In January 2016, Beth Granville and I were commissioned to write four episodes of our sitcom Foiled for BBC Radio Wales. I still get goosebumps writing that sentence! Getting a comedy commission from the BBC really doesn’t happen very often in a writer’s life and I feel fantastically lucky.
Earlier this week, Beth and I were invited by London Comedy Writers to share our recipe for the secret sauce. This blog is more detail on how I reckon we got that BBC radio comedy commission.
First up: a lot of people imagine that being paid to write comedy is a dream job. And it is. But it’s still a job and demands the commitment you’d find in any boring 9 to 5. Work is work, with its own obligations and frustrations as well as the satisfactions.
The only difference is that you usually get paid for any boring 9 to 5. With writing, you have to work upfront and hope the money follows. There’s nothing at all wrong with writing comedy for fun, not profit. But if you want the profit, then you need the work – sometimes without the fun.
The History of Foiled
Foiled is a Welsh sitcom set in a hair salon called Bleach for the Stars, “managed” by hair-brained Senior Stylist Sabrina Edwards, but only kept in business by stylish assistant Tanisha Jones.
Foiled started life as a 20 minute play written by Beth Granville following a commission by Dirty Protest theatre company. It was produced as a site-specific piece in Cardiff in December 2011 – more than five years before the radio commission. The play, by all accounts, was very well received.
Since Beth brought me onto the project in 2013, we’ve written six more different versions of Foiled.
- 90 minute play in 2013. This was read to an invited audience at the Conservative Club, Cardiff. Fun, but didn’t go anywhere.
- Three x 10 minute webisodes in 2014. These were read and critiqued at London Comedy Writers, but never made.
- 28 minute pilot for radio in 2014. This was read at an evening we organised at the Drill Hall and then (unsuccessfully) pitched by the Rubber Chicken production company to BBC Radio Wales.
- 28 minute TV pilot in 2015. This was pitched to half a dozen producers and (I think) submitted to the BBC Writers Room. Nada.
- 60 minute play in 2016. This was written in the first few months of the year, then developed and rehearsed with director, designer and actors in June and July, before being performed 29 times in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Roughly 700 people saw the show, including reviewers, producers and other industry professionals. After Edinburgh, we had interest from three different theatres to extend the run and a couple of producers who were interested in pitching for radio or TV. Oh, it also cost more than £18,000.
- Finally: four episodes for a 2017 BBC Radio Wales series. After Edinburgh, Foiled was pitched a second time by the Rubber Chicken to the BBC and, reassured by the success of the Fringe show, they went for it. This is the first time we have been paid up front for any of our work on the project.
Hopefully that gives you some idea of the work that’s gone into the project. It also gives you a clue as to what I’d recommend for any writers who want to get a paid commission.
1. Write something good.
This is a given and I guarantee will be much less than half the work you’ll put into the project. Don’t sweat too much over the early drafts. Get something that’s good enough to share and then share it with people you want to work with.
2. Collaborate with others.
Including Beth and I, at least 16 people worked on Foiled in 2016 alone (special thanks to Kate, Ben, Robin, Tom, Dom, Steph, Joe, Libby, Amy, Roz, Chloe, Rebecca, Rich and Alex). 16 is a very low estimate, by the way. My point is that none of this would have been possible without a lot of collaboration.
3. Get your work on its feet and pay for it yourself.
If you’re not prepared to make and finance your own work, you can’t expect others to step up. We were lucky to have generous friends and audiences, but taking Foiled to Edinburgh cost £18,533.81, of which almost £13,000 came from personal savings and loans.
You’ll see from the history of Foiled that good things only came when we invested in staging our own work. Yes, I know it’s a lot of money, but it was worth every penny.
4. Keep learning and keep re-writing.
Thank god we didn’t get that 2014 radio commission or fluke the 2015 TV pitch – it wouldn’t have been a third of the show it is today. It’s no coincidence that Beth and I met on an Arvon Foundation comedy writing course. We are both dedicated to learning how to write more better. Open your work to criticism, listen and re-write.
5. Be generous.
This sounds strange, but is arguably the most important thing you can do. There are so many great people making great work that there is only one thing differentiating us all: whether the people who make commissioning decisions have heard of you, and whether they want to work with you.
The easiest (and most pleasant) way of making this happen is to be generous. Go to their nights, support their work, buy them a drink, tell them funny stories, help them out, be their friend.
Beth is superb at this side of things – me not so much. But you need to be a person that people really want to work with because it’s so much easier to recommission Two Pints of Lager. Please don’t let that happen!
So that’s the fundamental 90% of how to get a BBC commission (at least in my opinion). I still don’t really know, of course, and I’m still learning, but this is most of what I’ve learnt so far.
If you’re short on time, stop here and go back to re-writing or buying drinks. For the rest of you, here’s the other 10% – the specifics, the details, the nuance.
1. Write something good
This, as I said, is a given. Don’t panic at the blank page; use the power of positive constraints to get ideas flowing. The original Dirty Protest commission came to Beth with four strict constraints:
- The location was a hair salon.
- There could be no more than four characters.
- The theme of the play had to be a night out.
- It must be 20 minutes long.
