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

MBSCastCrewlineup

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.

Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 2

Day five Pt 2

Phew. Anyway, I’m in a local Caffe Nero, as I couldn’t face the commute to King’s Cross. (Hence: no commute soundtrack today, sorry.) As you can see, I’m wearing my “From The Midlands With Love” t-shirt, as it feels like a summer day, and because I am from the Midlands with love. This is a rare garment in my current wardrobe, as it has words on it. (I’ve long since stopped wearing “band” t-shirts, and in fact, rarely wear t-shirts any more, in a deluded bid for maturity. Maybe I would wear t-shirts if I was a “festival dad” but I don’t have that parental excuse!) The slogan refers to Miles Hunt and The Wonder Stuff’s ongoing, civic seven-inch covers project which you can read about here (and see some videos). I like the t-shirt.

Hmmmm … this just in. My sitcom Mr Blue Sky has not been recommissioned for a third series by Radio 4. I am a little shell-shocked by this bad news. Not that a third series was ever in the bag, but I foolishly allowed myself to become a little bit confident that there was more life in the show. (I had dared to dream; never a practical way to live your life.) They have given us many reasons why, which I won’t go into, but I’m sad not to be writing the stories I had planned for Harvey Easter and his family, which I thought were rather promising. We’ll still push for it on TV, of course, but I feel too winded to contemplate the practicalities of that right now.

Working in TV and radio, and the media in general, is not for the faint-hearted. You win some, you lose some, and you cannot allow the losses to get you down. (We won when Radio 4 were kind enough to commission Mr Blue Sky in the first place, and to support it through two series and ten episodes, so I’m calling that a result.) You get knocked down, you get back up again. You pitch something else, to someone else, and keep banging on doors. Hey! Gates starts on Sky Living next Tuesday. Maybe it will be well received and we’ll get a second series of that. Maybe this script I’m writing right now will be commissioned. Maybe the meeting I had in the Groucho will develop into a project. I will say it’s been a tough summer for work, what with Word closing down as well, although that was as much a loss for British culture as it was for my accountant, and must be kept in perspective. I am putting on a stoic, determined expression. Do you want to see it?

Well, the beauty of working near your house is that you can go home for your lunch, rather than cart it around with you, as I normally do. I rather skilfully remixed the last portion of this week’s chilli with the first portion of my latest soup. A thrilling mash-up, it picked me up a bit when I needed it. I am now back in a coffee shop, but a different one, where I am nowhere near a window but very near a wall-hanging of something Italianate and esoteric. (I resent the dominance of Caffe Nero in my working life, as they charge extra for soya milk, which is a scandal, but they do offer wi-fi, which clinches it every time, and their loyalty card is – I think – the most generous of all the chains.) I am trying to look melancholy in this pic, but I’m not very good at it. I have a beautiful smile, ordinarily, which is key to my athletic prowess, but I haven’t been using it in these diary pics, as who wants to sit and smile at their laptop in public?

Incidentally, my “commute” is today a very short bus ride, so I only had chance to listen to a couple of songs. Here they are, in case you’re interested:

CEREMONY Hysteria (single version)
WE ARE AUGUSTINES Juarez (album version)
ZEBRA AND SNAKE Money In Heaven (Kashi Remix)
DEAD FLAMINGOES Habit
MR FOGG Stay Out Of The Sun [partial, as I arrived at my destination]

These songs, by reasonably arcane artists, come from an ongoing playlist I imaginatively call 2012 New Singles!, which I build up every time I’ve emptied my pigeonhole at 6 Music. I like to keep up with the new music, and these selections have been quality-stamped and filtered out of the general swamp of newness.

Incidentally, I’m back on 6 Music next Saturday, August 18, and then again on Saturday September 1. Just two floating Saturdays in Jon Holmes’ 10am-1pm slot, but it’s been good fun the last two times. I have no idea what’s happening with that slot in the long term, so don’t ask me.

