Last week I played MJ Hibbett’s lovely Totally Acoustic gig. I’ve done a few of them and they’ve all been fun, but this was probably the most fun. Here’s the podcast…
In a bid to build excitement in the multi-pronged release of We’re In This Together as a song and a short story I have made a trailer. The story is available for pre-order (scroll down a bit and there’s a link on the right hand side) and they’ll both be unleashed on 29th Jan to a suspecting public. Here’s the vid…
Some of you may recognise this from a show I did a while back (okay, it was four years ago, but I’ve been busy). I’ve been playing the song live recently and it always goes down a treat, so I’ve recorded it properly with the brilliant Augustin Bousfield of the mighty Gurgles. And turned the show into a short and eminently digestible story.
Huge thanks to the incredibly talented John Griffiths of LUA Design for the brilliant artwork.
Happy New Media Year.
It’s a new year and a new you. And a new me. This year we’re all really gonna make it. I absolutely guarantee it. Money back. Although, I am still largely working in old media. Except here, that is. Here is where, unlike all you millennials out there, I am a digital immigrant, culturally enhancing the online space with my grey matter (hair).
I thought I’d post a couple of things I’ve helped out with and like.
Here’s a rather brilliant short film I had the pleasure of being involved with a small bit. I’ve been really impressed by Meat Bingo’s shorts and project CS911346d, written by and starring Sanjeev Kohli, is no exception. They’re based in Devon, from whence I hail, and I had the pleasure of meeting up with the director John Panton and some of his talented collaborators in an Exeter pub just before Christmas. That’s the power of Twitter, which is how we first got in contact. I’m looking forward to seeing more from them, hopefully a feature sometime soon.
I first became aware of Meat Bingo through their collaboration with Michael Spicer who’s output online continues to be brilliant, original and funny. His latest work Rec 601. is ace. Here’s a preview clip – it’s one of my favourite sketches from the series. There are three short episodes on YouTube, so do check them out.
Why isn’t he on the telly yet? Maybe I’ll do a blog about that, but I hope his work finds it’s way on to the small screen soon and, yes, I am trying to help make that happen.
I hope those bits inspire you to do stuff. Write, shoot or whatever you want to produce. They inspire me. I’m releasing some stuff later this month, mostly music based as I’ve been working on some tunes which I’m really happy with. At the end of January I’ll be releasing We’re In This Together – my song about the (sadly) fictional kidnapping of George Osborne along with a video and ludicrous short story.
Please do contact me. I like hearing from people especially if they at least pretend that they’ve read, watched and listened to everything I’ve ever done. Many get in touch asking for advice on where to send their script or how to contact production companies. Here are a few blog posts that should help with that.
May the force awaken for you in 2016.
Yes, I watched the Star Wars film over Christmas. I quite enjoyed it.
Sometimes a boss asks you to do something you know will be impossible and you feel like turning round, dropping your trousers and showing them your arse while shouting, ‘You asked for the moon, but you’ll just have to have the sun shining out of my arse.’ That approach very rarely works, I’ve found.
And I was reading an excellent book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine; Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by the brilliant writer John Higgs, and in it I came across a reference that reminded me of one of my darkest hours in television. Although it was quite funny.
In his chapter on growth, Higgs writes:
Consumers were made to keep spending through ideas like planned obsolescence, where products were designed to break early and need replacing. An example of this was the light bulb, whose life expectancy was reduced from around 2,500 hours to less than 1,000 by an illegal organisation known as the Phoebus Cartel, whose members included General Electric, Philips and Osram.
The phrase planned obsolescence sent shivers down my spine as I recalled the time I was asked to research an item on what my exec called ‘built-in obsolescence,’ which is the same thing, for the late nineties ITV Westcountry show Mad About Shopping. Remember it? A ten part series on retail in the region. Heady stuff, but ten episodes? I think we were getting pretty desperate for ideas after episode two. Also, I think it would have been a bigger success if they’d used the theme tune I proposed. Imagine a jaunty tune in your head and sing, ‘We’re just hopping, BONKERS, Mad about shopping.’ This was before Dizzy Rascal existed, so, maybe I’ve got a copyright case against him?
