Tuesday 13 May 2014

Let's Talk About Money

We are the warriors.

We’ve seen terrible things.

We’ve developed iron discipline, ruthlessly suppressing our emotions and impulses in order to survive the cut and thrust of the brutal onslaughts that come for us. We are the unsalaried.

(Game of Thrones reference? No? Please yourselves.)

Being a freelance writer is tough. Being a freelance anything is hard enough, with all its variables and uncertainties. But scraping a living with your jokes, word power and/or storytelling ability is doubly difficult.

Now, even though professional writers talk about little else, I don’t write about money very much, partly because I do okay, having worked in television and radio for at least a decade and lived off the proceeds. Also, writing is an impossibly luxurious thing to have time to do, let alone be paid for it. I’m never sure the casual reader has any sympathy for us literary types. My father was a farmer all his life and in all previous generations that would have been my lot. So I’m just happy to have a job that takes place indoors.

I have written about money before, like back in 2010 where I wrote, with unusual clarity:
“The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write - like a decent word-processor, a chair and some drinkable coffee.”
So why now?
The incentive to think about this again came from Robert McCrum’s interesting article in The Guardian about the troubled times that novelists now face – or at least a reversion to the norm now the fat-cheque feeding-frenzy has subsided.

Do we feel sympathy for literary novelists? Well, a bit. Someone enjoys those books. (Rarely me, sadly). But I can imagine the frustration. It’s very annoying to be part of an industry where the only person who’s actually creating the work is the only person who’s being chronically underpaid. (I wrote about this in another post in 2011, which is my third most popular blog posts, mainly because of the Harlan Ellison clip at the bottom, which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.)

Writers aren’t interested in money. They’re interested in writing. And the biggest frustration is that everyone’s getting paid but the writer. The only way to make a living in the media is to not be a writer. If you want to work with stories for goodness sake don’t write one. It’s financial madness. The only jobs that make financial sense are all the salaried ones surrounding the writers. Be an editor. Or an agent. Or be on staff at a literary festival. If you want to work in TV, work in 'development' on 'formats'. And become an executive. Whatever you do, don’t write. You probably can’t afford it.

Coming soon from Piqwiq
I think writing books is even more ruinous than writing TV or Radio, although maybe that’s just my own experience. A few years ago, I wrote a novel called Crossword Ends in Violence (5), a comedy thriller about crosswords, D-Day, codes, chess and Bletchley Park. It’s sort of Robert-Harris-meets-Terry-Pratchett.

The novel took me about six months to write, spread out over a two year period. On an average wage, that’s about £12k of labour (ignoring the fact I have a degree, live in Hammersmith etc etc). My agent – who is experienced and works for a good agency, especially for books - was unable to find a publisher. Apparently it's neither a comedy nor historical fiction and therefore unpublishable. You can't do both. There is no market for funny history, which is odd given Blackadder, Horrible Histories, Monty Python, Dad's Army - and my own Radio 4 sitcom Hut 33 about code breakers and Bletchley Park. Still that's what they said.

Do I regret writing the novel? Not entirely. I wrote the novel because I wanted to. I had to. And now I’ve got the chance to do something interesting with it – which is e-publish it for Kindle via Piqwiq. (Available soon).

Working for Free
Writers are often happy to work for free. I write this blog and get almost nothing out of it financially. It helps me organize my thoughts, establish a reputation and plug the occasional book I wrote once in a blue moon. The fact is that I love writing about writing. It’s a heck of a lot easier than writing situation comedy, which is what I’m paid to write.

But my decision to work for free is my choice. Being asked to do so, especially by someone on a salary, is infuriating. Writers hate it when, as is so often the case, they are the only person in the room not being paid for the thing they do, especially when the only reason everyone’s there is because the writer has written something. Joanna Harris has written about it on her blog with regard to festivals.
Festivals never question the fact that they have to pay for room hire; catering; advertising; transport; photography; insurance; sound and lighting. All these things cost money. Everything has to be paid for, in fact, except the people whom the audiences are coming to hear - that is, the authors themselves. 
I'm getting the sense that it's so bad that many writers don’t feel like they're colleagues of the salaried publishing/producing types. They don’t even feel like the tradesmen who come in the back door and have to take their shoes off. No, tradesmen are paid. Writers are feeling more and more like animals to be herded and crops to be harvested. Something from which other people can make their living. It’s horrible.

