If you’re an aspiring comedy writer or writer/performer trying to get your work on television, the comedy commissioning process can seem like a daunting process. With so many production companies and broadcasters stating that they don’t look at unsolicited (that’s direct from a new writer) scripts, and positively dissuading unrepresented (by an agent or production company) writers from sending in ideas, nepotism can seem like the only way in. Projects like the BBC’s Writers Room do encourage new talent, but industry insiders say that very little gets commissioned that way. In a multi-channel environment where audiences are fragmenting rapidly, are broadcasters too scared to take risks, relying on established and experienced talent rather than developing fresh blood?
“I think it’s incredibly frustrating as a writer,” says freelance producer Vanessa Haynes, who was behind BBC Three show Dogtown and BBC One’s Angel Cake. “I haven’t worked within the BBC so I can’t speak for them, but initiatives [like the Writer’s Room] are really important. But they’re only as good as the commitment that follows on. I’m sometimes surprised by things that get piloted on those schemes.” Much of the talent Haynes works with is new to television, and often comes from the London comedy circuit, where she says you’ll often see comedy producers trying to spot new talent.
While this fact is encouraging, stand-up Lucy Porter - who, with Haynes, was speaking at the Broadcast TV Comedy Forum - says it can be a bit daunting, as when you do get noticed, you can feel thrown in at the deep end. “If you go to some little pub gig where the acts are getting paid nothing, and there’s people trying to sign anyone showing any signs of anything at all, it’s a bit strange. It would be much more useful for people to build a relationship, and give them time to grow and find their voice. It’s very hard. And even when you get offered stuff, you see lots of people having meeting after meeting with production companies, being expected to come up with new ideas and nobody’s really got any clue what to do with them,” says Porter.
For those who don’t have access to recording equipment, or aren’t blessed with talented actors as friends to star in a demo, is there any point in sending in a script if you’ve never written anything before? Channel 4’s head of comedy Andrew Newman says you’d do better to get an agent, or try some of the production companies with an ‘open-door’ policy on scripts. “Our job is to serve the viewers and to make good programmes, and part of that is to have a good relationship with the creative community at large. But I don’t think the commissioning editors that work for me should spend their time reading unsolicited scripts, because the chances of the next Office, Father Ted or ‘Peter Kay’ coming completely cold from someone who’s not got any [comedy] background at all, I think is quite slim. If you’re able to get a comedy agent to believe in you, that will give it a seal of credibility. If you can get a production company that have made some stuff before, or the people setting it up have made stuff before, then that’s a way in.”
“The idea that a new person will write a six-part sitcom on their own is not unfeasible, but it’s more likely they’re going to do something through an [established] production company who’ve got more experience. A new writer, working with a new company, with new people – there’s quite a lot of ‘new-ness’. New is good, but it’s unlikely that they would be able attract the best people to it,” he adds. Newman recommends that new writers submit sketches for shows like The Friday Night Project or Comedy Lab rather than send Channel 4 full scripts.
But producer Haynes disagrees: “I’ve had some amazing writers land on my desk that are completely unsolicited, unrepresented, and within the four years at Celador (as head of comedy development), several of those writers have become well known within the comedy producer world,” she adds. So if stuff does get read, and by the right people, why are so many production companies so keen to say they don’t accept unsolicited scripts? “It's rubbish,” says Haynes, “I believe it’s a meritocracy. I do think it’s unfortunate that a lot of companies say they don’t accept scripts. Even when I was at LWT, I used to read all the unsolicited scripts…I don’t think you have to be represented by the best literary agent; you don’t have to have a list of credits as long as Marks and Gran. But you do need producers who read scripts, and they do exist.”
Five is one broadcaster that is encouraging new writers to send in ideas direct, rather than having to get an agent or a production company interested. Haynes thinks this is a great idea: “Although we all work for different [production] companies who work for different broadcasters, the more successful comedy is, the better it is for all of us…you do want good writers to be picked up left, right and centre.”
So apart from Five, where else is new talent being looked at? “ITV2 is a really exciting place to be at the moment in terms of comedy talent,” says Haynes, who is currently working with the channel on a show featuring character comedy duo Congress of Oddities. “They are talking to everybody at the moment. It’s exciting to be dealing with broadcasters who are not only genuinely enthusiastic, but actually will go and see stuff. They’ll go out and see the live shows, and there’s a real hunger to put comedy on the map. And as an independent [production company] you sort of think ‘Great, another place to take your talent to.’”
With multichannel meaning audiences are fragmenting, it is hard for cash-strapped broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC to give resources over to developing new talent, as well as discovering the stars of the tomorrow. Channel 4, quite rightly, has committed to a fifth series of Peep Show, but one feels this is merely an attempt to hold onto Mitchell and Webb before they head elsewhere for more money leaving the broadcaster with a gaping hole in its comedy output. New BBC comedy now has to work on BBC Three before it transfers to BBC Two, meaning both BBC Two and Channel 4 have lost their long-established reputations for being the home of new comedy. But their loss will be the other broadcasters’ gain, as new writers won't bother submitting work to channels where showcasing new comedy talent on a regular basis isn’t a priority in its commissioning strategy.