Wednesday 29 May 2013

Those Idiots! What do they know?

Today, we celebrate the day that this memo was sent:
From: Comedy Script Editor, Light Entertainment, TelevisionRoom No. & Building: 4009 TCTel. Ext.: 2900date: 29.5.1974.
I'm afraid I thought this one as dire as its title. 
It's a kind of "Prince of Denmark" of the hotel world. A collection of cliches and stock characters which I can't see being anything but a disaster. 
(Signed, 'I.M.')
(Ian Main)
Pic by Sean MacEntee via Flickr
This memo is, obviously, immensely enjoyable. It makes one want to shout 'Ha! Flipping BBC! What do they know?! Idiots!'.

And it might make one also want to shout, 'And so when they say my script is a collection of cliches and stock characters, well, I can ignore them because they're a bunch of thundering plonkers.'

Careful now.

The 'Ian Main' who wrote the memo clearly doesn't like the script (or the title) and can't see it being anything other than a disaster. There are still plenty of Ian Main's around - and forever more shall be. This is frustrating eternal truth. Ian Main can't recognise a decent script and what turned out to be one of the most memorable British sitcoms of all time. Fact.

But let us not be too comforted by our joyful assertion that 'they know nothing'. This may be true of some script editors and development producers sometimes. But this does not necessarily mean our scripts are fine - or 40 pages of unrecognised genius.

We are not John Cleese.

Our rejected scripts are unlikely to be anywhere near as good as this one by John Cleese and Connie Booth. Bear in mind this memo is written in 1974. Cleese has just done four series of Monty Python, various TV shows like The Frost Report and radio shows like I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. The man could write. And so could Connie Booth, apparently. And Ian Main didn't like it.

The 'Ha! What do they know?!' is an easy comfort.  But it's a toxic one. Just like convincing yourself there's no way in because you weren't at the right university (like that clearly talentless John Cleese or those cretins he hung around with), or you don't have the right contacts to get programmes on TV. Ian Main's are prevalent. But not universal. My scripts can be good, but are frequently dreadful. And sometimes the feedback on good ones is bad, and on bad ones is good.

And no memo from 1974 changes this.

So get out that script and do it again.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Going Freelance

I've just listened to the latest UK Scriptwriters podcast from Danny Stack and Tim Clague. In it, they talk about going freelance and it's quite a common question. When/how can you turn professional as a writer? I thought I'd throw in my tuppence, experience and thoughts on this one, since my path has been different from Danny's and Tim's.

Writing as a full-time job didn't occur to me as an option until I was about to leave university in about 1997 - and even then I wasn't sure that writing full time for TV and Radio was even an option. It's crazy in hindsight since I'd been writing comedy sketches at school, and ran the university revue at Durham (having failed to get into Cambridge twice). In my gap year, I wrote a few scene of what I now realise is half way between fan-fiction and a spec script. It was Blackadder at the Battle of Hastings (in which Baldrick caused Edmund Blackadder to shoot the king in the eye. I was 18. Cut me some slack). Writing was clearly in my bones. On leaving uni, I half-heartedly applied for a few graduate jobs, but didn't get any. When I was asked by an advertising agency where I saw myself in five years time, I said 'Writing a sitcom for television'. I now realise that, although there are no right or wrong answers, that was the wrong answer.

Pic from Laineys Repertoire
Here's the clever thing I did. I moved to London and lived with a mate and paid the rate with a temp job. Genius. Because I can write, I can type fast. I also have a suit and am vaguely polite, and so a temping agency got me bits and bobs that paid a decent-ish hourly rate. A day or two here or there. Some weeks I worked four days, others one or none. On the days I didn't get paid work, I'd write, and be secretly relieved. And I said 'no' to anything permanent because I knew that once I was on a salary, it would be very difficult to give it up. And it was easy to say 'no' to those jobs because they were of no interest to me at all. The moment I stepped out of the office, I forget all about it (except for the characters I'd met and scenes I'd witnessed).

I did briefly try TV production, but rapidly found out that I'm not someone who likes running around finding props, getting supporting artists to sign bits of paper or driving people around. Making tea I was fine with. And I had the honour of making tea for the hilarious and delightful Iannucci, Schneider and Baynam et al on The Friday Night Armistice.

I think I lived on about £5000 in my first year in London (which was almost all through temping). But I knew that would happen, and I knew how to live on such a tiny amount of money because I'd just been a student. I didn't go on expensive holidays, or even cheap ones, and didn't spend £100s of pounds on booze (one advantage of being a Calvinist). My general theory was I was going to be a writer, it'd never be easier than that stage of life when I'd got loads of ideas and energy, very low living costs, no dependents or mouths to feed.

