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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.

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Are You Experienced?

There’s a perennial hurdle to leap without falling flat on your face and grazing your knees when you’re starting out in the industry. In fact it applies to any industry, the media isn’t special even if you think it is. And if you think that you’re special now you’ve got a job in media and you’re sipping cocktails in Shoreditch House then get some perspective.1 You can’t get a job without experience, but how do you get the experience? You write, you call, you wander up and down outside the local television studios with a megaphone shouting `please give me a job, I’ll be really good, promise’ then break down in tears. On the upside a few people throw some change at you in sympathy or fear.

I had started thinking about a media job towards the end of my time at university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but my previous thoughts through childhood were…

1 Soldier like my dad – decided that might be a bit dangerous, so gave up that idea around 12.
2 Dictator – need a country and psychopathic tendencies. Had neither.
3 Actor – was quite good in our school version of Jason and the Argonauts and Henry V, but in small supporting roles, so didn’t think that was a goer.
5 Comedian – I’ve partly been trying to do that for years. Started with my friend Alan and our double act, The Raving Bolsheviks. We were a big hit at the school Christmas shows. Sadly, we split due to comedic differences before the last show and that was the end of a potentially ground breaking partnership in the mould of Hale & Pace.
4 Professor of History – was well into history (form a queue to hear my thoughts on the nascent French state from the 10th-13th centuries, ladies), but after three years realised that I didn’t fancy being stuck in an institution all my life and I wasn’t going to get a first anyway, so best scrap that idea.

But all those ideas combined, certainly failed actor/comedian and dictator, pointed to a career in the media. Had I known this earlier then I certainly would have been trying to get experience during university holidays etc. As it happens I did have plenty of normal work experience. Growing up in a B&B and then a hotel, my working life started with emptying the bins for 5p pocket money2, doing odd maintenance jobs around the building3 and serving behind the bar and in the restaurant, which usually involved opening wine bottles incompetently and dropping fried bread in guest’s laps at breakfast time. I had also worked in Sergeant Pepper’s Fun Pub 4, a baked goods factory5 and a fruit packing factory – that was a particular low point.

Alongside my efforts to get an actual job, I had to try and get some experience to put on the damned CV alongside all that unskilled stuff. I was writing to everyone I could, but thought there must be something locally in Plymouth where I could make a start. At the time I was living with my good friend and fellow unemployed graduate who wanted to get into the media, Mark Foxsmith. And it was Mark who discovered CSV Media – I think it was through a friend whose brother managed the local ‘Action Desk.’ This was a group of volunteers who provided community based material for BBC Radio Devon in the form of information bulletins and features about community groups and events. I can remember Mark’s excitement when he returned to the freezing cold flat we shared on Plymouth’s historic Barbican (which is hopefully still there and not underwater) and told me that he might have found something we could do to kickstart our faltering and non-existent careers.

Mark and I went to meet them and there was an interview of sorts, I think, and then we were on board. To be honest, I can’t remember much about the process apart from meeting the two main guys who ran it, Jeremy and Marcus6, who were both friendly and helpful, and being excited that they were keen for us to be involved.

To repay the favour, here’s a link to the showreel/taster I shot with Mark on a New Year’s Day morning some years ago. If any factual producers are reading this, then get Mark on the television please.  I have tried and got very close a few times, but now I’m in comedy it’s time for someone else to take this project on…

The CSV Media office was not in the Radio Devon building, but in a shabby little office. At least it was near our Barbican flat and it was a start. There were a couple of Apple computers, an ancient reel to reel editing machine and two Uhers – hefty, but portable reel to reel tape recorders used by reporters to gather audio material for news and features.  Here’s a pic…
Uher1

Even in the nineties it felt like we’d gone back in time, but these were still used in local radio stations with editing done using a razor blade and sticky tape. Jeremy and Marcus taught us how to record material and then edit on the big reel to reel, moving the tapes slowly while listening with the headphones and then slicing the tape with the blade. That first tentative cut, hoping that you’d done it in the right place, bits of tape all over the place, was an incredible feeling.  I hadn’t thought about that in years and I’m getting a bit emotional now, sorry.  And then I remember the first mistake in an edit and clutching bits of tape in despair wondering how I was going to tape it all back together in the right order or at least an order that made some kind of sense.

