Writing 'Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully' for Radio 4: From Script Draft 0 to 8
Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully - the cast at the recording.
I know a writer who recently told his dad it took him about four months to write a one-hour script. His dad’s response: ‘You should learn to touch-type.’
I’m assuming that you, as someone with enough interest in the writing process to visit this blog, understand why this is funny. It’s the assumption that the script just emerges from the writer’s brain onto the page and that’s what gets made. But as we know, ‘Writing is re-writing’ – it says so on this website somewhere – and the real work is what goes on between typing the thing out.
We try to get it right first time – in fact, we often kid ourselves that we’ll send it to the producer or script editor and they’ll weep at its perfection and we won’t have to do another stroke of work on it. These days, thanks to websites like Writersroom, we have access to loads of scripts, but they don’t usually tell you how many drafts went before. And possibly, a reader might be tempted to think there weren’t any other drafts, that this was that script that came out perfect first time, and the script will just sit there, letting them think that. But it wasn’t, because that never happens.
So I’ve decided to offer up eight drafts of a script for my Radio 4 sitcom, Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully for you to look at. Some writers might find the idea of doing this a bit horrifying, but I laugh in the face of such danger. Personally, this is what I find far more interesting in scripts: not the script that actually got made, but the bits that got cut and changed, that help you understand how it ended up like it did.
I should stress that I’ve picked an episode that had an especially tortuous development: every rewriting process is different, because each script has different problems, and it doesn’t always go this badly. Initially I was going to look at the first episode of the series for this article, but when I opened up the first draft I realised it had hardly changed at all: it wasn’t perfect, obviously, but I was happy with the structure and story, so the entire rewriting process was just sharpening up the writing. There’s a degree of hubris involved in assuming people are interested in eight different drafts of one of my scripts, and the least I can do is show you some very different ones. So I’ve picked the third episode, ‘Questioning Loyalties’.
When pitching for a new series of a sitcom, you need to include proposed storylines so they know you have lots of exciting and hilarious ideas up your sleeve. The pitch document for series 2 of WTOVPIC included this:
‘As an incentive for collaboration, whoever helps Uljabaan the most gets the Computer to play on their team in the weekly pub quiz. The Computer always wins, obviously, especially since nobody else can cheat with their phones any more. This particularly annoys Richard, as it's ruined quiz night for him. Katrina is determined to break this, so she sets a new set of questions that are subjective and yet have correct answers, like "What's the best Fleetwood Mac album?" The Computer is flummoxed.’
This was pencilled in for the opening episode: my producer, Ed Morrish and I both particularly liked the idea of an episode about pub quizzes and it was the episode I was most confident about writing. As we’ll see, this confidence was entirely misplaced.
After the series was commissioned and I started writing this episode, I made some notes in my notebook on how it would work: I always do this away from my computer. Usually I also do a numbered scene breakdown, but in this case I’ve just outlined the structure of the episode more generally, and added in a subplot about a longstanding dispute between Margaret and Lucy’s (as yet unseen) parents regarding an overhanging branch of a pear tree. These aren’t all my notes – I’d already worked out some parts which I’ve only vaguely referred to here. My handwriting is awful, but it was only ever supposed to make sense to me.
Eddie's notes for Series 2 of Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully.
The idea for the opening scene came up here – I like to do opening scenes that are a bit like sketches, rather than concentrating on setting up the plot right from the outset. This is because scenes like that are easier to make funny than scenes where you’re setting things up: you can pay them off at the end of the scene, rather than postpone the payoff until later. I also need to establish the ludicrously high-concept backdrop of the series somehow at the start of every episode. At these moments I often wish I was the sort of writer who was good at simple comedy ideas set in something resembling the real world, but I’m not, so there it is.
A lot of writers use ‘draft zero’ but the form it takes depends on the individual writer. For some, it’s a more fleshed-out version of a breakdown, with basic action and fragments of dialogue added in. I can’t write like that, I’m far more one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, so my draft zero is recognisable as a complete script. However, I don’t worry about it being fit for submission, and I leave bits deliberately rough, knowing I’ll come back to them before anyone else sees it.
I find this especially useful when I can’t think of how to make a part of the script funny, particularly the ends of scenes – you want to round off the scene with a joke and propel the listener forward to the next scene, so you’re trying to pay off and set up at the same time. (Sometimes I can’t find a way to do both, and just choose one or the other.) This can easily leave me stumped for hours, and in the early stages of a script it’s best to keep writing and come back to it.
