Will the Bullshit Hit The Fan?

 

‘It’s not what you know, but who you know and who you can bullshit.’

Is this the mantra that has launched me into the stratospheric position I occupy now? Yes. If you follow my advice, you too could be nominated for a regional Royal Television Society award and, eventually, even win one. Actually, Absolutely Fine, the online series I produced with Tom Rosenthal for Comedy Central has just been nominated for a Broadcast Digital Award . Things are on the up.

I’ve never really liked the ‘it’s not what you know’ line because it doesn’t reflect the work someone put in to make those contacts and get themselves noticed. Sure, there are a few people who are so well connected they’d have to vomit on the shoes of every significant person they met to fail, but for most of us creating those connections is all part of the journey. Don’t stop believing etc.

But this blog is not about that, it’s about bullshit. How far should you twist the truth in a career situation? There are times when I’ve claimed to have more knowledge or skills than I really did. I never exactly lied, but maybe I was a little economical with the truth. Or generous with the ever so slightly inaccurate.

You have to tread the line of credibility so you don’t come across like a bullshitter — and I have met a few — knowing that, if offered the job, you can do it. Otherwise your bullshit will land you in the shit which will then splatter upwards hitting a fan revolving at high speed and you’ll have a big load of shitty egg on your face as well as being sat in a big, miserable pile of it. An absolute shitfest. And that’s not what I want for you.

There’s one moment that sticks out for me at a crucial, or it seemed it at the time, point in my career.  I decided to leave the bright, seaside lights of Plymouth, where I’d been working as a Researcher then Assistant Producer (AP) at Two Four on seminal productions such as Westcountry TV’s short-lived Mad About Shoppingand BBC One’s short-lived daytime show What Would You Do?and head for the bright, smoggy lights of London to work on Living TV’s highbrow, yet cruelly short-lived, offering Relationship SOS. What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?

Relationship SOS was a studio show featuring people with personal issues who were given advice by a panel of experts. We’d then see how the advice worked by filming the participants at home or an appropriate location before they later returned to the studio to discuss how it had worked.

I had to apply for the job first, of course, and being just a young boy from the Westcountry trying to make his way in the big smoke was a bit daunted — it’s kinda Dick Whittington meets a budget Nathan Barley. So, when I was invited to an interview for an AP role, I was incredibly excited.

At the interview I discovered the producers needed people with DV (Digital Video) skills — the ability to shoot these VT insertsas well find and book the participants. Now, while I had picked up and played with a camera and been on plenty of shoots watching directors and camera operators work, I’d never really shot or directed anything. In the interview one of the producers said something like, ‘Your DV skills will come in very handy.’ In my head I was thinking, ‘Er, what DV skills?’ But, desperate to make my mark in low budget daytime television, I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’

Amazingly, I got the job; a three month contract in London. I was convinced I’d be found out within seconds and ignominiously shoved on the next train from Paddington back to Plymouth with my tail between my over-stretched legs. In a bid to prevent that humiliation, I borrowed a camera and sound gear (as I’d have to be doing both), took advice from anyone I knew who’d ever shot or directed anything and practiced. I had one weekend to gain those much vaunted ‘DV skills.’

Somewhere in my disorganised archives, there’s a funny picture of me holding a camera but I couldn’t find it, so here’s a pic of me about the same age looking ridiculous with a cocktail and sporting ineffective facial hair…

In the end you’ll be relieved to know, dear reader, that it all turned out okay. I mean, the show was absolute bobbins but somehow I managed to scrape through. By throwing myself into it and doing as much preparation as I could, the unravelling was averted. In fact, and this is a bit trumpet-blowy (while being entirely aware that I wasn’t quite following in the path of Spielberg), the producers told me I’d made the best VTs across the series. My fear of coming a cropper in the big city abated. Bravo’s Future Fighting Machines, Channel 4’s Bare & Breakfast and of course Channel 5’s Shaving Ryan’s Privatesall lay ahead on my glittering career path…

So, yes, bullshit to your hearts content. As long as you’re prepared to put in the work needed to get away with it.

By the way, this is part one of a series of two blogs about bullshit. The next will be about why you shouldn’t bullshit for anyone else…

 

1 I made a pitch for the theme tune… ‘We’re just hopping / BONKERS / mad about shopping.’ Sadly, it was not picked up but I’m suing Dizzee Rascal as he clearly stole the idea.  Can’t remember what the chosen theme was, but mine would definitely have been better and turned the show into a massive ratings hit.

