I am in the charts, the Contemporary Musical Comedy chart. This means I am a fully-fledged, living, breathing person who is making musical comedy right now in contemporary times. It’s lovely to be included alongside a load of very good people who are on the radio and television…
‘It’s not what you know, but who you know and who you can bullshit.’
Is this the mantra that has launched me into the stratospheric position I occupy now? Yes. If you follow my advice, you too could be nominated for a regional Royal Television Society award and, eventually, even win one. Actually, Absolutely Fine, the online series I produced with Tom Rosenthal for Comedy Central has just been nominated for a Broadcast Digital Award . Things are on the up.
I’ve never really liked the ‘it’s not what you know’ line because it doesn’t reflect the work someone put in to make those contacts and get themselves noticed. Sure, there are a few people who are so well connected they’d have to vomit on the shoes of every significant person they met to fail, but for most of us creating those connections is all part of the journey. Don’t stop believing etc.
But this blog is not about that, it’s about bullshit. How far should you twist the truth in a career situation? There are times when I’ve claimed to have more knowledge or skills than I really did. I never exactly lied, but maybe I was a little economical with the truth. Or generous with the ever so slightly inaccurate.
You have to tread the line of credibility so you don’t come across like a bullshitter — and I have met a few — knowing that, if offered the job, you can do it. Otherwise your bullshit will land you in the shit which will then splatter upwards hitting a fan revolving at high speed and you’ll have a big load of shitty egg on your face as well as being sat in a big, miserable pile of it. An absolute shitfest. And that’s not what I want for you.
There’s one moment that sticks out for me at a crucial, or it seemed it at the time, point in my career. I decided to leave the bright, seaside lights of Plymouth, where I’d been working as a Researcher then Assistant Producer (AP) at Two Four on seminal productions such as Westcountry TV’s short-lived Mad About Shopping1 and BBC One’s short-lived daytime show What Would You Do?2 and head for the bright, smoggy lights of London to work on Living TV’s highbrow, yet cruelly short-lived, offering Relationship SOS. What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?
Relationship SOS was a studio show featuring people with personal issues who were given advice by a panel of experts. We’d then see how the advice worked by filming the participants at home or an appropriate location before they later returned to the studio to discuss how it had worked.
I had to apply for the job first, of course, and being just a young boy from the Westcountry trying to make his way in the big smoke was a bit daunted — it’s kinda Dick Whittington meets a budget Nathan Barley. So, when I was invited to an interview for an AP role, I was incredibly excited.
At the interview I discovered the producers needed people with DV (Digital Video) skills — the ability to shoot these VT inserts3 as well find and book the participants. Now, while I had picked up and played with a camera and been on plenty of shoots watching directors and camera operators work, I’d never really shot or directed anything. In the interview one of the producers said something like, ‘Your DV skills will come in very handy.’ In my head I was thinking, ‘Er, what DV skills?’ But, desperate to make my mark in low budget daytime television, I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’
Amazingly, I got the job; a three month contract in London. I was convinced I’d be found out within seconds and ignominiously shoved on the next train from Paddington back to Plymouth with my tail between my over-stretched legs. In a bid to prevent that humiliation, I borrowed a camera and sound gear (as I’d have to be doing both), took advice from anyone I knew who’d ever shot or directed anything and practiced. I had one weekend to gain those much vaunted ‘DV skills.’
Somewhere in my disorganised archives, there’s a funny picture of me holding a camera but I couldn’t find it, so here’s a pic of me about the same age looking ridiculous with a cocktail and sporting ineffective facial hair…
In the end you’ll be relieved to know, dear reader, that it all turned out okay. I mean, the show was absolute bobbins but somehow I managed to scrape through. By throwing myself into it and doing as much preparation as I could, the unravelling was averted. In fact, and this is a bit trumpet-blowy (while being entirely aware that I wasn’t quite following in the path of Spielberg), the producers told me I’d made the best VTs across the series. My fear of coming a cropper in the big city abated. Bravo’s Future Fighting Machines, Channel 4’s Bare & Breakfast and of course Channel 5’s Shaving Ryan’s Privates4 all lay ahead on my glittering career path…
So, yes, bullshit to your hearts content. As long as you’re prepared to put in the work needed to get away with it.
