Friday, 20 June 2008

Getting Heavy - Episode 5

The official blurb said:

Getting Heavy
Hut 33's record is the worst in the complex. Charles is mortified with shame, Archie is desperate to prove himself and Gordon wants to impress a girl he has just met. They break into Hut 7b to get extra information on a message they are decoding, which turns out not to be a good idea.

Getting Heavy, the episode of Hut 33 that aired on Wednesday 18th June, was easily the mot difficult episode to write. It happens every series I've ever done. You write episodes 1 to 4 fairly easily as you're fresh and excited about a new series and bursting with ideas. Episode 5 is like pulling teeth. It takes lots of drafts and just doesn't want to settle down. And Episode 6 comes together extremely quickly (see last blog post).

So Getting Heavy was one of those tricky ones that took six full drafts to crack. It was only in the fifth draft that I deleted a whole plot strand about radioactivity. That was what I wanted to do an episode about - our characters not really understanding Uranium, touching some and then being bundled in a van and taken off to some secret facility where they would be tested, poked and prodded. There was even a part where they thought they might have special super-powers as a result of the exposure to radiation - which sounds rather preposterous but let's not forget that in 1941, not an awful lot was widely known about radiation. The first H-Bomb was still to be invented In the end, we had a Quarantine episode in a different show, so the idea of being sealed off was covered in the series.

What I was able to retain, however, was the rivalry about sex-lives between Archie and Charles - and then Gordon. Archie is full of bravado, but short on delivery. Charles is aloof and unimpressed by innuendo, but has finally given into Mrs Best's pestering. Then step forward Gordon, who becomes the star of this show. Once he finds his woman, loses his virginity - he thinks - he becomes a man.

Two parallels spring to mind. One is Arnold Rimmer's alter-ego in Red Dwarf who is known as Ace - and says 'Smoke me a kipper. I'll be back for breakfast' played by the splendid Chris Barrie. The other is Harry Enfield's whining Kevin character, the teenager who hangs around with Kevin and complains about everything. He radically transforms once he's had sex, becoming polite to his parents and very contented.

I should add that I don't share this view about losing one's virginity. It doesn't 'make you a man' or turn you into a contented polite person. We're back to the theme of myself as the writer having different views from the characters that I write. I hope, if anything, that this episode demonstrates that the hypocrisy and lying that goes on around sex is rather feeble and very pervasive. And let's be honest about this. The War was a time of pre-marital and extra-marital sex on a large scale. I don't condone it. I hope to painting a picture of Wartime Britain as it was rather than how we would chose to remember it. With a few jokes along with way.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Where Boffins Dare

Episode 4 in Hut 33 is called ‘Where Boffins Dare’. The episode was, in fact, the sixth and last one to be written and recorded in the series. Like most final episodes in a series of six, it was of a frantic scramble to get written in time. You might think that the last episode is the hardest to write because you’re all out of ideas and have to scratch your head for weeks to find something for the characters to do – that you haven’t done before. This can be the case on individual jokes. Eg. Minka’s silent entrances need a different joke each time. Coming up with three or four is tricky. A fifth and then a sixth is really hard work.

Hearing Voices
Overall, however, Episode Sixes, as a rule, tend to get written fairly quickly. This is normally because Episodes One to Five take longer to write than you’d planned. But the shortage of time for Episode Six is not a disaster by any means. Having written five episodes in the series already, you find you’re writing faster and more ‘in character’ from the start. As a result, your Draft 1 is probably as strong as your Draft 2 on Episode One or Two. As the writer of the whole series, you’ve learnt the lessons again about what’s funny and what isn’t. You’ve re-learned the mechanics of writing radio comedy – and how that differs from television, prose and everything. Also, you can ‘hear’ the voices of all the characters almost instantly – and these voices sometimes lead you away from where you’re wanting to go in any particular scene. So you just have to follow the voices.

Being able to ‘hear’ the voices of your characters in response to any given subject is very important. If you can, you know you’ve got a show that stands a chance of being a success. I was once given some very good advice a long time ago by Gareth Edwards, a BBC producer and thoroughly decent human being. He said that you should be able to take your regular characters, put them into an odd or unusual situation, and know immediately how how the characters will react. If you can’t do that, you need to do more work on the characters. Eg. In your mind, put them in a scene from Alice in Wonderland. How would they respond? What would they say or do?

I did this when I was putting together the show Think the Unthinkable. In my mind, I sent my characters into a coffee shop – hardly Wonderland but effective nonetheless. Also, bear in mind it was nearly ten years ago when places like Starbucks were rather exciting, rather than functional and part of everyday life. Anyway, I knew straight away what my characters would order. Ryan (Marcus Brigstocke) would order some ludicrously overpriced frappelatte that barely resembles coffee (and probably doesn’t even contain any). Sophie (Emma Kennedy/Beth Chalmers) would order a triple espresso. Daisy (Catherine Shepherd) a skinny decaf fairtrade cappucinno with organic chocolate on top. Owen (David Mitchell) would just want coffee and keep saying coffee ‘til he got one – ideally with milk extracted from animal in a slightly cruel way. (Incidentally, Series 1 of that show is now available on CD here)

Last week, episode 3 of Hut 33 called ‘Yellow’, started with a slightly arbitrary scene that tested their character in a slightly unusual way - a simple game of Monopoly. Our regular three characters, plus Mrs Best, play this relatively new game. It should be no big deal. But it’s a great opportunity to express character, prejudice, snobbery and general anger. It was useful to the plot of that episode because it highlighted was a terrible Christmas they were having. And therefore the prospected of having to spend New Year’s Eve together in Quarantine was simply too much to bear – hence the tunnelling and escape plans. In the end, the game of monopoly turned into a large political dispute about the ownership of property which was true to the characters. And the audience seemed to enjoy it – because they were starting to know the characters as well as I did.

