Here’s another brilliant episode of Absolutely Fine created and directed by Tom Rosenthal, co-written by and co-starring Celeste Dring. This one was tailored for Facebook, while there is a longer version with a very different ending over on YouTube.
Ever get the feeling you’re missing out on the party? You know, the party where ‘all the important people who decide everything’ are at? Roger Mellie The Man On The Telly is there with Frank Bough and he’s off his nuts on showbiz sherbet (I’m showing my age with a Viz reference – if you don’t know Viz, it was the viral hit of the grubby paper age of my youth featuring Roger Melly ‘The Man on the Telly’ a consummately unprofessional presenter who, at the very least, has not been cited in historical criminal cases).
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I reckon many people feel they are not connected even if they are working regularly in television – that there is some kind of clique making all the decisions around a table littered with £50 notes and white powder while seething external catering service workers clear up while desperately, and completely understandably, wanting to punch everyone’s lights out.
Like you, I don’t particularly feel a part of the glamorous set. The glitterati. We’re just the Yentobi-wannabe-kenobis (#labouredstarwarspun). Admittedly, now I’ve spent 20 odd years in the showbiz firmament I have been to the odd thing and I do have friends who’ve done some brilliantly cool things. Most of those are people who, like me, have done okay and are occasionally invited to a glamorous event. My friend Jane and I once went to the Hampstead Bark Off where she was a celebrity judge alongside Rachel Riley off of Countdown. She does a brilliant blog about dog friendly travel, phileasdogg.com, featuring her dog and my best canine mate, Attlee. It’s all glamour in my life now.
If there is a dinner party set then I’ve never made it to the top table. I’m not sure there is one. Of course, there are well connected people but if you start to think that you’re somehow deliberately NFI then you could be sliding down a rickety spiral staircase bannister to despair and bruised nether regions when you hit the nubbin at the bottom.
When I started my career in television at Plymouth’s most successful export since Sir Fancis Drake (this was before Tom Daley made a splash), Two Four Productions, I thought I was on a road to glamour, golden toilets and a budget for ‘office sundries.’ And when I say ‘office sundries’ I don’t mean post-it notes, guys. That road, via the office on an industrial estate in Plympton, was not paved with golden toilets, there was no budget for ‘office sundries,’ in fact you were lucky to get actual office sundries. Fortunately, now I could probably afford the occasional splurge on ‘office sundries,’ I have been educated enough to ethically oppose their procurement. Ignorance really is a blissful high sometimes.
One reason for writing this post is the memory of my early days in Manchester, when I was setting up a production company, forging relationships with writers and comedy talent. I was new to the city and didn’t know many people so I invited a few people I’d met and liked for a birthday drink because it was my birthday and otherwise I’d have been sat in my flat playing online backgammon into the early hours – heady and the disappointment on their faces when it was about five of us in the Crown and Anchor sipping pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Best birthday ever. I can’t speak for my glamour-expectant guests, however.
There isn’t a great point to this blog, but I guess it’s just try not to get stressed about that stuff and get on with doing other stuff. Those parties are probably full of wankers anyway.
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.
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.
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.