Risk Taking in British Television

It’s interesting to read an article by BBC Controller Kim Shillinglaw looking for something “disruptive” and “anarchic” along the lines of SNL, The Tonight Show etc. The type of programming to go against the grain of the current crop of panel shows and other esoteric light entertainment containing mainly middle class presenters. Something “edgy” and “different” to break the current stale bland schedules. Clearly these guys want something to bring back they youth and make terrestrial television Kool again. Anyone old enough can shout out Def 2

From my experience of keeping my ear to the ground I find the same thing being echoed down the halls of commissioners’ offices. They ask for something different but get the same-old-same-old as it is a safe bet. Sometimes they take the same-old-same-old and try to sell it as a completely different beast. That’s why the same panel shows are commissioned with minor tweaks to the style but sold as bold new formats.

They all seem to have HBO / Lorne Michaels envy and want to find TheNextBigCulturalThing to add to the WaterCoolerTalkingPoint. The problem I see is that the established production companies have a stranglehold on the commissions so the pool for innovation is smaller. If you want something disruptive you need to find the right people who are not corporatized by the standards of television and actually bring in something fresh that reflects society now.

Also do these people know what the term “disruptive” actually means? What they want doesn’t seem like it will disrupt the media ecosystem, especially when it is to be shown at 10pm on BBC 2. Netflix disrupted the business model of waiting each week for the next episode by releasing all 13 parts of House of Cards in one go. That is the term used correctly here. I will let is slide as people love buzzwords like Zeitgeist.

Personally and again this is due to my peculiar taste but the last fresh original anarchic programmes were Nathan Barley and Tramadol Nights. I believe the latter was the last time something so funny and controversial was screened across the airwaves. Granted you can shout out that Toast of London is very funny but I wouldn’t say it’s groundbreaking, just a very funny series.

Commissioners want to discover the next Monty Python and bask in the glory of leaving a televisual legacy and if these people really want to think out of the box they need to talent spot people outside of the safe pool of comics and writers and start developing them. And I don’t mean box ticking. Real risk taking like Lorne does with assembling the writers.

Yes I know the Diversity debate rolls on and people are probably sick to death of hearing about it but compare SNL which has a diverse cast compared to British television. One only has to look at the oft mentioned british exodus to America, look at Armando Ianucci’s, success with his show. The HBO model was to get the talent and leave them alone and have some sort of faith. It worked for them.

As legend has it Only Fools and Horses only starting becoming a ratings grabber after series 3 but nowadays they feel they need to hit the ground running.

Essentially,widen the talent pool and you will be surprised what you will uncover. Be inclusive, not exclusive

Bringing EdgyBack

Disclaimer: This is a broad generalization when referring to specific episodes but I am making an overall point so don’t dick me over some late night show which you term a classic.

Each decade of television (and radio) has had an element of the radical that has changed the landscape and influenced the following generation from the Goon Show (1950’s), Tony Hancock (1960’s), Monty Python/ Q (1970’s), Blackadder/ The Young Ones/ Only Fools and Horses/ Spitting Image (1980’s), The Day Today, Big Train (1990’s), The Office, Nighty Night and Nathan Barley in the noughties.

Obviously there was a load of crap that fell by the wayside (Fresh Fields/ Curry and Chips/ Mind your Language) but the last one on my list is the point I am making albeit a broad one.

For me the last great comedy series was Nathan Barley and due to it’s reception was considered an artistic failure, which seemed to be a Chris Morris backlash. Since then there has been nothing challenging which is curious because comedy is about as fashionable as Anna Wintour these days.

Continue reading Bringing EdgyBack

Pitching a Comedy

I met a commissioning editor the other day….

I went to the RTS sponsored Speed Date The Comedy Gurus where you get a 3 minute session to pitch an idea to the actual heads of the channels. To people like me who have sent shorts and ideas to the established companies that sit on piles of other people’s genius ideas it is a revelation to actually see how they operate when it comes to what they want for their relevant strand.

My first 3 min speed chat was with Robert Popper and foolishly I tried to pitch two ideas whereas I should have concentrated on one. I came across like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now with my stream of consciousness speed talk, which was ultimately didn’t win anyone over but he did give me pointed notes on where I was going wrong.

My first pitch, Microphone Fiends, is a semi autobiographical story of 2 people in dead end jobs who decide to try stand-up on a whim and suddenly get drawn into the comedy world. If I were a commissioner I wouldn’t find that unique as comedy and stand-up ideas are everywhere and I realise that people will think that I’m jumping on the currently trendy bandwagon. To be clear for my conscience, it is an ensemble character piece I have been writing for a year and a half and not riding on any trends. The stand-up is just a backdrop to propel the two people’s friendship and the comics they meet. It’s about the eccentrics and the seediness of London’s nightlife. Also I know Ben Miller did a film called Huge which people would unfairly bundle together. My idea (as I kept saying) is a modern Nashville. These people don’t have time to sift through a script (life is too short) so I really should have summarised it to stand out which I have learned.

The second idea was a 6 part show called Fear and Loathing in IT, about an ex-pat American hedonist living in London and working for a large nebulous IT industry. Instantly I was told that was a bad idea as it has the words IT in it and easy connotations to the popular channel 4 series. Again my idea is poles apart from The IT Crowd but in terms of the pitch it could have been better to distance it from a popular brand.

Needless to say for the next two pitches I concentrated on one idea and sounded less demented (i could be wrong).

Three minutes feels like a short time to pitch your idea and one main thing I learned is to get to the point of the idea as a unique logline. Also be aware everyone has to do the quick pitch. I know heavyweight producers who trundle up to the commissioners and do the speed pitch so don’t feel that you are an lesser exception.

In the end just to get access to the talent and feel what goes into a pitch is priceless and good luck to all the people that attended. RTS needs to do more of these and find the undiscovered talent and bypass the development divisions (for an evening at least!).

And for me? I will carry on trying to convince people to realise my idea. I believe in it and hopefully someone will too but that’s another story!