Monday, April 28, 2008

I liked the 'What's at stake for Jesus' line though.

Interesting article in the Media Guardian about the current state of BBC Drama. You may have to sign up for the site if you haven't already, but it's free, and certainly worth your time.

UPDATE: now with a follow-up blog entry by Gareth.

Interesting partly because the main interviewee of the article makes an appearance in this post (while the writer of the article is in this one), but also because my experience of working with BBC Drama (they commissioned the teen drama from an outline, then a pilot script, then a second script, which I'm working on right now), has been almost entirely positive.

There are a number of reasons why this might be the case though, and also why I might be coming from a slightly different place to most drama writers, which are:

1) Having come from a comedy-writing background, where the only reason a Head of a Department would remember your name, or even come up and speak to you at a screening party (for example) is if they mistake you for an actor. This is understandable, as I was standing between Mark Heap and Oli Chris at the time, and I'm taller and better looking than both. All right, not better looking. Taller though. Than Mark Heap. A bit.

The conversation went like this:

HD: (not entirely un-flirtily) Hello, and where might I know you from?'
ME: (confused) Erm, did you ever go to the Waterstone's in Canterbury?
OLI: James is one of the writers.
HD: (annoyed) Oh.
ME: So, what did you-

Head of Department walks away.

ME: Oh.

2) I have had some small experience of co-writing a number of pilots for American networks. I can't go into this for exciting legal reasons, but the main impression I got from the experience was 'jesus this isn't much fun at all'. Every line of dialogue had to go through not just four executives, but four levels of executives. Any decision to do with casting involved conference calls with thirty casting agents on the same line, so you were ten minutes in just saying hello. BBC Drama may well be moving worryingly in this direction (and the bit about everyone constantly fretting about what the person at the top is going to think, rather than getting on with their job sounds a bit familiar), but I would say it has a way to go yet.

3) I like working collaboratively. The series is totally my baby, but I'm the first to admit that I have a lot to learn about structure, pacing, narrative arcs and so on. A surprising amount of stuff I did pick up from Bob the Builder, but my teen drama episodes will be sixty minutes long rather than eight, so unless the actors say their lines verrrrry verrrrrry slowwwwwwllllyyyy, I have to try and work out how to do this properly. Before I write each episode, I sit down with Joe Donaldson, the assistant producer, and Liz Kilgariff, the script editor, and we work together on the outline. And because we've spent a lot of time with these characters now, developing their backgrounds and talking about where they're going to go, if they disagree with me on what I want to happen, I can trust them that they're not doing so because they want to curry favour with people above them, but because they actually give a shit about the story we're trying to tell. This is close to being my favourite bit of the whole process, and sometimes I like to pretend it's an elaborate roleplaying game session, except that I'm going to write it all down later, and it's a bit more expensive. And I'm not allowed to have beholders in it. Although it's set in Cornwall, so +1 swords haven't been entirely ruled out.

4) The executive producer actually said to me about the first draft 'Hmm, I like this, but I think you could be a bit bolder with it. You know, taking a few more creative risks'. Producers who say things like this deserve parades.

5) I am being protected by the afore-mentioned TEAM MEATSHIELD.

None of this should be read as an attack on a pleasingly even-handed article by the way (yes, I'm sucking up to Gareth after some nasty bullying from that James Corden boy*), or to pick fights with writers much more experienced and talented than myself. It is only early days, and I'm sure there'll be some quite big and quite nasty fights to come along. But it would be remiss of me not to say that at this stage at least, working with Joe, Liz and various people at BBC Drama has been an enormously encouraging experience.

Obviously, if after ep two is finished the high muckety-mucks don't commission a full series, I'll burn down the East Tower of TV Centre and then force-feed them the shredded remnants of my tv license. But Agent Matt put that in the contract**, I think, so they've had fair warning.

* I'm on Team Gareth, even if only because we had a nice chat about Battlestar Galactica once, before it was cool to like it.
** I think it would be fair to say that Agent Matt's experience with the Contracts department has been a slightly less nourishing affair altogether.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The script will be better than this post though, don't worry.

