This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sitcoms. I mentioned a while ago I’d been working through a sitcom-writing course from James Cary which has been really helpful, not least because it made me realise I’d sent a comedy-drama to the BBC Galton and Simpson Bursary by accident. However, it’s also made me realise a few other things which are giving me pause. To be honest, they’ve given me some ‘what the hell is the point of writing this?’ moments.
I keep hearing that we’re in a golden age of TV, the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are commissioning British writers as well as the BBC, Channel 4, ITV or the various production companies that make programmes for them. Those of you who’ve been around here a while may know that I haven’t had a TV since March 2002, and though I’ve watched stuff when we’ve visited OneMonkey’s parents, and we used to watch the odd thing on the iplayer before the BBC realised non-licence-payers like me probably oughtn’t to be allowed access to the website, it’s not the same as watching telly and getting a feel for what’s popular and where things sit in the schedules. Consequently, though there are many TV sitcoms I know and love, I don’t want to (and wouldn’t feel equipped to) write one. No, idiot that I am, I want to write for radio.
I know I can write passable radio drama, on a good day. I was one of the winners of the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020 (production delayed due to the pandemic but fingers crossed it’s coming soon) and I co-wrote a well-received drama for a community radio station in 2018 (you can listen to it here). Comedy’s a different matter though, and as I said in a post about gatekeepers a while ago just because you’re confident about your script doesn’t mean it’s good, so it’d be nice to get someone else wanting to produce one of my scripts rather than, say, making it as a podcast.
However, while confidence doesn’t imply ability, I don’t agree with the idea that repeated rejection necessarily implies lack of ability. In a recent discussion about self-production of sitcom pilots, James suggested that if a script isn’t getting anywhere it’s not a good script and thus not worth trying to make your own version of. In many cases this will be true, but it did get me thinking, and we’re back to gatekeepers again.
The only place I can think of that would pay a writer for a radio sitcom is the BBC. To be precise, BBC Radio 4. So whether you’re entering BBC competitions or sending your radio script to Pozzitive or a freelance producer, you’re ultimately aiming to bag one of the few sitcom slots on Radio 4 (possibly via a stint at writing for someone else’s). And so is every other radio comedy writer, including the long-established ones. If you’re a Radio 4 executive, do you give up one of those few slots to a new but promising writer, or do you put series six of a previous ratings triumph in there? Because the reality is, it’s either or. There isn’t room for everyone and it’s no good consistently being top 20 in the pile when they can only take three scripts forward. It would be like a novelist having to either be picked up by Penguin or self-publish. Oh, and Penguin could only publish a dozen novels that year and they’d have to bump one of their bestsellers to let you in. I’m not saying the big publishers never pick up new novelists (and note there that they are publishers plural) but it wouldn’t universally be seen as a failure if your debut novel didn’t get on their lists. And yet it is with a radio script because there are no alternatives.
With a novel there are many smaller publishers you could try, and it may well be that some indie with its own niche is particularly suited to what you’re trying to do. With radio… As far as I know, there are no commercial radio stations in the UK that want scripted programmes, whether comedy or drama. BBC local radio doesn’t seem to either. So we’re down to community radio stations like the fabulous Chapel FM who help people make what they like, or making your own podcast. In both cases there’s only as much budget as you’re willing or able to fork out, you won’t get paid, you have to drum up your own audience, and the available actors probably rely on who you know and who’ll do you a favour. To write a sitcom well takes a lot of time and effort. Then add more time, effort and possibly money to make it yourself. To sink that much into a hobby takes dedication, an understanding household, and a bit of financial cushion, which naturally limits who can manage it. It might lead to a producer’s interest, if you can send them a link to a sitcom you’ve already made, but see above for scarcity of slots in the radio schedules and I think we all know what the reality will be.
Incidentally, during the discussion James also mentioned in passing the Radio 4 demographic, and it hit me in a way that it hasn’t before, just how limiting that is. For TV sitcom in the UK, people know what you mean when you say it’s more suited to ITV than BBC, or it’s a bit Channel 4. They’re aiming at different audiences. Radio 4 is one station, with one target audience. They can be a bit flexible in the hope that they draw in some younger listeners for a particular programme but they won’t want to alienate their core. Which means there are some sitcoms that can be as well-written as you like, they’re never going to be broadcast on that station. And that, in terms of nurturing a diverse bunch of writers (particularly younger writers) is really sad.
I am confident that I can write a decent novel (Wasted Years has been enjoyed by the few who’ve read it). With the aid of a sharp-eyed editor I could write a better one that might do OK. But I don’t imagine I’d ever trouble the Sunday Times bestseller list. Most authors don’t. In the same way, I reckon if I work hard I can write a decent sitcom script but I don’t imagine I’d ever be in the top five of several thousand entries to the Galton and Simpson, or make a Radio 4 executive pass up the opportunity for another series of Conversations from a Long Marriage or Ed Reardon’s Week. And while that would be fine if I had other avenues to explore with it, I don’t so it isn’t. I can either stop writing radio scripts (never going to happen, I’ve been at it on and off for 35 years) or I can make sure I write ones I can make into a podcast. Better start saving up to hire some actors.
If you want to help in that direction, you can always buy me a cuppa…