Tomorrow night I’m popping along the East Lancs, into Bandit Country (a.k.a. “Manchester”), to lend moral and vocal support to a wonderfully talented friend, Debi, who has landed a spot in the finals of the Sitcom Trials 2011. In a crowded room at The Lass O’Gowrie on Charles Street, just around the corner from BBC Outer London, the six shortlisted writers will sit, bums in knots, as their scripts are performed to the big wide world, praying that someone in the room (who doesn’t know them and hasn’t been paid) will laugh at the right times. Laugh at all. Afterwards, the raucous audience will vote on their favourite, with the winner getting to hob nob over scampi fries and snakebite with some pretty important telly execs, who will think that their cunning disguises of thick-rimmed glasses, Chanel man-bags and platinum AMEX cards have done a pretty good job of helping them blend in with the rest of the proleteriat here in London North. In an ideal world, Debi will walk it, because she’s easily the funniest woman I know (and I know a few…) plus, I’ve read her script, which should give her a good head start on the others, because it’s actually funny. So, fingers crossed, then.
Debi and I first met at a Turkish villa in the spring of 2005, when we’d spent a week in the company of a very famous playwright, trying to convince ourselves that writing was a “proper” job, and not just something impressively wanky to write on our passport renewal forms. The other members of our motley crew included an Irish P.R. woman, who could drink more than me (very rare); a Rubenesque Canadian foghorn, who always chose dinner times to tell us how much she was missing sex with her equally-robust husband; and a beautiful Lebanese girl, who liked to eat whole fish, bones and all, chomping her way through the heads as the rest of us tried, but failed, to ignore her. Thankfully, I was rooming with Debi; a good, honest Yorkshire lass, whose first words to me were something along the lines of “I’m really sorry you have to share with me, I’ll annoy you so much, I know I will, ‘cos I talk to myself without realising, and I commentate on stuff for no reason, and I’ll drive you mad, and I’ve no idea what I’m doing here, I’m not a writer, what was I thinking???? Oh God, oh God, oh GOD!!!”
She was easily the sanest person there, we became fast friends, and in the years since have shared many highs and (mostly) lows as we’ve navigated (read: drowned) in the uncharted, and woefully unprotected, waters of Writerdom. Debi once won a prestigious BBC competition, with a prize worth thousands; a prize that could have opened some well-deserved doors, a prize she won by working her bollocks off producing something brilliant, a prize she, ultimately, never received. Winning tomorrow, then, could be her chance to stick two fingers up, right in front of the very people who shafted her first time around.
Also on brow-mopping duty, is another writer, called Guy; a jolly Mancunian with an Anfield obsession, who understandably never fitted in at school. Ironically, or perhaps completely predictably, I also met Guy at a writer’s house, this time the French pied-a-terre of another screenwriting demi-god, where he (Guy) was sitting by the pool, his booming voice thundering across the Bergerac countryside as he regaled the assembled group with tales of his fruitless attempts to finish the script he was writing. I’m not sure I actually spoke to Guy at all that first night, although I do remember marching downstairs to the kitchen, directly below my bedroom, as he and said-deity guffawed and belched their way through two bottles of whisky at 4am, me announcing politely, but firmly, that “I don’t care how many f**king BAFTAs you’ve got, can you shut the f**k up?”.
By some miracle, I was not asked to leave the next morning and, in the days that followed, I discovered that Guy and I shared similar humour, a general sense of injustice at the galaxy’s reluctance to recognise our genius, and a ridiculously naïve, yet unwaivering, belief that one day very, very soon, we were going to rule the world. If Vic & Bob, Father Ted and Bill Hicks had agreed to cross-pollinate, purely for comedy purposes, Guy would have been that baby. The problem with Guy, though, and arguably the reason he hasn’t had anything on telly yet, is that he’s too funny. Producers don’t know how to control him, directors just wouldn’t “get” him, and commissioners have neither a box they can fit him into, nor the balls to take a chance. The very essence of comedy – to make people laugh – is precisely the thing commissioners seem hell-bent on avoiding. Instead, they give us My Family, which has been sold to every country in the world, except Finland, who refused it because their suicide rate was “way too high as it is, kiitos!”
