Please tell us why you had to hide away for so long (slight return)


The facts: series one of Mr Blue Sky is being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra starting tomorrow. As regular readers will know, this was one of the proudest moments in my professional writing career, seeing my first solo sitcom commissioned by the BBC and for it to run to two series, on Radio 4 in 2011 and 2012. The happy cast-and-crew pic above is the series one line-up.

I wrote at length about the making of the first series in March 2011. Also, the terror of it going public in May 2011 and a general reflection upon the madness of putting yourself into the public domain. I duly blogged during the making of series 2 in March 2012. (These are not required reading or homework, I merely make them available again via handy links.) That series aired in April last year, since which, well … the end was nigh.

Getting the commission was one of the happiest moments of my career, especially after the long, slow journey it had been on, over a course of years, from inception to conception. It vindicated all the time put in, much of it unpaid and speculative, as per industry law. Equally, when we failed to secure a third series, having worked hard on a story breakdown for it, and allowed ourselves to get excited when we were called in for a meeting about the changes and given the wrong impression that we were in with a shout, it was one of the great disappointments of that same career. I would have loved to write some more for Harvey, Jax, Robbie, Charlie, Ray, Sean, Kill-R, Alan Leopold, Lou and the rest of the gang.

So, if you missed it, maybe have a listen. It won’t bring the show back, but it’s lovely to have it back in the public domain.


Gates open

People often ask me what it takes to write for TV. I’ll tell you: patience. Actually, patience and perseverance. It was in December 2009 that I was first approached by the exec producer of what would eventually become Gates, a sitcom put into development by Sky. (The series was actually commissioned, if I remember rightly, in April 2011.) Although the kernel of an idea was in place at that stage – a comedy about the comings and goings at the school gates, with particular emphasis on the parents, rather than the kids – the nuts and bolts were yet to be assembled. The producer, Laurence, gathered half a dozen writers from various quarters of the TV firmament and sat them around his kitchen table in February 2010. It’s OK to name us all now, as the show is finally ready to air, next month, on Sky Living – me, Abi Wilson (Jam & Jerusalem), Richard Preddy (Green Wing), Dan Sefton (Holby City) and stand-up Ava Vidal, with Jennifer Saunders at all of the development meetings and acting as script editor on the pilot. Perhaps you’d like to see the very first one-minute trailer? If so, it’s here.

At those early kitchen-table meetings, we grew the entire cast of characters from scratch and created a number of storylines for them. These were then honed into episodes. With the first script written, using a complicated system of farming out various scenes/characters to various writers having all pitched in on the structure in group sessions, we cast for a read-through and the first episode was performed to the bigwigs from Sky. Although very few of the actors survived from that first temporary casting, we were able to forge on with a full series of six once we had the green light, and the final cast were assembled in time for a summer shoot, on location in North London.

Among those cast were Tom Ellis, Joanna Page, Sue Johnston, Will Andrews (seen, incidentally, on Mid Morning Matters on Sky last week on an exercise bike), Nick Mohammed, Catherine Shepherd (seen only the other night on the final Twenty Twelve), Tony Gardner, Ella Kenyon and Adam Deacon. Casting is an inexact science, buffeted by availability and timing, but the cards did seem to fall very well for Gates. I would say that. But there you go.

The cast and crew attended a screening of the first couple of episodes at the end of last year, and then the waiting game began. We learned, to our initial chagrin, that Gates was being held back until the autumn and this felt like an eternity away at the time. But the wait is over. Sky Living is a more “female-friendly” version of Sky One, if I may roll out the virtual flipchart for a moment. As such, I can see why Gates has been chosen to premiere there, as it has a strong female voice, with a female producer (Izzy), female writers and a female script editor for the first episode. (It was commissioned by a female, too!) I’m happy to have played a male part in it. It was like a family. No, really. A family under siege, obviously.

I’m really looking forward to Gates entering the public domain. We all put a lot of work into it, and to have been involved at the ground floor gives an enormous sense of satisfaction. Equally, it’s good for the ego to have worked in a team. No single episode belongs to a single writer – we all worked on all of them, to varying degrees. A lot of what I did was essentially editing, but that’s fine by me. It couldn’t be more different from working solo on Mr Blue Sky. It’s far easier to skulk individually away from a collaborative effort if people don’t like it, or it fails. I don’t anticipate this happening with Gates. As soon as I have the exact TX date, I’ll Tweet the arse out of it.

