Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Opportunity: Playwright in Residence...

One for all you NI scribes. Or wanting to go back to NI....

Belfast's Lyric Theatre is delighted to announce the establishment of an annual Playwright in Residence award and is now seeking applications for the inaugural residency which will commence in Spring 2011. This is a unique opportunity for a writer to work in a busy theatre environment at a formative stage in his or her career.

The Lyric is embarking on an exciting new chapter in its long and distinguished history. The facilities in the company’s new purpose-built home, scheduled to open on Ridgeway Street in Spring 2011, will open up a whole range of creative opportunities for theatre practitioners and audiences. The development of new writing is central to the Lyric’s artistic policy, and this residency is an integral part of a wider plan to nurture and support the development of new plays and playwrights. These annual residencies will also provide audiences with the opportunity to enjoy more new work and to become better acquainted with a wider range of new and emerging playwrights.

The closing date for receipt of completed applications is 4.00pm Friday 17th December 2010.

Further information and an application form can be found here - or by contacting:

Clare Gault
Administration Manager
Lyric Theatre
Crannog House (Temporary Offices)
44 Stranmillis Embankment

dd. 028 9038 5674


There you go!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

News N'Stuff...

Just a quick update.

Went down to Dublin last week for a Fair City Story Conference for a couple of days and to do the edit on my Shadow Script. For "Edit" read "Feedback". I was a bit nervous about it, to be honest. I felt as if I'd done an okay job, but there are so many factors involved that it's easy to mess up. Anyway, I sat down with the Script Editor and we had a good long chat about it. Lots of really good feedback and notes. I have to do the re-write on it and send that in. And then she wants me to do my second shadow script, which is great. So, I'm back down to Dublin at the beginning of December for another Story Conference and a meeting for my next shadow. Stage 2....

Unfortunately, due to illness in the family, I missed the NI Screen agents talk last week, so I'm afraid I can't give a report on that. Sorry about that one. To make up for it, I've got some write ups still to post up from the BBC NI/Tinderbox festival. One of which was on agents. So, that's kinda the same thing...

Meanwhile, I've just arrived in London (sitting in Pret a manger in Gt Portland St. Can anyone see me...?) and aoout to meet up with some fellow scribes to talk writing n'stuff... Fab.

Monday, 8 November 2010

AMAZING new opportunity...

I don't know what it is at the moment, but here is ANOTHER opportunity that's come through today. And this time it's a bit of a corker. Well, if you're from Norn Iron that is. Sorry, everyone else...

Basically, it's an initiative between Northern Ireland Screen and BBC NI which offers the opportunity for two (previously unproduced) writers to have their 60 minute scripts produced in a 9pm slot on BBC 2 next year.

Send in a 60 minute script, synopsis and CV.

Deadline Feb 14 2011.

4 finalists will be announced in April and those scripts/writers will go through a development process with NI Screen and BBC NI.

In July 2 of the scripts will then be chosen and produced with a budget of 150,000. And broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm.

Wow! Best. Opp. Ever.

More info here from the NI Screen site (and copied below) and here from the Writersroom site. Both those sites also have links to other info, application forms, etc.



An exciting new initiative for Northern Ireland resident screenwriters is being launched today, Monday 8th November, by Northern Ireland Screen and BBC Northern Ireland.

Primetime will give local screenwriters the opportunity to have a one hour authored drama produced and broadcast in the 9pm primetime slot on BBC One NI.

How does it work?

Screenwriters submit a completed first draft script for a TV drama (approx 60 pages).

Four writers will be selected for a five month development scheme with Northern Ireland Screen and BBC NI.

Two successful scripts will then be selected for production, with a budget of £150K per project. These scripts will be produced by a Northern Ireland based production company and will be broadcast on BBC NI in 2012.

Before you apply

To help you get your script ready for submission, three workshops on writing for Primetime (and TV drama generally) will take place on the following dates:

Tuesday 23rd November 2010

Time: 6pm- 9pm

Place: BBC Blackstaff House, 62-66 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7BB

Speaker: Tim Loane, BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee, (Teachers, Dance Lexi Dance, Minder) will speak from his experience of writing for TV, with a focus on moving from idea to treatment, to script and the importance of premise.