I might let the diary go now. It’s been a blast, as ever. Sorry so much of it has been me ranting, and the rest of it me not being able to specify what I’m actually working on, but I think my writer’s block has been alleviated a bit. I have certainly written some script this week. Finding out that another project has just bitten the dust is always potentially harmful to one’s concentration, but even after the Mr Blue Sky bombshell, I’ve been able to at least cut loads of stuff out of the latest draft of The Script That I Cannot Yet Name for the broadcaster I cannot yet name.

Actually, I had to cut the aforementioned “font joke”, so I may as well copyright it here. “I used Arial Bold – I wanted to make a clean start.” Don’t you dare nick that. I have witnesses.

I fully intend to drink a cold beer this evening to commiserate with myself about the end of the road for Mr Blue Sky, a project that was very dear to me, and I shall be toasting all those who helped make the two series we made for Radio 4 such a joy from one end to the other, including both critics and Tweeters who were so positive about it. In the meantime, I’ve just had a call from my old pal Simon Day (who was, of course, in Mr Blue Sky) about something else that may or may not be nearing the pipeline, so fingers crossed, and enjoy the remaining days of the Olympics. You all have beautiful smiles.

Telly Addict returns next Friday. I shall be mainly reviewing Celebrity Masterchef, The History Of Art In Three Colours and The Great British Bake-Off.

Please tell us why you had to hide away for so long

Just to say: Mr Blue Sky returns for its second series on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow, Easter Monday, at 11.30am – the same slot as last year – whereafter it will be on iPlayer. We have edited five of the six episodes, and they’re sounding good, in terms of performance and production, so thumbs up to the amazing cast and to producer/script editor Anna, studio director Wilfredo and editor Rich (who also provides Harvey’s terrible piano playing, which of course you have to be brilliant at the piano to fake). I’m hopeful anyone who liked Series One will enjoy Series Two. There’s a definitive entry for the show on the British Comedy Guide, so you’ll find the cast and crew etc. there.

It being a second series, it’s not easy to get previews in the papers, so I’m very grateful for the ones we have had. Radio Times were gracious enough to let me write about it as part of a broader piece about family radio; we also had a positive write-up in The List, Boyd Hilton was kind enough to give it four stars and a recommendation in Heat, and Stephanie Billen managed to wangle it a pick of the day for radio in today’s Observer (which doesn’t seem to be online, but she called it “likable”, which I can go with).

I’m not expecting the nation to stop what it’s doing and gather round the radio at 11.30 tomorrow morning, but I would appreciate your thoughts as and when you catch up with it, if indeed you do. Mr Blue Sky remains the thing of which I am most proud of, professionally, as it’s mine, and if it succeeds or fails, I have to take the rap.

Stop press! Thanks to Philip Townley for the tip-off, but as of 11.23 Tuesday morning, Mr Blue Sky’s being plugged on the main BBC webpage. You can’t buy that kind of publicity etc.

New world record

It’s a wrap, loves. Angus Deayton was our last guest of the Mr Blue Sky recording. He was helicoptered in to play an urbane Catholic priest in just one episode, which comprised three scenes that he unsurprisingly nailed. It must have been weird for him to turn up at 4.30 on the last day of a gruelling seven-day record and find bodies, Pret wrappers and discarded copies of OK! and G2 everywhere, and fellow actors in advanced states of hysteria and sleep deprivation. But he is a sport and picked his way delicately through the carnage. Greg Davies came in earlier and promised to put his scenes as the Customs Official (another spoiler!) in the can in one take. I won’t say whether or not he did, but he won the crown for the most swearing in the studio. And being the tallest, obviously, but that’s true wherever he goes outside of the Harlem Globetrotters. There was a lot of man in the room when he was in there with Mark and Justin.