Again, I stress that I’m fine and very luck to be skilled in an area and medium with pays well. If I had the equivalent skills at poetry, I’d be making a tenth of what I currently earn. So I am lucky. I realise that. But if we talk about being lucky too much we can easily overlook a writer’s talent and experience. Being a good writer is a craft to be learned, practised and honed.

Too Many Competitions
One problem is the media has so many scriptwriting competitions that it makes it look being a writer is not a job or a trade. It’s winning a competition. "You could write the next Only Fools and Horses!" Argh! No. Writing a sitcom is hard. Writing one script can be fluked. Writing six takes talent, skill and experience.

It’s same in the music industry with all of these tiresome talent contests where a range of musical skills, like song-writing, mixing, editing and just being able to play an instrument, is being overlooked by as the shows focus only on the voice and the stage presence of someone who's walked in off the street and has an interesting life story.

Week after week on these contests, they sing songs written by skilled songwriters who’s work has stood the test of time. Usually two middle-aged men who spent years churning out songs from a studio in Motown, or a little known singer-songwriter who spend years in Nashville learning her craft.

Competitions have their place - they're mostly TV shows rather than anything else - but when this seeps into the writing world, it gives the impression to newbies and ignorant execs that anyone who writes professionally should thank their lucky stars they’re getting paid at all. Writers regularly feel very patronised by the salaried who hold out the hope of a career because they don't actually have any development money to pay the writer for their time. This is not how any industry should work, creative or otherwise.

Too Much Competition
The problem is, of course, that there are too many of us; wannabee screenwriters and novelists as well as actual screenwriters and novelists. And yet producers (and book editors?) are constantly moaning about the lack of decent manuscripts. I wonder how that can be.

So, how about investing in people, rather than waiting for scripts to come to you? That's how the American TV studios do it. They offer writers deals and put them on contracts: because it makes financial sense. But not in the UK. The excuse that’s often given is that times are tough. The internet’s killing everything. No-one’s prepared to pay for content.

This may be true about lousy content. But people are prepared for pay for decent content. And they do. Tens of millions pays for their licence fee. If the content of the BBC were uniformly awful, people wouldn’t pay it, or would throw out their TV, or the licence fee would be scrapped. But they pay for the content because, ultimately, the BBC isn’t all that bad.

People also pay willingly for Sky. In their millions. And on top of that, they pay for DVD boxed sets, HBO, Netflix, Amazon Prime/LoveFilm, iTunes and cable. People will pay for content. I'm hoping they'll pay for my novel. Can we stop using this as an excuse for a reluctance to invest?

You can have compelling, must-see content. But the people who will give you that aren't the development producers, festival managers or editors - it's the writers. The unsalaried. 

You wouldn’t expect your watercooler to be replaced by a guy for free with the promise of a chance to bid for providing water in the future.  You wouldn’t expect your boiler to be fixed for free – with the promise that he might win a boiler-fixing award, which would really help his business. Why would you treat a writer this way? The writer is crucial to your business.

If the writer wants to work for free, that’s their choice. Not yours.

So, to all salaried people in the creative industries, on behalf of the unsalaried:

Pay the writer. Properly. On time.