Yesterday then, in descending order of importance, Mum got back from hospital early, scans revealed that the Blue Kitten (due in September) is almost certainly girl-shaped, and the eleventh draft of my kids' book has been declared almost ready to go to the some publishers.

(EDIT: it's been pointed out this makes it look like I have a publisher lined up. I don't, so my literary agent OH YES I'VE GOT TWO AGENTS is sending it off to various different publishers. Are you a publisher? Why not call me now, before missing THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME!!!!!)

Obviously all sorts of things can go wrong in all sorts of direction, but sometimes it's okay to look back and think 'Hmm. That was quite a good day'.

Also I was able to make a start on the second episode of my teen drama thing, after the BBC Drama department okayed the outline, a process which went something like this:

SFX: phone rings

BBC DRAMA DEPT.: (sobbing) Is james there?

ME: Speaking.


ME: We don't?

BBC DRAMA DEPT.: The outline went to the highest levels. THE HIGHEST LEVELS! Word from on high is (whispers) you may proceed to stage two

ME: You mean actually writing it?

BBC DRAMA DEPT.: I can't talk now, I think this phone is tapped.

SFX: Click. Brrrrrrrrrr....

Because they're the 'Drama' department, you see. They do everything in quite a dramatic- oh please yourselves.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Put that down

(from boingboing)

What the hell is going on with security guards cracking down on photography in this country? I'm reading stuff like this on an increasingly regular basis, and it's getting a bit worrying.

UPDATE: Sean has linked to a petition at the Downing Street website in the commments below. Well worth putting one's name to that, I think.

In answer to Tim's question, I believe 'street photography' is when one makes pinhole cameras out of used crack vials, then sells the resulting happy snaps to the Observer magazine. Hope this helps, Tim.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Finest Comedy Minds Of A Generation


A group of writers, some writer/actors and a producer are gathered together for a nice chat.

ME: ... and we're having the scan next week, so we can tell what it'll be.
PRODUCER: You mean like whether it's going to be an elf or a pixie?
ME: Ha ha ha. (explains) She's saying that because I live in Cornwall.
PRODUCER: Or a leprechaun.
ME: Hmm.
PRODUCER: Or one of those talking tree things from Lord of the Rings.
ME: An Ent?
PRODUCER: What's an Ent?
ROB: A posh insect that only hangs around really expensive picnics.
ME: ...

ROB, by the way, is currently starring in a PC World advert, with a family WHICH IS NOT HIS REAL FAMILY, pretending to care how much he spends on computers ROB DOES NOT CARE HOW MUCH HE SPENDS ON COMPUTERS.

I just think people should be warned, that's all.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Escapius Podulus

I'm pleased to say the M-Class Parental Unit is back for the present, although she's got to be driven over to Plymouth for an operation on Wednesday. Fingers crossed that might be it all over and done with then.

Cor, James Moran's 'Fires of Pompei' episode was a cracker - lots of lovely little jokes, and some good emotional stuff. La Tate hasn't been entirely annoying either, although she does seem to need a firm directorial hand on the tiller. I have to admit, I found the 'gurning through the glass panel' bit in the series opener last week to be really rather endearing as well.

Two solid episodes of Who straight away then. Normally I'm happy to have had three in a whole series, and we haven't had Moffat's yet, so it's looking good thus far.

Random Quote Of The Week:

PATROCLUS: How come whenever I read James Moran's blog, he's always insanely busy, then I look over at you, and you're playing Bioshock?

ME: Because Other James isn't doing it right.

(and then I scuttled off to write two television series outlines and a sample scene for my Regency Action Movie, so clearly Other James is acting as an inspiration for us all)

I'm away for a few days from tomorrow, and probably sans broadband (Slough) so if anyone needs to get hold of me, the mobile will have to do.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thanks for that.

My mum's in hospital at the moment, which isn't remotely where mum's are supposed to be. They're supposed to be indestructable, like the Terminator, but with a more nagging quality. Looks like (fingers crossed, touch wood) she'll be out soon, but in the meantime I'm taking my dad over as often as possible to keep her spirits up through conversations like this one:

Dad: You know that optician you like? Dead. Cancer. And he was only sixty-one.