2 Theme tune pitch (sing to a jaunty melody) ‘Ooh, ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You Do-ooooh?’

VT stands for Video Tape and is still used to describe short filmed items that are then played into a studio show – such as news reports, ‘sideways looks’ at something or other on The One Show or cringeworthy attempts at topical comedy on The Daily Politics.

4 That one’s not on my CV and I can’t quite remember if that was the title, but I definitely went to Naples (well, an industrial estate in a Naples suburb) to shoot footage for the programme, a one-off ‘documentary’ about pornographic remakes of Hollywood blockbusters. I was filming behind the scenes of a remake of Cleopatra, cue shot after shot of hilarious items obscuring intimate parts. Oh dear. It was, naturally, a huge ratings success.

Interrogating Ideas

 

As I sit in my lounge pants pondering the creation of 2018’s, well, probably 2019’s1, comedy hit of the year, I thought it would be a good time to think about interrogating those sure fire hits you’re dreaming up. Tie that idea to a chair in front of your desk, shine a light in its eyes and threaten it with ways you can make it talk. When it comes to generating concepts for television shows I totally advocate the use of torture. As a member of Amnesty International, like the fully paid up member of the guilt laden middle-libtard classes I am, I do not advocate torture in real life.

 

But how do you do that other than make sure it’s the best script ever? Surely that’s enough? ‘Hello commissioning editor, here is a brilliant script, let’s rock.’ Sadly it doesn’t work like that even if you are the most well connected, talented person in the world ever. Okay, so sometimes it does because there are brilliant well connected people who have made their connections throughs being brilliant working their arses off and not being dicks. Yeah, I know there are exceptions but don’t start thinking like that, don’t get bitter. It’s not becoming and it’s the festive season so let a little love into your heart. Okay, so there’s that bloke who’s doing really well in the US and he’s really irritating but remember how he was great in that thing years ago, and that other thing, so maybe his talent got him there? Yes, I have heard that he’s a total dick a lot of the time, but forget about him, we’re talking about you here and thinking about what other people are doing while you’re trying to get your thing moving is not going to help. Stop it.

 

Back to the point. The fact is there are a massive number of scripts floating about. Most are quite good and a few are genuinely brilliant – well crafted, funny with great characters. Scripts that you could see making a really strong comedy show (before some producer or exec comes along and messes it right up, obvs). But with all those scripts chugging their way through the e-pipes, being read on devices and occasionally printed out and bound together in a loving, old-school manner, that is rarely enough these days. If you ask the question, why isn’t that enough?, just think about how many shows get made each year. It’s not that many, so why should your show be made alongside or above Detectorists, Motherland, The End of the F***ing World, Man Down, Quacks, Timewasters… it’d have to be pretty incredible.

 

Yes, there are slots for newer talent, but those are largely for people who have been spotted on the live circuit or for their creations online. So, if you’re not doing either of those things then you can’t expect to compete for those slots.

 

So, what can elevate your project? Here’s a few back of the ALDI own brand cereal packet (I don’t smoke, so I have to make do with what I can find) ideas…

 

1) Is your idea relevant to now? Does it have a reason to be made and is there a reason why you should be doing it? ‘You spent a year in a far right/left organisation and this is a comedy based on that time, interesting.’ Think about what’s going on in the world and what you can bring to that idea. It’s going to be more interesting to commissioners and, if it’s done well, more interesting to viewers.

2) Can you bring talent to the project? I know this is almost impossible for a new writer without connections. To be honest it is hard for anyone, even top producers, to attach the kind of massive name that will open doors. But if you seek out unique talent with their own voice and work with them then perhaps you can create an opportunity.

3) Is the format unique? A couple of the shows I referenced above have different, unique elements to them; Timewasters and The End of the F***ing World had an original vision that would have made them stand out at pitching stage.

4) Don’t know if there’s anything else, but if you find any other great ways to make your project stand out do let me know as I’m doing a new year review of my development slate.

 

So, good luck in 2018. Read, watch, write and pitch like the wind. And dig deep into your idea, so deep that you get to the other side, become enlightened and discover that it really is shit, but that other notion you scribbled down the other day could be the one. Yes, that one has something about it. That is the one. I’m excited about it for you. I hope your show gets commissioned at the same time as mine.