Now watch that Harlan Ellison clip again (NSFW). And cheer.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Season Sitcom Writers - Pete Sinclair - Part 3

We're concluding the conversation with Seasoned Sitcom Pro, Pete Sinclair. Last time we found out the lessons learned from writing two sitcoms that didn't make it to a second series for a number of surprising reasons. Read about that here. This time, Pete's talks about the writing of hit sitcom, Lead Balloon. (Spoiler: Jack Dee comes out of this annoying well)

Sitcomgeek: Did you manage to apply any of the lessons learned from All Along the Watchtower and Mr Charity to Lead Balloon? What was the process on that show?
Pete Sinclair: I absolutely did!  Although the idea was Jack's, when it came to the execution – in terms of the naturalistic tone and the fact that it was non-audience – Lead Balloon was the polar opposite of my first two sitcoms.  And the other lesson I learnt (especially from Mr Charity) was that if I had any doubts at all about anything, they had to be addressed!  If something was wrong, it was no good hoping that it would resolve itself or that it wouldn't matter that much.  I knew from bitter experience that it would end in tears.  So, for example, when it came to decisions about casting, I was far more ruthless than I would have been before.

Lead Balloon first came about when I was working with Jack on his stand-up tour.  I had worked with him before on shows like Jack Dee's Happy Hour but it was the first time we had worked together on our own.  He told me that he'd had an idea for a sitcom and asked if I'd be interested in writing it with him.  As I always say – it's the easiest question I've ever been asked in show business!  I knew that with the involvement of a star name like Jack, the chances of getting it on – and almost as crucially, being allowed to have creative control over it – would be vastly increased.

Why BBC4? Surely Jack Dee would want a bigger audience?
Right from the outset, Jack was adamant that it should be aimed at BBC 4.  He didn't want to be under the pressure that a sitcom on BBC 1 (or even BBC 2) would bring – partly in terms of viewing figures, but also in terms of the general weight of expectation.  As it turned out, it was a very smart decision – not only did it get a BBC 2 repeat before the end of its BBC 4 run, but also the fact that we were on a lower-profile channel meant that we enjoyed far more creative freedom than we might have done.  I'm sure the fact that Jack was a big name also helped, but we had virtually no interference from above.

To give one example, when the director of the pilot was unavailable to do the series, we really wanted our producer Alex Hardcastle to direct it.  Although he had directed his own short films and had ambitions to be a director, Alex had never directed a TV show before.  I very much doubt that we'd have been allowed to take a chance on him if it was for BBC 1 or and BBC 2, but as it was, we got our way.  Suffice it to say that Alex is now out in America, directing some of their top shows including Parks and Recreation and the U.S. version of The Office!

So, how was it working with ‘the star of the show’?
As far as the writing process was concerned, it was an equal collaboration between Jack and myself.  Considering he was the star and the creator of the show, Jack displayed an amazing lack of ego throughout.  He would never overrule me on the grounds that it was 'his' show.  And always mindful of the character traits of Rick Spleen, he would often say “That's too funny a line for Rick, we'll have to give it to one of the other characters.”

One key difference in the writing process compared to my previous sitcoms was that, whereas Trevelyan and I would always write the first draft of the script together, Jack and I adopted a different approach.   We would work on the story lines for an episode together, right up to the point where we had a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown, complete with some of the gags and key lines of dialogue, but at that point Jack would then go off and write a first draft of the scenes, which I would then read and make notes on.

Sometimes I would have to grudgingly admit that Jack's first draft was almost word-perfect – and sometimes I would gleefully be able to report that I thought it needed a lot more work!  Sometimes we had to go back to the drawing board, as the process of trying to write a first draft served to identify that there was actually something wrong with our scene-by-scene breakdown.  But crucially it meant that we didn't sit there endlessly debating which one of the characters should speak first or rewriting the opening sentence twenty times before we moved on to the second one.

So that was how we arrived at a first draft of each script.  Jack would go off and write two or three scenes at a time, then once I'd read them and made my notes, we'd meet up and rewrite them together.  Once we were happy with them, he'd go off and do a first draft of the next couple of scenes.  Different writers may find that different ways work for them – but that's a process I definitely wish I'd discovered when I first started co-writing sitcoms.

So what did you do with the first draft?
Once it was finished, we'd show it to Alex, take his notes on board, and then Jack and I would write a second and third draft together.  At that point, we'd rehearse the scripts with the cast, who – especially as time went on – came to know their characters well enough to be able to challenge us if there was anything that didn't ring true!  By the time we came to shoot the scripts, they were pretty much polished and ready to go.

