I wasn’t a miner

Yesterday, I posted the following thought on Twitter, seconds after it had crossed my mind:

God, writing comedy is hard

The reason I wrote it is because I am currently writing comedy, and it is hard. Without going into specifics, which would surely jinx the project, I have been commissioned to write my first ever solo sitcom for radio: four 30-minute episodes, for Radio 4. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this one before, as I originally pitched it – via a production company – for TV, specifically, BBC2. It went into development at BBC Comedy at the beginning of 2009. This means that I got paid to write a single pilot script. (This is a jackpot of sorts, as the self-employed writer spends a demoralising percentage of his life in meetings that pay nothing, and writing pitch documents, proposals and even scripts “on spec” that also pay nothing.) After I’d delivered the sixth draft of this script, honed and refined over the course of many script meetings and copious notes exchanged between me, the production company and our potential exec at BBC Comedy, they passed on it.

The production company, a tenacious outfit who are very good to have on your team, did not shelve it. They pitched it to Radio 4, who, last year, commissioned it. Give or take an Edinburgh Fringe, an attempted holiday and an unexpected windfall of 6 Music cover, I have been writing it ever since. I have not finished yet. My first deadline was before Christmas. We record it in the first week of March. The studio is booked.

The process is hard. Even the deceptively simple task of converting the existing pilot script from TV to radio was trickier than I’d expected. Also, the “story arc”, such that it is, was originally mapped out across six episodes and now we have four. Result: I foolishly crammed all six episodes’ worth of story into four and it quickly became overloaded. I thought I’d finished episodes 2 and 3 but, after some soul-searching and brutal but necessary script editing, it was agreed that the whole thing needed a reboot. I went back to basics, stripping out entire plotlines, and rebuilding the eps I thought I’d finished. This took time. It is ongoing.

So for me, right now, writing comedy is hard. A privilege, yes, but hard-won. I learned my trade writing solo, on Family Affairs and EastEnders, but both had an existing “bible” and ongoing storylines, so my job was not to create, it was to maintain. The sitcoms I have worked on that went to air, Grass and Not Going Out, were both collaborative. The entirety of Grass was written in a series of airless rooms with Simon Day. The first series of Not Going Out was written in an airless office with Lee. (Subsequent series have been built around collaborative story conferences and solo writing, exchanged via email with Lee.) I have never written a series on my own before. I’m learning the whole time.

That said, the first comedy series I ever wrote, or co-wrote, for the original Radio Five in 1993, was Fantastic Voyage, a wacky, six-part spoof of youth TV designed and commissioned as a vehicle for me and Stuart Maconie. We wrote it together, although it was ultimately a series of linked sketches, so story arcs and plotlines were not required on that particular voyage. The point remains: my first ever scripts were radio scripts. So it’s a homecoming of sorts.

Anyway, I’m not angling for sympathy. It’s my job. Or at least, writing and talking are the services I offer as a self-employed business, and writing a comedy for Radio 4 exists within that brief. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thoroughly enjoying it when the words come naturally and the characters come alive, or when I think of a funny joke; I’m thrilled to be writing something for Radio 4; and it is head-spinning to be in discussion with such fine actors and performers as we nail down the casting. (Again, no names, for fear of the jinx.)

In the same way that book covers are usually designed before you have delivered the manuscript, we have already commissioned the theme tune from a musician I greatly admire and it sounds fantastic. (All will be revealed.) I call it my “sitcom” but it won’t be recorded in front of the usual Radio 4 studio audience, as it’s not that kind of comedy. It’s closer to a comedy drama – eek! – although the current rewrites are dragging it back towards comedy. To quote a superb line from my Radio 4 Comedy Guidelines, “the absence of a studio audience does not give you permission to be unfunny’! Lessons: being learned.

Unfortunately, after Tweeting that writing comedy is hard, a gentleman using a pseudonymous Twittername in Manchester was moved to respond thus:

No. Being a miner, teacher, police officer etc. is hard.

He is correct, although the implication was that I was not entitled to find my own job hard, as some other jobs are harder. This reminded me of some of the undeserved flak Richard Herring drew when he was self-deprecatingly complaining on Twitter from his lonely dressing room about low audiences at the Leicester Square Theatre – again, as if complaining about his job was disallowed because it was not a hard enough job.

