Industry Insights - Creating a Sitcom - by Andrew Collins
Leading writer and broadcaster Andrew Collins has kindly provided us with these diary extracts. They provide a fascinating insight into how the BBC comedy unit operates and give some idea as to the sort of thing that a commissioned writer encounters during the creation of their sitcom. The diary relates to Andrew's experience co-writing the 2003 BBC3 / BBC2 sitcom " Grass " with Simon Day.
Andrew Collins is a successful author, a BBC radio presenter and the Radio Times film critic. He has been the editor of NME and Q magazine and a scriptwriter for Eastenders amongst other things! Andrew's official website is:
Friday January 12, 2001
The new year finds me dividing my time between hosting Radio 4's weekly film show Back Row, scriptwriting for EastEnders and working on a romantic drama working-titled "Me Jane" with another writer, Lynne Dallow - it's "in development" at the BBC, which means endless meetings and the occasional burst of actual scriptwriting. I've been here before at the Beeb with other equally promising projects that have come to naught, so my hopes remain "realistic".
At 10am I have a meeting at TV Centre, arranged by my agent, with a young producer called Alex Walsh-Taylor. He has a sitcom "in development". Working-titled "Billy Bleach", it's based around one of Simon Day's characters from The Fast Show. Though Billy, the curly-permed pub nuisance, isn't as oft-misquoted by squiffy students as the Suit You tailors or Ron Manager, I have always found him an underrated and subtle figure. Also, when you're a freelance writer, you go to meetings. You really do measure out your life in coffee stirrers.
Two things transpire. One, nobody seems very happy with the pilot script, so they're looking for a new co-writer. Two, Alex is really young. He lets me have a copy of the unloved script and promises to set up a meeting with Simon. Then, presumably, he gets off to school.
Tuesday February 6
Meet Simon, 2pm, TV Centre: a blind date effectively - with Alex as Cilla - to see if we "get on". This is of course impossible to gauge in 15 minutes at a BBC cafeteria. Although Simon seems distracted and ready to leave at any moment, he approves of what I have to say about the script, which is that it's too traditional: it takes place mostly in a pub, with zero character development. The best bits are Billy's monologues, based on Simon's stand-up act. Plus, the fish-out-of-water premise of the entire show is thrown away in a pre-credit sequence: Billy accidentally witnesses a crime, signs up for the Witness Protection Programme and is dispatched to the countryside to start a new life. I can't help but think there's a whole episode in this.
Friday February 9
Meet Simon at Broadcasting House, 10.30am. He's late, but then he is "the talent", as they say in TV, and it's his prerogative. Without his and the Fast Show's reputation we wouldn't even be here. Billy Bleach is his vehicle, viz Happiness for Fast Show co-star Paul Whitehouse, which airs next month on BBC2.
We repair to an airless room on the Comedy Floor of Broadcasting House and do what countless other writing partnerships have done in similar rooms: one of us (me) logs onto the computer, the other goes for a sandwich. In order to make Billy Bleach work, I decide we must first "find out who he is". It may sound pretentious, but it works. Simon relishes the exercise, and decides that Billy's never been married, lives in Greenwich with his Mum, his brother's in prison for dealing drugs etc. By the end of our first meeting, we have a character and an outline for the first episode.
Next step: I go away and come up with a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown, a dramatic grid within which we can start writing funny stuff. This is a foundation of the EastEnders writing process and Simon seems to trust me with it. He is charmingly computer-illiterate and writes his jokes on slate with a piece of chalk. It seems that I will be The Typist in this relationship. In comedy, somebody always is.
Wednesday April 4
Having produced a workable breakdown, we begin draft one of the script. Our working method quickly gels: Simon gets into character and marches up and down, improvising what Billy might say; I transcribe as he speaks and tap it into the PC. His skill as a performer is being able to inhabit whichever character we're writing, be it Billy's Mum, arch-villain Harry Taylor, or even African chef Youssou. My skill, as a typist, is typing.
Wednesday May 16
Finish draft one, having moved midway out of the airless room in Broadcasting House and into a much airier one in TV Centre which is supposed to be "free", but people keep coming in anyway. Despite this, we work like the clappers and surprise ourselves with how quickly it comes flooding out. We now have grand ideas for the programme - which is a long way off being commissioned, remember - it must be shot on location, a sort of Heartbeat with laughs. We're thinking " League Of Gentlemen " rather than " My Family ". We are probably thinking too big.
I attend Robert McKee's famous three-day screenwriting course Story. It fills me with grand ideas about Billy Bleach, like we need any more of those.
Wednesday September 5
Meeting with the headmaster: BBC comedy supremo Geoffrey Perkins. He's read the new script and likes the first half, which is encouraging, but we have work to do. (Perkins will announce that he is leaving the BBC about a week later, which is a blow, but par for the course in television's constant game of musical swivel chairs.)
Alex prepares detailed notes, including a lot of radical stuff like, "You could lose the train platform scene altogether" and "GP felt the logic of the CCTV scene didn't quite work", along with much talk of "flagging things up" and "moving the story forward". Alex, it turns out, is very good. He should pass his GCSEs with ease.
November - December
A break from Billy while I work as a gagman on the pilot episode of Harry Hill's TV Burp for ITV. Simon is a guest star, playing Billy Bleach, although the whole sequence is cut from final transmission. A bad omen?
Monday January 21 2002
Meet Simon at TV Centre to begin work on draft two. Alex is now busy working on some satirical news show for Radio 4, so we write in his office, which would be fine if the radiator wasn't stuck on "high". Perhaps this is what's known as a hothouse working environment.
Wednesday January 30
Finish second draft in under two weeks, desperate to get out of that room. This time it goes under the experienced nose of Jon Plowman, Head of Comedy Entertainment. We need a new champion and he's it.
Monday February 25
Notes from Jon, who, Alex tells us, "thinks the second draft is much improved. However, he has reservations about the storylines … " In order to convince a big knob to commission a whole series of what is now called " Grass " we have to provide detailed breakdowns of what will happen in each episode. Jon feels "it will be easier to sell as a series than a serial." BBC2 controller Jane Root has expressed interest. Which is a first for anything I've written.
Sunday March 10
Third draft finished plus stand-alone storylines for the other episodes. Simon and I have bonded forever over a shared love of the 1973 Faces song Ooh La La, which we envisage as Grass's theme tune. If they can afford the rights. If it ever gets commissioned. Part of me feels we are going through the motions. Now that BBC Choice have signed up for a series of Swiss Toni, they're not going to want another Fast Show spin-off are they? We're all doomed.
Friday May 10
Day of the "rehearsed read-through" at TV Centre. A temporary cast of actors perform the script to an invited audience of BBC bigwigs, including Jane Root and Stuart Murphy, head of BBC Choice (or BBC3, as it will soon be rebranded). The cast includes such recognisable faces as Frank Harper (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels), Edna Doré (Life Is Sweet), and Ken Campbell (In Sickness And In Health). The read-through is a stormer. Simon is on top form, which is handy, as the episode revolves around him, and Ken Campbell is, shall we say, a caution. The half-hour episode lasts about 45 minutes. Bigwigs laugh. But do they mean it?
Monday July 1
Bingo! The call from Alex! It's been commissioned - not once but twice! By Stuart Murphy for BBC3 and Jane Root for BBC2, which means they split the budget and we get to do it on location. One unexpected crimp in our masterplan: I can't write it - I have landed a five-day a week radio show on the newly launched 6 Music.
Tuesday August 27
Simon and I start writing in earnest. I'd love to tell you that he and Alex and Jon and Jane Root begged me to do it, but they didn't have to. I decided to let Back Row go after two and a half years - we can now write every morning. This may well be the first ever eight-part BBC sitcom written entirely before lunch.
Thursday October 3
A break from writing while Simon goes on tour with The Fast Show, starting tonight at Birmingham National Indoor Arena. While he's away being rock'n'roll with four other middle-aged men and a woman, I beaver away on the remaining scene breakdowns.
Monday December 2
Fast Show tour ends in Plymouth. Simon goes on holiday. Alex starts to get jittery. A schedule is starting to fall into place and it means we have to finish writing this thing by the end of March. Norfolk is being considered for the rural location.
Monday March 10 2003
Pre-production begins (which means there is a Grass office at the BBC - if you phone they say, "Hello. Grass"). Writing almost there. Casting has begun and we have a director, Martin Dennis, veteran of " Men Behaving Badly " and " Coupling ", ergo: he knows what he's doing.
Sunday March 23
Simon goes on a working holiday to Biarritz. On the beach he composes the poems which form an integral part of episode six - he actually leaves me a message from the surf's edge saying he has seen an oil slick and that's it's a good omen.
Friday March 28
On his return we finish the final drafts of all eight episodes, slotting in his beachside poems. Though Simon's is just beginning, my work here is effectively done. We say our fond farewells. After seven months, I have my mornings back.
Tuesday April 22
Full read-through with the entire, permanent cast at a church hall in West London. It's enormously exciting for me to see actors of the calibre of Philip Jackson (Poirot), Roger Sloman (Nuts In May) and Eddie Marsan (Gangs Of New York) reading our words .
Monday May 5
Following a week of rehearsals in a cupboard at the Palladium, darling, filming begins, firstly at locations around London (Wandsworth Prison among them), then on to Great Massingham, near King's Lynn in Norfolk for a sun-kissed month. Because of my afternoon job I am unable to join them on set - where a writer's always so welcome! - but Simon keeps in touch by phone and tells me it's going brilliantly and he's exhausted. Hardest job he's ever had. Martin turns out to be a benign slave-driver.
Friday June 20
Now that filming has moved to a studio in Acton for interiors, I am able to do a set visit and, more importantly, make a cameo appearance. Admittedly, I am only Man In Pub With Bowl Of Hummus but Martin graciously allows me to walk in front of Simon which means I can't be cut out. We shall see. I wonder if anyone has shouted, "Lights! Camera! Acton!"
Friday July 18
The final day of shooting. It's a wrap. Martin's brought this sucker in on time. Only nine weeks of editing to go now. Let's hope they're kind to Man In Pub With Hummus.
It's two and a half years since I first met Simon, who is still charmingly computer-illiterate. Alex has grown a lot in that time - not as a programme-maker, I just mean he's shot up. Now all we have to do is wait. Apparently the Faces song sounds great over the credits. Some ideas are worth sticking with. Nothing ever did come of Me Jane.
|Diary provided by Andrew Collins. First published in The Radio Times. © Andrew Collins and The Radio Times. Strictly no reproduction.|