Lead Balloon is without doubt the thing I'm most proud of to date in my writing career.  But of course, as a writer, I can still find things to gripe about!  For a start, one of my favourite episodes, a two-hander with Jack being held as a hostage by Robbie Coltrane, attracted 1.6 million viewers on first showing – a pretty healthy figure for BBC 2 at 10.00 pm – and yet it's never been repeated.  And as far as I'm aware, the BBC wouldn't even have to pay anything to show it again.  (The schedulers do read your blog, right...?)

One last thing, I recently blogged about Writer-Performer sitcoms. Do you worry that non-performing writers are in danger of being overlooked? Are you a bit gloomy about getting another of your own sitcom on TV, do does that not bother you?

I read your blog and I thought there was a great deal of truth in it.  Although, having said that, I then read Dave Cohen's blog disagreeing with you, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of the points in that!  I must admit, I never really saw myself as Nick Clegg...

I suppose in a way I have a foot in both camps – in the aftermath of Lead Balloon, I've written scripts with Jack Dee, Mark Steel and Nina Conti, so technically, they count as writer/writer-performer sitcoms!  (Although actually, the Mark Steel one isn't a sitcom.)  I've also had my own solo script commissioned.  As to what lessons I can draw from any of that, the only thing that all four projects have in common is that, so far, they've yet to make it to TV!

I do think that non-performing writers are more easily overlooked, and if I'm honest I would have hoped that co-writing four series of a hit sitcom like Lead Balloon would have opened more doors for me.  But I think these are difficult times.  Money is tight and broadcasters are understandably reluctant to spend money piloting things unless they're pretty sure of them.  And I can see why trusting an up-and-coming comedian with a proven fan base is an attractive option when it comes to commissioning a new sitcom.

But I remain optimistic that one or more of my current projects will see the light of day.  And, if not, I've already got another three or four ideas in the pipeline.  If there any qualities I've developed over the years, they are persistence, patience – and a third, funnier thing that begins with 'p'.  I'll have to get back to you on that...

Pete, we've taken up more than enough of your time. Thank you so much for baring your soul and sharing your experience and insights.

Friday 9 May 2014

Season Sitcom Writers - Pete Sinclair - Part 2

I'm continuing a conversation with Pete Sinclair, a Seasoned Sitcom Writer. Last time we looked at how he got start with punk poetry (which stood him good stead for Never Mind the Buzzcocks), and graduated to writing for Radio 4 and Rory Bremner. 

Sitcomgeek: You really hit on gold with Lead Balloon. But before we get to that, you had two sitcoms on before that: All Along the Watchtower and Mr Charity. How did they come about and what did you learn from writing them and seeing them make it from script to screen?

Pete Sinclair: All Along The Watchtower and Mr Charity were both written with Trevelyan Evans, a writer/director who was introduced to me via my agent.  Trevelyan had been at the National Film and Television School and one of his ideas had been optioned by a production company.  They felt that it would benefit from having a more experienced writer involved – and even back in the early 1990s that was me!  God, that makes me feel old...

The idea was a brilliant one – it still is! – scripts and treatments were commissioned and we so nearly got it on.  At one point Granada, ITV and Disney were all involved in high level discussions as to how they could make it work financially, but in the end it fell through.

All Along the Watchtower
Having discovered that we worked well together, Trevelyan and I continued to think of ideas – and the first one that we managed to sell was All Along The Watchtower.  It was a sitcom set in the Highlands of Scotland on an RAF early-warning station that they'd somehow forgotten to close down at the end of the Cold War.

A pilot script was commissioned by BBC Scotland in 1996 – but it was a long and tortuous journey before the series made it to the screen three years later.  We originally had a well-known comedy figure in mind for the lead role and he agreed to do a read-through.  It went well, but it proved impossible to get a decision from him about doing a series and eventually we persuaded the BBC to let us re-cast it.

