Issue 057 - Sunday 1
June 2003 |
In This Issue -
- Fred Barron
- Be Your Own Agent
- Mike Barrington Shares How To Succeed
- Janice Day Shares How To Fail At
- Your Successes
by Gill Smith
International comedy writer and producer
Fred Barron on team writing, comedy and his new BBC role
Q: So what does your new BBC role
I guess it's to just keep doing what I've been doing
which is to create, write and produce character driven comedy series
that - hopefully - will have long runs. Of course, with the success
of 'My Family' everyone's now interested in American style 'team
writing,' so everything I continue to do here will be developed with
that in mind.
Q: At what stage will writers become
involved in your developing sitcoms?
The way I work is I'll
write the pilot and the first episode so we'll all have a clear
template for the characters, relationships and voices. It's
essential that all the writers are on the same page when we start,
because once we do start, we're off and running.
exactly is 'Team writing" and how does it work?
First of all,
let me tell you what 'Team Writing' isn't. It isn't a bunch of
writers sitting in a room writing scripts together from scratch.
That's an act of desperation when all else has failed. In team
writing, all the writers get together six to eight weeks before
production and read the first two scripts. Using those scripts as
the template, all the writers will come up with episodes they'd like
to write. Based on the writers' original ideas we'll all agree on
six to thirteen stories and work out the basic beats. At that point,
we'll all go off and write detailed outlines. A week later, we'll
reconvene and go over each others outlines, revising them to give a
common voice and style to the series as a whole. (We usually spend
one day per outline.) At that point, we all go off and write our
first drafts, reconvening two weeks later when they're done. Then we
'table' the scripts. We'll all look for holes in the story lines,
find ways to tighten them up (or add new scenes) and punch up the
jokes. There are very few scripts that can't be made funnier or
better. This is the hardest - and most exciting - period because
we're now writing the series, not individual scripts. If you're at
all thin skinned or precious about 'your' words and 'your' script,
this process isn't for you. Everyone contributes 100% to everyone
else's script. If X writes the script and Y contributes some killer
jokes and Z contributes 3 brilliant scenes, X still gets 100% of the
credit for that episode. No one outside the room should ever know
who contributed what to any particular script. It's always done by
'The Room.' The show runner (in this case, me) makes the final
decisions as to what stays and what goes in any particular script.
When The Room works, we're like a really tight jazz combo,
riffing off each other and building on each other's ideas. When The
Room works, there's nothing more exhilarating or fun. If The Room
doesn't work though, it's contentious, mean-spirited and hell. You
might be the world's best writer, but if you go ape shit about
someone messing with your stuff this is NOT the place for you. If
you're so kind and considerate that you'd rather let a so-so joke
get to the floor rather than criticise a fellow writer's work, this
is NOT the place for you. You've got to have a strong ego and the
strength to leave it outside the door. Once again, after your first
draft, it's no longer about YOUR script, it's about the show. (Of
course, generally 80-90% of your original script goes to the actors
as written, but you can't take it personally when it doesn't.) After
we finish 'tabling' the script, we have the first 'Table
And this is when the fun really begins. On Friday,
the actors read that week's script around the table. After that, we
get a timing and network notes and chat about what went right and
what went wrong. Then we reconvene with the actors and the director
and read the script again. If the actors have a problem with
something they tell us. If we can help them by giving them a line
reading or explaining a joke or motivation, we do so. If it still
doesn't work for them, we change it. From the moment we give the
actors the script our goal is to make the show work as a whole, and
I'd rather come up with a different joke or cut it completely than
watch it die in front of an audience simply because the actor
doesn't get or won't commit to it.
At any rate, after that
second table read with the actors, we all go up to the writers room
for our first re-write night. Jokes that didn't get the laughs we'd
hoped for get changed, scenes that dragged get rewritten, actors who
are particularly funny get additional jokes. Now this rewrite is
done by all of us together at the table and can take anywhere from
45 minutes to 8 hours depending on the two reads.
afternoon there's a writers' run-through where we (1) see the show
on its feet for the first time and (2) hear the new dialogue we
wrote Friday night. The writers will give me their notes and I'll
give our notes directly to the actors and director. On Monday night
we repeat the Friday night process, again honing, refining and
pitching new jokes.