This first seminar will also include an information session about Primetime.

Thursday 9th December 2010

Time: 6pm- 10pm

Place: BBC Broadcasting House, Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HQ

Speaker: Rob Ritchie (Script Factory) will discuss writing the 1st and 2nd Act: the importance of the set up and that difficult middle act.

Thursday 13th January 2011

Time: 6pm- 10pm

Place: BBC Broadcasting House, Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HQ

Speaker: Rob Ritchie (Script Factory) will discuss writing the 3rd Act: the

importance of the climax and a resolution with meaning.

To register for each event contact: Bronagh Taylor, bronagh.taylor@bbc.co.uk

Places are limited – register early to avoid disappointment.

What are we looking for?

  • A completed first draft script for an hour long drama (approx 60 pages); synopsis and a covering letter letting us know about any writing experience you have had to date.
  • 4 new writers (who have not had an authored piece broadcast on TV in the English language)

and most importantly:

  • Storytellers with original and imaginative scripts, depicting modern Northern Ireland
  • Character-centred stories with a strong local voice.

What are we NOT looking for?

  • Period pieces
  • High action/special effects
  • Previously produced work.

Who can apply?

The scheme is only open to Northern Ireland resident writers who have not had an original piece broadcast on TV in the English language.

Applications close at 5pm on Monday 14th February 2011.

Full criteria is available to download here:

How do you apply?

The call for entries opens today, Monday 8th November 2010.

Submit a completed first draft script for an hour long TV drama, 1 page synopsis and a covering letter outlining your writing experience, and a completed Monitoring Form (in a separate sealed envelope) by hard copy to Ursula Devine (details below)

Please ensure your name, address, email address and phone number are on you cover letter and title page for your script.

Deadline for entries: 5pm, Monday 14th February 2011.

The 4 finalists will be announced by April 1st 2011

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Writing Opportunity - Radio...

Not for everyone, this one, but a good opportunity for those who can enter.

The BBC World Service have announced their International Playwriting Competition 2011. The most important thing to mention straight off, is that it's for anyone resident outside the UK, so that will rule out a lot of you. Details below...

What it's all about...

The biennial clickInternational Radio Playwriting Competition is run by the BBC World Service and the British Council and is now in its twenty second year.

It is a competition for anyone resident outside Britain, to write a 60-minute radio drama for up to six characters.

There are two categories: one for writers with English as their first language and one for writers with English as their second language.

The two winners will come to London and see their play made into a full radio production, which will then be broadcast on the BBC World Service. They will also each receive a £2,500 prize and there are also prizes for the runners-up.

The play must be in English, unpublished and must not have been previously produced in any medium. Whether you're experienced, new, or somewhere in between, we want to hear from you.

Just check the Rules and How to Enter sections to find out more about sending us your play.

The world Service website for this comp also has some great general information on writing for radio and formatting radio scripts.

Finally, check out the video below on last year's winners:

All looks pretty cool....

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Great Opp for Writers from C4...

If you haven't seen this already, C4 have a great new opp for new writers with no previous broadcast credits. It sounds great. The main points are:
  • There are places for 12 writers
  • The "course" runs from Jan to June 2011 but it's not onsite. It's specifically designed for people who also work so there are only two residential weekends.
  • A fee (not specified how much) will be paid for attendance.
  • Over the duration of the course you write a pilot script with a C4 scriptwriter.
  • Entry is by CV and a script of at least 30 mins - radio, tv, film or theatre script.
  • Entry by Nov 12th, so not much time!
All sounds pretty good, except for that deadline!. The details from their site are below:


We are running a new screenwriting course for Channel 4 drama, running from January to June 2011.

We are looking for 12 talented, original and diverse writers who currently have no broadcast credit but wish to write for television drama.

The course will give you a chance to find out how TV drama, particularly Channel 4 TV drama, works, and to write, over a 5 month period, you own 1 hour pilot script for an original series or serial, working with an experienced script editor.