Enjoy some final pics of actors in situ. It has been an exceptional week of fiction and fact. Although most of the cast dashed off (in Mark’s case, to his final performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric) we had a low-key “wrap party” at the Goldhawk pub, where myself, Anna, Wilfredo, Anke, Rob and – actors! – Javone and Navin – supped a few pints and a couple of glasses of free Swedish cider, forced upon us by a promotion at the pub. No doubt we will all fall under a heavy blanket of depression tomorrow. It’s normal. It’s what happens. But it’s been a memorable week.

It’s over

Those following my Electric Light Orchestra-themed headlines this week will have guessed today’s. For today is Day Seven, the final day of the recording of Series 2 of Mr Blue Sky. Above is today’s schedule. I don’t know if you are able, or can be bothered, to read it, but it lists, in order, every scene we have yet to record, and because today involves the entire cast (minus Navin), plus three star cameo turns, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. (I know, pretty tasty.) All you’ll see, Harvey ie. Mark Benton, is in every scene except one. This man is earning his radio pittance.

Here are a few of Rob’s photos from yesterday, when the whole family performed a scene from the wedding episode (spoiler alert!), outside the studio in the post-apocalyptic car park of the industrial estate that is earmarked for destruction. (My face, as you can see above, is similarly ravaged, except by biscuits.)

I bet The Archers never do this. (Actually, they might. I didn’t know anybody did this in radio drama.)

At 11.40am, after a full morning’s acting and green-light pressing, we are on schedule. Would you like to see the fictional Easter family pretending to be in a car?

I’m going to post this now, even though we’re totally in the can just yet. I’ll put the last batch of pictures up tomorrow.

Strange magic

Day Six of Mr Blue Sky series 2. Though I didn’t log it, yesterday was Day Five, which was actually a half-day, and I wasn’t able to attend the recording due to my Guardian Telly Addict videocast, which had to be moved in order for me to be available for the whole day tomorrow, which will be Day Six and the final day of the recording. Yes? (Telly Addict will go up at the usual time, around 4pm on Friday.) Having recorded Simon Day – who cameos in this series as the book-burning neighbour Mr Leopold – and Mark outside in the car park on Tuesday, and Claire and Navin in a van in the car park yesterday, studio director Wilfredo had us all outside in the cloudless sunshine again this morning for some more exterior scenes (you type “EXT.” in a radio script, and you do not imagine you’ll actually be outside, but Wilfredo is something of a guerilla sound recordist). Frankly, it was lovely to be able to process some Vitamin D after a week of being anything but free range.

Above, in a photo taken by production assistant Rob, you can see producer Anna, Justin Edwards (who plays Harvey’s best friend, the oncologist Ray, and has had a nice neat haircut for his part in the new series of The Thick Of It, which he is making concurrently), Michael Legge (who plays Harvey’s megalomaniac boss Sean and is, in real life, hungover), Mark (method acting the sound of Harvey climbing into a van), and Wilfredo. Below, for a later scene in which Harvey and Ray drive to Gatwick (hey, no spoilers!), Wilfredo records them in the cab of the same van.

Hitchcock style, I appear in the next photo, too. And that’s not my iPhone, as I will never buy an iPhone, it’s Anna’s.

This happened last year, on the recording of the first series: a certain degree of hysteria has set in. There is a lot more mucking about in the studio. It’s fine. Mark and Justin were telling jokes in there this morning and kindly offering them to Michael for an upcoming stand-up gig. None of them are suitable. This is how you want actors and comedians to behave under pressure. It’s been kind of the opposite of a rollercoaster ride, the recording, in that it’s pretty steady – despite the massive emotional ups and downs of the scripts, naturally – working our way through the scenes, ticking them off, or making them go green on Anke’s grid. I have to say, it’s been as physically draining and mentally demanding as I remember Series 1 being, except cranked up, as we’re doing half as many episodes again this time. (“Physically draining” sounds unlikely – not to mention insulting to everyone with a physical job – as I am mainly just sitting on a chair, listening and eating biscuits, but I’m not used to eating so much wheat, so it does take it out of me. After seeing what happens when Richard Herring occasionally suggests that his job is hard, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I’m not even paying for these biscuits.)

