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Trust Your Instincts

Sometimes in life you get struck by a feeling.  Like Spidey Sense or The Force.  You can either use The Force or ignore it.  Why bother about that whole death star thing?  What’s the worst that could happen?  Oh, the empire has just blown up a planet destroying a civilisation.  Shit.  At least Princess Leia survived.

Okay, it’s unlikely that your sensory failings will lead to such a catastrophe and television isn’t life and death.  It’s less important than that.  But when you get a nagging feeling something is wrong then it’s worth doing something about it or at least checking.

There’s one terrible example of this in my early career.  I had reached the heady heights of researcher at Two Four Productions in Plymouth.  When I first arrived at Two Four a director looked at me with surprise and said he’d heard me read the news on Plymouth Sound Radio and thought I would be a tall, dark, handsome beefcake.  At least that was a compliment on my voice.  But I took that in my stride and worked on many amazing shows.  Who can forget the BBC Daytime series What Would You Do? or Westcountry Television’s Mad About Shopping?  I tried to compose theme tunes for these, but management rejected my ideas.  Trying singing these; ‘Ooh, Ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You-oo Do?’ or ‘We’re just hopping / [BONKERS] / Mad About Shopping.’  If only they’d used my compositions then I’m convinced the shows would have been massive global hits.

After about a year I graduated onto their long running Channel 4 daytime show, Collectors’ Lot.  If you were a student or pulling a sickie in the late nineties then you may remember it being on before 15 to 1 when Watercolour Challenge wasn’t running. The researcher’s main job was to find people with interesting collections and then suggest whether they would be a good guest for an Outside Broadcast (O.B.)1 or if we should film them and create a VT2.

For logistical reasons we would find collectors to film for VTs and set up shoots in a particular area.  Now, I won’t go into what the collection was or where it was located, but I had found a potential guest from a magazine or newspaper clipping.  The photos suggested a brilliant collection that would make a fascinating item.  I chatted to the collector on the phone, something that is vital of course as you need to find out if they’ll be able to bring their obsession to life3.  This hoarder seemed lovely on the phone; friendly, helpful and he sent me more photos and information which confirmed that we would have plenty of interesting stuff to film.  It was an incredible collection and the director would come back from the shoot, pick me up, carry me on their shoulders out of the production office, through the car park of the industrial estate in Plympton and into the canteen of Chaplins Superstore for their excellent value fry-up.  As well as Chaplins, late morning every day the Ivor Dewdney pasty van would pull up and you could get a hot, greasy, Cornish pastry delicacy.  The glamour of television in the South West.  Proper job.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.  I set up a filming date with said collector in a month’s time and left it at that.  I did try and call them a couple of times over the next few weeks, but to no avail.  This would be even more worrying now, in an age where everyone has mobile phones and emails.  However, after a few unreturned calls you would start to feel that something was up.  The problem for me was that I was becoming complacent.  Also I was about to go on holiday and would be away during the shoot.  That wouldn’t usually be an issue.  I had given the production team all the information and the crew would arrive and shoot the item.  The researcher wouldn’t normally be with them as that would be an extra cost.  But the reality was that I could sense something was wrong and I should have flagged it up as a concern.

When I returned from my holiday I discovered that the crew had turned up at the collector’s house and rung the bell, knocked several times.  They waited.  They were beginning to think it was a bit weird when a neighbour came out to reveal the horrific truth.  My lovely sounding, gentle, polite collector was in prison.  And in prison for something bad.  Really bad.  The kind of thing they would have got away with had they been a politician of yesteryear.  Worse still they had been using their collection in the course of their crimes.  Grim.

Upon my return I got a right royal bollocking from my producer.  And I thought that was fair enough, I’d made a balls up, I deserved to be told.  It’s true that after a few months on the treadmill of collection based daytime television I had become stale and disillusioned.  I was shifted off to other projects like an incompetent police officer, public official or media executive.  Sadly, I wasn’t booted upstairs with a pay rise.  I think I went on to research the classic Westcountry series On Hoof.  It was about horses in the region.  Great series.

I guess the lesson from this applies across the genres of television.  If you just assume everything is going to be okay then you can easily get caught out.  And if you get that nagging feeling something is not quite right then it really is best to act on it to ensure you get a lovely fried egg from the Chaplins canteen in your gob rather than a horrible, rotten egg splattering on your stupid face.

1 The Collectors’ Lot O.B.s involved taking over a large house which itself had some interesting collections and then essentially using it as a studio to record a week’s shows. We’d invite loads of collectors to bring their collections and display them to be interviewed by the host, Sue Cook or Debbie Thrower.

2 VT is a term used for a filmed package or report that is used within a show. It literally means video tape, so it seems a bit archaic in this modern digital world, but it is still used. And some people still use tape. I know. Get a hard drive, Grandad. Here’s a useful glossary of media terms.

3 Of course, sometimes people who are brilliant on the phone freeze on camera and others seem dull, but turn it on when the spotlight’s on them, but you at least have to get an idea of what they might be like.

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An Open Apology to Graeme King

So you know how to approach people and you’ve sent your amazing email/letter/pigeon/parcel full of bribes.  But what if you never get a reply?  From anyone.  Ever.  This may mean all that self doubt, the voices in your head telling you that you are rubbish are true, but it probably doesn’t.  If I listened to them I’d be back in Plymouth working for a regional stockbroker; something I did for a short period during the flurry of Thatcherite privatisations.  It seemed a complete nonsense, but I was getting £2.50 an hour and people who bought and sold their shares on the first day of trading made enough to pay for a holiday, so that was good and definitely worth it in the long term.

I’ve had several people contact me asking for advice and I will try to respond either in a blog or personally, but I felt there was someone who deserved a response first; Graeme King.  I am sorry Graeme.  Please accept this blog as a humble apology for failing to reply to your email of 11th September 2011 – I’ve just dug it out and that genuinely was the date it was sent.  Maybe picking an inauspicious date meant your approach was doomed to failure from the start.  Or maybe it shouldn’t have made any difference at all.