 

1 Pilot in 2018, series commission before the year is out, shoot Summer 2019 for an autumn TX followed by global acclaim.

Snookerstar DJ

 

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?

 

Screenshot 2016-04-17 14.02.47

 

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.

Meh-dea Mogulling – Commonly Pitched Comedy Ideas

 

Most great ideas start with a great idea (I’m amazing at this, I should do a workshop and charge one million dollars). But they also start with an absolute bucketload of terrible ideas. Or average ideas. Let’s call them meh-deas and that could become another brilliant media term for tossers like me and you to use. What may come as a surprise is that there are some very commonly pitched meh-deas. 

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I had an email from someone recently with their idea for a sitcom. I won’t say what it is or who it came from as that would be unfair and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of brilliance. You should see my folder ‘Awful Pitches of Yesteryear,’ it makes for terrifying reading.

What I don’t want to do is tell people is they’re wasting their time and not to darken my door again. Working on the characters, story and script can be a useful exercise, but to get any interest in an idea it has to have something unique about it. Does it generate a genuine reaction of interest when you mention it to someone? If so, that’s a good sign. You have to be a good reader of facial expressions or learn which friends or family members actually give you an honest opinion.

So here are a few concepts or settings that seem to occur regularly…

  1. An amateur dramatics society.
  2. Struggling actors in some way shape or form. I have a lot of sympathy for actors, it’s incredibly hard, the constant rejection is possibly even worse than it is for writers. Still, write about something else. No one cares. Except me. I care.
  3. A struggling indie band (or other genre, but indie bands seem to be a common one. Maybe that’s because the writer was once a songwriter in an indie band who wrote moderately amusing lyrics in a sub-Jarvis Cocker style. That was the kind of band I was in, anyhow) or a once successful band whose members are now living ordinary lives.
  4. The open mic comedy circuit. Loads of wannabe comedians are also wannabe writers, so it makes sense that they’d come up with this idea and there are loads of crazy characters on the open mic circuit, but… no one cares. I’m happy to admit that when I was a factual television producer and doing open mic stand up in London I thought it would be a good idea for a documentary series. It was not a good idea. It was quite dull and I quickly gave up on it.
  5. Two guys in their late twenties or early thirties who are getting nowhere in life. They probably share a flat and one of them has an ex-girlfriend who has moved on, but is still around. Or there’s a girl they’ve known for years they both fancy.
  6. A bar or pub. This is one where, of course, several comedies of various quality have been made. I really liked Early Doors, for example, and I have vague fond memories of World of Pub, which I should refresh. I also remember getting a script set in a bar which had something different in the writing — funny, weird and slightly surreal. I did develop and pitch it and it did pique the interest of a commissioning editor, but ultimately didn’t get through.
  7. A hotel or guest house. The legacy of Fawlty towers over this one (see what I did there, I should work in comedy). The really annoying thing about this setting is that, like the pub, it does frequently reoccur — there was Heartburn Hotel in the late nineties and more recently the children’s comedy All At Sea and comedy drama Edge of Heaven. Even more annoying for me is that I’ve got one. Yes, commissioners, I’ve got a guest house comedy and it’s, like, totally brilliant and I grew up in a guest house and then a small hotel, so it’s authentic and everything. I think mine is an interesting take on the situation (of course I do), but I’ve held back on pitching it at times because of all the above. Anyhow, you can see that I feel your pain.

There are probably many more and if anyone can think of any then do let me know. It’s not surprising that many of the ideas above get pitched frequently. Several involve links to other creative fields; so an actor, comedian or songwriter is probably more likely to want to create a sitcom than someone else. Others are simply recognisable, everyday places.

It can be a tricky conversation to have, because the writer might wonder why they haven’t seen the idea on screen. I think it’s a kind of self-fulfilling vortex of doom; because that concept has been pitched before and rejected, it’s more likely to be rejected when it comes through the door again. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t and won’t happen, but (and I know this is vague) it has to have something amazing about it. Eddie Redmayne has decided he wants to star in a sitcom set in a Plymouth guest house? Yes! (‘Oh, hang on, mine has a female lead character. No, it’s okay, we can change it. Or you can wear a dress, Eddie, it’ll be fine. Oh, you want to? That’s great Eddie, it’ll work perfectly.’).

