Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Pressing 'pause'

In case you were wondering, the repeat of Series 1 of Hut 33 is taking a short break for the Edinburgh Festival. Episodes 3-6 will be broadcast in September. Fret not.

In the meantime, you may be interested to know that the complete first series of Concrete Cow - a sketch show wot a wrote from a few years ago - is now available on CD. It stars the Olivia Colman (Hut 33's Minka), Rob Webb (of Mitchell and Webb) and the now ludicrously famous Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Fingersmith etc). Sally also wrote some of the sketches with Catherine Shepherd, so they're clearly annoyingly talented. The show also starred Chris Pavlo and Steven Kynman. It also contained sketches written by Jon Holmes (The Now Show) and Robin Ince (whom I saw on Richard and Judy the other day). The show even got some good reviews.

Anyway, it's available from places like this.

Monday, 11 August 2008

History Repeating

It seems odd that Episode 2 of Hut 33 should be about one of the characters potentially leaving, but it proved to spark a good spat between Archie and Charles.

A foreign posting in Iraq becomes available and naturally it is assumed that Charles will be the one to be sent - he is the linguist after all and knows the area. But Archie won't stand for it. Why should Charles get the foreign posting? He's only just arrived for a start. A game of cat and mouse ensues and the foreign posting is not quite what it appears. Eventually, they have to join forces to wriggle out of their commitments. They are only saved by exterior events and a Fascist coup in Baghdad which was temporarily taken over by the Germans.

And so begins the theme of "being sent abroad" in Hut 33. It's been a common threat in Hut 33 (as it was in Allo Allo; the German soldiers were all worried about being to sent to the Russian Front, which meant certain death, or worse.) In Series 2 of Hut 33, the big threat was being sent to Burma, a land of poisonous snakes and terrifying diseases. Who knows what threats Series 3 will hold?

In any given sitcom, there needs to be jeopardy. One needs to ask 'What's at stake?' If there are no consequences to failure the audience will rapidly lose interest because they don't care about the characters. In reality, the consequences of failure at Bletchley were often too awful to think about, but since our regular characters are not really at the coalface of code-breaking, there is less at stake. So failure, for them, needs to be punished in other ways. Being sent abroad was one of them.

Of course, the greatest thing to be avoided is 'losing face' or being seen to be wrong. Pride is one of the great sitcom motivators - and in that it really does resemble real life.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Series 1 Repeat

Here's a bit of good news for Hut 33 fans.

Series 1 is being repeated on Radio 4 in the 6.30pm slot. From tomorrow - Tuesday 5th August. Two episodes will be broadcast. Then a break for some Edinburgh stuff. And then the rest of the series will go out in September. That's the plan, I think.

The series begins with the pilot episode in which Professor Charles Gardiner, from St Sebastian's College, Oxford, arrives and encounters unexpected hostility from Archie - for rather personal reasons. Meanwhile, there's an Inter-Hut Bridge tournament that 3rd Lieutenant Joshua Fanshawe-Marshall is keen the Hut wins.

The Problem of Pilot Episodes
This episode, unsurprisingly, was the first episode I wrote. And every sit-com writer always starts with the dilemma of how to start a new sitcom. The pilot episode is by far the hardest one to write. Do you simply get on with it and hope that people pick up the characters and then get the jokes? Or do you work out a way to introduce characters one by one?

The problem with any new sitcom is that sitcoms should rely on character for comedy and plot. They are all part of the same package. Characters say and do funny things because of who they are. 'Wise-cracking' gets boring after a while. We like characters we can identify with who do things and say things because of their own flaws and prejudices. But how do you get laughs from the start when the characters are unfamiliar?

Here are a few cheats that I've learned in the last few years and used to good-ish effect (or not, if you hate the show.)

The first is start with as few characters as possible and put them in a sketch-like situation. So the episode begins with some basic code-breaking jokes that are easy to get, not least because one of the characters, Joshua, is monumentally stupid (that's the other trick - a stupid person who needs stuff explained to them (and so we, the audience, benefit from that explanation)). Joshua thinks German is already a code. A basic joke of misunderstanding. We can all laugh and we're not too worried about who everyone is but the show is underway. We're familiar with some of the voices. There's a Geordie, a young-sounding man, a posh, stupid military-type who sounds like he's in charge and then a strange Polish woman called Minka comes in. We've established some sort of hierarchy in our heads and are already building the set in our mind's eye.

The characters themselves are 'big'. That's a intentional decision and, in my opinion, the most effective way of doing audience comedy. I enjoy nuanced, subtle comedy too. But comedy characters need to have simple driving forces and comic attitudes to be quickly understandable and, therefore, funny. So we quickly find out that Archie is an inverse-snob; Gordon is an innocent bag of nerves; Josh is a patriotic moron; Minka is a psychopath.

After a few pages getting to know these characters, we can meet Mrs Best - who is a very liberal nymphomaniac. Then we can introduce a 'new boy' who can be our eyes in unfamiliar surroundings. He's introduced to people - and we discover he is a pompous snob. He has things explained to him and it's quickly established that we have a problematic central relationship. Archie and Charles are not going to get on. Hooray. We have a fight on our hands. Comedy is about conflict. Who's going to win? Well, I've written twelve episodes of the show and I'd say they're both definitely losing.

If you're new to the show, I hope you enjoy it. If you've heard it and can't understand why Radio 4 insist on broadcasting this rubbish, I say 'each to his own'.