Often when I receive an email I’ll read it and if it’s interesting or there’s some merit in the material I’ve been sent I think, ‘I’m going to reply to that’ and then maybe the phone rings or another email comes in, I get distracted and good intention evaporates into the vapour of inaction.  Sometimes that’s the end of it, but Graeme’s case is one I’ve often thought of.  I’ll be walking somewhere and it pops into my head, but then I’m sucked back into the world of media nonsense and Graeme is left alone, unloved and reply-less.

In his email Graeme told me he had made the effort to see my Edinburgh Fringe show that summer, thus joining a highly exclusive club.  He even claimed to have enjoyed it, something most of the audiences and critics couldn’t even be arsed to lie about.  He had gone above and beyond the call of duty and still I didn’t reply.  I thought writing this blog was going to be redemptive, but no.

Not only had Graeme done his research, but he also sent some promising material – a series of well written sketches.  He very politely wrote that we must be inundated with submissions, but he was very serious, would love to work with/for us and any feedback would be greatly received.    Here’s what I should have said in response…

Dear Graeme

Thanks for sending in your sketches and for enduring my Edinburgh show.  I can recommend a counsellor to deal with the trauma this may have caused.

I enjoyed reading your sketches.  There were some good ideas and jokes.  (I won’t embarrass Graeme with specifics, but I did honestly give them a quick read and there was some good stuff that made me laugh.)  We’re not producing any sketch shows, but I would encourage you to look into opportunities where you could submit your ideas – in radio and children’s television, for example.  Also it would be worth trying to find performers to work with and try out your sketches live and/or film them.

Our main focus is developing sitcoms so if you have anything you would like me to look at in future then do send it my way and I do keep writing.

All the best and good luck.

Matt
x

By the way, the kiss at then end is a little joke.  I would never send an unsolicited kiss.  In fact I rarely initiate a kiss at the end of an email or text.  I think it’s a bit much sometimes, but if someone sends me a kiss then I think it’s rude not to kiss in reply.  If I then forget to reply with a kiss I feel bad and worry about causing offence.  It’s a kissing nightmare.

I guess the main piece of advice to take is this; if you don’t get a reply it doesn’t mean your material is awful and you should give up.  Leave it an appropriate amount of time and then follow up.  Send your material to as many people as you can find who might look at it and do it as politely as Graeme.  Sometimes you may just get a reply even if that reply comes in a guilt-ridden, self-loathing fuelled blog two and a half years later.

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How to Approach People…

The title of this blog suggests some kind of self help manifesto.  A quick internet search reveals a gap in the market.  There appears to be plenty of titles aimed very specifically at men who would like to approach women, but none for people who would like to approach people.  I’m not saying you should never approach a woman, but if you do please be polite, avoid unwanted physical contact and take rejection gracefully; smile and walk away.  Also do your research.  No, don’t do that.  Unless you’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day it’s a bit creepy if you already know everything about them.

Actually, all those rules apply to approaching people in the media with your idea, but this time include the research.  It is good to know a bit about people before you make your approach.

I’m writing this because I had a message from a gentleman called Marcus Ako asking for advice.  Here it is:

Hello,

Thank you very much for your incredibly informative and witty blog. Would you be able to spare a moment to give some advice?

I am a writer/actor with an idea for a tv show (yes, I know… I am one of those, but please don’t hit delete yet). I have a pilot script written and a synopsis for eleven 30-minute episodes. I believe the idea is solid for a company like Tiger Aspect. What is the best way to approach them or other companies to score 10 minutes to pitch? I know I could stand outside their office with a boom-box, but I’m afraid they may miss the reference and have me arrested.

Any advice short of “give up” would be welcomed.

Marcus

Thanks for the message Marcus, which is a pretty decent example of how to contact someone.  Flattery may get you somewhere.  Try not to cross the line into obsequious brown nosing or continue further until the person you’re contacting starts to worry that they’ve cultivated a stalker.  The opening sentence is good.  It makes me feel good about myself and therefore more receptive to getting off my arse and typing this.  Flattery doesn’t always guarantee a reply.  I’m going to write a separate post about one approach someone made.  It wasn’t a bad example, in fact it was an incredibly good one and I didn’t respond, which I feel immensely bad about, so I’ll rectify that in a blog.

Marcus goes off the boil a bit when he mentions Tiger Aspect1.  Why aren’t you sending it to me at Channel X, Marcus?  What have we ever done to you?   But a quick look on Tiger Aspect website shows they don’t accept unsolicited scripts.  In which case the boom-box may be your only hope.  Please don’t employ the boom-box.  I’ve already demonstrated how these tactics are doomed to failure.

Here are some tips in no particular order of usefulness.

1) Find production companies that do accept unsolicited scripts.  Research them and see if they are producing shows in a similar vein – in tone or type – as some, but not all, companies do lean towards certain styles.  Many, however, are just looking for good scripts and the fact that their last show was a studio sitcom doesn’t mean that is all they want to make.  The PACT website is very useful and The British Comedy Guide is quite a good resource too.

2) It’s not really worth sending an email asking what people want to see.  If you’re not already a contact of the person you’re approaching then the only thing that’s going to get a response is material they think is great.  And if they haven’t read your work before then they want to see a script or at the very least a well written treatment with some sample scenes.  So just write as brief and polite an email as possible with a bit about you and the project and attach the work.  I just want to click on the attachment and have a look.  It won’t guarantee a response, of course.  Not getting a response happens to all of us.  It still happens to me and it is frustrating, but the only answer is to keep trying, but try to avoid showing your frustration.

3) It’s not really worth emailing with a request to come in and pitch your idea.  It’s very unlikely that I would invite someone who hasn’t already proved their credentials in for a meeting and I’d guess that probably goes for most other execs.  But I have asked people to come in if I liked a script, an idea or a video link they sent me.  

