The Greatest Things About Edinburgh # 1
No, not the city itself, although judging by the three days I spent in beautiful, endlessly surprising Edinburgh, that would be a post well worth writing. I'm talking about the Edinburgh TV Festival, which I attended in full, last weekend, with Dan Turner (check out his tremendous new showreel, why don'tcha?). An excellent, inspirational affair, it's only fuelled my already raging desire to spend the rest of my days writing drama for TV.
I feel strongly that, in order to work in the industry, it's vital to understand what it is and what it wants. The TV Festival fired wall-to-wall information at us: there were onstage interviews with practically every major channel's Controller, along with individual masterclasses and some plain ol' entertainment. It was a tremendous barometer of what's happening. Whenever I get a chance, I'm going to scribble about the weekend's finest moments. Here are three for starters:
1) THE RISKY DRAMA SESSION
I began this 9.30am session somewhat bleary of eye, but was soon delighted that we'd made the effort. This hour's theme practically invited cynicism, questioning as it did the amount of risk which TV drama can and should take, so it was a real pleasure to see people onstage speaking about their endeavours with such passion as they discussed the industry's realities.
Ben Stephenson, the BBC's Head Of Drama Commissioning, was especially impressive, and not solely because of his intensely red socks. The man spoke with commendably energetic feeling about his channels' output, insisting that "all drama has to be, in some way, risky." He also pointed out that BBC shows which are perceived as 'safe', like Cranford and Doctor Who, are hardly that - in particular, it was originally a ludicrously large risk to bring back Who. Of course, these days, critics see it as the very epitome of mainstream, safe TV, but it could so easily have blown up in the Beeb's face.
You could plainly see that Stephenson loves the vast majority of the shows which he and Drama Controller Jane Tranter have commissioned, and is perfectly capable of defending them all to the hilt, talking verbal rings around anyone who suggests otherwise. There were, of course, the predictably tedious questions about the pair's supposedly iron-fisted reign. As he said on the matter, "We are the gatekeepers, and that's hard, but it's just the way it has to be." As even Channel 4's Head Of Drama Development, Robert Wulfe-Cochrane, was moved to comment, it's hard to conceive of any other way for a drama department like the BBC's to be structured.
If the session had an inherent flaw, it was that the concept of risk was somewhat nebulous. A little way into proceedings, 'risk' was somewhat weirdly taken to mean 'extreme content', on which of course the BBC has to draw a line, as is only right and proper. The chair, Mark Lawson, asked whether the assembled channel-heads would ever air a film like 9 Songs, Michael Winterbottom's yawnsome piece which featured moments of lacklustre hardcore porn (I've never seen a man ejaculate so listlessly, to be frank). Stephenson drew big laughs from the coffee-cradling crowd as he admitted, "Maybe we can't do penetrative sex, no. If anyone wants to have a go at that, talk to Robert." In a further, surreal part of this particular discussion, the topic of rimming was broached and ultimately licked. Cough.
Surely the session's finest moment came during the Q&A segment. One audience member mused aloud as to whether commissioners "know that their bad programmes are bad". For instance, he wondered, did the person who commissioned Echo Beach know it was "shit"? Stephenson peered at the person posing the question and said, "Aren't you sitting next to her?". The man was indeed sitting right next to ITV's Controller Of Drama Laura Mackie, in one of those glorious moments which you'd have been hard-pressed to set up. Mackie retained her calm impeccably as Mr Questioner desperately tried to retain his cool credentials by repeatedly asking Mackie, "Come on, it's shit, isn't it? Admit it." Which, of course, only dug him an even deeper hole - there's nothing more tiresome than someone who mistakes their own opinions for facts. I only wish that Tony Jordan had been sitting on the other side of him.
2) HENRY NORMAL
Out of hundreds of delegates at the TV Festival, only a tiny proportion were writers. I mean, literally, ten-or-so. This was an advantage in many ways, although the event isn't especially set up for networking. If it is, then most of the people networking are already within the TV industry and are looking to move upwards/sideways. On the Saturday afternoon, I sat by myself in the event's cafe area, wondering - just for a moment, you understand - if this had been entirely the right festival to attend, in terms of making new contacts.
Then someone sat right next to me at the table and we got chatting. Having read the heading of this bit, you won't be surprised to hear that it was Henry Normal. He founded Baby Cow Productions with Steve Coogan, co-created The Royle Family and has been involved with the likes of Gavin & Stacey, The Mighty Boosh and Nighty Night. Serious credentials, then, for someone who turned out to a seriously nice bloke. We chatted about this and that, and Henry said that he was impressed to see a writer come to the TV Festival, "rather than waiting for the world to come to them". Which instantly re-inserted the spring back into my step, as you can imagine.
Incidentally, it may seem that by recalling this episode, I'm implying that writers who didn't attend Edinburgh were somehow lacking. Not at all. It's just important to remember that producers clearly appreciate and respect the pro-active.
3) GRAHAM LINEHAN'S MASTERCLASS
Graham Linehan, as you'll almost certainly be aware, co-created Father Ted and single-handedly brings us The IT Crowd, as well as having a lengthy string of further, impressive CV entries. He didn't want this session to be called a masterclass, but of course it still was. It was also a real inspiration.
Linehan's presentation was, it must be said, shambolic, and endearingly so. He regularly had to refer to printed-out notes, having forgotten what he was about to say, and generally seemed ill at ease onstage. We didn't care about this nervous fumbling, of course, because when he wasn't grinding to a vaguely awkward halt, genuine nuggets of wisdom were flying out of his mouth. Linehan wasn't reinventing the comedic wheel, but he presented some very interesting opinions and, most importantly, made writing comedy seem so simple... and fun.
He told us how procrastination, like ridicule, is nothing to scared of. This confirmed something I've been very much feeling lately - if writing a script is being endlessly delayed by displacement activities, there's no need to beat yourself up about it. Your brain is actually gathering "ammunition", as Linehan put it, and preparing itself to splurge the script onto the screen. Eventually, says Linehan, you reach a point when you can't not let it all out.
The great man spoke out against today's cultural state of affairs whereby almost anything goes in comedy, in terms of explicit content. This, he reasoned, is a bad thing, as it robs comedy of subtlety and effectively makes it less inventive. As an example of comedy being risque without actually, verbally, saying anything offensive, he offered up the episode of Seinfeld which saw characters engage in a contest whereby they're not allowed to masturbate.
Linehan also shared some ingeniously simple sitcom building blocks:
(i) While a film's story structure, which sees a character end up completely different to how they began, can be summed up as "A to Z", the sitcom's structure is essentially "A to B to A" - the character basically ending up where they began.
(ii) Sitcoms, he says, are almost always based on traps. But this works on two levels - the characters are trapped in some way, but the audience must also be trapped, in terms of buying the situation. They must believe that the character couldn't possibly escape their ticklesome trap. As an example, Linehan showed us a scene from one of his favourite films, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which Michael Caine takes great delight in tormenting Steve Martin, who is pretending to be crippled and wheelchair-bound.
(iii) Linehan admitted that a sitcom's content can be as simple as "three or so great set-pieces, preferably with the last one happening at the end. If you have those set-pieces, then you can join them up with a load of gags!".
What with the pincer-movement combination of Normal's encouragement and Linehan's inspirational methodology, it was no wonder that I had a peachy sitcom idea rattling around my head by the time the weekend was out.
More Edinburgh, as and when. If I don't see you before, have the kind of week which inspires feather-spitting envy in others.