BBC, Comedy, Writing
Got myself another broadcast credit.
Fifty-eight seconds of sublime topical satire in this week’s Newsjack flowed from the very same fingers currently being used to brag about it.
If I’d only made it a few seconds longer I could have doubled my fee.
Get the podcast here.
This episode actually got reviews too. At Total Politics and Comic Timings.
Mine’s about dowsing rods doubling as bomb detectors, starting at about 15 minutes in. Or here’s an MP3 of the relevant bit.
The Iraqi government are already reeling; it will take them a long time to recover from this.
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BBC, Comedy, Writing
Topical comedy sketch show Newsjack starts again in a few hours on Radio 7.
I’m not in it.
This is one of the sidesplitting works of staggering genius that they rejected.
FX: AIRPORT ATMOS
Step through now, sir.
FX: METAL DETECTOR BEEPING
Step to one side, sir. Could you empty your pockets please?
FX: POCKETS CONTENTS IN BOWL
If you wouldn’t mind removing your shoes.
(SIGHS, MUTTERS TO HIMSELF)
FX: SHOES ON TABLE
And if you could just loosen your belt buckle.
FX: BELT BUCKLE. TROUSER FUMBLING.
Now turn your head and cough.
Great. Thank you very much.
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“It sounded better in my head.”
Probably not the best first thing to come out of your mouth after having watched a troupe of trained professional actors graciously perform your script aloud for free.
The actors, to their credit, didn’t seem to take the comment personally. I would have.
My faux pas immediately zoned me into an embarrassed funk.
Listening back to the MP3 of the occasion, as the assembled comedy writers and actors perform an uncomfortable autopsy on my sitcom effort, I note that I could have stammered Hugh Grant into epilepsy.
I probably had unrealistic expectations.
The only other time I’ve ever heard my own script read out by actors was when they were being broadcast on the radio. It was Lewis McLeod performing words I’d put in Gordon Brown’s mouth, so it sounded just like Gordon Brown, just like it did in my head.
Not being an absolute idiot, I’m aware that there is a massive gap between what a writer sees and hears in his head and what they eventually see on stage or screen, but the crashing reality of that gap, that yawning chasm, that deep-throating chasm, didn’t really hit me until that reading.
To be fair and to be absolutely honest, these weren’t bad actors.
Before they got to my script they’d more or less cold-read four others and done, I think, a blinding job of it. Characters that seemed dead to me on the page became hilarious. Jokes I didn’t get suddenly worked.
But when it came to my pitiful little sitcom effort, pretty much every gag seemed to fall flat. The characters sounded nothing like I had expected. Nothing like how I thought I had written them.
Later, a fellow writer in attendance told me it wasn’t as bad as I thought, and that some people were in fact chuckling. Fuck him. Idiot. What does he know? Leave me in my funk.
What to make of all this? Can I not write characters? Was it just a bad reading? Is there some knack to making characters instantly actable?
Three weeks later, I still have no idea what I’m supposed to have learned from this experience.
So I’m just going to pretend it never happened.
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BBC, Celebrity Sighting, Comedy, Edinburgh, Porn
A smiling fiftysomething in a windbreaker stuffed a flyer into the hands of one of my drinking companions, made a brief but enthusiastic pitch, and wandered off.
“Oh my god, was that Peter Duncan?” lots of people said at the same time.
The Blue Peter and Flash Gordon legend himself.
Chief Scout Peter Duncan.
He was wandering around, promoting his own show, “Daft and Dangerous”, which was due on shortly, nearby.
“That’s a shame,” I pondered. “You’d think he’d be able to pay some students to do that for him or something.”
“Nah,” said a BBC producer. “It’s admirable. It shows persistence.”
“He was in porn, you know,” said somebody else.
It’s been a couple of decades since I was last in Edinburgh. I’d never been there as an adult, or during the festival.
I was expecting to spot a comedy celebrity or two, but I didn’t expect to see so many, in such a short space of time, in the same place.
The Pleasance, a nice big beer garden with about a hundred venues around the perimeter, just as nice as it sounds.
“Oh, look, there’s Marcus Brigstocke, and he’s wearing a bicycle helmet! Hilarious!”
“Is that Reece Shearsmith?”
“Fuck me, Simon Bird’s a little feller, isn’t he?”
“I saw Peter Duncan earlier!”
“He was in porn, you know.”
This kind of thing impresses me.
I’m not as bad as some, when it comes to starfucking, I reckon.
One of the actors in the comedy event I was involved with has an ongoing, memorable part in Ideal.
Apparently, walking around Edinburgh the previous night, a random local had approached him, confirmed that he was indeed that guy out of off of Ideal, then headbutted him to the ground.
