Catch 22

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 If you enjoyed the post then you can delve further into my oeuvre and support my work by purchasing my music. The lovely Tom Robinson off of BBC 6Music says it’s good. 

Are You Experienced?

There’s a perennial hurdle to leap without falling flat on your face and grazing your knees when you’re starting out in the industry. In fact it applies to any industry, the media isn’t special even if you think it is. And if you think that you’re special now you’ve got a job in media and you’re sipping cocktails in Shoreditch House then get some perspective.1 You can’t get a job without experience, but how do you get the experience? You write, you call, you wander up and down outside the local television studios with a megaphone shouting `please give me a job, I’ll be really good, promise’ then break down in tears. On the upside a few people throw some change at you in sympathy or fear.

I had started thinking about a media job towards the end of my time at university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but my previous thoughts through childhood were…

1 Soldier like my dad – decided that might be a bit dangerous, so gave up that idea around 12.
2 Dictator – need a country and psychopathic tendencies. Had neither.
3 Actor – was quite good in our school version of Jason and the Argonauts and Henry V, but in small supporting roles, so didn’t think that was a goer.
5 Comedian – I’ve partly been trying to do that for years. Started with my friend Alan and our double act, The Raving Bolsheviks. We were a big hit at the school Christmas shows. Sadly, we split due to comedic differences before the last show and that was the end of a potentially ground breaking partnership in the mould of Hale & Pace.
4 Professor of History – was well into history (form a queue to hear my thoughts on the nascent French state from the 10th-13th centuries, ladies), but after three years realised that I didn’t fancy being stuck in an institution all my life and I wasn’t going to get a first anyway, so best scrap that idea.

But all those ideas combined, certainly failed actor/comedian and dictator, pointed to a career in the media. Had I known this earlier then I certainly would have been trying to get experience during university holidays etc. As it happens I did have plenty of normal work experience. Growing up in a B&B and then a hotel, my working life started with emptying the bins for 5p pocket money2, doing odd maintenance jobs around the building3 and serving behind the bar and in the restaurant, which usually involved opening wine bottles incompetently and dropping fried bread in guest’s laps at breakfast time. I had also worked in Sergeant Pepper’s Fun Pub 4, a baked goods factory5 and a fruit packing factory – that was a particular low point.

Alongside my efforts to get an actual job, I had to try and get some experience to put on the damned CV alongside all that unskilled stuff. I was writing to everyone I could, but thought there must be something locally in Plymouth where I could make a start. At the time I was living with my good friend and fellow unemployed graduate who wanted to get into the media, Mark Foxsmith. And it was Mark who discovered CSV Media – I think it was through a friend whose brother managed the local ‘Action Desk.’ This was a group of volunteers who provided community based material for BBC Radio Devon in the form of information bulletins and features about community groups and events. I can remember Mark’s excitement when he returned to the freezing cold flat we shared on Plymouth’s historic Barbican (which is hopefully still there and not underwater) and told me that he might have found something we could do to kickstart our faltering and non-existent careers.

Mark and I went to meet them and there was an interview of sorts, I think, and then we were on board. To be honest, I can’t remember much about the process apart from meeting the two main guys who ran it, Jeremy and Marcus6, who were both friendly and helpful, and being excited that they were keen for us to be involved.

To repay the favour, here’s a link to the showreel/taster I shot with Mark on a New Year’s Day morning some years ago. If any factual producers are reading this, then get Mark on the television please.  I have tried and got very close a few times, but now I’m in comedy it’s time for someone else to take this project on…

The CSV Media office was not in the Radio Devon building, but in a shabby little office. At least it was near our Barbican flat and it was a start. There were a couple of Apple computers, an ancient reel to reel editing machine and two Uhers – hefty, but portable reel to reel tape recorders used by reporters to gather audio material for news and features.  Here’s a pic…
Uher1

Even in the nineties it felt like we’d gone back in time, but these were still used in local radio stations with editing done using a razor blade and sticky tape. Jeremy and Marcus taught us how to record material and then edit on the big reel to reel, moving the tapes slowly while listening with the headphones and then slicing the tape with the blade. That first tentative cut, hoping that you’d done it in the right place, bits of tape all over the place, was an incredible feeling.  I hadn’t thought about that in years and I’m getting a bit emotional now, sorry.  And then I remember the first mistake in an edit and clutching bits of tape in despair wondering how I was going to tape it all back together in the right order or at least an order that made some kind of sense.

Although we were kept at a distance from the BBC itself, we were allowed to venture up to the main building occasionally to deliver the material and sometimes get experience on the shows themselves. BBC Radio Devon was housed in a massive building in Mannamead, a well to do, fairly central suburb of Plymouth, and going into the building was daunting.  Through CSV we learnt about the various shows on the station, the presenters and the news output.  Mark and I both worked on Douglas Mounce’s programme taking phone calls, setting up guests to appear on the show. Working on live radio was an incredible buzz and Douglas was very kind, particularly when I booked a guest for a half hour slot assuming it would be a fizzing piece of broadcasting, thinking the phone lines would be ablaze with callers – it was about pensions, I think. God knows why I thought that would be good, but you soon learn and watching Douglas find ways to fill the gap left by my incompetence without throwing the blame at me was a huge relief.  I sadly discovered that he passed away last year.

