Thursday 16 January 2014

Hell, no! That’s My Show!

Pic by marsmet473a via Flickr
So you’ve been slaving away on that sitcom script for months - maybe years – and lo and behold, there it is. On TV. Or spewing out of your radio. Starring Paul Whitehouse and Alison Steadman, or whoever. Someone’s beaten you to the punch with something similar to your ideas. They haven’t nicked it. They just got there first. You’re angry right now. I get that. Given your rage and disappointment, you will find this show to be inferior, flawed, stupid, badly made and unfunny.

Let me give you some time to grieve.

You done yet?

Okay. All is not lost. Well, it kind of is, but here’s the thing. And you’ll need to brace yourself because I need to let you in on a secret. Ready?

They were never going to make your show anyway. Not because it’s a bad idea. Or badly written. Although maybe it is a badly-written bad idea. Or a well-written bad idea. Or a badly-written good idea. Let us just remember hardly any pilot scripts actually get made. The BBC is sent thousands every year. As are independent production companies. Tens of thousands of students have graduated with BAs or MAs in screenwriting in the last few years alone. There are a lot of scripts out there.

And most of these scripts don’t get made. It’s nothing personal. Most of my pilot scripts haven’t been made – and most likely never will be, even though I’m one of the luck ones with a show currently on the telly. Paul Whitehouse probably has half a dozen scripts in his drawer or on hard drives that he spent weeks and months over, and they aren’t going to happen for a variety of reasons.

In short, there are lot of scripts around. Some get made. Most do not. The reason that your script won’t get made is for a variety of reasons, many of which are beyond your control. But here’s the main reason. Brace yourself again. You’re not going to like it. Ready:

Your script isn’t actually that good. Again, it’s nothing personal. It’s just that  most scripts aren’t all that good. Including my own. Especially if it’s an unproduced first draft or pilot episode. There’s no point getting grand about this. I’ve got Hemingway on my side who says ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Hemingway wrote first drafts like the rest of us. And he thought his were shit.

Brace Yourself One Last Time
The experience of seeing your idea done by someone else is painful, but not uncommon. And these other people who’ve stolen a march may be better connected and more experienced and the whole thing seems desperately unfair.

But Hemingway’s still here and he’s telling you to man up. He might have morphed into Ron Swanson. I can’t quite tell. Either way, we all need to realise that if we’re aspiring to have our work on national TV or Radio, we are in with the big boys. If you have a show that you think is perfect for BBC2 but you’re competing for budgets and airtime with Paul Whitehouse, Armando Iannucci, Sue Perkins, Jo Brand, Mitchell and Webb and all those people who are funny and talented. They are also well-connected – as you’d expect given they’ve all be really funny in public for over a decade.

This can be hard to accept, not least because the BBC, the internet and our culture in general like to give the impression that writing is something that everyone can have a go at. How hard can it be? (Ans: unimaginably hard) Everyone’s got a novel in them, haven’t they? (Ans: No) What have you got to lose? (And: Hours and hours when you could be watching your kids grow up). And yet, everyone likes the idea that they’ve got a realistic crack at a slot on primetime television.

Victory is Possible
The fact is you do have a realistic crack at a slot of primetime television. You just need to bang out about 6000 words on a word-processor. The choice and order of those words takes time, passion, experience, heart, tears, soul and pain. And that’s just for the first draft and we already know about that. But it can be done.

As for that script you’ve already written, let’s think about some positive ways forward.

Are your Shows really the same?
What’s your show about – and what’s the show that’s already on telly about? Are they really about the same thing? The setting may be superficial in either show. Both shows are set in, say, a betting shop. But is your show really about gambling? It’s shouldn’t be. It could be about a gambler, which is not quite the same, but don’t let your show be about abstract nouns.

Maybe your show is about an optimist/ Or a dreamer. Or a brother and a sister. Or a stage of life. Could the characters that embody this meet in a universal location, like a pub? Or a flat? Does it really have to be set where it is? It could be moveable. And moving it might be the best thing you ever did.

Room for Two
But then again, your show might be a masterful blend of character, situation and story, making a melange that can’t be moved or changed. But it might feel sufficiently different from the other show so the similarity not to be a problem. Right now, the BBC have two sitcoms set in schools (Bad Education and Big School). It also has a drama called Waterloo Road. And it’s not a problem. They appeal to different audiences. So there may be hope.

And the BBC is not the only game in town. We currently have more channels  buying original comedy than ever before – BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, ITV1, ITV2, Channel 4, E4, Sky1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Dave, UK Gold and Comedy Central. That’s 14 channels. Plus Radio 4, which makes more hours of original comedy than those 14 channels combined. And Radio 2. And then there’s that internet with YouTube and podcasting.

As a rule, if you want to be a writer, I wouldn’t get distracted making it yourself for the internet, unless the idea really lends itself to that medium. What you have in your is already worth something. Your script. Remember it’s yours. Make it work for you.

Make your Script work for You
The fact is that if you send our your script to producers and it’s any good – any good – they’ll phone you back. They’ll want to meet. Writing sitcom is really really hard. It’s black magic and anyone who shows any sign of being able to pull a rabbit out of a hat, dead or alive (the rabbit that is), will attract some interest. And so:

Don’t think of your script as a show that never happened, but a sample that shows what you can. Send it out and you might get invited to write on shows that are already on TV. Or types of TV or media that you hadn’t considered writing for that your end up enjoying and your get paid. Or it leads to constructive meetings where make fruitful relationships and learn key bits of information so you know what project to write next and that this is untapped area that might appeal to a particular rising star that this producer has access to.


So, someone else is making your show. It’s a bummer. But it happens. It could be worse. You could have been cursed to do work that takes place exclusively outdoors. Or been forced to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Speaking of which, Hemingway’s back and he’s got one last thing to say. “You know what makes a good loser? Practice.” I don’t know what he means by that, but it sounds deep. And I’m sure as hell not going to argue with him.