“Good job he’s not in Two Pints,” somebody said. “He’d probably have got stabbed.”
I met an agent at the bar. First time I’ve met an agent before.
I was thinking getting an agent might be a good thing for me to do, eventually, so I thought I’d sound her out.
I eat up PR girls for breakfast, I thought. I can handle this. Play it smooth, Murphy, play it smooth.
“So who do you represent?”
“What?! OMFG! He’s like my total favourite standup of all time! Really! I’ve been following him since his Deadpan columns! He emailed me once! What’s he like? Can you get me tickets!?!”
I turned groupie. A groupie for his agent.
An hour or two later I was chatting, a little more drunkenly than I’d like, to one of the The Royle Family writers, when Charlie Brooker brushed past me on the way to the bar, and my pants filled with a full-on comedy nerdgasm.
Stewart Lee’s agent!
What an afternoon.
And Peter Duncan!
He was in porn, you know.
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BBC, Comedy, Writing
Just found out that my sitcom pilot will not be getting a reading in front of an audience of BBC producers in Edinburgh this month.
Another chap with a better script (I’ve read it, it’s good) won the coveted spot.
On the upside, Graham Linehan just retweeted me.
That’s possibly the most exciting thing that happened all week.
Pass the breadknife.
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BBC, Comedy, Michael Fucking Jackson, Radio, Writing
What was I doing when I found out Michael Jackson died?
Why, I was listening to this sketch on the radio, my first broadcast credit.
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BBC, Comedy, Writing
Last night, somewhere in London, some actors stood in front of an audience, on a BBC radio sound stage, and said some words what I wrote. Out loud.
Hopefully, the audience laughed.
Hopefully, the words will be broadcast on topical news comedy Newsjack tonight at 11pm on BBC Radio 7.
Apparently, it’s normal for them to record more material than they can fit in the 30-minute slot, so there’s still a chance it may get cut.
Frankly, I’m happy that somebody saw fit to record something I wrote. That’s never happened before.
The show is podcast, if you fancy checking it out at a reasonable hour.
I’m not sure whether they recorded the sketch I submitted (about a very special maths teacher) or one of the one-liners. I hope it’s the sketch.
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BBC, Comedy, Writing
I’m writing a sitcom pilot for the BBC at the moment.
Well, that’s a lie, obviously. I’m writing this blog at the moment.
(I’m learning that prolonged periods of agonising procrastination are virtually a prerequisite for people who write things with deadlines later than a few hours from present.)
But I am writing a sitcom pilot. And the BBC are paying me to do it.
Don’t laugh, those are true facts.
Admittedly, the cheque will be of a value more suitable for framing than cashing.
It would barely pay the porn bill. I could make more money in an afternoon’s freelance.
But it will be a real cheque. From the BBC. To write something.
There’s a vanishingly small probability that what I’m writing will ever get on the telly.
I assume that’s true, anyway. I’ll have a better idea when I’m actually more than halfway finished writing the fucking thing.
A few months ago, I sent 12 pages of a sitcom pilot to the Beeb.
Mainly arse jokes, truth be told. I count seven anal insertions in those pages.
Somehow, those 12 pages allowed me to join eight other wannabe sitcom and sketch show writers, many of whom seem to have been hacking away at this kind of thing for far longer than I, onto a thing called “Northern Laughs”.
I say “thing” because I’m not entirely certain what the word for whatever it is is
But what it means is that for the next few months I get notes on my draft scripts from some BBC comedy producer types and comedy writer Ian La Frenais.
(You may never have heard of him unless you’re seriously into British comedy, so make sure you check out his IMDB page, just to get an idea of how impressive this is and how much praise you should be lauding upon me.
Seriously, him and his mate wrote The Commitments, for real.)
I met him in London last week, where he generously tried not to gloat too badly that Newcastle beat Middlesbrough in a crucial relegation derby the night before, before tearing my script a new arsehole. In the nicest possible way.
It only lasted thirty minutes, but as is the case for so many things that only last thirty minutes, it was a beautiful experience.
I’m obviously no stranger to the blue pen, but having one of the guys who wrote Porridge giving me pointers on a comedy script what I wrote… I felt like I should be paying them.
At the very least, following our first encounter my script has a new arsehole into which I can insert things. With hilarious consequences.
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I sent some Letterbocks and Top Tips into Viz over the weekend. Kudos to them for telling me to (politely) fuck off within 48 hours of submission.
“Whilst they are not suitable for publication feel free to send us anything you think will make us laugh.”
Here they are anyway:
- They say: “Once bitten, twice shy”. Too true. My three-year-old granddaughter was already quite shy before she was mauled by the family rottweiler, and I haven’t heard a peep out of her since either.
