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 Â£250,000 to Â£300,000 per half hour. Mid-range is Â£170,000 to Â£250,000, and the lowest tariff is Â£50,000 to Â£170,000.
Low cost, therefore, equates to a maximum of Â£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.