I’m back! There was no Fruit Salad Therapy Tape last week because I was away in Wales for a couple of festivals – first the BBC Comedy Festival in Cardiff, then How The Light Gets In, a philosophy, music and comedy festival in Hay-on-Wye. I had a lovely, albeit very intense, week at both and have come back with loads to think about, but I am sadly very behind on all the work I wasn’t able to do while I was away. As a result, this week’s newsletter will be a bit piecemeal, and will just be a series of notes from both festivals and the talks and panels I attended at each of them, similar to last year’s notes on the best talks I saw at How The Light Gets In. I’ll go through them one by one and just try to extract a key point I took away from each:
BBC Commissioning Update – By and large, the BBC’s current commissioning briefs are the same as those announced at last year’s Comedy Festival, as the results of that brief haven’t really manifested quite yet. Although the briefs remain the same, Jon Petrie managed to make this talk surprisingly fun by co-hosting it with an AI pitch-bot, and ended his presentation with a skit in which the AI pitched a sitcom set inside the universe of office-based stock photos, with the joke being that it was a terrible idea. This really made me laugh, because I once tried to write that exact sitcom. Nice to know it wouldn’t have been well received.
In Conversation With Sharon Horgan – Horgan was one of a few people across these talks who stressed that the question of “What do you look for in development scripts?” is really hard to answer, because the thing she most wants to see is something that she hasn’t seen before, and that trying to give steers or suggestions in terms of tone, style or setting ends up being really unhelpful because what you most want to see is a really authentic expression of a writer’s original voice.
That Tricky First Episode – This was a really interesting panel consisting of Tom Basden, Nida Manzoor, Phil Clarke and Bisha K. Ali discussing how to approach pilot scripts. There was some really great discussion of the relationships between writers and producers, and how any collaborative creative work needs to have the sense that everyone is united around the best thing possible, and that when notes or feedback or disagreement comes in, there has to be shared trust that they’re working towards a shared goal.
In Conversation With Jesse Armstrong – Just great to watch an absolute hero discussing his craft. One of the things I found most interesting was the revelation that absolutely no writing is done in the Succession writers’ room, and that they’re used purely for breaking story, figuring out character arcs and plot beats etc, and that the actual writing is done by each episode’s allocated writer in isolation.
BBC Comedy Short Film Screenings – 11 shorts produced by the BBC over the last year since they unveiled their short film brief were screened at the Everyman, and there’s some great stuff in there. I really loved Funboys; Jobless (produced by dear pal Zoe Waterman!) and Birdsong.
Writing For Audio Comedy – I really enjoyed hearing Rajiv Karia talk about how they make DMs Are Open, the new openly-sourced sketch show on Radio 4. Across that show, Jon Holmes’s The Skewer, BBC Scotland’s Breaking The News and the newly-announced What Just Happened? on BBC Wales, audio is currently thriving with shows that offer writing credits to brand-new writers on an open-door policy. Any readers looking to get their first broadcast credit would do well to check them out!
Character Comedy Masterclass With Jamie Demetriou, Diane Morgan & Danielle Vitalis – This was just so funny to watch. They have such funny bones, these three. There was also an echo of Horgan’s earlier point when Demetriou and Morgan discussed broadcasters’ obsession with finding “the new Fleabag” or “the new Derry Girls” or whatever they might be, because the best way of finding “the new anything” is to find the thing that is most unlike that thing, because that stands the best chance of containing the authenticity and the imagination that made those things great.
How To Be A Producer – This felt like an interesting thing to look into. I’ve not really got any intentions of becoming a full-time producer, but I have produced a few of my own short films, and am always curious about the producer-artist relationship. Stu Richards of Rockerdale Studios talked about the difference between big production companies that have recourse to go after big names, and small indies that have no option other than to work incredibly passionately on projects they feel are unique, because that’s the USP they can offer to broadcasters – that nobody else can make this thing, and nothing else like this can exist.
TV Masterclass With Peter Baynham – Baynham just seems like the loveliest guy. He was very keen to dismiss his own abilities and experiences, even though he’s one of the most acclaimed comedy writers of the last few decades. I sensed that, in that way, he’s a true writer, as someone who walked away from performing himself and decided not to pursue the spotlight, but instead embraced the problem-solving opportunities of writing for other people and in other voices. He seemed like a guy with a really open, honest, curious mind and I liked him a lot.