Anyhow, this exec had spotted a series in the Western Morning News, a regional paper, about household appliances that were still in use decades after they were first purchased; toasters from the fifties, pre-war kettles, vintage irons and an old lady with a fifty year old vacuum cleaner. Cue sharp intake of breath. The item was pictured with its elderly owner along with a bit of background and a quote that usually included them saying, ‘they don’t make them like they used to.’ And that’s what the exec said to me. Something along the lines of, ‘we know they don’t make them like they used to, it’s built in obsolescence, let’s do an item about it, Matt.’
Unfortunately I could find scant proof. John hadn’t written his book, Wikipedia didn’t exist and being based in Plymouth and working on a low budget multi-item show, I couldn’t hop on a train to visit the British Library. I struggled to remove this obsolete albatross from around my neck. The Phoebus Cartel, if I had found out about it, was consigned to history and in the white heat of nineties technological development, new and improved gadgets were constantly being launched. Does progress depend on obsolescence? I don’t know, although my budget hi-fi separates purchased around the same time from Richer Sounds are still going, while the De Longhi coffee machine bought only a few years ago has already gone for a burton, so who knows what the truth is?
I did find an academic who had done some research, but I recall it skirting around the area and with no hard figures relating specifically to obsolescence. Also he wanted payment and expenses well beyond the Mad About Shopping budget to come down to Plymouth to appear. Meanwhile I spent a great deal of time talking to Peter Carver, then Director General of AMDEA (The Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances) who grew increasingly exasperated at my phone calls, telling me (and this may not be a direct quote), ‘all manufacturers are ace and yes they do make them like they used to, in fact we build them better than they used to, there’s loads of really cool gadgets that do loads of things better than they used to, so stop moaning.’ Essentially I struggled to make the subject work as a feature for an early evening regional television programme, but at least Peter took my ill thought out plans in his stride and with good humour.
The whole affair ended like a Phil Collins marriage… by fax. It’s my number one favourite fax ever. Faxes used to be exciting but now they’re, for me and most people, a thing of the past — there’s built in obsolescence for you. The age of the fax machine may be over, but I kept that fax and still enjoy reading Peter’s brilliantly sarcastic missive.
Peter refers to the academic, whose name I have redacted lest it cause embarrassment. There’s no point redacting Peter’s. For a start he comes out of this pretty well and also it would be fairly easy to identify him. I love his quoting of my pitiful attempts to persuade him to come on the show.
I can’t remember how my bosses reacted to my failure to find the evidence that would shake the corporate world to its roots. Having worked at the production company, Two Four, for a while at that point, I think I’d maybe earned a small failure. In the end I think I was able to bin the item while perhaps suggesting a load of other impressive yet deliverable ideas for this fun packed television show. Mad About Shopping ran for a total of one series. Peter was right, we didn’t have another fifty years.
I’ve always enjoyed reading this fax as reminds me of the sometimes thankless task of the factual television researcher and how when you try and twist things to work in a TV format, sometimes they break in your hands.
The only advice I can offer from this experience is that when you are asked for the moon, don’t do a moon (unless that’s the kind of moon they asked for, in which case it’s industrial tribunal time) simply promise that you will build a rocket, pop off to space and bring the moon back. And then return some time later with something different, but equally impressive. Saturn, Jupiter or a Milky Way, for example.
They say the chances of anything getting on TV are as low as anything coming from Mars. But, just like those pesky Martians in War of the Worlds, still they come. Now play dramatic futuristic chords and Richard Burton’s apocalyptic voice in your head.
Last week I saw a tweet from TV and literary agent Julian Friedmann from the Broadcast Commissioning Forum and it stuck in my head…
Okay, so those odds are actually a lot lower than the chances of inter-planetary invasion, but the telling point is that these are scripts coming from producers.
