BBC Radio Foiled: 2017-2021

In a year of tumult, it’s been a tumultuous week, all commotion and confusion. Everyone is dealing with their own personal bucket of uncertainty at the moment: for me, that bucket was dumped pretty much all on one day. A fingers-crossed job interview, a month in Bristol cancelled, an injection flooding my bloodstream.

But, like the little story I’m about to tell you, I’m hopeful that this week of tumult will end on optimism and action.

Foiled is over! No, like, over over

Last Monday, the final episode of this series of Foiled was aired. It was a nerve-wracking moment. We had a lot of problems with the sound while we were recording back in December and I was worried that the episode wouldn’t do itself justice. But the producers pulled a rabbit out of the hutch and one listener even said that it ran episode two a close second for her favourite show this series (thanks, mum).

Phew.

Then, on Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from co-writer Beth Granville. In the afterglow of another successful series, the news came that, after eight hours of comedy content, Foiled would not be recommissioned by BBC Radio Wales.

Every year we gird our loins for this kind of news. The reality is that radio sitcoms rarely get commissioned for two series, let alone four. As the commissioners explained in their Dear John letter, as fantastic as Foiled has been, they have to make space for new writers.

Nevertheless, despite our tightly girdled loins, the news came as a shock to me. Why? Maybe because, after four years, I had been lulled into a sense of false confidence. Maybe because this past year has been so filled to the brim with shock that, our brims overflowing, every bump in the road hits us hard in the feelies.

But maybe it’s also because of the way we’ve had to write and record Foiled this year: in a remote state of dreamlike disconnection.

From room to remote

Beth and I write Foiled as a team and, although we no longer live in the same city, we have always made time to write together in the same room. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to run away to a deserted beach house where no one can distract us from the important work of long walks, cooking and sandart.

But, of course, in 2020, we could snatch only moments together, in between lockdowns. And that shift from room to remote had a deleterious effect on both our writing process and—speaking for myself at least—my mental health.

Side note: I spent some of this week writing a commissioned article about how many hours it takes to write a sitcom. So I know exactly what the data says about working remotely during a pandemic: it won’t take you longer to do your job, but it will feel more like hard work.

There is something ineffable about creative writing. The hours Beth and I spend together on long walks, cooking and sandart is unstructured playtime, and often the source of our best ideas—not because we are thinking or talking about Foiled, but precisely because we’re not.

Mourning the ghosts of ideas we never had

I’m sure you’ve all had brainwaves while you’re in the shower or doing the washing up: unplanned, often inconvenient, bubbles of creativity that quickly pop unless you jot them down. These are the moments that are critical to the writing process. They are what transform the march of letters and punctuation into a cavalcade of light entertainment.

Although this kind of inspiration does still happen when we’re working alone, the company of another writer amplifies the effect. Rarely does a sandart idea arrive fully formed: it comes rather as an ephemeral ghost. If you’re with another writer, holding a shell or some other beach flotsam, you can tentatively voice the ghost.

Your co-writer will jump on the idea (probably grateful that somebody’s finally said something useful) and together you’ll spin the ghost into something real and manifest. Often, these fleshed-out ghosts make it directly onto the page, even if the sandart scaffolding is eventually cut down.

In 2020, because of the way we had to work, we manifested few of those spirits. Unstructured playtime simply doesn’t happen on video calls. After we finished recording, Beth told me that she ‘mourned’ for all the ideas that we never had this series. It was a poetic way of saying that, although this was probably our best series, who knows what it could have been if we’d written together in the same room.

Next time will be different

Many of you know that we usually record Foiled in front of a live audience. The two days of recording are always the two best days of my year. Naturally, this series we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t even be with the other actors this year.

I’d like to make it very clear that I’m not complaining. At a time when many people lost their jobs, I was incredibly lucky to have any work at all last year.

I was grateful that the producers found a role for me so that I could at least listen into the recording and help Beth set up her home studio (think wardrobe, think duvets, think lamps dangerously close to duvets). But helping to produce the show in a borrowed house was also pretty stressful: Would the microphone arrive in time? Would the recording save properly? Would the duvets catch fire?

