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A meeting with the people upstairs

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.

MEETING 1

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.


MEETING 2

Producer: So, thanks for sending the new draft through. Some very good stuff. One or two concerns. Not sure the female character – Sam?

You: Peggy.

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.


MEETING 3 

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.

You: Ah.

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?

You: Er.

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…


25 Responses

  1. Anna Lowman says:

    Made me giggle out loud on a very tough day work-wise. Thank you!

  2. Tom Beasley says:

    This is actually brilliant. I was laughing loudly all the way through. You’ve made my day. xP

  3. Dawn says:

    I’m stuck at home for a couple of days with high blood pressure trying to think calming thoughts.
    Your blog really cheered me up and I can’t wait for the next installment!

  4. Hannah says:

    You never fail to cheer me up :)

  5. Corey says:

    Funny, actually reads like a good sitcom!!

  6. Andrew Collins says:

    I didn’t notice you taking transcription of every meeting I’ve been in. You are like a ninja.

  7. Jane W. says:

    very, very funny. Could see myself watching that as a sitcom!

  8. I can imagine that would be annoying. I definitely think there’s a sitcom space for Executive Producers. Basically every other job has been covered so it’s a logical step.

  9. Phill Sacre says:

    That was very funny – and gave an insight into how these things work at the BBC! Although to be fair, who would want the job of such a producer: without a crystal ball you’ve got no idea of what’s going to take off or not, i.e. sometimes things which are very well written and directed never take off, other times things which are a bit crap just skyrocket. Add to that the fact that they might lose their job if they put lots of money into something that doesn’t take off and you can kind of see where they’re coming from.

    Unfortunately it does lead to the situation where no-one’s willing to take any risks and every other comedy is just a copy of another comedy that’s been before.

    Anyway, one of my favourite writing blogs is James Henry (one of the writers for Green Wing), if you like the kind of stuff Mark’s written you might also like him. I find it fascinating to get an insight into what the writing process is like, completely different to how you might imagine!

  10. Ben says:

    great blog, as always.

  11. Misha says:

    From what you’ve revealed so far all publishing/commissioning seems to be the same process as gone through in trying to write coursework :)

  12. Katie says:

    I loved the lift thing. Just putting that out there.

    I am not a frustrated writer but I enjoy these Friday classes all the same.

  13. Dean says:

    I also put together a few notes for those many people that are trying to take their first steps in to stand-up – may be of use to some:

    blogs.warwick.ac.uk/loved/entry/getting_started_in/

  14. Rachael says:

    I enjoyed the christmas’s in Wales thing very much.

  15. amycool says:

    :-) I liked that. For some reason I had Robert Webb’s voice in my head as the producer. hehe.

    I’m glad I don’t want to be a writer. It was bad enough writing English essays. I suppose it’s worth it in the end though. When everyone sits watching your show at Christmas. Too many full stops. I think. :-)

  16. lisa brunders says:

    I laughed out loud too and agree it would make an excellent sitcom.
    I liked the welsh christmas thing, didn’t see the lift thing though.
    Thank you Mark

  17. Madeleine says:

    Hilarious! That’s perfect!
    Unfortunately in this situation, I was imagining myself as the producer(one of my goals… maybe), not the writer and I wanted to smack myself in the face.
    I can imagine how frustrating it is, it’s a testament to you that you ended up getting anything made at all. You say how negative you are but a real pessamist would have given up pretty early on I imagine.

  18. Cat :) says:

    I dunno how you do it. Writing that is. I hate it! Especially science essays in Uni. And I thought English was bad :s But I love reading so much!

  19. Kate says:

    It’s funny ‘cos it’s true…. Much as I’d love to have that meeting, do dread it turning into this.

  20. Those meetings are only the beginning. 18 months later you’re having lunch in a fancy restaurant with the producer, the director, the star cast and the BBC Head of Amusing Programmes, raising a glass of champagne to the success of the show, which is going into production tomorrow. Then nothing happens. After a week you ask what’s happening. You find out the Head of Whatever has ‘moved on’ and is now Head of Something Else, the producer is working at ITV and the director is in Thailand shooting a documentary about endangered wombats. This is true, it happened to me.
    See my blog: thewritertype.blogspot.com/2010/02/how-to-be-writer.html

  21. Steph says:

    I also loved the Christmases in Wales ‘comedy-drama-thing’. Just my kind of humour. I hope the crazy producers/commissioners don’t get in the way of any future projects like that!

  22. lex says:

    This reminds me of that Mitchell and Webb sketch about commissioning.
    In a way that is sort of similar, but also not at all the same in any way.

  23. Shell says:

    That was a very entertaining read – thank you.

    I would end up ‘losing it’ in that situation, I think. Stressful!

    Funny because it’s easy to relate to. There are people like that in all occupations – professionally inconsistent tossers.

  24. Steve D says:

    I am maintaining a dignified silence on this one…

  25. Knox says:

    Oh God – having to work with commissioners for my contract, this sounds very like some conversations I’ve had especially ones with my manager, who, bless her, means well, but has this habit of doing exactly the above about reports I have to write every quarter*. Well, I think you should make it simple – write it however you think works best…. ‘So maybe you need to consider putting in some tables and some figures? You know that’s what the commissioners like – have a look at my example on the shared drive’….’Why have you got so many figures in? It makes it really confusing – the commissioners’ AAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHH

    * – i haven’t written the one for the end of March yet…shhhhh!

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