Although we were kept at a distance from the BBC itself, we were allowed to venture up to the main building occasionally to deliver the material and sometimes get experience on the shows themselves. BBC Radio Devon was housed in a massive building in Mannamead, a well to do, fairly central suburb of Plymouth, and going into the building was daunting.  Through CSV we learnt about the various shows on the station, the presenters and the news output.  Mark and I both worked on Douglas Mounce’s programme taking phone calls, setting up guests to appear on the show. Working on live radio was an incredible buzz and Douglas was very kind, particularly when I booked a guest for a half hour slot assuming it would be a fizzing piece of broadcasting, thinking the phone lines would be ablaze with callers – it was about pensions, I think. God knows why I thought that would be good, but you soon learn and watching Douglas find ways to fill the gap left by my incompetence without throwing the blame at me was a huge relief.  I sadly discovered that he passed away last year.

I had now found some kind of potential career path and started to meet people at the station who might consider me for a job in the future. I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but this felt like the right kind of thing for me and while I would certainly make bigger mistakes than booking a dull guest, I started to make progress. In fact, there’s one error that I’ll write about in my next blog where I made a massive foul up, so you can look forward to that.

If there’s any advice I could offer from this then it’s just to seek out any opportunity that relates to the field you’re interested in. You may have a fixed goal in mind and you may be able to clearly focus on it and hopefully it’ll work out for you or, like me, you may have a vague idea and need to discover that goal through trial and error.  Or rather trial and error after error after error until you finally manage to find something you can do that is fulfilling.  Maybe then you’re on your way.

 

1 Mine’s an espresso martini darling.

2 Not sure if that flouts employment laws, sorry if I’ve shopped you Mum and Dad. They’re retired now, so their days of using child labour are over.

3 My girlfriend wonders what the hell happened to those alleged DIY skills.

4 Not a fun pub.

5 Not a well known brand, but it was shit. Really awful.

6 Jeremy Jeffs and Marcus Bailey who I believe are both now successful documentary producer / directors.

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A Hat Trick of Disasters

When you’re trying to get into a creative industry you would think that being a bit creative and trying to make yourself stand out is the thing to do.  Unfortunately, just like when you are desperate to get a date with someone you really fancy, desperation can be off-putting.  Animals do all sorts of show offy stuff – prancing about flashing their feathers, doing a dance, waggling their arses.  The human equivalent would be wearing a tight t-shirt with my amazing guns almost bursting out of it while clubbing on Union Street1.  Unfortunately the guns are more like those toy pistols with the BANG! flag and I had no tight t-shirts, just charity shop shirts and jackets.  Sometimes it’s better to protect your modesty.

Sadly, in 1994, desperate times called for desperate and ill-thought out measures.  I had tried writing the usual formal letters to production companies begging them for work experience to no avail.  I had applied for jobs and kept getting rejected, unless working in HMV counts.  What I needed to do was show my creativity.  I loved comedy, so why not write to one of the biggest comedy production companies and wow them with how hilarious I am?  A sure fire route to success.

I had enjoyed Jimmy Mulville’s work on Who Dares Wins, Chelmsford 123 and was a big fan of Drop the Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You. My plan was to write the funniest covering letter to Jimmy at Hat Trick Productions and he would find enclosed the most brilliantly comic made up CV possible.  He would read it, literally wet himself and hire me on the spot.  Deal.

