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.”

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