Jeremy joins a television writing course in the hope of turning his sitcom idea into a money-spinnerby Jeremy Clarke / July 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
There were 16 of us, plus the two visiting tutors, holed up for a week in an isolated 12th-century thatched farmhouse in north Devon. Miles from anywhere. No television, no radio, no traffic noise; just birdsong and the wind in the trees. Now and then a sleepy-eyed local woman came and dumped a pile of groceries on the kitchen table and disappeared again; otherwise we didn’t see a soul. The only permanent residents were a pair of identical grey cats, whom we deferred to as our hosts. The course was called Writing TV Comedy, and the tutors were experts in their particular fields. One, a short, Jewish man wearing an obvious cherry-coloured wig, specialised in “gag” and sketch writing. The other, a florid Yorkshireman, had progressed from writing pornography to Z Cars scripts, before achieving critical acclaim with a succession of gentle, northern-based situation comedies. The two of them took it in turns to lecture us in the barn, and while they lectured and we listened, nesting house martins swooped and skimmed over our heads. The man in the wig lectured in the morning, the Yorkshireman in the afternoon. I preferred the man in the wig. His approach to the process of comedy writing was a wonderfully pragmatic one, in which salesmanship was much more important than “creativity.” He taught us how to bluff our way past a television producer’s secretary to sell our ideas direct to the boss. This was worth the cost of the course in itself. Then he gave us examples of the type of one-liners that television comedy producers were looking for: “The hotel we stayed in was so posh, room service was ex-directory,” was one. “Did you hear about the chicken who was stopped for speeding? He had his licence hendorsed,” was another. If we could think of a few one-liners like that, he said, we should send them to a television producer friend of his who was looking for new material-but they must be translatable into Welsh. As well as teaching us how to write and sell gags, the gag-writing tutor had a great fund of show-biz anecdotes. He knew everybody in the business, and was on first-name terms with all of the comedy “greats.” “Benny? He was a sweet, sweet guy.” “Tony? What a tragedy. So sad. Did you know, it was written into his contract that there had to be five minutes in every script where he didn’t have a line, so that he could nip across to the pub for a quick treble?” “Johnny? Johnny was one of those people who think they are the only person in the world who can write. Made over ?4m from Till Death. Blew the lot on booze, unfortunately.” He himself had total recall of how much he had been paid for anything he’d written in a career spanning five decades. In 1965, for example, he made ?189 for writing the Dalek Annual. These days, the most lucrative markets for comedy writing are the foreign ones. Germany is now only 12 years behind Britain in the comedy stakes, apparently; German television producers are buying up all the British comedy shows from the mid-1980s, and commissioning gags and sketches from British writers by the barrel load. To give us an idea of what German comedy producers were looking for, he showed us a video of a German new-wave comedy show. It was called The Fat Man and the Belgian. We all sat and watched in stony silence, except for Josephine from Barbados, who tended to laugh joyfully and uproariously at anything. Between lectures, we dispersed into the grounds to try out some comedy writing for ourselves. Some of us strayed into the surrounding fields and composed one-liners in front of an audience of bullocks, in whom fear and curiosity achieved a kind of exquisite equilibrium at a distance of about a yard. When I tried out some of my one- liners on the bullocks, they just stared at me, but when I lit up a slim panatella, they shifted and quivered with excitement. After I’d finished my cigar, I stubbed it out in a handy cowpat, and by the end of the week this cowpat was bristling with spent cigars-the only thing I produced during the course of which I was remotely proud. It was mainly situation comedy writing which had attracted people to the course; most of us had come armed with ideas for sitcoms that were going to turn us into millionaires. During the first afternoon session, we took it in turns to tell the tutor about our sitcom ideas: who were the main characters, where it was set, how the plots would develop and so on. The simplest ideas were the best, it seemed; the most convoluted, the worst. My idea, of a circus strongman who has ambitions to go on the trapeze, was, alas, a bit thin, commented the tutor, but had possibilities. By the end of the course, however, and after a couple of one-to-one sessions with the sitcom tutor, I had developed my idea considerably. My central character was now a human cannonball. After a dispute with the ringmaster about travelling expenses, he transfers to the trapeze, believing that a man of his calibre should go on to higher things. Eventually he falls head over heels in love with the lady contortionist. They get engaged, but she breaks it off. Well, that’s the gist of it anyway. Interested television producers can contact me via Prospect.