I can’t believe we actually finish tomorrow. (Finish recording and say goodbye to the lovely actors; the edit begins on Monday, of course, with just three weeks to go before the first episode airs on Radio 4.) As I sign off, I am listening to a professional actor saying the word “recalcitrant” in the studio, a word nobody except Will Self says in real life, and which I only put in because I’ve always liked the sound of it. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars: “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as shit can’t say it.”

Discovery

Green light. Day Four of Mr Blue Sky. This green light, whether mounted on a stick, or sitting on a desk, says something really heavy. It says, “Go.” From where I sit, with producer Anna, studio director Wilfredo, production coordinator Anke (whose name is, aptly, pronounced “Anchor”) and production assistant Rob, in the control room, the green light can be operated. But it flashes green out there in the studio, and it has the power to make fiction start. It’s weird to sit on this side of the glass. The actors know that we can hear every word they’re saying when they’re in there, but unless we press “talkback”, they can’t hear us. It’s an unfair dynamic, but it spells out who’s boss.

Although I’m not an actor, I have gifted myself a couple of tiny parts in this series, DJ and Labradoodle Man, the first of whom has one speech, the second of whom only mutters one or two words when passed in the street with his dog, who is called Martin. I have already been called upon to give life to these two characters (DJ’s speech in the can on Day One; two takes), and when you’re not used to it, it’s oddly disorientating. Paranoia that you are being talked about can set in. In fact, does set in.

In these pictures, you can see me having to act opposite one of the greats, Benton himself. It’s a foolish position to put oneself in; equally, it’s nice to be able to watch a professional working, close enough to smell his after shave, and for him to be able to smell your fear. (Mark Benton is currently appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which means that after a hard day’s reading out my nonsense, he has to go to a theatre and read out Shakespeare’s. I don’t imagine there’s much difference between the two.)

Lunchtime is important in life. In drama, doubly so. You need to recharge your batteries. And although someone from Equity does not come round with a stopwatch to ensure you get 60 minutes, it’s accepted that lunch is non-negotiable. And even on a low-budget radio production, you get nice Pret sandwiches, there’s constant hot and cold running drinks, and the biscuit jars miraculously refill throughout the day. This is the actors’ green room area, with a couch suitable for power-napping on if you’re not required for a certain length of time, or if you’ve got a new baby and you’re getting no sleep at home. (Radio is great, in that you get to hold your script in front of you when you act, and don’t have to learn your lines, although some preparation is expected, and its absence is noted.)

I’m keen to show you round the studio while the actors aren’t in it. This is the main area.

And this is the stairs, which are for walking up and down if your character is supposed to enter by coming down the stairs, or exit going up them. It’s quite hard to stop actors going up and down them, even if no dialogue on the stairs is required. It gets them in the right frame of mind.

It is Tuesday. We finish on Friday. That’s also non-negotiable. And known unknowns still haunt Anke and her tightly-plotted schedule – a hospital appointment here; an audition there; an agent trying it on there – all of which have to be absorbed. We may even have to move the lunch hour from 1-2pm on Thursday to 12.30-1.30pm. I know. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. There’s continuity to keep abreast of, too. Yesterday, Monday, we recorded the final take of a scene involving four characters, and we’d all forgotten that Harvey was supposed to have a bandage on his nose, and thus Mark was supposed to talk with his fingers on his nose. Mark remembered on the way home last night. We checked the take. He was right. So we’ll have to re-take that one.

Otherwise, we’re still on schedule. Yesterday, I tweaked the press release. At the end of last week, I wrote the summary of episode one that’ll go to the listings magazines. It’s all happening.

