Radio 4 Extra: 'Week Ending' - the Lean Months
Editor's Note: Ged Parsons is a writer for shows such as Dara O'Briain's School of Hard Sums, Alexander Armstrong's Big Ask, Mock The Week, Strictly Come Dancing, The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, and Have I Got News For You. Here, he writes about getting into comedy via open-door policy shows such as the Radio 4 Extra comedy staple, Newsjack. PM
December, 1985 (1). As a newly-fired Advertising Research Executive (2), I'd just read an article about the BBC Radio 'Comedy Corridor' (3) and its 'open-door' policy on submitting material. So, nervously, I decided to turn up at the BBC Radio Light Entertainment Department Writers' Room - a place almost as big as its own sign (4) - for the meeting of the 'Week Ending' (5) non-commissioned writers. I soon discovered that, for that week at least, I was the 'Week Ending' non-commissioned writers. So the producer and I re-located (6), and had a pleasant chat about comedy instead. He concluded with the double-edged comment, "I look forward to reading your material - best stick to the little stories, eh?"
The next day, I was in the Writers' Room proper, together with the hallowed commissioned writers, including several well-known stand-ups. Undeterred, when one of the writers later appealed to the room for help with a sketch, I shyly proffered a possible line, in response (7). Two nights later, I heard my line being broadcast, along with my name in the closing credits. Heady stuff - but even that high excitement paled when the cheque for £12.00 arrived. I was delighted, as the line had been only a two-word gag (8). It seemed that my comedy-writing future was assured (9).
'Week Ending' returned a fortnight later, in early January, with a different producer. For the next three months, I got nothing on whatsoever - not the merest hint of a trace of a sniff. Rien. Nichts. Niente. Nada (10). Every week I turned up, wrote sketches and lines, tuned in, heard much worse stuff than mine (obviously!) be broadcast, and wondered whether it was worth all the effort. Young ingénue (11) that I was, I became convinced that the producer, my bÃªte noire (11), was enjoying muchos (11) Schadenfreude at the non-comms' expense. I even returned briefly to my former employer, in a slightly different role (12). It seemed that my non-comedy-writing future was assured.
On Friday night, I listened as usual, sneeringly, as usual, as another me-free edition was broadcast - only this time, I knew in advance nothing of mine would be included, because I hadn't gone in and written anything. The end-credits were read out. And then kept being read out. In all, after the same, familiar commissioned writers, there were a dozen or more new, non-commissioned names. And then the producer's name. A different one. I rang him at 10 am on Monday morning to make sure it was still OK to attend the next non-commissioned writers' meeting (13). Apparently, it was.
That week, after a non-comm meeting that was 'standing room only' - word got round quickly - I had my first sketch broadcast. I went on to have something go out on every show, for the remaining six months of that year, (even when the producers kept changing), and some of it was almost fairly funny. Three of us got our commissions that December, and even the fact we were told it should have happened about four months earlier didn't manage to take the shine off things.
My early experience of starting to write on 'Week Ending' taught me a few valuable lessons; keep on writing. Don't stop. Don't give up. And some producers just don't know what they're doing. In fact, if a producer persists in not using your stuff, the best thing you can do is to go up to them, and tell them that they don't know what they're doing, right to their face (14).
Good luck, and best wishes,
1. Height of Thatcher's premiership - boo! / yay! / who? (delete as applicable).
2. Don't ask.
3. Narrow first-floor corridor of 16, Langham Street, (now demolished), location of the offices of all the producers in Radio Comedy, and also the Writers' Room, complete with frequently-working typewriters, and piano, (covered with piano-shaped pile of old newspapers and cigarette-ends). Chaos reigned, and much hilarity would ensue, (as per stipulated contractual obligations).
4. Not really - that would be stupid.
5. Long-running, late-night, Radio 4 topical satire show - non-audience, and quite often non-jokes, too. An almost compulsory gig for every post-1970 comedy writer.
6. To his nearby office, not Salford.
7. Accounts of this incident vary - a writing colleague has since told me, "Shy? - after you gave him your line, you spent the rest of the day checking with him 14 times that it was still in."
8. 'Terrapin bowling'(You may like to have fun working out the context for yourself).
9. Please bear in mind that, at the time, there were many matters about which I was idiotically naive.
10. At university, I read Modern and Mediaeval Languages.
11. See note 10.
12. Again, don't ask.
13. See note 9.
14. See note 4.