By the way, this is part one of a series of two blogs about bullshit. The next will be about why you shouldn’t bullshit for anyone else…
1 I made a pitch for the theme tune… ‘We’re just hopping / BONKERS / mad about shopping.’ Sadly, it was not picked up but I’m suing Dizzee Rascal as he clearly stole the idea. Can’t remember what the chosen theme was, but mine would definitely have been better and turned the show into a massive ratings hit.
2 Theme tune pitch (sing to a jaunty melody) ‘Ooh, ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You Do-ooooh?’
3 VT stands for Video Tape and is still used to describe short filmed items that are then played into a studio show – such as news reports, ‘sideways looks’ at something or other on The One Show or cringeworthy attempts at topical comedy on The Daily Politics.
4 That one’s not on my CV and I can’t quite remember if that was the title, but I definitely went to Naples (well, an industrial estate in a Naples suburb) to shoot footage for the programme, a one-off ‘documentary’ about pornographic remakes of Hollywood blockbusters. I was filming behind the scenes of a remake of Cleopatra, cue shot after shot of hilarious items obscuring intimate parts. Oh dear. It was, naturally, a huge ratings success.
Yep. Everyone’s banging on about it. If you’re on my mailing list that’s great – you would have signed up here or at a gig. If you don’t want to be on it then leave. Go on, get out of here…
My mailing list is held by Mailchimp who are fully compliant, so we’re all good. Still here’s a stupid song about it…
I started the year with good intentions. I was, quite literally, a soul whose intentions were good. But y’know, things got busy. Someone gave me a job for a couple of months which was very kind (or stupid) of them and at the same time I’ve continued to develop a bunch of projects as per my previous Numbers Game post. Throw enough sh*t at the wall and something might just stick.
And then I went off on honeymoon for a few weeks to Japan. Poor me. Here I am waving through a hole in a massive red pumpkin.
It’s on the Japanese island of Naoshima, which is stuffed full of art. Yep, the pumpkin is art.1
I am inside art and enhancing it through the medium of interpretive photo posing.
Now I’m back working on my slate, so I’ll attempt to keep you updated and throw out any witterings that I think might be useful. Do keep in touch. I am always happy to hear from people with questions and comments. I’m sorry I can’t read and feedback on your material – it’s impossible at the moment – but I try to offer as much advice as I can here.
1 It’s Yayoi Kusama‘s Red Pumpkin. She loves pumpkins. She nuts for them. There’s a massive yellow one on the island too which is ace although you can’t get inside that one.
Something often crosses my mind. ‘How many things should I be working on right now?’. Am I diluting my unquestionable genius and creating a mushy sea of mediocrity? Or by loading up a blunderbuss with so many killer fragments and then pulling the trigger, might one of those fragments tear through the addled brain of a commissioning editor causing them to, possibly mistakenly, order a fifty-six part series? Or are my metaphors an indication of a descent into some kind of creative abyss? Only you, or the commissioning editors who are very much looking forward to my pitch meetings, can decide…
Here I am working on my slate at my ergonomic stand up desk system…… well, taking a selfie pretending to work, but you get the gist.
I often look in the mirror and shout, ‘am I developing too many projects?’ I don’t actually shout in the in the mirror, but I do look at my reflection in an attempt to find a soul. And when I’ve found it, it’ll be available, at a price, to the devil or Channel Five.
What I can definitely tell you is that just focussing on one project alone for months and years on end is a pathway to frustration and despair. Of course you should focus on one project at a time to get it into the best shape possible to pitch, but then you should pitch it and move on to something new. Of course, it’s always worth going back to it once you have some time away. Sometimes that period of reflection can be very helpful… maybe Downton Abbey The Gameshow hosted but the CGI Paddington will be a major hit.