I’m not flagging this up to put you off. If you want to be a comedy script writer and you do what needs to be done – write a script, then rewrite it until it’s brilliant, write another, repeat process – then you won’t be put off. And you shouldn’t be. It’s a rejection business, but still they come. It’s simply useful to know the reality in the hope that it both ups your game and helps you to avoid descending into bitterness. If you get some interest from a producer in your script then this shows you are already doing well. Producers do pick up on good work and they want to get shows made. After that it’s a case of timing.
The reasons why those 249 scripts get rejected are many and varied. It’s all subjective, but those scripts will almost all be of very good quality. It’s very rare that I get a response from a commissioning editor that tells me the script I’ve sent is a load of balls. And often I’ll be told that they love the script, but…
a) It doesn’t fit the channels needs. Different broadcasters are looking for different kinds of shows and those needs change over time as shows get picked up or cancelled.
b) There is something similar in development – this can be very vague and can reference shows that don’t seem very similar at all, but this is because the channels have to look at the mix of shows. So what seems very different to you, isn’t to them.
c) There just isn’t a slot. There aren’t many slots for sitcoms, so they get filled.
d) They love it but can’t convince the genre boss / the channel boss / the marketing people (in the case of commercial channels).
e) The talent isn’t big enough. Channels are talent obsessed. And with understandable reasons. Of course it is very difficult to attach talent to your script and if you think it’s easy for even big production companies, it’s not. There’s probably a whole other blog on this, but there isn’t time here.
f) Insert other nebulous factor.
There are probably loads of other reasons, but that’s everything that’s come into my head right now.
I’m not sure what there is to learn from this, but it is useful to know. It doesn’t deter me and it shouldn’t deter you. It makes me want to develop more interesting ideas and find shows that are brilliant, different, and will make a mark.
As ever, good luck.
Got to go now, a Martian’s just turned up with a spec sitcom script. What are the chances?
This is a re-recorded and mastered version of my most popular song on Spotify (largely due to confused fans of Norwegian indie band highasakite listening to it, but if it works for Adele…) I wrote it after my girlfriend and I went up on Plymouth Hoe to see if a prop kite she’d made would fly. I filmed our attempts on my old phone and here’s a re-cut video to accompany it. The song is also available as a free download on Bandcamp. It’s the first track I’m releasing that will be on an album which will be out in 2016…
I had an email a short while ago asking this….
‘Hi, I have a question. I am wondering if sitcom development/production companies ever search for story ideas or character development.
I worked in many joe-jobs and have a keen eye for observation. I am sure I could give extremely detailed descriptions of offbeat workplaces and the people who work there.’
Not sure what a joe-job is, but my correspondent is from Canada. Maybe it’s a typo and she actually meant toe-job. I hope not, although a sitcom about a toe-job obsessed employee in an offbeat workplace sounds like a winner. Thanks for the inspiration.
I’m guessing joe-jobs means average joe type occupations, yes? Anyhow, the answer to the question is, not really. Most writers and development producers work on ideas they come up with themselves, inspired by their own lives, characters they encounter or things they’ve seen or read. And if they come up with an idea set in a workplace they don’t have knowledge of then they’ll do their own specific research.
So there isn’t a job as such providing this kind of service in comedy. But then I spotted this today and thought it was interesting…
Of course this is for a very specific type of show and a drama not a comedy, but it reminded me that there are a variety of jobs out there and experience on a continuing drama is a great way into the industry.
I thought it was interesting anyhow and if you didn’t, well whatevs, I’m getting back to my toe-job comedy. I’m worried it’s a bit cheesy though. Oh dear. It’s a Monday. Give me a break.
Hello. It feels like the right time to tell you some news. That sounds portentous. It’s not, I’m just struggling for an opening sentence.
I’m up to a few things at the moment on top of the usual reading, writing, developing and commissioning editor bothering. So I thought I would let you know here in the neglected news section of the website.
1) I’m working on an album. Of proper, but mildly amusing, music. Buoyed by the success of my song High as a Kite on Spotify*. It’ll feature a newly recorded version of High as a Kite alongside a host of block rocking beats. I’m also releasing the new High as a Kits on digital platforms only (because I don’t want to clog my house with boxes of CDs) on 6th November. Excited? I can feel your anticipation from here.
