Monday 6 October 2008, 17:17
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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