We assembled a cast of actors who were relatively unknown but very good.  The filming and the studio recordings went well and everyone was pretty optimistic about our chances.  That optimism increased when the first reviews appeared.  Unusually for a new sitcom, they were generally positive – and some were better than that!  The Daily Mail said: “It is fresh, original, has hilarious, well-defined characters, and it's very, very funny.”  I remember thinking we had a hit on our hands.

Some of our readers may be unaware of this show. I guess it wasn’t quite the hit you thought it might be. What went wrong?
Looking back, I think the key thing that scuppered us was the decision to broadcast it on Sunday afternoons in the Last Of The Summer Wine slot.  From memory, that had been getting around nine million viewers at the time, whereas we started at five million, then dropped to just over four million and held from then on.  Nowadays of course, those figures would be great – especially for a brand new sitcom with a relatively unknown cast – but by the standards of the time they were considered disappointing.

There then followed an agonising period of discussions, consultations, focus groups and general dithering as to whether a second series would be commissioned.  In the end, the BBC said no.

When the dust had settled, Trevelyan and I set about trying to come up with our next idea. We were determined to learn the lessons of All Along The Watchtower – and the main one, we felt, was that we had to create something that would have an immediate impact.  It seemed to us that sitcoms were no longer being given a chance to grow.  What was needed was a big, bold idea that would provoke a strong reaction.  The result – Mr Charity – certainly did that, but unfortunately the reaction, from the critics at least, was overwhelmingly negative!  One critic described it as “a pile of fossilised poo from sitcom's dark ages.”  (Yes, I keep the bad ones as well...)

What do you think was the problem with Mr Charity?
With hindsight, I'd say it boiled down to two things.  Our first mistake was the clash between a very dark subject matter (essentially satirising someone who was using charity for his own ends) and the old-fashioned traditional sitcom format.  Mr Charity was originally commissioned for BBC 1, but when they decided that they didn't want jokes about cancer and dying kiddies on their channel (even if it was done with satirical intent) it was taken on by BBC 2.

At that point, we should have realised that we had to change the style.  An old-fashioned looking audience sitcom with wobbly sets sat uneasily at 10.00 pm on BBC 2.  The tide (certainly amongst TV critics) was turning against audience sitcoms – and the few more traditional voices who weren't put off by the mainstream format, hated the content.  One such critic described it as more offensive than the Brass Eye paedophile episode.  That was one negative review I was much happier about!

The other main problem, looking back, was a lack of clarity in the central idea.  Although our main character was the head of a national charity, his office was located above one of the charity's shops and he was constantly getting involved in the day-to-day running of it.  I think that would be fine as a one-off gag but to have the focus split between two very different worlds perhaps damaged the believability of the idea.  In retrospect, we should have gone for one or the other.

On top of that, there was one key question about the central character that we never really addressed – was he really a self-serving shyster who was simply using charity for his own ends, or did he genuinely believe that he was ultimately doing it for a good cause?  Trevelyan and I leaned towards the former, whilst Stephen Tompkinson, who played the role (and played it well in my opinion) thought the latter.  At the time, I remember thinking that the ambiguity might actually help us.  With hindsight, I think it would have been better to be crystal clear.

For all its flaws, I would still argue that Mr Charity was very funny in places.  In fact, the recordings went down so well with the studio audience that the late great Geoffrey Perkins commissioned a script for a second series on the strength of them.  I sometimes wonder how the series would have been received nowadays, when audience sitcoms that paint with a broad brush are back in fashion.

Right, that's enough for now, thanks Pete. Plenty to think about there. Next time, the rise and rise of Lead Balloon…

Thursday 8 May 2014

Seasoned Sitcom Writers No. 2 - Pete Sinclair

I first met Pete Sinclair in about 2002, when we were both writing episodes of the largely forgotten, temporarily loved (and critically disliked) My Hero. This was not the first sitcom Pete had worked on. He'd created two of his own and went on to co-write four series of the much loved, critically-acclaimed Lead Balloon. Even AA Gill liked it, and he hates everything.