I’ll also sometimes use a line of question marks when I think something’s already been established in the series but can’t be arsed to go and check. That’s the benefit of a zero draft – you can ignore anything that might hold you up and just focus on getting words down. I often get bogged down by titles – at this stage the episode was called ‘Questionable Loyalties’, which I knew was a bit of a mouthful but it’d do for now.
Usually my rough drafts are too long, but in this case it was significantly under-running, so I had the luxury of filling it out when writing the first draft. This is just under 5,500 words, which is nigh-on broadcast length. Other than that it’s very similar to the zero draft, just a bit more finessed and with more jokes in it. I always struggle with the final lines of episodes, and the one in this script is just a placeholder – I never intended it to survive to the final script. I feel it’s not worth the effort to get them right on the first draft, because if the plot or structure changes, that final scene may very well change completely.
I don’t have all of Ed’s notes on the first draft written down, as he gave me them in a pub. At this stage, we have more of a general discussion about the script rather than go through it line by line. One note I do have from Ed is that Katrina wasn’t funny enough. This was a problem we’d identified with the first series: because Katrina was the main identification point, I’d fallen into the trap of making her the straight woman to everyone else. She didn’t have enough flaws and foibles, and this was still an issue in the new scripts, so I determined to work on it, give her more arrogance and self-importance. I decided she should think Uljabaan doesn’t like her winning the pub quiz, whereas he doesn’t know or care.
You can tell I didn’t think this episode was working because after the meeting with Ed, I made seven pages of notes on it and started by listing the problems, one of which is ‘Lucy too static. Needs to get out of the tree’. In the first draft, she spends most of her time staging a protest in a tree, which I thought would be funnier than it was. The pear tree subplot didn’t feel convincingly rooted (LOL), it didn’t really get going until past the halfway point of the episode, it demanded a big logical leap from Uljabaan, and then it petered out. I even wondered whether to come up with a totally different grievance for Margaret. (In the end, I stuck with the tree, but as is often the case when looking over early drafts, it amazes me that I ever thought this subplot was working in the first draft.)
Ed suggested that the tree subplot should explore power relationships in the village, and how the invasion has altered them: Margaret has wanted rid of this tree for years, but it’s only the arrival of Uljabaan that makes it possible. For this reason, I decided not to spell out Margaret’s collusion with Lucy from the beginning, but make them appear to be at loggerheads, so I could characterise the conflict. I then brought this subplot into the episode earlier and escalated the situation by coming up with the (fictitious) broadband cable under the garden, which requires the entire garden to be ripped up.
I dropped Uljabaan from the first pub quiz scene, because it felt odd to bring him in and then have him hardly do anything, and replaced him with one of his minions. But one of the stage directions still reads ‘ULJABAAN PUTS IT DOWN ON THE TABLE’. Professional.
I’d conceived this as a fairly Richard-heavy episode, but he’d got lost somewhere along the way, and it felt like the part about the whole village spying on Katrina was getting in the way of the actual story, which was about the pub quiz. I dropped the scene back at the Lyons house and added some material where Richard comes up with another type of pub quiz, all based around village gossip, which he hopes will flummox the Computer but doesn’t. Unfortunately this meant the script, which had been exactly the right length, was now overrunning by quite a bit.
It’s at this point that I changed the title to ‘Questioning Loyalties’. I usually struggle with titles. When Galton and Simpson were doing Hancock’s Half Hour, they got their secretary to do the titles. But I don’t have a secretary.
The second draft was sent to our script editor Arthur Mathews and his notes were incorporated in the third draft. ‘Computer being taken to the pub quiz is a great idea,’ was his first comment, ‘and it’s good that they think of an idea that would bamboozle him. Although I felt the local knowledge was a bit funnier than the subjective view on what is Fleetwood Mac's best album.’ I didn’t act on it at this point, but this would turn out to be Arthur’s most significant note of the series, leading as it did to a major structural change.
‘Is Lucy’s reason for having the tree cut down – just to annoy her parents – strong enough?’ was another note. ‘Maybe set up an argument she has with them earlier?’ I thought this was a good call, and so I put some stuff in around the gardening being one of Lucy’s chores, giving her a certain resentment of the garden. (Most of this ended up getting lost in rewrites, but when the script was generally working better, it seemed to matter less.) I also thought it would tie this off nicely if it turned out that Lucy was responsible for Cresdon Green losing the Best Kept Village competition.
‘Also – is there something funny in that [Lucy is] chained (or tied) to the tree and they just cut the tree down as she's still chained to it?’ At first, I thought this note was too visual, but I did use the threat of it on a later draft. I immediately took up Arthur’s suggestion that Lucy chains herself to the tree with a bike lock, and the combination is a joke I stole from the movie Spaceballs, because if you’re going to steal, steal from the classics. Arthur gave us many more line-by-line notes, including an excellent joke about loyalty cards, which went straight in.