As well as my list, often there are concepts that seem to be ‘in the zeitgeist’ (apologies for using the word and the quote marks, but it seemed the only way). So, you’ll be pitching an idea to a commissioning editor only to find there’s already something similar in development or there are other similar scripts floating around. For example, a few years ago there seemed to be quite a few stories involving young people moving back in with their parents – Hebburn was one of those of course, but a combination of a brilliant pilot script, the North East setting and a couple of other elements, such as the young couple having already married in secret, helped set it apart.

Others can be surprising. There was a period when I talked to a couple of writers who had really good scripts set in an arctic station or a moon base — it turned out there were a few similar scripts floating around and I don’t think any got made. A while ago I had an idea for a comedy set on a submarine. I was thinking about female personnel being allowed on board Naval vessels and how that would be interesting if it was the enclosed space of a submarine. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never pitched it because I started to think that a submarine is probably one of those settings. And I realised I didn’t really care that much about submarines and submariners — screw them and their hilarious life-threatening undersea shenanigans. Maybe I should just go back to the Plymouth guest house thing. Shit.

My advice is to either look outside what’s close to you or examine what’s around you more closely.

And does anyone have a number for Eddie Redmayne? Or an email would be fine.

 

If you enjoyed the post then you can delve further into my oeuvre and support my work by purchasing my music. The lovely Tom Robinson off of BBC 6Music says it’s good. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Toe Job Hell

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…

Holby City Researcher Job

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.

Currying Favour

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)…

2015-05-31 20.58.39

How does a show get made?

Someone dared ask me this question.  Do people really expect me to give away the secrets of television alchemy?  Luckily I’m a kind and gentle soul so here is the answer.  You chuck a load of hard work, sweat, luck, disappointment, rejection, misery, elation, hope, pre-crushed dreams (use pestle and mortar), joy, wonder, some jokes, the bruised cheek of Clarkson’s alleged fracas victim into a cauldron and boil for anything from one to ten years.

If you’d like to know the exact recipe – weights and timings etc. – then please send me one million dollars.  Oh, I’ve just had an email promising me four million, three hundred and twenty three thousand.  Just give me a minute to send my personal details to this kind reader and I can continue to provide this exciting and informative content totally free of charge.  Right, done.

The questioner went on to ask, ‘does a production company make a programme and then sell it to a broadcaster, what is the process?’  With maybe a few rare exceptions a production company never makes a show before selling it – if anyone has any examples that prove the rule then let me know1.   Even making a fully budgeted pilot and certainly a series would bankrupt or certainly have a huge impact on most production companies, even fair sized ones.  Much better, then, to get the broadcaster to pay for the show before making a massive turkey.

What production companies do is generate ideas and attempt to persuade a broadcaster to invest in them.  This is usually a long process with a number of steps before a channel decides to commission a series.  It’s understandable, a series costs shedloads of cash – to give you a vague idea a half hour comedy might be anything from £100,000 per episode at the very low budget end to £250,000 or more at the higher end.  Dramas generally have bigger budgets and we comedy producers are not bitter at all.

I’ve had plenty of conversations, usually with friends of my parents, about this and they are staggered by the amounts, ‘my licence fee, it must all be unionised!’ etc.  No, the crew work their nuts off and rates haven’t changed in years, the production company makes a small amount of money to keep generating new projects, actors get paid a lot less than you think…  the glamour.  If you want to make money go work in the city.  I don’t want to go on or this will turn into a rant and no-one wants that.  As Sam Smith says, ‘I do it for the love and honestly I didn’t nick that bloke’s idea, it’s pure coincidence that it’s exactly the same, yeah?’

I’ll stick with the process as it relates to comedy and my experience.  We generate ideas either in house, someone sends us a good script or treatment or we see a performer and try to work up ideas with them.  Sometimes we will invest a small amount up front into developing a script or shooting a short taster to demonstrate the idea.  There are examples of production companies investing a bit more time and money up front in an idea they truly believe in, but are either struggling to sell or to give it the push they think it needs to win a commission.