And there was none of the usual sense of celebration when we finished. No after party dinner and drinks. None of the release of tension that everybody needs after the completion of a stressful, year-long project. Just the remains of a falafel and a sprint for the train.

The pandemic has reminded us all that we must never again take anything for granted. The day the pubs closed, we all started dreaming of how next time would be different, how we would embrace our friends harder, laugh louder and drink it all in (literally and figuratively).

It was the same throughout the Foiled writing process in 2020. Every time we found ourselves struggling, Beth and I would comfort each other by saying that next time would be different. Next time we’d write together, next time we’d record together, next time we’d celebrate together.

And this is the real reason why I think the news that Foiled wouldn’t be returning for a fifth series came as a shock.

We will never have a next time.

Or will we?

No.

I said (through gritted teeth): ‘Or will we?’

Actually, do you know what? There was a Foiled before the BBC. Why can’t there be a Foiled after the BBC?

At the very least, we should celebrate the remarkable ride we’ve had on the good ship Foiled over the past five years. At the very least, we should scoop up all the friends and fans of the show, everyone who has supported us and laughed and cheered, and say a huge thank you.

Oddly enough, the Prime Minister’s psychotic roadmap might offer us a donkey on which to pin a tail. Whisper it quietly, but, this summer, couldn’t we get hold of a hair salon for an evening? Couldn’t we fill it with friends and Welsh cakes and invite the actors we’ve worked alongside to come and perform a staged reading of Foiled?

Just one last time.

And, if that’s a success, well then…

~

You can catch up on the last EVER BBC Radio series of Foiled on BBC Sounds.

The thing is dead, long live the thing!

ps: Tom O’Brien, director of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe edition of Foiled, recently launched himself into the world of online acting and performance coaching. As a ridiculously talented director and dramaturge, Tom’s work remains a huge part of the characters and world of Foiled. If you know anyone looking to massively upgrade their creative work, I recommend Tom in the strongest possible terms.

Foiled Series 4: On air


Episode 1 of Foiled, a radio sitcom written by me and Beth Granville, airs on Monday.

Bleach for the Stars is thriving under the guidance of local baguettes entrepreneur Tariq. But the baguette mogul’s new world order is seriously threatening Tanisha and Richie’s historically lax working life. Will they be able to oust Tariq and convince Sabrina to take her salon back, especially now she’s flourishing in her new role as Head of Baguettes?

I’m excited and nervous to listen to the show—excited because we think the scripts are brilliant; nervous because the poor actors had to record those scripts while hiding under their duvet and/or inside a wardrobe. Oh, 2020…

How to write a BBC radio sitcom during a global pandemic

Beth Granville and I started working on the scripts for Series 4 of our BBC Radio sitcom Foiled at the end of March, making use of the uncertainty of the first lockdown to produce first drafts of three of the four episodes. We worked remotely, of course, and although we shared script ideas and weekly phone calls, we wrote more or less independently during this first phase.

(For the writing data geeks among you I spent 75.5 hours working on the project over those three months of sunny loneliness.)

We took a hiatus over the summer months and then, slapped with a November deadline, took up our keyboards again at the beginning of October.

I don’t mind sharing with you the fact that our producer hated two of the draft episodes we’d handed in. It’s hard to say whether that was down to the distance between Beth and I, the distractions of the health crisis or—I think most likely—the natural process of writing anything.

This second, autumnal phase was marked by much closer collaboration, with phone calls every other day and the luxury of ten days of in-person time, spread over three blocks. There was a lot of work to be done.

But gradually, as the hours totted up, the scripts, as they do, started to fall into place. We got great feedback from the producer, first on one episode (‘Oh my giddy aunt this is wonderful’), then on another (‘Hoorah! This is fucking WONDERFUL’) and finally on the series closer (‘I think this is the best episode you’ve ever done’).

There was just one problem: we’d been hired to write four episodes, not three. Episode 1, that big bang series opener, didn’t exist yet. This was last Tuesday, the last Tuesday in November. Our deadline was the first Tuesday in December.

