She Who Laughs Last is Still Laughing

So back in 2005, against all the odds and the basic principles of evolution, this writer made it through to the finals of BBC Three’s The Last Laugh.  She and her fellow finalists — writing partnership Tony and improbably tall Carl (who are now very successful, which is obviously fantast … no, actually, I’m ill with envy) — would be spending the final day of judging with Paul Mayhew-Archer, co-writer of The Vicar of Dibley and My Hero, script-editor and producer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

Before any actual judging took place, before The Last Laugh contestants managed to suck all the joy from the cosmic craic pipe that is Dara O’Briain, we were invited to an industry day in London where we would be introduced to various, er, industry people. Or something.

Yeah. I’m actually hazy on the details, the stuff I should remember, stuff that should be burnt on my grey matter like fag burns on a pub table because this was after all the single most exciting thing in my entire life.  Oh, um … of course the births of my children were … um, blah, blah. But this was for me and me alone. I did this, I made this happen, I had managed to shoulder open a door into another possibility.

So while my mind busied itself being blown away by the novelty of it all — Look! Broadcasting House! Look! A BBC name badge! Wow! A BBC ham sandwich! — it forgot to do its job and remember stuff. But then thinking about it, industry day was set against the backdrop of 7/7 so my excitement was probably heightened by the fear that I could get blown up at any second. It had been a long time since I’d lived in London and I had lost the ability to walk past a rubbish bin without flinching.

For what it’s worth, here are some impressions I have of that weekend: driving rain, arriving late, leftover sandwiches, a production assistant with poor eye contact, many bloke writers, few female writers, Ealing Studios, Broadcasting House, and a blind white-hot fury of the type to make you move things by the power of your mind.

Now, if you’re a professional scriptwriter you probably know that you should hold a piss-up one evening to have your script read. It’s standard writing practice. Not only is it a good excuse to get lashed, it’s actually amazingly helpful in hearing what works and what doesn’t. It’s an astounding thing, just how crap your words of gut-busting hilarity sound in the mouth of someone not you.

This would be a good point to say my script was seven kinds of slurry — paginated, yes, but slurry nevertheless. Terrible. I do little mind shudders when I think of it. In those days, you see, I didn’t realise a script needed a plot. I just thought it had to take the form of a nice chat between characters who may or may not get on and who would express this via a funny line three times on every page.

I wasn’t alone in this. All the contestants’ scripts, to varying degrees, were substandard. Disappointing. Our gauche naivety flapped in the wind like so much overwritten, poorly thought out word-washing. Long story short, the first time I ever heard my script read aloud — the first script I had ever written, mind — it was this particular weekend by a group of professional actors at Ealing Studios.

Yes, thank you. Ouch, indeed.

The evening was hosted by a chap with highlighted hair and smarm to spare — think Pat Sharp, the Glory Years — and he bounded about the stage like some magnificent fluffer of drooping bonhomie, encouraging us to cheer and clap before and after each performance.  Then it was the turn of my script to be placed into the mouths of these actors, the lead of whom was a passable stand-in for Dawn French, and … and …

… I didn’t recognise it. A slow realisation turned in the pit of my stomach as it tried to make itself comfortable — this was the unfunniest script since Bless This House. 

And then, just as I desperately cast about the studio for a fire exit, I realised the actors were performing my script in the wrong bloody order! It’s a point of pride that, even as I burned with a humiliation hotter than a thousand dying stars, I could muster enough of my tattered self-respect to issue a terse, “What the bloody fuck?” to Pat II.

I didn’t, of course. What I actually said — though obviously we’ve established I can’t remember — was, “Erm, love what you did but, y’know, I think it somehow got muddled”. (But “What the bloody fuck” was definitely the subtext.)

Pat beamed, his pity washing over me like a beatific balm. “Oh,” he said. “We decided it worked better this way, darling.”

And I said, “Well, to be frank, Pat, it didn’t. It made no fucking sense. If I wanted it that way I would’ve written it that way. I’m not being judged on the way you bloody prefer it, am I? I’m being judged on the way I’ve written it, specifically with the scenes in that order, one after the other, not as some poor representation of the Fibonacci sequence. Perhaps you and your hair would have liked to have discussed things with me before you unilaterally decided to trash an admittedly already appalling script and embarrass me in front of an audience of hundr… thirty or so.”

I didn’t, of course. What I actually said — though obviously we’ve established I can’t remember — was, “Oh, I see”.

[Next time: How I almost came to blows with Paul Mayhew-Archer over an egg sandwich]


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