The letter and CV probably exists on a now obsolete floppy disc somewhere in my archive of shame. I can’t remember much about the content, but the CV was entirely fictional and the letter probably contained an offer to prostitute myself to the entire company.  One thing I do remember very clearly is writing that I would be happy to prepare lines of cocaine for Angus Deayton.  It was a long time before that scandal broke, so little did I know this was obviously too close to the bone.  Jimmy probably burnt the letter while on his own powder binge cursing my name and vowing never to employ me.2  I’m sure this is why Hat Trick has never given me a job, although I don’t think I ever applied for one after this.

Worse than sending the letter, I tried another kamikaze approach.  On a visit to London – possibly at the same time as the abortive Byker Grove interview – I decided to pay Hat Trick a visit.  I don’t know why, but I must have read stories of people turning up on doorsteps and walking into a job.  London is Britain’s city of opportunity, you go there to make something of yourself.  You take risks.  You make your mark.  It was lunacy.  My method was a bit like when Michael Moore or Mark Thomas turn up in the lobby of an evil corporation and demand answers while the poor receptionist wonders what to do.  The difference is that Michael and Mark have charisma, a camera crew and a reason to be there.  I turned up, shuffled in, gave the receptionist my name and told her that I’d sent a CV.  I was convinced that they’d recognise my name and want to chat.  But it soon became apparent that my communication had not had the impact I desired.

Time decided that it would move horrendously slowly just to milk the moment as I sat nervously sweating while the receptionist wondered what on earth to do with me.  She did pop into the office and returned to tell me that they weren’t aware of me.  There was no sign of Jimmy, nor any of the celebrities associated with Hat Trick. It did dawn on me almost as soon as I’d entered that this mission was doomed to failure.  Maybe if I’d had the presence of say Matt Berry or Johnny Vegas then things might have been different, but even then they’d have probably just wondered what a brazen, voluminous, beast was doing in the building as opposed to the shy, quiet, slim, young man that I was.

At the time the failure just seemed to prove how difficult and how painfully far away my goal was.  What I eventually learned was that just trying to be funny in an approach is not enough.  And just doing that looks like you’re trying too hard.  You need to have substance.  If I’d sent my hilarious letter with a brilliant idea for a show, a script or a video then maybe they’d have overlooked the facetiousness and appreciated that I had something to offer.

I often get emails that try this method and occasionally people turn up at the office, but they’re never anywhere near as embarrassing as my effort and if they do appear at the door, they usually have a CV, a script or DVD to hand over.  If someone makes some attempt to be funny then I don’t mind that and sometimes I even drop my hard hearted executive air and laugh.  But that alone is never enough.  It has to come with some signal of intent that you’re serious about working in the industry.  Produce some evidence that you really are up to the job, before trying to help celebrities indulge in substance abuse.3

I’m very lucky that, having ditched my early career development techniques, I have been able to work with some great comedy producers.  Sadly I have never worked with Jimmy or the late, great Geoffrey Perkins, who was at Hat Trick, became the BBC’s Head of Comedy and then moved to Tiger Aspect when I was freelancing for the factual department and had the air of a very lovely man, but I do have the pleasure of developing comedy with Jim Reid and Alan Marke at Channel X and have worked with Henry Normal at Baby Cow, thankfully without having to make an arse of myself in their reception areas.

 

1 Union Street is a notorious Plymouth night time destination.  As a teenage goth, then indie kid, my friends and I would be out in our ‘alternative’ gear avoiding eye contact with the drunken hordes. Many would have beaten us to a pulp just for accidentally looking at them.  We had to walk the entire length of Union Street, because the indie club was at the far end past the glossy nightspots of Jester, Garters and Sergeant Peppers, where I once worked as a glass collector and barman.  Fights broke out every weekend, but I could duck behind the bar.

2 Jimmy Mulville has talked publicly about his personal life in many honest and inspirational interviews.

3 When I finally got a job in television I was disappointed to discover that cocaine was not to be found in every cubicle and what I’ve seen has never been anything like an episode of Mad Men.  I’m glad, because I’m not really like that, but the occasional bit of glamour wouldn’t go amiss.