This is the blog entry I wrote during the shoot last summer, when we all believed that Gates would air in the New Year. There are some nice, esoteric location pics, and a bit more detail about the production, should you be on a course, or something. (I didn’t realised I’d used the same punning title.)

This just in: Episode 1 airs at 8.30 on Tuesday August 14.

Hellooooooo, O2 man

The view from Row E, at the O2 Arena, or, as Jerry Seinfeld erroneously called it, “the O2 Center”, Friday night. Thanks to Richard Herring (who broke the no-photography rule and took this picture), the nice people who distribute his videos, and his girlfriend, who had a prior engagement, I found myself with this clear view of a stool and a mic stand at 8pm. I was excited. If I had paid £100, as many of the 14,000 people in the big barn had, it’s possible I would have been even more excited. (I’m not sure I’d pay £100 to see anybody, whether stand-up or band. Isn’t there a recession on?)

Seinfeld hadn’t played in London since 1998. There’s a chance he won’t be back any time soon. So it was a golden opportunity to catch him. It’s been over ten years since Seinfeld ended and we were all deprived of his big teeth, Brooklyn drawl and constant failure to actually act, although the box sets do provide eternal comfort in a Godless universe. (I actually love all nine seasons. All of them. Pick any episode you like, from any season, and I will like it. I used to hate the slap bass when it started, but I got over that. The rewards are too great to get hung up on an annoying musical sting.)

Anyway, this wasn’t about Seinfeld, it was about Seinfeld. Would he cut it as a stand-up, on his own, standing up? Yes is the non-surprise answer. He’s 57, he’s been standing up and observing life since 1976, keen to get back into the comedy clubs once the sitcom ended in 1998 and clearly more at home behind the mic than in front of cameras. Richard and I were very lucky to be in Row E – this is, I think, the closest to the stage I’ve ever been in an arena or stadium, not including the times I’ve been in the moshpit, or side-of-stage, as a journalist. As I noted when we sat down, if Row E had been the back row, it was like seeing Seinfeld in a small club. There just happened to be thousands of other people behind us. Way behind us. I’ve only ever seen Al Murray at the O2, and he filled it by being larger than life – and having giant beer pumps behind him. Seinfeld moved from left to right, but what you got for your £100 was a man standing in front of some curtains, talking, for around an hour and 40 minutes, non-stop. (Jerry was supported, fairly pointlessly, by his old friend and current Vegas resident George Wallace, whose catchphrase “People say some stupid stuff/shit” was repeated so often it was clearly a device to stall while he recalled the next joke.)

I’m not going to repeat any of Seinfeld’s gags, suffice to say, this was all observational stuff, as we’ve come to expect from the stand-up that used to bookend his sitcom. Much of it is sharp as a tack, some of it is unoriginal in subject but marginally more original in execution, and all of it is delivered in such an assured and economical manner, you can’t fail to have a good time. I laughed a lot. Many people around us didn’t laugh at all, especially – if I may generalise – the women, but smiled instead. On one or two golden occasions, a spontaneous arena-ful of appreciative applause broke out. Nobody whooped. I was glad about that. It’s great to see a stand-up on top of his game, albeit reciting very old material in places, and you’ve got to hand it to a man almost in his sixties for doing so much material about technology without simply denigrating it from an old man’s Luddite perspective – he’s a modern man; he does not necessarily mock the BlackBerry, he mocks the type of person that uses one. He does not pretend to not know how email works, he merely bemoans the fact that it is not delivered once a day like mail used to be, but all day long. Even the material on marriage and fatherhood seems fresh, because, as he makes clear, he’s a late adopter to these two institutions, having married at 45.