All the while, Pete's been a regular writer for panel games like Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks and one of the Pantheon who wrote for Spitting Image. Pete is a seriously seasoned pro. And so I thought Pete would be a perfect person to e-interview for this blog as we continue our series with Seasoned Sitcom Writers (which began with Andrew Marshall here.)

We had a long chat via email, so this is interview is broken up into three chunks. This first post is about getting started.

Sitcomgeek: Hello, Pete. You’ve been working in comedy for quite a long time…
Pete Sinclair: For over thirty years now!  It scares me sometimes when I realise how long ago certain programmes that I wrote for were on.

How did you get started?
It's fair to say that I stumbled into being a comedy writer.  It had never been something I had seriously thought of doing for a living.  From the moment I discovered music as a teenager, the thing I wanted to do was to make it in a band.  And strangely enough, that's how I got into writing comedy...

As the lead singer in various unsuccessful teenage bands, one of my tasks was to write the lyrics.  When prog rock gave way to punk and then New Wave, our music changed with it, and the lyrics I ended up writing were heavily influenced by Ian Dury – obviously not up to his standard, but they were a combination of satirical social comment and contrived doggerel.  I remain inordinately proud of some of the rhymes to this day.

By the time the last of these bands split up, I was in my early twenties and at a loose end, to put it mildly.  I had dropped out of sixth form, quit my copy-chasing job at a publishing company and was working as a milkman to fund my dreams of a music career.  Luckily for me, one of my school friends who had been in some of those early teenage bands came to my rescue...

Keith Moore was busking in a group that would later go on to become John Hegley's backing band, The Popticians.  They played in places like Covent Garden and the King's Road and usually liked to break up their set by inviting people to do guest spots.  Keith suggested that I should come along and perform my lyrics as poems.  So that was what I did – and in order to reassure the crowds gathered on the pavement that they weren't about to be subjected to serious poetry, I threw in some jokes.

@pete_sinclair is on Twitter
Ah, so you started as a stand-up comedian. That explains your picture on twitter (right).
Funnily enough, my twitter profile pic is in fact a reference to all of the above.  It's actually a still from my cameo appearance in Lead Balloon.  Up to that point, I had resisted all suggestions that I should cast myself in a walk-on part, but in this particular episode, we had Rick running a stand-up comedy course.   When we needed to film a montage sequence of a succession of wannabe comics, it was too good an opportunity to miss, and I was persuaded to reprise my role as a ranting lefty comedy poet.  As it turned out, I was quite good at being bad.  The episode in question is “Off” (Series 4, Episode 4) if, like me, you're sad enough to want to go and check it out...

Okay, we'll come to Lead Balloon later, but let's talk about your progress as a stand-up
My act progressed to the embryonic comedy circuit.  I performed at places like The Finborough Arms, The Earth Exchange and Jongleurs, which in those days was just a small club in Battersea.  I shared the bill with a new wave of rising comedians, many of whom would go on to be famous.  But watching the likes of Paul Merton (then called Paul Martin), Julian Clary, Mark Steel, Rory Bremner and Jeremy Hardy soon made me aware of something else – they were better than me.

My material (which now included quite a lot of stand up as well as the poems) wasn't bad. But my delivery often left a lot to be desired.  Sometimes a gig would go well, and I'd think I'd cracked it – only for me to do the next gig with the same material, and five minutes in, I'd be dying on my arse.  I rarely got hostility from the audience – I got sympathy.  The moment I knew it was time to give up came when I was on holiday in Greece lying awake worrying about the gigs I had to do on my return to London in a fortnight's time!

So how did you escape the world of stand-up comedy?
Luckily I had already discovered another outlet for my comedy.  Quite a lot of my stand-up act involved topical material, and someone mentioned a Radio 4 programme called Week Ending (the Newsjack of it's day), which featured satirical sketches about the week's news.  I wasn't a Radio 4 listener – my parents had always listened to Radio 1 and Radio 2 (or whatever they were called in those days!)