On the way back in the car:

Dad: Your mother doesn't seem to need us to stay quite as long at the moment. That's a good sign.

Me: Of course it is.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

"Annnnnthen he calls his family...."

Drunk History, with Michael Cera as Axelelander Hannableton.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Writing Comedy Sketches

Hi James
I hope you don't mind this unsolicited email but I wanted to ask your advice about comedy sketch writing as I know you contributed to Green Wing. Can you tell me if you studied journalism or went on a comedy writing course?  If so, can you recommend somewhere where I should go. I like watching stand-up comedy but would prefer to be a writer as opposed to being on stage. Thanks in advance

I didn't study journalism (I WOULD RATHER DIE) or go on a comedy sketch writing course (I WOULD RATHER- oh, wait, I might be teaching one at some point), although I did take a course on scriptwriting at Derby University (glittering jewel of the Midlands) about ten years ago, what turned my life around. Nothing specifically about comedy though, more a blitz through various different formats (radio, short film, I think possibly theatre, although I may have dodged that one).

After I got this enquiry, I did some basic sums to see if I was qualified to hand out advice on how to write comedy sketches, and it turns out I have had exactly the same number of commissions as rejections, having written for Smack the Pony, Man Stroke Woman and a kid's thing called Planet Sketch, been rejected by Little Britain, Omid Djalili and The Bearded Ladies, and have decisions pending on three other sketch shows. Although some would mistake this for a sketch career teetering precariously on the edge, I would say it was a different edge entirely, a cutting edge if you will, and thus I am more qualified than anyone else in the world to dole out How To's.

Any-old-hoo, here is the sum total of my hard-won experience writing for multiple Emmy-award winning comedy sketch shows (/Gervais) for anyone who wants to write for a sketch show, but doesn't have an agent:

1. DO NOT write sketches that in the space of thirty seconds, attempt to cram in a spaceship collision, a flock of burning ostriches and a series of exploding cars. Sketch shows don't tend to have that much money. More than you think are filmed in the producer's own dwellings to save cash. This bit of video from Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe shows how something as simple as a man falling off a log takes fifteen weeks, one kerjllion pounds and a crew of thirty to get on camera.

2. DO NOT send in sketches that don't have roles for the main actors. Which sounds obvious, but in my last meeting with the Ands, they told me of a series of sketches sent in revolving around a eight year old girl and her mother. The Ands in question are in their early fourties, and although jolly good actors, the make-up bill for that one would be considerable. And even if it worked, it would be really really creepy.

3. DO NOT send in a load of stuff you blatantly wrote for other shows. Or if you do, at least have the sense to change the character names. And if you remember that, make sure to also change 'him's to 'her's. And make sure it doesn't have a document title like 'greenwingscene732(rejected).doc. Ahem.

4. DO make sure you're sending your stuff in to the right place/person. If you see a sketch show you like, look at the credits to see which production company made it, and the name of the producer (don't usually worry about the executive producer, this tends to just be someone in a suit from Channel 4 or the BBC who walked past at some point and said 'yes well that seems fine, carry on, can't stop, overdue for my sex dungeon paid for by YOUR TAX' or similar).

5. Send in at least six sketches (better to do between eight and ten I reckon) to the producer with a brief covering letter stating previous experience if you have any, a brief statement explaining that you liked the show very much and would love to be given the chance to contribute if not. Don't write down your hobbies, or ambitions, nobody cares. Do Not, FOR THE SAKE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND PURE, try and be funny in your covering letter.

6. Get someone to read your sketches before you send them off, just to cover spelling and to make sure you haven't left any silly mistakes in. If they say 'so where's the funny bit then?' shout 'I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU THINK!' and run to the kitchen in floods of tears to drown your sorrows in thick slabs of toast with marmite.

