The Dream Factory
Good news! It’s finally time for me to stop sending newsletters on the theme of “Things the Edinburgh Fringe made me think about this year!” (Although I’ve realised I’ve not done a run-down of recommendations of my favourite shows I saw, so maybe I’ll do that at some point). But today I’m going to shift focus a bit and finally take the wraps off The Dream Factory and tell you a bit more about it! It feels a bit safer to do that now we’ve recorded it and it’s an actual, tangible thing that exists in the world (I just listened to the first edit of Episode 1 and it’s sounding so good!) I’ve only been mentioning it in drips and drabs here, but maybe this week I’ll do a bit of a potted rundown of the first writing stages of the project to get you guys up to speed!
In 2020, I made what was supposed to be a live stand-up special for BBC Radio 4 with the amazing producer Steve Doherty. When Covid hit, the BBC gave us the option of either recording it with a remote Zoom audience, or doing something else entirely. I opted to scrap the live audience and rewrite the entire special as a sort of absurdist stand-up/sketch hybrid set entirely inside my own head as I worked out what to say while making small talk with a friend (played by the brilliant Lucy Pearman). The final programme was called A Small Talk On Small Talk and you can listen to it here. It did really well and played with a lot of new ideas about how to present stand-up on the radio in unusual contexts, and got nice reviews in the Guardian and the Big Issue and Steve was keen to keep working together and continue moving away from stand-up and in a more scripted, narrative direction. Speaking honestly, this was the direction I’d been wanting to move in for a very long time.
I’ve wanted to make my own sitcom pretty much since I was 13 years old, and always hoped that might be the thing I ended up doing. I went into live stand-up because I knew it was the place to go to in order to build up your own sense of how you are funny, and to build an audience and so on, but it was never in my head that I would end up being a live comic that did the things live comics do – tours, panel shows, festivals and so on. I wanted to write scripts and act in them. I started trying to actively move more in that direction and away from solo stand-up in 2018, and set myself challenges of trying to make more theatrical, collaborative shows with slightly more narrative, conceptual, character-driven centres to them in 2019, 2020 and 2022 with Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad; You Build The Thing You Think You Are and most recently Blink, by far the most narrative, theatrical show I’ve made so far. The trouble with so many of my ideas is that, while I was able to mould them into good shows in the Fringe environment, none of them were founded on ideas that were clearly and evidently strong ideas in and of themselves. “A weird cartoon character takes over my life and replaces me after a bout of depression;” “I am haunted by a weird troll that lives in my head after moving house and leaving my actual self behind;” “A magician wants to make his entire audience blink at the same time so he can control how everyone sees him.” They’re all intriguing ideas, but the knee-jerk response to all of them is, naturally, “Ok, let me know how that turns out.” If I was going to pitch a narrative sitcom to the BBC – the thing I’d spent two decades hoping I might one day get to do – I needed something with more in-built appeal.
The solution lay in the changes we’d had to make to the stand-up special as a result of Covid, namely setting a radio show inside someone’s head. That decision had opened up so many creative options for us, and had really enabled me to play with some fun ideas, so I started trying to generate narrative, scripted ideas that would let me play in the same space. Eventually an old print design of Miranda’s about a can of dreams paved the way for the idea – a sitcom about the UK regional headquarters of the global organisation that writes, manufactures and distributes all of humanity’s hopes, dreams, fears and desires. The factory that makes and farms out our inner worlds. A sitcom in which I, a cheerful, oblivious, self-absorbed blockhead, inadvertently get given responsibility over other people’s minds and cause all sorts of chaos that jeopardises my relationships with the people I care about. It would effectively be an update of The BFG’s story mechanic of the BFG being the person who makes and delivers dreams, but relocated into a corporate, enfranchised, sterile office environment to which the central character is completely ill-suited. To this day, it’s the only idea I’ve ever come up with where as soon as I say it to people in one sentence their eyes light up and they go “That’s a fantastic idea” instead of glazing over a bit and going “What?”
Me, Steve Doherty’s feet, Stevie Martin, Wilfredo Acosta, Tashi Radha and Kiell Smith-Bynoe rehearsing a scene about, I think, a yak.