The only radio comedy shows that had made an impact on me (apart from things like The Clitheroe Kid which would be on in the kitchen when I was a boy) were I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, both of which I listened to religiously – and, I seem to recall, if such a thing was possible in those days – taped.

So how did you access Week Ending as a fledgling writer in the days before email?
I just put on my best BBC voice and phoned up the producer to ask if there were any vacancies for writers, only to discover that there was no vetting process – anyone could simply come along to the weekly non-commissioned writers' meetings on a Wednesday and pitch their ideas.  If the producer liked your idea (and if one of the commissioned writers wasn't already covering that subject) you could write your idea up.  And if it made it on to the show, you got paid!

I sat in on the meetings for a couple of weeks, just to get the measure of things.  Then I pitched an idea – it found favour; I wrote it up; and it got on!  There I was, a paid writer, with a cheque for £13.45 to my name!  (I'm pretty sure that was the amount – there may have been a repeat fee on top of that which would have taken it up to the £20 mark...)

More of my sketches and one-liners made it to air in the weeks that followed and it didn't take me long to realise that I was better at this writing lark than I had been at stand-up.  For one thing, I didn't take failure personally.  If a producer rejected a sketch, I was able to assess the reasons objectively.  Was it because it wasn't good enough?  Or was it because they were wrong?  Mostly it was the former; occasionally the latter.  But I found I was able to make a rational assessment.  And if my sketch wasn't good enough, I would go away and analyse the reasons why.  Whereas on stage, dying, all I could think was “Why don't they like me?!”

It wasn't long before I made the leap to the Tuesday afternoon meetings and the guarantee of a minute's commission.  That meant I was earning £13.45 a week whether or not they used my sketches!  In time, my commission increased to a guaranteed four or five minutes and I became one of the main writers on the show.  And when the ever-changing producers of Week Ending moved on to do other shows, I was one of the writers they turned to.

So Weekending? And then what?
One of the first radio series I wrote for was At Home With The Hardys (the first series was actually called Unnatural Acts).  And when Rory Bremner (who knew me from my days on the stand-up circuit, and could obviously see beyond my performing abilities) got his own TV series, Now Something Else, I was one of the writers he asked to be involved.

So I had my foot on the ladder.  And having discovered that I could write comedy for a living, I immediately knew that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

How useful was that time as a stand-up in your overall career as a writer?
Enormously so!  The experience of dying on stage burned into my brain for ever the horrifying reality of what can happen if something isn't funny enough.  As a writer, it's easy to convince yourself that a mildly amusing line is a joke.  That may not matter, if a mildly amusing line is all that's required on the way to a big laugh – but if you intend something to be funny, it had better be properly funny!

If your gag was performed (alright, performed well!) in front of an audience would it get an actual laugh?  If not, don't fool yourself that it would.  People sometimes ask me if I get jealous when I watch a comedian deliver one of my lines and get a huge laugh from a big audience.   The answer is no – I'm just glad that it wasn't me delivering it and screwing it up!  So, for me, the experience of stand-up was a vital part of my learning process. Perhaps it's no surprise that I've since worked closely with a number of stand-ups like Mark Steel and Jack Dee.  I understand what they're looking for and am aware of the dire consequences of getting it wrong!

Do you think it was easier to get started then compared to now?
I can't really say for certain.  To answer that fairly, I would have to have a lot more knowledge of what it's like for writers who are starting out now.  But I imagine that if I was starting out in today's world, I would see the internet as a huge opportunity that didn't exist in my formative writing years.  I know it only works for certain things (short things in other words!) but there is at least the potential to produce something brilliant and have it seen by millions of people.  There are also websites like NewsBiscuit – started by another ex-Week Ending writer John O'Farrell – where you can hone your writing skills and experience the excitement of seeing your work in print.  Sorry – pixels.  I still can't get the hang of this new technology...

Right, that's probably enough for now. Next time, we talk to Pete about writing partners, scheduling and “a pile of fossilised poo from sitcom's dark ages.”