You will also attend two weekends of talks and script meetings at Channel 4’s Horseferry Rd building.

The course is designed so that writers should be able to take part even if in full-time employment (the only attendance is on two weekends, in January and June 2011, and you will have five months to write the required two drafts of a one hour drama script).

Writers will be paid a small fee for attending the course.

Here are all the details on how you can apply:

DATES: 22nd and 23rd January 2011
11th and 12th June 2011

Writers must ensure before entering that they are available to attend both weekends, and to write two drafts of a one hour television drama between 24th January and 27th May 2011.

Applicants should submit by email a CV and one writing sample. This can be a screenplay, a stage play or radio play, minimum length 30 minutes (novels, treatments, short stories, unfinished screenplays and "shorts" are not acceptable).

The scripts should be original, not episodes of existing drama series.

Email scripts and CV’s to:- screenwriting@channel4.co.uk

Only writers who do not have a broadcast credit as a television or film writer may apply (although produced short films – 20 minutes or less – are exempt).

CLOSING DATE FOR SUBMISSIONS: Friday November 12th 2010.

Writers will be paid a fee for participating in the course and for completing two drafts of a one hour script. Writers will grant Channel 4 an option on their script and will be told within six months of the end of the course if Channel 4 wishes to exercise this option.

The purpose of the course is to offer 12 writers new to television drama an insight into the industry and to provide a "dry-run" of what it can be like to write under a television drama commission, for one hour series and serial drama, and for script editors to work with them as they write an original drama script.

Writers will be expected to write an original, pilot one-hour drama series or serial episode, and 4-5 page outline \ pitch for the series \ serial as a whole. Each writer will be assigned a script editor, who is currently working in the industry, to guide them through this process. The writers will meet with their script editors between the course weekends to discuss how to approach each draft. Second draft scripts will be sent to the script editor and two other writers on the course, for workshop discussions at the second weekend.

Writers, directors, producers and script editors in the industry will give talks to the participants on a variety of subjects relating to television drama. There will also be time set aside for writers to discuss their proposals and ideas for their one hour scripts with their assigned script editor.

This will be split between a reading of the opening section of each script by actors on the first day, and discussion and analysis of each of the twelve finished scripts in small groups on the second day, finishing with a screening \ workshop and an overview of the course and of the specific requirements of series and serial television drama.

It is essential to the success of the second weekend that writers submit their scripts on time and make time to read the (2) other writers' scripts (i.e. there is a time commitment involved beyond the time put aside to write a one-hour drama for television).

You can go over and look at that info on their site by clicking here.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Agents Talk...

Those lovely people at Northern Ireland Screen have organised a workshop next Friday on breaking into the industry and what agents are looking for. Details below. See you there!


On Friday 12th November, we will be running a panel session entitled THE WRITE DIRECTION, looking at how young screenwriters and film-makers can break into the industry. As part of Northern Ireland Screen's drive to develop a sustainable and dynamic screen industry in Northern Ireland, we are committed to developing grass roots film talent.

The workshop will take the form of a panel event, moderated by renowned industry pundit and former European Editor of trade bible Variety, ADAM DAWTREY. Key members of the panel will include London-based literary agents MATTHEW BATES of Sayles Screen and ROB KRAITT of AP Watt, as well as the award-winning writer GUY HIBBERT and actor/filmmaker LIA WILLIAMS. Further panel participants are to be confirmed.

The session, aimed at upcoming screenwriters and film-makers, will look at key questions such as:

  • What are literary agents currently looking for?
  • How do they make their choices?
  • How does a screenwriter break into the industry?
  • If I’m a feature film writer and haven’t had a break, should I switch to television?
  • Are soaps a good way in? Or short film?
  • Am I at a disadvantage if I only write and I don’t want to direct as well?
  • What you need to secure an agent? Is it a Catch 22? I can’t get an agent before I get a credit. I can’t get a credit before an agent.
  • What is the market looking for in terms of talent? Is there a certain “type” or “trend” right now?
  • Should I align myself with a producer or production company or keep my options open?
  • How involved do agents get in terms of packaging and producing? Can agents help bring finance to the table?
  • How a successful writer/agent partnership works and tips for good agent relations.

