Sunday, July 22, 2007

Q&A: Andrew Collins

A common piece of advice for budding screenwriters is to have several projects on the go, or have enough irons in the fire to ensure that you’ve got something interesting to tell people about. This helps to generate your ‘profile’ and why people will want to hire you or leave wheelbarrows of cash in your lawn while you get on with your Hollywood blockbuster (could happen).

‘Several projects on the go’ doesn’t quite do justice to the workload of Andrew Collins, a UK writer, DJ, film critic, blogger, etc. I think he does weddings and bar mitzvahs as well. His sitcom, Not Going Out, recently finished on BBC1, and is coming back for another series soon. Check out Andrew’s Q&A below to see how he manages it all. It’s a long Q&A but that’s good because I won’t be able to post anything else this week. Enjoy!


Author, journalist, screenwriter, film critic, DJ, blogger, phew! (Did I miss anything?) There’s not enough hours in the day, surely?

True. But most days I'm only a couple of those things. Today I have written a review for Word magazine and a short feature for Radio Times, so today I'm only a journalist and film critic. And blogger, as I wrote something about Live Earth, but that doesn't count as it is unpaid, and thus not work. I blog for fun. It's nice to connect with people via the comments posted afterwards. This has effectively replaced having a radio show since my contract ran out at 6 Music in March, after five years of talking on the radio, pretty much constantly. I find that something always has to give to make way for new things. The TV scriptwriting seems to be looming larger and larger these days, which is nice.

What do you consider to be your first break?

My actual first break was James Brown, then features editor of NME, leaving me a message in my flat in the summer of 1988, when I was a full-time freelance illustrator. I had sent him my fanzine, issue one of THIS IS THIS, and he had liked it. He called to get me in for a chat. This was the phonecall that led to me getting part-time work in the design room of the NME and from there on, bits and pieces of writing work, hence the beginning of my media career. None of this was planned - I only sent my fanzine in, in the hope of getting a plug in the paper, I didn't expect it to be a calling card. I really wasn't that arrogant! I didn't dream of writing for the NME, because I honestly had no idea that it was even a possibility. Turns out it was, and that was as much as anything down to sheer luck. I now know how many fanzines James Brown will have been sent in the same week as mine. To even have had it looked at, or taken out of the envelope, was a lucky break. I must have just caught him at a good moment, when he'd decided to clear his in-tray or something. It could have all been so different.

How did writing for EastEnders & Family Affairs come about?

When I was features editor at Q, I commissioned myself to go up to Liverpool to write a feature about the revitalised Brookside, one of my favourite programmes. This must have been 1994. Mal Young, then series producer, showed round the set and gave me an interview. We got on very well. He turned out to be a big fan of Q, so it was mutual admiration. He said to me that I ought to write for Brookside. I assumed he was joking - the only script I'd written was a silly, satirical sketch programme that Stuart Maconie and I had written for ourselves on the old Radio Five the year before, called Fantastic Voyage (our first ever radio programme). But Mal insisted that if I watched Brookside I was already half-qualified to write it, and he reminded me that a lot of new writers had started on the show. I shrugged it off and went back to London. Then, a year later, Mal was poached by Pearson, who had won the commission of making the soon-to-be-launched Channel Five's five-nights-a-week soap. Mal was in charge of recruiting, and that meant new writers. And he was now based in London, so he got in touch again. By this time I was editor of Q, and had no time for such fripperies, but Mal was insistent that I have a go. He really was a mentor to me. So I went to the early story meetings, took home some scripts so that I could get the format right, and wrote an episode. It was accepted. It became Ep 19 of Family Affairs, and led to a three year stint on the programme, during which time I a) gave up my day job, and b) wrote around 30 episodes that went out on national telly. It was amazing. This was like a paid apprenticeship in writing for TV and I will be forever grateful. As you can guess, this eventually led to my "promotion". I had lost interest in Family Affairs after new bosses killed off most of the cast, and my work got sloppy. They basically let me go. By this time, Mal had been poached as Head of Drama Series by the BBC, and he made the introductions for me to EastEnders. He didn't have the power to get me a job, but I was put into the induction process and passed what is an entrance exam. I wrote for EastEnders for two and half years, during which time I think I wrote about a dozen episodes. This was like higher education. It was the hardest job I've ever had. I learned so much.

Did you enjoy the process?

I enjoyed learning the process, and working with brilliant script editors, who are the unsung heroes of TV drama. Without soap I would never have had the confidence to write a sitcom. EastEnders was hard - sometimes you'd write six or seven drafts of an individual episode. I saw more experienced writers than I taken off an episode if it went beyond that. You really had to live that programme, live those characters, live that Square! Although I was doing other bits and pieces of journalism and radio at the same time, you had to put whole days aside for EastEnders - it wasn't the sort of work where you could do half a day, or a bit before breakfast. You had to wake up thinking about your episode and go to bed thinking about it, otherwise you'll take your eye off the ball. I was damn lucky to be working there when I did - who shot Phil? happened around that time, and the Slaters arrived, the last real vintage era. And there was plenty of Jim, who was my favourite to write for.