4) You can’t expect feedback.  It’s great if you can get it and I try to give some feedback if I like something and see potential, but there’s rarely time to give detailed notes.  I need to find projects that I think have real potential to be commissioned.  I want to find projects that I find interesting and funny and work with people who are interesting and funny.  I have to be able to look a commissioner in the eye and say that I back that project fully.  I’m a very bad liar.  And I do feel bad about not getting back to people.  I know my guilt isn’t going to help you progress but at least you can take some comfort in the fact.

5) Even if you’re sending your script to an info email address, find a name at the company to address your email to.  The least you can do is have a look at their website.

6) Maybe tell the company that their last show was ace, no matter what the critics or the rating said.  If you hated their last show then don’t go on about how your script is ten times better and how you can’t believe that show got made.  The company will either be well aware that their show went to shit or disagree with you and think it was brilliant.  Have a look through their back catalogue and say that you loved one of their shows that only ran for one series and was criminally overlooked.  For Channel X that might be Snuffbox or for me at Channel X North that might be one of the Comedy Labs we made that never went to series.  At the very least, they had their moments.

7) What is your show about and is there a unique or particularly interesting angle?  It is still the writing that counts, but a timely idea or an area that has not been explored before is more likely to garner interest.  And pitching a show with a similar subject matter to a recent show is always unlikely to work.  So, sending a script to me about a family set in the North East is probably a waste of time.  If you have written that script and it is brilliant then it could still work as a writing sample, but you’ll need to have other ideas.  And write those other ideas.  Hopefully your next script will be even better and cover a subject that hasn’t been done before or at least not in the last ten years, so people might have forgotten about it.

8) Find other ways to bring attention to your writing.  This is probably the thing I try to hammer home at any event where I’m asked to speak.  The series I’ve developed have come from writers who have brought themselves to my attention in different ways.  David Isaac who wrote Lunch Monkeys had been helping a talented director, Jason Wingard, create sketches set in Manchester mini-cabs called Where to Mate? featuring a very funny comic actor, Peter Slater.  I’d seen Peter live, his agent showed me the sketches  and then I met Jason and David.  David asked if he could send me some scripts and because he had already proved he could write funny stuff I said yes.  In the case of Hebburn, I had seen Jason Cook’s stand up and was keen to work with him.  Simple as that (well, plus several years trying to get the thing commissioned).  Also both of them were very nice, polite and a pleasure to deal with.  Obviously the power’s got to them now and, like me, they are insufferable.

9) Further to the above, bring your scripts to life.  One of the great things about working with stand ups and having done stand up myself is that when you perform live you know when something is funny and you know the pain of when it is not.  Find some actors to read your script aloud, ideally with an audience.  Film some scenes.  Do something.  Otherwise you might be sat at your laptop for years going bananas.

10) Take a punt on contacting people – producers, agents, people you are a fan of.  But be polite and don’t expect a response.  Companies may not accept unsolicited scripts, but you can send them a link to something you’ve had filmed or invite them to a showcase.  If your stuff is good enough eventually someone will talk to you.

11) Use social media.  Post links to your work.  But be polite.  Don’t constantly tag Graham Linehan or any other famous comedy tweeters.  But do think before you make approaches and don’t overdo it.  I was once contacted on Facebook messenger by a writer who had previously emailed me material.  I think I had responded to one project, but not to a subsequent one.  He could see that I was online, but when I ignored him he sent several messages asking ‘are you there?  Matt? Hello????’  It was in the evening and I was just on Facebook looking at endearing family pictures of friends and posting sincere comments.  I’m not at work when I’m fannying about on Facebook, unless I’m doing that at work, in which case don’t tell the boss. So do be careful how you use social media.  But if you are funny and interesting on Twitter or Facebook there’s a good chance you are funny and interesting in other ways.  My friend Michael Spicer, who I met because he sent sketches on a VHS, yes a VHS tape, to a company I was working for many years ago, is a great example of this.  He is very funny on Twitter and consequently people go and look at his sketches on youtube which are also very funny.

12) Be resilient. There is a line here.  If people are forever ignoring you and no one ever gives you one iota of encouragement other than your mum, then of course there is a point when you should look at your work and ask yourself, ‘could be improved?’  The answer is probably ‘yes.’  Almost all scripts can be improved.  I’m not going to tell you to give up.  I’d never tell someone to give up.  Several people on youtube have suggested that I give up on life entirely, but fortunately enough people have said things like ‘don’t kill yourself Matt, this stuff is average,’ to inspire me to carry on regardless.

So those are my tips, which have conveniently made a list of twelve.  So there you have my official top twelve tips for approaching people.

I can offer a zero percent guarantee that they will work, but I hope they are useful.  I’m sure there are other things you can do, so if anyone has any suggestions then do let me know.

And finally, as I mentioned in tip 2, it is unlikely that someone will invite you in to pitch face to face unless they like something you’ve written or made.  There are other tips for face to face meetings and maybe I’ll blog about those, but I’m running out of steam now.  I fell asleep in front of the telly in the early hours watching Spiral on Netflix leaving a half eaten brown stew chicken from the local Jamaican take away on the coffee table.  An insight into the glamorous life of the television executive for you there.

Good luck Marcus.

1 I have nothing against Tiger Aspect, which was a lovely place to work when I was with them.

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I’ve Got An Idea…

Most of my ideas have, thankfully, never seen the light of day, although forthcoming appointment to view television series Britain’s Tastiest Village1 has definitely been ripped off from a proposal I sent to the Head of Daytime Twee Food Based Countryside Shows at the BBC many years ago. It’s a nest of creative blood sucking vampires out there. I guess I just didn’t have the vision to commit to the scale needed to take it from daytime to primetime without even a short toilet stop at shoulder peak. And that last sentence just proves that I have been to many commissioning briefings.

The value of the currency of ideas is something I learnt early on and TV gold is always a safe investment, even though no one has a clue which idea will transform from a scribble on the back of a fag packet into a gleaming ingot locked in the vault of Simon Cowell’s production company.

