POV

This brief article in The Guardian today about Popular Orange Vegetables* (or tortuous synonyms used to avoid textual repetition) got me thinking about how POVs have been one of the central planks of sketch writing since at least the Pythons. The echoes of the Cheese Shop sketch and that one about some sort of lifeless bird can still be heard in a lot of sketches today. In fact, it’s a use of language probably limited entirely to journalists and humourists (groups that have little or no cross-over, as the existence of Sam Wollaston proves). What are we to do though? We’re writing a sketch about a carrot shop, if we keep saying carrot it’s going to be boring.

For sketch writing, particularly in radio, the use of POVs and elaborate language (and ostentatious intellectual reference or any other Pythonic residue) can lend our work a musty air; like the shop bell as Mr Normal walks into Crazy Man’s Carrot Shop, it’s something that only happens because that’s the way sketches have been written since time immemorial. I know a lot of people who hate radio sketch comedy for just that reason – it can be an unrecognisable, stilted world.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that trying to create dialogue that mirrors the way that people ‘really speak’ is any less of a contrivance. Have a look at some Hollyoaks or the staged to-and-from of The Only Way Is Essex – that’s dialogue as stripped of baroque decoration as possible but it’s still contrived, boring and unrealistic.

Essentially I am saying horses for courses. Not a very original stand-point but comedy writing often hinges on an Occam’s Razor approach. A character can speak in any way you decide but one of your jobs is to spot where that language becomes flabby, rambling and tedious. Dialogue doesn’t have to be naturalistic, but it has to be believable. It has to be efficient, but it mustn’t be on-the-nose. It should have a distinctive voice, but the characters mustn’t all sound the same. Sometimes saying carrot is funnier, sometimes you’ll want a popular orange vegetable.

I’ve been doing a bit of script editing on some Radio 4 shows recently (The Headset Set and Lucy Montgomery’s Variety Pack) and will hopefully be putting up some dispatches from the front line (with thoughts on brevity and punching up) in the near future.

*Gary Bainbridge on Twitter (@Gary_Bainbridge) has pointed out that the original quote was from The Liverpool Echo and referred to peas as ‘popular round vegetables’ – which is funnier.

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RAY GALTON: FISTS OF FURY

This story on Chortle made me so happy, I thought I should share some of my joy.

Firstly, I know! A story on Chortle that isn’t a snidey accusation of plagiarism or a regurgitated press release telling me that Joe Comic has got a – gasp! – commission… to write a treatment.  Truly we are living in the golden times.

Anyway, if you haven’t read the article or The Times interview it’s been lifted from, essentially Ray Galton took offence at the way he and Alan Simpson were depicted in the BBC4 biopic Hancock & Joan. Lord knows, I was mortally offended by the way they were depicted and, as anyone who’s seen my work will tell you, I’m definitely not them so  imagine how furious Mr Galton himself must have been. Well, you don’t have to imagine because he gave a clear physical example of his fury by punching Richard Cotton, the writer of Hancock & Joan in the face. Or right up the bracket, as Galton & Simpson might have had Hancock put it.

About time too.

If you didn’t see BBC4’s The Curse of Comedy season then don’t bother tracking them down. Allow me to give you a partisan précis, leaving out all the bits that don’t fit in with my agenda. That, after all, is how the season worked.

It all began, as so many things do, with Michael Sheen crying and masturbating in the bath. This was in ‘Boo Hoo, Matron’ or whatever it was called; the miserable, squalid, wasted life of Tony Blair, Brian Clough, Werewolf King, Tony Blair Again Kenneth Williams. They followed that with Phil Davis crying and masturbating in the toilet (Steptoe) and Ken Stott crying and shitting in the bath (Hancock). I gave up by the time they got round to David Walliams as Frankie Howard but I imagine it involved crying and maybe pissing in the shower. There was also one that tried to suggest that Hughie Green was somehow a comedy legend, rather than a presenter, which had lots of scenes of Trevor Eve getting drunk and waving his cock about – though those might have been a Waking The Dead blooper reel they used to pad out a boring 30 minute script. Thankfully they never did one about Dad’s Army where we find out that those much-loved actors really did like it up them.

The basic underlying message of all these films was, it seemed to me, the drama writer’s assumption that these men were failures because instead of doing something worthwhile and noble, like writing drama, they were wasting their talents entertaining and being loved by millions. I know, I can’t believe we lost the chance to see Harry H. Corbett’s Timon of Athens and all we got in return was hours of Steptoe & Son.  The tragedy of these wasted lives.

Now, I understand how drama works. You know, it needs drama. So as annoyed as I was by what I felt were pointless exercises in sensationalist corpse-fucking, I was willing to admit that one man’s pointless exercise in sensationalist corpse-fucking was another man’s quality drama. Until, that is, I saw The Road To Coronation Street. Suddenly, because the central figure is a drama writer in a drama written by a drama writer and made by drama makers about the making of a drama, we’re allowed to have a hagiography. No shitting in the bath for Tony Warren. He was allowed to make grandiose statements about the importance of his work without immediately crying and throwing a bottle of vodka at a man in a hat pretending to be Willie Rushton. Every other bit of dialogue was along the lines of –

‘It’s the most important, brilliant and true piece of work I’ve ever read, Tony – and I’m Lew Grade!’