Today, five years later, we’ve kept the same location, the same three central characters and one of the episodes for the radio series is about their work night out. The only thing that’s changed is that we now have to write 28 minute episodes!
There was actually a fifth constraint for Beth: she only had two weeks to write the whole thing. Deadlines have a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. It was the same the moment we invested the first £300 on our Edinburgh show in 2016.
Is “good” proportional to the amount of time you spend writing? The answer to this question is absolutely yes, but it’s not the strongest correlation. According to my diary, Beth and I spent 65 days working on Foiled in 2016 and every one of those days made for a better play.
In my opinion, however, “Good” is most strongly correlated with how much you share your work with collaborators, critics and audiences. Listen, learn and re-write.
Beth and I work as a double act. Many (I dare say most) commissioned sitcoms have more than one writer, all the way from Simpson and Galton to Pemberton and Sheersmith. As well as the good company, working as a pair means that you get immediate critical feedback on your work. If one of us laughs, we keep it.
2. Collaborate with others
I can’t emphasise how big a part collaboration played in the long road to commissioning. Find great creative partners and pay them whatever you can to work on your project.
For us, the most significant creative partner we had was director Tom O’Brien who threw his whole body and soul into the project for two months, although we could only pay him for two weeks. Under his guidance, the characters became flesh and blood, the salon became bricks and mortar. To someone used to seeing abstract words on a page, it was miraculous.
Collaboration is the fastest way to create your work. That’s why you shouldn’t spend too much time on writing something good – it will and must change, perhaps radically, as soon as you start collaborating.
There’s a sweet spot: write just enough to make sure you’re not embarrassing yourself when you share it with trusted collaborators, but not so much that you’re in a care home before it gets made.
There is also a sweet spot with collaboration: listen carefully to feedback, but re-write on your own terms. It’s not only your work any more, but it is still plenty of your work!
The most important non-creative collaborator we hired was Chloe Nelkin, a fantastic PR consultant. She was able to attract big name reviewers to see Foiled in Edinburgh – an almost impossible task for new writers at a huge festival with over 3,000 different shows.
Our superb Stage and Scotsman reviews played a significant part in convincing BBC Radio Wales that the show concept was good and that Beth and I were competent writers they could trust. £1,600 well spent.
Most of this collaboration, you’ll note, costs money.
3. Get your work on its feet and pay for it yourself
What more can I say? If you’re going to spend all this time and energy writing, then you might as well go the extra mile and make it happen. Film, stage or podcast the fucker. Whatever you do, make sure you aggressively pursue an audience.
That means you’ve got to think about what will get you noticed. There are so many people making great work, what will make you stand out? That’s why hiring a PR was such an important step for us and could be for you. If you can’t sell your concept to a PR agency, then what makes you think you can sell it to the BBC?
With Foiled, our hook was that the play was set and staged in a working hair salon. Chloe also loved that it was female-driven comedy, and she wanted to work with us. The hook was a hit, the PR found an audience, the show was funny and we got the attention we needed.
Money, money, money. If you ever want to take some out, you’ve got to put some in. Making comedy for free is fun, but it won’t turn into a career. The Foiled project didn’t have any income at all until audiences started paying – after 90% of the work had been done. But we’re hopeful that from here on, we’ll get paid for at least half the work we put in.
Support yourself by turning your project into a second (or third or fourth) part-time job. Foiled took up most of our spare time in 2016, but you’d be surprised at what you can do if you set aside a couple of hours a day for twelve months.
If you can’t afford to make your show as it stands, then you have no option but to change the script. In other versions, Foiled had four, five or six characters. We could only afford three actors, so we put them into cryogenic freezing for Edinburgh. Now we can resurrect them for the radio series!
4. Keep learning and keep re-writing
Invest in your writing. Expose your work to criticism, take writing courses, read books that will teach you style and structure, then study your format with these lessons in mind.
If you’re in London, take your work to London Comedy Writers. Professional actors will read your script and a very knowledgeable audience will give you reams of critical feedback on the spot. Don’t stop there: take notes, record the session, listen back and re-write.
The Arvon Foundation comedy writing course doesn’t seem to be running this year – but the principles of any good writing course apply equally to comedy. It might seem like a lot of money, but don’t overlook the networking potential of these courses. Arvon was where I met Beth, of course, but also our mentor the comedy writer Christopher Douglas. Both have had a profound effect on my professional development – besides giving me plenty to laugh about.
I’ve read dozens of writing books, but if I were to recommend just one, it would be Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. It focusses on screenplays, but Blake’s entertainingly memorable principles apply equally well to shorter, live and non-visual formats. Buy it now.
It’s hard to underestimate how much re-writing has gone into Foiled. There were well over 70 drafts and redrafts of the Edinburgh script in 2016. We use screenwriting programme Celtx to write the scripts and I have more than 30 different Celtx files on my computer, each one a radical re-write or new episode of Foiled in various different formats.
Foiled was an unpaid part-time job for over a year, and now it’s full time. I logged 22 hours on Celtx last week alone, writing and re-writing.
5. Be Generous
At the end of the London Comedy Writers Q&A, Beth had to run off to Soho for drinks. “Oh, yeah – and that’s how you get a sitcom commissioned!”
Photo: © Alex Brenner