One oft quoted example is The Mighty Boosh.  Baby Cow put around £40,000 into a pilot the BBC commissioned.  Essentially they wanted to ensure it was so good the BBC couldn’t say no.  That is still a huge, risky investment for a production company up front.  Obviously with the BBC already interested it had a good chance and they trusted their instincts, but would have known success was not guaranteed.  We’ve often had to do this at Channel X to ensure a pilot or taster will work.

When we have a project that’s ready for a broadcaster’s commissioning editor to look at, then we’ll send it and tell them it’s the best thing in the world ever and they’d be a fool not to commission it.  Then we wait for the phone to ring or an email to ping through, often for a very long time.  Of course, most things are rejected and usually not because they’re shit – one of the reasons commissioning editors trust production companies is that they act as a quality control filter in the stampede towards the elusive slot on a channel.  Commissioners have to choose one out of a number to progress.  And they have their bosses, the marketing people at commercial channels and their bosses’ bosses to convince.  Or maybe they do just think it is shit.  Sounds tough?  It is.  Tough.

Let me take you through a few steps.  A production company sends a comedy project in and here’s what might happen…

1) Script Commission:  If we send a treatment from a writer with some experience the broadcaster might commission a script.  That means they are paying the writer to both produce a pilot script to bring their idea to life and also to option the writer and production company for a period of time (usually 12-18 months) so they have the exclusive right to then make a pilot and/or series.
Often, particularly with newer writers, we will send a full script that we have worked with them on for some time.  If a broadcaster likes it then they may want to see if the writer can produce more material and commission a second script.  It’s a small investment to see how the idea develops and to buy into the idea.

2) Taster / Teaser:  If an idea has a particular visual style or is a vehicle for a performer then a broadcaster might commission a taster or teaser (sometimes called a mini-pilot)  It’s essentially a 5 to 15 minute short with a few scenes.  This is becoming more common as it is much cheaper than a full pilot and can be enough to show that a series would work.  Detectorists was developed this way and the series was commissioned without the need for a full pilot – there were two full episode scripts and a series outline to go alongside the taster, so a lot of work had been done by Mackenzie Crook and the production team.

(A production company will often put a small amount of its own money into shooting a taster before pitching to a broadcaster, particularly if the idea or format is a bit tricky to understand on the page).

3) Table Read:  A broadcaster likes a script and wants to hear it come to life.  They could commission a table read where the company casts the script and gets the actors together in a big room to read it aloud while the producers and commissioners watch.  They can be great.  They can be painful.  There’s nothing worse than a bunch of great actors reading a comedy script and seeing commissioning editors and channel controllers sit in befuddled silence.
Sometimes an actor who would be great on screen isn’t great in a table read or some of the timing doesn’t quite come off or maybe the atmosphere is just a bit weird and the channel controller is having a bad day because some kind of fracas has occurred involving one of their big name talents.  Who knows?

Fortunately tasters and other development tools seem to be taking over, see also….

4) Live Showcase:  Few and far between, but the BBC has done a number of sitcom showcases in Salford in recent years.  Hebburn came to life this way.  The show is performed like a play in front of an audience, including commissioning editors.  If the audience laugh, the commissioning editor doesn’t just have to trust their own instinct.

(Like tasters, production companies and often writers and comedians put on their own showcases. Again, it is a cost-effective way of bringing the work to life and can be a great way for new writers to test their work).

5) Pilot:  Well done.  If you get this far, you are doing great.  The broadcaster loves your script, your table read went down a storm or your taster was a piece of genius.  They’ve commissioned a pilot and you get to make a show.  One whole episode to show it’ll be the best series ever.

And then…
You got the casting perfect, the actors and director made all your jokes even funnier than you thought they could be, the crew did a brilliant job – you could see and hear everything, actors had costumes, sets, props and make up.  The runner remembered how you liked your tea / coffee and wasn’t a jumped up nephew of the executive producer.  Phew.

And finally you get your…

6) Series: The broadcaster loves your script(s), pilot or taster and your series outline.  Congratulations.  They do a deal with the production company to make the show.  With British comedy usually the vast majority of the budget comes from the broadcaster.  Some money may come from other sources – distributors who may pay an advance on international and DVD sales although there is generally a lot less money to be made from this in comedy than drama and other genres – there are exceptions, of course.
What the broadcaster is doing is paying the production company to make the show exclusively for them and for it to be broadcast on their channel a certain number of times.  I don’t want to go into the details of rights etc. because I’ll bore myself and you to death, but it’s that kind of stuff.