7. Try to keep track of which sketches have been accepted for which shows. Otherwise, you might have one sketch accepted for a recent show, only to suddenly remember that the very same sketch was also accepted for another show a few years ago, and that now there are two versions of the same sketch in existence. Prepare also to feel obscurely disappointed when no-one even notices.

8. Do not, if you get a meeting with, say, a couple of Ands, where they say that of the four sketches you sent in on spec they particularly liked three of them, ask 'what was wrong with the fourth one then?'. Because you will hear the words coming out of your mouth seconds after you say it, and will already be flushed with embarrassment by the time the producer says, in a not-unkind sort of way 'I'm sorry, we just didn't think it was very funny'.

I'll ask some of the other Green Wing types if they have any useful stuff in a tick, they all have a much longer and more distinguished sketch writing career than me, in some cases starting out before I was born (Rob).

UPDATE: just thought of this one: DON'T, when you get your first cheque for about £250 for your first ever comedy commission, immediately quit your job in the expectation of a glittering comedic career. You will Look Silly. Although I did then end up getting a temp job at Waterstone's, which turned into a proper job, and then The Best Job I Ever Had, ahhhhhhhh.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Random Things (updated):

Gareth May, off of last year's Professional Writing course at Falmouth, has set up a website to show those most confused of all things, the young 21st century male how things should be done, from which newspapers are which, to Wakeboarding: a How and Why. It is worth a look.

'Tiger' Tim Warren, also of the Professional Writing MA, is now blogging professionally over at THE WORLD'S GREATEST TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE BLOG The Root Of The Matter.

ALSO: go and say hello to Lisa Prior at Peckham2Paris.

And Dave has been a bit down of late, so all comments are probably welcome.

The Trailer to 'War Inc.', John Cusack's 'spiritual sequel to Grosse Point Blank' is now up, thusly:

It looks good. And slightly odd. But definitely good.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Last week I was invited to a meeting with a couple of actors who appear in a sketch show with an 'And' in the middle. No, not those ones, the other ones. That's them.

I'd already written a few sketches on spec, and that I was invited to a meeting presumably meant they didn't hate them, and as I was up in That London anyway, I thought I'd pop along, just have a coffee or something, dunno. A few minutes later, I got another email just 'letting me know' that the purpose for the meeting was to pitch some sketch ideas to the 'Ands'.

Which I've never done before. And the thought didn't particularly appeal. In fact, I don't really see why most meetings happen in the first place, what with no-one ever actually needing to see my face, what with me being, you know, a writer.

But I decided to go anyway, because it's always fun to meet a new 'And'. So, I sat in the reception for a bit, wondering how exactly one goes about pitching sketch ideas. I mean, nobody expected me to act them out, surely? That's what the actors do, and also, I'd probably act out my own stuff really really well, which would intimidate the Ands, rather unfairly. Maybe you just shout out the catchphrase and then list umpteen social situations which could hilariously lead up to it, that seeming to be the point of every sketch show since The Fast Show, which means they all completely missed the point of The Fast Show, which was really rather magnificent.

Two actors joined me in reception. I could tell they were actors, as they were both flipping through scripts, and the boy one had very expensive hair, while the girl one was SIX FOOT EIGHT. Now there's a rule with tall people, that we regard each other as a refuge from the sub or normally heighted, which means one thing we don't do to each other is say 'OH MY GOD YOU'RE LIKE SIX FOOT EIGHT WHAT'S THE AIR LIKE UP THERE, LOL' AND SO ON. Sorry, 'and so on'. So we smiled politely at each other, and of course all the time I wanted to say 'OH MY GOD YOU'RE LIKE SIX FOOT EIGHT WHAT'S THE AIR LIKE UP THERE?'.

Finally I got the call that I could go in. I stand in front of some people from television, clutching my notebook and swaying slightly.

AND 1: So when you're ready to-
ME: There's a lady down there that's SIX FOOT EIGHT! That's taller than me! I'm quite tall, but she was really tall! As a consequence of which I have somewhat forgotten all the stuff I was going to pitch.
AND 2: (kindly) So which part of Cornwall are you from?

PS: France was very nice, Patroclus will be making a full report later.