The show what we wrote: making a Radio 4 comedy

Four aspiring writers talk about getting their work broadcast on Radio 4’s The Show What You Wrote

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The show what we wrote: making a Radio 4 comedy
Written By
David Crawford

Have you ever listened to a sketch show on the radio and thought, that’s a bit patchy, I reckon I could do just as well? Apparently thousands have.

When the BBC opened up the writing of new sketch series The Show What You Wrote to submissions from anyone with an interest, they were inundated with entries — 12,000 separate sketches and gags from 5,000 emails sent by 1500 different people.

Advertised through the Beeb’s writersroom website and Twitter feed, writers were asked to submit work in five separate categories. Eventually the five genres were amalgamated into four  episodes, and whittling down all the entries into a workable form was a gargantuan task, as producer Alexandra Smith explains:

“Myself and my co-producer Carl Cooper read all the material, as did the script editor Jon Hunter; there are a couple of contract writers in the department and we got them to do some reading; if there were any spare producers around we got them to do some reading. It was an all-hands on deck operation.”

With the sheer volume of material that needed to be read, it would be understandable if something fell through the cracks, but the search for comedic nuggets of gold was an exhaustive process.

Smith again: “We all had individual 'yes' piles, which then everyone read and everyone read everyone else's 'maybes', and if there was a particular writer who'd got stuff into a 'yes' pile we'd go back and see what else he'd written. We'd dip in and out of each others' 'no' folders as well, because we've all got different tastes and you want to ensure that everyone's getting a proper look. Then we sat down with all the 'yeses' and 'maybes' and worked out which ones needed to be rewritten and put together notes for all those people and gave them a second deadline to resubmit their sketches.”

It's this process that sets The Show What You Wrote apart from its counterpart, R4 Extra's topical sketch show NewsJack, which also features material from “non-commissioned” writers. Due to its topicality that show is put together in two days and there is not enough time to give writers feedback; if something needs changing it's done by in-house script editors.

The premise of the BBC writersroom is to encourage new talent, so while it's good for aspiring writers to be able to get work broadcast on NewsJack it was also felt that the lengthier production time of The Show What You Wrote would allow greater opportunities to nurture writers' skills.

It's something that Smith highlights as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series, ”It's quite interesting for us, in terms of identifying people we'd want to work with in the future, as to who can write to notes. If you give someone an edit suggestion and they've gone away and done it, and it works. That's really exciting.”

Show What You Wrote readthrough

Many of the people who got work broadcast also talk in generous terms about the process of receiving feedback on their work, especially some who had already had material on NewsJack.

School lab technician Ash Williamson, 29, who was actually asked to submit to The Show What You Wrote by the producer of NewsJack, Carl Cooper, is certain how it helped him.

Ash Williamson

“It's a learning experience writing something like that in tandem with experienced script editors. I've had no input on my work for a while, so to finally get it, it's a massive learning curve.”

“Recently I feel that I've made a lot more progress [as a writer], just because of the brilliant feedback that the people working on these shows give you. Some of the notes you get...you just sit there and think, 'Oh yeah, why didn't I do that in the first place?'”

He also felt an amount of pride that his material was being read on the radio by John Thomson, as one of his first inspirations was watching The Fast Show with his dad, who died quite a while ago, but who also first got Ash into sketch comedy. Not that he's that sentimental about “doing it for dad”:

“That's a nice X-Factor-style back story. Stick some Take That to the back of that and it'll be fine.”

But it wasn't just the feedback they received that made the show a valuable experience for its amateur writers. In some cases they didn't receive any feedback on their work and had to wait until the recording to learn if and how it had been changed.

Eleanor Green

Eleanor Green, 34, who works as an operator on a simulator ride at the National Railway Museum in York, found that although she didn't receive any notes on her sketches that were chosen to be recorded, just the fact of being picked out of thousands has given her a new confidence in her work.

Even at the recording, which she attended, she didn't think that her piece would make it into the final edited programme, “I thought it wouldn't [be included], because I thought the audience reaction wasn't sure. But I think it's really hard to judge your own stuff, and obviously I'm really pleased it made it through in the end.”