So that’s it, I think.  That’s the process.  I think it’s as clear as I can make it and I hope it’s useful, but do comment if you have any questions.  And if you manage to get your project moving forward at any of these stages then you are doing well and possibly even have talent.  If it falls at any stage, and it most likely will, then try again.  Most people have to push at the door with a number of ideas before it opens.  Alternatively use a battering ram.  I’m sure threats of violence have worked, but it’s not really my style.  Good luck.

1 I do know of individuals, student filmmakers etc. who have made a series or several episodes of a show, but these are usually guerrilla filmed shows where everyone is working for free or very little. There may well be examples of companies producing episodes of low cost programming (factual shows can be much cheaper to make as they can be shot by a one or two person crew, you don’t have actors etc. although it is still advisable to have food, preferably hot, available for hangry presenters) but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Infotunity Knocks

I’ve been looking at a lot of websites lately. No, stop where your mind’s going and wash your brain out with soap, it’s not that kind of blog. I’ve been looking in a highly efficient, compartmentalised way and not in a time-wastey, procrastinatey kind of way at all (honest) and it has struck me that there is a huge amount of information available to the aspiring media type person. There are blogs like mine where you can be inspired, horrified, confused and distressed, there are proper sites that advertise jobs, opportunities, give information, there are sites for production companies, funding agencies, media publications and even small time players like the BBC has a website these days.

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Now, this isn’t one of those ‘it was much harder in my day’ moans. I don’t go in for that for a number of reasons, then main one being that it is, in fact, much harder now. I went to university and did an arts subject (history)… for free (almost). I was able to sign on and do voluntary work to get experience. Having to do work experience followed by first rung on the ladder jobs that paid a pittance didn’t put me off because I wasn’t saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. That’s the main reason why I support the charity Arts Emergency, because to me it feels that, just as information on how to get into the arts and media has widened, opportunity has narrowed.

As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, you have to be proactive in searching for ways in and not simply apply for jobs, funding or put your CV online and hope opportunity knocks. It’s unlikely that you’ll get your first job when you don’t have any experience at all. I’m not saying don’t do all those things, I’m saying that you’ll have to try and find a way to gain experience at the same time as applying for anything and everything going.

Still, looking at all the information is a great way to feel you’re achieving something and haven’t wasted your day sat in your dressing gown with a cup of tea and the internet even though you have sat in your dressing gown…

Here is a list of useful links. It’s neither comprehensive nor exhaustive so do feel free to add to it or email me any you think may be helpful.

http://www.arts-emergency.org/ If, like me, you have been blessed with, if not success then, an actual job that pays money then do give them some money.

http://www.ideastap.com/ Sadly this site has shut down due to lack of funding. A shame as it was full of Information, job posts, funding opportunities, articles, generally useful and inspiring stuff. Some of those opportunities have been taken on by another creative networking site https://app.hiive.co.uk/

http://www.creativeengland.co.uk Film body outside London.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/ Film body inside London.

http://www.creativescotland.com/ Film body for Yes, Nos and Maybes.

http://www.ffilmcymruwales.com Film body for others. Other film bodies do exist, I’m sure.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy I’ve not had a proper look round this site, but I hear good things about this BBC thing, so it might be worth a butcher’s.

http://www.pact.co.uk Television industry body – I used to spend a lot of time looking at the PACT directory imagining myself working for one of the companies listed in there. Then I wrote to them and most told me to sod off.

http://www.productionbase.co.uk/ A website for freelance television production staff – companies post jobs and search for crew. You have to subscribe, but there is a free trial.

https://www.thetalentmanager.co.uk/ Similar to above, but you can register for free and respond to job posts. There is a paid for ‘pro’ service.

https://the-dots.co.uk A fairly new site for creative industry networking that includes job posts.

http://jobs.theguardian.com/jobs When I were a lad, I used to get the Guardian every Monday and scour the Media section looking for jobs I could apply for. Now you can have those feelings of excitement, hope, despair and disillusionment all day, every day.

http://www.csv.org.uk/learning/media-skills CSV Media could be a good place to start getting experience, something I did and banged on about in a blog.

http://www.princes-trust.org.uk/ I am ideologically opposed to Prince Charles, but when I was a struggling media wannabe I got a grant to pay for a printer, so maybe I should shut up and say that I really think we should deffo have a King Charles III and it’ll all be brilliant.

http://creativeskillset.org/ Training, jobs, info and all that stuff.

