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And it's goodbye from me

Micheal Jacob | 10:26 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

It's now 20 years since I became professionally involved in comedy, so that milestone, combined with leaving the BBC, has prompted me to embark on a nostalgic journey in my final blog.

If there is a secret of comedy, I have yet to find it. Indeed, to use a rather overworked quote from William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade: "The single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry, is that 'nobody knows anything'. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one."

For 'movie industry' read 'television industry', and Goldman's wisdom of 1983 still holds true.

By far the most enjoyable aspect of my work has been and is working with writers. This is partly because I've done a fair bit of writing myself over the years - from songs to journalism to some odd books and most recently a screenplay that's hanging about waiting for a read-through at the Soho Theatre in July - and partly because my first involvement in comedy was with a couple of old friends and former band mates. They had written some hit shows, and were looking for a script reader at a time when my first foray into TV had ended with me signing on and looking for work. They were called Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, and they had recently set up a company, Alomo, on the back of the success of Birds of a Feather.

Looking back, the Alomo model has been very influential in how I think things should work, because the company was led and driven by writers who were also executive producers of their shows, and run by a man, Allan McKeown, who believed that investing in creative talent and letting them get on with it was the way to create successful television.

But at the time, I absolutely knew nothing, so Alomo was my foundation course. Being a script reader is an odd occupation. There's a classic way of doing notes in which you briefly summarise the script, describe it in some detail, offer an opinion on what works and what doesn't, and end with a recommendation.

While reading is a recognised way into the industry, I learned very quickly that the classic way of doing things is a complete waste of time. From my work with Alomo onwards, I must have read - taking competitions and College of Comedy applications into account - maybe 10,000 aspiring scripts or part scripts. And the depressing fact is that no more than 100 were any good. The tragedy of comedy is that many people think they can write it and hardly anyone can.

A lot of writers feel that sitcom consists of people telling jokes, invariably in the same voice, with no differentiation between the characters. A lot of writers approach sitcom by beginning with someone waking up, invariably when the alarm clock hasn't gone off, and they're late for something important like the first day in a new job. They go through a day in which this happens and then that happens, all with hilarious consequences, and the script ends with them going to bed. So there's no structure, no surprise - it's just an extended anecdote.

Equally, there's a belief that if a show has a novel setting then it's bound to be commissioned because that setting hasn't been seen before, not realising that if it hasn't been seen, there's a strong chance that the setting doesn't work.

Through reading unsolicited scripts, I came to realise that the most important thing to look for wasn't a show that could be made, but writers who could be fostered, who had the ability to create involving characters and the ability to be funny. Technical stuff like structure and building jokes can be taught - being funny can't.

My second lesson - once I'd been asked to join the company and script edit Birds of a Feather - was that the whole process is a negotiation, and that writers and actors are in a constant state of tension. Writers believe that what they have written will work, if the actors perform it properly. Actors believe that they can't perform properly if they don't feel comfortable with the words or the motivations and consistency of character which lie behind the words. Both writers and actors feel that whatever the show may be, it's theirs.

There's an old saying that in a first series actors are pleased to be working. In a second series they'll announce - my character wouldn't say that; and in a third series they'll claim - I wouldn't say that. Writers create the characters and stories, but on screen it's the actors who are judged.

Script editing is an odd discipline. It used to be just the writer and a producer/director. Then producers and directors separated their roles. Then script editors arrived en masse. Alan Plater once told me that he thought the proliferation of the script editor coincided with the introduction of computers. You're doubtless too young to remember stencils, but basically one would roll a stencil into a typewriter, and the impression of the keys would make holes on a waxed paper, which was then attached to a duplicating machine and printed. So a 60-page script would require someone to type 60 separate stencils which would be printed individually.

As you can imagine, rewrites were a complete pain, and were thus quite minimal because each stencil had to be retyped. So essentially early drafts were shot. Now, with copying and pasting on a computer, there's no limit to the amount of script changes, and because people can change things, they do right through the process.

I'm not arguing for a return to the typewriter, and if script editors hadn't come into being I wouldn't have had my career, but it's an example of how technology has driven the possibility of fiddling about.

Equally, moving from film to tape to digital tape to tapeless recording, has allowed for a lot more fiddling at the editing stage. When I started to work in television, programmes were recorded on one-inch tape, and you'd prepare your edit on paper or on VHS tape. If there were notes from someone once the edit had been completed, then another tape was needed, meaning that the picture quality would be one generation worse. So edits had to be extremely precise. I remember the awe I felt when an editor brought in a laptop with an Avid program, and sat at the next desk putting a show together digitally.

So edits can become an exercise in people saying could we try this, could we try that, can we go back to what it was, and so on. I found a colleague who produced a pilot recently slumped over his desk, having just completed the eleventh edit in the light of notes from higher up.

I guess the lesson from technology is that rather than speeding things up it can often slow things down by allowing people to have notes, and notes and then some notes. So while they - and of course I - really know nothing, there's considerable scope for playing around with ignorance.

In my view, and this is a philosophy I carried over into producing and executive producing and will take out into the world with me, the job of someone who works with a writer is to help that writer express what they want to express in the most effective way. I see it as like being in a studio with a sculptor, standing back and saying - 'that arm's looking bit wonky'. In other words, it's offering perspective and asking questions like - how would it be, if? Or talking about character consistency or repetition of story or pace, or it feels like it needs a joke there.

A script is the writer's creation, and that notes should be more in the area of suggestion than direction. Though, of course, sometimes one has to be a bit bossy in terms of language or libel or stuff that might lead to an adverse Ofcom ruling or a telling-off from the BBC Trust.