Firstly: being a miner and being a writer are hard in their own, quite different ways. One is physically hard, the other is mentally hard. One involves danger, both short term and – medically – long term, the other categorically doesn’t, outside of repetitive strain injury. But it is romantic in the extreme to imbue one with a sort of nobility of difficulty that cancels out any strife experienced elsewhere. I spent an inspiring hour talking to Ken Loach this week, and, old fashioned lefty that he is, he’s all about representation of the working man. The writer he worked with the most in the early days was Jim Allen, a man who’d been a miner, and a soldier, a factory worker and a fireman, as well as in prison, before he turned to writing. His writing reflected those things. Presumably, if he’d Tweeted that writing was hard, that would be OK? (He is one of my favourite screenwriters. Check out Land And Freedom, Raining Stones or Hidden Agenda.)

I do not have access to a miner, but my brother has been a police officer for some years. I know full well what his job has entailed at the various levels he’s worked at. I could not do it. I would find it “harder” than writing comedy in the sense that I do not have the required mindset to impose authority on strangers, nor to wear a uniform. I’m sure I could learn the things you have to learn to be a police officer, but that’s only a fraction of the job. I know plenty of teachers and although I have lectured students, I would be unsuited to teaching a classroom of children. Thankfully, we are all suited to different things, and I admire my friends who are teachers, in the same way that I admire anyone who does something that I can’t do.

I can write and talk to a standard that seems to be sufficient for these two basic skills to support me, financially. (And not support me financially when the work isn’t coming in.) I am grateful for the anonymous Mancunian Twitterer for giving me pause for thought – Am I being an outrageous bourgeois twat for daring to complain in less than 140 characters about my job? – but his objection is without useful foundation. We all do what we can, and we all do what we have to in order to eat. We should respect everyone around us, whatever their pay scale, and we should allow everybody to have a bad day and a moan.

Oh, and by the way, if you feel I am putting way too much time and effort into defending myself against the Tweet of a man who does not have a name, it’s because writing comedy is hard, and I needed to write something that is not comedy before I get back to my job.

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15 thoughts on “I wasn’t a miner

  1. Writing blog comments is hard too.. Sometimes, I just spend the entire comment writing waffle because I haven’t actually got anything worthwhile to say, but like the post enough that you felt you had to comment.

    My wife is a teacher, but even she sometimes comes home and let’s me talk for an hour or two about how stressful my blog comments were for me.

    πŸ˜€

  2. Rest assured, that comment will almost certainly have been left by someone who isn’t a ‘miner, police officer, teacher etc’ (though s/he MIGHT be an ‘etc’) either. Probably just someone passing on their own sense of middle-class guilt rather pompously to you. You can choose to take it on board, or not. I’d advise not. Now get back to work and stop using Twitter as a displacement activity. I wish I had time for displacement activities.

  3. Congratulations Andrew! And although as you know yourself you can be too sensitive and defensive I think it was worth taking the time to challenge the bogus ‘X is hard, therefore Y is not hard’ assertion that some people throw up.

  4. This reminds me of a time when I was talking to a friend of mine who has restricted walking due to a back injury. I’d damaged my spine and was in a little discomfort. When he asked what the problem was, I told him I had a bad back. He replied, “not as bad as mine”.

    I didn’t know what to say. Was I being insensitive with my off-the-cuff remark? I don’t have his back. I only have my own, so I can only compare my bad back with my good back, not someone else’s bad back.

    There is always someone worse off than you, but expecting people to always compare themselves to the worst case scenario seems senseless. Is a person really expected to be relentlessly cheerful and keep their mouth shut through every experience, simply because they haven’t lived in a concentration camp? Can’t a comment on twitter ever be simply a throwaway comment instead of an invitation to be run down by the kind of dour-faced literalists that seem to make up a large proportion of internet commentators.

    Now back to my translation. It’s hard, although at least my face isn’t being chewed off by a crocodile, so mustn’t grumble.

    • There is often a grain of truth in criticism. It can be unwise to block-dismiss it. There was certainly a grain of debate to be had in this one.

      • Actually Andrew, I don’t think there is a grain of debate on this at all.

