successful shows of recent times is Friends, which is a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right. It's about six friends. That's it. Well, not quite. The creators of the show spotted there was a strange post-college, pre-family time of life when twenty-somethings relied on friends and hung out with each other, and were wanting to form close-knit groups that functioned like families. They were right. The show captures that, without ever saying it. They also thought that Monica and Joey would be the 'hot couple' for the show, which shows they didn't get everything right.

But you don't need to get everything right at first. You start with a fairly good idea of where the show is and what it's about, and with a bit of luck, an open mind, a good cast and following wind, you might just make a great show.

Hut 33
It is clearly absurd to make a leap to this largely ignored radio sitcom what I wrote, but I can only speak from experience. When I had the idea of setting a sitcom in Bletchley Park during World War Two, it would have been easy to have written a show about boffin odd-balls like Alan Turing doing daft things. Like a 1940s Big Bang Theory. But I felt that would become fairly tiresome fairly soon. And so I wondered about other themes that emerged during World War Two - and remembered my wife telling me that one of the main reasons for social reform after the war was how our nation were forced to work alongside each other, rich alongside poor, elites alongside outcasts. And both sides were pretty appalled.

And so I wondered whether throwing two characters together from different ends of the spectrum could work. Hey presto, we have a posh, highly-educated, elitist Oxford Professor (Robert Bathurst), and a self-taught, working class, Marxist Geordie (Tom Goodman-Hill) Both saw the world through completely different eyes. And both were right. And both were wrong. And it made writing the show a lot easier than writing Enigma jokes. After all, did you hear the one about the German and the Enigma Machine? Me neither.