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.
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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).
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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…
Noel Edmonds spouted some usual nonsensical rubbish about a magic box that tackles cancer, so I wrote a little ditty about it…
You don’t have to be mad to write comedy, but it helps. I should get some mugs and t-towels made for my merch page and become a millionaire. I recently had an email with the subject line ‘Catch 22?’ and there does seem to be an impossible and conflicting dilemma for aspiring writers. While not quite as life-threatening as a Captain Yossarian situation it can drive people to the brink. Still, I thought I would answer the query while probably failing to answer the query.
So, you’ve written something; a sitcom pilot script, short film, web series, brilliant comic feature film. You nervously send it out into the world to anyone and everyone who might just take a look at it. Chances are you won’t get many replies, but maybe one or two people respond and say nice things. If you show some promise, great potential or even generate genuine interest in your work then this is just the start of what could be a great ride. But, unless you are brilliant and lucky, it will be a bumpy one, like a comedy writer’s version of World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Ice Road Truckers or if you’re a partnership, Touching the Void.
My recent correspondent had written a web series which received some interest and nice comments from industry professionals. And you know what? That is great; it’s encouraging, someone has actually given you feedback and you feel like you’re making progress. And you are. But then… nothing. Back to square one like the worst game of Snakes and Ladders you’ve ever played and you scream and cry like a child while your competitive dad laughs smugly while he whizzes up another ladder. Then I shout, ‘It’s not fair!’ and he replies, ‘Life’s not fair.’ And I think, well okay maybe life isn’t fair but if people were less of a dick about it then maybe life would be a bit nicer. And now that I’m just as bad as my dad when I play board games, my girlfriend refuses to play Scrabble with me. It’s the circle of life.
Sorry about that tangent, but sometimes it’s good to get these things out. So, you feel there are barriers in the way of your writing moving forward, such as the fact that you haven’t got an agent when you can’t get an agent because you haven’t had anything produced. I know what that feels like, but while having an agent is great, it shouldn’t and doesn’t stop you pursuing your writing. In fact, you can waste precious time trying to get an agent when an agent isn’t going to be interested in signing you.
If producers are reading your work, enjoying it and giving you good feedback and even asking you in to meetings, but not pursuing projects further then, frustrating as that is, you just have to see it as step forward. Most industry folk do try and take time to encourage talent and even if nothing comes of those contacts now, they may do in the future. They have to look at your work and decide whether or not they have a chance of selling it and if they think that’s unlikely then they can’t afford to spend more time on it. This is particularly true if your first projects are sketches or web series. The ideas and scripts might be great, but there’s not a lot you can do with them, so you have to pursue them yourself. There are a few outlets on radio for sketches and gags but whether it’s a sketch, an online series or short film, the only way forward might be to make it yourself. And, yes, there’s probably a whole other post on this, but the only real answer to, ‘how do I do that?’ is, ‘by going out and doing it, learning from your mistakes and doing it again.’
As a new writer without an agent it is difficult to get people to read your work, but some people do and if they really love it, have time to pursue it and believe they have a chance of getting it made then they will. Those three things coming together is rare, but the issue of whether or not someone has an agent has never been an issue in my experience. In fact there are writers and performers whose scripts I have developed who have gone on to get an agent and develop a career and most of them had been through exactly this process. So, dust yourself down if you’re feeling dusty, get up again if you’re feeling Chumabwumba-y and make stuff, write more, write what you want but try and write something someone might want too. Be aware of what’s out there. Watch shows, read scripts. And one day you could be writing a blog and considering merch with snappy slogans in a foolhardy attempt to monetise it.
Just a footnote; David Quantick’s book How to Write Everything is well worth a read and will help anyone in this situation, I think.
