In my ongoing quest to empty some of the dozens of boxes we still have cluttering up the place, I open up a file of paperwork, relating to the stage shows Situations Vacant and Sitcom Trials that I was running circa twenty-odd years ago. And what should I find but a clutch of rejection letters.
Kids today may not be familiar with this paper-based phenomenon. But dating back to the days just before everyone had email, these letters from between 1999 and 2001 give a fascinating paper trail from my efforts to break into comedy writing.
I had started sending sitcom scripts to the TV and radio when I was freshly out of art college. My first effort, The Administration, was about the kids running the Student Union at a provincial art college. Write what you know, they say. That was 1984, and if I have the rejection letters from those days, they've yet to turn up. Further sitcom efforts followed, the next significant one being Needletime, which Alan Seaman and I co-wrote circa 1989, based on our time working on Radio Leicester's youth programme Primetime. Again, we were writing what we knew. And getting routinely rejected, obviously.
For the next few years, as I was making my way as a quite successful writer of comic strips, I would occasionally send my sitcom scripts and TV & radio ideas off to the various broadcasters and production companies that existed in those days.
I achieved some small success, having two game show formats optioned by Talkback. One, Drs and Nurses, was a medical game show that found itself pipped to the post by a now-forgotten BBC2 show called Ps & Qs, presented by Tony Slattery. The second was Unbelievable, a game show about truth and lies, that was essentially Call My Bluff with stories. This never got made, and was beaten to the punch by two far better shows that came around a decade later: The Unbelievable Truth on Radio 4, and Would I Lie To You? on BBC1.
The bottom line with the sitcoms was that, no matter how well you thought you were doing, the best you could ever get for your efforts was a polite rejection letter. Which is where the idea for Situations Vacant and then The Sitcom Trials came from.
By the early 90s I'd started doing stand up regularly, and was getting somewhere with it. I had regular paid gigs, including MC-ing the weekly Comedy Box in Bristol. And the one thing you learn in stand up is that it's regular performance in front of a live audience that shapes your comedy. No stand up would get anywhere if they just wrote their comedy ideas down and sent them off to a producer. You get out there and perform them, and that's how you find out whether an audience finds them funny. And if they don't, you write more, and re-write what you've already written, until you have the funniest stuff you can have.
Thus Situations Vacant was a show I devised that would subject my sitcom writing to the same acid test of audience reaction as my stand up. I contacted actors, and other writers (via Venue, the local what's on magazine, another thing that'll be hard to explain to the kids) and we assembled a show where we showcased three or four situation comedies, of varying lengths, and saw how it went.
It went well. The idea was we'd stage the sitcoms, then based on the audience reaction we'd go away, rewrite anything that merited it, and we'd stage them again. We'd team write, contributing ideas to each others scripts, and we'd stage the improved sitcoms again.
Then we'd send these tried-and-tested sitcom scripts off to the TV and radio. And what do you know, it worked.
In 1996 our sitcom, Yikes It's Jesper, was sent to BBC Comedy. The very next day I got a phone call from producer Jon Rolph who said to me "Yes, I think we can do something with this."
This sitcom was co-written by me and journalist Ken Elkes, based around a central character Jesper, devised by Bristol Uni student Iain Morris. The title had been coined by up-and-coming comedian James Dowdeswell, and another contributor to our scripts at the time, who had one or two lines in this, was Bristol local Stephen Merchant. We wrote two episodes of Yikes... both of which had been sent to Jon.
It took a year before this sitcom found itself made into a pilot, recorded in front of a studio audience at the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House, under the name Come Together, and starring Ben Miller, Arabella Weir, Mel Hudson and Kevin Eldon.
Come Together (which had been renamed when Iain, who was by now working for TV company Avalon, withdrew permission for us to use his Jesper character) never made it beyond the pilot stage, ultimately being the sort of flat-share comedy that the BBC realised they already had enough of. However Jon was able to get us a second pilot, this time of a sketch show called Meanwhile, which starred Ronnie Ancona and Geoff McGivern. It was made in 1997 and also stalled after the studio audience pilot.
However Situations Vacant continued, and morphed in The Sitcom Trials, the format wherein the audience saw just the first half of each sitcom, then voted for their favourite and only saw the ending of the winner. Doing regular shows in Bristol and London, we would then stage full versions of earlier winners as the headline act of each show, giving them the vital test that would ready them for sending off to the TV and radio.
Which brings us back to the rejection letters above. Here we can see three sitcom projects getting turned down:
Didn't You Used To Be..? was co-written by me and Geoff Whiting, and was showcased in Bristol and London with Tony 'Baldrick' Robinson in the lead role. There's a poor quality video of it somewhere. It was set in a QVC-like shopping channel and was, I thought, our funniest effort.
The Lavendar Millbank Mob was devised by Rich Johnston, with a number of writers delivering episodes. I wrote two (I think we staged six in all). It was about Labour party spin doctors and was beaten to radio by Absolute Power, and to TV by The Thick Of It.
Go Wild In The Country was the only written written by me alone. Under the pseudonym Jane Simon, which was very much my Currer Bell moment. This one actually ended up on TV, as part of the TV series of The Sitcom Trials.
Which is another story, for another day.
Read more about The Sitcom Trials in its own blog, here. There's a lot of it.
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