Gill Smith
Gill Smith - Comedy Writer & Performer

BSCW E-Zine

Issue 057 - Sunday 1 June 2003

In This Issue -

  - Fred Barron Interview
  - Be Your Own Agent
  - Mike Barrington Shares How To Succeed Abroad
  - Janice Day Shares How To Fail At Home
  - Your Successes

Fred Barron Interview
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 entail?

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.


Q: What 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 Draft.'

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.

Monday 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?

In 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/


Q: How will you be finding / choosing experienced and new writers?

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 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.


Q: What's most exciting you about working for / with the BBC?

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' egos.


Q: Will you be working just in TV, or radio too?

I've never written for radio before so I just have to try it.


Q: Are there any projects currently in the pipeline that you can drop us a few hints about?

Yes there 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 my style.


Q: You presumably think team writing is good for sitcom - do you also think it's good for writers, and in which ways?

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 character?

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 'Taxi.'


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 writing.


Q: Will you be maintaining your involvement in My Family?

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 strong.

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A 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 year.

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."

He advised 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."

Friedmann looks 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;
3) a 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 television -
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
Mike Barrington

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 production.

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 opinion.

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 problems.

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 service.

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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...

But my 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?")

I 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.

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Your Successes
By Christine Kelly

This month Keith earns his Euros, Alan gets his commission and Crispin's quickie produces great results.

KEITH REES

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!

ALAN STAFFORD

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.

CRISPIN FISHER

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.

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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 soon.


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 call. In 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?!)

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