On Tuesday there's a tech run for camera,
sound etc and once again all the writers are there giving notes and
listening to the concerns of the director, actors and department
heads. The Tuesday night re-write is basically tweaking.
Wednesday and Thursday are spent at the table breaking
future stories and getting first and second drafts ready for the
table. On Thursday nights we shoot. The writers are all on the floor
watching the scenes on the monitors. If jokes aren't working in
front of the audience, we come up with new ones for the next take.
Then on Friday, we start all over again.
Q: Are you
looking for new writers to join teams? What are you looking for from
them? How do we apply, and what experience will we need?
the first series of any new show, I'm definitely not looking for
inexperienced writers. There's too much at stake and too little time
to give a new writer the attention he or she both needs and
deserves. Thus in the first year, I'm looking for writers who have
had professional writing experience in either TV, radio, animation
or sketch comedy.
We are always looking for new voices though
and will be co-ordinating with the BBC New Writing Initiative. So if
you are a new writer please send your work (with a covering letter
mentioning your interest in team writing or working with me) to the
New Writing Initiative, 1 Mortimer Street, London, W1T 3JA. Further
information for new writers can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/
How will you be finding / choosing experienced and new
My associates at the BBC and I read extensively.
(Actually, they read extensively. I say I do, but if truth be known,
I simply carry scripts back and forth between the office and my
flat.) However, once we get closer to production, I will genuinely
read the scripts they've recommended and then meet with the writers
to see how we might mesh as a team. As I might have said earlier,
someone can be a brilliant writer, but if we're not on the same
wavelength, it's just not going to work.
As I have mentioned
earlier I believe that team writing on a new show is not suitable
for first time writers. However, writers with an agent and with a
produced radio, television, animation or sketch comedy programme
credit should send a ½ hour original comedy script (or even better a
spec script of either 'Only Fools and Horses,' 'Frasier,' 'The Vicar
of Dibley' or 'Friends') to Sue Gibbs, Room 4023, BBC TV Centre,
Wood Lane, London, W12 7RJ.
Please don't send scripts
directly to me, because I'm going to go off and write my pilot so
your submissions will just sit in an empty office gathering dust and
you'll end up being miserable thinking I read your script and hated
it so much I couldn't even bring myself to respond.
What's most exciting you about working for / with the
The freedom. And the people. In the US the networks are
very much like Versailles, filled with well dressed educated people
with nothing to do but gossip and pontificate. At the BBC the notes
are actually thoughtful and about the shows, not the executives'
Q: Will you be working just in TV, or radio
I've never written for radio before so I just have to
Q: Are there any projects currently in the
pipeline that you can drop us a few hints about?
are and no I can't. I don't mean to be cute but if I talk about
them, I'll never write them.
Q: What tips would you give
writers wanting to write for TV sitcoms?
The first thing is
you've got to love writing. Even when you hate it and want to chuck
your laptop or legal pad out the window you've still got to love it.
Next, you've got to write and then rewrite it. I'd write originals,
of course, but I'd also write spec scripts of my favourite shows (1)
to have writing samples for show runners, (2) to learn how to write
in different voices and (3) to practice building speed so you know
with confidence you can turn out a solid first draft in two weeks.
Unlike writing films or plays or one-offs, writing series depends on
volume as well as quality, and deadlines are sacred. In that regard,
writing series is more like journalism than anything else. The only
other suggestion is to let the characters dictate the jokes, not the
other way around. But that's just my taste. There are a huge number
of very successful joke-driven comedies out there. They're just not
Q: You presumably think team writing is good
for sitcom - do you also think it's good for writers, and in which
First of all, I don't think team writing is 'good' or
'bad' for sitcom. It's simply one way of doing things. If the team
is good, the show will be good and if it's weak the show will be
awful. Still, team writing is an excellent way of going if you want
to do a long running series. With 'My Family' we were able to
produce 26 episodes of (I believe) excellent sitcom in a year. That
would have been impossible without a team of excellent writers.
