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.