Thanks to the above laminated guest pass – something neither of us expected when we picked up our comp tickets – Richard and I had access to the inner sanctum backstage. (It’s called the Sky Bar, as it’s sponsored by Sky.) When Al played, the outer sanctum was the inner sanctum – it’s where Al was – but this time, an inner sanctum was created so that Jerry didn’t have to mix too heavily with the assembled freeloaders, just the higher echelon of freeloaders. I don’t know why this included us, and once we’d dared to enter the inner sanctum, it was pretty much empty. We were happy to have bumped into Simon Amstell and Richard Bacon outside while we tried to actually find the lift that took you to the Sky Bar, but that – or so it seemed – was the full compliment of celebs. Then Clive Anderson turned up, which was nice. We were happy enough with the turnout at this point, and the beer was free (if still served in plastic bottles, even in the inner sanctum). Then, as if by magic, all the real comedy celebs appeared – it seems that they had been watching the show from some exclusive box or something, not from the scummy rows of seats where Rich and I had been. But they were welcome to it. I loved it in Row E.

Anyway, within minutes, we were in the rarefied proximity of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Angus Deayton, Lise Mayer, Harry Hill, Lee Mack, Chris Evans, George Wallace and … Seinfeld himself. No, we didn’t speak to him, but we spoke to Ricky and Steve, and they’d spoken to him. (The famous comedian Omid Djalili had been sitting next to us in Row E, but he chose not to go to the after-show.) I found myself having an impromptu script meeting with a TV exec who has commissioned a group-written sitcom I’m working on (can’t say any more), which was not really what I expected to be doing at the Seinfeld after-show, but I suppose was poetic enough in its own way. At least I was talking about comedy. I have only met Ricky Gervais a couple of times in my life, but he is always gracious enough to say hello to me when someone that famous could easily just blank me, and I appreciate that. He is a just a bloke, after all. (He’s arguably as famous as Seinfeld. Think about that.) There was a man in the inner sanctum who seemed to be bothering all the celebs with what might well have been requests for his entirely worthy charity, but he had crossed the line I feel, and had become a pest. (He had swapped glasses with Chris Evans seconds after Chris’s arrival, and Chris was totally patient with him, but I found it very uncomfortable. I am as guilty of anyone of gushing to people I admire – you know that – but this man, a serial botherer, seemed to actually be driving people away. I guess you’d have to call it liberal interventionism.

Richard and I left around midnight, having at least breathed in air that Jerry Seinfeld had exhaled, and presumably added to the air that he was breathing with our own exhalations, and missed the last Tube home, so we had to share a cab to his house and pay through the nose for it. The “O2 Center” is a very good venue, well signposted, helpful staff, but it is a long way away from civilisation.

Overnight sensation

So, Episode 2 of Mr Blue Sky – starring these people [above] – aired on Radio 4 this morning at the convenient time of 11.30am; I listened to it on headphones via my laptop in the British Library, which felt a bit weird. Secretly listening to my own work. Luckily it raises smiles rather than guffaws! (Or in my case, winces, and hopeful faces.)

As with the first episode last week, I have already received a handful of very positive comments on Twitter. This is gratifying, and I appreciate every one of them. How else am I to gauge how well it’s going? I certainly can’t trust my own opinion (and anyway, I know what’s coming next, and the necessary pauses are like daggers in my heart when I listen live – I can only hope they aid easy listening for everybody else). Unlike TV, with a radio show there are no overnight ratings. I used to refresh Media Guardian’s ratings page all morning after an episode of Not Going Out went out. Indeed, radio is simply not about ratings unless you’re playing RAJAR wars as a station, or else you are a breakfast show. Numbers are largely irrelevant. It’s more important that the general reaction is positive, and for that, you have to ask around. (Have they closed the Radio 4 message boards, by the way? These used to be a bearpit. If they have gone, I’m glad.)

A lot of Radio 4’s most loyal listeners just leave the station on all day. This is the mark of their loyalty. I guess one or two will have heard Mr Blue Sky in the course of their day, by accident. This is the way speech radio works – I understand that. But it does also mean that unless you sit down to listen to it, or put it on headphones, most of the subtle drama and “bittersweet” tone are going to drift off into the ether, or be drowned out by the noise of a lawnmower or the postman. (A comedy with a studio audience at least has guide laughter attached.)

