Blimey, how's this for a bit of guerrilla reporting? I'm in a central London pub, abusing their wi-fi. All day, I've been at a BBC radio sketchwriting workshop, as a result of having contributed material to Radio 4's Recorded For Training Purposes, early this year. Great to see that the BBC's radio comedy department genuinely seem committed to involving and recognising new writers. From 8pm onwards, a sketch which I've created today will be performed live as part of a show at The Albany pub on Great Portland Street. Mad, yes?
It's been a fun day. We (me and roughly 17 others) got there at 11am, and were given 15 minutes to think of a couple of sketch ideas. We pitched both of these to assigned mentors, who then suggested which one to develop, without being overly prescriptive. Then we scuttled away and wrote the first draft of the sketch on our laptops.
First drafts achieved, we were rewarded with a group talk from Gareth Edwards, Head Of Radio Comedy. He played us a few of his favourite Mitchell & Webb sketches, before telling us why he especially liked each, before chatting about sketches in a more general fashion. One of his big pointers, when it came to sketches, was to establish a situation, then shift the ground under the audience's feet. In an amusing fashion, obviously. He also advised: "Don't just write what you think a show wants, if you don't find it funny", and stressed the benefits of radio, in that the writer is in complete control of what information they reveal, and when.
After lunch, we individually reconvened with our mentors, who by this time had read our first drafts, and offered us some feedback. My mentor, Miles, had some really clear-headed, sensible suggestions, as you'd expect. It meant a slightly bigger rewrite than I immediately expected, but I got the job done, goddamit.
After that, we were visited by the supernaturally calm Micheal Jacob, Head Of BBC Comedy College, who seemed happy to chat in a laidback fashion and answer all manner of questions. The general picture of BBC radio comedy was of a pretty open camp, in which you simply have to find a producer (there are nine or ten in the radio comedy department, which provides most of the comedy shows aired on Radio 4 and BBC Radio 7) who likes - or, ideally, loves your work. You then need to prove to them that this wasn't just a one-off stroke of genius, and that you're reliable. He stressed selling yourself all the time, as producers are unlikely to have too much time recommending your work to other producers... although referrals do happen. He was also honest enough to admit that radio-writing is unlikely to "ever really be a living" in itself.
The BBC Comedy College was launched last year, and Micheal wants to do another, using what he learnt from the first - and inevitably given the economic landscape, a lower budget. In terms of script dislikes, he said, "The worst scripts I read are by people who set out to write a sitcom. Everything's cardboard, there's no character depth and people don't talk like real people. Write about what you care about, and keep it real in terms of emotion." On that note, he recommended a book about character psychology: Games People Play, by Dr Eric Berne.
Right. Time to head over to the Albany. Is my sketch funny enough? Only one way to find out. And clearly, it's the hard way.