I hope that’s useful.  I’ve certainly found many of these sites helpful over the years.

Good luck.

 

If you enjoyed the post then you can delve further into my oeuvre and support my work by purchasing my music. The lovely Tom Robinson off of BBC 6Music says it’s good. 

Taking Rejection

Ed Milliband believes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that’s absolute tossballs.  I’ve never been the same since my mate gave me some funny looking mushrooms he found on Dartmoor one autumn morning.  They didn’t kill me, but every day I look in the mirror and ask myself; ‘Is this a future prime minister I see before me?’ And every day I answer; ‘No, it’s a multi-coloured marshmallow face, now let’s get the crack-pipe a’ smokin’ and seize the day.’  Bet you a tenner I last longer in my job than Ed.

Learning how to deal with the tough times is a necessity in the world of showbiz.  Rejection happens a lot.  It’s like being a spotty teenager for your entire life as execs and commissioners tell you your idea smells and they wouldn’t snog it even if you were the last development producer on earth.  The likelihood of either getting the first job you go for or winning a commission for your first ever idea is very close to zero.  Unless your mum/dad is a high ranking television exec who can usher you through the door or you genuinely are the huge talent you think you are then be prepared for a lifetime of repudiation with the occasional bout of acceptance, joy and exhilaration.  The good times are worth it.

The first thing to do is to accept it’s going to happen.  Be enthusiastic, chase your dream, but also be realistic if only for your own sanity.  It’s incredibly exciting when you think you might have a chance.  Throughout my career I’ve gone through the process of meeting people for jobs and occasionally getting them and often not.  At the same time I’ve always tried to pitch my own ideas and most of the time they fall into the pit of development despair.  Occasionally they pique someone’s interest and when they do it is incredibly exciting.  Experience tells you it is just the first fence in a Grand National style race where the vast majority of ideas will fall horrifically and end up in a tin of dog food or a crispy pancake.

I’ve talked before about the currency of ideas and this is one of the major reasons to keep going in spite of rejection.  They do open doors and get people interested in you and can lead to other opportunities even if that particular project stumbles and fails to make it, even as an each-way bet.  Here’s one example of excitement, hope, rejection and redemption.  Someone should make a film of this blog.  Or at least work up a treatment, maybe shoot a taster and then bounce it around in development for eternity.

Nearly ten years ago I was working in factual programming as a freelance producer / director and trying my hand at comedy in whatever free time I had.  I’d tried writing a few things, done a moderately received Edinburgh Fringe Show, and was regularly dying on my arse at stand up venues across the country.  But then I had an idea to combine comedy with documentary (I know. This has never been done, has it?) and pitch an idea.  It was about testing quick-fix, self-help type ideas to get rich, successful, find love and I was going to thrust myself into those techniques as a journalistic fall guy.  Through my factual work at Tiger Aspect I had met a comedy producer, Lucy Robinson, who actually showed an interest in my work and offered incredibly helpful and straightforward advice.  Often she was critical and rightly so.  It’s important to remember that if an industry figure is willing to give you their time then they already think you have some talent, so if they give you constructive criticism then take it with grace.  You may or may not agree with every or any point, but they are trying to help.  Ignore them at your peril.

Lucy had moved on to work with Channel X, took my idea to them and it lead to my first meeting with Jim Reid and Alan Marke, which was incredibly exciting.  Going to the office and seeing posters of the iconic shows they’d made was nerve-wracking, but here were two decent guys who, in spite of the warehouse conversion office setting, didn’t have a hipster/media wanker bone in their bodies.  And they wanted to talk about my idea and how we’d develop it.  They agreed to shoot a taster.  I knew that to get a production company on board with an idea was a massive step forward.

The idea of the show was to look at quick fix ideas and expose their ludicrous nature, and we decided to film me trying out some techniques to meet and impress the opposite sex, as this seemed like a straightforward thing to set up, and something we could shoot in one day, on the street. I know this sounds bit Dapper Laughs and given the fact that this has been in the news, followed by the reports about Julien Blanc and his hideous ‘techniques,’ I’m a wee bit nervous about showing it to you. But hopefully it’s clear that, unlike Dapper, the joke was on me as the whole thing descended into hideous awkward chaos. Maybe I should retire the Matt Tiller character. If you’d really like to see what I did then it’s here.

