Merry Christmas! Here for your festive delectation is a short film I did a bit of my executive producing on. What does that mean? No idea, but I did whatever I could in an executive fashion. All the hard work on Sleigh was done by the brilliant John Panton who directed and co-wrote with David Quantick and producer Michael Knowles. It features a song specially composed by Elbow and has been released on the Dead Parrot comedy channel. Enjoy…
Here’s a festive treat. Sleigh is a short film starring Matt Berry and Nigel Planer with a Christmas song specially composed by Elbow. It’ll be released soon and here’s the trailer…
The producer is Michael Knowles (‘Away’ starring Timothy Spall was released earlier this year), and I’ve helped out with a bit of exec producing.
Here’s another brilliant episode of Absolutely Fine created and directed by Tom Rosenthal, co-written by and co-starring Celeste Dring. This one was tailored for Facebook, while there is a longer version with a very different ending over on YouTube.
A second series of Tom Rosenthal’s brilliant Absolutely Fine has just been released on Comedy Central UK’s youtube page. I had the pleasure of exec producing this. Tom and the cast did a great job. Here’s the first one…
Here’s a lovely video from the ace Tom Rosenthal who made these shorts for Comedy Central. I helped a wee bit, but he did pretty much everything on it. They’re great…
Interest declared. I am only writing this blog in a bid to get you to watch my video and buy my song. But there’s a lesson in it. Not the view/purchase, that’d just be you showing what a good person you are and doing something nice for once in your life. Look at all the free content I’ve provided. And it’s a good song, so buy the blimmin’ thing. Is that a deal? Excellent. Here’s the link to buy Flat Packing Anger Management on iTunes.
Why is there a lesson in it? Well, this song and the subsequent album came about because a couple of years of ago something amazing happened – Channel 4 commissioned me to make a short pilot – or taster as we often call it in televisual show business – of a spec musical sitcom script I’d written. As you can imagine I leapt around the room when I got that call and screamed with excitement. I was surprised because it’s quite a risky idea, but they liked the script and if someone likes something I’ve done then I like them, they’re ace. Genocidal maniac gives me a five star review? Cool!
The commission meant recording a few songs with a full band and working with my musical production genius of a friend, Gus Bousfield, who not only used to work with me in TV, but who also writes, performs and produces brilliant music. His band Gurgles have become faves of Stuart Maconie on BBC 6Music. Nice work, Gus.
As a creative process it was immensely challenging but incredible fun and I felt very privileged to have been given even a small budget to produce the music and then shoot some scenes to show how the script would come to life. We cast Diana Vickers and David Elms who made a really great couple and Javone Prince as a crazy ex-boyfriend of Diana’s character. It’s rare that a pilot feels perfect – you want it to be brilliant and guarantee a series, but even if it’s close to doing that, it should at the very least be something you can build on to develop an idea further – and this was no exception. The cast was great, lots of elements worked and overall I was really happy with the result. There were certainly things I’d change moving forward but I was proud of something I’d put a huge amount of effort into.
I’ve used this from the taster as a video for the single….
The reception to it was positive at the channel, but in the end like most projects it didn’t move forward. Gutting, but them’s the breaks. Pick your self up, dust yourself down and scream into the abyss. The chances of me getting the project as far as I did were slim, they always are. Of course, I think it would have made a really good series but the competition is incredibly tough and I always see rejections as part of the process. Even the most talented people have to be committed, persevere and bounce back from rejection to succeed.
What I decided to do, though, was use the songs I’d recorded as the basis for an album. I’d enjoyed the process of recording with a band so much that I thought, ‘what the hell, keep on rocking.’ I’ve got some good songs really well performed and arranged, so it would be a shame to just hide them away on a hard drive.
I think there’s a lesson in this somewhere. Maybe it’s that having completed something that you think works or has something so it, then it’s worth looking at different avenues to move it forward. I don’t believe it’s a good to focus on one idea for one medium for too long once it’s been rejected by everyone. It is good to be passionate and committed to an idea; you should care for a horse that’s living, treat a horse that’s injured or unwell with love and attention, but as for a dying one… put it out of its misery and bury it in your bottom drawer until all the commissioning editors have moved on. Then you can whip the horse repeatedly until it comes back to life. What you should never do is keep flogging a dead idiom.