I started to write some sketches for Weekending on Radio 4 and The News Huddlines on Radio 2, with very mild success. I got some sketches on Smack the Pony (like dozens of other writers) and a joke or two on Rory Bremner. Then I co-wrote show that did well at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999 called Infinite Number of Monkeys. That helped get a sitcom on the radio, Think the Unthinkable and a sketch show, Concrete Cow - and suddenly I was earning survivable money through just writing. And then I got to write My Hero and My Family and suddenly I was half-decent money. Things have ebbed and flowed since then, but currently (ha ha) they are flowing.

Well, Lucky You
In many ways, I count myself lucky that I've never had a 'proper' job. I've scrapped and scraped by for long enough to mean that I've essentially made my living as writer. But as a writer of sitcom, I feel I've missed out on quite a few life experiences for not having had a job. I was raised on a farm and went to university and got married and have had two kids - and that's all good life experience. But an alternative career is not one of them. Many of the great sitcom writers did others jobs before turning to comedy and their writing is stronger for it.

So if you're in a salaried job right now - in the civil service, teaching or on an oil rig - you're picking up vital life experience that you can draw on for your whole career. It seems that David Croft got a sitcom out of every single stage of his pre-TV career. Good writing is truthful. And the more experiences you've had first-hand, the better.

If often say that writing, especially sitcom writing, is a marathon. Not a sprint. If you're able to have another career from your twenties 'til your late thirties and then start writing, you'll be good at it in your forties - and can write in all kinds of media 'til your seventies. That's still a long career as a writer.

So when do I go Freelance?
When you have to. When there's no alternative. When there's so much to write (that you're being paid for) and not enough time to write it with your current job. Don't quit a decent job if you're still starting out as a writer. It takes ages to get paid any serious amount of money for anything (which is why this is my most popular blog post). I could only manage it because I was a young, single man in his 20s with low overheads and cheap tastes.

When you're starting out, nobody will pay you to write anything. You need to prove yourself with a decent script. Ideally two. You're going to have to burn some midnight oil - or work 4 days a week. Or 3. There are ways of dipping your toe in, like taking a sabbatical or extended leave. Or writing between jobs. Or taking a career break. I have no idea how these things work, but I get the sense that things have never been more flexible in the work place.

A few other things to bear in mind. A writer is someone who writes. Plenty of people make a living through a combination of incomes, one of which is writing. Very few people make a living solely through writing - and I am fortunate that I'm quite good at something that is well paid. I'd be making a lot less money if I was equally good at writing poetry. But being full-time is obviously a good aim to have.

And a writer is someone who has to write. Not writing is simply not an option, so you find a way. You make it work. You're not in it for the money. You just need money to get by so you can write - because that's when you feel truly alive (and also frequently suicidal). If you're a writer, you'll find a way.

I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of all kinds of writer if you have a moment to leave a comment (and let me know if I've said anything idiotic or patronising).

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Interrogating Characters

One question I've been asked a few times is this kind of question: "How do you go about creating well-rounded characters? And at what point do you start writing them?" Good question. After all, sitcom is not really about situation but character.

Some might say that the character is everything and you should always start with the character. That’s fine – but sometimes the situation or idea comes first, and the characters second. Most sitcoms I’ve created or co-created did not start with the characters. For Bluestone 42, Richard Hurst and I were interested in soldiers generally, and then a Counter-IED team specifically before we had any particular characters in mind. So how do you go about filling your scenario with characters that are going to seem real, funny and give you lots of stories to tell?

There isn’t one particular way that I know. You can start with a name, a face, a type or – even an actor your like that you think is funny. You just need a starting point. They could be based on someone you know well. Or a friend of a friend you know a little bit. Or a fictional character-type – ie. a Macbeth or a Falstaff. It doesn’t matter what primes the pump. Just get it going.

You can spend lots of time thinking about background and backstory, but ultimately you need to know what gets them out of bed and doing stuff. What drives them? What do they want? And how does this differ from what they actually need?

Ask big questions of your characters. What is your character’s most prized possession? If your character was offered three wishes by a genie, what would they wish for? Who would your character most like to meet? What is their dream job? If they were Prime Minister for the day, what would they do? Where in the world would they most like to go? Working out the answers to these questions will help you work out what are the big themes and wants in your character’s life.

Don’t just think of big questions. Have big answers. Your characters should be big and bold. They don’t need to brash and shouty, but they do need to have a clear point of view and perspective. If you’re basing your character on someone you know well, you might be tempted to make you character too moderate. It may make your character more ‘realistic’, but will actually make your character less ‘real’. Sometimes I read outlines of characters and they say things like.
Matilda knows what she wants and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But sometimes she can be thoughtful and isn’t afraid to make herself vulnerable.
Who is Matilda? Who knows? I believe she exists, but I can’t write that character. I don’t know what she wants. In a sitcom, you need a character who is always too thoughtful and vulnerable – or never thoughtful and vulnerable. The audience need to know who your characters are, and what motivates them. Mixed motives and ambiguity will not help the comedy.