After the shoot, I wasn’t sure how it’d gone and thought it might just be a bit shit. My first edit of the taster was poor — it was a lesson in being too close to the subject as Lucy came in and totally turned it round and made the best of the material. She told me Jim and Alan had a meeting set up to pitch a handful of projects to the BBC and would show them the taster. I was nervous and trying not to think about the fame and riches that inevitably lay ahead of me.  Take that school chemistry teacher who said I had no flair, my time has come.1

After the meeting Lucy called to tell me that the Head of Comedy at the BBC loved it.  Of the ideas Channel X pitched, this was the one they wanted to take forward. She sounded excited.  I was excited.  It was exciting.  All they had to do was convince Stuart Murphy at BBC Three to commission it and I would be on my way to fame, fortune and a Twitter backlash as soon as Twitter got invented.

But alas, as you can probably guess from my lack of either fame or fortune, it was not to be.  Stuart watched it and apparently liked it and thought it was funny, but didn’t want to take it further.  The main reason was that there were plenty of white, middle class comedians he liked, would love to work with and couldn’t find a place for, so didn’t feel this was something he could bring to BBC Three.  Even though I was obviously gutted, I couldn’t argue with that and have never felt bitter about that decision.  I knew there was a wealth of talent out there pitching ideas and there were top level stand ups and character comics who deserved breaks far more than I.

Following on from the taster I took an idea based on it to the Edinburgh Fringe, Matt Tiller… Ladykiller, which was fun.  It was a show that could go brilliantly or hideously as it involved a huge amount of audience interaction, but overall it was a great experience.  And it was while I was in Edinburgh performing that Jim at Channel X first approached me about working for them.  A few weeks later I had moved to Manchester and was developing television comedy.  So, even though the venture was in many ways a failure, (well, not in many ways, it was a failure) it had a real positive impact on my career.  So, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill having recovered from a bullet to the head and eventually lopping the top of Lucy Liu’s head with her Hattori Hanzo sword, it was success hewn from the steel of failure.  Except, in spite of the title of my fringe show, I didn’t actually kill anyone.

1 Maybe he was just annoyed that I accidentally filled the school chemistry lab with chlorine gas forcing the class to evacuate.

In the pipeline

Hello

It may seem that I have been rather quiet of late.  On here, that is.  In my non-virtual life I’ve been incredibly noisy.  I’m learning to play the pan pipes and the sound is far from soothing in the hands of the beginner.  The neighbours are getting irate.

In truth, I’ve been busy with many projects.  They are in a pipeline.  It’s too early to say if that pipeline will burst due to metaphorical pan-national conflicts or reach its final destination and pump television bronze into the homes of millions (or more likely thousands looking at modern day viewing figures).  We may yet have to be pleasant to Russia, say we’ll forget about Ukraine and ask them very nicely for their cheap television.

One thing I can tell you about is a BBC Radio 4 pilot from an excellent stand up comedian, Liam Mullone’s Disappointing World, which is being recorded in London on November 24th and if you want to be in the audience then click here.  It’s looking like a really good show.

Of course, I am very pleased indeed to have a passing association with the brilliant Detectorists, which will return for a second series.  It’s made by my company, but sadly I can’t claim any credit – a brilliant bunch of people, with Mackenzie Crook at the helm, made that happen and they are truly deserving of its success.

In the meantime I’ll have to keep you guessing on the other stuff I’m working on, because I don’t like talking about things that aren’t certain to make it our screens or at least to pilot stage.  There are usually several hurdles to leap and these can often cause a stumble, humiliation and a nasty graze.  A bit like when I ran for an old routemaster bus and fell on some tarmac opening a hole in both a recently purchased pair of jeans and my knee.

Also apologies for people who have contacted me and not received a response.  I’ll try to respond to questions in blog posts.  If you have sent scripts then I promise that I do look at them, but unfortunately can’t always get back to people.

I’ll try and get to a proper blog post soon, but right now I’m busy thinking of something profound to say about Dapper Laughs, but I’m just in despair.

Thanks

Matt