Having ideas and showing people that you can think creatively is, of course, going to help you progress in the media. But when I wrote to television companies as a young man I just thought, ‘This is a brilliant idea, they’re going to think I’m a genius and immediately make the show, stick it on the telly and this time next year I’ll be a millionaire. Or at least have paid off my student loan.’ So when I posted my letter to Chris Slade at Two Four Productions I was convinced my idea for ‘doing a programme about the Tinside Lido’ would have been brilliant even though the idea was just ‘let’s do a programme about the Tinside Lido.’ I think there were some other ideas in the letter but I can’t remember them, so they must have been even less exciting.

For those (un)fortunate enough to never have been to Plymouth, Tinside Lido is an incredible semi-circular Art Deco swimming pool that is the centre piece of the seafront. It was open when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties. I didn’t appreciate it then and just thought the water was very cold, something that didn’t seem to bother me when I snuck in with a bunch of drunken merry makers for an ill-advised midnight skinny dip when I was about 16. Happy days. Fortunately, I survived. The lido was then left to ruin until it was restored and reopened in 2005. It has been battered by the recent storms but will survive according The Evening Herald, Plymouth’s local newspaper. All very interesting, but not necessarily a great television programme without proper research or some kind of angle.

Amazingly however, Chris invited me in for a chat. Obviously I thought, ‘This is it. This is my time. We are going to make this show together, you and me Chris, and we are going to be rich,’ Chris was a television personality having presented shows in the South West for years and had co-founded a production company, Two Four, that was doing well. Turned out that it was just a chat. I guess at the time I was a bit disappointed that my life didn’t immediately change, but now I know how important those little advances are. It was just a chat, but a very encouraging one. Chris had taken the time to read my letter, invite me in, give me advice and tell me to keep in touch. Three years later I was working for Two Four.2

This was the first of many examples where sending ideas has helped me get a meeting or a foothold somewhere in the industry. There are very few of my own ideas that have been made. I did get two late night documentaries for Channel 4 commissioned – anyone see Bare & Breakfast about naturist guest houses? Hopefully not. The final shot features me running across the screen stark bollock naked. That’s what television executives might call brave, but I would like to ban use of the word brave in relation to television unless it refers to reporting from a war zone or very dangerous covert filming. My efforts just upset a friend who tuned in randomly to Channel 4 in the early hours, got excited when they heard my voice narrating this odd little documentary only to be appalled by the sight of me scurrying in my birthday suit. The reason for my exposing appearance was that it was all shot by me and I was filming an interview outside. It started raining so I had to run, turn the camera off and lug my gear inside, which seemed like an amusing way to end the film. And I was filming it naked because it was a documentary about naturism and I’m not arsed about the televisual appearance of my arse. That documentary got me through the doors of Tiger Aspect Productions where I freelanced as a producer/director regularly for a few years.

Contacting people with ideas has often lead to opportunities and I encourage you to do so. Do it with grace and research the people and companies you contact. It won’t guarantee a reply, but it will increase the chances. My current job with Channel X came about because I pitched an idea to a producer who had worked at Tiger Aspect, but was now working with Channel X.  They decided to develop it and it nearly got me a job on the television fully clothed. I’ll write about it in more detail in another post, but the salient point is that the idea lead to a relationship with Channel X which convinced them that I might be worth offering a proper job to. And the rest, as they say, is a footnote in comedy history.

1 If you don’t get the reference then watch the BBC comedy W1A.

2 Don’t worry, I wasn’t just sat on my arse for three years waiting for Chris to call again. I did other things.

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Cheats Sometimes Prosper

Unlike the clandestine crime fighting unit in the BBC One drama or Charley Boorman moving around the world, but without Ewan McGregor, I don’t like to achieve my goals ‘by any means.’  What I’m saying is that I’m not a psychopath.  I like to think that I’ve reached the dizzying heights of moderate accomplishment without screwing people over.  And most people I’ve met in the industry are the same.  Having said that I’ve not met loads at the very, very top.  They’re probably all total bastards.

However, sometimes you have to be a little bit cheeky, embellish the truth a little or sometimes, I guess, cheat.  Just a little.  While the cat’s away the mice will up-sell their skill set.  There are a couple of times in my career that spring to mind, but here’s one from my very early days…

It was my interview for the Post Graduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism at Falmouth College of Art.  This was a very important day.  Having narrowly failed to make it onto the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme my career was looking pretty much non-existent unless I could get a place on the course.  It was very competitive with thousands applying for about thirty places.1   And I wanted this as much as an X Factor or The Voice contestant wants to get to the live shows.

On the day of the interview one element of the process was a written test.  I think it was a series of general knowledge and current affairs questions, but with a few specifically about broadcasting.  I was given the test sheet, but told that there was quite a long wait for the interview – it must have been at least an hour or so – and I was allowed to wander off. So I did.  Sheet in hand I headed to the college canteen.  I knew most of the answers, but there were a couple of broadcasting questions that I had no idea about and I feared that this could be the crucial knowledge gap that would send me back across the Cornwall/Devon border empty handed.

In the canteen I managed to find some students (I know, a difficult mission in a college). Importantly they were doing the BA in Journalism and they had the answer.  They were absolutely certain   I can’t remember exactly what the question was, but something like who was the first director general of the BBC2 or something to do with regional radio or television franchises.

I’ll never know whether or not getting that answer correct tipped the balance in my favour.  Probably all the work experience I’d done was the main factor in getting a place, but I’m sure it didn’t do any harm.  And I like to think that tracking down the students with the answer to the question was me showing the kind of skills needed to be a successful journalist.  It was just research.  I’m sure my old tutors Colin Caley and Guy Pannell will forgive me for what I have done.  Getting a place at Falmouth was the thing that really got my career started.  They can’t do to me what they did to the banks over PPI can they?  You can’t take it all back now.  You can take away those episodes of Mad About Shopping for Westcountry TV3 I worked on, but you can never take my freedom…

1 I have no idea if that’s true, but a lot of people did apply.

2 I realise I should have known this. I do now, obviously. Who was it? I’m not going to tell you. You’ve got the internet and all your smart phones and iPads, which we didn’t have back then so I’m being a right miserable old git about it.

