Friday, 27 February 2009


My early morning sit-com viewing continues. And the other day I watched Bread - a sitcom about an extended family, the Boswells, in Liverpool that scrapped to make a living. There is a strong mother at the centre of it who is fiercely loyal to her children, who all live together in a house, with grandad Boswell next door, and the estranged Freddie Boswell turning up now and then.

I watched almost every episode as a child, or teenager, and have great affection for the show, but watching one episode as a one-off one morning last week was rather enlightening. Let me explain why as I note a few thing.

1. Watching the episode in isolation was rather unrewarding. Because it wasn't all that funny. This is not to say that there were lots of jokes in it that didn't work or fell flat. Carla Lane, the writer of the show, knows what she's doing. There were exactly as many laughs are there were meant to be. The comedy, when it happens, is a little sparse at times.

2. Why were the jokes not as thick and fast as I'd have liked? Because the characters are so big and well-developed. They all had stories of their own, and the show covered all of them unashamedly. In one sense, the show is unwieldy. But I really felt that I'd 'heard from' all of the characters by the end of the episode. As a result, I didn't laugh all that much, but I was a little moved at times (in a way that one is not with Bilko or the Big Bang Theory - both fine shows in their own right). At the end of the episode, which was left on a cliff-hanger, I felt I was watching a comedy soap. Again, this is not a bad thing, necessarily. Just an observation.

3. This, then, sounds like a curious show and, given it moves slowly, takes its time over jokes and has lots of characters, would not imply success. And yet its one of the most successful sitcom in BBC history. It was a monster hit show. It ran for years, survived at least three changes in regular cast members (Joey, Aveline, Billy's Julie). And episodes regular drawing ratings of 14 million+. I seem to remember one episode nearly hit 20 million. Yes, there was less choice back that, but that's a juggernaut of a show by anyone's standards. I note, then, that Carla Lane was doing something right. But what?

4. We care about the characters. We really care. When the show doesn't give us a laugh every second, it's okay because she's created a group of people that we want to be with, and we want to succeed. Interestingly, the character that generates the most laughs per minute, in her short time on screen, is the long-suffering stern woman who works in the local Benefits office (DHSS). And she's only in one scene per show.

5. The show had a strong local flavour without being exclusive or annoying. (Even though I find the Scouser accent hard work after a while). It can be done.

6. The show, when you count them up, had quite a lot of catchphrases. Joey's 'Greetings!'. Aveline's 'Modelling'. Mother Boswell answers the phone 'Hello, yes'. And screams, about her ex-husband's girlfriend, 'Lilo Lil' - 'She is a TART!'. There are others. But those have stayed with me for a very very long time. Watching the episode of Bread the other day was like catching up with old friends.

There's lots to learn from Carla Lane's monster hit, Bread.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

M*A*S*H - Blood and Guts

Every morning from 7am 'til 8am, I look after my daughter - during which time I'm able to watch about twenty minutes of television. So this morning, I watched an episode of M*A*S*H - from the 10th series. It was called "Blood and Guts" - which sitcom geeks tell me was originally aired in Jan 1982. In this episode, Hawkeye is outraged when a sensationalistic war correspondent, Clayton Kibbee, reports irresponsible G.I. stunts as tales of military valor. What can we learn from it?

M*A*S*H works best when the characters are all getting on each other's nerves. It occurred to me that Hut 33's Archie vs Charles antagonism is akin to Hawkeye vs Winchester. But let's be honest, when you're on your 200th episode of a sitcom, you can be forgiven from bringing in outside characters and seeing how the characters react. The outside character in question is a famous fictional war correspondent - and everyone likes him. He's brought out some pints of blood with him from the readers of his newspaper, and is writing a story about how each pint is used. Unfortunately, the first two pints are used on dumb GIs injured via self-inflicted accidents, not combat. But Kibbee writes up a tail of derring-do anyway. Hawkeye is appalled and tries to get others to see that Kibbee is a phoney.

Kibbee's motives are unclear in this episode - is he twisting the facts to publish a good story for the paper? Is he trying to help the war effort by creating heroes for the readers at home? Clearly he'd be doing the 4077 no favours if he said they had to treat stupid GIs who were foolishly injured. But since Kibbee is not a central character, his motives are less interesting to us than Hawkeye's. And it's very easy to forget that when creating character that only last one episode. The audience like the regular cast - and tend to have their favourites within that. And they rarely, if ever, derive much pleasure from outside characters.

