Meetings of Minds

 

I’m having meetings this week. I know, this is pretty mind-blowing stuff. But will they be meetings of minds or meltings of minds? Or just a bit awkward and British? One thing I do know is that I really could have done with a haircut beforehand but I haven’t got round to it. Do I address the elephant on the head or will they even care1.

In fact, as this blog ended up going on a bit, I didn’t finish it before I had some of the meetings. They went pretty well, thanks for asking. 

Having a meeting can be nerve-wracking, especially if you’ve not had many, or any, before. So here are some tips from someone who has done a lot of meetings from a position of being a totally new to the industry, naive person meeting someone seemingly important to being a writer/performer trying to sell an idea to being that seemingly important person listening to pitches. So here are a few back of the herbal fag packet tips which might be useful…

 

1. Prepare for it. Know what you want to get out of it whether that’s advice, interest in a project, interest in you for a job or something else. You have to know a bit about what the person has done and is doing so you can flatter them, disarm them with your charm and then get them to invest one million dollars in your arthouse short film.

2. Just try and be nice. Most people are nice or at the very least, okay. And if the person you’re meeting is not nice just be nice to them and then slag them off in private later. Or just be nice about it, maybe they were going through a difficult time or had a particularly stressful work situation. Or maybe you’re right, they are a nob for being on their phone the whole time and not really listening to you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t resort to being a nob too. Two nobs don’t make a television show happen.

3. Small talk. Tricky one this. On the one hand you don’t want be all American about it, unless you are American or are in America in which case go for it, but also you don’t want to waste all your time talking nonsense and then rushing through what you wanted to talk about. If I’m doing the pitching then I like to get into it fairly quickly so you have time to talk around projects. And hopefully my pitch for a dark comedy drama about a talking elephant on a revenge rampage is more interesting than the weather outlook for Penge.

4. Do give them a bit of background if they don’t know you. Enough to show that you have some credentials, but without banging for ages about how amazing you are and sounding like a bell end who might have taken a Class A substance. Which is not classy no matter what you’ve heard about the glamorous world of television, film and digital content. Easy

5. If you are pitching ideas then there’s probably a whole other blog or series of blogs to be done, but here’s a few thoughts.   

a) Practice the short pitch, because you need to sell what the idea is quickly and clearly. What is your log line? If you haven’t got one then you haven’t got a pitch. Then go on to explain it in a bit more detail, but not too much. They just want to get the basic idea and If they just don’t respond with much then ask them what they reckon – it’s better to get a clear no than just talk fuzzily around the issue.

b) If you’re there just to pitch one idea then of course be passionate about it and go into detail, but try and engage them and get them asking questions about it.

c) If they don’t seem sure at first, it’s fine to try and explain the idea in a different way to win them round or at least get them to the point where they understand it, but there’s no point flogging a dead horse. It just gets messy and unpleasant.

d) Not sure that any of these pointers are that helpful… you have to feel your own way through it. Be yourself. Unless you’re a bell end in which case pretend to be someone else.

6. If it’s going badly, get off. If it’s going well, get off. That’s a standard bit of advice for stand up comics and applies here too. Don’t overstay your welcome.

 

Right, I hope that was some use. I’ve got meetings to prepare for. I just need to sell three sitcoms, a visual online series and a bunch of films in the next few days. Wish me luck.

 

1 They probably won’t care, it’s just me getting anxious about the fact that I’m in that hair zone when it can look great or can look like an ice-cream van operator who’s been on a massive drink and drugs bender the night before has squirted it onto my head from a Mr. Whippy dispenser.

Cheats Sometimes Prosper

Unlike the clandestine crime fighting unit in the BBC One drama or Charley Boorman moving around the world, but without Ewan McGregor, I don’t like to achieve my goals ‘by any means.’  What I’m saying is that I’m not a psychopath.  I like to think that I’ve reached the dizzying heights of moderate accomplishment without screwing people over.  And most people I’ve met in the industry are the same.  Having said that I’ve not met loads at the very, very top.  They’re probably all total bastards.

However, sometimes you have to be a little bit cheeky, embellish the truth a little or sometimes, I guess, cheat.  Just a little.  While the cat’s away the mice will up-sell their skill set.  There are a couple of times in my career that spring to mind, but here’s one from my very early days…

It was my interview for the Post Graduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism at Falmouth College of Art.  This was a very important day.  Having narrowly failed to make it onto the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme my career was looking pretty much non-existent unless I could get a place on the course.  It was very competitive with thousands applying for about thirty places.1   And I wanted this as much as an X Factor or The Voice contestant wants to get to the live shows.

