London Screenwriters' Festival

The Comedy Broadcasters: NOW What Do They Want?

Posted on: October 28th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay No Comments

While everyone was swooning at the feet of Edgar Wright this afternoon, I was in an adjacent room at a superb, informative discussion about the state of British tv comedy, called The Comedy Broadcasters: NOW What Do They Want?, hosted by Paul Bassett-Davies. Guests included Mark Talbot of Hat Trick and writer-producer Jeff Atkinson and Chris Sussman, comedy commissioning executive at the BBC.

Paul started by apologizing for the lack of women on the panel. The good part of the story is that the female member of the panel couldn’t attend because she’s very busy with a project in production. Since there’s such an emphasis on pitching at the Screenwriters’ Festival, Paul opened by asking the producers present what they are thinking when a writer comes to them with a pitch. The first, universal answer was “Is it funny?” You would think that would go without saying, but apparently not. In my case, the simple and obvious often eludes me. It’s nice to be reminded. The rules for comedy pitching – and indeed writing – are no different from drama. Producers are looking for a page turner. Is there a character that they really want to know about. Writing comedy is more than “just writing jokes” and they said it was easy to spot when somone was just trying to do “funny” without a character or a compelling situation to back it up.

I’ve already heard several speakers today talk about the importance of finding and adhering to your own voice. Again, comedy is no different. Jeff Atkinson said that in Britain, we are lucky to have writers who have maintained a clear voice and that it was important not to lose that. There’s a certain amount of faith and courage that it takes to stick to that original voice – especially when writers are so eager to please producers. But the faith that you believe in what you are presenting really shines through, it would seem. Jeff Atkinson has been working with Jo Brand’s “Getting On” and cited that as a prime example of a show that has something to say first of all, a unique personal voice (Jo Brand did once work as a nurse, like her series character). That conviction, combined with personal experience, and in Jo’s case talent and real experience, produces something quite memorable.

How does a comedy writer get their work to these guys (and others like them)? The BBC looks at scripts almost exclusively through production companies. So if you want to pitch a BBC series, hook up with a production company first. 25% of their comedy material is developed in house, but even these are likely to be farmed out to production companies once they’re fully developed. Another advantage of going to a production company instead of the BBC is that if the Beeb says no, that production company can always go to someone else. Writers can often approach production companies themselves. Mark Talbot said that Hat Trick’s policy is that they never read unsolicited manuscripts – but not really. Officially, most UK companies do not read unsolicited work, but the truth is they probably do, if you approach them in the right way. It was also repeated that, from a producers point of view, a submission from an agent is no guarantee of quality. An agent will not get you a commission. You will do it. But when the deal has to be made and money comes into the picture, that’s when having an agent is essential – and when it will be no problem finding one.

It’s a boom time potentially for British comedy now, especially with Sky putting so much money into comedy. There was some disagreement on the panel about the value of online content as a calling card for writers. Some said you should never write for free – there’s always a way to monetize it. Others said it was a useful investment if what you had was really going to attract attention. There was a consensus that there is a new kind of writer coming down the pike – especially as transmedia/cross-platform content takes greater hold. Don’t be shackled by traditional restraints, was the message. Don’t self edit.


Neal Romanek

Leave a Reply