But here's the exception. Seinfeld made a virtue of creating funny one-off characters. Like the Soup Nazi. Or Elaine's Dad. Or the Bubble Boy. It can be done. But very little pressure is placed on these characters. It's all about how the regulars react - and then act, and move the story on. One should avoid outside characters being the central plot engine of the story.

For Hut 33 Series 3

One of the reasons for examining other sitcoms is to learn - and make improvements to my own writing so that Series 3 of Hut 33 is better than the last two. In Series 2, there were probably too many outside characters coming in: The Duke of Kent, the German Spy, The American. I was perfectly happy with the episodes, but the focus of the show must always be the main characters. To that end, for series 3, I have outlines for four scripts which contain no outside characters at all. Two more episodes are still to be storylined. But those episodes will be numbers 17 & 18 in the overall canon of Hut 33, so there's no excuse. I'm still some way short of an episode 200.

One other point about M*A*S*H, which is a military show, as is Hut 33. Military shows are useful from a sitcom point of view because comedy require simplicity, and comprehensibility. And in the army, everyone has clear ranks, roles and duties. There is a hierarchy that must be observed. Wars that need to be won. Anything that subverts that order is, or can be, funny. Moreover, the beauty of M*A*S*H, from a writing point of view, is that the job of the main characters is clear - cure patients, save lives and generally help out.

The role of Hut 33 is altogether harder to convey. Code-breaking is incredibly hard to do, and even harder to explain. It helps that we have a thickie character in Josh, to whom things have to be explained very simply (and to the audience), but it doesn't always work. Again, I'll be trying to tackle that head-on in this series, but add to that fact that its radio (so everything has to be said, not seen), and it's all rather demanding. So I'd better get on with writing a script now...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Starting Writing an Episode

And so I begin to write Series 3 of Hut 33. Yes, it really is written - not made up on the spot, which is, I'm sure, how it sounds to some.

For those interested in the process of writing, I plan to put things on this site every now and then - and in particular how I go about writing a six-part radio sitcom. Of course, I've already slipped up by calling it a 'six-part' series, which implies some kind of story arc. There isn't one, even though this series finds us in 1942, rather than 1941. So, for the characters in Hut 33, the war is going ever so slightly better. The Russians and Americans are in the war, but the Germans are still doing very well.

Starting to Write the Episode
So, today, I'm going to write the first page of the first episode of the Series 3. Although, because it has no real 'serial' component, it may turn out to be the second or fifth episode. Who knows? This episode is notionally set in January 1942, partly because one has to imagine it is cold, both in the hut, and in the Arctic Circle - which will be referred to a number of times throughout the show.

How do I know that? How do I know what's going to happen until I've written it?

Because I'm writing the script based on an scene-by-scene outline that is, in itself, 2000 words in length. A script normally ends up being about 5500 words (which reads at about 31/31 minutes, and is then edited. That's another story). The scene-by-scene outline I'm using is a fifth draft. I've been through it a number of times and the story is, I think, fairly solid. Each scene has a paragraph or two about what happens, and sometimes a few lines of dialogue and jokes, so that every scene is like writing a little sketch.

Writing Schedules
I hope that this script will take me about a week to write. But I've probably already spent a week on the story, the scenes and the general ideas. Once I have that first draft (which may not be finished by Friday as I have a busy week, plus my daughter's first birthday party this afternoon), I will save it, ignore it, go onto another episode, and a few weeks later, come back, go through it and cut bits, add jokes and then finally send it to the producer - as Draft 1.

I expect that Draft 1 will be lumpy and far from perfect. The producer will spot bits and flaws and possible cuts. And I'll spend a few more days on it and write draft 2, that may be anywhere between 10-50% different from Draft 1. Hopefully, Draft 2 will be readable by the cast. Hearing it read makes a bit difference and we like to read through every script with as many of the cast as we can get at least a week before the recording - since there just isn't time to fix things on the day. Especially now we record two episodes at one recording.

The readthrough, then, will probably generate another day's work - possibly two. (this is per script, obviously) And then one more pass-through for a day with the producer, adding more jokes and deleting bits and we have a script that should be ready for recording. That's the theory, anyway - and how I've written Series 1 and 2 of Hut 33, Think the Unthinkable and The Pits....

But every writer is different. Some writers seem to thrive on leaving it too late, last minute scrambles and staying up all night. That sometimes happens for me. But not usually. I'm boring, like that. 2am is a brilliant time for sleeping, I find. Not writing...