But if you can find another format or arena where your horse can live on, then feed it some hay, strap on your saddle and ride off into the sunset.
If you follow any comedians on Twitter, read arts pages in newspapers / online content providers or are in Edinburgh in August then you’ll know that the Edinburgh Fringe is happening. Right now. I’m on the train heading up there, literally now. Has it finished yet? No, it goes on for blimmin’ ages. It lasts pretty much the whole of August. Which is why people bang on and on about if for ages in August. I’ve done it, I know. Talk to my friends. Actually, don’t; they wish to hear no more about it. But as a writer/performer/producer/directer, whether you’ve got your foot in the door and stepped directly onto the ladder while passing go and collecting £200 or are stood waiting at the door in the pissing rain with no coat or umbrella then it’s worth thinking about Edinburgh.
A good friend of mine asked for some advice about this recently. Someone who is already a successful actor and a very good writer. They thought it would be an idea to ask someone who has never appeared on telly – unless you count Points of View or a, thankfully fleeting, moment in my critically acclaimed Channel 4 documentary, Bare & Breakfast – for some thoughts on the matter. So, as someone who has taken several shows to the fringe and achieved no small success whatsoever, here’s my two penneth.
You definitely should put on a show. Edinburgh is a great, but expensive way to do it. It is gruelling and can at times be dispiriting, but it is also inspiring, challenging and can lead to opportunities you’d never imagined even if you are not nominated for any awards, which I certainly never was. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but writing and performing fringe shows got me into comedy professionally. It was a loss leader on the road to moderate achievements.
And here’s some specific tips, numbered to give it that clickbaity, buzzfeedy vibe….
1) Go to Edinburgh to watch stuff. You can’t imagine what it’s like until you’ve been. I visited for the first time in 2002 with my erstwhile partner Michael Spicer. Some shows were amazing and many were just okay. I thought I could definitely do an okay show and have certainly proved it. Michael and I returned full of ludicrous vigour and ambition before embarking on our highly successful 4 star – or 2 depending on your choice of publication – two hander sketch show Soft Toys in 2003.
2) Start writing. Now. You can never have too long to write your script. Want to do a show next year? Start getting your ideas down. Work on your structure. You want to be ready to perform previews early in the new year if you can – even if it’s just trying out sections of a show, putting something before an audience is the best way to see what’s working or not. Stand ups, character acts and sketch groups generally try out material across the year as they gather an hour of sure fire rock solid comedy gold. That’s the idea, anyhow. And many have been writing and performing for a few years before they take their first full show up, so it’s often three or more years in the making.
3) If you’re unknown or even if you do have a bit of profile, it’s probably best to start on the free fringe unless you know you’re going to have a knock out, very professional show that is worthy of people’s time and money. And if you put a great free fringe show on people will come, they will put money in your bucket, then you can take your show on tour around the country, then the globe, clean up and you will be a millionaire within months. That’s my guarantee to you.
4) Be your own producer. When you do your first show you could spend a huge amount of effort trying to find someone who will produce your show. And they do cost money. I’ve done it both ways and having a producer is great; it takes a huge amount of stress and time out of the process and you have someone to moan at, but you still have to be responsible for your show and getting people to watch it. It’s tedious admin but you can do it. Other shows had their highlights, but that 2003 show is still probably the most successful I did and the most cost effective. Deadlines for submissions to the fringe programme etc. come early in spring (I can’t remember exactly when and I’m on a train, the wifi is intermittent so you’ll have to do a bit of research, soz) so start planning early.
5) If you can’t afford PR (which can be expensive) then do your own. Find an angle, write a press release and send it out to any relevant publications. Contact people throughout the run to keep momentum. If anything happens, a small newsworthy (at least in the festival press) story, then contact journalists and you might get a mention. In 2003 there was an incident – I was accused of theft by a small Edinburgh post office where I was doing some photocopying. It really kicked off. You literally couldn’t write this better. Let me paint a picture of the drama; a post office worker said, ‘Did you nick that Blutack?’ and I replied, ‘No, it’s mine. I already had it on me.’ And they said, ‘Oh, sorry mate.’ The story somehow exploded into me being apprehended for an hour before breaking free and only making it on stage with seconds to go. I know, shock PR tactics. I was helped by a journalist friend that year, so I did have an advantage.