Friday 12 November 2010 at 3.30-5.00pm including Q&A
The Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4 University Road Belfast BT7 1NH

Please note that this workshop takes places BEFORE the BAFTA/Rocliffe New Writing Forum event, which is at the same venue on the same date at 7.00pm. If you have already registered for the BAFTA/Rocliffe event, you must register separately for this workshop. If you are attending both events, we have made provision for hot food between 5.30pm and 6.30pm.

The event is FREE OF CHARGE. Please email rsvp@northernirelandscreen.co.uk with your name NOW to reserve your place with "THE WRITE DIRECTION" in the subject line.

Friday, 29 October 2010

So, where were we....?

Ok, so that turned out to be a slightly longer break than I anticipated. Yeah, ok, I've been completely crap on the old posting front.

So, what's been happening?

And how are you all?

Are you even there still...?


Last time, I was off to Dublin to do Storylining on Fair City, which was great. Absloutely loved it and had a ball. And everyone was many beautifuls and lots of lovelys too, which is always helpful. And sitting around in a room making up stories all day with four other people. What's not to like?

While I was there I also got feedback on my sample scenes. I was a bit nervous about it, but it went very well in the end. The Script Editor asked me to do some more scenes for practice but, even more exciting, booked me in to do a shadow script.

So, when my storylining stint ended in the middle of August, I went off to London for a holiday with my lovely and long-suffering man, and then it was down to business writing more sample scenes at the beginning of Sept. I sent those off and then headed over to Dublin again for a FC Story Conference and to attend the Tonal Meeting for the block of episodes that my shadow episode was part of. The Tonal Meeting is basically a chance for everyone to get together and make sure they're on the same page in terms of where the stories and episodes are going. Very necessary when you have lots of different writers doing individual episodes dealing with ongoing stories.

So, with lots of notes and thoughts, I headed back to my little writing den (the local library - quiet, lots of people concentrating, and NO INTERNET!!!! Bliss...) and spent the next month writing my shadow script.

Then I sent it off.

I'm over in Dublin in a week for another Story Conference and to do the edit on my shadow episode. That's where they tell me what they think....

Eek and nervouslings!

Thursday, 15 July 2010


Just got the news that I’m off to Dublin next week for two weeks to do Shadow Storylining on Fair City. Weh-hey!

Very excited…

I have no real idea how it works or what it will involve. All I know is that they work about six months in advance so are doing Christmas and New Year at the moment, meaning we’ll be talking about January in the middle of July. Weird. What happens in January apart from the sales and hangovers? I can’t remember.

Anyway, they’re sending me some story documents over the weekend so that I will be up-to-date on what is happening on the show over the next six months. Start next Tuesday. Don’t know whether I’ll be sitting in a corner just listening to them for two weeks or what, but I can’t wait…!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 4: Writing for TV - Tim Loane

Day 2, part 2.

And after a Tesco’s lunch special, it’s back to the delights of Studio 1. And we were in for a cracking time. Because it was the turn of Tim Loane and his session of writing for TV. Tim has a wealth of TV writing experience. He created and wrote/storylined the first series of the excellent Teachers on C4, wrote all of the new series of Minder for Channel 5, directed an Oscar-winning short film “Dance Lexie Dance”, and has developed many other TV series for the BBC, ITV, etc. He is also an actor and director in TV, film and theatre. So, he keeps himself busy.

Tim started off with a bit of background in how he got into writing, which was basically as an actor who got sick of the scripts he was being presented with, and so decided to have a go himself. Since then he has worked in Radio, Television, Theatre and Film, and he had a LOT of interesting things to say. He was entertaining, full of energy, funny and had a real desire to answer everyone’s questions as fully and as honestly as possible.


TV is, to a large extent, about conforming to the constraints and rules that it sets. You have to think of genre (cop show, sci fi, etc) and fit your story into one of those. Television is about delivering what the audience expects (again in terms of genre, story archetypes, slots, etc). Do you think genre prevents creativity? Are you one of those writers who doesn’t want to conform? Who wants to break the mould? Ok, fine. Go and write poetry! We have to think in terms of genre, not as a straitjacket, but as a spine.