David Renwick, however, writes alone and his shows are completely
brilliant. But that's because David's brilliant. It's the actual
writing, not the method by which it's written, that counts. If
you're strong enough to collaborate and you're collaborating with
other strong, funny writers, it's almost inevitable that you'll be
stretched. If however, you come to team writing because you're too
afraid or lazy to do it on your own, you won't learn a thing except
how to become invisible.
Q: What's your favourite UK
sitcom? Favourite in the world? And favourite comedy
There are so many. 'One Foot in the Grave,' 'Only
Fools and Horses' 'Marion and Geoff,' 'The Kumars,' 'The Office.' As
for favourite in the world? My all time favourite sitcom is 'Taxi.'
I don't have a favourite character, though I am partial to Louie in
Q: How does working in comedy in the UK compare
to working in the US?
There's much more creative freedom
here. In the US you spend more time getting notes than you do
Q: Will you be maintaining your involvement in
No. It was great fun but it's time to move on.
James Hendrie and Ian Brown are taking over the show. They've been
with 'My Family' from the beginning and they're two of the most
talented writers-and humans-I've ever had the pleasure of working
with. Having written almost half of the episodes of 'My Family' this
past year, they are the perfect people to keep the show going
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Contract, Please, But Hold The Agent
By Harriet Earle
A Course Review
Julian Friedmann's two-day workshop "Be Your Own
Agent" held at The Comedy pub in Oxendon Street on 29th/30th March
was an event packed with practical and useful advice and information
for anyone relatively new to writing on a professional basis or
seriously considering starting.
Friedmann, who has run the
literary, TV and film agency, Blake Friedmann - which represents
screenwriters and novelists - for the last twenty years, spoke for
approximately seven hours on day one and for further four on day
two. I never stopped taking notes.
The workshop was so
comprehensive it could have been entitled How to Be a Professional
Screenwriter. Friedmann looked at the skills of the writer as well
as the role of the agent, how to get an agent, pitch ideas, write
treatments, how to become informed about the industry, how to
negotiate, understanding contracts, tax and cashflow.
Friedmann stressed that agents are looking for long-term
relationships with writers who are going to produce a work spanning
an entire career
- "good agents are marriage-brokers, bad ones
are pimps" and he considered scriptwriting to be a craft which needs
to be studied as seriously and can take as long to learn as
architecture or medicine.
Particularly salient pieces of
advice for writers: know where you want to be in five years' time.
Be prepared to work your way up and write for shows that you might
not choose to watch; read the trades (Broadcast, Screen
International, The Writers' Guild magazine - The Writers' Bulletin
and Friedmann's own bimonthly magazine, ScriptWriter) and keep up to
speed on the market; join the Writers' Guild and know what the Film
Council - the largest single source of funding in the UK - is doing.
Enter competitions and, if possible, get your scripts workshopped by
any of the organisations which do this (for example Rocliffe, TAPS
and the Screenwriters' Workshop); join a writer's group and where
possible get industry feedback on your work, as opposed to feedback
from your friends and family. Don't be too paranoid about your idea
being stolen. Writers are normally judged by the execution of an
idea rather than the idea itself and the better you are known in the
industry, the harder it is to steal from you. Always read your
contracts carefully. Last but not least, be a good writer with
something to say.
Friedmann sees scriptwriting as such a
highly skilled form of writing, that he recommends that budding
writers seriously consider studying it with the aid of some kind of
course. Half the writers he takes on have degrees in it. MAs in
screenwriting can demand that people take very few days off from the
day job. The one Friedmann designed for De Montfort University
requires that only 24 days be taken off from work a
Specific advice for comedy writers? In Friedmann's
experience, "It is very hard to get an original sitcom
commissioned." He takes every opportunity he can to tell the
industry that broadcasters should offer the same opportunities for
comedy writers that they do for writers of drama. He would like to
see a comedy equivalent of Doctors which has given opportunities to
over 100 writers. However, since such hands-on experience and
training for comedy writers does not exist at the moment, his long
held view is that comedy writers, like other writers, will gain
vital experience if they take advantage of the opportunities offered
by long running drama series in the UK.