I’m feeling it’s going down OK. I get that impression. But radio listings in newspapers are, in general, tiny and tokenistic, so unless you’re “Pick of the Day”, which you only ever will be in week one, you’re on your own. We were picked out in, I think, four newspapers, although one, the Mail, said it was “unfunny and unconvincing” so that didn’t really increase traffic. (It should be noted that my colleague Jane Anderson, radio editor at Radio Times, kindly made Ep2 a pick in this week’s magazine. Every little helps.)

As far as I’m aware, I’ve only had one printed review, by the lovely Elisabeth Mahoney in the Guardian. (You can read it here.) But there’s no sense of Mr Blue Sky taking off or catching the public’s imagination. Even those enthusiastic folk at the British Comedy Guide aren’t discussing it (four comments, one by me!), despite this generous interview with me by the site’s Si Hawkins. Hey, deal with it! This is just the way it is in a crowded multimedia market full of stuff.

In many ways, Twitter presents a false impression – if people didn’t like it, I would expect them to have the decency to keep quiet about it (and if hey don’t have that decency, I’ll probably have already blocked them anyway). I merely point out that being on the radio has to be an end in itself, and not a means to another end, such as being carried shoulder high around the streets and bringing traffic to a standstill. It is an end. I am one of the lucky ones: four half hours of radio with my name on them. I must admit, I felt as nervous when Ep2 went out, in my ears, this morning, as I did when Ep1 went out, in my Mum and Dad’s living room, last week. At any stage, I assume the whole edifice of legitimacy will come tumbling down, and I’ll have my BBC pass revoked.

If, like most people, you are not glued to a radio at 11.3oam, Ep2 will be available for seven days here. (And no, for those that keep asking, it will not be available as a podcast, as Radio 4 do not tend to put narrative comedy or drama out as podcasts.)

And an opportunity to publish a nice new photo [above], which I have belatedly extracted from my phone, even though my phone does not allow you to upload photos to a Mac. I love the people in this photo.

Be glad of first night nerves

It doesn’t get any easier. The first episode of Mr Blue Sky aired this morning, at 11.30, on BBC Radio 4. I was as nervous before it went out as I might have been waiting in the wings to go onstage. (Actually, in the action photo above, I have emerged from behind the glass to play the second of two cameo parts, a cancer patient called Mr Bellamy, and I am breathing in the rarefied thespian air of Justin Edwards and Mark Benton for a brief moment on the shop floor.) Come half past eleven, there was literally nothing I could do about it: the first 28 minutes’ worth of my first solo-written sitcom was being given birth to, in public, and if I had, somewhere along the line, made a massive mistake, it would no longer be a secret. My cover would be blown. All that work, all those accursed rewrites and rethinks, all those drafts when it was in development as a TV sitcom, all that heartache when it was bounced from pillar to post, all that stress as it took shape in the mouths of professionals in a West London recording studio, all of them kind enough to give the impression that they thought it was alright … no hiding place! Mr Blue Sky went into the world. By midday, I was spent. (It’s on iPlayer here, by the way.)

I’ve been forcing myself from the margins of showbiz onto the public for most of my life. Why? Why do I put myself through it? I don’t know. The search for approval is the usual diagnosis of this unsavoury habit. Some kind of emotional neediness is another. But my Mum and Dad were always very attentive and appreciative when I shoved cartoons under their noses as a tiny boy, and shoved more elaborate cartoons under their noses as a more complicated teen. (I guess even they grew blasé about my creative itch and the yards of drawing paper it consumed, and once you’ve seen your eldest son in one school play, you’ve seen him in them all, but you dutifully turn out anyway, because you made him and it’s your fault.) I remember a few milestones very clearly: the first scribbles of mine that were actually “printed” – and by that, I meant rattled off on some ancient carbon-based contraption at Abington Vale Middle School (don’t look for it etc.) when I was about eight? I had rudimentary drawing skills. I wasn’t that good. I was just more naturally equipped than most kids with a pen. So the headmistress, via my form teacher, pressed me into service to supply a couple of illustrations for a lyric sheet for an end-of-term carol service. These had to be scratched into some carbon paper – a most irksome process for a boy used to felt tips and crayons. Anyway, one was of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, another was of a carol singer, a large musical note emanating from his mouth in the traditional Beano style, while a pound note was dropped into his hat. Miss Malins, the headmistress, was moved to comment upon the illustrations at the service, as the circular design I had etched into the pound note made it look like a ten pound note, and she cautioned parents that they need not donate such an extortionate amount!

