Flat Packing – a lesson in re-working ideas

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.

My short album about stuff can be pre-ordered on iTunes now.

Should I take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe?

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.

250 to 1 – The Terrible Script Pitching Gameshow

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…

Screenshot 2015-11-10 07.56.04

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?

Trust Your Instincts

Sometimes in life you get struck by a feeling.  Like Spidey Sense or The Force.  You can either use The Force or ignore it.  Why bother about that whole death star thing?  What’s the worst that could happen?  Oh, the empire has just blown up a planet destroying a civilisation.  Shit.  At least Princess Leia survived.

Okay, it’s unlikely that your sensory failings will lead to such a catastrophe and television isn’t life and death.  It’s less important than that.  But when you get a nagging feeling something is wrong then it’s worth doing something about it or at least checking.

There’s one terrible example of this in my early career.  I had reached the heady heights of researcher at Two Four Productions in Plymouth.  When I first arrived at Two Four a director looked at me with surprise and said he’d heard me read the news on Plymouth Sound Radio and thought I would be a tall, dark, handsome beefcake.  At least that was a compliment on my voice.  But I took that in my stride and worked on many amazing shows.  Who can forget the BBC Daytime series What Would You Do? or Westcountry Television’s Mad About Shopping?  I tried to compose theme tunes for these, but management rejected my ideas.  Trying singing these; ‘Ooh, Ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You-oo Do?’ or ‘We’re just hopping / [BONKERS] / Mad About Shopping.’  If only they’d used my compositions then I’m convinced the shows would have been massive global hits.

After about a year I graduated onto their long running Channel 4 daytime show, Collectors’ Lot.  If you were a student or pulling a sickie in the late nineties then you may remember it being on before 15 to 1 when Watercolour Challenge wasn’t running. The researcher’s main job was to find people with interesting collections and then suggest whether they would be a good guest for an Outside Broadcast (O.B.)1 or if we should film them and create a VT2.

For logistical reasons we would find collectors to film for VTs and set up shoots in a particular area.  Now, I won’t go into what the collection was or where it was located, but I had found a potential guest from a magazine or newspaper clipping.  The photos suggested a brilliant collection that would make a fascinating item.  I chatted to the collector on the phone, something that is vital of course as you need to find out if they’ll be able to bring their obsession to life3.  This hoarder seemed lovely on the phone; friendly, helpful and he sent me more photos and information which confirmed that we would have plenty of interesting stuff to film.  It was an incredible collection and the director would come back from the shoot, pick me up, carry me on their shoulders out of the production office, through the car park of the industrial estate in Plympton and into the canteen of Chaplins Superstore for their excellent value fry-up.  As well as Chaplins, late morning every day the Ivor Dewdney pasty van would pull up and you could get a hot, greasy, Cornish pastry delicacy.  The glamour of television in the South West.  Proper job.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.  I set up a filming date with said collector in a month’s time and left it at that.  I did try and call them a couple of times over the next few weeks, but to no avail.  This would be even more worrying now, in an age where everyone has mobile phones and emails.  However, after a few unreturned calls you would start to feel that something was up.  The problem for me was that I was becoming complacent.  Also I was about to go on holiday and would be away during the shoot.  That wouldn’t usually be an issue.  I had given the production team all the information and the crew would arrive and shoot the item.  The researcher wouldn’t normally be with them as that would be an extra cost.  But the reality was that I could sense something was wrong and I should have flagged it up as a concern.

When I returned from my holiday I discovered that the crew had turned up at the collector’s house and rung the bell, knocked several times.  They waited.  They were beginning to think it was a bit weird when a neighbour came out to reveal the horrific truth.  My lovely sounding, gentle, polite collector was in prison.  And in prison for something bad.  Really bad.  The kind of thing they would have got away with had they been a politician of yesteryear.  Worse still they had been using their collection in the course of their crimes.  Grim.

Upon my return I got a right royal bollocking from my producer.  And I thought that was fair enough, I’d made a balls up, I deserved to be told.  It’s true that after a few months on the treadmill of collection based daytime television I had become stale and disillusioned.  I was shifted off to other projects like an incompetent police officer, public official or media executive.  Sadly, I wasn’t booted upstairs with a pay rise.  I think I went on to research the classic Westcountry series On Hoof.  It was about horses in the region.  Great series.

I guess the lesson from this applies across the genres of television.  If you just assume everything is going to be okay then you can easily get caught out.  And if you get that nagging feeling something is not quite right then it really is best to act on it to ensure you get a lovely fried egg from the Chaplins canteen in your gob rather than a horrible, rotten egg splattering on your stupid face.

1 The Collectors’ Lot O.B.s involved taking over a large house which itself had some interesting collections and then essentially using it as a studio to record a week’s shows. We’d invite loads of collectors to bring their collections and display them to be interviewed by the host, Sue Cook or Debbie Thrower.

