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.

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.

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.

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.