Working on shows has taught me that good scripts evolve, and that reading something on the page is never as good as hearing it read aloud, even if the readers might be people in the office rather than proper actors. Some things read as if they're funny on the page and aren't funny when you hear them. And, in fact, vice versa. I've seen writers suddenly quiver when a line that seems neutral gets a big laugh. So hearing, rewriting and tweaking is essential, and the lesson there is that humility is a useful quality.

I produced a first (and sadly last) series by a new writer, who was offered a great deal of help from people with a great deal of experience, and chose not to act on it. In the writer's view, the scripts were fine, and it was thwe actors who weren't doing it properly. So while it's true that nobody knows for a certainty what's going to work, I would argue that listening to people who have been there and done it successfully helps to make a guess an educated one.

While writers need to listen to notes, and consider them, they also need to be strong enough to resist a suggestion that feels wrong. It's the writer's script, not an executive's. A New Yorker cartoon of a few years back showed a man on the phone in a Hollywood office saying: "We've just got the script from the focus group. Fabulous!"

I began by quoting William Goldman to the effect that nobody knows anything and the most anyone can do is take an educated guess. I've touched on my own education, and how I feel I've come to earn the right to guess. But, really, like everyone else - like the increased layers of people with a say - I don't really know what's going to work and what isn't. Only the audience decides that.

So thanks to everyone who has read this intermittent blog over the years. I'm not planning to disappear, and I hope to see you elsewhere soon.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks Micheal,

    And thanks for all your help and encouragement over the years. There are many many people who will miss you.

    Dave Cohen

  • Comment number 2.

    Now THAT is a blog.


  • Comment number 3.

    Within humour lies the truth. I hung onto every word of that blog post and can only hope I apply some of its wisdom.

    Every bit of good luck with your new challenges, Micheal.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thank you Micheal for all your help and advice too...

  • Comment number 5.

    All the best Micheal! Goodnight Sweetheart was one of my favourite comedies. You always had alot of time for new writers and gave some great advice.

    Best wishes for the future.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thank you Micheal, you will be sadly missed by the BBC - you are the 'weight' that all aspiring and accomplished writers need. They say "you can lead a horse to water...", I think you could help them drink.

    Good Luck and kind regards

    Gary Heap

  • Comment number 7.

    Brilliant last blog, Micheal, and thank you so much for all the time and expertise you have shared with us aspiring writers over the years. It has been much appreciated. I do hope the bods at the Writersoom have presented you with a well deserved gold watch engraved with the words 'set it up, resolve it, complicate it' - one of the most pertinent bits of advice I have learnt from you recently!

    Just a shame that your departure from here has come so soon after Arsene has crashed and burned out of the Champions League - hopefully you are not still sobbing into your consoling glass of vino.

    Jose sends his regards....

    Mrs M x

  • Comment number 8.

    Actually that should be 'set it up, complicate, then resolve it...' but that might explain why my latest sitcom was overlooked for a BAFTA recently....

    Mrs M

  • Comment number 9.

    You're all very kind, and your messages much appreciated. I hope everything goes well for everyone, apart from Jose. Set it up, resolve it and complicate it has a certain post-modern appeal, though.

  • Comment number 10.

    Some good points in this blog Micheal. I think a script has to be constantly developed. Comedy is very hard to get right. Its right what you say about scripts being funny on page but not so acted out. I read some of the Porridges scripts and whilst it was apparent it had clearly defined characters I did'nt find it funny, but see it on screen and its comedy gold. I think its alot to do with characterisation and the humour stemming from characters that people have empathy with. How longs a piece of string.

    Good luck once again :)

  • Comment number 11.

    Best of luck, Micheal. I miss the fun and games we all used to have in the script unit in those early days when you first arrived. Hopefully we collectively shook the place up for the better! :-)

  • Comment number 12.

    You were always patient and helpful to even the most aggressive and talent free writers. I always thought that you were like the sky and you would always be there but sadly not it seems. Thanks for all your wise words.

    Roger Rabbit

  • Comment number 13.

    Mr Carling - why don't you make ScriptSmart into an App?

  • Comment number 14.

    Hey Matt, thank you for commenting. And Maldwyn and Nick too. A new life seems to be coming together with a bit of stuff here and a bit of stuff there. Running a workshop in Abu Dhabi just after I left the BBC wasn't quite what I'd expected to be doing, but it was certainly an experience. I've always looked for fun, Matt, and thank you for adding to it when we mined scripts for diamonds. More fun is my aim.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi Micheal,

    Abu Dhabi, eh? Good to know that your reputation is international - hope you came away inspired and invigorated. Jose was once apporached to manage a football team there but it was far too warm even for him (he manages to generate enough of his own heat, thank you very much...)

    Cheeky question but are you still contactable via old email or have you been purged from the system?

    Kind regards,
    Mrs M

  • Comment number 16.

    D'oh! I meant 'approached' as opposed to 'apporached'. Jose thinks Man U are calling and it has turned his head.

    As if.

    Mrs M

  • Comment number 17.

    @Mrs M
    I've been purged I'm afraid and the BBC doesn't allow email addresses here. I'm going to have a website at some point when the person who is doing it for me surfaces. But I can certainly recommend the British Comedy Guide, or that popular social networking thing.

  • Comment number 18.

    Ta for that, Micheal.

    Arsene and Kenny swiping at each other with their handbags this afternoon whilst Fergie watched gloating from the stands. Hope you're not too upset that the Blues may well end up pipping your lot into third place before this season is done and dusted!

    Kind regards,
    Mrs M

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks Michael. As the ad used to say, "As good for you today as it's always been."

  • Comment number 20.

    @Mrs M
    I couldn't see the touchline goings on from where I sit, but my head was in my hands anyway.

    You can't beat a bit of fibre in the morning, true.


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