- Whatever happened to the lovely Lily Savage? I haven’t seen her on daytime telly in years, and she used to be on every day.
- People say that “beauty is only skin-deep”, but do any readers know if that’s true? I only ask because my Page 3 model girlfriend has just been diagnosed with leprosy.
- Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were allowed to carry on releasing albums and films for many years after their deaths. But when Harold Pinter dies, nothing! It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you.
- I know you’re supposed to strike while the iron is hot, but, in my experience, a cold iron has never left that big of a mark on her face.
- As an American evangelical Christian, I believe that love conquers all. Oh, wait, did I say love? I meant the United States Marine Corps.
- They say: “Dead men tell no tales.” Oh really? Tell that to somebody who, like me, has just watched an old video of Denholm Elliott on Jackanory.
- They say: “Beggars can’t be choosers”. Rubbish. Outside the off license tonight I gave a pound to a Big Issue seller, then watched him spend five minutes trying to decide whether to spend it on Special Brew or Tennants Super.
- I hear they’re going to remake ‘Predator’. What’s wrong with Hollywood nowadays, always trying to remake classic movies? Why can’t they just endlessly piss out unwanted and inferior sequels, like they did in the good old days?
- They say: “No man can serve two masters.” But I’m working at a pilchard-packing factory in the day and driving a minicab at night, and I’m still drawing disability. Technically, that’s three masters.
- I keep hearing that “rats desert a sinking ship.” If anything, I think this proves conclusively that rats aren’t as stupid as we thought they were.
- It’s so very nice to see hunky 80s heartthrob Mickey Rourke back in the cinemas, and extra nice to see that all those years in the wilderness haven’t hurt his looks.
- I’m very surprised that no bishops have come out saying that the Australian wildfires were God’s punishment for Aussies throwing so many shrimp on the barbie, despite the Bible very specifically telling them not to. (Deuteronomy 14, 9-10)
- Isn’t Twitter fantastic! How did I ever survive before I discovered I could receive an email every time Jonathan Ross takes a shit?
- MEXICAN restaurants. Save money on lard when cooking re-fried beans by simply frying the beans once, but for twice as long.
- FELLOW vicars. Do not always practice what you preach. For twenty years I preached that Lot out of off of the Bible got drunk and had sex with his daughters, and now I’m in prison on a ten-stretch.
- BUSTING-for-a-piss alcoholic boyfriends. Not enough time to make it to my kitchen sink? No problem. Simply slash in my bin, instead.
- CELEBRITY Twitter users. Get your office-bound followers to really warm to you by announcing you’ve just got out of bed at 11.30am and have to rush off to a three-hour champagne lunch meeting, every day.
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BBC, Comedy, Unemployed, Writing
Earlier this evening, I attended a meeting/talk/Q&A session for aspiring comedy writers, hosted by BBC Comedy-North at a theatre in Newcastle.
It started off quite depressing.
A BBC Writersroom lady explained that her department receives about 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts every year, across all genres. About 3% of these submissions
enter development. Not necessarily commissioned, not necessarily produced, not necessarily filmed – developed.
This data was not intrinsically depressing. Given how much bollocks they must receive, 3% does seem reassuringly voluminous, at least from a writer’s perspective, equating as it does to about 300 scripts a year.
(Turns out I was incorrect there — the 3% actually refers to the number of scripts that Writersroom’s professional readers decide are worth reading beyond the first 10 pages. Out of 10,000 scripts each year, 9,700 are not read beyond page 10.)
But she followed up these statistics with a show-reel from some of BBC Comedy-North’s recent successes. The material, not necessarily unsolicited, that actually made it through the screening and development process and ultimately on to the telly.
The clips, presumably intended to illustrate the crème de la crème, were from Scallywagga, Gavin & Stacey and Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps.
As you might imagine, nobody in the theatre laughed. Not even a titter. There were about 80 people in the room, comedy fans all. From where I was sitting I could see most of their faces, and the only ones even smiling where the two BBC bods on the stage – the Writers’ Room lady and a producer named Chris (I didn’t catch his surname, and a quick google hasn’t shed any light).
They cut off the Two Pints clip before it had finished.
They also showed a clip from Ideal, the Johnny Vegas vehicle. I think Ideal is a bloody good program, well-written and regularly funny stuff, but they showed a rubbish clip, which failed to get a rise from the audience.
I did wonder if everybody else was sitting in silence because they were trying to maintain an air of professionalism. I imagined them thinking:
“We’re here to study the medium, don’t you know? And besides, the manuscript burning a hole in my laptop is ten times funnier than this mediocrity.”
But when they showed a brilliant clip from the first series of The League Of Gentlemen, we all pissed ourselves. So I guess the rest of the wannabe comedy writers were, like me, just not responding to the other material.
Indeed, during the Q&A later, one guy put his hand up to dryly ask for help understanding the difference between “single-camera sitcom” and “comedy drama”. I assumed he was taking the piss, though I may have been projecting.
Anyway, after the presentation warmed up, and it did, I started taking notes. There was a fair bit of useful information, and it was well worth a few hours out of my hectic life to attend.
As a preemptive apologia, Chris (it may have been Christian) seemed terribly nervous, poor chap, and my shorthand is a bit rusty, so any quotes below should not be taken as journalist-quality verbatim. I also only noted any comments that seemed relevant to getting a script over the first hurdle. Any errors, omissions or outright inaccuracies are mine and mine alone.
What The BBC Wants
- While sketch shows and “broken comedy” formats are also desired, studio sitcoms and single-camera location stuff like Gavin & Stacey are “massively in demand”. The IT Crowd, a Channel 4 show, was cited as an example of the kind of thing the Beeb wants to commission.
- It was mentioned that BBC One is “losing its pre-watershed slots” for comedy. This was probably irrelevant to most of us assembled wannabes. It seems to me that comedy needs to prove itself on one of the other channels before it gets promoted to BBC One. An unknown writing specifically for a BBC One audience would, I reckon, be wildly ambitious.
- BBC Two is no longer a venue for “experimentation”. It wants studio sitcoms. Its audience is broad, ranging from those in their mid-20s to 50s.
- BBC Three: I inferred from what was said, possibly incorrectly, that this channel has a relatively new creative head. That person’s opinion is apparently that BBC Three should be a “mini-BBC One”. Thus, while it was said that Three is also not a venue for “experimentation”, it was also said that the channel has license to be “cheekier” and “more mischievous” than its older brothers.
- BBC Four doesn’t commission a lot of comedy. Lead Balloon appears to be the notable exception.
- Children’s comedy and online short-form stuff were also mentioned as potential outlets, but I was zoning out during this bit and didn’t write anything down. Sorry.
- The Beeb has three commissioning rounds each year.
What To Write
- Scripts for studio sitcoms should be looking for three laughs per page. I wasn’t clear whether this is a minimum or an average, but it sounded like a nice common sense rule of thumb.
- They’re looking for witty, set-up/pay-off dialogue.
- They’re currently looking for “big grandstanding moments that play to the gallery”.
- They’re currently “seeking more laugh out loud moments”.
- A rough three-act structure is obviously a good thing.
- If you’re going for a “broken comedy” format along the lines of League Of Gentlemen, make sure you have a “distinct voice” and “unique tone”, etc.
- Ditto for budding “writer-performers”. Think Steve Coogan. He has a unique tone. You need one too. Though not his, obviously.
- Monologue-based comedy is a very hard sell. Somebody I’d never heard of apparently already has this limited market all sewn up.
- While Chris(tian) has a soft spot for darker, crueller material, the current fad is for gentler, more accessible comedies. Gavin & Stacey was mentioned as an example of this.
- But fads are cyclical (he said). After the viewing public grows tired of her overstocked larder of lame vicar-friendly comedy dramas, Aunty will probably go kicking down Chris Morris’s door again (my interpretation).
- If you’re submitting a script or portion of a script on spec, it might be a good idea to send the second or third episode, rather than the series opener, so you can get straight into the funny stuff without worrying about laying the groundwork of character and situation and risking boring the reader with excess exposition.
- If you’re interested, the difference between “single-camera sitcom” and “comedy drama” is essentially the story. If it’s a dramatic story with lighter moments of wit, it’s a comedy drama. If it’s a comedic story, where the plot is there to serve the humour, it’s a sitcom, even if it has the odd moment of seriousness.
- We were told that budgets for comedies range from £60,000 to £350,000 per episode. About £200k might be normal. This likely means that requiring a legion of extras, stacks of custom props, location shoots and special effects to tell your story would lead to your script having a lasting encounter with a spike.
- It’s acceptable for a studio-based sitcom to have 20% to 30% of its running time shot on location.
- Animation is expensive. If you’re a comedy animator, the best strategy would be to try out your material on the internet first. If there’s a ready-made audience for your stuff, the BBC would be more likely to commission it. If you’re an animator, I expect this is not news to you.
- Lastly, and most depressingly, a newbie comedy writer can expect to be paid a paltry £3,000 per 30-minute episode. Don’t quit the day job, in other words, assuming you’re currently lucky enough to have one.
- Once your work is proven, in demand, and you’ve hauled your way up the ranks, £20k per episode might be more realistic. It was said that at the Beeb, your fee will never go down unless you agree to it in order to work on a project you’re particularly passionate about.
That is all.
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