After a misleading brush with top billing in an Abington Vale Primary School Wind In The Willows (I was a slapstick Toad with eggbox eyes), my school drama career settled into the rhythm of one spear-carrier after another. In fact, in one play at Middle School, I played a “Sentinel”, whose job it was to stand motionless beside a king’s throne throughout, even when Anita Barker tickled me with a feather duster. It got a laugh, without me lifting a finger. One Christmas, my friend Angus and I performed a two-hander at an end-of-term talent contest called The Dentist, which we’d conceived, and in which I played the patient and he played the dentist, but whose hilarious comic conceit was ruined by the curtains being already open when Angus and I laid out most of my Dad’s toolbox on a table, thus giving away the escalating narrative before it had started. We didn’t win.

At Weston Favell Upper School, my friend Paul Garner and I achieved a modest, geeky kind of “fame” when, through his Dad, who worked at the Chronicle & Echo, we had caricatures of film stars we’d drawn printed in the paper, which led to an appearance (above) on Look East. This was my TV debut. Our next door neighbour, John, who had a proper camera, took the photo off the telly, as it went out, as nobody had a video. Also at Weston Favell, I helped write and conceive Not The Sixth Form Revue (this was in 1982, so you must forgive the now rather hackneyed title), and gave myself a couple of plum parts, but I understood the democratic sketch group aesthetic and kept out of most of it, finding an equivalent level of satisfaction hearing my words coming out of other performers’ mouths. I guess this is when I realised that I was in fact better off writing for other people, and that there was gratification to be gleaned from doing just that. The career in journalism which eventually awaited me after four years of drawing more pictures and failing to impress any of my tutors with it, gave me a chance to communicate with the public, or at least the NME‘s readership, without having to wait behind curtains for my entrance. My first byline in the paper consisted of just my initials, after a couple of capsule reviews of Vietnam films. This thrilled me to the bone nonetheless. In those pre-computer days, the only way to validate your words was to see them in print.

I think if I’d landed at the NME ten or 20 years earlier (ie. if I’d been born ten or 20 years earlier), I might have remained satisfied with shoving my words under people’s noses and never have troubled television or radio with my face and my voice (neither of which I was entirely in love with at any stage, especially the latter). But this was the 90s, and journalists were being increasingly recruited as pundits – what we’d now call talking heads – and I was willing and able. (“Able” in the sense that I will keep talking when there is a dead air to fill.) Along with my new soulmate Stuart Maconie, who had a better face and a better voice, I drifted from print onto the airwaves, and we were suddenly writing words for ourselves to say. I wonder if anyone remembers Fantastic Voyage, our first radio comedy show, six parts on the old Radio 5, in which we played hospital radio DJs called Andrew and Stuart? We both got radio careers out of this fertile period of cross-pollination, but unlike Stuart, I was restless and still casting around for something else to do, and he edged ahead of me into mainstream broadcasting, while I dabbled with a new toy: scriptwriting.

At Family Affairs, and then EastEnders, I learned new skills. This was the toughest of all the jobs I’d ever had, and for that reason alone, it gave me the most satisfaction. After anything between four and six drafts of an episode of EastEnders, to see the finished programme go out, on BBC1, with a guaranteed audience, and to have your name at the beginning or the end of it, was the feeling of a job well done. (I saw more experienced writers than myself taken off an episode if it wasn’t progressing fast enough between drafts, and knew that I was only as useful as my last script. This keeps a writer on his or her toes. You can get away with a lot more as a music radio DJ than you can as a television scriptwriter. Radio is transient, and that’s why it’s such a lot of fun to do.)

Had, at any stage, I concentrated on just one aspect of the media, I might have become an expert, or a specialist, or a master of one single trade, rather than what I am: a hyphenate, a dabbler, a fly-by-night, a second or third choice for the occasional lucrative panel game if somebody’s dropped out, someone who had a crack at stand-up for a year, someone who has been on any number of TV and radio shows once, never to be asked back, and a writer who’s most known for collaborating with others, because I’m fairly easy to get on with and don’t have tantrums.