2) Some years ago I did an Edinburgh show about how I kidnapped the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Which is something that absolutely happened in a semi-fictional sense. That is to say it was made up with some truths. I liked the material and one of the songs I played still goes down well when I play it today, so I am writing it as a short ebook. A novella, novelette or something. I plan to release it early December for a token cost for you to read and enjoy. It’ll be called In This Together, obviously.
I played the song at a lovely gig, Vin’s Night In, recently where audience members are encouraged to draw pictures of the acts to win exciting (wonderfully terrible) prizes. One talented person decided to do this…
How good is that?
3) Have you tried to contact me? I get many messages on here and I do try to respond. Most people just want someone to read their script and, yes, it can be difficult. There are a couple of blog posts of mine that can help a bit – Help I Need Somebody and Infotunity Knocks – so do give them a read. As ever, you probably won’t get a reply if you just email saying ‘Hey can you read my script?’ but I will try if you’ve been polite and said nice things. Thankfully most people do and it’s really appreciated. I’ve had some lovely messages recently, so thanks for those. They’re appreciated.
I hope that’s interesting and useful. I’d better plough on through all the stuff I’ve got to do now.
*It’s had more than ten thousand streams on Spotify, which is very impressive for a little known ‘artist.’ Less impressive when you discover that the vast majority of these are coming from confused Norwegian fans of indie band Highasakite.
In a recent round of replies to people who have contacted me through the site one communicant said they were planning to film an episode of their sitcom script to put on youtube. I replied to say they should think very hard before doing this and not just plough ahead and film a whole episode. That makes me sound like an awful naysayer like that teacher at school who said you’d never amount to anything. I promise that, unlike Chemistry’s Dr. Gosling, I believe in you totally. You will amount to something and I am one hundred percent confident of that. Prove the doubters wrong. Don’t listen to the haters, people. They are planning to hate but I, for one, plan to shake the fuckers right off. And so should you.
Thing is, you absolutely should film stuff when you can. But be selective and take time to make what you shoot as good as it can possibly be. The email got the numbskulls in my head doing a little dance, so I thought I should post some advice to make them stop. After all I’ve shot stuff in an attempt to sell an idea and failed massively, so why not learn from my terrible mistakes. I have also shot good ones that did sell an idea so, y’know, in yer face Dr. G.
I shot a little taster tape for a mock-documentary idea many years ago and the first fatal error was to put myself in it. Now, I am a moderately competent performer who has commanded as much as one hundred pounds sterling to perform in Warrington to an audience who seemed far more interested in their booze, their mates, or someone they’d just picked up. There was an actual real life couple snogging right next to me totally oblivious to the musical comedy truth bombs I was dropping. I am that good. But I can’t act. The tape also featured the very talented Michael Spicer who can act. That was a good decision, but we still didn’t get the thing on television.
Anyhow, thanks for your sympathy, but let’s give you a few pointers picked up from years of flinging shit at commissioners to see what sticks. (Tip – never fling actual shit at them, no matter how much of a knob you think they are, it may stick, but it is unlikely to get you a commission.)
1) Why do you want to film your script? It’s worth asking yourself this because it should inform what you do. Do you want to film a whole episode just so you can show people you’ve done it or do you want to sell your idea and help it progress and maybe get it on television? I’ve touched on this before in a blog about how a show gets made. I’ve seen really good examples where film and television students have shot a whole series but, while that’s still a huge achievement, they’ve had the time and resources to do it and its contributed to their studies. I’ve seen many examples where people have just shot too much.
2) Is your script good enough? Every comedy starts with a script or at the very least ideas that have been written down that will hopefully create laughs. So if you find that people haven’t taken an interest in the script so far then maybe it needs work. Even if people have said it’s brilliant, it can still be improved. I recently read a blog by Dave Cohen about Paul Abbott’s approach to scripts saying he redrafts at least 15 times. Abbott’s phenomenally talented and he does that? The two might be connected. I’ve written something recently with a co-writer and I think we’ve rewritten it that many times and guess what, it’s probably the best script I’ve delivered.
