It has been a while since my last post, which is largely because I haven't had anything much to say. However, earlier this week I was invited to give a couple of talks to a Comedy North/Writersroom North writing workshop taking place in Ted Hughes's old house near Hebden Bridge (he had a good eye for a view, did Ted), with a particular focus on low cost comedy.

Low cost is a phrase which has gained massive currency over the past year or so as budgets are being reduced, so it might be helpful to pass on some thoughts. While high end comedy will continue, it needs to be balanced with cheaper shows within the overall comedy budget.

So what is low cost or, indeed, high cost?

The BBC currently has three comedy tariffs. The most expensive is £250,000 to £300,000 per half hour. Mid-range is £170,000 to £250,000, and the lowest tariff is £50,000 to £170,000.

Low cost, therefore, equates to a maximum of £170,000, and while it can just be possible to make an audience sitcom for the top end of that range, low cost effectively means single camera.

In essence, money buys time, people and facilities. Audience sitcom works on a weekly schedule in a pattern which hasn't changed for over 50 years. The production week begins by reading the episode, continues with rehearsals in a rehearsal room over three days, then moves to the studio for camera and dress rehearsals, culminating in the show being recorded in front of the audience. Very occasionally British sitcom operates on the American model in which a studio is booked for the entire run, and rehearsals take place in the sets, but that's the very top end.

It's a pattern which allows time for actors to learn the lines, and a director to block the actors' movements, develop their performances and visualise his shots. It's difficult to see how things might work differently, given that acting, moving and capturing are all essential, as are the people who do necessary jobs in a studio.

Also, and most important, it allows a writer to hear a script and amend it over the week to make it funnier, better for the actors, and the right length.

But if you're planning a low cost audience show, my advice would be to have a core cast of no more than five, contain it to three sets and don't expect star names.

Equally, if it's a low cost single camera project, the same applies - a contained environment, a core cast of no more than five, and a straightforward narrative style.

By a contained environment, I don't mean a single set, thought that's feasible if possibly claustrophobic. I mean two or at the most three regular and recurring sets or locations, which doesn't rule out going elsewhere occasionally, but going elsewhere has to be significant.

Since single camera shooting is like making a film. A contained approach makes it possible to shoot all the scenes which take place in one location or set, and then move on to another.

The two things which take up most time on location shoots are first moving from location to location, involving de-rigging, packing up, driving, and setting up; and second, lighting the new location. So the more that can be done in one place, the more effective the use of time.

A core cast of no more than five should offer enough permutations for story-telling and attitude. That's not to say there would be five leads - that could be a bit unwieldy. Many successful shows have been based on two leads, surrounded by subsidiary characters. In Two Pints, until Ralf Little left, the show was based on two pairs with one additional main character in Louise. My Family was based on two parents and three children when it began. Father Ted was effectively a pair, with two subsidiary 'main' characters, as was Fawlty Towers. So five as a maximum number, with odd guest parts, feels manageable and sensible in sitcom, and many sketch slash entertainment shows have been based on duos - Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, Harry and Paul, Vic and Bob, the Boosh, and so on.

And finally, straightforward story-telling is important. By straightforward I mean no flashbacks and no montages. Both flashbacks and montages call for set-ups separate to the main narrative, needing costume, make-up and lighting changes. They add to time and thus to cost. Achieving cheapness means telling a story moving forward.

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  • Comment number 54. Posted by Piers

    on 18 May 2009 10:45

    dewatshang: As Michael says, most writers wouldn't want to put their first drafts out in the world. Which is not to say it might not happen in the future, but I wouldn't expect it to be soon.

    In answer to your other question, we only accept scripts in hard copy at the BBC writersroom, and we read the first ten pages of the script that's sent in (so not including the title page, if you've added one). So yes, if you're printing out the PDF to send to us, it's the first ten pages of that we'll read.

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  • Comment number 53. Posted by Bloofs

    on 16 May 2009 19:05

    @Mr-P

    What do you think of South Park - which regularly makes fun of people's disabilities?

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  • Comment number 52. Posted by dewatshang

    on 20 Feb 2009 18:17

    Cheers Michael.

    Sorry, I only recently came across this part of the site and since you refer to posting regularly and are so knowledgeable about shoots, I jumped to the conclusion that you're part of writersroom crowd.

    In any case, I'll keep an eye out for you around here, in future!

    Ta.

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  • Comment number 51. Posted by MichealJacob

    on 20 Feb 2009 12:28

    @dewatshang

    Thank you for the compliment.

    You need to address your other comments to the writersroom rather than me, since I have nothing to do with the site or their policies.

    However, I'd be surprised if a writer would be happy to put a first draft on public display. A number of people have things to say about scripts as they move through development to pitching and into production, and the only way to do it would be to post the different drafts of the same script with annotations covering each step.

    Speaking personally, I take 10 pages to be 10 pages, irrespective of format, though 10 pages of 8point type would just be irritating.

  • Comment number 50. Posted by dewatshang

    on 20 Feb 2009 00:18

    @Michael

    Great blog, Michael. Very interesting stuff.

    The examples in the 'read scripts' section are a big help too but a few more wouldn't go amiss? Conversely, since they're all the flawless, finished product, would it be possible to see a sample of a script as it was submitted that actually went on to became a sitcom?

    Finally, I've written a script using Celtx but I can't help wondering about the first ten pages rule. Celtx generates a PDF file. Can I take it that the first ten pages of that file will be the segment that's reviewed or do you use some other rule of thumb if it's not written using script smart?

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  • Comment number 49. Posted by MichealJacob

    on 16 Feb 2009 12:02

    @Aspie

    Some are stored for future use or adaptation and some are destroyed. It makes sense to reuse a sitting room set, for example, or a bedroom, or a bar. We're quite big on recycling and economy, but if some sets are closely identified with a show which isn't returning, then they go.

  • Comment number 48. Posted by AspieBoy

    on 16 Feb 2009 10:42

    @Michael

    Quick question before this thread disappears into the ether: What happens to old sitcom sets? After a show has finished shooting are they just dismantled and destroyed? Or are they saved?

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  • Comment number 47. Posted by MichealJacob

    on 13 Feb 2009 13:54

    @MisterP

    Others have tried...

  • Comment number 46. Posted by Marc

    on 13 Feb 2009 08:43

    @Micheal

    Lol. I wouldn't be so artful as to try to jump into your blog and try to flog my own wares. It was actually a DOCTORS script went out a couple of years ago - and one of my all time favourites.

    But... come to think of it maybe there is spin off potential!

    :)

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by MichealJacob

    on 12 Feb 2009 18:08

    @Bloofs

    But I haven't seen a Bo Selecta! script. To be precise, I have not had a script submitted to me for possible production which involved a character with a speech impediment. Doubtless MisterP will be remedying that in due course.

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