I’ve had a few instances where someone has been overly insistent on one particular project. Often it’s something they’ve had a bit of interest in, so it’s probably quite good. Maybe a producer said they really liked it. Maybe a commissioning editor or some other kind of highly important individual has said, ‘It’s great, but not for us right now.’ And maybe I’ve read it and thought, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good.’ But then, if no one at that moment has bought into it, it’s time to move on at least for a while until everyone has moved jobs and you can send it to someone new.1
Being passionate about something is great, but you also need to know when to move on and put that passion project to one side for a minute and slip out another one your passionate about. Do focus on things you care about, but make sure you have loads of ideas you think are ace. Or at least a handful. You want to go into a meeting with more than one, but not so many that it looks like you’re taking the blunderbuss approach. Which I think is probably a bit haphazard and likely to lead to you accidentally shooting yourself in both feet with a load of metallic fragments. Funny in a cartoon, not in real life and a frankly a stretched metaphor in both this paragraph and the entire post.
So, I thought it might be handy to let you know what I’m up to. Some of these have to be vague because I’m working on them with other people, but where I can I’ve set out the top line. Why not – are you going to nick them? I doubt it, I mean you’d be an idiot to really, just look at them…
- A low budget feature about a singer songwriter whose dreams have been trampled by his parents but is encouraged to break them by a carefree spirit. But she goes and dies, which is a pretty shitty thing to do. Once meets Truly Madly Deeply is how someone described it – not me, I don’t do ‘thing meets thing descriptions.’ But it does kinda make sense.
- A feature that is really great that I can’t go into more detail about.
- A silent comedy drama which I have to be a bit more vague about.
- A sitcom with a rising stand up attached.
- A comedy drama about a girl who ends up running the family B&B in Plymouth when her dad goes missing only to find he and the guest house are embroiled in the local drug trade. Breaking Bad meets Fawlty Towers (but not really).
- Another sitcom.
- A comedy drama about some stuff.
- A silent series of digital shorts about an awkward relationship.
- A zombie thing – could be a feature or series, I’ve only written one page so far, but it’s a cool idea…. I would say that, wouldn’t I?
- 11,12,13,14….. Various other bits and bobs with other people.
Of course, I’m not working on all these at the same time. Some are in a position to be pitched, so I pitch them and continue looking at the others while waiting for a response, which could take months. And then if something gets some interest I focus energy on that.
Maybe that is too many, but it’s definitely good to have ideas. I could do a whole other blog about whether or not someone will steal your idea by the way. They won’t. Or at least if you’re the sort of person who worries about that then you’re not approaching it in the right way. Concentrate on getting your stuff into great shape and then telling people about it. Otherwise it ain’t never going to happen anyway.
Good luck out there. And wish me luck with my ludicrous list. I’d appreciate that.
1 Make sure you check all the references though. There’s no clearer clue to a dated script than references to Craig out of Bros or President Reagan. Unless it’s an eighties period piece, obvs.
Hello. You know when you’re living with someone, a significant husband/girlfriend or boyfriend/wife, you think something’s gone missing you often blame then when actually the story is somewhat different? Maybe you left the thing on the bus, maybe it’s in your coat pocket, or maybe you didn’t eat that last piece of your favourite cheese after all. Well, here’s a song about men being f**kwits with added cheese puns….
Having said that, yesterday I was, like, totally vexed as to the whereabouts of my headphones. And then my wife pulled a tangled web of wires from her coat pocket and put them on the table. There were four earpieces. Yes, she had taken my headphones. But then she did apologise directly using the power of speech rather than bang on about it in a song, so who’s the better person. You decide.*
*It’s her, obviously.
As I sit in my lounge pants pondering the creation of 2018’s, well, probably 2019’s1, comedy hit of the year, I thought it would be a good time to think about interrogating those sure fire hits you’re dreaming up. Tie that idea to a chair in front of your desk, shine a light in its eyes and threaten it with ways you can make it talk. When it comes to generating concepts for television shows I totally advocate the use of torture. As a member of Amnesty International, like the fully paid up member of the guilt laden middle-libtard classes I am, I do not advocate torture in real life.