Despite not receiving any feedback on her sketch, Eleanor says she can see why the changes made to her sketch were done. “I think for me it was fairly obvious. I wouldn't say I was that happy with the ending as I sent it, but I couldn't quite work out how it could be better. It's one of the things I've been thinking about since, you need to be able to spot things like that, if you want to get better.”

Having also gone through the process of submitting material to NewsJack for a long time and not getting anything recorded – at least until series 7 when she started to get a sketch on nearly every week - she is also wise to  the fact that not getting accepted can also be a learning experience. “I think now, I wasn't failing, I was improving. You have to remember that and think, there's a possibility I'm a bit better than I think and I'm getting further than I think. You just need to be persistent with it.”

Having now had work broadcast on Radio 4, having survived the enormous, painstaking editing process, has given Eleanor a filip. “It pays to think you're in with a chance, and it's made me approach it with a bit more confidence.”

Sarah Page

Another writer who was encouraged by the opportunity even though she didn't receive any feedback was Sarah Page, 28, who as a Royal Court Studio writer has had a play performed in London but has not written  radio sketches before.

It was not a switch that was easy to make, as she admits, “I always thought that writing sketches was really easy because it's a couple of minutes. How hard could it be? But it's actually like trying to distil a comedy pilot into three minutes. It's a really difficult thing to master.”

It was obviously something she took to like a duck to water, as she only submitted three sketches – she could have sent in ten sketches for each of the five original categories – with one making it through to broadcast. Quite an impressive hit rate.

Hearing that many other writers submitted up to the 50-sketch limit, she is a bit taken aback. “It's a real privilege to be chosen.”

She feels that this has given her a real boost to her confidence, to be able to look for other opportunities.

“This has really encouraged me to go for it a bit more. With my background in theatre, I'd really like to pitch something for Radio 4's Afternoon Play slot, because that feels like a good join of the two.

“I can't speak highly enough of how the writersroom and the BBC in general seem to be supporting new writers.”

Though it seems that success can have its downsides, as it seems her supportive family are now keen to give her as much help as possible.

“They do that thing now, that if they've had an idea for a sketch, they'll act it out for you. And you have to go. 'Yeah, that's great.'”

Andy Spence

Andy Spence, 34 , who was in the final year of an MA in writing for TV and radio when he submitted work to The Show What You Wrote, is also quick to praise the way that the production team dealt with writers new to broadcasting.

“It's so difficult to get stuff read, but the feedback is the best bit for me. Getting it on is fantastic and obviously I'm chuffed to bits, but getting feedback from people that you'd hope you'd eventually be working with, was the greatest benefit I suppose.”

And it was that learning process that really stood out for him, in particular being able to take on board feedback and produce something better than his original submission.

“If I knew exactly what I was doing, I'd be in their position. If I want to do this, if I want to be a writer, you have to learn from every single person you come across.”

Although he sounds upbeat about what he got out of writing for the show, it also sounds as if his nerves took quite a pounding during the whole process.

“It was like an X Factor-type thing, that you get chosen at one stage, then you get through to another, and another, so it was a bit nerve-racking.

“And it was nerve-racking watching the recording, waiting for my sketch to be read, seeing if the audience laughed as much as they did at the other sketches. I was gripping the chair thinking, 'If I just get one laugh, that's OK'”

Despite his concerns going through the production process, he's clear about what having his work on the show means.

“I feel really fortunate that I wrote something they liked and ultimately they used. Also the broadcast credit is going to be really useful – as well as telling people in the pub as often as possible.”

So it seems that the BBC's scheme to encourage new writers is paying dividends. And if you were concerned that this is just another way to make a show on the cheap, rest assured that writers whose work is broadcast do get paid: £36 per minute; £18 per 30 seconds; or £18 for a one-liner or gag.

Which led to some wishful thinking on the part of some, as Sarah admits:

“You get paid by the minute, and my sketch is about 2 minutes 50 seconds, so I hope the actors speak really slowly and make it to the three-minute mark.”

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