From script to screen

Monday 6 October 2008, 17:17

Micheal Jacob Micheal Jacob

It's notable than on websites frequented by aspiring writers, the vast majority of broadcast comedy gets a resounding thumbs down. This is hardly surprising - if people trying to break into a profession felt they couldn't do better, then they would never have a go. But there's a certain meanness of spirit on these boards, which is rarely found among more established writers, who know just how hard it is to get anything commissioned, never mind create a show which is universally liked or respected.

In my time at the BBC, I have been associated with the two longest-running and highest rating comedies on their respective channels - Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps on BBC3, and My Family on BBC1. Both are execrated not only by aspiring writers, but also by critics, although they are embraced by audiences, suggesting a certain snobbery is at work. I often wonder if writers who want to break into television feel that popularity is to be avoided, and a puff in the Guardian Guide for one series with no viewers is worth more than eight series of success.

Oddly, nostalgia seems to kick in after a while. When I worked on Birds of a Feather (more than 100 episodes were made), no one really had a good word to say for it, apart from its audience. Now I see people anxiously awaiting DVDs.

So how, speaking from the perspective of an executive who works in the BBC comedy department, does a show get made?

To state the bleeding obvious, it begins with an idea and, preferably, some writing to flesh out the idea. Some ideas are immediately rejected, either because it feels as if they don't work, because they are areas of life which commissioners and channels shy away from, or because a similar idea is already in an advanced state of development.

But let's assume the idea seems promising, the supporting treatment or sample scenes are persuasive, and I or someone like me feels excited about trying to get a show commissioned.

The next step is meet the writer and talk about the project in more detail, followed by a script commission. I and the writer will work through probably two or three drafts before I take the script to our quarterly departmental discussion, where all the projects we want to offer for commission are assessed. At this stage there will be a script, a brief description of what a series would contain, casting suggestions and an idea of how best to promote the piece, either by reading it with an ideal cast, or by shooting an extract. There may well have been an 'internal' read along the way, by which I mean hearing the script read by actors in a closed session for the writer, me and selected colleagues.

If the response is positive at this stage (where projects can be rejected, or sent back for more work), the package is sent to our colleagues in commissioning, and discussed at a meeting where the commissioner outlines her response. Again, a project can be endorsed, rejected or sent back to be worked on and re-pitched. But if the commissioner likes it, then it will go forward with her endorsement to a meeting with the relevant channel controllers and their teams - generally the channel executive and scheduler.

There is no set timetable for demonstrating a project. Sometimes we will organise a cast read for the commissioner and channel before the channel meeting, sometimes afterwards in the light of their comments. Sometimes we will shoot something to pitch, or shoot something after the meeting to reinforce a pitch.

Ideally, one wants a series to be ordered straight away, but sometimes we are asked to make - or we pitch to make - a pilot. Pilots can be either transmittable, with all the bells and whistles, or non-transmittable, a cheaper method.

A pilot enables an assessment by the producer, the commissioner and the controller of what works and what doesn't, often guided by research which can lead to recasting, rethinking, or a feeling that it seemed like a good idea but is an idea which doesn't really work.

So by the time a new comedy series arrives on television, it has gone through several stages of approval, and been subject to notes and thoughts at every point in its upward ascent.

Despite all of the stages, and the different kinds of expertise involved, some shows work very well, some work moderately well, and some become car crash television. The audience decides, and the only way really to judge whether or not your show works is to sit at home and watch it go out. And if it doesn't work, it's too late by then.