In a sense, you don’t actually want well-rounded characters. You want characters with a unique and consistent perspective – and permanent predictable goals.  Great comedy characters have that. You instinctively know how Edina from Ab Fab, or Captain Mainwairing or Victor Meldrew are going to react to any given situation.

Ultimately, keep asking questions of your characters until you feel you know them. Let’s work up a quick example:
Matilda is works in an office. She's very junior, being only 19. She's got a couple of A-Levels (both grade D) and she's keen to progress in the company.
Let's interrogate this character. Why does she want to progress? What motivates her? Does she want status and prestige? Does she want the money that goes with the job - and therefore the status of material goods? Is it a rivalry with someone else? Is she a monster? What company is she working for? Why that company? Does a relative work there who got her a junior job? Does the company do something that she despise? Why isn't she at university?
Matilda is works in an office. She's very junior, being only 19. She's got a couple of A-Levels (both grade D) and she's keen to progress in the company because can't go to university, mianly because she needs to look after her dad (there's no mum), and her little sister (who, frankly, is trouble).
So Matilda is the bread winner. Interesting, potentially. It makes us like her more, or at least have real sympathy for her. But we need to keep asking more and more questions. Is she happy about this 'having to work' thing? Does she relish the challenge? Or is she ill-suited to it and more of a home-maker? Does she aspire to be an entrepreneur? Is she a natural but can't make the leap? Or is she deluded in her aspiration?

In fact, is Matilda just being an entrepreneur from the start much more interesting? Is she too big for a small company? Sooner or later, you stop telling your characters what’s what, and realise they are telling you.

At that point, you’ve got a character.

Monday 20 May 2013

Planning Is Everything

Despite a huge 'writing industry' about how to be a professional writer - to which this blog is clearly contributing - notions about the romance of writing persist. These ideas hang around in movies too. On an edition of Scriptnotes I was listening to recently, John August and Craig Maizin were laughing at the cliche of a writer suddenly being inspired and running to his computer and typing and typing and smiling and typing and smiling.

They laughed because they are experienced and talented writers and it just doesn't ever happen like that.


And yet we are all in love with the idea that the muse strikes and the script writes itself. No matter how many times I've stared at a blank screen over the last fifteen years, I have never seen a script write itself. It's not an option on Final Draft or one of those document wizards on Microsoft Word (as suggested by this excellent Mitchell & Webb sketch).

Given this romantic view of writing - or a highly mechanised one - you can start to think that you're doing it wrong if you spend ages planning and planning and planning. Right now, Richard Hurst and I have the good fortune of being paid to write series 2 of Bluestone 42. We had more scripts commissioned some while back, before the series was commissioned and for months now, we've talked and researched and talked and plotted and planned and redrafted plans and treatments and outlines. We need six scripts by the middle of July, ideally.

And we have not written any of them yet.

We've got outlines and ideas and scene-by-scene outlines for most of them. But no documents that begin "Scene 1. Ext. Roadside. Day..." and run for forty pages with dialogue. So it would be easy to be very very concerned. I was concerned.

Sitcom Legend Alert
But on Saturday, I managed to meet one of my comedy heroes - Laurence Marks, one half of Marks and Gran who wrote The New Statesman, Birds of a Feather and Shine on Harvey Moon - to name the fraction of their work that I've actually seen. They also wrote Goodnight Sweetheart, which was a perfectly successful show, but I don't think I ever saw an episode.

I was heartened by something he said. He said they would usually spend at least 75% of their time planning an episode before writing the script. That's a lot of time not writing a script. In the past, people have marvelled that John Cleese and Connie Booth spend half their time writing Fawlty Towers working out the plots. This is probably a conservative estimate. But the point stands. It seems no coincidence to me that experienced writers advocate that Planning is Everything.

Too Soon
It's the easiest thing in the world to start writing a script - or a novel or even a sketch. But finishing one is much much harder. I've just made up this fact but 91% of all screenplays that are started are never finished. And the reason for this is often you've started writing too soon. Or just started by writing. You've got a great opening scene. You've set the scene. You've blown up a helicopter or whatever. You've grabbed our attention. But what is the story? Why am I going to spend 28 or 88 minutes watching this story? You need to know why before you start writing the beginning.

Who's got so much time on their hands they can afford to get half way through writing a script before realising it's not working and having to throw it away? This is time that could be spend eating, playing computer games or reading to your kids. It's a waste of time.

Occasionally, just writing without a plan a worthwhile exercise, especially early in the conception of s who so you can hear the voices of your characters. But I'd leave writing any actual script of an episode until you know how it ends. You'll think of a better ending as you write the script. But if you don't have any ending when you start writing, you almost certainly won't think of one.