On the day of the interview one element of the process was a written test.  I think it was a series of general knowledge and current affairs questions, but with a few specifically about broadcasting.  I was given the test sheet, but told that there was quite a long wait for the interview – it must have been at least an hour or so – and I was allowed to wander off. So I did.  Sheet in hand I headed to the college canteen.  I knew most of the answers, but there were a couple of broadcasting questions that I had no idea about and I feared that this could be the crucial knowledge gap that would send me back across the Cornwall/Devon border empty handed.

In the canteen I managed to find some students (I know, a difficult mission in a college). Importantly they were doing the BA in Journalism and they had the answer.  They were absolutely certain   I can’t remember exactly what the question was, but something like who was the first director general of the BBC2 or something to do with regional radio or television franchises.

I’ll never know whether or not getting that answer correct tipped the balance in my favour.  Probably all the work experience I’d done was the main factor in getting a place, but I’m sure it didn’t do any harm.  And I like to think that tracking down the students with the answer to the question was me showing the kind of skills needed to be a successful journalist.  It was just research.  I’m sure my old tutors Colin Caley and Guy Pannell will forgive me for what I have done.  Getting a place at Falmouth was the thing that really got my career started.  They can’t do to me what they did to the banks over PPI can they?  You can’t take it all back now.  You can take away those episodes of Mad About Shopping for Westcountry TV3 I worked on, but you can never take my freedom…

1 I have no idea if that’s true, but a lot of people did apply.

2 I realise I should have known this. I do now, obviously. Who was it? I’m not going to tell you. You’ve got the internet and all your smart phones and iPads, which we didn’t have back then so I’m being a right miserable old git about it.

3 This series about the retail industry in the region was possibly the worst show I’ve been involved in. I was a researcher.  We had a laugh making it though.

The Ice Cream Always Rises to the Top

One day it will come.  That epic day that you have envisaged for years.  The day you have to go into a proper workplace.  When that day comes you’ll be nervous, you won’t know what to wear, you’ll realise that you haven’t got a suit and have to buy one from Top Shop. In the process you’ll be persuaded to get a store card and over time that suit becomes a more expensive investment in your future than you intended.  And it looks shit.

After a period with CSV Media, in spite of the many errors I made, I was starting to make progress.  I would occasionally get paid shifts at BBC Radio Devon covering as a Broadcast Assistant in the newsroom or helping out on shows in the evening or weekends.  I was advised to apply for a Broadcast Journalism Post Graduate Course – this would be a good way to start apparently.  There were only a few courses across the country (there are more now) and it was competitive to get a place as they gave you a great chance of getting a job in radio or television.  I applied for a several including Falmouth College of Art as it was not too far from home and had a great reputation.

At the same time I applied for the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme.  This was even more competitive, but somehow I managed to get through an initial interview and was shortlisted for a final big scary selection process.  It’d be like the Strictly, X Factor, I’m a Celeb and Bake Off finals all rolled into one massive non-public telephone vote off extravaganza of news.  Who would be the winner?  News?  Or me?  Or another shortlisted candidate?

I knew this was still a long shot.  If successful then I would be paid by the BBC to learn the journalistic ropes instead of having to go back to college for a year and pay about ten grand for the privilege.1  Still, I was hoping to strengthen my applications with more work experience and managed to get a week with Westcountry Television News.

Going into Westcountry was scary.  I’d seen it on the TV, now it was time to get a really long and tortuous bus followed by a long walk to the prime industrial estate location on the outskirts of Plymouth that was clearly designed for people who had a car.  That meant there was plenty of time for nerves to build up and for me to try and think of something witty to say that would then fall flat as soon as I’d walked through the automatic doors.

Scarier than the automatic doors was the fact that they actually asked me to do stuff. I didn’t just sit there and watch as if an episode of Drop the Dead Donkey2 was being performed live around me.  I had to make phone calls and research people who might be interviewed. Thankfully they put me under the wing of a new, young journalist called Sasha Herriman3 who was very tall, which I was not and I imagine both of us are still relative in height terms.  She seemed very capable as well as very kind and helpful.  It was a pressured environment and I feared that I’d get shouted at and marched out the doors if I made an error.  She told me I’d done a good job after I’d set up an interview for that night’s news programme that went well. A bit of praise goes a long way.  Remember that when you get to the top and are looking down on the poor mass of scrambling hopefuls below.