And here I am, scriptwriting, but also on the radio. It doesn’t get any easier. I’ve been forcing myself from the margins of showbiz onto the public, sometimes by stealth or as a stowaway, for most of my life. Searching for approval and being too thin-skinned to ignore criticism. But I listened to the first episode of Mr Blue Sky go out, live, at 11.30am this morning, at my Mum and Dad’s, with my Mum and Dad, in the very living room I left behind in 1984 in order to go and seek my fortune in London, a city I adore and despise at the same time, but it’s where the work is. They seemed to enjoy the show. Others, on the internet, and by text, were equally supportive. I knew that the actors were good, and that the production was good, and the editing, and the badly-played piano, and the closing theme tune by Jim Bob, but I had no idea if the script was.

I was nervous when the actors first read it out, round a massive table at Avalon, in March, and I was nervous when I first listened to the finished programmes, on disc, about a month ago. But none of this compared to the butterflies I felt when I woke, feeling a bit sick, this morning. It’s a ridiculous ordeal to put yourself through. But the satisfaction when it’s not a complete disaster is the clincher.

Ironically, while I’m up at my parents’, my next job is to get out my old felt tips and draw the caricature for that nice man who bid £363 for me to do so on TwitRelief. So I’m back at my Mum and Dad’s, drawing a cartoon to shove under someone else’s nose. I’m slightly apprehensive that I won’t be able to actually draw a caricature any more. But fear gives courage wings.

What’s that coming over the hill?

Pictured, above, are three sitcom monsters, who happen all to be white males with goatee beards. At the top we have the newest, Jonty De Wolfe, Vice Chancellor of the university in brand new C4 comedy Campus, from the makers of Green Wing, which is mainly Victoria Pile. He is played, with extraordinary comic ingenuity, by Andy Nyman. Underneath him is David Brent, the creation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who is sufficiently iconic to exist outside of the sitcom that featured him. You don’t even need to name it. (It’s The Office.) And finally, perhaps the least well known, Kenny Powers, the down-at-heel baseball legend around whom the incredible Eastbound & Down is built (Season Two currently showing on FX, with a third, its last, imminent on HBO in the States). Powers is the creation of Danny McBride, who plays him – who lives him – and the show’s co-creators Ben Best and Jody Hill.

All three men are horrible.

Having recently created my first ever sitcom character of note – a man called Harvey Easter in the forthcoming Radio 4 sitcom Mr Blue Sky, starts on May 16 – I am aware that I am entering a crowded and tricky marketplace. Every TV or radio comedy writer from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to Victoria Pile hopes to create a durable and recognised character. Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring, Victor Medrew, Del Boy, Hank Kingsley, George Costanza, Compo, Mr Humphreys, Wolfie Smith, Margo Leadbetter, Hyacinth Bucket, Rigsby, Frank Spencer, Anthony Hancock, the list goes on … who wouldn’t want to add to that list? But the immortal sitcom character is usually complex. He or she is usually flawed. And he or she is usually sympathetic.

David Brent was sympathetic. You didn’t hate him. He was a twat. But he meant well. Mainwaring was snobby and miserable and proud. But he meant well. Hancock was snobby and miserable etc. But he meant well. Kenny Powers – who I realise less people will have seen – is obnoxious, sexist, bullying, self-centred, self-aggrandising, delusional and ugly. He doesn’t even mean well. He means only to further his career and status, and is driven almost exclusively by ego and sexual desire. He will tread on anybody who gets in his way. And yet … and yet … as played by McBride, he is still lovable. He is pathetic, but somewhere deep inside him is a soul. That’s the beauty of the writing and the performance: that we can even detect something deep in him. Malcolm Tucker is another shining example, although he doesn’t have a goatee beard, so I have not included him in my thesis.

Jonty De Wolfe, whom I have only seen in one and a half episodes of Campus, is thus far a series of tics. Like Brent, he is self-absorbed and prone to the politically incorrect faux pas, which he doesn’t even realise is a faux pas. He uses the term “spastic” in Episode One. He mocks an Asian student by mimicking Indian music. He is a monster. But so was Brent, and so is Powers. So why does De Wolfe not work? Well, let’s give him a break – he hasn’t had time to bed in, and the subtleties of Mainwaring and even Fawlty may have taken longer than an episode to become apparent. But I suspect not. I suspect that both were, if not fully formed, at least partly-baked when they appeared for the first time on our screens. I certainly “got” Brent within ten minutes of The Office. There is nothing to “get” with De Wolfe. Not yet anyway. This is a shame, as there is an awful lot of writing and acting talent on show in Campus.