The excitement of comedy is its imprecision. No one can guarantee a hit, and an identical writer and production team can follow a massive success with a complete turkey.
That's why we keep trying. And that's why aspiring writers might be a little more generous in their responses - next time, it could be them.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I do think the problem in the main [and I've argued this so many times on forums] is that the written word is not as the read out one.
    I have had the luxury of workshopping a couple of my sitcoms with actor friends before I have sent them out.
    They are very funny acted out and the audience have been in stitches. But I can vouch for it, that when I give a friend one to read, they don't find them very funny at all.
    The same with other stuff I have written, I try these at the writers' circle [about 24 attending] Again there are loads of belly-laughs.
    You have the luxury of professionally workshopping a script Michael. Also humour as we all know is subjective.
    I wish there were more sitcoms like 'Packet of Crisps' but there aren't and this leads to frustration that one can write funnier /better stuff than other sitcoms that are televised.
    Gimme Gimme Gimme and the Royle Family come up to Packet of Crisps but what else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.


    Many thanks for your detailed posting re what is involved in the sitcom commissioning process from conception to birth. I would imagine this is the same for the comedy drama/drama script writing process too.

    I agree totally with your comments about the mean spirited nature of many of the postings on comedy writers' message boards. Some of the things I've read have had me cringing re their barbed and negative nature, infinitely worse than some of Mr M's past comments directed at Mr Wenger in fact. Positive criticism is one thing, bile is another.

    And without wishing to stoke up the next gender war, it seems to me that it's an almost exclusively 'male' thing to be so critical of TV sitcoms. In my experience much of the carping on message boards appears to come from youngish males who go down to the Slug and Lettuce of an evening, sink a few pints, crack a few jokes, set the world to rights then foolishly convince themselves they can create the next Only Fools, The Office, Father Ted, IT Crowd, whatever.

    They go home, write something, send it in in horror as it comes thudding back through the letterbox. Cue severe bout of mega cursing and self delusional comments of the 'Bl*ody BBC. Wouldn't recognise talent if it bit them on the ar*e' kind of nature.

    Admittedly certain sitcoms are not to everyone's taste, but there is a huge difference between not liking something personally yet being grown up enough to respect and acknowledge the work that's gone into creating, writing and bringing it to our screens.

    Mrs M

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I certainly agree with your comments regarding certain comedy websites. I'm particularly amazed when I read would-be comedy writers slagging off a TV show *using their own names*. You'd think they'd never heard of blacklisting...!

    I'm not quite sure I follow your argument that it's impossible to tell whether a show works or not until it is broadcast. Surely the whole process you have outlined - including the expertise of your good self - exists to make sure shows DO work? If shows which you consider to be 'car crash television' continue to get made, isn't it possible that the process may be at fault?

    The problem is, you see, that the position you have taken is that when a show is a success, the comedy department deserves the credit, but when a show is a failure, it's not the comedy department's fault. In other words - having your cake and eating it!

    I would suggest that there have been many comedy executives and producers in the past whose track record suggests they *did* possess an uncanny ability to know whether shows 'worked' before they were broadcast. You only have to compare the BBC's comedy output under Geoffrey Perkins (who commissioned the two illustrious shows you mention), to that of his successor, for that to be clear. I'm not saying he was perfect, but he did have a pretty good hit rate. But then, that was probably because he'd had a long and successful career in writing and producing comedy... unlike his successor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Apparently the beeb initially rejected Faulty Towers!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Geoffrey Perkins had the original BBC report on Fawlty Towers, which was extremely negative.

    I agree about hearing scripts. We often sit round in the office and read them aloud.

    To be clear, heads of comedy can commission scripts, but not shows. And, as he would have admitted, Geoffrey's time at the BBC included misses as well as hits, which is true of every head of comedy.

    If I gave the impression that we take credit for success and don't take responsibility for failure, then I apologise. I was trying to say that a group of people with a lot of expertise can collaborate on a flop as easily as on a hit.

    There is no science of success. If there were, every new show would work (and thus not leave room for anyone or anything new, by the way). If you look at the US, they research shows to a high degree, but most sitcoms there fail. It's the nature of the form, I think, and its reliance on audience connection.

    Also, there's no 'black list'. If someone is critical and turns up with a brilliant script, then it isn't going to be turned down.

    Jose is a lucky man.


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