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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She Who Laughs Last Laughs Again …

Last time saw our heroine sending off her script to BBC Three’s The Last Laugh, a televised sitcom-writing competition. We rejoin her as she films the first stage of the televised judging at the Ark in London in front of a panel consisting of Ash Atalla, Adam Chase, Dara O’Briain and, er, Natalie Casey.

Writers aren’t happy about their appearance. That’s a given. Why else do you think we stand downwind of a camera or skulk in the wings, silently mouthing words we’ve given to other people? We write things down so we don’t have to say them ourselves, because that would make people look at us and then we’d feel funny and have flashbacks to the time we were bullied at school for knowing the difference between its and it’s.

Yep, I thought as the nice make-up lady with the rough hands painted my face orange, there’s no getting away from it. A programme about writers is doomed from the start. And then Dara O’Briain walked into the room and all I could think to say was — nothing, naturally. I did, however, manage to squeeze out a small mind stool running along the lines of, “What unfortunate looking kids we’d have. A Sontaran and a f**king Oompa-Loompa.” And the nice make-up lady smiled at me in the mirror and proceeded to apply a lipstick that made my teeth look yellow.

Because the problem didn’t lie with talking about my script. I was quite prepared to whiffle on about breaking the fourth wall in front of the panel (once Ash Atalla told me what that meant, shut up). I just didn’t want anybody watching me as I did so. I mean, it’s embarrassing, right? With or without yellow teeth.

Up until the point when I was sitting in that chair, my face being bronzed to the hue of Katie Price’s denuded mons, I hadn’t thought much about what writing for a television programme about writing television sitcoms would mean. It means being on television. Yes. And I bet the producer wished he’d stayed longer under that particular thought shower too.

Writers are trapped on an unending Möbius strip of analytical misery. Oh, I expect there are a few authorial souls banging out words of wit and wisdom and still leading productive and happy lives. The bastards. But generally speaking, people who like words live internal lives, only looking out so they can better describe it on paper. It creates a hideous self-awareness.

“Oh, get over it,” you’re thinking.  “Boo-hoo, wah-wah, diddums-widdums, lickle, ickle … erm … shit.”

Sorry, did I say self-awareness? I meant an all-seeing awareness, like God but with limited smiting capability. So we see what a big, fat fake everything is — including ourselves, especially ourselves — and hate it, while at the same time bringing it all to bear to write, uh-huh, comedy.

Unsurprisingly, an abhorrence for fake doesn’t sit well with an industry capable of dreaming up such a bloody awful artifice as Lauren Goodger. Worse, experience was soon to teach me that wilful obstructionism in the face of bullshit makes for a seriously crap sound bite.

SCENE 1 — INT.  THE ARK.  DAY.

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT:  So then, Trudy, what’ll happen is that you’ll walk up there, then stop. The panel will ask you questions, you’ll answer them and turn around and come back across here. We’ll stop you and ask you about how things went. Okay?

ME:  Christ, I feel sick.

PRODUCTION ASSIST:  You okay?

ME:  This is worse than giving birth.

PRODUCTION ASSIST:  Yes! That’s brilliant. Just like that, say something exactly. Like. That.

SCENE 2 — INT.  THE ARK.  DAY.

FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER …

PRODUCTION ASSIST:   So Trudy, (WINKING) how was that?

ME:  Yeah, all right.

PRODUCTION ASSIST:  Oh. (STARES) Good.

By the end of the day’s filming, the four judges looked desperate. O’Briain’s grin had become a scientific study of parabolas, and Adam Chase wasn’t looking half as jolly as when he’d worked on Friends. My fellow contestants and I had drained them of the will to live through sheer dint of not giving good telly.

At last, I heard my name read out as a semi-finalist.

“Bloody hell!” I blurted, feeling terribly rock ‘n’ roll.

O’Briain practically fell to his knees in gratitude.

“Finally!” he said. “That’s the first normal reaction we’ve had all day!”

And to this day I swear his eye glinted with a small, unshed tear of happiness.

[Next time:   How a Pat Sharp look-alikey deserved to die on The Last Laugh industry day]  

She Who Laughs Last Laughs …

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This is the first post on my involvement with a bizarre televised sitcom-writing competition show. A niche genre, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Generally speaking, writers of sitcoms don’t make for good television. Sure, they may make great television, but put them in front of the camera and a producer has got himself a bumper bag of ratings kryptonite. It’s amazing that someone at the Beeb actually came up with the idea at all.

“Hey, guys. Totally awesome idea, yeah? Let’s televise a sitcom-writing competition. Viewers love watching socially inept people dressed in M&S Blue Harbour mumbling to camera being unfunny in a completely unintentional way.”

“Whoa, yeah. It’ll really bring alive the magic and mystique of comedy. Get O’Briain on the phone.”

Yet in 2005 that’s exactly what happened. Some person at the Beeb had unprotected thinking, leading to a fertilised pitch-egg dividing enough times to produce  BBC Three’s The Last Laugh. The premise of this programme was that Paul Mayhew-Archer, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, Carla Lane, Ian Brown and James Hendrie, Jonathan Harvey, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, Ian Pattison, and Trix Worrell, these comedy writing giants would each contribute the first twenty minutes of a pilot sitcom; it would then be thrown open to members of the public to choose the pilot they like best and write the last ten minutes of it.

The prize? Even now I’m not entirely sure. I think there was some vague mention of mentoring, a few loose, strictly non-binding hints that the winning pilot may eventually get made. Everything seemed formless, waiting to evolve if the conditions (ie, ratings) were right. To be honest, I don’t believe even the Beeb knew what the endpoint of this programme was, but a box had been ticked somewhere along the line and so the only way to go was forward.

But anyway, why not give it a go? I hadn’t written scripts before, it’d be fun to try something new. Fun. My notion that it’d be a bit of a laugh teamed with my complete lack of expectation enabled me to weather the following storm of … very little happening. Sadly several of the other competitors weren’t quite so cheerfully phlegmatic. I’ll cover the brittle fragility of a writer’s ego in a later instalment of this hilarious series.

I duly sent off my ten-minute ending to Paul Mayhew-Archer’s Good Morning Miss Milton — imagine Geraldine Granger quitting the clergy and having a second career in teaching — and forgot all about it.

[Next time:  trying to get a writer to come alive in front of a camera]