As there would be. Green Wing was amazing, a proper breath of fresh and bendy air, and a comedy that – gasp! – worked over an hour, rather than 30 minutes. No mean feat. And it did so because, even though its characters seemed like archetypes and idiots to begin with, it didn’t take long for hearts to start beating beneath their tics. (I am currently working with one of its writers, by the way, someone whose work I really admire, so this is not a dig at the writers, simply at the more general problem with creating new characters in this vein.) In Campus, so far, the characters seem just to be monsters and idiots. And it’s hard to sell a monster.

Am I right? I am now almost pathologically unable to criticise contemporary comedy, as I am in the same game. And I don’t mean to criticise Campus, but there’s something awry here, isn’t there?


Some product

No, not a blog entry about the new exfoliator I have been using this week – which has turned my face into a lady’s – a different kind of product. My first ever and possibly only ever DVD. Available today from Go Faster Stripe at a hopefully affordable price of £12, Secret Dancing is the souvenir of my 2010 Edinburgh show, filmed at Cardiff’s Masonic Hall on November 3 last year before an enthusiastic sellout audience of podcast fans who had to put up with my one-man show in support of the actual Collings & Herrin headliner. You can watch two short clips FOR FREE on the Go Faster Stripe website, which is also the only place you can buy the disc itself. I haven’t actually held one in my hands yet, but I love the simple way it’s been designed and packaged. It’s weird for me to watch it, especially in the unforgiving glare of the house lights required for filming, and to see the sweat build up around my brow, and the occasional nervous jiggle of my leg.

I know I am an impostor in the world of stand-up, but I hope this brief flirtation with my favourite form of entertainment has been if nothing else, self-aware and appreciative. I loved doing Edinburgh on my own last August, as you know, and it is testament to the idiosyncratic, cottage-industrial autonomy of Chris Evans at Go Faster Stripe that this lovely document of that adventure can even exist. I hope you like it. The extras are rather sweet: Richard’s glowing introduction and career retrospective; a poor-quality bootleg of the Edinburgh show at Bannerman’s, made by fellow Free Fringer Frog Morris; some iPhone footage of Richard and I preparing for our now-decommissioned 6 Music show in Caffe Nero and in the 6 Music office; and a terrific video by Nathan Jay for one of the tracks he allowed us to use for the Secret Dancing demonstration. (Tough luck, Mark Ronson, BAD, the Wiseguys, PM Dawn and the Sugababes: we chose not to use your music!)

The two free clips are here:

Serial killers


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.

Last chance to see

On November 3, 2010, I will be performing Secret Dancing for the final time. If you are in or near Cardiff, you can come and see it – tickets are available exclusively through Go Faster Stripe here – and many of you are booked to do so already, without realising what a historic night you will be part of. Richard and I are doing a day’s recording in Cardiff for our second podcast CD, provisionally entitled War, Peace, Crime and Punishment (hopefully available in time for Christmas), and a live podcast gig in the evening. But Chris-Evans-not-that-one had the harebrained idea of doing Secret Dancing as the support act and filming it for a future Go Faster Stripe DVD. This seemed too good to pass up, and Richard has magnanimously handed over the whole of the first half to me.

We hope that this will be a nice surprise for all those who have already purchased a ticket. I have performed Secret Dancing, the full show, 19 times, 16 of those in Edinburgh. Like Stewart Lee says in his book, it feels like a good idea to draw a line under what was an experiment, and by committing it to disc, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

I’ve had a lot of fun, but I am not a stand-up comedian, and although I was keen to pursue this one, just to find out if I could perform my own solo show at the Fringe, I still feel something of a fraud, and have not paid my dues, and I cannot realistically spend every evening doing so like professional comedians do, so it would be insulting if I continue to jump the queue and “dabble”. I have loads of writing work to do anyway, so performing the show one last time, in a city that has been very kind to it before [see: pic, taken at St David’s Hall last time Richard and I were in town], seems poetic and apt. I hope we get as many enthusiastic volunteers at the end – we’ll have to see whether the modest camera crew will encourage or discourage volunteers!