Independently of anyone else, I decided the business with Uljabaan’s missing socks was too much of a sidestep, and not funny enough to justify its inclusion, so I got shot of it on this draft.
I got line-by-line notes on draft three from Ed and also from Julia McKenzie, our exec producer. There was much discussion of the line ‘creating a floral centrepiece on the village green in the shape of Tim Henman’, which Ed felt was ‘a bit sitcom structure’ and suggested ‘creating a floral tribute to Tim Henman on the village green’. In the same scene, Ed asked for ‘a clearer “out” line... I generally like ending scenes on a laugh’. This is quite correct: radio comedy recorded with an audience works much better when the scenes end on a laugh, it keeps the energy going in the brief gaps between scenes and bouys up the performances. So I did try to fix this.
Julia felt it wasn’t always clear how the family relationships worked – that, to a new listener, it might seem that Lucy was Katrina’s younger sister. I therefore tried to make sure there was a reference somewhere early in each episode such as Lucy referring to ‘your mum/dad’. Another note was on the scene where Katrina and Richard go to see Ron: ‘This is the day after the quiz but it feels like a continuation from the pub night itself – can it be tweaked to make it feel like they have slept on it and decided they won’t stand for it?’
This ended up being done with more than just a tweak. ‘I know we’re 500 words over,’ Ed said, ‘but can we resolve the broadband thing?’ He felt this thread was left hanging slightly, and asked if we could tie the two strands together. I replied: ‘I’m toying with the idea of cutting the subjective pub quiz from the end and instating the local pub quiz in its place. I’m not sure the subjective one is as funny as I wanted it to be, and I think Arthur might be right that the local one is funnier.’ Julia had also singled out the local quiz as one of the funniest parts of the script, and I realised there also was an opportunity to fulfil Ed’s request: ‘I had thought of making the two threads tie up by having one of the quiz questions be to do with the pear tree and whose fault all that was, and that’s how Margaret finds out it was Lucy who lost her that Best Kept Village competition.’
On top of all the other benefits, this enabled me to make a major cut to an overlong script, so I went with it – it just meant changing the limits of the Computer’s knowledge, which was easily done. This change also put Margaret in the pub at the end with Katrina and Richard, enabling me to wedge in lots of necessary exposition between the quiz questions. I now had a slight hole in the middle of the script, which I filled with a new version of the morning-after-the-quiz scene from the earlier drafts, bringing back the spying-on-Katrina idea but not letting it dominate.
Performing this kind of surgery on a script can be fiddly and annoying, and on this draft was compounded by bringing back something I’d previously dropped. This can make you feel like you’ve wasted your time, or should have planned things better at the start. But you often don’t know how things are going to work until you actually write them – especially where comedy’s concerned – and I feel more confident about a script when I’ve tried different approaches. When something goes out in front of an audience and falls a bit flat, you don’t want to be wishing you’d tried slightly harder. I’m determined that any problems with my scripts should result from ineptitude, not laziness.
Julia also noted that the endings of all the scripts, except the last one, were a bit weak. This was true, so I tried to come up with something better on this draft. At this point we dropped this episode down to third in the running order, and bumped ‘Counter-Plot’ – which, as I noted at the beginning of this blog, had progressed much more smoothly – up to first.
Listen to a clip from the 'Questioning Loyalties' episode
Again, the fourth draft went to Arthur for his feedback: he approved of moving the gossip quiz to the end. He also wondered if there might be ‘a more contemporary reference than Tim Henman?’ However, as this referred to an event from a few years ago, we stuck with Henman – commemorating the end of his distinguished career.
I didn’t change that much at this point, but in a comedy script this can be the hardest part – just going through it and trying to make it funnier. You can usually fix structural problems or issues with the plot, and you can usually tell when you’ve got that stuff right. Making it funnier is a far more nebulous task. I sometimes stare at a script page for hours, wondering if a bit of plot-significant dialogue can be made funny, or if a different joke would work better. Sometimes I fuss about one word of a sentence, or the exact sequence of words. The longer you stare at a script, the less funny it seems, so eventually you have to stop, otherwise you may end up taking out good jokes in favour of ones you’re not bored of.