I had now found some kind of potential career path and started to meet people at the station who might consider me for a job in the future. I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but this felt like the right kind of thing for me and while I would certainly make bigger mistakes than booking a dull guest, I started to make progress. In fact, there’s one error that I’ll write about in my next blog where I made a massive foul up, so you can look forward to that.

If there’s any advice I could offer from this then it’s just to seek out any opportunity that relates to the field you’re interested in. You may have a fixed goal in mind and you may be able to clearly focus on it and hopefully it’ll work out for you or, like me, you may have a vague idea and need to discover that goal through trial and error.  Or rather trial and error after error after error until you finally manage to find something you can do that is fulfilling.  Maybe then you’re on your way.

 

1 Mine’s an espresso martini darling.

2 Not sure if that flouts employment laws, sorry if I’ve shopped you Mum and Dad. They’re retired now, so their days of using child labour are over.

3 My girlfriend wonders what the hell happened to those alleged DIY skills.

4 Not a fun pub.

5 Not a well known brand, but it was shit. Really awful.

6 Jeremy Jeffs and Marcus Bailey who I believe are both now successful documentary producer / directors.

It’s Not What You Know…

In my first post I told the heartwarming story of a man who wrote a great letter, got a job interview and then royally screwed it up. This time a story of bloody minded self sabotage.

I was still searching for a job ‘in the media’ while my parents despaired. They couldn’t believe that I was struggling to find a proper job after leaving a good university with a good degree. The following tale suggests there were plenty of reasons.

A good friend of the family mentioned they knew a renowned local radio journalist, Malcolm Carroll1. I’d never met him, but he was Head of News at Plymouth Sound Radio and had one of those voices that boomed authority while having the tone of someone who was always questioning it. He was a bit of a local legend. The friend suggested that I get in touch with Malcolm and mention the connection. Sensible advice, but at the time my stubborn streak kicked in and I decided that it would be immoral to use such connections to help my career. I’m not going to be like those posh tossers at university whose mummies and daddies helped them into jobs. Idiot..

I did write to Malcolm. But it was an appallingly hand written note that made no mention of the connection. The neatness prize I won at school age nine was a distant memory2 and my handwriting to this day is an embarrassment. Back then it was still just about acceptable to write letters with a pen and paper, but typewriters, electric typewriters and even inkjet printers had been invented, so a bit of effort in that arena when trying to get a job would not have gone amiss.

The letter didn’t say `Please give us a job Mr. Carroll, you tosser,’ and I can’t really remember the content, but I know that it was short, written in black ink and not very good. The family friend asked me if I’d written to him and I said I had and then she asked if I’d mentioned her in the letter and I said I hadn’t. She told me I was an idiot. And she was right.

Now, I’m not advocating non-meritocratic nepotism or using the old school tie – although I was well able to put mine on (see footnote2) St. Andrew’s Primary School was not a hotbed of media families – but if you know someone who can help you and you are deserving of that help then it’s understandable and fair enough. I deserved everything I got which was nothing. Malcolm did not reply.

Years later I received an approach, as it happens from the granddaughter of said family friend who was doing a media studies degree. The connection was stronger than the two degrees of separation that Malcolm and I had, so I would have felt obliged to reply, but I wouldn’t have felt obliged to actively help had I not been impressed by the approach. The email was well written, polite, not expecting or demanding anything and asked that if I had time to give her some advice then she’d gladly welcome it. And because I was impressed by the email and also when we spoke on the phone I tried to help. I recommended her to some contacts and she got in touch with them, managed to get a work experience placement that led to paid work. She deserved it.

If you don’t know me and you want to get in touch then I can’t guarantee that I’ll reply, but I do try particularly if someone has made a polite, well researched and thoughtful approach. If you think you have done that and I have not replied then I apologise. You may just have caught me at a particularly busy point in a production and it passed me by. Try again.3

I did eventually get a job as a journalist at Plymouth Sound Radio with Malcolm Carrol and I did mention the family friend connection, but not the self-destructive letter. Malcolm was great fun to work with and having been in the business for years knew the back story to every local issue. Years of broadcasting had taken their toll in some ways though – his hearing had been affected. If you used a pair of headphones after him on an edit machine or in the studio they’d be at a volume that blew your ear drums to bits.

 

1 I’ve not had chance to track Malcolm down, but if you’re reading this. Hello! Or if you know him send my regards.

2 The rest of the class must have had really shit handwriting. Winning that prize still baffles me. I was a right swot at school though. At the age of four I saw that my sister had work that she’d brought home from school. I was jealous so I asked my teacher if I could have some. I was also the official ‘tie helper’ in class because I’d learnt how to tie a tie. I was a very advanced child when it came to fashion accessorising. Like the neatness skills that talent has long since disappeared.

3 If you sent me a script or a link to a taster or similar then I almost certainly have taken a look at it. I read and watch as much as I can, but I can’t respond to all those, sorry. I really do know how hard it is and how much work goes into them. Try again. Write more. Rewrite more. Shoot more. Research successful shows, films, scripts. It’s the only way to learn, improve and give yourself a fighting chance.