2011: the year of our lord

Right, this promises to be solipsistic. I’m gearing up to compiling and publishing my lists of the year. I have already calculated my films of 2011 for the Radio Times website and you can read it here, although I may tweak it before re-publishing in this parish. (Also, I was duty bound to explain what all of my choices were, as it’s Radio Times, whereas here I will assume foreknowledge in a cavalier manner.) It might be time to assess my working year, however, which can’t be chopped up into a list. I fully realise the year is not strictly over yet, but having been involved in the production of the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, we’re working on the first issue of 2012 already, so it is all over in our office.

For the past few weeks I have been marvelling at the writing in Rev on BBC2, which is now most of the way through its second series. I’ve already made clear my adoration of Fresh Meat, created by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, which returns for its second series next year, but I sort of expected it to be good, due to their pedigree. (I’ll be honest, I’ve always had trouble connecting with Peep Show, their key work, but I admire it and appreciate it, and enjoy the performances – I just find the P.O.V. device distancing, that’s all. But everybody involved with The Thick Of It and In The Loop must be feared for their talent, and what’s more, I’ve seen Bain and Armstrong interviewed and they talk a good fight too. And they worked on the mighty Four Lions.) I have never met them, but I love them.

But James Wood, who co-created Rev with Tom Hollander, and has written every episode so far apart from two, has less overt pedigree. I remember seeing one episode of Freezing, but I never saw Down To Earth, on which he was one of many writers, and this means, for me, he comes out of nowhere. With Rev. I mean, really! I am so enchanted by it. Clearly, the cast are out of this world, from Hollander, who always strikes me a very humble performer, which suits a vicar, and the already-anointed Olivia Colman, through Miles Jupp and Simon McBurney, to the great Steve Evets, but a great cast do not a great sitcom make. It’s also directed by Peter Cattaneo, who made The Full Monty and Lucky Break so he knows what he’s doing, but again, you can’t brilliantly direct an average script. With comedy, it really is all in the writing. And Wood writes like a dream. It’s funny, of course, and the plots sit together, as they should, but it strikes me that this is a writer who enjoys the art of conversation. He must be a good listener. Having set up the congregation of characters in series one, in two, he seems to have earned the right to just sit back and let them live.

I write. Clearly I’m going to focus on the writing when I’m enjoying fiction on television, or at the cinema, in the same way that, as a drummer, I hear the drumming on a record I like. It’s instinctive. I know when I like the sound of a guitar, but I wouldn’t even be able to attempt to reproduce it, so I take it at face value. But I’m interested in the drumming on a technical level. Because I can type words in order, I feel I have an understanding of how James Wood might have written an episode of Rev. We might even use the same software. In this, we are in the same business. And yet, I’m pretty sure I’m not in the same league.

I’ve spent another year in which writing and broadcasting have wrestled for my very soul. There have been weeks, especially in the summer, where I’ve done more talking than writing; in other words, when someone has been ill or pregnant or on holiday from 6 Music. I was asked on Friday morning, by text, if I could fill in for Steve Lamacq that afternoon. I could not, and had to say no. It’s rare that I say no. I am like the emergency plumber of 6 Music. This is fine. It keeps things varied and unpredictable. I’m not going to get into a mind-numbing routine there, am I? Even my shows on Saturday morning, which began with Richard Herring in January, then stopped, and then restarted with Josie Long in December, before they stop again in two weeks’ time, have been built on balsa wood foundations. I have learned not to get too comfortable.

My biggest professional thrill of 2011 was radio-related, but did not involve me talking in between records. It was Mr Blue Sky on Radio 4, commissioned in July last year, made in March this year, and broadcast in May. After years of collaborating, usually with comedians, it was a joy to be able to put my name to something that I could call my own. Not since EastEnders have I had sole writing credit on anything. That’s a long time in showbiz. In the interim, I had it on every episode of Grass under Simon Day’s, and on 13 episodes of Not Going Out over four series under Lee Mack’s, and I realise I’m lucky to have had both. (I wrote one episode of Mumbai Calling, but I seem to recall it had a lot of other writers’ names on it, too.)

We assembled an impeccable cast for Mr Blue Sky, but at the end of the day, once again, it would live or die on the writing. That we had some nice reviews, supportive Tweets and were commissioned for a second series is all the affirmation I need that I didn’t do a bad job. It’s slow going when you’re trying to get something commissioned by television; radio is a much quicker process, and you get paid much, much less, but that doesn’t lessen the gratitude you feel, I can promise you. I’m hoping Radio 4 will repeat the first series before airing the second in 2012, as they only left episodes up for seven days on iPlayer, which was pretty mean, as it made it impossible to pick up if you missed the beginning.

I am currently writing series two – six episodes this time – and it’s a joy. No easier, but a very lucky thing to be allowed to do: take the characters established in series one and run with them. The prospect of being back in that studio with Mark Benton, Rebecca Front, Justin Edwards, Michael Legge, Joe Tracini and the rest of the gang is a mouth-watering one for the new year. (I’ve enjoyed seeing Javone Prince in the second series of PhoneShop, although he will forever be, to me, Kill-R in Mr Blue Sky.)