3 This series about the retail industry in the region was possibly the worst show I’ve been involved in. I was a researcher.  We had a laugh making it though.

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Watch these…

I just thought I’d share these short films.  I really like the stuff these film makers produce and they’re from Devon too.  If, like me, you’re from there then you’ll think that’s good too.  Or maybe you enjoyed a holiday in the county of cream teas.  Either way, have a butcher’s…

WELCOME TO OXMOUTH from Meat Bingo on Vimeo.

Lot 13 – Short Film from Meat Bingo on Vimeo.

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The Ice Cream Always Rises to the Top

One day it will come.  That epic day that you have envisaged for years.  The day you have to go into a proper workplace.  When that day comes you’ll be nervous, you won’t know what to wear, you’ll realise that you haven’t got a suit and have to buy one from Top Shop. In the process you’ll be persuaded to get a store card and over time that suit becomes a more expensive investment in your future than you intended.  And it looks shit.

After a period with CSV Media, in spite of the many errors I made, I was starting to make progress.  I would occasionally get paid shifts at BBC Radio Devon covering as a Broadcast Assistant in the newsroom or helping out on shows in the evening or weekends.  I was advised to apply for a Broadcast Journalism Post Graduate Course – this would be a good way to start apparently.  There were only a few courses across the country (there are more now) and it was competitive to get a place as they gave you a great chance of getting a job in radio or television.  I applied for a several including Falmouth College of Art as it was not too far from home and had a great reputation.

At the same time I applied for the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme.  This was even more competitive, but somehow I managed to get through an initial interview and was shortlisted for a final big scary selection process.  It’d be like the Strictly, X Factor, I’m a Celeb and Bake Off finals all rolled into one massive non-public telephone vote off extravaganza of news.  Who would be the winner?  News?  Or me?  Or another shortlisted candidate?

I knew this was still a long shot.  If successful then I would be paid by the BBC to learn the journalistic ropes instead of having to go back to college for a year and pay about ten grand for the privilege.1  Still, I was hoping to strengthen my applications with more work experience and managed to get a week with Westcountry Television News.

Going into Westcountry was scary.  I’d seen it on the TV, now it was time to get a really long and tortuous bus followed by a long walk to the prime industrial estate location on the outskirts of Plymouth that was clearly designed for people who had a car.  That meant there was plenty of time for nerves to build up and for me to try and think of something witty to say that would then fall flat as soon as I’d walked through the automatic doors.

Scarier than the automatic doors was the fact that they actually asked me to do stuff. I didn’t just sit there and watch as if an episode of Drop the Dead Donkey2 was being performed live around me.  I had to make phone calls and research people who might be interviewed. Thankfully they put me under the wing of a new, young journalist called Sasha Herriman3 who was very tall, which I was not and I imagine both of us are still relative in height terms.  She seemed very capable as well as very kind and helpful.  It was a pressured environment and I feared that I’d get shouted at and marched out the doors if I made an error.  She told me I’d done a good job after I’d set up an interview for that night’s news programme that went well. A bit of praise goes a long way.  Remember that when you get to the top and are looking down on the poor mass of scrambling hopefuls below.

During my week at Westcountry I proudly told Sasha that I had a final interview for the BBC traineeship the next week.  I was excited, nervous.  Did she have any advice?  She didn’t say much apart from expressing how great that sounded, which I thought was a bit odd, but maybe she didn’t want to be too encouraging and make me complacent.

I managed to get through the week without being shouted at by the big bosses. Although there was once incident which could have gone either way.  For someone’s birthday/leaving/promotion/pregnancy (delete as appropriate), they’d bought in a load of gourmet ice cream. It was a big thing back then.  Nowadays there are loads of fancy artisan dairy producers, which is wonderful if you’re not lactose intolerant.  I made my way gingerly to the tubs which were attracting staff members like news hounds to an emotionally vulnerable victim, not wanting to take my turn too soon as I was only on work experience.  As i started to scoop some lovely sorbet into a paper bowl I misjudged my technique, flicking a piece directly onto the trousers of moustachioed news anchor David Foster.  I looked up to his imposing face of news expecting a full barrage of Ron Burgundy.4  Thankfully he laughed off the incident.  I think he said something about it being lucky it hit his trousers, because he always took them off for the show as he likes to feel free and unfettered below his desk while presenting.  Who knows what might have happened if it had hit his top half or if it had landed in his impressive ’tash and remained unnoticed.  It could have been a scandal that brought down the station.  But it wasn’t.

The next week I prepared for my final interview.  It was to be a full day of exercises and a session before a panel of three BBC bigwigs.  On the day I got out my Top Shop suit, ironed my shirt and set out with a ridiculous amount of time to spare to avoid any Plymouth Citybus related disasters.  You could never be too sure with Citybus drivers.  As a schoolboy I once had the doors closed on me as I was getting off trapping me half in/half out of the bus in full view of a group of Plymouth High School for Girls pupils who, understandably, found it hilarious.

As I arrived at the BBC reception, I was taken through to a waiting room where I was greeted by the only two other candidates who had made it through to the final round.  And one of them was Sasha. I knew immediately that I stood absolutely no chance whatsoever.  She immediately apologised for not saying anything before, but she was on a short contract with Westcountry, so she couldn’t mention an interview for another job. It was probably a good thing for me too as I would have spent the whole week thinking I was totally banjaxed.

Still, I gave it the best I could.  We were given exercises such as how we’d compile a news show out of a selection of stories.  We were doing this in front of three important BBC people who would ask us questions throughout.  I remember talking about how I’d cover a story about a hospice for children with terminal illnesses and I told my X Factor style BBC judges that ‘I would emphasise the fun aspects of the place.’ And one of the panel said ‘Ooh, that jarred a bit.’ If Simon Cowell had been invented then I would have compared her to the overly trousered dark master of manipulative pop riches.  I tried to ride out the awkwardness, but it was clear that this was not to be.  Falmouth College of Art here we come (I know I shouldn’t have spoilers in the blog, but I got on the course).