That is why I really do think that planning is everything. But don't take my word for it. Laurence Marks says it.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

How Did This Rubbish Get On My TV?

"How Did This Rubbish Get On My TV?" Lots of people ask questions like this - especially of high profile sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience. Two big shiny news ones have just landed; ITV's Vicious and BBC1's The Wright Way. (The Job Lot is new too but is not, I understand, a studio audience sitcom). I have not seen either of these shows but my personal views on these show is irrelevant in answering the question. The question is here is finding the question behind the question which goes like this:
This show on my TV is self-evidently terrible and I hate it. I can hear people laughing like idiots. They are either certifiable idiots to laugh at the trash. Or the laughter is added afterwards because no-one laughed on the night. So why did they broadcast this? There are only two possible explanations. 1) Every single person in this process is talentless, from writer to commissioner. 2) Someone slept with a commissioner and that's how it got on.
Thinking along these lines is a lot of fun, of course. And if you're a journalist with no interest in accuracy about how the industry works, by all means perpetuate all of the above. The readers can't get enough of that stuff.

But if you're an aspiring writer, my advice is this: cut it out. This way of thinking gets you nowhere. It gets you about as far as assuming that because you didn't go to Cambridge, you don't stand a chance of making it in the world of comedy (which I wrote about here). Assuming a conspiracy or a closed shop is an emotional defence against failure. And nothing more. Choosing to believe these things will only harm you and prevent you from getting better.

Let's turn back to the shows in question. How on earth did the co-writer of The Young Ones, Blackadder and the perfectly successful Thin Blue Line get a sitcom onto BBC1? Oooh, tricky one. And let's not forget, the writer is a legendary stand-up, host of Saturday Live and The Man from Auntie. Now imagine you're running BBC1. You have limited money and slots for sitcoms. Now would you like a new sitcom by someone fairly new who's got an edgy idea that may or may not work, or one by Ben Elton starring David Haig that's set in a Health and Safety department of a Local Council. It's BBC1 remember? It's really not that hard to see why someone would give Ben Elton the benefit of the doubt. The same applies to Vicious, co-created by the executive producer of Will and Grace.

So why is the Show so Bad?
Maybe it isn't so bad. It's possible that it's a perfectly good show that you don't like. Maybe every single person is quite good at their job and they've produced a decent show that is not to your taste. It happens a lot. There is tons of award-winning well-made stuff that I don't want to watch because it's not to my taste (eg Mad Men, The Sopranos). There's also plenty of stuff that's not great but is perfectly watchable and the programme is not a crime against television.

But the reason it irks is because there's the sound of human laughter - which can be alienating and frustrating. Again, critics seem to fall into this trap with alarming regularity. The laughter recorded is real. Not canned. Some children's sitcoms have sprayed-on laughter because the process of making shows with child actors who can only work a certain number of hours means you can't film it in front of a studio audience. And playing it into an audience is also prohibitively expensive (because CBBC budgets are tiny. The magic those guys make with the money they get is truly astonishing).

The point is that the studio audience sitcom records the audience audible reaction and that makes viewing it at home slightly odd if you're not getting on with the show very well. Emotional thrillers do not have the sound of audience wailing and crying. Horror films don't have their audience screaming. But the effect would be the same. If you didn't find the scene moving or scary, the sound of sobs or screams might make you cross. (ok, that's an odd fictitious analogy)

Here's the Other Possibility
Maybe the show is not very good. The jokes aren't landing. The casting is wrong. The set looks weird. The theme tune is annoying. It feels like we've seen this kind of show before. Perfectly competent people - writers, directors, set designers and commissioners - have made some creative and artistic decisions that haven't really worked. Or conspired to produce something that clonks or honks.

It happens. Most novels are a bit rubbish. Most pop songs are trash. I'm sure Chopin wrote some pretty ordinary or forgettable mazurkas. But the nation's media didn't demand for the Chopin's paymaster to be sacked or question whether there were sexual favours involved in the commissioning of that truly pedestrian polonaise. You get the idea.

The fact is that making sitcom is hard, even when everyone knows what they're doing, or at least knows that nobody truly knows anything. And it's quite hard to tell when you actually have a show on your hands until it's all cut together, polished and broadcast and you sit at home and watch the show on your own TV. And even then it's too early to tell.

"How Did This Rubbish Get On My TV?" Not because they have contempt for their audience or commissioners are being blackmailed. This show is on TV because they thought it would be funny. And some people agree with them. And some people don't. There really is nothing more to it.

So what's the lesson here?
If you're trying to write a sitcom, observe that the process is incredibly difficult and involves skills, experience and luck, even for people who are extremely funny and know what they're doing. And all you can do is make your script as good as it can be. So do that. And then do it again. And again. Until it's your turn for your show to be scrutinised by Twitter and AA Gill.