We made that deadline.

I don’t know how, but we started, muddled and finished a 30-page radio sitcom episode in a week. Actually, I do know how: by spending a lot of time writing.

(Precisely 30.5 hours from my side, plus more from Beth and a day with comedian Adam Hess. Incidentally, this episode broke last year’s three-week record for fastest ever script—but the number of hours spent writing were identical.)

On Wednesday, we heard from our producer: ‘This is fucking great. Funny, feasible, surprising but makes sense—it’s ticking all my comedy boxes.’

Finally, 8 months, 213.5 logged writing hours and a global pandemic after we started, we have (almost) finished.

(This compares with our experiences last year. I estimated that Series 3 took about 50 hours per episode, but that excluded time spent talking through story with Beth. The ~54 hours per episode this year includes most of that time. Although our 2020 writing process has felt quite different, the amount of effort has been identical.)

Foiled is due for broadcast on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Sounds in late January. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we’ve enjoyed writing. There really is no substitute for putting the hours in.

Foiled IV Commissioned

The big news from my keyboard is that Foiled has been recommissioned for a record-breaking fourth series on BBC Radio Wales.

When we put down our deposit on a flat in Edinburgh during the 2016 Fringe Festival, who’d have thought that, four years later, we’d still be writing about a little hair salon in the Welsh valleys?

(Certainly not the Arts Council, who turned us down for funding. Ahem.)

It’s almost as hard to believe that – barring any Shining style breakdowns – we’ll be back here in six months with another four complete scripts, ready to record. So send your plot ideas to the usual address. (Not a joke.)

A huge thanks is due to every one of you for listening over the years. And, if you’ve somehow missed Foiled despite my constant carping, then I can only repeatedly apologise on behalf of the monopolies commission for the absurd fact that it’s only ever online for 30 days. The rules might be changing this year. Might.

Foiled is finished

Foiled is over for another year.

It’s odd because, of course, Foiled has yet to begin for most of you. The broadcast dates are lined up in August, but all our work is done and we’re already looking ahead to what’s next.

Tom and Dave have finished editing episode one and say that it sounds like the best thing they’ve ever produced. Certainly from the writing side, I feel like – somehow – Beth and I have delivered on our grandiose ambition of writing our own (more modest) version of Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Which brings us to the cheerful faces of those sprightly actors in the photo above. Our guests for this last episode were Sir Derek Jacobi – so good they knighted him twice – and his partner Richard Clifford.

Sitting in the rehearsal room with these two grandees of British stage and screen was a pinch-yourself moment. All the actors were stealing glances at Sir Derek as if they couldn’t believe what was happening – but also to learn from a master of their craft.

Every single one of Derek’s choices was spot on. He took the lines and lifted them beyond wherever they deserved to be.

In all the knight-of-the-realm kerfuffle, Richard Clifford could be overlooked. But that would be a serious mistake. An equally fine actor, although undecorated, Richard brought relish and gravitas to his role as Professor of Celtic Studies from the University of Monmouth.

And, so I’m told, the actors we know and love from Foileds past, raised their game to match theirs. I can’t wait to hear the finished audio.

This episode was written inside three weeks – only 30 hours of scriptwriting compared to the 50 or so for the other three episodes.

With no writers rooms, we had only ourselves and a little assistance from producer Tom Price on story, and from comedian Ed Easton for a few lovely gags here and there.

Everyone has said maybe we should write all our episodes with a three week deadline. Maybe they’d be right, but that method leaves no leeway for mistakes.

In three weeks, we could afford course correction, but no full rewrites. If we’d fucked up too badly, then who knows what would’ve happened. Maybe it would’ve ben fine; maybe Sir Derek might have politely declined. Who knows?

People like Sir Derek get fifty offers a day. He has no need for a job on Radio Wales. No need whatsoever. This is a man who has played Hamlet at Elsinor Castle.

Derek and Richard only do passion plays now and it’s down to my wonderful writing partner that they felt this project was worth their time and creativity.

