Preamble: it will come as no surprise to learn that I have been hard at work on the fourth series of BBC1 sitcom Not Going Out, which we hope will air before the end of the year. I’m pleased and relieved about this, because we imagined it to be all over last March. (As is now well known, the BBC cancelled it and then reinstated it inside a single calendar year, boldly reversing the decision before Christmas – giving hope to anyone else facing the BBC axe …)
The actual physical genesis of a series of Not Going Out has changed beyond all recognition from the first, which Lee Mack and I wrote together in 2006, locked in a rented office in Central London, five days a week, for six months (except for the final episode, when we were joined, vitally, by Paul Kerensa, by which time a forgotten Starbucks cup had made the room smell of rank mould). For greater efficiency, there are now a number of writers, and we each write our episodes remotely, which are then handed over to Lee. (He also writes a handful on his own.) All are “gagged up” by an even bigger team before being put to a small audience. At every stage, they change, and improve. As a writer, you do your best with your two drafts, and then accept that you must let your episode go, into the system. It’s all part of the process. The thrilling reward is half an hour of BBC1 with your name on it.
Anyway, I wasn’t intended to blog about Not Going Out in detail, partly because it’s in pre-production and I can’t give any details away. But if you’re interested in the story of NGO so far, I blogged about the process here, here and, on completion, here. I blogged about the ratings here, rather bitterly about some bad press here, the start of the second series here, and about its cruel cancellation, after our third series, in March last year here.
What I felt like blogging about was this. The episode of Not Going Out I have just delivered is unique among my current scriptwriting work in that it has a healthy chance of being turned into a television programme. Most of my work does not. Or at least, its chances rest in the laps of any number of commissioning editors and channel controllers, any one of whom might change jobs just when things are looking up, or simply change their mind about the viability or desirability of something I’ve been working on. The key to surviving in the fickle world of television comedy is dealing with rejection. The rest is garnish.
Forgive the coy nature of what follows, but I’ve worked out that I currently have six sitcoms at various stages of development. (This is far from unusual. The more irons in fires and fingers in pies the better in the indecisive, slow-moving world of British television.) I can’t name any of my sitcom projects, for self-evident reasons of confidentiality and bad juju, but as a way of illustrating what it’s like to be a writer of television comedy, and of how little of your time is actually spent writing comedy, here’s where they’re all at:
Sitcom A is the one I care about the most. It has been with me the longest (I think I first thought of the premise in 1998), and has travelled the furthest down various roads to fruition. It’s currently in an important in-tray, having been submitted by a production company on my behalf as part of an “offers round” to a broadcaster which has expressed great interest in the pilot script – a script I actually wrote for another broadcaster at the beginning of last year. I was paid to write that pilot, so even if it falls at the next fence, my work on has not been totally in vain. Most of the work I’ve done on it, over the years, has been “on spec” ie. unpaid. I’ve adapted it for a number of different slots – one-off TV film, six-parter, two-parter, one hour, 30 minutes, TV, radio – so if nothing else, I guess it’s a durable idea. Its subject matter and theme go in and out of fashion. One day I will give up on Sitcom A. But not yet.
Sitcom B is a much newer idea, and more of a comedy drama than a sitcom. The original idea came to me in 2000, when I was pitching a sitcom to the Observer, believe it or not – one that could be read, on the page, each week. (I’d been writing quite a few of these mock scripts for the paper around that time, including a reasonably long running parody of Big Brother called Big Brothel.) I later verbally pitched it to David Baddiel, when he was casting around for a film to produce, but that came to naught. (I also verbally pitched Sitcom A, now I come to think about it!) It went into cold storage for years, but I thawed it out again last year, worked it up into a really detailed pitch on my own time, and offered it to another production company, who optioned it, paid me a bit of money, but not much, and pitched it to a broadcaster which said it was looking for hour-long comedy dramas. Then changed its mind about that. So we’re going to pitch it to another broadcaster.
Sitcom C is unusual, in that it’s an existing American property (pilot script only) that I was asked to think about converting for a British audience by another production company. I’ve done this. No money has changed hands. I like it. But the trail seems to have gone cold. (Interestingly, I was asked to do the same thing around the same time with a different US property by a different production company, again on spec, no money, but they turned it down.)
Sitcom D is a co-write. I was brought in by a production company to work with a writer whose idea it originally was. We developed the pitch together, after a period of getting to know each other and agreeing that the chemistry would work. This was pitched to a broadcaster, who seemed interested, but passed on it. To the broadcaster’s credit, they didn’t keep us waiting too long. What we do next with it (we remain very enthusiastic about the idea) is up in the air. Try another broadcaster being the most obvious course. But which one? There really aren’t that many.
Sitcom E is even more unusual, in that it’s a communal effort, currently being developed for a broadcaster through a production company who have assembled a team of writers. We all contributed to the format over a two-day brainstorming session, which was fascinating. That’s coming together. I understand I will be paid for the work I’ve done so far.
Sitcom F recently reached pilot stage, but it is not “mine” so I feel less emotionally attached. I was originally called in – as I habitually am – to help a comedian out with their first sitcom vehicle and provide some clarity and structure. I enjoyed the process, although never got paid for the initial work we did on it together, mainly due to the person who got us together leaving the production company who were interested in it, and the project sort of vanishing. So we took it to another broadcaster, who were keen, commissioned it as a pilot and offered a small amount of money. If it ever does go to series, I suspect I may only be involved in a script editing capacity, which is fine. I script edited The Persuasionists for genial production company Bwark (who make The Inbetweeners), which aired on BBC2 last year before being buried in the schedules after a disappointing reaction from the press and low audience numbers. No matter, I really enjoyed taking on that role, and seeing a sitcom through to fruition, even though it was not mine. It reminded me how much fun this job can be.
But what this job mostly is, is this: constantly trying to come up with ideas; focussing enough to get a pitch document together; pitching that to a production company (I must have pitched about a dozen sitcoms to half a dozen companies over the last couple of years that have been turned down and which I never reignited); developing the pitch further for a small stipend, for which you effectively hand over some of the rights to the production company paying you; pitching the idea to a broadcaster, via the production company; either being rejected, or picked up for further development, which means more money and, hopefully, the change to write a script.
Simon Day and I spent a lot of time after Grass had aired on BBC2 pitching ideas which came to nothing. Having had a sitcom on TV will help you get a meeting, but it guarantees nothing. Fortunately, we both have other work. Irons in fires etc.
I can’t remember a time in the last eight years when I didn’t have my hopes pinned on a sitcom. They will not grind me down. I have three subfolders in the folder marked Telly on my computer:
It takes an awful lot of rejection for me to transfer a project from Development to Dead. Still, this time next year, I could be a millionaire!