Guy was a great help when I came to attempt my own sitcom. I knew I’d landed on something that could be comedy gold, given the right alchemist. It was to be a cruel, but obviously hilarious, satire on celebrity culture, about a washed up Shakin’ Stevens impersonator who, each week, would embark on a bizarre plot to kill his hero, in a last, desperate attempt to make him fashionable again. It was daft, and a little bit surreal, but with little or no swearing, and was completely bereft of knob jokes which, in hindsight, was probably the biggest flaw, because every writer worth their salt knows that spec comedy scripts have to have at least ten knob jokes per page to have any chance of getting on telly.
I’d done the treatment, the episode guide, written the pilot and, with the help of my fearless friend Kath (who’d shoved the script in front of his face one drunken night in Islington), I’d even managed to bag my star, Mr Robin Of Sherwood (and personal hero), Michael Praed, who rang me personally – twice – to say he’d loved it. Of course, he was probably lying, I just don’t know. That’s how good he is. I was also just an 80s-Welsh-whisker away from getting Shaky himself to sign on for a few kudos-grabbing cameos. He’d even sent me a signed copy of his new CD, to thank me for writing something about him.
Guy had added some diamond gags and his unique brand of Guy-ness to the script, and so I was naturally gutted when I just couldn’t seem to get Kill Shaky onto any of the right desks; the same desks that, at the time, were commissioning comedy gems like Big Top, Life of Reilly and Mumbai Calling. As the months went by, Robin Hood wimped out and got a proper job wowing audiences as Captain von Trapp in a record-breaking run of The Sound of Music (which was a pretty poor excuse for bailing, if you ask me). Then, to make matters worse, Shaky twice threatened to ruin the whole thing; first by becoming mega-popular after twatting a photographer in Ballymena; and secondly, by nearly actually dying. Guy had suggested that, should Shaky really be that selfish, then I could always rewrite the script using Tony Hadley. Or Rick Astley. But I wasn’t convinced.
Anyway, two years on, and I’m still waiting to get the treatment past the Saturday girl who opens the mail at Sitcom Towers. I even attended a “How To Get Your Comedy Script Read By The People In Charge” seminar at the BBC last year, but left quietly when the first clip on their showreel of “Stuff We Think Is Funny” turned out to be Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. So, not funny at all, then. They’re obsessed with budgets, and what’s “in vogue” (whatever that means), and whether you can write anything similar enough to an existing sitcom hit, to save their backs if it all goes tits up (“Well it should have worked, because it was exactly the same as Big Top….”).
I was once privileged enough to get a meeting with a suit, about a (different) comedy idea, and he spent an hour telling me how in love with it he was (always a bad sign), only to conclude with “you see, the thing is, Susan, we’re looking for another Gavin & Stacey. If you could make it more Gavin & Stacey, then I think we’d really be interested….”. But it wasn’t Gavin & Stacey, it was nowhere near Gavin & Stacey. If it was, I’d have called it Gavin & Stacey.
So I hope tomorrow night is different for Debi. I know the audience will laugh at her script, which is the main thing after all, but to break through the glass wall and find the wider audience, it’s not always about what makes normal people laugh, it’s about what makes the “Execs” laugh, and they’re not normal people. Whatever happens, I’m absurdly proud of her for getting this far, and I’ll probably be spending most of the evening scrutinising the faces of these “Execs”, trying to work out what makes them tick, what it is they’re looking for, whether they actually care, or if they’ve only turned up because it’s handy for the strip club next door and there’s still a few expenses days left before the end of the month. Or, they might surprise everyone, and turn out to be decent, personable, really quite normal human beings, with a genuine desire to find original comedy talent, like Debi, and sign her up for a 6-parter right there on the spot. Because you never know. It’s a funny thing, comedy.
Sitcom Trials 2011, Friday 21st October, 8pm, The Lass O’Gowrie, Charles Street, Scumchester M1 7DB.