Will the Bullshit Hit The Fan?

 

‘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 Shoppingand BBC One’s short-lived daytime show What Would You Do?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 insertsas 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 Privatesall 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?’

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.

Infotunity Knocks

I’ve been looking at a lot of websites lately. No, stop where your mind’s going and wash your brain out with soap, it’s not that kind of blog. I’ve been looking in a highly efficient, compartmentalised way and not in a time-wastey, procrastinatey kind of way at all (honest) and it has struck me that there is a huge amount of information available to the aspiring media type person. There are blogs like mine where you can be inspired, horrified, confused and distressed, there are proper sites that advertise jobs, opportunities, give information, there are sites for production companies, funding agencies, media publications and even small time players like the BBC has a website these days.

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Now, this isn’t one of those ‘it was much harder in my day’ moans. I don’t go in for that for a number of reasons, then main one being that it is, in fact, much harder now. I went to university and did an arts subject (history)… for free (almost). I was able to sign on and do voluntary work to get experience. Having to do work experience followed by first rung on the ladder jobs that paid a pittance didn’t put me off because I wasn’t saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. That’s the main reason why I support the charity Arts Emergency, because to me it feels that, just as information on how to get into the arts and media has widened, opportunity has narrowed.

As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, you have to be proactive in searching for ways in and not simply apply for jobs, funding or put your CV online and hope opportunity knocks. It’s unlikely that you’ll get your first job when you don’t have any experience at all. I’m not saying don’t do all those things, I’m saying that you’ll have to try and find a way to gain experience at the same time as applying for anything and everything going.

Still, looking at all the information is a great way to feel you’re achieving something and haven’t wasted your day sat in your dressing gown with a cup of tea and the internet even though you have sat in your dressing gown…

Here is a list of useful links. It’s neither comprehensive nor exhaustive so do feel free to add to it or email me any you think may be helpful.

http://www.arts-emergency.org/ If, like me, you have been blessed with, if not success then, an actual job that pays money then do give them some money.

http://www.ideastap.com/ Sadly this site has shut down due to lack of funding. A shame as it was full of Information, job posts, funding opportunities, articles, generally useful and inspiring stuff. Some of those opportunities have been taken on by another creative networking site https://app.hiive.co.uk/

http://www.creativeengland.co.uk Film body outside London.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/ Film body inside London.

http://www.creativescotland.com/ Film body for Yes, Nos and Maybes.

http://www.ffilmcymruwales.com Film body for others. Other film bodies do exist, I’m sure.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy I’ve not had a proper look round this site, but I hear good things about this BBC thing, so it might be worth a butcher’s.

http://www.pact.co.uk Television industry body – I used to spend a lot of time looking at the PACT directory imagining myself working for one of the companies listed in there. Then I wrote to them and most told me to sod off.

http://www.productionbase.co.uk/ A website for freelance television production staff – companies post jobs and search for crew. You have to subscribe, but there is a free trial.

https://www.thetalentmanager.co.uk/ Similar to above, but you can register for free and respond to job posts. There is a paid for ‘pro’ service.

https://www.freelancevideocollective.com A new site where you can list your CV, find jobs and useful blog posts about the Film & TV industry.

https://the-dots.co.uk A fairly new site for creative industry networking that includes job posts.

http://jobs.theguardian.com/jobs When I were a lad, I used to get the Guardian every Monday and scour the Media section looking for jobs I could apply for. Now you can have those feelings of excitement, hope, despair and disillusionment all day, every day.

http://www.csv.org.uk/learning/media-skills CSV Media could be a good place to start getting experience, something I did and banged on about in a blog.

http://www.princes-trust.org.uk/ I am ideologically opposed to Prince Charles, but when I was a struggling media wannabe I got a grant to pay for a printer, so maybe I should shut up and say that I really think we should deffo have a King Charles III and it’ll all be brilliant.

http://creativeskillset.org/ Training, jobs, info and all that stuff.

I hope that’s useful.  I’ve certainly found many of these sites helpful over the years.

Good luck.

 

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. 

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.