And nobody’s noticed the running theme of the headlines yet …

For ease, here are the previous days:

Day One: It’s a living thing; Day Two: Out of the blue; Day Three: On the third day

On the third day

Day Three of Mr Blue Sky – after a working weekend I spent script editing someone else’s script, but don’t feel sorry for me! – and it’s all slotting together. We had an easy morning, in that we recorded all of Harvey’s monologues from all six episodes, which by definition, only required one actor, the mighty Mark Benton, who did such a sterling job, we were ahead of schedule by lunch. (The most complicated day we’ve saved until last – Friday. That’s going to be a frazzler, with pretty much the entire squad in, including all three of our star cameos, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. Photographic evidence of this car crash of talent will be forthcoming.)

By lunchtime, the whole family was here. They are not a family. They are four – sometimes five, sometimes six – unrelated professional actors, but in the bunker of a radio production, the lines between reality and comedy drama blur, so that actors are often addressed over the talkback by their character names, and this is not meant as an insult. If anything, it’s a compliment! When Tyger Drew Honey arrives, having been stuck in traffic in Hammersmith, we say, “Robbie’s here!” When Mark arrives, having been stuck in the same traffic, we say, “Harvey’s here.” Nobody’s going “method” but if they wished to, they’d get no complaints from in here, behind the glass.

In the pic above, we see Tyger, physically blurred, as he is a highly caffeinated 16-year-old and very seldom still. Sorcha Cusack, who plays his racist grandmother Lou, is like acting royalty, and – guess what? – a sweetheart. She hits her mark every time, and is a pleasure to have around. And she was Brad Pitt’s mother in Snatch.

Below, we see Mark and Claire Skinner, as Harvey and Jax. The scene they are recording involves the couple being in bed. This is why they are doing some top quality “quilt acting” as it’s known in the trade. No, it’s not a sex scene. Mr Blue Sky is family listening.

On Friday and today, the weather has been glorious, which is apt, of course, but also frustrating. Because I am working in my breaks and during lunch, I literally do not see the outside world between the 9am start and the 6pm finish. The glorious weather is wasted on me. But again, do not feel sorry for me! This is the best gig in the world.

Out of the blue

Day Two of Mr Blue Sky series 2. The palatial middle studio at Soundhouse on what is now an ominously deserted industrial estate in Shepherd’s Bush is our place of work until the end of next week. Already, we are into a rhythm. We’re recording the six half-hour episodes very much out of sequence, in order to accommodate the intricacies of actor availability. There is something utterly thrilling about seeing massive piles of scripts, especially if you wrote them. This is why I was drawn to pointing at them in the above pic.

In the background of this shot from the green room, or anteroom, or outhouse, is Navin Chowdhry, who plays builder Rakesh – and imbues every one of his lines with such seductive innuendo we had to get him back to provide romantic intrigue with the happily married Mrs Easter. In the foreground is Rosamund, star of all the This Is Englands and Life’s Too Short, and, as of now, the new Charlie in Mr Blue Sky. In real life, as in fiction, she turns out to be something of a force of nature. You need one of these on a gruelling week of drama. (Last year we had the walking fireworks display Joe Tracini, who now belongs to Hollyoaks and, one must assume, keeps their morale up when the going gets tough.) Rosamund travels down each day from Nottingham, so she wins the prize for the longest commute, I think. The other cast members travel from as far afield as the South coast and from as near afield as pretty much over the road. Although there is much about the piecemeal assembly of a radio comedy that is not like a day at the office, it does a good impression of a day’s work, in that we start at a fixed time, end at a fixed time, and break for lunch.

Today, as you can see below, those nice people at Pieminister sent over a box of pies for us to mark National Pie Week. Although some of our cast – naming no names – are watching their weight, most of us tucked in. This was a welcome invasion by the outside world into our mostly windowless existence. Here are the cast eating their lunch (I have saved their blushes by not actually showing them shoving food into their mouths, but you can see the hands of TV’s Claire Skinner delicately dissembling her Big Cheese Pie with a plastic knife and fork.)

This was my Cow Pie before I dissembled it.