After we got the commission from Radio 4, I set about working up character concepts and the backbones of two stories for the two episodes we’d been asked to make. With any luck, if the Beeb like what we’ve made we might get to make a whole series of it, but for now the task was making these two episodes sell the concept as best as we possibly could. As such, because we’d been lucky enough to be asked to make more than just a one-off pilot, the top priority was to come up with two stories that were anchored in characters and relationships that felt like constants that we’d revisit every week, but to let each storyline show the breadth and imagination of where the concept allowed you to go each week. I tried to come up with a first episode that established a series of central key relationships while suggesting all the fun you could have with a sitcom set inside the characters’ dreams, then a second episode that tested and prodded and reconfigured those relationships a bit to demonstrate what sort of interpersonal dynamics you could play with in the series, all while exploring another big absurdist “what if” that the concept left itself open to. In Episode 1, Joz was going to be playing with daydreams and causing havoc with them. In Episode 2, he was going to get trapped inside his own best friend’s dream.
As I talked these storyline concepts through with Miranda, she brought such amazing insights and ideas to them that it became clear I had to invite her in to work on the scripts herself, not to mention seeing as the entire concept had first been sparked by something she dreamed up! So we started tinkering with these scripts together, sending drafts to Steve and rewriting and reworking. For a long time there was a whole other central character in the form of a chaotic flatmate which I kept really trying to make work, before realising that taking so much of the action out of the Dream Factory itself was wasting the premise, so that character ended up being folded into another one, though I hope she’s one I can find a place for in something else one day as she was good fun. Eventually we arrived at what felt to us like final, finished versions of the scripts, before Steve came back with a really crucial note that helped me get to grips with a key building block of sitcom writing that I had overlooked.
“Why are Joz and Anna behaving so unpleasantly towards one another in Episode 2?” he asked. “It’s a really funny episode, and the dynamics are very good, but these are completely different characters from the ones we met in Episode 1.” I had been so keen to test and push the characters’ relationships in Episode 2 in order to demonstrate the “breadth” of what the show could achieve, that I had inadvertently moved the characters away from who they had been when we first started writing them. The idea of an episode where two friends turn on each other due to a misunderstanding has lots of promise, but both of them were resorting needlessly to outright bullying in their behaviour. In order to really make it function as a sitcom, the characters still needed to be driven by the same core impulses as in Episode 1 – Joz’s desire to be popular and well-liked, Anna’s desire to be accepted and fulfilled. Getting Episode 2 back on track actually took less major reworking than I feared, as it was a case of going into the centre of those characters and asking “If these two are going to turn on each other, then how do they do that in a way that is still powered by their basic desire to fit in?” With a few tweaks to the structure of the episode and to the nature of their exchanges, we soon ended up with two really brilliant, original, funny episodes that sold the potential of the concept really well, and it felt like it had been a really good, collaborative effort.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t mean for my account of how the writing of the episodes came about to go on so long, so perhaps I’ll move onto the second stages of the project – assembling a cast and actually recording it, which was, if I’m honest, two of the best days of my life, next week. For now, it’s just been nice to finally be able to say a bit more about the project and where it came from and what it’s about! I hope you’re all excited to hear it, and if you have any questions about the show, feel free to send them over and I’d love to let you know more about it! Equally, if you’ve got thoughts to share from the writing processes of your own projects recently, I wanna hear ‘em!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The silly billies at Weirdos Comedy are bringing back Adam Larter’s award-nominated show from Leicester Comedy Festival, The Envelopes, for a run of Hallowe’en shows at the Museum of Comedy. Every audience member gets to interact with the show in a unique way based on a series of props and instructions they’ve been sent in the post prior to the show. Should be a lot of fun! Book tickets here.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – On the first night of the Soho Theatre run of Blink this week, there was a guy in the front row who happened to have zoned out completely at the exact moment I asked him a question. He stared blankly at the ceiling for a few seconds, then looked at me and said “What?” and eventually explained that he had been distracted by “a little thing flying around.” It’s one of my favourite audience interactions I’ve ever had and I couldn’t stop laughing at it for about 30 seconds.
Book Of The Week – Still on The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. It’s very good! It’s really ramping up! Hope Jacob can rescue Orito from that monastery!
Album Of The Week – Eric Woolfson Sings The Alan Parsons Project That Never Was by Eric Woolfson. This is an album on which Eric Woolfson, former co-writer for prog-cheese legends The Alan Parsons Project, sings songs he wrote that Alan Parsons vetoed for inclusion on Project albums. It’s just a guy singing quite naff ballads accompanying himself Casio keyboards, but I actually think it’s very sweet. I have an enormous soft spot for anything Alan Parsons Project-related.
Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week cos I was doing a Soho run, sorry. The Rings Of Power is quite fun, though, isn’t it? Oh, and Bake Off’s back. And Taskmaster’s coming up, and Strictly. Oh God, I’m not gonna watch any films for months, am I?
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’d like to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s Ben Target, Steve Doherty and I celebrating a good day’s recording! I look dreadful, sorry. Nice pic of the other two though.