        This is known as a ‘straw man’ argument. I.e misrepresenting what you said.

        If I tried to write comedy I’d find it hard. If I tried to be a miner I’d probably find that hard too.

        However they are two completely different disciplines and the skillset for one cannot be transfered to the other, yes a miner could write comedy but in all fairness you could get down a hole and dig for coal (you might not want to but you could). So what?

        We can all say ‘we know what he means’ which is what you have done here, but that is beside the point because there is no context or real comparison.

        So the parent poster while has a point (if slightly worded more strongly than I would).

        You, the miner and the teacher all provide something to society in different contexts and in each of your fields (writing, mining, teaching) I am sure you all have ‘hard’ tasks.

        I wonder if you are just feeling more guilt than reason here. I know I’d rather watch an episode of ‘Not Going Out’ than someone down a pit or giving instruction to children.

        Thanks for your time.

  5. You keep forgetting Andrew the internet is there for people to insult and critiscise other people without reason pr reproach from the comfort of their keyboards.

    That is why it was invented.

    You silly tw@

    πŸ™‚

  6. I have a friend with two seriously dickie feet. He hobbles along. When my latest rubbish pair of shoes are killing me I don’t keep quiet about it. I know he’s regarding me with something somewhere between mild amusement and total disdain. I carry on regardless. My feet are killing me. We both know the score.

  7. Andrew I have a question if I may?

    Writing comedy: do you have to be in a particular frame of mind (I’m guessing ‘happy’) to write the first drafts? I’m guessing when you’re editing it’s not important because it’s a different kind of creativity.
    Is there a ‘bar’ you use when writing those early drafts? Such as ‘if I laugh so much my eyeball pops out then the gag stays’…

    I ask because I’ve been writing songs for a few years and I seem to be writing a lot of material that isn’t particularly ‘happy’. I’d like to think I’m not typically an unhappy person however I look at other songwriters and some of them just seem able to write a lot of ‘happy’ songs. I’d love to write happy and up songs because they might resonate with people but I can’t seem to nail it.

    In my day job I can churn out the business stuff regardless of my mood. My soul isn’t in it obviously.

    • I guess the irony to my answer with regards this particular project is that it’s quite a dark comedy. I’ve genuinely had to go back into what I thought were finished scripts to take some of the bleaker stuff out, or at least leaven it, and to add in some, like, jokes!

      So although the medium of comedy is the one I have chosen – and been commissioned to engage in – I have a very serious and dark streak running through me, clearly. I am a cheery soul on the outside. This is not a front, I just am. My comedy is about an optimist, which is basically me, but in order for the comedy to work, stuff has to go wrong around him, and I must admit, I’m enjoying mining that seam.

      I am in my forties. I am never far away from a dark, morbid thought. I am halfway through my life. But my immediate mood tends not to influence what I’m doing. Once I’m “at work”, I’m at work. I amaze myself sometimes; I can be in a very troubled place but have a writing deadline and somehow switch off my troubles and type words out until I have finished. It’s therapeutic in that sense.

      But I suspect writing songs is very different. I cannot write songs. I can’t imagine what it must be like. However, I guess the lyrics are part of the sadness you mention, Peter, so that’s closer to what I do. (Some of the lyrics and poetry I wrote as a teenager were virtually apocalyptic, but that was my age!) I’ve met Guy Garvey on many an occasion: a more voluble, cheerful, infectious individual you could not hope to meet. But how sad his songs are! They speak of love, but they also speak of loss and regret and existential doubt. Robert Smith, in real life, seems quite silly, mischievous and offhand. Not reflected in his best work.

      Let us agree that anything you churn out is work, anything you manage not to churn out, even if it is work, is likely to be something you’ll be proud of. Even if it’s just written for yourself.

      The hard part is pleasing others. Either an audience, or the gatekeepers who stand between you and the audience. Those fuckers!

  8. I also have a job that a lot of people would dearly like to have and that involves me only doing what I love; and therefore it often seems to weird to complain about it; which I do, frequently. I usually try and make the distinction between things that are Hard and things that are Difficult. Being a miner is hard, but not particularly difficult (I assume). Being a comedy writer might not be hard to do, but it’s certainly difficult to do well. Being a teacher has elements of both and therefore WINS!

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