We’re on schedule as I write, which is just after lunch. Our producer and production co-ordinator have created a spreadsheet that must be obeyed. As a writer, you just merrily knock this stuff out, without too much of a care for how long scenes are, or how many characters are in it, or whether or not a character is heard enough times in a scene to suggest that they are still there – all stuff that presumably becomes second nature the more you do radio drama, which is what this essentially is – but on the day, these poor actors have to make sense of it, hit their marks, live out the fiction in a plain studio and give their best performance. The Easter family of four has become five in Series 2, and with the addition of Harvey’s racist Mum for a couple of episodes (played with fabulous gusto by the amazing Sorcha Cusack of the Cusack dynasty), which means some scenes have six voices, which is both an amazing sight to behold through the glass, and an amazing thing to hear through the speakers, but quite a headache to choreograph.

This (below) is the man who makes much of it happen. He’s Wilfredo, our studio director, who works wonders with sound effects both digital and physical, and mans the desk throughout. He is a laconic and calming presence. When all around is chaos, he keeps his head.

I shall end today’s entry with a snapshot of the whole Easter family, who, as I write, are pretending to eat in a pizza restaurant. From left to right: Claire Skinner (Jax Easter), Tyger Drew Honey (Robbie Easter), Rosamund Hanson (Charlie Easter), Mark Benton (Harvey Easter), Kill-R (Javone Prince) and Lou Easter (Sorcha Cusack).

It’s a living thing

The sun is not yet shining in the sky as I am writing this over breakfast, but I am optimistic that it will. Today is Day One of Mr Blue Sky Series 2. It is a year to the day that we embarked upon the recording of Mr Blue Sky Series 1 at the Soundhouse studio in West London – on the same industrial estate as the Innocent smoothie factory (which has since moved) – and by luck and judgement, this is where we find ourselves today.

Previously on …
If you are not up to speed with Mr Blue Sky, it is my first ever solo-written comedy. It’s mine. All mine. Made by Avalon, it aired on BBC Radio 4 in May and June last year; four episodes. It revolves around Harvey Easter, played by the mighty Mark Benton, who is the world’s biggest optimist, a pathology challenged on a daily basis by the world around him. You can read all about the making of Series 1 in this rather long blog entry from last year.

Because it was a new show, I was rather superstitious about it, and did not even name it until we had finished recording. This year, I can be a little more open about it, as it’s Series 2. It starts airing on April 9, which is just over a month away, so it’s almost instantaneous. This reminds me why I love making radio. And it’s why everybody loves making radio: commissioning decisions can be made more easily, the technical task of making it is one unencumbered by wigs and lighting and requires only a very small and intimate crew, which means you all get to know each other very quickly and a healthy siege mentality takes hold; also, actors of a very high calibre can be recruited, as six half-hour episodes can realistically be recorded in six days, or thereabouts.

This is Day One of the recording. I guess the actual Day One was Monday, when we had the very first full cast read-through of the six scripts which I have been working on since before Christmas, to the detriment of many other things, including writing this blog. That’s how devoted to Mr Blue Sky I have been.

I will attempt to blog more regularly this time, and add pics as and when. As you can see from the pic above, taken by the spy Michael Legge on the way to the read on Monday, just over half of the original cast are back. It’s been something of a nightmare trying to reconvene the actors from Series 1, during which, for producer/director/script editor Anna, the word “availability” has been the bane of her life. As you can see, we have Mark Benton back, as well as Justin Edwards, Javone Prince, Navin Chowdhry and Michael, but the parts of Jax, Charlie and Robbie have been re-cast. So we welcome Claire Skinner, Rosamund Hanson and Tyger Drew Honey to the family! (The observant will have spotted that Claire and Tyger have already developed a fictional mother-son relationship on Outnumbered, so that worked out rather nicely.) Although it is sad when some of the original cast can’t come back, you have to admit, we’ve been very fortunate in being able to fill their big shoes with some big feet.

This is the studio control room. Javone and Rosamund are setting up through there in the darkness, ready for their first scenes together as Kill-R and Charlie. And … action.