As they rushed off home to get back to their dog, Derek chortled: ‘Let’s get this on TV, shall we?’

What a day.

L-R: David Charles, Beth Granville, Richard Clifford, Derek Jacobi, Tom Price, David Oakes, Garnon Davies, Dave Cribb, Stephanie Siadatan

What does it take to write a BBC radio sitcom?

The scripts are in! We record tomorrow!

In our third year of Foiled, I feel like I can say something about the rhythms of writing a radio sitcom. Settle in, this is a long read.

Writing a sitcom episode is like building a house (kinda)

In reality, Beth and I usually start laying bricks before we’ve got any blueprints. If you hired us as builders, you’d probably want your money back.

Whether any of those early bricks make it into the final building is a matter of luck. The risk is that we’ll fall in love with some clever brickwork, which makes it all the harder to tear the folly down later.

But it feels good to write ourselves into the series, reacquaint ourselves with the world and the characters. Unlike in construction, in writing nothing is ever really wasted.

Typing through a script, once the plans are finally in place, is pretty easy now we’re in our third year – a matter of placing one brick alongside another and remembering cement. By this point, we know the returning characters back-to-front; and the hardest part is always putting together the episode’s new characters.

Once a story is written out from start to finish, it’s clear where the problems are. We can start the heavy manual labour of ripping walls down, moving the bathroom into the kitchen, and adding a loft conversion. This part of the process feels very physical – huge swathes of script cut and, sometimes, pasted.

As the story sorts itself out, we move onto the fine work of painting and decorating, sanding and polishing. At this point, we can stand back and admire our handiwork, or – as so often happens – realise that the whole edifice is about to collapse and we need to buttress our walls or tear them out.

The timeline of construction

Foiled was re-commissioned at the end of 2018. The first mention in my diary of any writing comes in mid-February. We were slow to get started, basking in the glory of a commission, putting off the actual labour.

By this point we’d already got the broad ideas for stories: something about a work exchange, something about hedgehogs, and something about a cash and carry. It’s not a lot to go on.

We really started working on the scripts from the beginning of March, with ten days together in London. By the end of this spell, we’d pulled together the ‘beats’ of each of the episodes, and run them past the producer with mixed results.

The ten weeks through the rest of March, April and May were mostly spent working separately, with increasing dedication.

By the end of April, we’d sent the producer first drafts of two of the episodes. The third episode follows in early May. The producer sends us notes. We tear our hair out in gratitude.

The week before the writers rooms, we send the producer what we think will be approximate working drafts. We’re wrong, for two of the episodes at least. Frantic re-writes ensue.

The two days of writers rooms at the end of May give a burst of energy to all three scripts. Which is handy because we only have 9 days before the recording.

Luckily, by this point I’m in London and Beth and I can work together more closely, in the high-rise, riverside solitude of my friend’s flat in Woolwich (thanks Tim!).

A hangover the day after the final writers room doesn’t help, but long days mean that by Monday lunchtime we can send the producer what we think are two finished, record-worthy scripts – Episodes 1 and 4.

Again, we’re wrong about one of them – something we realised only yesterday.

In the meantime, we go over the final script – Episode 2 – with a fine tooth-comb, tightening the nuts and bolts of the story and turning place-markers into zingers. We send it off on Wednesday morning in a blaze of emotion.

Why are we doing this, again?

That night, I re-read Episode 4. After two days’ creative distance, and having raised the bar with our work on Episode 2, we decide that the mid-section is completely wrong. One of the characters is just floating along and a pair of titanium toaster tongs appear at the episode climax for no discernible reason.

It’s not just the amount of work needed that’s a concern. The scripts have already been sent to the actors and the sound engineers have already done the work needed to make sure all the SFX are in place. A new script for Episode 4 is completely out of the question.

So yesterday morning, I start working on the re-working, and Beth starts working on the producer. She jokes that she’ll pull out of the project if he doesn’t accept the new script. At 2pm, with the ‘new’ script almost finished, I go for a swim in the Thames to await his answer.

