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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi James,

    Off to my pitch meeting now, I'll let you know how I get on.