We took the fifth drafts of all the scripts into a table-read with the cast. (Other parts were read by Ed, Julia and me, which confirmed to me that I should never perform my own material.) There are always problems you only notice when the scripts are read aloud, and the reaction in the room can be a good indicator of how things might go on the night. A good example here is that I shuffled the sequence of the questions in the gossip pub quiz – during the readthrough, everyone laughed most at the ‘gap year’ one so I made it the end of the scene.
Eddie Robson at the read-through for Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully.
I made some more cuts to bring it down to length – the part about Andrew Milway’s new back door finally went, and good riddance – and I added one last line at the end, at Ed’s suggestion. I also suddenly remembered I’d established the names of Lucy’s parents in the first episode of series one, and they were different to the ones given here. You’d think that with only one writer and, to date, only eleven episodes, continuity wouldn’t be hard to keep track of, wouldn’t you?
This final pass wasn’t entirely necessary for this episode, but a couple of the other episodes needed one more go, so I thought I may as well. (I also have a sort of mild OCD thing about the current draft numbers on all the episodes in a series being the same at any given time.) I did make a few additions, like Lucy’s ‘Wood is murder!’ chant.
This was the script we took into the recordings. But it didn’t end there: there were tweaks during the rehearsals, scribbled onto the scripts, and lines get dropped and chopped during the edit, as Ed describes below.
This was the script we took into the recordings. But it didn’t end there: You often change lines based on how it sounds when the actor says it out loud, and even though we'd heard the readthrough, it's really at the table-read and the on-mic rehearsal that you smooth out lines that seem unwieldy or out of character. The cast are great at picking up on these as well, and ask if we want to keep the line as is, or if there was another way they should be performing. Eddie attends the recording, so the final decision is taken jointly. Although I'm in charge. But it's little things like, we wanted Jan to start her line as Gary Morley ran out of the coal bunker, so "he's gone" didn't work - he hadn't. You just change that to "There he goes", and it flows better. So here’s the recorded script:
Speaking of Gary Morley, you'll notice that he was both hiding in the coal bunker AND needs a shave. But at rehearsal we changed the bearded man's name, because of a conversation we'd had with Julia about the other villagers: are they consistent across the series, or are we introducing new names in every episode. There's a line there between making Cresdon Green feel like it's big enough a community with lots of characters so we're not just doing the Lyons and the Alexanders, but making the community small enough to feel a little bit enclosed. And so we decided to re-use names across the series, but use different names in each episode. So a regular listener will discover a fact about Laura Phillips in this episode, but also discover what her degree was in, in episode five. But having had Gary in the bunker, we wanted a new name and so we picked the name of a mutual friend of Eddie and mine, who we knew was going to be in the audience. Because we can.
"Oh that's awful!" was added to the end of scene 13 because the FX was quite loud. It is in fact, technically too loud - Uljabaan asks for three troops, some shovels and a tractor beam; when we join them in the Alexanders' garden there's clearly a digger. But I had decided when preparing the FX that it would be funnier the more total the destruction of the garden was, that it could well have escalated as Uljabaan got more desperate - he starts the scene sounding annoyed - and Eddie agreed when he heard it, so that's the FX we used. But Hannah's laugh was lost a little against it, so we extended the line in keeping with the way she'd been delivering the previous lines in the scene.
"Mum?" was added to the end of the episode to give the audience time to answer the question in their own heads before the Computer delivered the punchline to the episode. I think the rhythm of the end of a sitcom is very important, it needs to *feel* like a final line, to have some sort of weight to it - and this is something we had to work very hard on in this series. Here, just leaving Jan that silence to not give an answer created a tension that the Computer punctures. And that's the end of the show.
Then of course stuff has to be cut out – the show records at around 32 minutes for a 28 minute slot, so things have to be edited out (although it comes down quite a lot after tightening between scenes, and cutting out fluffed lines that the actors immediately resaid). I don't think anything got cut for anything other than the usual reasons - the show was a little bit too long, and of the bits you could cut and still have it make sense, these were the bits people laughed at least. However, I did take the decision to change "Lawrence the Park Keeper" to "Park Keeper" because it started to bug me that he calls him Lawrence and the changes to Park Keeper - and the question, "You do know my name isn't Park Keeper" doesn't quite work, in my head, if we know that he knows that Uljabaan knows he has another name. So here’s the script as you heard it, the final draft of the show:
The health and safety exchange in scene three came out as a whole but I'm sure Eddie can re-use the idea in a future series. And sometimes it's better to leave an element out altogether, even if it went well, because you can explore it more fully at a later date. It's based on Margaret's character, so I'm sure can crop up in another context.
EDDIE ROBSON WRITES
It’s hard for me to comment on the result – but I do think each draft was better than the last one. So it was all worth it. Hopefully.