None of us do this for the money. I don’t think the producers have made more than a few pennies from Foiled. Beth and I get paid, of course, but it’s not much more than minimum wage.

The only real reason for writing and recording Foiled is for the sake of the work itself. This is our creative reputation. Tomorrow’s recording will almost certainly outlive all of us. The oldest recording in the BBC archives is dated to 1890. The scripts that go into St David’s Hall tomorrow will be humbly printed on eternity.

So it’s fair to say that my leisurely swim yesterday was quite stressful. Could I even bear to sit in the room as the old script was being recorded?

The good news is that our producer gave the new script the green light. And we worked into the summer dusk sanding and polishing Episode 4. It’s now a piece of writing that I’m proud of and I reckon it might make you laugh.

So the writing is done. All that remains, for me at least, is to send one of the actor’s a recording of my sister’s partner speaking Danish, and to get myself to Cardiff tomorrow.

Oh – and then start work on Episode 3, which we’ll record in a studio in London at some point over the next month. The cycle continues!

~

For those of you interested in a more detailed breakdown, the first two weeks of March involved about 8 hours per week of script-writing. We stepped up script-writing to about 11 hours a week for the seven weeks from the beginning of April up until the week before the writers rooms at the end of May. For the last three weeks I have done almost nothing other than work on Foiled: more than 20 hours a week on script-writing alone.

I write this not to show off, but to show you honestly the work it takes to write three episodes of a radio sitcom: about 150 hours of pure script-writing, plus plenty of other work behind the scenes on story-writing and talking things over with Beth and the producers.


By complete coincidence, I got an email this morning from a man who saw Foiled at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.

We met you in George Square gardens in 2016 when you talked us into coming to see Foiled that afternoon. Brilliant!! We’ve raved about it ever since and watched its success since then.

It blows my mind to think that there are people out there who, years later, are still thinking about the work that we’ve done. This is what I mean when I say that we don’t do this for the money.

Series 3 of Foiled – indeed all of Foiled since 2013 – has been a wonderful experience; thank you for your support and I really hope you enjoy listening as much as I’ve enjoyed writing.


UPDATE: After writing this, a fellow writer of radio sitcoms got in touch to share his data. In terms of hours, I was reassured how similar they were: he takes 55-65 hours per episode.

Where we differ is on how spread out those hours are. Beth and I spent about 74 days working on Foiled since the beginning of March; my correspondent and his writing partner cover similar ground in only 40-50 working days.

But they do have 30 years’ writing experience on us!

Comedinsanity

We’ve been in the writers rooms for Foiled and we record next Saturday so I’ve spent most of the week staring at a computer screen and laughing.

To the untrained eye, there really is very little discernable difference between writing comedy and insanity.

It’s hard to explain what’s so great about the Foiled writers rooms, but I’m not exaggerating when I say they are my favourite two days of the year.

I suppose, imagine that you’re buckles deep in the hardest part of your job, with only two weeks until the deadest of deadlines. Then imagine that your supervisor pays for six specialists to come in and work on your project with you for two days.

There’s no element of competition, everyone wants the best for the project and, ultimately, it’s still your name on the project.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

So the next 8 days will be spent trying to sift what was just funny in the room from what might actually be funny on the radio.

I’m sure these last 8 days will still get stressful, but it’s a whole lot less stressful for us now, knowing exactly what needs to change, and with a carnival of suggestions on how.

There’s also not much better feeling than having a roomful of professional comedians laugh at something you wrote. Imposter syndrome is fading…

2017: No News is Good News

This year, I have tried my best to ignore the edutainment of what is colloquially known as “The News”.

According to my internet browser history, I have visited only 52 unique pages on the BBC News website this year – previously my number one news source. There was an understandable peak around the General Election (6 pages) and I was also interested in the referendum in Catalonia (3 pages) and the German election (2 pages).

9 of the 52 pages were news stories about sport. My news injunction did not extend to sport: I visited a gluttonous 516 unique pages on the BBC Sport website this year, which gives you some indication of my previous BBC News addiction. Continue reading 2017: No News is Good News

How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission

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. Continue reading How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission