On Fridays I like to run a series of ‘masterclasses’ on the subject of writing or comedy. They differ from proper masterclasses in that I am not actually a master, just slightly older/luckier than most of the frustrated writers who pay attention to these blogs. The rationale is to inspire people who might be writing things as part of their Challenge, which some are. The (perfectly upfront) ulterior motive for me is to encourage people to buy my novel (Eleven) or come to my tour (elsewhere on the site).
Today I’m going to turn my attention to the area of script-writing. This is, in its own way, often an even more frustrating pursuit than writing anything else. I’ve been fortunate in my eightish years in comedy to have three things made for TV: a sitcom pilot for BBC3 (not very good), a one-off sitcom about people stuck in a lift for BBC4 (quite good), and last Christmas, a nostalgic Christmas-special-in-Wales-comedy-drama-thing, again for BBC4 (good). For each one of those, there have been dozens of projects that never got off the ground, or got off the ground but then crashed to earth again, like a poorly-assembled model plane. Or got off the ground but were shot down by anti-script missiles. Or, anyway, didn’t work out.
Why, you might ask, when there is so much poor stuff on TV, is it so difficult to get things commissioned? I thought I might write a little series of vignettes to chart the life of an average script idea. I’ll start today and make it an occasional series.
Producer: So, we read your script. Absolutely love it. Absolutely great. We’re really excited about it.
You: That’s good.
Commissioner: I just love the whole idea of a sitcom set on an oil-rig, really original, I can just imagine Hugh Dennis- you know Hugh? of course you do – I think he’d be ideal for it. Now, just a couple of things. We wondered, I know an oil-rig is a very male space, but it would be great to have more female characters. I personally think Ruth Jones is amazing. And the other thing is, if you could just tighten everything and cut it down a bit. I’m not convinced we need the scene with the dog. So, if you could sort those little things out, I think we could really be onto something here.
You: Great. OK.
Producer: So, thanks for sending the new draft through. Some very good stuff. One or two concerns. Not sure the female character – Sam?
Producer: Peggy, of course. Not sure she works. Feels a bit like you’ve tacked on a female character for the sake of it.
You: Well, you kind of asked me to tack on a…
Producer: Sure, sure. No, totally. I did. I did. And I do think there’s an argument for that. But I think there’s a stronger argument against it. So if you could maybe cut that. And… hmm. What else was I going to say? Oh yes. The dog. I miss the dog.
You: You asked me to cut that.
Producer: Yep. No, absolutely. Definitely the right decision to cut it. But if you see what I mean, definitely the wrong decision to cut it, as well. So if you could put it back in and maybe just rework the female character, Sam, or lose her, then we could really be onto something here.
You: Um. OK.
Producer: So. Hi. First, sorry it’s taken so long. It seems ages since you were here for the last meeting. What is it, six weeks?
You: A year.
Producer: Totally. Wow. Time flies. I’ve been working on Life Of Riley. Did you see it? I think Caroline Quentin is amazing. So anyway. Thanks for your draft. Now. I’ve spoken to Paul, who is going to be commissioning this, and we both feel – the feeling is – I’ve got to be careful how I say this – the feeling is that an oil rig isn’t the perfect setting to bring these very good characters together.
Producer: So I was wondering whether, without losing the whole oil-rig thing, which I love, we could not have it on an oil-rig.
You: Um. I mean, the oil-rig thing is, well, it is sort of the point…
Producer: Totally. I completely see what you’re getting at with that. But I suppose what I’m saying is, even though it is the point, it’s not the point. And even though I love the idea of something set on a oil-rig, at the same time, I loathe the idea of something set on an oil-rig. Does that make sense?
Producer: I suppose what I’m saying is, what made ‘Gavin and Stacey’ so lovely was that it wasn’t set on an oil-rig. Is that a fair comment?
You: Well, I think it was more to do with the characters and the…
Producer: Of course. No. Actually, just on a related note. I love David Mitchell. Have you seen him? Very funny. I think he’d be great in something. I was wondering – I don’t want to put words into your mouth here – but is there a way we can take the oil-rig out of the equation and make it a bit more like ‘Peep Show’?
You: I… I could try.
Producer: Great. That’s great news. Paul will be delighted. I must say again, we both absolutely love this, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for it at the BBC, we wouldn’t be spending so much time on it unless we really loved it. It’s just what we need, I think there is a real gap for something set on an oil-rig…
You: I thought – sorry, I thought you said to come up with a different location.
Producer: Absolutely. I like the way you’re thinking with this. Oh. Listen, I’d better be going. I have to meet James Corden to ask him what are the next ten things he’d like to do on TV. Listen, this is a fantastic project. Can’t wait for the next draft.
…we’ll come back to this subject some time next week. As with anything else I might say about writing in this blog, none of it should discourage anyone from giving it a go. Writing is about getting things down on paper, not about aiming for an imaginary audience of suits, or even a real audience. The fun is in the writing itself. But it’s worth knowing what’s waiting at the other end…