6) Have an idea of what you want to get out of it. I certainly had no idea when I started. For stand ups there is a clear path to follow, so if you’re in that game then talk to others and have a look at what they do. For character acts and sketch groups there is also a well-trod path; do a show, get great reviews, get an agent, get on radio then on telly, do a bunch of shows, have a lean period, split and do some serious acting, be a comedy walk on or baddie in a Hollywood movie, get back together for a money-spinning tour. Or do a few bits and bobs, then get a regular job in TV production and blog about it in a bid to make people think you know what you’re talking about.
If you’re a stand up or are involved in the circuit then you’ll be talking to people who know what the game is about. I guess it’s similar if you’re involved in fringe theatre. If you’re from outside those worlds then it may seem like a mystery, but throw yourself in. It’s like eating olives; you don’t know what you’re missing until you force yourself to eat them. There is still plenty to be gained and learned by taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I still don’t like olives, though.
Essentially my advice is; talk to anyone who might know anything and read loads of stuff online. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this but I’m approaching Edinburgh and will need to get off the train, jump in a taxi and head straight to destination comedy. So this must end now. Good luck.
A short while ago a reader got in touch… okay it was several months, but a response is a response, right? Oh, no. Now I’ve got a proper job I’ve changed. I’ve turned into that guy. Oh well, it was always going to happen. I promise to still speak to you if you grab me in the street. Want a selfie? Sure, no problem. Although I do need to monetise my content, so like Sandra off of Gogglebox I shall be charging. £1million each. A bargain at a minuscule fraction of the price.
QUICK SPONSORED MESSAGE (by me): Sign up to my mailing list for updates about stuff (and possibly badgering about my music too) here:
Back to my correspondent (finally) who asks this question…
‘What is best way to pitch a TV format idea to a production company? I get the impression that format ideas tend to come from within production companies, and they’re not particularly open to ideas from the outside.’
The biggest hurdle has already been identified by the correspondent themselves. Most production companies have development teams; people hired for their format creating brains. They’re paid to sign away to the corporate behemoth every flash of inspiration in each cell of every dark recess of their flat white sipping brains. If you want a career in television development then having ideas and sending them to companies is the way to start. They want keen, usually young people to come in and create their next hit. If you have great ideas, enthusiasm and an open attitude then you have a chance of making a career in it.
This is similar to companies not accepting unsolicited scripts, but even more exclusive because most companies who produce formats need to keep their ideas in house and retain the rights — it’s how their business works. With scripted shows companies need to tap into writing and performing talent outside the payroll and there is a, justified, acknowledgment of the creator/writers work before a production company takes an idea on and that is reflected in the deal. With non-scripted formats companies generally don’t want to look at other peoples’ ideas lest they be accused of stealing. The format world is tricky in this area — legal issues do come up. Sometimes a format has a sprinkle of the essence of plagiarism and often there isn’t much of a format at all, it’s just, say, Micky Flanagan, Caroline Quentin 1 or another big showbiz name like someone off the TOWIE going off on a jolly. A perfectly good idea for a show, but not something that will sell around the world and generate huge income for a national broadcaster (ooh, bit of politics there, maybe?)
And, of course, many ideas are commonplace. I’ve seen several shows where I’ve thought, ‘I had that idea’ but I genuinely don’t think any have been stolen. I do have one instance where it has, sort of happened and I was pretty shocked — it’s not a show that has ever made it on air. It’s rare, but it happens and I might blog about that separately sometime. That shouldn’t stop you having ideas and getting them out there — it’s an anecdotal rule that the more precious about the legal protection of an idea people are, the less likely they are to make progress. I know that can seem like a Catch 22, but it does turn out to be true. It’s something David Quantick references in his book How To Write Everything in relation to scripts – the bigger and more frequent the copyright notices are, the worse the script tends to be.
So, you’re in a tricky situation as a wannabe format creator outside the industry. There are, however, some smaller companies out there who don’t have the staff to pump out ideas and are open to submissions. You’ll have to do your own research into who they are, but they do exist. Of course, just as with scripts, you face the same uphill struggle of emailing ideas and hoping for a response. And, like anything in life, the more time, effort and research you put into it, the more likely you are to get a response. Coming up with a great television idea seems simple, but you need knowledge of the industry, its history and trends to find an idea that is timely.
With all these hurdles in mind here are a few questions to ask yourself before presenting an idea.