In essence, one of the main tricks of sitcom is taking characters out of their comfort zone – without it seeming contrived or ridiculous. It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve been successful in that.

Mistakes in Writing Sitcom
Along the way, then, we can note that this is an area where many first-time writers fall down. New writers are tempted to make their characters sit around and say ‘funny things’ rather than get up, move around and ‘be’ funny. First-time script frequently focus around funny, witty characters swapping jokes and witticisms. This is okay for three pages – Hut 33 attempts to have our characters in the Hut for the first three or four pages talking about stuff to set up the episode and reintroduce the characters – but it doesn’t sustain for forty pages, which is what you need. You need to give them stuff to do, reasons to react with each other and new characters. Put them in Wonderland.

That was the reasoning behind an Australian Doctor in Episode 3 played by Brendon Burns. How would the characters react to this ‘in-your-face’ character? It was a great chance for Charles to demonstrate his colonial prejudice, which come back to bite him later. It’s also funnier to have him confronted with a real-live Australian than simply have Charles sit around and make jokes about Australians. And it’s funnier for this Australian to be equally acerbic as Charles and be able to take revenge on him.

It was also one of the reasons for using the Duke of Kent character in Episode 1. It’s funnier to have Archie, as a working man from a traditional Newcastle mining family, actually have to flirt with a leery bisexual prince, rather than just make a series of jokes about homosexuality. The fact I didn't have to invent such a character was a bonus.

It’s also why I had the characters roaming the countryside in Episode 4, looking for a spy and receiving a live pig in Episode 2 – because these difficult and fraught scenarios set the characters against each other. And then I can hear them talk to each other, bicker, argue and call each other names.

So, yes, I hear voices. Please do not contact the BBC Psychiatric Unit on my behalf. I’m fine with it. In fact, my career depends on it.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A busload of Quakers

Episode 2 of Hut 33 was called ‘Pigs n Spivs.’ This implies that there is more than one pig and spiv in the episode, but there isn’t. There is one spiv who sells our starving codebreakers a job-lot of bacon. Which is still in pig form. Unfortunately, they discover the origins of this pig and could be in serious trouble.

The general theme of the episode is shortages and hunger. In that sense, it’s similar to an episode in Series 1 in which Charles is so hungry and fed up that officers have much better meals than him, he joins the Bletchley Marxists.

As the writer of the show, I don’t feel all that guilty reprising an episode theme in the second series. Food was in short supply for the whole war and an unpleasant reality for all but the wealthiest. World War Two ration were meagre. Most of us today could eat their weekly ration in a day. So it's good to keep coming back to that.

Quakers, Baptists and Jokes
One last point of interest on this episode. Hopefully my explanation of it will give a small insight into how you sometimes make a joke fit the context. I spotted a comment on someone’s blog about Hut 33. (Clearly as the writer of the show, I’m constantly googling ‘Hut 33’ in order to find out what people think of it). This blogger, a wife of a Baptist minister, blogged about her irritation that the writer of Hut 33 seemed ignorant of certain religious groups and their drinking habits. What am I talking about?

The joke in question is Archie’s joke in response to his discovery that the pub has completely run out of alcohol. He says “So we’re now standing in the world’s first teetotal pub. We expecting a bus-load of Quakers?” And the audience laughed. But the blog pointed out that it is Methodists that refrain from drinking, not Quakers. I knew that. Honestly, I did. I’m a professing Christian myself and have a degree in Theology! But I chose Quakers for the joke. Why?

Shared Knowledge
Comedy relies on shared knowledge and simplicity. If the audience have to think about a joke for too long, or are unsure about any part of it, they can’t laugh. And they don’t laugh. Simplicity and clarity is everything. This partly explains why people get upset about stereotypes. They are a reality in comedy because it relies about compressing information and leaving plenty of things unsaid. In this case, I chose Quakers because I’m not sure how widely know it is that its Methodists don’t drink. It’s also the case that many Baptists don’t drink either. How widely known is that? Less so now than before. However, I judged that the audience would have no problem believing that Quakers don’t drink – partly because in my mind there seems to be some kind of overlap between Quakers, Puritans and the Amish, at least in terms of their public perception. In reality there are vast differences between these groups of Christian believers. The puritans in particular were a remarkable bunch of Christian folk who were nothing like the the adjective named after them - 'puritanical'.

Returning to the joke in question, we have to bear in min that this is a joke for 2008. So I chose Quaker. Even though the joke is set in 1941, when the vast majority would have been clear that Methodists don’t drink.

Add to the equation the fact that characters are the creations of writers – and do not represent the views of the writer, or share their factual knowledge. So Archie, Charles and the team, and especially Josh, say plenty of things that are wrong, or grammatically incorrect. But don’t shoot the writer!

Incidentally, the Quaker website says:
One testimony that Quakers have had to give careful thought to is our testimony on moderation. In the nineteenth century Quakers saw the bad effects that drink and drunkenness had in society. Along with other Non-conformist Christians they campaigned against alcohol. Many Quakers were active in the Temperance Movement - a movement of people who "took the pledge" (promising that they would never drink alcohol) as a witness against the evils it caused.