3) What should I film? Obviously, everything I say should be taken with a pinch of artisan rock salt. But if you have a thirty minute sitcom script that you want to bring to life it’s probably a good idea to focus on a few scenes involving your key characters. Or take your episode and create a short (5-10 minute max) taster that conveys the characters and a key story or two from your episode. Generally speaking, short form content works best online and if you’re sending something to get interest from a production company or commissioning editor then they don’t need to see a whole episode. Part of the process of getting other people on board is that those people usually want to feel like they are involved in the project. And that doesn’t have to be prostratenegative, especially if they are showering you with riches or at least chucking a few pennies in the hat that lies prostrate before you.
4) How should I film it? For comedy the most important thing is the content, so focus on your script, your cast and the direction (more below). It’s so much cheaper and easier to film great looking shots now, so try to match up to that if you can as it’s always nice to see pretty pictures, but it’s frustrating to see beautiful camera work when there’s a lack of content or if the style has overtaken the gag.
5) Who should I cast? Not your best mate or your mum because there’s no one else available. Unless your best mate is Steve Coogan or your mum is Jessica Hynes. And not yourself unless you are Steve Coogan or Jessica Hynes. Obviously, you are most likely to be asking people for favours, but people tend to do favours for people they like whose work they like. So, if your script is good and you are not a bell end then you have a chance. That’s another reason for keeping it short. If it just means a few hours or a day rather than a week shooting a whole episode with no pay and Tesco value crisps for catering then, again, it’s a bit more appealing. One of the skills in making comedy is casting and it is an incredibly hard thing to get right. Everyone has an opinion and it’s rare that everyone agrees, but if you cast actors who don’t feel right for the part or who don’t make your wonderfully crafted lines zing then you’re up against it from the start.
6) How do I direct it? I’m no expert, but I’ve worked with some top comedy directors and I’ve directed some small things myself with big crews, small crews or just me and a camera. There are probably very long essays out there about directing comedy by people with far more knowledge than me, but for what it’s worth….
a) Plan it meticulously but be flexible on the day because it’s a shoot so things will inevitably go tits up to some degree. And by planning I mean your shot list and blocking. At least have an idea of what shots you need and what your actors are going to do physically alongside opening their mouths to bring your masterpiece to life. And if you’re producing the shoot too then make sure everyone knows where they need to be and let them know what’s going on. If things are taking longer than you expected and some actors are hanging around then take a minute to let them know otherwise it’s like being on a train that you sense is stuck in the middle of nowhere and is massively delayed but no one on the tannoy has told you what the hell’s happening and if they don’t soon you really are going to have stern words with the train manager.
b) Rehearse beforehand if you can. Having a chance to hear your actors read the script will help and you’ll want to do a rewrite, so give yourself a bit of time between any rehearsal and shoot.
c) Be nice and be confident. Directing is hard, but you don’t have to shout and be a dick. Do shout if you need everyone in a wide area to hear what you’re saying, but shout politely. And direct the shout up and over the crowd and not right in someone else’s face. Like you’re lobbing a ball underarm for someone to make an easy catch rather than chucking it at them like an over sugared child with a snowball.
7) What do I cut out? Everything that doesn’t quite feel like it’s working brilliantly. At this stage you are selling yourself and your idea, so you’re not constrained by episode timings. Two minutes of brilliantly funny material is better than a half hour peppered with an occasional lightening of the mood.
8) What do I do now I’ve finished it? Show it off. Get the best version you can on youtube or vimeo, publicly if you want people telling you that you should probably have been shot at birth, privately if you’d rather avoid the hell that is people on the internet. Politely email it to any contacts you have or can find. Similar rules apply to sending out scripts, which I’ve written about here.
That’s enough for now. Good luck with it. And wish me luck too. I’m about to film my dark, heartwarming, high concept, low budget, found footage, political, romantic, zombie, slasher tragicomedy about the Labour party leadership contest. Not sure I can make it funnier or more appalling than the real thing and I’ll struggle to find as many emotionless beings stumbling around randomly attacking things. Ah well.