But how do you do that other than make sure it’s the best script ever? Surely that’s enough? ‘Hello commissioning editor, here is a brilliant script, let’s rock.’ Sadly it doesn’t work like that even if you are the most well connected, talented person in the world ever. Okay, so sometimes it does because there are brilliant well connected people who have made their connections throughs being brilliant working their arses off and not being dicks. Yeah, I know there are exceptions but don’t start thinking like that, don’t get bitter. It’s not becoming and it’s the festive season so let a little love into your heart. Okay, so there’s that bloke who’s doing really well in the US and he’s really irritating but remember how he was great in that thing years ago, and that other thing, so maybe his talent got him there? Yes, I have heard that he’s a total dick a lot of the time, but forget about him, we’re talking about you here and thinking about what other people are doing while you’re trying to get your thing moving is not going to help. Stop it.
Back to the point. The fact is there are a massive number of scripts floating about. Most are quite good and a few are genuinely brilliant – well crafted, funny with great characters. Scripts that you could see making a really strong comedy show (before some producer or exec comes along and messes it right up, obvs). But with all those scripts chugging their way through the e-pipes, being read on devices and occasionally printed out and bound together in a loving, old-school manner, that is rarely enough these days. If you ask the question, why isn’t that enough?, just think about how many shows get made each year. It’s not that many, so why should your show be made alongside or above Detectorists, Motherland, The End of the F***ing World, Man Down, Quacks, Timewasters… it’d have to be pretty incredible.
Yes, there are slots for newer talent, but those are largely for people who have been spotted on the live circuit or for their creations online. So, if you’re not doing either of those things then you can’t expect to compete for those slots.
So, what can elevate your project? Here’s a few back of the ALDI own brand cereal packet (I don’t smoke, so I have to make do with what I can find) ideas…
1) Is your idea relevant to now? Does it have a reason to be made and is there a reason why you should be doing it? ‘You spent a year in a far right/left organisation and this is a comedy based on that time, interesting.’ Think about what’s going on in the world and what you can bring to that idea. It’s going to be more interesting to commissioners and, if it’s done well, more interesting to viewers.
2) Can you bring talent to the project? I know this is almost impossible for a new writer without connections. To be honest it is hard for anyone, even top producers, to attach the kind of massive name that will open doors. But if you seek out unique talent with their own voice and work with them then perhaps you can create an opportunity.
3) Is the format unique? A couple of the shows I referenced above have different, unique elements to them; Timewasters and The End of the F***ing World had an original vision that would have made them stand out at pitching stage.
4) Don’t know if there’s anything else, but if you find any other great ways to make your project stand out do let me know as I’m doing a new year review of my development slate.
So, good luck in 2018. Read, watch, write and pitch like the wind. And dig deep into your idea, so deep that you get to the other side, become enlightened and discover that it really is shit, but that other notion you scribbled down the other day could be the one. Yes, that one has something about it. That is the one. I’m excited about it for you. I hope your show gets commissioned at the same time as mine.
1 Pilot in 2018, series commission before the year is out, shoot Summer 2019 for an autumn TX followed by global acclaim.
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.
I watched this yesterday and I know a few of the people involved as it’s made by my old colleagues at Channel X so I declare an interest, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and reckon it’s a great pitch for a series.
Channel 4’s Comedy Blaps are just that – lower budget ways to pilot potential series ideas which have lead to shows like Chewing Gum and a couple of series coming this year I think. And many broadcasters have commissioned tasters – shorts usually based on a few scenes from a full half hour script – that have then gone straight to series. Many are not made public, but it’s great that some now are so we can see things in their nascent form. Tasters give everyone a chance to test the writing, direction and cast but it’s not easy to do, of course.
I’m not going to do a full analysis because I have a life but this works and is well produced because….
It’s a timely idea, relevant and interesting.
The writing is excellent – a great set of characters from whom great comedy can emerge. The reveal of Sami and how they all react is a great set piece and there are some lovely lines ‘hard bristle’ stood out for me.
It’s written by Rufus Jones who plays Peter so the cast has a great foundation to build on and they’re all very good indeed.
The set up for the story and where it might go is all there. And all the relationships are well thought through and explored efficiently with an ending that leaves you wanting to see more.
I know if you’re trying to make shorts and tasters on no budget at all (this was, of course, funded by Channel 4, but the budget would be low) then it is difficult to match, but you must look at what other shows have been successful and aspire to them.