Anyway, I’m looking forward to it, and I hope that my decision to lay the show to rest will make Cardiff more of an “event”. It will certainly be a packed day.

We think our gig in Bristol is sold out, but worth checking, if you’re in the vicinity. I won’t be doing Secret Dancing there, as Richard and I will be sharing our pre-interval duties, and I’ll only have 20 minutes to play with. I might do the Mitfords if that seems like a popular option. If not, I’ll do an excerpt from Secret Dancing, the bit about moving to Surrey.

In other Go Faster Stripe news, my audiobook, Where Did It All Go Right?, has been reduced in price to £10, so if you haven’t bought it yet, now might be a good time. I’ve had some really nice responses to it, and people ask me if the other books will come out as audiobooks, to which the answer is: it really depends if we sell enough of these, which we haven’t yet. It’s clearly a niche product. We probably should have done it as MP3s, which would have meant less discs, and less packaging, although for my first and possibly only audiobook, I’m rather pleased with the way this one feels. It’s a beautiful item. Anyway, plug over.

Norman service

I grew up with Norman Wisdom, who has died, aged 95. His films seemed to be on an endless loop on TV when I was a kid; they formed part of my comedy education, alongside the Carry Ons, the Doctor films and various other gentle oddities like Nearly A Nasty Accident, What A Whopper and The Iron Maiden. Outside of the Keystone Cops and all the old Mack Sennett/Hal Roach silents and two-reelers which were also on telly all the time, I pretty much grew up thinking that Britain was the centre of the comedy universe. And in the 50s and 60s, it pretty much was. (I actually made no distinction at the time between old and new, American and British, black and white and colour – hey, everything was in black and white in our house until about 1973 anyway – if it was a film and it was a comedy and it was on telly, me and my brother Simon were there.) If I had comedy heroes in my childhood, they would have been Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Sid James, Kenneth Connor and Norman Wisdom. All dead now, of course. But still alive.

If you look them up, there are about a dozen classic, mainly job-based Wisdom comedies in black and white, from 1953’s definitive Trouble In Store (the one in a shop) to The Early Bird in 1965 (the one on the milk round). I remember seeing Michael Bentine’s The Sandwich Man on TV, a sort of loose comedy compendium made in colour in 1966, in which Wisdom plays a boxer, and it felt a bit weird. Weird to see him in colour, and weird to see him playing a small part. Also, it seemed such a melancholy film, out of sync with the merry world of Wisdom, in which slapstick mayhem was never far around the next corner.

Norman played the fool, with his ill-fitting, half-mast demob suit and pulled-down cap, always on the verge of hysterical laughter, or so it seemed, but capable, like all the best clowns, of conveying almost heartbreaking melancholy. I’ll be honest, as a kid, I found those bits harder to take. I preferred it when he was falling over, or into things, or off things, or leading a brass band down a blind alley, or rounding up an entire police force with his father’s police whistle, or just bringing chaos into the life of Jerry Desmonde (who was already dead by the time I saw him – he passed away in 1967). Once I came of age, and discovered Spike Milligan and Monty Python and Mad magazine, I put the innocent silliness of Wisdom behind me, but he made an indelible impression on my young soul. I’m sad that he’s gone, although he lived a long life, loved and even worshipped as a God for most of it. He was pratfalling to very near the end. That might have seemed desperate or tragic in others, but not him, oddly.

I was privileged to be in the same room as Norman in around 1993, I think, when Stuart and I were invited to a light entertainment reception at the BBC on the back of our first Radio 5 comedy series, and felt very much like interlopers or competition winners. We were in awe of the big stars who attended in the Council Chambers, which seemed impossibly grand – I mean the likes of Wogan, Parsons, Jacobs – but it was Wisdom who made the biggest impact. He will have been a sprightly 78 then, but it was still a delight to see him take the tray from a waiter and prance around, giggling, serving us all drinks. What a treat.

Gawd bless him. And if you have kids, show them On The Beat or Trouble In Store, made over half a century ago, and see if they laugh. I hope they do.