I know it’s hard to believe but many years ago I was moderately successful and pretty much destined to be the next D.G. Or at least the next big Yentob. And when you’re climbing up that greasy pole you will be forced into awkward situations such as the ‘business lunch.’ This post is about how not to have a business lunch. Or maybe it’s about how to have a business lunch. Either way, the first time you have something like this can be a bit stressful.
Before I was seduced by the bright lights of the comedy firmament I was a factual producer/director making such hit shows as Bailiffs and, well that’s the only one anyone watched to be honest. Seen Future Fighting Machines? No, thought not. The channel it was on doesn’t even exist in the UK anymore (Bravo, if you give a monkey’s.)
So my Exec at Tiger Aspect asked me to Series Produce the third series of Bailiffs, which was exciting and a bit daunting for a comparative whippersnapper. I bought a new suit and everything. On reflection I don’t think it was a great fit and I looked a bit of a bell end in it. In fact I know that because I tried it on some years later in front of my sartorially honest girlfriend who looked me up and down and laughed. But at least I made an effort, right?
To freshen up the show we were trying to secure access to film the work of court enforcement officers and county court bailiffs. So we were wooing the Court Service and this resulted in a lunch with the then head of said service. We’re talking high up, big cheese, civil servant. A massive mandarin. And mandarins are usually really small, so that made it a big deal.
The venue chosen by my Exec at Tiger Aspect was The Cinnamon Club, a very posh curry house. Now, the thing about cuisine from the Indian sub-continent is that it can be a little on the peppy side. And I am one of those people who cannot deal with spicy food. I love it, but sometimes a dish that to other people seems fairly mild will blow my head off leaving me as sopping wet as a mop before it’s squeegeed or Tom Daley at the Olympics but with the grace of the first celebrity to get booted off his ITV show Splash.
The starters went fine and there was some idle chat about food and I seem to remember my exec and this very senior civil servant swapping dinner party recipes while I sat there very occasionally chipping in with an ‘ooh, yes that sounds lovely,’ and ‘Yes, I’ll definitely make a beef wellington when all my intellectual friends come round for dinner to talk about art etc.’ But then the main courses arrived and we were into the spicy meat of the matter, although I seem to remember I had fish. And it was the hottest fish I have ever come across. And I don’t mean I wanted to take it home and play Barry White to it. I mean that it blew my head off in a spectacular fashion.
So, while we were trying to convince this knight of the realm (for he was a Sir) to allow us to point our cameras at his courtly employees I sat there sweating like the guiltiest man in the world. Guiltier than a man caught red handed in a bang to rights open and shut case.
I had to excuse myself to freshen up and use the hand dryers in the loos to dry my matted locks. It was that bad. My exec was looking at me strangely as if to say, ‘Why did you order the super spicy hot fish?’ But I didn’t really have a clue what I was ordering, this wasn’t the Purple Mango down the road where I am familiar with the menu and can seek advice without fear of looking like an uncultured idiot.
As it happens I’m not sure there’s any great lesson in this tale. Sir Mandarin was positive towards our proposal and agreed that it could be useful for people to see the workings of the court officials and we were able to gain access to film. In spite of my low tolerance of spicy food, I had made two series of the show already, so was able to fill him in on the way we worked while mopping my brow, slurping huge quantities of water and constantly pushing my spectacles from the tip back to the bridge of my nose where they belong.
I guess the difference now would be that I would be open about the fact that I am a soft arse when it comes to spice and not be so tense about the whole situation. As a more mature person I am more relaxed in my sensitive skin. For example, I was at my friend Abdullah Afzal’s wedding in Manchester the other night and knew that there was a high possibility that, as one of only two white guests, I would be the sweatiest guest as soon as a morsel of food touched my lips. So I prepared the table of people I had mostly never met before for the situation. And we all had a good laugh about it when my head exploded seconds after the impact of spice on tongue.
Here’s a pic of me looking sweaty, but thankfully not at a business lunch, with Abdullah (of Citizen Khan and Lunch Monkeys fame)…