There was a small part of me that felt aggrieved, of course.  Sasha was already making her way in the world and it was a traineeship, but the fact was that she was only on a very short contract with Westcountry and I think that was her first job after some other training and of a 12 month traineeship with the BBC would be a great step forward and getting the place was prestigious.  So I was disappointed, but not bitter.  She absolutely deserved to get that job.

I guess what that taught me, as well as the need to hone my ice cream scooping technique, was resilience.  It is a tough business and you’ll get knock backs at every turn.  I’ve had one this week with the news that Hebburn won’t be returning to the BBC for a third series.  It’s always gutting, but you have to look forward immediately and work on how to make the best of the future.

1 I understand that, sadly, this is a paltry level of student debt these days.

2 If you’re young and don’t know it, this was a great, must watch show created by the brilliant Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin.

3 Sasha has carved a career as a news presenter and, as I have discovered using the power of internet search, a star of cabaret too with her outfit The Bluebirds.

4 Anchorman wouldn’t come out for some years, but it gives you the idea. Here’s a link to the news legend David Foster back in the day.

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad…

I should be writing about BBC Three, but many other people have said things about it.1 Suffice it to say that less slots for comedy is bad for people who make comedy and the people who love it. Yes, there were some poor BBC Three shows and many would argue that I made one of them, but it was neither the worst comedy ever made nor the lowest rated. It was definitely one of the cheapest and gave an opportunity to a great deal of new talent on and off screen. Where would I be without BBC Three? I’d still be here. Without my parents I’d be in serious existential trouble, but without BBC Three I’d be desperately hurling my projects at another channel.

In my view the most important thing is how much is being spent on original programming and I find it worrying that money saved from the BBC Three move online is going to be spent on mainstream drama.  Those dramas are more likely to generate commercial revenue, but in doing so you’re compromising the talent stream and I think there’s less chance of finding something original and exciting… I could go on.

Anyhow, back to business. A student contacted me with a couple of questions, so I thought I’d try and answer them and share those answers with the world. My answer to his first question may make you think that I am in denial, but I’ll leave that for you to decide…

Hi Matt,

I’m a student at Salford University, BA hons Performance & Comedy, and i’m currently writing a ‘surreal’ comedy pilot. I’ve actually been recommended to ask for some advice, as i’m acting as a producer for our sitcom.

1) How do you not go insane?
2) Do I use what I think would be funny to an audience, or just funny to myself?

Thanks, Matt.

Thanks to Stephen Cotter for the question and I quite like the double use of Matt. Repeating my name at the end of the message seems sincere as if hopefully appreciative of an answer. It’s flattering, so I have succumbed to that flattery by responding…
1)  Just pull your socks up Stephen or get someone to give you a good, hard talking to.2  An executive producer, for example.  They can occasionally be of use.  That’s how my former commando Sergeant Major Dad would probably have suggested you deal with the trials of being a producer.  But then, who’s to say I haven’t gone insane?  You don’t have to be mad to work in comedy, but you do have to eschew irritating slogans… because it helps.

If I am honest there have been times of incredible stress both during development when I have been sat at a desk staring at walls wondering when someone is going to call and give me a chance to make something. And then I give myself a slap across the face and start developing a new project while waiting for news on those I’ve already pitched. I have also talked to friends and colleagues who work in the industry to get advice and friends outside the industry to get some perspective and move on.

In production, there are different level of stress. All productions are hard work. There’s never enough money or time and filming days are long. As a producer you hope that by the time shooting begins, much of your hard work is done. If you’ve got a good team together then that eases much of your stress. If everything is in place then it’s a case of keeping everyone happy and just intervening when needed. On the first filming day of the first comedy I produced I remember wondering what I was supposed to do. Scenes were being shot, the crew were working hard and doing their jobs. I had some thoughts on each scene of course and the writer had some thoughts, so I made sure we combined our notes and then discussed with the director, so they weren’t getting conflicting suggestions. Sometimes the director would come to us with questions and try and find the answer.

Alongside this you have to look ahead to the next day, the next week and try to anticipate issues. The weather’s looking shit tomorrow, do we change our plans, can we? A particular actor is not available if we change the schedule, maybe we can look ahead and switch things to a day when they are. How do we make best use of all the various lines in the budget? Perhaps these are not applicable to a student production, but the ethos and methodology are.

So while all of that is going on it’s difficult to actually go insane. Maybe once the shoot is over and you’re in post it’s easier for doubts and stress to take over. There may be several different ways of editing a scene, you’ve tried them all and can’t fathom which is best.

My main advice is to catch up on sleep in between times.

2) This is a bit trickier and it is all subjective. But my simple answer to this question is to start with the latter (what you think is funny) and then check that it is the former (funny to an audience).

There are many producers who have been performers. I am one and occasionally still throw material at an audience and hope laughter and appreciation rather than tomatoes come back at me. Although I do have a deep love of tomatoes that my girlfriend finds a bit odd. I am nuts for tomatoes. If I get prostate cancer I am going to be fucked off. I have written something that was funny in my head, shovelled it onto an audience only to find that either my head was being distinctly unfunny or on that day the answer to question 1 was ‘I am.’

If you can’t perform your material live then you need to find a way to test it out. A script reader who will really give you an honest opinion. Not what you want to hear and not someone who’s just critical because they don’t like the fact that you got off your arse to make something. Those people are few and far between. I’ve got my girlfriend and my mate John. My girlfriend will tell me if she thinks something is shit, while John will try really hard to like something, but I can tell when he thinks it doesn’t work and then I push him to tell me the truth and eventually he gives in and admits that it doesn’t really work. I can always tell from his first reaction that it didn’t work. I’ve also got my bosses and commissioning editors, but they get to see it once it’s gone through my own personal comedy Jesuses.

