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…

Foiled Diaries: On First Drafts and Producer Notes

And, just like that, it’s May and we’ve only got 5 weeks to finish Foiled. So far, we’ve delivered the first drafts of 3 of the 4 episodes, and got notes from the producer on 2 of them.

First drafts are funny beasts. Every time we finish a first draft, we think that it’s more or less great. In spite of all experience, we hope that this time will be different and the producer’s only note will come back: ‘This is so good, would you mind turning it into a Netflix series?’

Strangely, this is yet to happen.

All first drafts have problems. Some bigger than others. But those producer’s notes land in our inbox like a letterbox turd, stinking the place out with their effortless skewering of the plot holes, character motivations, and the Purple Line of Doom that strides over pages of boredom.

Made all the worse by the fact that, deep down, we knew these problems were there all along, and all we can say is daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

The only remedy to producer’s notes is, of course, panic. Swiftly pursued by exactly the same attitude that got us into this mess: sitting down and writing a lot more words.

Nothing ever came out right first time, and this series won’t either. But it’ll get written the same way it did last year: patient hours in front of a computer screen. Putting the time in. Sitting there and writing until eventually something good pops up.

The skill, if there is one, is in spotting the good when it pops, grabbing hold of it, pinning it to the page and not letting go until it’s been bled dry.


This episode of Rule of Three with Miles Jupp analysing his favourite episode of Frasier has given us good writing energy. Now all we’ve got to do is avoid plagiarising!

Foiled nominated for Celtic Media Award!

SABRINA
Pay attention team because I’ve got some very important newses. We are salon of the year!

TANISHA
Wales’ least active salon of the year?

SABRINA
No, awards-wise: we are Clipadvisor’s Salon of the Year.

TANISHA
Really?! Us? How exciting! How?!

SABRINA
Oi! What do you mean how?

So we wrote way back in 2016 and now, just 3 short years later, Foiled has been nominated (Hold on, we haven’t won?) for best radio comedy at the highly prestigious Celtic Media Awards.

Proof.

Compared to theatre, writing for the radio is a strange experience. We write the scripts, have a laugh recording them, listen to the broadcast with butterflies in our stomachs and then – nothing.

No one reviews radio comedy. No one gives us the listener figures. We have no idea how the show’s gone down with our audience – or even if there was an audience. We have no idea which episodes – or even jokes – worked for our listeners, which didn’t, and why.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott paints a pretty picture of this eternal, gaping, yawning silence. She’s writing about book publishing, but it seems to me that the sense of emptiness and craving is the same for radio.

There will be a few book-signing parties and maybe some readings, at one of which your publisher will spring for a twenty-pound wheel of runny Brie, and the only person who will show has lived on the street since he was twelve and even he will leave, because he hates Brie.

So it’s wonderful for something, some acknowledgement and approbation, to come crawling out of the ether and say: YOU DID A THING AND WE LIKED IT.

The nomination cites my personal favourite episode from the last series, starring Miles Jupp as Richie’s dad. Sitting across from Miles as he read out words that I’d written was one of the most thrilling events of my life last year.

There is nothing more rewarding for a writer than to watch a talented actor rub your words together and make sparks fly until the whole thing catches fire.

But where do we go now, now we’ve been nommed by the Celtic Media Awards? Will the Celtic imprimatur spur us to write ever funnier scripts – or will we become complacent, crippled by our glory like Wet Wet Wet after Four Weddings came out?

I guess I can turn to Anne Lamott again:

The fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy. But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.

Series 3.

For now, big love to everyone for supporting Foiled. I’ll get Beth to give you a shout out in her acceptance speech. (Hold on, we still haven’t won?)

The Foiled Diaries: Life as a Way of Writing

Foiled has been clipping along all week, with the usual ups and downs. Example: We thought we had a lovely opening episode until our producers said the BBC won’t countenance anything to do with people going missing. Spoil sports.

As I write this, Beth is out networking with potential famos for Series 3. She’s pulled in some wonderful guests over the past two years: Felicity Montagu (currently in This Time With Alan Partridge), John Culshaw (Dead Ringers), Ralf Little (The Royle Family) and Miles Jupp (News Quiz). Blows my mind to see them all written down like that.

When writing with someone else, you have a balancing act to perform between working alone and working in tandem. Too much of one and you fall into narcissistic solipsism; too much of the other and you die from caffeine poisoning.

I think my favourite, most productive moments of writing Foiled have come in two thankfully common situations:

  1. Beth pacing up and down in the kitchen, and me at the keyboard frantically trying to synthesise her comic stream of consciousness into grammar.
  2. Working in the same house, but in different rooms at our different tempos, with enough excuses to share snippets while re-boiling the kettle or filling a bowl with homemade soup, and occasionally, for a change of scenery, swapping scripts.

These shared moments are why I don’t think I could ever be a solitary novelist – or at least, not a contented one. For some people, writing is a way of life; for me, life must be a way of writing.