Hello! To celebrate January and the need for austerity shopping, here’s a song in celebration of everyone’s favourite discount supermarkets and their speedy checkout staff…
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.
Hello and a very happy new year. I hope you are excited by the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. Even if you are currently sat in your dressing gown typing nonsense for your website attempting to stave off the fear. Just by the very act of typing, you are doing that. I think just did a bit of ironic self-congratulation. Not sure if that’s good or not – you decide.
For the last couple of years I was working for Comedy Central where I had a great time working on a bunch of stuff like Drunk History, which is a really great show and looks incredible, and the shorts I’ve posted about with Tom Rosenthal, Absolutely Fine, which are brilliant so do have a watch…
Now I’m back working independently, developing and writing projects all of which will definitely hit your screens at some point1.
So, here’s the plan… I’ve decided to be more open about what I’m up to. I’ve always been wary of sharing things too early, not because I worry about people stealing ideas – if you stress about that, you’ll honestly get nowhere. I remember reading a quote from a writer or producer (I think it was in David Quantick’s How To Write Everything) that the size and frequency of copyright notices on a submission is almost always inversely proportional to the quality of the writing. That rang true to me.
I can’t always give all the information, if I’m working on something with another writer then it’s not really fair to divulge it without their permission. But where I can, I’ll write about what I’m doing. I hope it’ll be interesting and useful, but mainly it’s an entirely selfish action – I reckon that if I tell people what I’m up to then it’ll motivate me to get stuff done, because it’ll be embarrassing otherwise. Expect loads of blogs saying, ‘I sent (INSERT PROJECT HERE) to (INSERT BROADCASTER OR EXECUTIVE HERE) and, ‘I am waiting to hear back from (INSERT BROADCASTER HERE).
Today I’m back to work and looking at a treatment for a silent comedy I’ve co-created. I think it’s a strong idea but it’s a bit of a re-working of a previous project. This is something that is always worth trying but it can be difficult to let stuff go. All I have to do it let all the great scenes and jokes that won’t work in the new format go. Let it go.
Sorry if you now have that song from Frozen going round in your head.
Good luck in 2018.
1 Okay, maybe 5-10% have a realistic chance, but you have to start with the belief that all will be good enough otherwise you might as well go back to working in a luxury fruit goods packing factory in Devon. That was my worst job ever. Worse than working in Sergeant Pepper’s Fun Pub where, on my first shift aged eighteen, a drunk middle-age woman leant over the bar while my hands were occupied pouring a pint and started undoing my trousers.
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.
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.
A short while ago a reader got in touch… okay it was several months, but a response is a response, right? Oh, no. Now I’ve got a proper job I’ve changed. I’ve turned into that guy. Oh well, it was always going to happen. I promise to still speak to you if you grab me in the street. Want a selfie? Sure, no problem. Although I do need to monetise my content, so like Sandra off of Gogglebox I shall be charging. £1million each. A bargain at a minuscule fraction of the price.
Back to my correspondent (finally) who asks this question…
‘What is best way to pitch a TV format idea to a production company? I get the impression that format ideas tend to come from within production companies, and they’re not particularly open to ideas from the outside.’
The biggest hurdle has already been identified by the correspondent themselves. Most production companies have development teams; people hired for their format creating brains. They’re paid to sign away to the corporate behemoth every flash of inspiration in each cell of every dark recess of their flat white sipping brains. If you want a career in television development then having ideas and sending them to companies is the way to start. They want keen, usually young people to come in and create their next hit. If you have great ideas, enthusiasm and an open attitude then you have a chance of making a career in it.
This is similar to companies not accepting unsolicited scripts, but even more exclusive because most companies who produce formats need to keep their ideas in house and retain the rights — it’s how their business works. With scripted shows companies need to tap into writing and performing talent outside the payroll and there is a, justified, acknowledgment of the creator/writers work before a production company takes an idea on and that is reflected in the deal. With non-scripted formats companies generally don’t want to look at other peoples’ ideas lest they be accused of stealing. The format world is tricky in this area — legal issues do come up. Sometimes a format has a sprinkle of the essence of plagiarism and often there isn’t much of a format at all, it’s just, say, Micky Flanagan, Caroline Quentin 1 or another big showbiz name like someone off the TOWIE going off on a jolly. A perfectly good idea for a show, but not something that will sell around the world and generate huge income for a national broadcaster (ooh, bit of politics there, maybe?)
And, of course, many ideas are commonplace. I’ve seen several shows where I’ve thought, ‘I had that idea’ but I genuinely don’t think any have been stolen. I do have one instance where it has, sort of happened and I was pretty shocked — it’s not a show that has ever made it on air. It’s rare, but it happens and I might blog about that separately sometime. That shouldn’t stop you having ideas and getting them out there — it’s an anecdotal rule that the more precious about the legal protection of an idea people are, the less likely they are to make progress. I know that can seem like a Catch 22, but it does turn out to be true. It’s something David Quantick references in his book How To Write Everything in relation to scripts – the bigger and more frequent the copyright notices are, the worse the script tends to be.
So, you’re in a tricky situation as a wannabe format creator outside the industry. There are, however, some smaller companies out there who don’t have the staff to pump out ideas and are open to submissions. You’ll have to do your own research into who they are, but they do exist. Of course, just as with scripts, you face the same uphill struggle of emailing ideas and hoping for a response. And, like anything in life, the more time, effort and research you put into it, the more likely you are to get a response. Coming up with a great television idea seems simple, but you need knowledge of the industry, its history and trends to find an idea that is timely.
With all these hurdles in mind here are a few questions to ask yourself before presenting an idea.
1) Is there an easy to grasp top line?
2) Can you explain how it would fill a slot — half hour, 45mins, an hour — concisely?
3) Is it timely? If there is a good reason why this idea works now, then that helps. Mention Pokemon Go. Instant commission guaranteed.
4) Is it just a regular treatment that explains the idea — a word document? If so, is it short, clear and concise and is there any way you can illustrate the idea simply? Many production companies create short ‘sizzle’ videos either using stock footage and graphics to showcase an idea so lazy, sorry, pressed for time commissioning editors can just click a link and look at an idea while messing around on Twitter, I mean responding to important emails. Or can you showcase your concept in a simple powerpoint rather than a wordy treatment — that can help?
5) Are there any skills, expertise or contacts you can bring to the idea that a production company doesn’t have?
Bear in mind that I am not an expert in creating formats and there are many better qualified people than me, but I do read a lot of treatments and discuss ideas with a hopefully helpful, open and creative mind. I did have a hand in developing Westcountry TV’s hit, one series show Mad About Shopping, however.
Good luck. I’m working a competitive celebrity historical reality jousting format… Strictly Come Lancing. Please don’t nick that. It’s mine, all mine.
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).
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.
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.
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.