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard”. Ever done any stand up?

Once, officially, when Stuart, David Quantick and I took our three-man show to Edinburgh in 1999, Lloyd Cole Knew My Father. We did a 10-day run, not the full festival, but it was nerve-racking, and exhilarating. Because it was a scripted show, with three of us reading our parts and standing in a row, it was more structured than stand-up, but involved the same audiences and the same need to get laughs at regular intervals. And to draw a crowd in a crowded marketplace, which we did. Brilliant fun, wouldn't have missed it for the world, and it led to a short London transfer, at the ICA, and a trip to perform at an arts festival in Belfast. Also, it became a Radio 2 series, and we did a section of it, live, onstage at the Bloomsbury Theatre, supporting none other than ... Lloyd Cole! Unofficially, I have tried stand-up when I do the warm-up for Banter on Radio 4, before a live audience, which is a bit like telling jokes and trying to get laughs. The hardest part is doing it while my fellow panellists, some of the funniest comedians in Britain, are standing behind the curtain waiting to be called out. The show itself is easy, as I'm the chairperson, and all I have to do is keep control and throw in the odd bon mot. The pressure is all on them to be funny.

For those who haven’t seen it, what’s the pitch for Not Going Out?

Old-fashioned flatshare sitcom, with studio audience and punchlines. Very much the antidote to all the edgy comedy that's become the norm on BBC2 and BBC3, with no studio, no laughter, no punchlines, just shaky camera and embarrassment. (I like The Office and People Like Us and the first series of Nighty Night and the first series of The Thick Of It, but Not Going Out was not of that type.) Lee Mack plays Lee, the layabout; in series one his landlady is played by Megan Dodds - although she's not in series two - and Lee obviously fancies her: that's the engine of the series. However she's the ex-girlfriend of his best friend Tim - Tim Vine - who wants to get back with. Love triangle. Simple as that. It was never one for the critics. But it got solid audience figures which actually went up during the first run, which is unheard of.

The outlining, planning and joke output for series one must have been exhausting. Now that series two has been greenlit, what have you learnt from the first series that you’ll be better prepared for (or less intimidated by)?

Biggest lesson: don't work in an office together. Having written the pilot by email (with a couple of long meetings to get the story right), Lee and I wrote the remaining five episodes in a rented office over six, intense months. It was hard going for both of us, although the blood, sweat and tears can be seen on screen, I hope. For series two, with more episodes to write, we have additional writers working on every episode, and Lee and I are writing separately on the same scripts. We storyline together, I write draft one alone, he writes draft two alone, that draft is then punched up with more gags using other writers. It's more of a production line, but it has to be, with the episodes overlapping. We've got eight eps, instead of six. We've almost finished writing it. Some of the best stuff is, I think, even better than series one. But you can be the judge of that. And I suppose a lot rides on the new actress playing the new part, and her chemistry with Lee and Tim. We have high hopes.

Congratulations on the Golden Rose Award and the RTS Breakthrough Award! Did this help nab the commission for series 2 or was it already in the bag?

Thank you. It was already in the bag, but it helped reassure BBC1 that they had made the right decision! I don't think any of us thought we were working on an award-winning sitcom. Both awards were a pleasant surprise. It was great to get the RTS even though Lee and I have both been working professionally for about 15 years. You're never too old to have a breakthrough.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a TV writer?

Watch loads of TV. Read loads of script books.

Favourite TV show, favourite film, favourite band (at the moment)?

Favourite TV show would be The Wire if it was on. Oddly enough, I'm watching Big Brother religiously, having boycotted it completely since Series Two. But it's not my favourite TV show, it's just an interesting social experiment. Let's say Heroes, which is about to end on the Sci-Fi channel. Favourite film of 2007 so far would have to be The Lives Of Others. Favourite film of all time is still Apocalypse Now. Favourite band of 2007 is the Klaxons. I think music is in a parlous state at the moment. Really really poor.

You’ve written a couple of comic memoirs, and you’ve another one out at the moment. What’s it called, what’s it about, where can we buy it?

It's not very easy to find in the shops, but you can buy it online. That's Me In The Corner is the third and final part of my memoirs. it starts in 1988 when I leave college and set about getting myself a job. It covers the NME, Select, Q, Radio Five, Radio 1, Radio 4, Empire, Radio Times, ITV, 6 Music and all points in between. It's written in present tense, so that I was able to reinhabit my younger self and re-live the sheer excitement of each new job - rather than look back with the benefit of hindsight. For some reason, it didn't get reviewed very much, and sort of disappeared out of the shops after a month. It's amazing how important publicity is for a book, and I didn't get much. However, those who have read it - and I mean real people, not critics - seemed to like it.

And finally… Music and pop culture seem to be huge a part of your life. But there’s a gun to your head and you have to choose between music & telly. Choose, godammit!

The way music is at the moment, I'll choose telly, which is in better shape.


Thanks, Andrew! Fab.


Dan said...

Good stuff. Cheers, Danny.

johnk said...

An interesting read, Danny. Your blog is in danger of entering the "required reading" list for wannabe scriptwriters.