The countdown begins
The process of making a sitcom, particularly as the writer and performer, is a long, drawn out one with a huge variety of jobs. So, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
On day one of the writing process I know the dates we will be filming, and when it’s expected to air on TV. Yet, I sit in an office (and when I say office I mean my kitchen table) staring at a blank laptop screen. It can be an overwhelming sense of pressure. Particularly for series three when I knew this thing I was yet to create would be on at Christmas on BBC1 (after two series on BBC2).
Each episode needs two or three story ideas and at least three or four big set-piece scenes, so that’s where I start. I get out the note pad I’ve been carrying around with me and write all my ideas on Post-it Notes and put them on the wall. For the first series the walls were covered, the second series there was one wall, by the third series there were about six pathetic-looking Post-it Notes on a small pin board. One simply said “geese”. I remember thinking, on a walk, “Surely geese are funny, being chased by geese?” Yes, it does feel like clutching at straws sometimes.
I might take about a month or two to think of enough situations for my character, where I hope she might be funny, eg a sushi restaurant; universal life problems that might make stories, eg trying to keep up with a 23-year-old, which was my favourite story from series two; what Miranda and Gary’s journey is going to be etc.
This involves me pacing about my house, a park, a street, anything to find an idea. And when I get stuck and stressed I bung on Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 and dance it off in my kitchen. Yes, I probably am a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body.
Ten months to go
Once I gather some vaguely acceptable ideas, I get together with my wonderfully supportive and clever writing team: Richard Hurst, James Cary and Georgia Pritchett. Together we spend about a month, maybe more, turning the ideas into coherent stories. Finding ways to weave in being chased by geese, or whatever “funny” is on the Post-it. This for me is the hard bit. A half-hour sitcom story is technical and strategic. I have cried through irritation and frustration and was relieved to hear that Larry David said he once dived into a duvet and cried when story-lining.
Sometimes by 3pm I find there’s no other option but to go to bed and stay there for at least two hours. Either writing really is a nightmare, or we are all a bit overdramatic and weird. Probably a bit of both.
We storyline in a small room at the BBC. I find it truly inspiring every time I go through the BBC TV Centre gates knowing my comedy heroes once trod the same path. On bad writing days I will go into an empty studio to remind myself of the importance of comedy. These are the studios where Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies, all the greats, filmed. Without their work my life would be a duller place. I’m reminded how blessed I am to be in an industry I have always dreamt of getting into. I’m spurred onwards.
Nine months to go
I have a scene-by-scene breakdown of all six episodes of the series and I can finally start actually writing them. I often hire a cottage in the country and hide away to get the scripts drafted. I do get bored and lonely but it’s “head down time”. I liken it to doing your A-level or finals revision – but all that revision ends up on TV to be judged. Yikes!
Finally, I hand the scripts in to the producer and director. We are now in pre-production. This is about six weeks before we’re scheduled to film and I will be involved in casting and the look of the show from costumes to sets.
I love this part of the process. If nothing else I’m surrounded by the team I know and love. Not on my own talking to my dog and shouting at Dolly Parton for inspiration.
Six months to go
I always have a sleepless night before the big read-through: the day the cast come together to read all the scripts for the first time. And at the end of the day, even if people are affirming, I go home utterly convinced the series is rubbish, it’s going to be the worst piece of television ever made and my career will be over.
I slowly start to gain confidence when we film on location. There are obviously some scenes that can’t be done in front of the studio audience so we do a week filming exterior scenes – parks, streets, churches. All the location filming is incredibly physical because it’s where the big set pieces are filmed, from falling into a grave to being chased through a park by a dog with your trousers around your ankles, or getting stuck on a sushi conveyor belt.
I’m writing this having just finished our week’s filming for series three and I’m bruised, stiff and heading to the osteopath for an MOT!
Three months to go
Finally, about nine months after that first day of looking at the blank laptop screen, I’m doing the bit I love the best: rehearsing the show for a live studio audience. The scripts are as set in stone as they can be. This gives all the actors the best chance to really nail a solid performance. We only really get two takes for every scene, maximum three, so the pressure is on to deliver. The cast now put up with my, let’s not say control, let’s go with precision, about the script. Absolute precision is essential for comedy that needs to get laughs – filming in front of an audience puts that pressure on both the writing and performing.
I can now say, “Excuse me, do you mind not paraphrasing?” or when they make a suggestion I can just say “No” and no offence is taken. We are a family. And when the cast do get something in the script they award themselves a gold star. Please note: award themselves. Embarrassing. But I wouldn’t be without their genius ideas – where would we be without Sarah Hadland suggesting singing Heather Small’s Proud?
After three days in rehearsal we head to the studio to do some pre-records that we wouldn’t be able to do live. For example, in series two we had a massive goat that would have been a liability. And indeed it was – what a brazen wee… let’s say no more. We do a Wednesday-to-Sunday week, which means our first day in the studio is a Saturday when Strictly is recording. We are all huge fans so are often found wandering the BBC hoping to accidentally-on-purpose bump into a dancer. We all feel lucky to be doing the job we do when we are in studio. I remain astounded that I’m walking the corridors of the BBC, bumping into stars from other shows, and more amazingly having a studio with my name on it. It’s incredibly humbling and thrilling to walk into a studio that has been built because of what you wrote.
Finally, it’s Sunday, the day of the recording. We start at 9am rehearsing on camera – it’s the first time we and the cameramen work together to get our positions, movements and looks spot on. At 4.30pm we do a dress rehearsal and at 7pm the audience come in and we do the show 7.30 to 10.30pm. The next day I usually sleep till noon.
So it’s all boiled down to this. I’m waiting (pacing anxiously) in the wings. The warm-up man introduces me and out I gallop (if in doubt, gallop). I introduce the cast and we’re off. I’m incredibly nervous. My first lines are always on my own to camera. It’s my only chance to grab the audience at home and in the studio. Then I hear the first laugh. I relax. I see the red light on the camera, and the audience, and I am happier and freer than at most other times in my life.
Two weeks to go
And what has kept me going throughout it all, if I can briefly sound American, are the fans. I’m so grateful to everyone who watches and supports the show – it means so very very much. I just hope you like it. Eeeeek!