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Big School: Writing with comedy greats

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Collaboration was at the heart of Big School, a sitcom conceived by David Walliams (the swimmer turned actor who also plays Mr Church) but written, from the very first draft of episode one, by four people: David himself and us Dawson Bros (who can neither act nor swim).

The Dawson Bros are Andrew and Steve Dawson, the brothers, and Tim Inman their professionally adopted sibling - and we’ve been collaborating with each other now for 21 years.

Admittedly at the beginning we were just kids mucking about with Dixons' cheapest video camera making bad comedy that no one but our friends ever saw (thankfully YouTube didn’t exist) but it still technically counts as collaboration.

Mr Church's (David Walliams) attempt to make science fun blows up in his face

The upshot is we three have a pretty developed way of working together and are fortunate to have writing partners very much on the same wavelength (or for the youngsters reading, ‘wifi network’).

It’s great! We share the same reference points, we’ve been through the same experiences together, developed the same shorthand and have heavily overlapping senses of humour.

And while working as a three has its disadvantages versus solo/duo writing (principally that we have to work enough to pay three mortgages) it also has its advantages: debates can easily be settled with a two-one majority.

So what happened to this finely honed comedy writing dynamic when we were asked to collaborate with the multi-award-winning comedian and estuary paddling Roald Dahl plagiarist David Walliams?

Well we spent an incredible six months sitting together in a small rented office making each other laugh, exactly as the three of us had done when we made our home videos two decades ago.

To our newly formed quartet David brought years of comedy experience, a world class understanding of character and killer dialogue. We brought the biscuits.

Miss Postern (Catherine Tate) makes an impression at her first assembly

But the collaboration doesn’t end there. In later drafts Catherine Tate, a comedy writing genius in her own right, worked with us four to refine her character Miss Postern.

So it was actually a quintet. And throughout the whole process we were expertly guided by script notes from comedic oracle David Baddiel. Sextet?

And we haven’t even gone into the essential contribution of the dream cast, elite producers and talented behind the scenes crew who brought Big School into existence. About 10 nonets (thank you Wikipedia).

As you can hopefully tell by now making a sitcom is a hugely collaborative process. So if you watch Big School and don’t like it remember absolutely loads of people made it not just us, OK?

But if you watch it and love it then, you know, it was kind of basically all down to us three.

Collaboration!

The Dawson Bros (Andrew Dawson, Steve Dawson and Tim Inman) are the co-writers of Big School.

Big School begins on Friday, 16 August at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

More on Big School
The Independent: Remains of the school day: David Walliams and Catherine Tate in Big School

WalesOnline: It's an education teaching at the school of hard knocks for comic actor Steve Speirs

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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Comments

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  • Comment number 55. Posted by Dawson Bros

    on 28 Aug 2013 14:29

    Loads of new interesting comments since this blog got a plug at the end of episode two. Thanks again to everyone who’s posted.

    We were heartened by the thoughtfulness of people like Paul Flaherty saying “don’t listen to the naysayers”. But that raises an important question: who are we trying to please with Big School?

    Should we be chasing ratings or good reviews? Should we be writing what we hope will make an audience laugh, or what we know makes us laugh? It’s a balancing act. In penning the scripts, we’d often discard lines we didn’t think a BBC One audience would like; equally there are lots of niche jokes in there that will only appeal to those with our sensibilities. For example, we devoted time to deciding whether Mr Martin would like a more mainstream indie band like ‘Ocean Colour Scene’ or if it would be funnier for him to be into ‘Pavement’ or ‘David Devant & His Spirit Wife’. (By the way, we call this “essential character development” - you probably call this “pointless frippery”.)

    There’s a concern voiced by Ospreylian1 that the hectoring of Mr Barber might fuel the bullying of Welsh teachers across the nation. Those scenes were based on our experiences at school - and how cruel we remember the kids being. (And commenter Henry Dorling can back us up on this!) We hope Mr Barber gets a laugh of recognition, not that people will laugh at his pain.

    techie7 thanks for the lovely comment - you’ll be interested to hear that both Tim and David’s mothers were also lab technicians.

    And Curtains2012 is absolutely right; Mr Church’s car is an Austin Allegro. Fun fact: the moment at the start of episode three, with Mr Church sat in his car staking out a drugs deal, was the very first scene we shot. At eight o’clock on a chilly April morning, the Austin Allegro offers little warmth.

    Finally, John B was asking how we format scripts. The truth is there’s no real industry standard - people will accept scripts in any format as long as it’s legible! We use our very own Google Docs script template which you can have here for free! http://bit.ly/152Rxfs

  • Comment number 41. Posted by techie7

    on 24 Aug 2013 18:22

    I feel like screaming..this is a sit-com, not a documentary!!! Well done to the Dawson Brothers for a refreshing comedy. Most sit-coms take a while to bed in, but I was laughing our loud by episode 2.( Why isn't anyone complaining about how unrealistic Waterloo Road is, and that's not a comedy!)
    The headmistress is the best character, a characature of what teachers think of their leader, in the same way as the teachers are characters those of us that work in secondary schools recognise or even remember from their own school days.

    I could be tempted to complain about the character who works with Mr Church, who I think is portraying a science technician, which is my job. But then I have been described by a pupil in the past as 'the lady who lives in a cupboard', and it would only confirm people's worst suspicions that scientists do not have a sense of humour!
    I shall continue to watch with interest.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by John B

    on 23 Aug 2013 20:46

    I do like it, and find rather funny, well done. I would like to start writing comedy sketches and wonder if you could tell me the format a script should be written in, or send me a sample of a script, so I can get the layout right. don't worry, I think your jobs will be safe for quite some time..

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by Dawson Bros

    on 19 Aug 2013 11:20

    Thanks so much for your comments. A real mix.

    We always knew that setting a show in a school might be a sticking point for people as it’s an environment we’ve all experienced. That means it’s easy for the audience to get jolted out of our world if they come across elements they don’t recognise. There are people with whom it resonated - thank you Anne Stephen and Alun64 - and people with whom it didn’t - our apologies to Jolly99Free and Emmat29.

    While the quality of the writing is not something we can neutrally comment on, we can say that we thoroughly researched the show with David. We visited schools together, observed lessons, spoke with teachers both on the record and off the record (we have many family members and friends who are teachers too) and of course we were all pupils and also have our own experiences to draw from.

    But the genre we are writing is sitcom and, in many cases, television comedy requires heightened characters and scenarios. Father Ted is not your average Irish priest. Fawlty is not your typical hotel owner. Precious from ‘Come Fly With Me’ is not reflective of all airport coffee-shop staff.
    So we had to make decisions which balanced the real world of modern education against what best served a sitcom. Time will tell whether we got the right balance between reflecting contemporary school life and making viewers laugh.

    To those who enjoyed “Big School”, our favourite episodes are yet to come and we hope you will enjoy them too. To those who didn’t, thanks for at least giving it a go; there’s a lot of great comedy being produced at the moment across lots of channels so hopefully you’ll find something that makes you laugh.

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