The usual formats are:

Single (90 mins) – basically a film,

2 x 90 mins – those thrillers on Sun/Mons that ITV does sometimes,

Series (Dr Who, CSI or anything with a story of the week and which can, theoretically, go on forever),

Serial (Our Friends in the North – one ongoing story over a set amount of episodes which has a beginning, middle and end),

Serial/Series hybrids (something like The Sopranos, which has lots of serial elements within a series), and I don’t know about you lot, but I think a LOT of shows now fall into this category. How many series these days are REALLY story of the week with NO arc whatsoever?

Soap – EastEnders, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale are the obvious ones, but what about Casualty/Holby/The Bill/Doctors, which have story of the week and series/soapy elements like the “hybrids” about, the only difference being that they never end.

Telenovela – doesn’t really exist in this country. Very popular in South America and are basically soaps BUT with a definite ending. They go on for 9 months to a year, and then end.


Each channel and every commissioner is really, genuinely trying to find something new, despite what you might think or what you might see on television. BUT you also have to realize that the medium is inherently conservative. So, you have to take all the above (format and genre) into consideration and then study the schedule. See what each channel puts where, and see where yours fits. That’s its home. And it has to fit somewhere, so make sure it does! Otherwise, you are making life very difficult for yourself. Mind you, that did make me think that Tim is talking about a situation where he is pitching ideas as a professional produced writer to commissioners and prod cos within the intention of having them made. How much do we, as spec writers, need to try to conform to the channel/slot idea? Or do we forget about that and try to come up with something original that will stand out, even if it would never get made, so that we get noticed? I suppose we need to try to do both. Easy then….


Is it an art? Is it a craft? The answer is, it’s both. There is no point in trying to design a beautiful building if you don’t know the physics of how to build it.

As a writer you are DESCRIBING the picture, sound and the action. All three. All the time. There is little room for ambiguity. Be VERY clear.

Linear narrative – cause and effect. What happens in this scene causes this and then that in the next scene. If you don’t have ongoing cause and effect in your scene, if the scene doesn’t move the story forward, CUT IT!

Show drama through conflict – SHOW, don’t TELL. Characters, in good writing at least, don’t explain how they feel. We know that by what they DO.

Following on from these three points – sound, pictures, cause and effect, and showing conflict – you should write the dialogue last. It’s the easy part! Don’t be tempted to start writing dialogue before you have sorted out everything else first. And most of all, don’t be fooled into thinking that writing dialogue IS writing. It really does come last.

Screenplay is STRUCTURE. Tim spends weeks and weeks sorting out his structure before writing dialogue. The 3 Act Structure is central. Read Chinatown (try here, or just google it). Read screenplays and analyse them. Are you writing something for TV that is only 30 mins? It doesn’t matter. The principles are the same. You still have to follow the same story structure. If you are writing for commercial television then you also have to take into consideration that the commercial breaks need a narrative or an emotional climax. And it’s better if they have both!

Screenwriting is problem solving. If you want to get to B at minute X (cause there’s a commercial break, or it’s your mid point, or whatever), how do you get there structurally? Answering those questions, solving those problems, aren’t the constraints that TV places on your creativity as a writer, they are what make television what it is, and solving them will make your television writing better. And lead to a script that is more satisfying for the audience.


In another one of those “experience from the coalface” sessions, Tim then filled us in on how Teachers came about. Basically, he had been talking to Channel 4 about a script he had written, a “state of the nation” take on Northern Ireland in the 90s, about a group of young people. Channel 4 liked it, commissioned it, Tim wrote it, got paid, all fab, and then 7 weeks before shooting was due to begin… they got cold feet and cancelled the whole thing. So Tim went home.

Then, Channel 4 got back in touch and said they wanted to use the same type of characters from the State of the Nation piece he had written, but in a series they wanted him to create. Which they wanted to be a returning series. And it needed to be filmed in Bristol, because… because of television politics… I can’t remember if they stipulated that it should be about Teachers or whether he did. Anywayt, he wrote it, they loved it, it got made VERY quickly indeed (cause of the whole Bristol thing, for some reason).