"You can't earn a
living writing what you want to when you start out", he said "but if
you can make people laugh and get stuff on screen - and a lot of the
soaps either are already very funny or could do with being more
funny - then you will enable broadcasters to trust you and they will
take your own original ideas more seriously."
comedy writers to remember that radio is an excellent medium for
comedy and stressed that it is particularly important when writing
comedy, to hear what you've written being read out loud - asking
friends round for dinner and to read your script - is one solution.
Fifty per cent of the material in the first drafts of Roseanne was
rejected on the basis that it didn't work when spoken out loud.
Finally, "If you want to write for American comedy shows,
you have to be prepared to live in the US."
for three out of a list of five things when he is considering a new
client - (this doesn't happen very often because, like most agents,
he constantly has a full list and taking on a new client means
firing another one):
1) a track record of professional writing
of some kind, for example journalism;
2) attendance at some sort
of screenwriting course, for example a degree or MA;
passion for television as well as film - since 90 per cent of a new
writer's money in the first four to five years will come from
4) a writer who has something to say - something
that might change other people's point of view, that will make the
world a better place - and finally,
5) a demonstration that the
writer has the skills of the craft.
The second half of day
two was a Q&A session (though Friedmann had welcomed questions
throughout the workshop) and an opportunity for participants to
pitch ideas for projects they were working on. Friedmann assessed
these for their merit and then gave advice on how to proceed to
develop or sell them.
"Many successful writers have never had
an agent," said Friedmann. "Don't be too anxious about having one.
If you learn to negotiate, submit material to the right people,
market yourself and fact-find aggressively, you can do very well
without one at the start of your career though you might be advised
to get one as you become more established." Certainly anyone
attending this workshop would be well equipped to survive without an
agent for some time.
For information on the next Be Your Own
Agent workshop, (priced at approximately £150) planned for this
autumn, contact Julian Friedmann at scriptwritermagazine.com
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From Small Beginnings
Being a new kid on the block - I only joined
BSCW a short time ago - I am reluctant to wave my egotistical flag
too early or, in fact, at all, being aware that there are many other
members far more qualified to talk about their triumphs who are,
unlike me, actually earning their corn by writing. However, having
recently enjoyed a tiny bit of success, I have been asked to share
it and am happy to do so.
Several years ago, I attended a
playwriting workshop at Stratford's The Other Place, run by Olwen
Wymark, a lovely lady who has herself written numerous plays and
who, during this specific workshop, concentrated on the virtues of
radio drama, from the perspective of aspiring playwrights.
Over the following months, Olwen gave me a huge amount of
advice, support and encouragement in developing my first radio play,
in which, eventually, Auntie BBC expressed great interest, although
sadly it never ultimately got as far as
Nevertheless, the bug had decidedly bitten and I
have since penned a succession of radio plays, all brilliant, of
course - although this might possibly be something of a subjective
However, in 2002, I was not a little chuffed when a
stage version of one of them, a short play called 'Time and Tide
Wait for Norman', received an award at the Churchill Theatre
(Bromley) Annual Playwriting Competition.
The theme of the
competition was Renaissance and 'Time and Tide...' is a Time play,
set in both 1964 and also 1993, in which, by dint of chronological
subterfuge, a mother and son, who were parted due to the Mum's early
demise in an accident, get to meet and iron out a few of life's
Since then, earlier this year, I discovered, via
the Internet, an American company called Minds Ear Audio Productions
and was delighted when a 60-minute radio comedy drama, called 'Duet
for One', received the top prize in one of their competitions. The
rather complicated plot comprises the convergence of two disparate
groups of guests at a remote Cornish hotel, one embarking on a
management Team Building Event, the other a Murder Mystery Weekend.
Confusion becomes mayhem when a genuine murder goes badly wrong.