How To Get A TV Show With Mawaan Rizwan – Mawaan played a couple of clips from his upcoming sitcom Juice, which looks brilliant, and melds personal storytelling with surreal dreamscapes. The big takeaway from this was just how long the development process is, from the initial Fringe show to the final broadcast date for the series. All told it took 5 years, but that’s including a successful pilot stage and, of course, a pandemic. I can’t wait to see the finished show!
Man Like Mobeen Premiere With Guz Khan – Finally, the first two episodes of the new series of Man Like Mobeen were screened, and they’re brilliant. Guz Khan then closed the festival with an interview in which he made the important case for diversity in the media, saying room has to be found in show budgets to increase access for people from under-represented backgrounds, and that you really can’t sacrifice that room in the budget for other things a show can do without.
We played golf and I came second. Really proud of myself, actually.
Moving onto How The Light Gets In and more philosophy-related things:
Virtue Ethics & Mob Morality, with Sophie Scott-Brown, Simon Blackburn & Peter Tatchell – This was a discussion about whether “virtue signalling” is a thing, essentially. Broadly, there was agreement that in 90% of cases, people who “virtue signal” aren’t doing it hypocritically for attention or kudos, but because they genuinely possess the virtues they signal, and believe in the importance of communicating them to other people. Blackburn made an interesting point that the definition of a “virtue” is a quality that is agreeable to yourself and others, and can include talents or abilities. These days, the concept of a “virtuous” person is very tied up with morality, but actually it’s possible to be virtuous simply by possessing any qualities that cause you and others to feel comfortable.
Imagining the Universe, with Ian McGilchrist, Roger Penrose & Esther Freud – This got a bit too convoluted, really, because I think the chair didn’t do a great job of moving the debate forwards. It was supposed to be a talk about whether the universe can be creative, but got very hung up on Penrose and McGilchrist discussing the specifics of quantum theory. Esther Freud was there to advance the case for creativity, but barely got a word in. McGilchrist did make an interesting point about AI, though, that it doesn’t matter how many simulacra of Bach you try to make using a mechanism, you’ll never actually succeed because Bach wasn’t a simulacrum of himself, he was just Bach. It reminded me of Demetriou and Morgan’s points about finding the new Derry Girls.
Surplus Happiness, with Slavoj Zizek – Zizek is a bit all over the place, and this talk didn’t quite cohere into a clear, brilliant point, but it did contain a lot of really interesting ideas. It was essentially about the idea of fantasy and desire being inherent parts of human attitudes to happiness – torture devices that were once used to subjugate people are now commercially available as sex toys; puritans who deny the concept of pleasure end up taking pleasure in their denial of it; pornstars need to watch porn in the middle of filming scenes in order to maintain their own arousal; dictators exploit the idea of wanting in order to promise more than they plan on delivering, and manipulate their citizens into worshipping them. All of these ideas felt like snapshots to me that never quite came together into a whole, but as a collage of images around the idea of true happiness being something we can conceive of but never really feel, it was really interesting, I thought.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The BBC has announced the winners of its inaugural Comedy Collective bursary, so I can finally reveal that they include none other than my amazing girlfriend and occasional collaborator Miranda Holms! I’m so proud of her, I think this will be the beginning of very exciting things for her. It was also really lovely to meet the other Collective winners in Cardiff last week – congratulations to all of them!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Jamie Demetriou did something with a glass of water during his panel discussion that made me laugh more than anything else in the last week.
Book Of The Week – Happy by Derren Brown. This is a deep-dive into Stoic philosophy and all the ways in which it frames happiness that could benefit those of us who feel a bit lost in the 21st century. I’m reading it because the idea of yearning, and of deferred happiness, have been cropping up a lot in my writing recently (hence my interest in the Zizek talk last week as well), and the way Brown explores this stuff, drawing on our natures as storytelling creatures, is really fascinating.
Album Of The Week – The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte by Sparks. I wasn’t completely sold on this album, but then this week I saw them live at the Royal Albert Hall and now I’m a convert. These new songs really take on a new energy live, and I now can’t stop singing them. “Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is,” which is about a 22-hour-old baby who wants to go back inside, is my favourite.
Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week. Been busy, soz.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter then please feel free to send it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here is my mum’s dog Bonnie retrieving a stick, as photographed by Miranda: