This Valentine’s Day, Radio 4 Extra will attempt to woo your ears with a new series of Newsjack, the open submission sketch show. We asked one of its producers Lyndsay Fenner to explain how the topical show is made each week.
What is Newsjack?
Newsjack is a topical comedy show which started in 2009, following in the footsteps of Radio 4’s long-running open-door programme ‘Weekending’, which was instrumental in the early writing careers of Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Kevin Cecil & Andy Riley, and many, many others.
There are already a number of excellent articles scattered about the BBC website about the process of making the show, for example ex-script editor Gareth Gwynn’s explanation of the commissioned vs non-commissioned writer split, another ex-script editor Dan Tetsell’s series of blogs from the early series and statistical breakdowns of the material broadcast for series 6 and series 7.
How does it work?
Well, on a Monday morning the team (comprising producers Lyndsay Fenner and Ed Morrish, contract writers Tom Neenan and Jack Bernhardt, and any other members of the Radio Comedy department who are able to assist that week) start reading the email submissions sent in over the previous week. The deadline for sketches is midday on Monday (submission guidelines are here).
Each reader is allocated a batch of thirty or so emails at a time, and we work our way through them, reading absolutely everything. If a sketch makes us laugh, or has a good idea in it, it gets saved into a ‘maybe’ folder. The script editor arrives at around 3pm on Monday afternoon, and starts working their way through this folder. If there are two sketches on the same subject, then they’ll either pick the one that has the funniest or most original idea or, if they are similar enough and there are great ideas in both, might stitch them together to create a single uber-sketch (which would be credited to both authors).
At the end of Monday, we’ll have a good idea of which subjects are already covered satisfactorily. On Tuesday morning, the team of commissioned writers (see Gareth’s blog linked to above, basically – people who have been consistently successful in previous series) arrive to write material which fills in the gaps. News stories are divvied up, and the commissioned writers work with the script editor and one of the producers to write sketches for Wednesday’s recording.
Meanwhile, the other producer is in charge of sifting through the one-liners, which have the later deadline of Tuesday at 4pm, in order for them to be as topical as possible. These one-liners can either go into Justin’s opening monologue, be used as JackApps (the voicemail vox-pops that appear throughout the show) or Corrections. Again, we come up with a longlist that is whittled down to a shortlist by the script editor, producers and cast.
On Wednesday we record in front of an audience, usually in the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House, London. We start the day with a slightly longer script than the audience will hear, and drop material as we go along – the aim is to record between 45 minutes and an hour on the night.
The show is edited on Thursday after which we notify the successful writers by email once the show is finalised. The programme is transmitted on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 10.30pm.
Why is Newsjack important?
Newsjack is a crucial tool for the Radio Comedy department in discovering new writers. Many of our recent bursary writers (two writers each year are awarded a bursary to work across a variety of Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra output) have come up through Newsjack – current script editor Benjamin Partridge is one of them, as is current bursary writer Tom Neenan.
It helps us make contact with up and coming writers. And our writers have told us that the deadlines provide a focus for their efforts, and that a credit on the show is good for their confidence, and their CV. Also, we pay for everything we broadcast. Which is pretty much why we have to keep going, as almost everyone who has had anything broadcast so far has emigrated to the Bahamas with their loot.
So what are we looking for?
I’m going to be irritatingly nebulous here, but it really is just material that makes us laugh. This is, more often than not, when people take a surprising or interesting angle on a story. If you’ve already read twenty sketches on a subject, the twenty-first is unlikely to blow your socks off. Then again, sometimes it does. And it’s the stuff that blows our socks off that we’re looking for.
Lyndsay Fenner is a producer on Newsjack.
A compilation from the seventh series - Newsjack Revisited - will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 10.00pm on Wednesday 13 February.