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It’s Not What You Know…

In my first post I told the heartwarming story of a man who wrote a great letter, got a job interview and then royally screwed it up. This time a story of bloody minded self sabotage.

I was still searching for a job ‘in the media’ while my parents despaired. They couldn’t believe that I was struggling to find a proper job after leaving a good university with a good degree. The following tale suggests there were plenty of reasons.

A good friend of the family mentioned they knew a renowned local radio journalist, Malcolm Carroll1. I’d never met him, but he was Head of News at Plymouth Sound Radio and had one of those voices that boomed authority while having the tone of someone who was always questioning it. He was a bit of a local legend. The friend suggested that I get in touch with Malcolm and mention the connection. Sensible advice, but at the time my stubborn streak kicked in and I decided that it would be immoral to use such connections to help my career. I’m not going to be like those posh tossers at university whose mummies and daddies helped them into jobs. Idiot..

I did write to Malcolm. But it was an appallingly hand written note that made no mention of the connection. The neatness prize I won at school age nine was a distant memory2 and my handwriting to this day is an embarrassment. Back then it was still just about acceptable to write letters with a pen and paper, but typewriters, electric typewriters and even inkjet printers had been invented, so a bit of effort in that arena when trying to get a job would not have gone amiss.

The letter didn’t say `Please give us a job Mr. Carroll, you tosser,’ and I can’t really remember the content, but I know that it was short, written in black ink and not very good. The family friend asked me if I’d written to him and I said I had and then she asked if I’d mentioned her in the letter and I said I hadn’t. She told me I was an idiot. And she was right.

Now, I’m not advocating non-meritocratic nepotism or using the old school tie – although I was well able to put mine on (see footnote2) St. Andrew’s Primary School was not a hotbed of media families – but if you know someone who can help you and you are deserving of that help then it’s understandable and fair enough. I deserved everything I got which was nothing. Malcolm did not reply.

Years later I received an approach, as it happens from the granddaughter of said family friend who was doing a media studies degree. The connection was stronger than the two degrees of separation that Malcolm and I had, so I would have felt obliged to reply, but I wouldn’t have felt obliged to actively help had I not been impressed by the approach. The email was well written, polite, not expecting or demanding anything and asked that if I had time to give her some advice then she’d gladly welcome it. And because I was impressed by the email and also when we spoke on the phone I tried to help. I recommended her to some contacts and she got in touch with them, managed to get a work experience placement that led to paid work. She deserved it.

If you don’t know me and you want to get in touch then I can’t guarantee that I’ll reply, but I do try particularly if someone has made a polite, well researched and thoughtful approach. If you think you have done that and I have not replied then I apologise. You may just have caught me at a particularly busy point in a production and it passed me by. Try again.3

I did eventually get a job as a journalist at Plymouth Sound Radio with Malcolm Carrol and I did mention the family friend connection, but not the self-destructive letter. Malcolm was great fun to work with and having been in the business for years knew the back story to every local issue. Years of broadcasting had taken their toll in some ways though – his hearing had been affected. If you used a pair of headphones after him on an edit machine or in the studio they’d be at a volume that blew your ear drums to bits.

 

1 I’ve not had chance to track Malcolm down, but if you’re reading this. Hello! Or if you know him send my regards.

2 The rest of the class must have had really shit handwriting. Winning that prize still baffles me. I was a right swot at school though. At the age of four I saw that my sister had work that she’d brought home from school. I was jealous so I asked my teacher if I could have some. I was also the official ‘tie helper’ in class because I’d learnt how to tie a tie. I was a very advanced child when it came to fashion accessorising. Like the neatness skills that talent has long since disappeared.

3 If you sent me a script or a link to a taster or similar then I almost certainly have taken a look at it. I read and watch as much as I can, but I can’t respond to all those, sorry. I really do know how hard it is and how much work goes into them. Try again. Write more. Rewrite more. Shoot more. Research successful shows, films, scripts. It’s the only way to learn, improve and give yourself a fighting chance.