2 VT is a term used for a filmed package or report that is used within a show. It literally means video tape, so it seems a bit archaic in this modern digital world, but it is still used. And some people still use tape. I know. Get a hard drive, Grandad. Here’s a useful glossary of media terms.

3 Of course, sometimes people who are brilliant on the phone freeze on camera and others seem dull, but turn it on when the spotlight’s on them, but you at least have to get an idea of what they might be like.

I’ve Got An Idea…

Most of my ideas have, thankfully, never seen the light of day, although forthcoming appointment to view television series Britain’s Tastiest Village1 has definitely been ripped off from a proposal I sent to the Head of Daytime Twee Food Based Countryside Shows at the BBC many years ago. It’s a nest of creative blood sucking vampires out there. I guess I just didn’t have the vision to commit to the scale needed to take it from daytime to primetime without even a short toilet stop at shoulder peak. And that last sentence just proves that I have been to many commissioning briefings.

The value of the currency of ideas is something I learnt early on and TV gold is always a safe investment, even though no one has a clue which idea will transform from a scribble on the back of a fag packet into a gleaming ingot locked in the vault of Simon Cowell’s production company.

Having ideas and showing people that you can think creatively is, of course, going to help you progress in the media. But when I wrote to television companies as a young man I just thought, ‘This is a brilliant idea, they’re going to think I’m a genius and immediately make the show, stick it on the telly and this time next year I’ll be a millionaire. Or at least have paid off my student loan.’ So when I posted my letter to Chris Slade at Two Four Productions I was convinced my idea for ‘doing a programme about the Tinside Lido’ would have been brilliant even though the idea was just ‘let’s do a programme about the Tinside Lido.’ I think there were some other ideas in the letter but I can’t remember them, so they must have been even less exciting.

For those (un)fortunate enough to never have been to Plymouth, Tinside Lido is an incredible semi-circular Art Deco swimming pool that is the centre piece of the seafront. It was open when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties. I didn’t appreciate it then and just thought the water was very cold, something that didn’t seem to bother me when I snuck in with a bunch of drunken merry makers for an ill-advised midnight skinny dip when I was about 16. Happy days. Fortunately, I survived. The lido was then left to ruin until it was restored and reopened in 2005. It has been battered by the recent storms but will survive according The Evening Herald, Plymouth’s local newspaper. All very interesting, but not necessarily a great television programme without proper research or some kind of angle.

Amazingly however, Chris invited me in for a chat. Obviously I thought, ‘This is it. This is my time. We are going to make this show together, you and me Chris, and we are going to be rich,’ Chris was a television personality having presented shows in the South West for years and had co-founded a production company, Two Four, that was doing well. Turned out that it was just a chat. I guess at the time I was a bit disappointed that my life didn’t immediately change, but now I know how important those little advances are. It was just a chat, but a very encouraging one. Chris had taken the time to read my letter, invite me in, give me advice and tell me to keep in touch. Three years later I was working for Two Four.2

This was the first of many examples where sending ideas has helped me get a meeting or a foothold somewhere in the industry. There are very few of my own ideas that have been made. I did get two late night documentaries for Channel 4 commissioned – anyone see Bare & Breakfast about naturist guest houses? Hopefully not. The final shot features me running across the screen stark bollock naked. That’s what television executives might call brave, but I would like to ban use of the word brave in relation to television unless it refers to reporting from a war zone or very dangerous covert filming. My efforts just upset a friend who tuned in randomly to Channel 4 in the early hours, got excited when they heard my voice narrating this odd little documentary only to be appalled by the sight of me scurrying in my birthday suit. The reason for my exposing appearance was that it was all shot by me and I was filming an interview outside. It started raining so I had to run, turn the camera off and lug my gear inside, which seemed like an amusing way to end the film. And I was filming it naked because it was a documentary about naturism and I’m not arsed about the televisual appearance of my arse. That documentary got me through the doors of Tiger Aspect Productions where I freelanced as a producer/director regularly for a few years.

Contacting people with ideas has often lead to opportunities and I encourage you to do so. Do it with grace and research the people and companies you contact. It won’t guarantee a reply, but it will increase the chances. My current job with Channel X came about because I pitched an idea to a producer who had worked at Tiger Aspect, but was now working with Channel X.  They decided to develop it and it nearly got me a job on the television fully clothed. I’ll write about it in more detail in another post, but the salient point is that the idea lead to a relationship with Channel X which convinced them that I might be worth offering a proper job to. And the rest, as they say, is a footnote in comedy history.

1 If you don’t get the reference then watch the BBC comedy W1A.

2 Don’t worry, I wasn’t just sat on my arse for three years waiting for Chris to call again. I did other things.