Seriously, there was stuff in here that would have seemed clunky in a 1950s Hollywood biopic.

‘How’s that symphony coming along, Mr Schubert? Still unfinished?’

Now I realise I might be sounding like one of those men who write into Points of View and complain about the details on the uniforms in an adaptation of Vanity Fair. That’s because I basically am – I’m a comedy nerd, I take the minutiae seriously. I’m also a writer and I can spot lazy, badly researched arrogance when I see it. If I was Ray Galton (and I wrote some of According To Bex, so I really am not) I’d give Brian Fillis a bunch of fives as well for the way he depicted the writing process behind Steptoe & Son. The idea of a writing partnership seemed so laughable to the high-minded maverick dramatist that of course they come across as a pair of buffoons who only decide that the two rag-and-bone men are father and son after they’ve finished the script. Galton & Simpson wrote Hancock and Steptoe & Son, Brian, you wrote the Curse of Steptoe – show some bloody respect. I was talking to someone who knew Peter Cook the other day about the Rhys Ifans-starring film about him and Dudley Moore which he said got everything about Peter right except it missed that he was, above all, funny. My main problem was with the Alan Bennett portrayal. While he might not be absolutely dead central to the story, isn’t it a little lazy to just have him come on or twice and say –

‘Ooh, somebody’s eaten all the ginger creams’

So good on Ray Galton for standing up for himself – and for all comedy writers. Too much harping on about the importance of comedy and I’ll start to sound as bad as biopic Tony Warren, but there’s nothing to be ashamed of in trying to make people laugh. In fact, the danger of the Curse of Comedy season’s way of thinking can be seen in some of today’s comedy commissions, particularly single camera shows like Whites. Peep Show and The Inbetweeners prove that you can do single camera and try to pack in as many laughs as a Hancock or Steptoe & Son (as do loads of the best American shows we see over here) but more and more single camera shows are drifting towards that grey area of comedy-drama. I like comedy dramas, Misfits is wonderful, The Beiderbecke Affair remains both funny and dramatic – if you haven’t seen it, do – but too often I get a whiff from these shows of self-importance. They’re saying –

We don’t need to be funny, we’re doing something more important, yeah?’.

That’s how they would talk, single camera sitcoms, if they were a person. Yeah?

I suppose, yes,  you could see comedy from a drama writer’s point of view. Where are the single plays, the chances to develop outside of Doctors or the Casualty sausage-factory(Meaning they churn them out, not that that they’re planning a new industrial spin-off)? Single dramas seem to be shuttled off to BBC4 and can only get on if they’re salacious biopics while Live At The Apollo and Mock the Week bestride the schedules and pump money away from sitcom and drama commissioning into the pockets of stand-ups whose only interest in the State of the Nation is whether you can make a public school bumming joke about Clegg and Cameron.

Oh, I seem to hate both sides equally. That’s madness, we’re all in TV together. The real enemy are film makers. They really are dicks.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I blogged last and I’m out of the habit of cogent reasoning so I will leave you with this.

RAY GALTON PUNCHED A MAN IN THE FACE.

That really made my week.

Cobwebby

Yeah, it’s all gone a bit quiet over here.

I’ll be back as soon as I can work out something more worthwhile than having a pop at innocent cafe owners.

Meanwhile I have been blogging over at the BBC Writersroom site – read my words of inverted-commas-wisdom here.

Oh do fuck off…

There’s a cafe near me. They have boards outside. I presume they’re there to lure the people of Hammersmith inside with their wit and quirky charm. In fact they’re just a terribly middle class version of the ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here…’ signs of yesteryear. Come on in, they seem to say, we’re funky, fun-loving and cool a nest of utter fucking twats.

Exhibit A.

Board 1

Every time I walk past they have a new one…

Board 2

And every one is worse than the last…

Board 3

Are they copying them out of a shitty book?

Board 4

Or is there some cut-price Purple Ronnie working behind the state-of-the-art espresso/yummy mummy bilking machine?

Board 5

Exclamation! Marks! Now you know! It’s funny!

So, listen up, Lola & Simon (yes, this is the blog that names names), if you insist on putting these boards out then I’m going to keep taking photos of them and putting them on the internet and mocking them and, and… I think this is what a breakdown feels like.

It stands for ‘As Written Mother… you can guess the rest’

Hello.

This blog has partly been inspired by Richard Herring’s Warming Up, which began as an attempt to overcome writer’s block by spending some time at the beginning of each day writing about something that had happened to him on the previous day. Well, I’ve been suffering from my own variant of writer’s block so I thought, why don’t I do that? You know, spend some time each day writing about things that have happened to Richard Herring?

But, like Stampy the Mine Clearing Elephant, I don’t think it’s got legs.

Instead this will just be some things. Mostly pointless or of interest only to me. A blog basically.