Pilot commission for college writer

Well, hello there, and sorry not to have been around since August. I've been waiting to have something to say rather than just dropping in for a ramble, but now there are a few things of note.

The best news is that a script we developed during the first year of the college has been commissioned for a pilot by BBC3, a tribute to the talent of its writer, John Warburton, and very pleasing indeed to us. It is currently called The Inn Mates, and is being made in the new year by my colleagues in Comedy North, which makes sense since John lives in Manchester. I will be joining Jon Mountague from Comedy North as executive producer.

As things develop in terms of director and cast I'll return to it here, but to have got from an early draft to a pilot commission has been an interesting process and illustrative of the way development works.

When I first encountered the script, then called Sunday Lunchers, it involved a cast of, I think, 22. So my first note to John, after saying how much I liked the script, was to suggest that a cast of that magnitude was completely impractical, both in terms of finance and logistics.

The show was designed to take place in real time over Sunday lunch in a pub carvery, with some major characters as the focus but a number of vignettes as we dipped in and out of conversations. While all the vignettes were funny, they proved a bit of a distraction from the main story and the main people, so we embarked on a process of pruning as we worked towards the college showcase in March.

In the end there was a cast of twelve, which felt like enough to do justice to the setting, but also not too many to get in the way of a main story and three sub-plots, and for the showcase 15-minute extract there were ten characters, which made for a busy quarter of an hour.

The showcase performance went down very well, so it seemed a good idea to put the show into the commissioning process as a potential pilot for BBC3, since that is currently the channel which offers most pilot opportunities.

However, aiming the show at a particular channel meant that channel requirements had to be taken into account, so while older characters stayed, the central characters needed to be reimagined as younger. If this had meant doing violence to the script, then we wouldn't have undertaken it - fiddling with something just to get it on risks destroying its soul, and this is certainly a show with soul.

John did that work, but in conversation with the channel there was a debate around whether the show should be a single-location piece - a la The Smoking Room, or whether it might benefit from seeing the characters in their lives outside the pub. There was a preference for the latter, which in turn meant revisiting the script to explore how it might work.

Not surprisingly, John was a bit boggled. It seemed as if the basis of the show he had created was being destroyed, and that massive rewrites would be needed. But once the dust settled, getting out and about made sense in terms of seeing characters in action rather than hearing them talk about action, and also because it was perfectly feasible to move a scene from the pub elsewhere without changing a word.

So we submitted the revised script, it was put into the commissioning mix, and last week we heard that we were being asked to make a pilot.

As I say, I'll report on the process as it continues, but there are a couple of things to learn from the story so far. One is that it's pointless to write more than one script of a potential series, since a producer and broadcaster can make radical suggestions. Another is that notes and requests can throw what a show is about into focus. This was devised as a large bunch of people in a pub every Sunday lunchtime, whose lives did not greatly intersect. It is now about a smaller bunch of people who use the same pub, and their connection in the pub and outside it.

Warburton news aside, we're in the middle of a two-day workshop this week, where we've been reading aloud and talking about the scripts which will be showcased next March. We're having a session with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, discussing their lives and times and how their careers managed to overcome an early script rejection from me. And we will be going to meet the head of radio entertainment, Jane Berthoud, to talk about radio needs and opportunities.

I'll write more about the workshop shortly, and also about exciting developments in Belfast when I return from a visit there at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, I have recently discovered (decades late) the Parker series of noir novels by Richard Stark. In an introduction to one of them, John Banville says that part of Stark's method is 'what can go wrong will go wrong'. This is good for crime fiction, but also for comedy, I think.

Back soon.

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