The BBC has long been my major employer, ever since my first tentative steps into broadcasting and writing on Radio 5 in the early 90s. But this year, the landscape changed. I spent a large part of 2011 writing Gates, a group-written, group-created sitcom for Sky 1, which airs early in the new year. Not a great year for Rupert Murdoch, but if you write and produce comedy you’d be mad not to look to Sky, as they are investing a lot of money in brand new, original, British-made programming. This won’t help you when Gates is on if you either refuse to, or can’t afford to, subscribe to Sky. But this as-yet unseen programme, set around the school gates of a junior school and starring the likes of Joanna Page, Sue Johnston, Tom Ellis and Tony Gardner, has taken up a fair chunk of my year.

It was interesting to be involved in group writing, although once the core four of us had spent many intensive days sat round the producer’s kitchen table, bashing out characters and storylines, we actually wrote alone, and I was asked to script-edit scripts right up to the wire. It involved a lot of work, and a lot of meetings, both at the production company’s offices in Shepherd’s Bush, and at Sky’s eerie campus in Isleworth, and, having just seen a couple of finished episodes, I think it will be worth it.

I can’t shed any more light on it at this stage, but I’ve also been in development with a comedy at another broadcaster, and have been commissioned to write the first script. This needs doing before Christmas, which is why I’ve been blogging less of late. I am under the cosh, with two commissions colliding, and although this is stressful, and not how one man’s workload would be sensibly planned out, I’m hardly going to complain.

My working life, as I’ve stated before, is essentially a series of meetings. The holy grail is a commission, whether it’s a pilot script, or a broadcast script, but there’s a sort of silver grail along the way, which is development money. I was paid by BBC Comedy to develop Mr Blue Sky for TV, and in the end they passed on it. So we took it to radio. I am currently being paid by another broadcaster to develop the other project which I can’t talk about. (All will be revealed if it comes off – this time last year, Gates was a project I couldn’t talk about.)

I get such a kick from actually sitting down and starting a page of script, as terrifying as that can be, and the really big news of 2011 was me actaully forking out and buying the software Final Draft. I used to have it when I wrote for EastEnders, as it is pretty much the industry standard format and they gave a copy to all their writers. However, I lost it when my laptop drowned in 2007 and was no longer an EastEnders writer by then. I have managed to survive writing a BBC1 sitcom, an episode of an ITV sitcom, a Sky 1 sitcom and script-editing a one-off comedy short for Sky (Shappi Khorsandi’s episode of this Christmas’s Little Crackers series, on over the festive period) using Word. I promised myself that if the secret sitcom went to script, I would stop fannying around like an amateur and pay the £140. This, I have now done. I feel like a grown-up again.

So, let’s hope, as we always do, that 2012 will be filled with scriptwriting. I will continue to aspire to be as good as Bain, Armstrong and Wood in comedy terms, but I continue to hold up serious drama as the biggest prize in sport. I started out writing drama, after, and EastEnders is the notch on my CV that got me my first gigs in comedy scriptwriting. The best comedy writing is, after all, drama with jokes. That’s certainly true of Rev, which is where we came in.

So, 2011 may well be the year in which I discovered my services would not be required on series five of Not Going Out, which airs in the new year, but that body blow was countered by better news with Gates and Mr Blue Sky – and the other thing. I shall be watching the new series for the first time as a viewer. It will be interesting. I remain bitter about it, but I promise not to let that cloud my judgment. There is enough bad feeling in the world, without adding to it.

I’d be interested to hear from you which writers you admire, in comedy or drama. In many ways, the best writing often goes unnoticed. Sometimes, clever writing can jar. (Not everybody liked Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, which was in places quite obviously “written”, but I thought it was just about the best thing on TV. My Top 10 TV Shows is coming soon, though. Just have to do a bit of work first.) Let me know.

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4 thoughts on “2011: the year of our lord

  1. Meetings, commissions…sounds like 2012 is going to be a good year for you.

    God knows, we can use some quality TV programming and with the spread of the internet, folks like me over here in Canada have access to shows from all over the world. So you’re not merely writing for a homegrown audience anymore, your work will be exposed to the multiverse, beamed to every part of the planet.

    No pressure…

  2. I feel like I’m stating the blindingly obvious, but for my money nobody writes better than Aaron Sorkin. Even after watching the entire series twice, I still find myself thinking about The West Wing with a sense of bemusement that hour after hour of Americans talking about politics could be riveting. But it was. As was The Social Network, and I loathe Facebook.

    The other writer I’ll always watch is David Mamet, although his work comes with the proviso that the actors need to understand how to deliver his idiosyncratic dialogue (watch Lindsay Crouse in the otherwise wonderful House Of Games for a great example of how not to – and she was married to him!) Sometimes Mamet’s plots, much as I love them, obscure the brilliance of his dialogue. Glengarry Glen Ross is probably the best example of one that doesn’t.

    By the way – develope? And don’t claim it was a typo, you wrote it twice!

  3. I hope the lower financial reward isn’t putting you off pitching to Radio 4 any long-discarded or fresh-as-a-daisy ideas you have knocking about that might conceivably be made to work on radio. I mean, you’ve got a foot jammed in the door. From this know-nothing outsider’s point of view, whether you think Mr Blue Sky (which I liked very much) has legs or not, this looks like the ideal time to be trying to get the other foot in. It might not pay as well, but a lot of hugely influencial people listen to 4. (I’m applying the rules of my world to yours here and thinking out loud – apologies if that’s a stupid thing to do.)

    Develop should have an e at the end. It’s the word that’s wrong.

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