Tim showed us the first 10 mins (which you can see here) and which I advise you to have a look at. It’s great. You get to meet all the main characters, the main plot which will arc through all of that 1st series, get a sense of… no, no… KNOW what the tone and arena of the whole series is/are, and it’s funny and entertaining too. Not bad going! Tim said that the first 10 minutes should:

· Set up tone

· Plot and sub-plots should be established

· Make sure the first 10 minutes are centered around one character, even if the series isn’t.

In terms of developing your episode/film/series, etc, Tim outlined the following, which you may want to do, or which you may be ASKED to do:

Logline: They spent a long time, while developing and writing the series, trying to work out what the core of the series was. Basically, what the logline was. When they got that (“Teachers are as immature as the children they teach”) it informed the whole series, everything fit into place, and they had something to refer back to when deciding on plots, scenes, etc.

Treatment: The story as a short story. NO dialogue.

Step Outline: Write a single line for scenes – this enhances clarity because you see the need or not for that scene.

It is usually at this stage and only at this stage ( or rather, if your idea passes this stage) that you get paid. And you get to write the script!

A little note about writing specific song titles into scripts. It’s fine to do so, to suggest tone, but that particularly song will very likely NOT be used.


They are your best friend. You NEED one, make no mistake, and the real reason you want one is not because they find you work or because they sort out your contracts, but because they know the business better than you. You have to think about the advantages of big agencies against small – big and successful and they know everyone but you are one of many, OR small and more personal approach to your career but may not have the same contacts. Finally, it obviously is a lot easier if you are approaching them, not just with a spec script, but with a contract/job offer already.

Finally, Tim saved the best till last. Three quarters of his work, and his best work, is sitting on a shelf in his office. There are SO many instances of things being commissioned and then not made, falling at various hurdles, at various stages. Still, at least you get paid!

Next time – Radio and Agents….

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 3: BBC Comedy Academy

The day’s first session was with Michael Jacob from the BBC Comedy Academy.

Michael stated off by giving us a bit of his background. He was in a band with Marks and Gran. When they made it big as comedy writers they employed him as a reader in their company. From there he became a Script Editor on their sitcoms Birds of a Feather and then Goodnight, Sweetheart. Since then he has worked on My Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Smoking Room. Recently, he has headed up the Comedy Academy. In the current scheme there are two writers from Northern Ireland and he has also run a BBC Northern Ireland radio comedy scheme.

And he had this to say:

Screenwriting Gurus – he doesn’t hold much store to taking a script and de-coding it. That’s only for people who can’t tell stories very well. So there!

You can write a script but directors and producers and casting can completely alter it. Never mind all the commissioners and controllers who put there tuppence worth in and can ruin it completely.

And with that he showed us an episode of Fawlty Towers, "The Kipper and The Corpse", details of which are here. And God, was it funny! Having not seen it in a while, it was interesting to see how well structured, written and performed it was. Every scene counts, every word, every action. And even though it is, at heart, based on farce, EVERYTHING that happens is character-based. When you look at it, there are actually only two or three true “gags” in the episode. Anyone wanting to seriously write sitcom could do worse than go study those episodes. Except, of course, that’s only for people who can’t tell stories very well….

It was also interesting to compare it to the sitcom we’d seen the day before. Humphrey Barclay had played us an episode of Agony (yes, I know, I didn’t mention that in yesterday’s write-up. So, sue me). Anyway, Agony was so much of it’s time – slow and not very believable and quite a “stock” sitcom. Fawlty Towers could still be shown today (in fact, it still is) and be a huge success. In going through the episode, Michael showed us how the first scene expertly sets up the hierarchy of the characters and the main plots, and is funny at the same time. There is also a sequence of 16 continuous scenes in the middle of the episode which creates huge forward energy and a sense of disaster. Michael described it as writing as choreography, and yet it feels and looks very unforced. Agony, by contrast, had lots of time shifts which really slowed it down.