When I was growing up I loved television comedy. Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, the Monty Python films, The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and Vic & Bob when I was a student. Some of those shows would be considered surreal or to have elements of the surreal. I didn’t analyse them back then, but I think there has to be a reason, a purpose or a drive to each episode. I felt this very clearly when watching The Mighty Boosh and I enjoyed some episodes far more than others. I loved the double act dynamic and the world they created. But, for me, the most successful episodes were those where the narrative really paid off, where the structure felt really solid and the lunacy hung from it comfortably rather than watching a big mass of lunacy running in all directions while you run around trying to inject the plot with drugs to bring it into line. Maybe I’m just some kind of comedy Nurse Ratched trying to stop the crazy kids having fun. Sorry kids.

I feel like the last paragraph was a bit TV executive. So I’ll smash that image by saying. Just fuck the system and create, yeah Stephen? Reading that back just makes it sound worse. What I’m saying is ignore me and do what you want to do. If it works, great. If not. Try a new idea.

How’s that for advice? I have just been given my pill and am going for a lie down now.

Anyone got any tomatoes?

 

1 1 Here are a couple of interesting blogs from comedy director Ben Gosling Fuller and Bluestone 42 writer James Cary, whose blog is a useful source of advice for writers in particular.

2 I was going to say slap across the face here, but one of my personal Jesuses mentioned later in this article suggested I refrain from metaphorical violence and on balance I think she is right.

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Making Sacrifices

The pattern to this blog so far has mostly been me telling a personal tale of fuckwittery followed by a bit of inspirational advice. Like Jerry Springer’s closing moralising monologue, the Modern Family end of episode montage or a David Cameron speech (although his efforts are like that, but in reverse). This time, however, I’ll start with the advice, and that is simply ‘don’t be a dick.’ Or to be more subtle about it, sometimes it is best to make choices that are less fun to make progress in your chosen career. Make sacrifices. Unless you are Hunter S. Thompson.1 If you think you are Hunter S. then you’ll probably end up making a similar balls up to me as an attempt to use my initiative became derailed by youthful exuberance and turned to shit. I really should have known better. Maybe I haven’t learnt my lesson as I’m typing this in a pub accompanied by a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Yum.

It was while attempting to gain experience with CSV Media, that the error of judgment occurred. I had been doing fairly well, learning how to record and edit radio features and was excited when short packages I had made were played on BBC Radio Devon. I was still young, 21 I think, so when I met new people and asked to record interviews with them it was a nerve wracking experience and they probably wondered why anyone had trusted me with any kind of job at all. I remember making a feature about a wheelchair basketball team in Plymouth – the captain was friendly, helpful and accepting of my youthful incompetence, while other characters in the team were less forgiving. But I hope they were happy with the few minutes of radio I produced once I had edited out all my poorly conceived questions.

After a month or so I started to gain confidence and noticed that there was a literary festival, ‘Ways With Words’, with some big names attending. It was at Dartington Hall, near the hippy South Devon town of Totnes. Dartington had a small art college.2 Was BBC Radio Devon going to cover it? Well, they’d mention it but they didn’t have the staff to go and spend the weekend interviewing people, so that’s where enthusiastic volunteer Matt Tiller came in. I suggested that I go and interview people and it’d be brilliant. So the CSV Media bosses let me loose with a Uher – these machines, though ancient, were expensive and were to be taken care of.

I spoke to the organiser of the festival and she agreed to be interviewed and was happy to help. This was going to be a massive break.

One slight issue was that I didn’t have a car and the bus service to Dartington was somewhat intermittent. I made it there, but wasn’t entirely sure how I’d make it back. I guess the confidence I had gained from hitch-hiking around Europe when I was 18 made me think that I could just wing it. I’d spent nights in train stations, found rooms to stay with local students and had hairy French lorry drivers incompetently proposition me.3 I’d be fine.

I arrived on the Friday evening and went to the recording of Radio 4’s Any Questions which was part of the event. It was incredible to watch. Even now events like this are exciting to me, but when you’re young and enthralled by the spectacle it is incredibly intimidating and I just didn’t find the confidence to speak to anyone and actually try and capture some content that would have made a good feature. Anyhow, I had arranged to interview the organiser the next day, so I would have something in the bag. Sorted.

After the Any Questions record, well, my memory is a bit hazy and it would become hazier still, but I knew there was no bus back to Plymouth, so I’d have to either find a place to kip with no money and or just wander around all night. The festival was attached to Dartington College, an arts and theatre educational establishment, so I guessed that the best place to blag a sofa to sleep on might be the student bar.

Cut to…

Me drunk and chatting to a bunch of arty students about how I was going to interview Tony Benn and Stephen Fry the next day. It was a Friday night, so obviously there was a club night on and one of the group allowed me to leave the priceless Uher4 in his room while we rock the night to it’s very foundations. After the club we piled back to the student house after party, which involved more drink, chat and some of the arty students drunkenly trying to make art – what are they like, eh? I collapsed on a sofa.

In my head I was Hunter, going gonzo, creating the story.5 In reality I was just on the lash. Which was brilliant, but I let boozing and carousing get in the way of turning the initiative I had shown into something meaningful – a three minute feature that BBC Radio Devon could play to an off-peak audience. Something they might have been grateful for and might have made the bosses think I had some talent. It would have helped me on my way to getting a proper job.

I was the first to wake in the house, managed to haul myself up and drag my battered self out the door. I somehow managed to find my way back to the student hostel – my impromptu Uher store. Luckily the guy’s door was open and I snuck in. He was fast asleep, so like a hungover jewel thief I skilfully picked up my Uher and left with no disturbance. It was a sunny summer morning in South Devon, which kinda helped as I sat on a bench and contemplated the interview I had set up in about an hour’s time.