During my week at Westcountry I proudly told Sasha that I had a final interview for the BBC traineeship the next week.  I was excited, nervous.  Did she have any advice?  She didn’t say much apart from expressing how great that sounded, which I thought was a bit odd, but maybe she didn’t want to be too encouraging and make me complacent.

I managed to get through the week without being shouted at by the big bosses. Although there was once incident which could have gone either way.  For someone’s birthday/leaving/promotion/pregnancy (delete as appropriate), they’d bought in a load of gourmet ice cream. It was a big thing back then.  Nowadays there are loads of fancy artisan dairy producers, which is wonderful if you’re not lactose intolerant.  I made my way gingerly to the tubs which were attracting staff members like news hounds to an emotionally vulnerable victim, not wanting to take my turn too soon as I was only on work experience.  As i started to scoop some lovely sorbet into a paper bowl I misjudged my technique, flicking a piece directly onto the trousers of moustachioed news anchor David Foster.  I looked up to his imposing face of news expecting a full barrage of Ron Burgundy.4  Thankfully he laughed off the incident.  I think he said something about it being lucky it hit his trousers, because he always took them off for the show as he likes to feel free and unfettered below his desk while presenting.  Who knows what might have happened if it had hit his top half or if it had landed in his impressive ’tash and remained unnoticed.  It could have been a scandal that brought down the station.  But it wasn’t.

The next week I prepared for my final interview.  It was to be a full day of exercises and a session before a panel of three BBC bigwigs.  On the day I got out my Top Shop suit, ironed my shirt and set out with a ridiculous amount of time to spare to avoid any Plymouth Citybus related disasters.  You could never be too sure with Citybus drivers.  As a schoolboy I once had the doors closed on me as I was getting off trapping me half in/half out of the bus in full view of a group of Plymouth High School for Girls pupils who, understandably, found it hilarious.

As I arrived at the BBC reception, I was taken through to a waiting room where I was greeted by the only two other candidates who had made it through to the final round.  And one of them was Sasha. I knew immediately that I stood absolutely no chance whatsoever.  She immediately apologised for not saying anything before, but she was on a short contract with Westcountry, so she couldn’t mention an interview for another job. It was probably a good thing for me too as I would have spent the whole week thinking I was totally banjaxed.

Still, I gave it the best I could.  We were given exercises such as how we’d compile a news show out of a selection of stories.  We were doing this in front of three important BBC people who would ask us questions throughout.  I remember talking about how I’d cover a story about a hospice for children with terminal illnesses and I told my X Factor style BBC judges that ‘I would emphasise the fun aspects of the place.’ And one of the panel said ‘Ooh, that jarred a bit.’ If Simon Cowell had been invented then I would have compared her to the overly trousered dark master of manipulative pop riches.  I tried to ride out the awkwardness, but it was clear that this was not to be.  Falmouth College of Art here we come (I know I shouldn’t have spoilers in the blog, but I got on the course).

There was a small part of me that felt aggrieved, of course.  Sasha was already making her way in the world and it was a traineeship, but the fact was that she was only on a very short contract with Westcountry and I think that was her first job after some other training and of a 12 month traineeship with the BBC would be a great step forward and getting the place was prestigious.  So I was disappointed, but not bitter.  She absolutely deserved to get that job.

I guess what that taught me, as well as the need to hone my ice cream scooping technique, was resilience.  It is a tough business and you’ll get knock backs at every turn.  I’ve had one this week with the news that Hebburn won’t be returning to the BBC for a third series.  It’s always gutting, but you have to look forward immediately and work on how to make the best of the future.

1 I understand that, sadly, this is a paltry level of student debt these days.

2 If you’re young and don’t know it, this was a great, must watch show created by the brilliant Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin.

3 Sasha has carved a career as a news presenter and, as I have discovered using the power of internet search, a star of cabaret too with her outfit The Bluebirds.

4 Anchorman wouldn’t come out for some years, but it gives you the idea. Here’s a link to the news legend David Foster back in the day.

The Nadir of the Zenith of my career

My incredible award laden career1 in television has not always ridden on the zenith like crest of a wave that it does now.  Before I got into the TV industry, for example, it was in a trough.  A great big deep nadir like trough from where I couldn’t even get a glimpse of Alan Yentob’s eyebrows. Nowadays I can see them any time I like if I hang around the BBC for long enough.  A few days is all it takes sometimes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have done a history degree.  I don’t regret it, but I might have been better served by going straight into work (experience).  So when I ditched my plans to be a history professor, because I didn’t fancy being institutionalised with a bunch of lunatics obsessed with the past and how it repeats itself, I thought why not work in an industry where nothing is ever repeated and everything is startlingly original.