Hello. As you may have read on such illustrious platforms as Chortle or televisual industry websites I have a new job working for Comedy Central. The articles were accompanied by either an old picture of me holding a guitar or a recent hurriedly taken self-portrait. In both I have the cold dead-eyed stare of a killer. When I took the new pictures I rejected one where I was smiling because my girlfriend said I looked like too much of a pushover. It seems I now have to strike fear into anyone who is pitching to me. I bet you’re quaking in your fashionable boots.
A friend texted me this picture from the print edition of Broadcast, which I never actually saw. Now I have a proper job it seems I’ve gone fully Partridge…
In the full quote I make a self-deprecating joke, obviously. But they’ve edited it down, as is their right, to bring out the full media tosser.
It’s a really interesting, exciting and challenging role which I’m very lucky to have and I am throwing myself into with gusto (obvs, but also just in case my new employers are reading this). One of the big issues for me to deal with now is how I respond to people who contact me through the website. I’ve enjoyed being open, receiving ideas and I do try to respond – I generally can’t give detailed feedback on projects, but I’ve read every message and, apart from a recent backlog due to being a bit busy, what with the new job ‘n that, have responded to pretty much all of them. I only ignore those who make no effort to be courteous and only slightly prioritise those who heap praise on my vain little head.
From now on, however, I probably won’t look at your script or idea. I don’t want to close my email, because I think it’s useful all round for people to be able to contact me. A question might inspire a blog post that can then help more of you, for example. But for reasons of both practicality, legality and all round retention of sanity I’ll have to stop reading unsolicited scripts.
I know it’s disappointing, because it’s hard to get anyone to look at your work. That’s why the people who make progress are those who display brilliantly bloody minded ambition mixed with politeness, a thick skin and openness. Do have a read of my blogs and hopefully there is some useful advice.
I have considered charging people for a script reading service, but while I am in gainful employment that doesn’t feel right and I don’t really have the time to dedicate to it. James Cary – a very experienced sitcom script writer and editor – has just opened a window of opportunity to get him to read your work in return for backing one of his projects. I think this is very fair and something I have considered and may yet do in the future. You may be forced to buy my music in return for me reading your work. Well, not forced, but you get what I mean. I think these kind of deals are a fair trade. As James writes in his blog, a considerable amount of time really is needed to give proper notes on a script – three or four hours – and even to give something a quick read and general thoughts on whether or not it’s any good takes a good chunk of time.
If you want to get in touch with offers of a multi-million pound record deal for my music or similar amounts to turn the blog into a book, then that’s, like, totally cool. Drop me an email. If you do then I’ll read your script in return – yep, I am that shallow. Soz everyone and good luck.
Several years ago I pitched the idea of a documentary about Steve Davis and his love of alternative music. If you don’t know, he likes extremely alternative music, not the stuff on Radio X masquerading as alternative but tunes you might find on Stuart Maconie’s Freak, or indeed Freakier, Zone. I always thought it would be fun to get fellow match room mob players and Barry Hearn to listen to the likes of Magma, the French prog rock band that Davis brought over to play in London in the eighties.
In a meeting a Channel 4 commissioning editor said, ‘Are you seriously pitching me Steve Davis on Avant Garde Rock?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, kinda.’ And he laughed me out of the room. Well, who’s laughing now someone else has made this, a lovely short documentary?
My connection with this tale is through the brilliant musician, Kavus Torabi (that’s him on the right), whose current outfit Knifeworld creates incredible music – they’ve just released a new album, Bottled Out of Eden. I went to school with Kavus and aged around nine or ten managed his first band, Unarmed Combat, a beat combo that sadly never recorded a thing or played any gigs. My stint in management proved that I was never going to make a great svengali figure as I gave the three members 5p each for turning up to a rehearsal, instantly clearing out my pocket money for a week. The management is supposed to screw over the artists not fund their profligate lifestyles before they’ve even got a record deal and had a hit.
Anyhow, the whole Steve Davis and his love of interesting music thing has been covered in the press a bit recently and I’m delighted someone picked up on it to make this short, which also features Kavus.
Have a watch, it’s sweet.