1) Is there an easy to grasp top line?
2) Can you explain how it would fill a slot — half hour, 45mins, an hour — concisely?
3) Is it timely? If there is a good reason why this idea works now, then that helps. Mention Pokemon Go. Instant commission guaranteed.
4) Is it just a regular treatment that explains the idea — a word document? If so, is it short, clear and concise and is there any way you can illustrate the idea simply? Many production companies create short ‘sizzle’ videos either using stock footage and graphics to showcase an idea so lazy, sorry, pressed for time commissioning editors can just click a link and look at an idea while messing around on Twitter, I mean responding to important emails. Or can you showcase your concept in a simple powerpoint rather than a wordy treatment — that can help?
5) Are there any skills, expertise or contacts you can bring to the idea that a production company doesn’t have?
Bear in mind that I am not an expert in creating formats and there are many better qualified people than me, but I do read a lot of treatments and discuss ideas with a hopefully helpful, open and creative mind. I did have a hand in developing Westcountry TV’s hit, one series show Mad About Shopping, however.
Good luck. I’m working a competitive celebrity historical reality jousting format… Strictly Come Lancing. Please don’t nick that. It’s mine, all mine.
Ever get the feeling you’re missing out on the party? You know, the party where ‘all the important people who decide everything’ are at? Roger Mellie The Man On The Telly is there with Frank Bough and he’s off his nuts on showbiz sherbet (I’m showing my age with a Viz reference – if you don’t know Viz, it was the viral hit of the grubby paper age of my youth featuring Roger Melly ‘The Man on the Telly’ a consummately unprofessional presenter who, at the very least, has not been cited in historical criminal cases).
QUICK SPONSORED MESSAGE (by me): Sign up to my mailing list for updates about stuff (and possibly badgering about my music too) here:
I reckon many people feel they are not connected even if they are working regularly in television – that there is some kind of clique making all the decisions around a table littered with £50 notes and white powder while seething external catering service workers clear up while desperately, and completely understandably, wanting to punch everyone’s lights out.
Like you, I don’t particularly feel a part of the glamorous set. The glitterati. We’re just the Yentobi-wannabe-kenobis (#labouredstarwarspun). Admittedly, now I’ve spent 20 odd years in the showbiz firmament I have been to the odd thing and I do have friends who’ve done some brilliantly cool things. Most of those are people who, like me, have done okay and are occasionally invited to a glamorous event. My friend Jane and I once went to the Hampstead Bark Off where she was a celebrity judge alongside Rachel Riley off of Countdown. She does a brilliant blog about dog friendly travel, phileasdogg.com, featuring her dog and my best canine mate, Attlee. It’s all glamour in my life now.
If there is a dinner party set then I’ve never made it to the top table. I’m not sure there is one. Of course, there are well connected people but if you start to think that you’re somehow deliberately NFI then you could be sliding down a rickety spiral staircase bannister to despair and bruised nether regions when you hit the nubbin at the bottom.
When I started my career in television at Plymouth’s most successful export since Sir Fancis Drake (this was before Tom Daley made a splash), Two Four Productions, I thought I was on a road to glamour, golden toilets and a budget for ‘office sundries.’ And when I say ‘office sundries’ I don’t mean post-it notes, guys. That road, via the office on an industrial estate in Plympton, was not paved with golden toilets, there was no budget for ‘office sundries,’ in fact you were lucky to get actual office sundries. Fortunately, now I could probably afford the occasional splurge on ‘office sundries,’ I have been educated enough to ethically oppose their procurement. Ignorance really is a blissful high sometimes.
One reason for writing this post is the memory of my early days in Manchester, when I was setting up a production company, forging relationships with writers and comedy talent. I was new to the city and didn’t know many people so I invited a few people I’d met and liked for a birthday drink because it was my birthday and otherwise I’d have been sat in my flat playing online backgammon into the early hours – heady and the disappointment on their faces when it was about five of us in the Crown and Anchor sipping pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Best birthday ever. I can’t speak for my glamour-expectant guests, however.
There isn’t a great point to this blog, but I guess it’s just try not to get stressed about that stuff and get on with doing other stuff. Those parties are probably full of wankers anyway.
Here’s a little ditty to help clear (or add to) the stink of this flatulently toxic EU Referendum debate…