Minds Ear plan to produce the play in June and release it on
CD, so you can guess what all my relations will be getting for
Christmas. They will retain the production rights but the rights of
the material itself will stay with me.
The market for new
writing has never been an easy one and, because the BBC is the sole
market for radio drama in the UK, in my experience, this autonomy
does little to encourage new writers and this is what prompted me to
search further afield.
The opportunities in the USA are not
especially brilliant but at least the existence of companies like
Minds Ear provide opportunities for writers to air their work and
receive valuable feedback.
Obviously, writing competitions
don't contribute much towards paying the mortgage but if they do
nothing more than give folk like me the occasional, proverbial 'pat
on the head' then, in my book, they're providing a very valuable
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Danger, Danger - Inspiration
By Janice Day
I've had a couple of successes this month and
some spectacular failures too - and aren't they more fun? I've had
an article about Writing Conferences printed in the May issue of
ScriptWriter Magazine. I quoted Ken and gave the BSCW conference a
plug. Also the story I sold to Bella magazine appeared in the issue
dated 13 May. I was very excited about that and thought I might get
round to submitting another - maybe in the New Year...
failures are much funnier. Inspired by the BSCW Networking Day, I
entered two of the categories from the BBC Talent Quest. First, the
Comedy Awards Stand-up competition. I got nowhere with the fabulous
video of my comedy routine, which I made in my friend's kitchen!
It's an outrage!
Bouncing back, I traipsed down to Brighton
to audition for the Factual Presenter category. We had to pitch our
programme idea to camera - in a yellow taxi-cab. My pitch was for a
documentary about Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults, and it was
so dreadful that I think the tape must be a lot funnier than my
stand-up video. I was still writing it at midnight the night before
so I was hideously under-rehearsed. As soon as the red light went on
over the camera lens I forgot the whole thing. I kept drying up
every few words and blinking into the lens like a frightened rabbit.
I also wailed, wrang my hands, made agonised faces, blasphemed,
addressed the cameraman, stared out of the window(!), and in fact
did everything (short of a song and dance routine) except talk to
camera, which was all that was required of me. A simple enough task,
one would have thought, but seemingly beyond me. I suppose I should
have realised that someone with ADD like me would never be able to
cope with all the distractions that plague an anchor-woman. And I
wasn't even in a studio. I only had passersby and one cameraman to
distract me - no film crew or voices in my ear. But my audition was
so awful that for me to have won through to the next round the other
contestants would have to have been either pre-school age or dead.
And several of them weren't. (I just read this out to a luvvie
girlfriend and she said, "And how do you think it went?")
have made a bargain with the Almighty. I have promised that if
He/She keeps me out of the losers out-takes programme, I will never
go for another audition again as long as I live. Honest.Back
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By Christine Kelly
This month Keith earns his Euros, Alan gets his
commission and Crispin's quickie produces great
Just thought I'd tell you that I
sold 20 minutes worth of stuff to the Portuguese stand-up thing via
Trevor McCullum, and I've also received the cheque... which is nice!
I've joined the commissioned writing
team for the current run of the topical Radio 2 show 'It's Been A
Bad Week' with Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis.
A quickie I was involved in last August has resulted
in the birth of a gorgeous baby girl, Cara Louise Fisher, born on
18th May at 9.45 pm. After encouraging my wife to push for nearly
four hours I've now got an extremely sore throat. I'm sure that I've
now got plenty of material for several good sketches and a few stand
up routines. Back
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A reminder that the BSCW's Annual International
Comedy Conference will be in Birmingham again this year, and will be
held from 7th - 9th November 2003. More details will follow
As I promised last month, writing articles won't
kill you, as Janice Day and Mike Barrington have kindly proved -
thank you both. Your turn next? Of course, if you've great ideas but
for some reason can't write it, do send me your inspiration and
excuses, and I'll try and do something about them. If you have
contact details for anyone you think I might like to interview, let
me know and I'll give it a go. If you've any questions, do e-mail or
case some of you, like me, work better to a deadline, then I'd like
everything in by 25th JUNE, please, for the JULY E-zine. (Where is
this year going?!)Back
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