Alison Davis is a comedy script writer
"Are you harbouring a hidden writing genius?" asks the BBC Talent blurb, inviting all comers to submit sitcom scripts. The advertising suggests fame and fortune are just round the corner for anyone with a funny enough idea. Talent will out - all you have to do is get tapping!
While there's no doubt that a BBC commission will be a huge break for the 10 lucky writers whose scripts are selected, it's unlikely they'll be new to the comedy business. They'll have already spent a few years jobbing on sketch shows and banging their heads against television company doors. Indeed, the BBC sitcom initiative was initially conceived as a lifeline for promising writers "simmering in Development Hell", according to the script editor behind the campaign.
Development Hell is, of course, the technical term for the rungs on the ladder between writing a sitcom script, and having a sitcom broadcast. Step one is realising that everybody's first script is rubbish, no exceptions. The second script will be pretty bad too, and probably the third. As this is only revealed in hindsight, all struggling writers waste months touting their wares round production companies and cursing the rejection letters. After writing enough scripts to become technically competent, writers must try to persuade someone in the business to read their script within a reasonable time limit - six months or so.
At this point, although only a tiny proportion of unsolicited scripts are seriously considered, maybe, just maybe, they'll win a commission. This involves being paid three or four grand for several months of hard labour and is very exciting, but writers should be wary. Only about 10 per cent of scripts commissioned are ever made, as few commissioning editors would dream of spending £1.25m (at least) making a series by an unknown - and unless the sitcom is a vehicle for a well-known actor, it's not going to happen. This is television in the world of multiple choice channels and ratings wars.
So on the upper rungs of Development Hell the struggling writer might earn enough money to claim to be "professional" but nowhere near enough to sustain a reasonable (or even unreasonable) standard of living. They must either hold down a full-time job and slog away at the keyboard in their leisure hours, or face the vagaries of the benefits system. The latter course includes the additional hazard of being considered "brave" (ie stupid) by rich accountant friends. Incidentally, it is useful to have a large circle of friends: 365 is a good number.
Many successful writers build up broadcast credits by writing for established sketch shows, get into TV via the Edinburgh Fringe, or create a radio sitcom which translates to the screen. The only independent production company to offer a clear route for new writers is Carlton Television; their annual comedy writing course has run for eight years and they even pay the trainees. The course, advertised only within the business, attracted 120 applications for 12 places last year. How many applicants will the Beeb's nationwide net collect? Still, with any luck, 10 deserving talents will be pulled on to the next rung of Development Hell, and some of them might make it out of the fiery pit altogether. All power to BBC Comedy; if only it would commission 10 new writers every year.
Ian Vine is Tutor in Electro-Acoustic Music at the RNCM. His music has been commissioned by The London Sinfonietta and ensemble recherche
Very few composers in this country can make a living entirely from their music. Traditional sources of funding are drying up to the extent that those used for new music are being squeezed ever smaller. There aren't enough funds put into venues, orchestras or the commissioning of new work. This is a problem that extends throughout the arts.
There are many young composers who get little or no support for their music. Over the Internet, they can make contact with other composers and new audiences. Entire works can be downloaded and listened to, sometimes at CD quality.
The launch of the BBC Talent campaign, New Composers, is an excellent opportunity. Offering those who are selected radio and Internet play, and the winner a feature on Radio 3's Mixing It and inclusion of their piece on a BBC Music magazine cover-mount CD, it will go a long way towards their gaining some recognition.
There are only a few other such opportunities in the UK. Perhaps the most notable is State of the Nation, an annual event held in April at the South Bank Centre, run by the London Sinfonietta and backed by many leading contemporary music organisations. Most orchestras, however, stick to the standard repertoire.
That's not to say that young composers shouldn't help themselves. Funding is an important issue, but it can be used as an excuse for inactivity. Several groups of composers have started to present their music to audiences that the traditional ensembles don't play to. Many interesting collaborative projects are taking place between composers and artists from other disciplines, such as film, dance, theatre and fine art. Composers from different musical backgrounds are working together and discovering that their respective audiences have an interest in each other's music.
A programme such as Radio 3's Mixing It works precisely because of the cross-pollination that exists in the music and in the listening habits of its audience. Young composers should welcome the BBC Talent campaign and lend their support in the form of their ears, votes and by submitting their works in the competition.
Humphrey Douglas is a stand-up comedian and playwright
BBC "Talent" wants: "Anyone aged 18-25" for a Radio 1 job, or a slot thinking up new TV programmes in the "Ideas Lab", to appeal, presumably, also to those oldies over 25. Thankfully, the talent scouts have not been so ruthless with their comedy competition, which is open to "Anyone of any age"! I'm not knocking the Beeb - well, I am, but only for a cheap laugh. Digital TV and satellite are soaking up a lot of new material and even the imperfectly formatted stand-up shows fill gaps on the networks. And if more competitions mean more people are encouraged to feel more scared for one night of their lives then they've ever felt, ever - well that can't be bad.
The danger is that TV's gain may be stand-up's loss. I grew up assuming that alternative comedy was just the name for stand-up comedy. What was/is non-alternative comedy? Men telling gags about their mothers-in-law? These days, comedians tell jokes about comedians telling jokes about their mothers-in-law, before observing the comic potential in having sex, being a parent, and smoking drugs. However, the five- to seven- minute competition format sometimes tends to favour the gagsters. And that's not to say it isn't damn hard to write and perform good original stuff, whether observational or not. Competitions are great for comedians, especially those who never wanted to be stand-ups but sitcom squillionaires. It can get them seen and out of the purgatory of pub circuit deaths. But I love the smell of embarrassment in those places as the audience stare at their shoes. That's what stand-up is all about for me (tragically). It's the communication, the dialogue; it's the gig that's funny, not the material. That's why it doesn't always work. It shouldn't until you really know your craft, and that takes most people years. I don't want to be typecast into doing the same routine or style throughout my stand-up career because it worked at the competition and got me an agent.
That's why larger agents hold their acts back from cable-presenting jobs until they're crafted enough to take on the big time and get beer commercials in their own right. I'm generalising, of course, and shall be entering competitions while justifying pub deaths for years to come!Reuse content