Oh, and apparently it’s a well-known comedy rule that words with a hard “C” or a “K” are inherently funny. So get plenty of those in your scripts!

Michael then moved on to talk about My Family. Reiterating Humphrey Barclay from the day before, he reinforced teh point that you can’t change the characters too much. The audience wants to see the people/characters they know and feel comfortable with. Familiarity is the name of the game.

Unlike most UK sitcoms, My Family is based on the American model, in that it is team written and has a writer’s room. The creator is an American and was brought over to do just that. The writers all sit around in a big room and pitch in ideas and jokes, which doesn’t exactly allow for the writer’s voice, but should mean a higher percentage of jokes and also allows for more episodes, not just relying on the same writer to come up with all the episodes.

Birds of a Feather, in contrast, also had a team, but individual writers wrote specific episodes.

The writers on My Family get a salary and if they are credited with individual episodes (someone has to write the final script) they get a script fee too. However, there are writers in the room who have been there for years and never written an individual script. The show also has standing sets (as opposed to only putting the sets up on recording days) so that the cast rehearse on the sets all week and change things as they go along, with the writers in the “room” on hand to make those changes.

Finally, Micheal gave us the lowdown on the Comedy Academy.

It’s there to find writers and to give them a push.

Each writer has a mentor and they attend talks and take part in a residency week, at the end of which they all have a showcase of their work (15 minute pieces).

There are 6 places.

It's unclear how the academy will work in the future as funding isn’t clear.

An interesting point Michael made is that there are more sitcoms on CBBC than on BBC1 at the moment, so it’s a good thing to keep in mind when coming up with ideas.

Finally, as a word of warning, everyone is much more cautious at the moment because of funding issues. Sitcoms are very expensive to produce and rarely succeed. They are very hard to get right and you can’t second guess what the audience will go for. There are also more and more layers of people who can stop it at any stage of its development, or ruin it.

But hey, that’s not going to stop you, is it?

Back next time with Tim Loane and his excellent TV Drama writing session!

Be there.

Or don’t.

Monday, 5 July 2010

360° Festival 2010, Report 2: Writing Sitcom

After Paul Ashton's great introduction, Humphrey Barclay and Vanessa Haynes were next up with a session on writing sitcom.

Humphrey is a comedy legend who directed The Cambridge Footlights (John Cleese et al) and lots of radio and TV sitcoms, including Doctor in the House, A Fine Romance, Desmond’s, Spaced, etc. He is now, bizzarely, a Chief in Ghana!

Anyhoo, his Q & A was with Vanessa Haynes, who he worked with during the nineties. Vanessa has worked as a script editor on The Bill and now develops comedy and drama for Kudos Generator in the new office they have set up in Belfast, with the hope of finding new writing talent to take to network television and the nation. So, that’s all right then.

So, how did Humphrey start out?

He went to Cambridge, where he joined the drama groups, got lots of comedy parts, and was picked to do The Footlights. It was at about that time that the Monty Python lot came along and they all worked together, with Humphrey taking on the role of director. BBC radio, looking for new comedy talent, turned up and offered them all loads of work. Oh, the good old days! As a result, Humphrey developed and produced a lot of radio comedy. When Rediffusion was setting up (for you youngun’s, Redifussion was one of the original ITV contract holders for London) they offered him a job. Once there, Humphrey helped create shows such as “Do Not Adjust Your Set”. He also got Eric Idle from Monty Python to come up with ideas and people – Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Denise Coffey, David Jason.

Sitcom –there are some great ones and some truly awful ones. What is sitcom? What defines it?

Humphrey came up with a great definition of what makes a sitcom a sitcom. He really nailed it. Except our hero (me) didn’t manage to write it down in time. But it went something like this:

“An open-ended thirty minute TV series of comedy in narrative form, with some characters, in some setting, in some episodes. It’s called comedy because it’s primary intention is to amuse. And situation because it is always held/set in a permanent situation – occupational, familial, etc.”

And there you have it. Now, didn’t you think you knew that already. More to the point, could you write one? There were a few more words of wisdom Humphrey had to impart, which may help you on the way to sitcom heaven.