I’d always been a comedy fan, but had no idea how to get into the business.  In fact it didn’t even cross my mind that I could work in comedy and that’s probably why it took ten more years. So when I returned to Plymouth after university my plan involved signing on the dole, writing letters to television companies, applying for jobs and occasionally appearing in identity line ups at Charles Cross police station for ten cash pounds that would fund a night out on the Plymothian tiles.  And those tiles were pretty glamorous I can tell you.

Monday’s Media Guardian was the first stop for enticing job adverts.  I wouldn’t like to say that it was either easier or harder to get into television back in the mid nineties, because I don’t think that’s ever fair and no one likes an old codger banging on about how tough it was in their day. Information may be easier to get hold of now what with the internet and all that, but I suspect there’s even more competition, so if anything it’s probably harder in the tenties.

Spying an advert for a job you could apply for was a thrilling moment, so when I spotted the box containing `Zenith Productions – Trainee Script Editor for Byker Grove’ in big bold letters I thought `Yes!  This could be the job for me.  I have no idea how to script edit, so I’ll definitely need training.’  I was aware of `The Grove’ obviously, but hadn’t watched it much because when it started I already thought I was an adult (I think I was about 17), but I knew it was a successful kids show and my younger brother had the PJ & Duncan CD, so I could do some research and get myself suitably prepared to rumble.

I applied and got an interview.  I was surprised, because I knew that they would be looking for someone with at least a hint of experience and I had absolutely none in that field, but what I did do was write a shit hot letter.  I knew I’d knocked that letter out of the park.  The job advert had talked about issues facing adolescent children and I essentially used my brother.  I wrote all about how difficult he was – the drugs, the violence, the other assorted crimes (sorry Luke, I am joking. Mostly) – and how having a younger brother of relevant age meant that I understood the story lines to tap into.  Unfortunately the interview was not hot.  It was shit.

The appointment was in London, so I had a four and a half hour train journey to prepare myself and that preparation involved becoming increasingly nervous.  I had no idea what would happen, what questions would be asked, what questions I should ask them, because everyone likes a candidate who asks good questions.  I did know that asking Ant & Dec to sign the PJ & Duncan CD would not be a good question even if I did really want them to.

When it came to it the main thing that stood against me was my complete lack of understanding of anything to do with the television industry.  I thought that, what with it being a trainee position, they would teach me about all of that.  But of course it helps when you have done a bit of research and don’t just say that you’d love to visit Newcastle.  I found out that they only interviewed about ten people, so I’d done very well to get that far, and they planned to take three shortlisted candidates to the production for a day each to see how they got on.  I never made it that far.  The North East spurned me, but I have had my revenge and have visited Newcastle2 (well Hebburn, just across the river when we shoot Hebburn).

The killer question was the classic `where do you see yourself in ten years? As a producer or director?’  I didn’t have an answer, because I didn’t know what those roles really were and I was flummoxed.  The interviewer helped me out, but right then I knew I’d not be making the long trip to the North East from the far South West.  My brother’s CD would never be worth auctioning on ebay.

It served a valuable lesson, however.  I started to look into the industry in more detail and try to discover what those roles meant.  And I’ve been trying to work out what a producer does ever since.  If you find out, please let me know.  As for executive producers…3

After the interview I waited for the inevitable rejection letter from Zenith, which I filed in my ever expanding folder of rejections.  I think it’s somewhere in my cellar. I’ll have to dig it out and have a look some time to remind me of my long hard road to the middle. And it wasn’t the only time the North East rejected me.  I once received a rejection letter from Viz for some ropey material that I sent them.  But I was quite pleased to receive that one.  A letter from Viz.  With the VIz logo on it. Amazing.

    1 Two regional RTS awards and a How Do Award (How Do was a North West based media news website that closed down soon after my triumph).

    2 Actually I have been to Newcastle on a few other occasions. To watch Plymouth Argyle get beaten, take part in the Great North Run and do an interview for some terrible factual show I worked on for UK Horizons – I think that was the broadcaster. Did that channel exist or am I making it up? Tony Slattery presented it.

    3 A flat white please.