And then the moment of truth. I started to fiddle with my Uher, to test it before work began, and looked at the controls to discover something terrible. The sunshine metaphorically turned to storm clouds and the sky began to fall on my head, which did the hangover no good whatsoever. The switch was set to Power On. I had left the machine on overnight. How the hell had I managed to do that? I hadn’t even used it. I had not recorded one thing. I must have failed to switch it off after testing it the day before. I turned it off and on again and pressed play and record, the reels slowly turned. And then stopped. I tried again. Nothing. The battery was as flat as a pancake that had been squeezed through a mangle and then stomped on by an angry mob with heavy (and flat) boots.

I remember the feeling very clearly. It was an all consuming voice that just shouted one thing. FAILURE. There was no way to charge the Uher back up. Even if I could find a power source, the charging station was back at the office. The battery lasted for hours if you didn’t leave it turned on all night because you were pissing your career away at the student disco.

The only solution to my situation was to pretend that everything was fine. And so, when I met the organiser, a lovely, friendly, erudite and, of course, bookish woman, we just found a spot to record the interview and that’s what I did. I have no idea what she thought of the bleary eyed, embarrassed and awkward, young man before her, but she was very polite – a dream contributor. It would have been a brilliant interview were it not for the fact that the machine I had resting by my side, held by a leather shoulder strap, was incapable of recording a thing.

I went through the usual process. Pretending to check the levels and asking her what she’d had for breakfast while looking at the dials, which were static, while I hoped she didn’t examine my equipment lest my cover be blown. She had eaten something healthy like muesli, I reckon. My technique was to ask questions and engage her in eye contact, nodding with approval at her answers while I held the microphone a short distance below her mouth.

As the interview, which would be forever lost in the ether of stupidity, came to an end I thanked her for her time, wished her well with the festival and said that the feature would be broadcast sometime on Radio Devon in the coming week. A bare faced lie.

I had no choice but to shuffle off to a far away bus stop to wait for an hour to be taken, very slowly through country lanes and village stops, back home to wash away my shame and the stench of the student disco. The latter is hard enough to get rid of and as for the former? About a month later I recorded a more successful interview, in the sense that I managed to get it on tape, with a practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming. He asked me if there was a memory that I wanted to deal with, something that was playing on my mind that I would perhaps rather forget. I knew exactly what I wanted to erase. He told me to picture that moment as a photograph in my head. And that photo was me stood in the shade of a tree by Dartington Hall with a microphone in my hand faking that interview. He told me to reduce the size of that photo until it became a dot. The technique worked. I did feel better and although I still remember the incident and recognise that it was very shoddy I was able to move on. I never admitted what happened to my CSV bosses, obviously. No one got hurt and I have definitely never left a recording device’s battery drain while out on an all-night bender ever again. So there is a happy ending.

1 A man in a Toronto bar once asked me what I did and I told him I was a journalist, which was truthfully my job and what the bosses of Plymouth Sound Radio were paying me to do. He then berated me for not being Hunter S. Thompson, because a proper journalist creates the news. I guess if I’d taken acid and tried to read stories about the dockyard or Plymouth Argyle FC then that may have become a news story. It would have been entertaining, but would also have got me the sack. Maybe I should have done that. We’ll never know the consequences.

2 Dartington College of Arts is sadly no more, ironically consumed by Falmouth College Art where I studied the dark arts of journalism. I wonder if my failed journalistic efforts on this evening helped to bring the institution down. Probably not.

3 As described in the medium of song here.

4 It wasn’t priceless but CSV Media was not replete with benevolent funders, so it was a vital piece of gear and actually worth quite a lot of money. I am ashamed at the lack of care I took of it that night.

5 Gonzo journalism is written in the first person with the reporter as a key part of their own narrative – a protagonist who makes something happen that becomes a story. Or just make a load of shit up, so just like a lot of print journalism then.

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Decisions, Decisions

Here’s a little mini blog – not about past errors, well not directly….

Waiting for feedback on a script or an idea is similar to that feeling of innard-clenching when you’re waiting to hear from a girl you like when you’re a teenager.  You’ve written an over-wrought emotional letter essentially begging for her to go to the Cinema/Zoo/Pizza Hut with you and then the jacket containing the letter you’ve not yet sent is stolen from the spot you’ve left it in the indie disco.  Sultans of Ping FC should have done a version for me… ‘Dancing at the disco to an indie racket / Wait a minute where’s me jacket, where’s me jacket, oh no…’

For those who don’t know it here’s the song I’m referring to…..

The jacket incident did happen and for months I wondered if anyone had read the letter inside my crappy charity shop jacket.  And now I email a script or treatment to a commissioning editor and hope they’ll take me to the zoo on a date and give me excellent feedback.

These days I am lucky in that I usually get an answer.  Or, unlike my incompetent teenage dating efforts, know when I’ve misread the signals or am barking up the wrong tree and swiftly change the subject or make my excuses and leave.

Right now it is, in many ways, an exciting time, but I’m waiting for more decisions than I’ve ever been waiting for before.  I could be arranging dates at the cinema, zoo and Pizza Hut (Or Wimpy, the only burger joint we had in Plymouth when I was a kid) with several different commissioning editors at the same time, which would lead to a farcical plate spinning narrative.  Hilarity will ensue.  Chances are I’ll turn up at the cinema and the date will walk out after ten minutes because there’s not enough jeopardy or the main character is not likeable enough.

But, although it’s frustrating waiting for answers, it’s exciting to have several answers to wait for.  And while I’m waiting I’m finding other angsty embarrassing love letters to write.

Working in television you spend loads of time waiting and hoping for something to happen.  The only thing you can do in the meantime is work on something new.  Or if you’re freelance and you’ve had a meeting about a job and you’re waiting to hear.  Look for another one.  Put out the feelers, write some emails, make some calls.  Otherwise you’ll never get that elusive second date that might lead to marriage, happiness, children, contentment and eventually divorce, because every show gets cancelled or ended by mutual agreement eventually.  That sounds like a negative note to end on, but it’s not because you’ve made a show.  Well done, celebrate.  Now try and make another one.