  • The audience has a deep desire for the familiar. Like chess, like Wimbledon. Now, keep with me on this one, cause Humphrey had a good point here. What he meant was that we all know the rules of chess (errr…) and Wimbledon (err…) and, more to the point, we know what to expect from a game. At the same time, each game is different. So, great desire for the familiar, but surprise them.
  • It has to be enclosed, so that we don’t waste time with setting and setting up. Compare the amount of sets and settings for something like My Family or Gavin and Stacey and dramas like Spooks.


Character based – Fawlty Towers

Relationship – Men Behaving Badly

Team – Doctor in the House

Romantic – Gavin and Stacey

Satire – The Thick Of It

Family – My Family

Occupational – The Vicar of Dibley

Star-based – The Cosby Show

Sci-Fi – Red Dwarf

What do they all have in common? They are all comic stories, featuring funny, original, interesting characters in conflicting relationships, built around a strong central idea that inexhaustibly generates comedy. That’s another sitcom definition in my book!


Humphrey gave the example of Desmonds (have a look at this pronto, young whipper-hipper-snappers). It’s basically a barber-shop comedy, but the barber-shop is West-Indian. It’s a family setup. It’s also a work comedy. And in the tradition of West-Indian barber shops, it’s the local drop-in centre for all and sundry. So far, so great, in terms of having a setting which allows for inexhaustible comedy ideas. A couple of other important points:

  • Universal: you could take that show and set it anywhere. It was universal. And that is another important factor that you should have if you want a hit on your hands and lots of money in the bank – your concept has to be universal. However…
  • Don’t try to appeal to everyone, or it won’t have a voice.
  • Find your producer. They’re all different, and they all like different things. This is a good thing. The producer is out there who is gonna love your idea as much as you do, even when no-one else gets it.

And what makes a bad sitcom?

· Too long.

· Lack of focus.

It really comes down to characters in the end, and the two most important things to realize about character are:

  • When they walk on we should know who and what they are.
  • You, as a writer, walk all around them, and see all the other sides of them. Yes, you have to write types, but not stereotypes. Archetypes. And if you don’t know the difference between the two, don’t worry, that’s why I’m here. Well, that’s why wikipedia’s here. Have a gander at this.


15 page introductions to ideas and scripts are NO GOOD and NO USE. It has to be on ONE (count ‘em…) ONE page.

Look at American sitcoms. They don’t have long speeches. Ours do. Which is better?

What makes the sitcom work has to be in Episode One. ie we have to know why we love it in episode one, and also what we are getting, so avoid making episode one all set up and not funny. It has to be the funniest episode. We will get the premise as it goes along, just give us a typically funny episode.

DON’T put things in brackets that the viewer doesn’t know and can’t see (ie character description). However, write things in the order they are seen. Ie. In the order you want the shots to pan out.


Played like theatre in front of a studio audience, with sets across a stage. There is ONE week of rehearsal and it is played out in real time, like a play, usually with 4 cameras in front of the stage to pick everything up and to move between sets, and then everything is mixed in the control room upstairs. Well, it used to be. Nowadays, it tends to be all recorded at this point and then mixed together later, which allows the director to choose the best shots. There are no LAUGHTER TRACKS, contrary to popular belief. Although, Humphrey did admit that the laughter was sometimes “augmented”.

Studio sitcoms also tend to have more jokes, which you should consider when deciding whether to write multi-camera with an audience or single camera. An audience-based sitcom usually has about 3 jokes to the page – if you have an audience sitting there, you have to keep the laughter coming.

When they were deciding on Spaced they decided NOT to go for a studio audience as the texture of the script was so reverential to film that it had to be cinematic in the way it was shot.


Shot like drama. Often on location. No audience. Not so many jokes.

Last minute advice from Humphrey?

Make page 1 fly!

Make sure your idea is open-ended, so don’t change or develop the situation too much. Surf your franchise – don’t change it!

The ideal pitch? 1 line, followed by a 3 line, followed by a paragraph.

And that's it! Thanks to Humphrey and Vanessa.