Hey, this is my blog. You are reading it. I thank you for that. Some of you subscribe to it. And I thank you for that, too. But for the last three months, I’ve been writing a regular film-related blog for the all-new, singing, dancing, listing Radio Times website. It’s called Take Two, because we didn’t want it to be called anything with the word “Reel” in it, and I seem to have already written nine of them. You can see them all here. The blogs under this banner tend to be shorter, tangential and discursive, rather than grand, opulent reviews of films, but you might find something there to stimulate a response. My latest one is about being distracted by recognising a lesser-known actor in a film and being unable to get back into the plot. That one is here.
I was asked by a friend of my teenage nephew the other day what I did for a living. I rather obliquely used the line, “I rearrange the English language.” I wish I had just given him the straight answer he deserved, but I was feeling coy. In any case, it is precisely what I do for a living. I worry, of course, that one day I will run out of ways to rearrange it. But the project seems to be chugging along quite nicely at the moment. And I’ve always relished being connected with Radio Times, as it’s a magazine I’ve taken, every week, for virtually my whole life: my parents bought it, and its glossier then-companion TV Times, and now I have it delivered to my door. And if I didn’t work for the magazine – something I’ve done for 12 years – I’d still subscribe.
PS: In searching through my archive to establish which year I was first commissioned to write for Radio Times, I found what I believe was my debut contribution: a “sidebar” called The Perfect Sitcom that went with a larger feature on the artform, and makes odd reading over a decade later, especially one during which I co-wrote 21 episodes of two sitcoms for the BBC, one episode of a sitcom for ITV, and script-edited another for BBC2, after which, I still don’t know any more than I knew when, as a viewer, I wrote this:
If there’s one thing writers and commissioning editors actually agree on, it’s that there’s no formula for the perfect sitcom. No-one saw Fawlty Towers coming, Seinfeld ran for three years on NBC before drawing a crowd, and Thames TV were convinced they had a classic on their hands in Tripper’s Day because it had Leonard Rossiter in it. Alas, it stank the place out.
So what makes a sitcom great? What, scientifically, separates a Bottle Boys from a Likely Lads? Let’s retrace our steps. In America, they often start with an established comic – Dick Van Dyke, Phil Silvers, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld – and build the plot around them. British stand-ups fare less well in sitcoms, especially old-school entertainers (Jim Davidson in Up The Elephant And Round The Castle, Bruce Forsyth in Slinger’s Day), while the post-alternatives stick to sketch shows. So the perfect Britcom requires a great comic actor like Arthur Lowe or Richard Wilson in a role “written for them” (the ultimate flattery). Having said that, ensemble sitcoms are equally durable, from Dad’s Army to Are You Being Served?, where top billing is shared. This is not easy.
One thing’s for sure, our sitcom must only run for two series, to avoid cosy repetition a la Last Of The Summer Wine, and to keep the original writer keen. The middle-class Terry And June drawing room setting is out, the working-class Royle Family council house is in (best stick to a middle class writer, though). The professions make fruitful subject matter, although most have been done: buses, shops, rag and bone men, accountants, police, vicars, even security guards (remember Channel Four’s weird Nightingales?) Here’s one: a sitcom about a reflexologist. It’s original. Let’s call it Best Foot Forward: featuring an ensemble cast, but led by a big name (the master: David Jason); it mixes gritty, docu-soap realism with Father Ted surrealism. Eight episodes. Oh, and sex. We need the all-important “men’s-magazine vote” like Babes In The Wood – perhaps Emma Noble co-stars as the flighty receptionist.
Our perfect sitcom is character-based, not gag-based, yet full of gags, with The Young Ones’ cult appeal and Only Fool And Horses’ ratings. Crucially, the multi-BAFTA-winning Best Foot Forward must be on the BBC, in order to preserve what Galton and Simpson identified as ‘three minutes’ quality time’. Plus incidental music performed on a slap bass that sets your teeth on edge (it worked for Seinfeld).