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The Craic Off Experience

Jeff Hare

Writer

Before this opportunity, I had been writing for years. Several attempts at getting the breakthrough had led to me making contacts in UK, Scotland and Ireland. I’d got to the redraft stage on two occasions, had a script discussed at a production meeting and been continually encouraged and told I had talent. However, all I had to show for my writing career was the odd online article here and there, a double page cancer awareness article in the city newspaper and, of course, my sarcastic status updates on Facebook; the refuge of all frustrated writers.

In the last three years, my writing had fallen by the wayside slightly due to real life encroaching. However, I had always kept my eye open for the opportunities on the Writersroom in case something took my fancy. It was during a casual check when I saw an advert for 'Craic Off'; a talent search aimed solely at Northern Irish writers who were asked to write a 15-30 min original comedy script. I mopped my perspiring brow as my attention was not only grabbed, but forcibly man handled, bundled into the back seat of stolen Citroën Saxo and driven off into the distance...

First and foremost, I knew I wanted the script to be set in Belfast. For people outside of Northern Ireland, their impressions of our province based on years and years of media coverage is still “the troubles”, balaclava wearing gentlemen with guns and the musical stylings of Daniel O’Donnell (Which is worse? You decide.) As a result, I wanted my script to show off the better aspects of Belfast and its people whilst at the same time poking fun at the stereotypes. I also wasn’t going to be heavy handed with the troubles and use the script to make political statements. Sitcoms are to make people laugh. It’s a comedy script I was writing - not a state of the union address.

So I wrote the script (featuring the tourism department of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, a Belfast Bus Tour guide and a lecturer in Queens University). It was then rewritten, redrafted, binned, reclaimed, redrafted, revised, polished, polished again and finally I was happy with it. Off it went to the BBC on the 15th September and I played the waiting game.

By early November, I had heard nothing. I resigned myself to failure, disappointment and several sessions of intense self loathing; thankfully as a Newcastle United fan I am accustomed to all three of these emotions so was ably prepared. However, as luck would have it, on the 15th November I had an email. To my amazement, I had been shortlisted and was to meet some BBC people the following Monday for an interview. An interview?! I now have to meet people and charm them?! ME?! Charm?! The horror...THE HORROR...

I re-read my script (soon realising I could no longer tell what was really funny anymore after repeated redrafts, rewrites and dialogue polishes) and prepped myself. I had planned out a potential further six episodes utilising plots and subplots for all my characters, so I at least had that in my arsenal. I braced myself as Monday came around...

I waited in the reception of BBC Blackstaff House where I was met by Development Producer Henry Swindell. He was very welcoming and friendly which helped put me at ease. Looking back I am not sure why I thought he or any of the judges would be anything else but friendly. What had I expected?...Abusive thugs?...Chain welding Hells Angels?...Cato, perhaps, from The Pink Panther films attacking me mid-presentation whilst I fended him off crying “No Cato, you fool! Now-is-not-the-time”. However, I digress...

Henry said congratulations on getting this far as my fellow interviewees and I had beat out several hundred applicants. I said thanks but I was unsure what was expected of me at the interview. "Don’t worry. It’s just an opportunity to meet you and get to know a bit about you”. I instantly read this as “We just wanted to make sure you weren’t a mentalist”.

We went to the third floor where a video of Robbie Coltrane’s “Cracker” was being used as door stop (the decadence of the BBC!). I met Commissioning Editor Kristian Smith and Lisa McGee (a successful home grown writer from Derry). Like Henry, the two of them could not have been nicer and really made the effort to ensure I wasn’t too nervous. 
We had a brief chat before the questions then came

• "So, tell us about yourself assuming we know nothing about you, Jeff"
• “What kind of comedy do you like?”
• "We really like your script. Tell us about its creation and where the idea came from"
• "How would you develop the characters and ideas?"

It was called an interview, but it generally was more like an informal chat. All three had clearly read my script and were telling me how much they liked this idea, this joke and this character which was a very surreal experience; especially after my doubts about what was funny and what wasn’t following the redrafts etc.

Afterwards, I bid the three of them goodbye. The whole thing had taken about 30 minutes, but really seemed much, much less. I was in a bit of daze for about a day afterwards thinking “I wish I had said that” and “Why did I say that?”. However, I clearly didn’t make a complete fool of myself as two days after the interview, I received an email telling me I had been selected as a finalist and had won a cash prize. Yeah...Looking back...I’ve had worse weeks...

So there you have it. A writer who had quit writing casually sees a competition, applies and wins a prize with who knows what to come next. By accident, I have become a walking cliché; namely - never give up as you never know what opportunities are around the corner...

Jeff Hare is the finalist of Craic Off, which was a Writersroom talent search in partnership with BBC Comedy Commissioning to find new comedy gold in Northern Ireland.

Jeff will be awarded a 1K pilot script commission and will be assigned a mentor to help develop his script with BBC Comedy.

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