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.

Catch 22

 

You don’t have to be mad to write comedy, but it helps. I should get some mugs and t-towels made for my merch page and become a millionaire. I recently had an email with the subject line ‘Catch 22?’ and there does seem to be an impossible and conflicting dilemma for aspiring writers. While not quite as life-threatening as a Captain Yossarian situation it can drive people to the brink. Still, I thought I would answer the query while probably failing to answer the query.

 

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So, you’ve written something; a sitcom pilot script, short film, web series, brilliant comic feature film. You nervously send it out into the world to anyone and everyone who might just take a look at it. Chances are you won’t get many replies, but maybe one or two people respond and say nice things. If you show some promise, great potential or even generate genuine interest in your work then this is just the start of what could be a great ride. But, unless you are brilliant and lucky, it will be a bumpy one, like a comedy writer’s version of World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Ice Road Truckers or if you’re a partnership, Touching the Void.

 

My recent correspondent had written a web series which received some interest and nice comments from industry professionals. And you know what? That is great; it’s encouraging, someone has actually given you feedback and you feel like you’re making progress. And you are. But then… nothing. Back to square one like the worst game of Snakes and Ladders you’ve ever played and you scream and cry like a child while your competitive dad laughs smugly while he whizzes up another ladder. Then I shout, ‘It’s not fair!’ and he replies, ‘Life’s not fair.’ And I think, well okay maybe life isn’t fair but if people were less of a dick about it then maybe life would be a bit nicer. And now that I’m just as bad as my dad when I play board games, my girlfriend refuses to play Scrabble with me. It’s the circle of life.

 

Sorry about that tangent, but sometimes it’s good to get these things out. So, you feel there are barriers in the way of your writing moving forward, such as the fact that you haven’t got an agent when you can’t get an agent because you haven’t had anything produced. I know what that feels like, but while having an agent is great, it shouldn’t and doesn’t stop you pursuing your writing. In fact, you can waste precious time trying to get an agent when an agent isn’t going to be interested in signing you.

 

If producers are reading your work, enjoying it and giving you good feedback and even asking you in to meetings, but not pursuing projects further then, frustrating as that is, you just have to see it as step forward. Most industry folk do try and take time to encourage talent and even if nothing comes of those contacts now, they may do in the future. They have to look at your work and decide whether or not they have a chance of selling it and if they think that’s unlikely then they can’t afford to spend more time on it. This is particularly true if your first projects are sketches or web series. The ideas and scripts might be great, but there’s not a lot you can do with them, so you have to pursue them yourself. There are a few outlets on radio for sketches and gags but whether it’s a sketch, an online series or short film, the only way forward might be to make it yourself. And, yes, there’s probably a whole other post on this, but the only real answer to, ‘how do I do that?’ is, ‘by going out and doing it, learning from your mistakes and doing it again.’

 

As a new writer without an agent it is difficult to get people to read your work, but some people do and if they really love it, have time to pursue it and believe they have a chance of getting it made then they will. Those three things coming together is rare, but the issue of whether or not someone has an agent has never been an issue in my experience. In fact there are writers and performers whose scripts I have developed who have gone on to get an agent and develop a career and most of them had been through exactly this process. So, dust yourself down if you’re feeling dusty, get up again if you’re feeling Chumabwumba-y and make stuff, write more, write what you want but try and write something someone might want too. Be aware of what’s out there. Watch shows, read scripts. And one day you could be writing a blog and considering merch with snappy slogans in a foolhardy attempt to monetise it.

 

Just a footnote; David Quantick’s book How to Write Everything is well worth a read and will help anyone in this situation, I think.

 

 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. 

Job’s a Good ‘Un.

Hello. As you may have read on such illustrious platforms as Chortle or televisual industry websites I have a new job working for Comedy Central. The articles were accompanied by either an old picture of me holding a guitar or a recent hurriedly taken self-portrait. In both I have the cold dead-eyed stare of a killer. When I took the new pictures I rejected one where I was smiling because my girlfriend said I looked like too much of a pushover. It seems I now have to strike fear into anyone who is pitching to me. I bet you’re quaking in your fashionable boots.

A friend texted me this picture from the print edition of Broadcast, which I never actually saw. Now I have a proper job it seems I’ve gone fully Partridge…

 

Matt Broadcast Pic 

In the full quote I make a self-deprecating joke, obviously. But they’ve edited it down, as is their right, to bring out the full media tosser.

It’s a really interesting, exciting and challenging role which I’m very lucky to have and I am throwing myself into with gusto (obvs, but also just in case my new employers are reading this). One of the big issues for me to deal with now is how I respond to people who contact me through the website. I’ve enjoyed being open, receiving ideas and I do try to respond – I generally can’t give detailed feedback on projects, but I’ve read every message and, apart from a recent backlog due to being a bit busy, what with the new job ‘n that, have responded to pretty much all of them. I only ignore those who make no effort to be courteous and only slightly prioritise those who heap praise on my vain little head.

From now on, however, I probably won’t look at your script or idea. I don’t want to close my email, because I think it’s useful all round for people to be able to contact me. A question might inspire a blog post that can then help more of you, for example. But for reasons of both practicality, legality and all round retention of sanity I’ll have to stop reading unsolicited scripts.

I know it’s disappointing, because it’s hard to get anyone to look at your work. That’s why the people who make progress are those who display brilliantly bloody minded ambition mixed with politeness, a thick skin and openness. Do have a read of my blogs and hopefully there is some useful advice.

I have considered charging people for a script reading service, but while I am in gainful employment that doesn’t feel right and I don’t really have the time to dedicate to it. James Cary – a very experienced sitcom script writer and editor – has just opened a window of opportunity to get him to read your work in return for backing one of his projects. I think this is very fair and something I have considered and may yet do in the future. You may be forced to buy my music in return for me reading your work. Well, not forced, but you get what I mean. I think these kind of deals are a fair trade. As James writes in his blog, a considerable amount of time really is needed to give proper notes on a script – three or four hours – and even to give something a quick read and general thoughts on whether or not it’s any good takes a good chunk of time.

If you want to get in touch with offers of a multi-million pound record deal for my music or similar amounts to turn the blog into a book, then that’s, like, totally cool. Drop me an email. If you do then I’ll read your script in return – yep, I am that shallow. Soz everyone and good luck.

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re In This Together Trailer

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.

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.