Last December, the producers of Not Going Out, the BBC sitcom starring Lee Mack, had an open call for writers. The offer was simple: write a spec script (for the show) and if they liked it, you, or your jokes, then you'd find yourself as part of the writing team for the next series. Recognising it as a good opportunity and not one to shirk away from a challenge like this, I threw myself into the task of writing a spec episode.
I wasn't wholly familiar with the show but I swotted up on what I could, and Avalon, the production company, kindly sent a few episodes on DVD. There was a two-week deadline. I was in the middle of a whole host of other things at the time (and reading Red Planet stuff) but I thought: "what the hell, give it a go, see what you can do."
First, develop an appreciation and interest in the show. That wasn't hard. Likeable lead character. Ditto female lead. A basic but effective 'will they/won't they' situation plus scope for secondary characters and subplots to create lively comedy. Oh. And gags. Loads and loads of gags. Everywhere and at every opportunity. Some hit, some miss, but always keeping the comic pace bouncing along at a rapid level. Puns, witty asides, quick put-downs, visual humour, verbal jokes and broad comedy slapstick were all fair game. Shit. This was going to be HARD.
Next, figure out a plot. I scour Andrew Collins's blog about writing for the show and how he plotted the first series with Lee Mack. I try to come up with an idea that focuses on the lead characters' 'will they/won't they' vibe, but also giving the secondary characters room to shine without stealing the limelight (as per the brief). I bash out a quick beat structure of what needs to happen. The development exec at Avalon has offered to be at hand for any questions, so I decide to give her a call. I break down my story and tell her what I have in mind. She seems to like the idea, and I feel positive going to script.
Now, write the script. Get those gags in. Whenever possible. Don't think. Write. Ah! Is it funny? I have no idea. Keep going. Finish. Phew. Read back. Not bad? Yeah, not bad. Polish some gags. I like to think I can do comedy but the level of jokes needed for this show is huge, and I'm not sure I'm a 'gag kinda guy'. I show it to my agent and she thinks it lacks depth but otherwise has some merit. A thumbs up! I think. The deadline arrives so I send the script. A couple of months later, I get a friendly email which tells me why they didn't go for my idea (reproduced here with permission):
"We didn’t think you had the characters quite nailed and although the idea itself was promising, we’re trying to focus on the characters already in place so we want to get away from introducing even more characters.
The main premise was that due to Lee’s carelessness and forgetfulness, he and Lucy have an argument and fall out. As a result of this, Lee and Tim also fall out. The trouble with this happening at the beginning, the stakes aren’t very high because we didn’t see him getting on with either party terribly well to begin with, therefore why should we care if they’re now not speaking? More importantly, now he’s fallen out with two of his closest friends, there’s nobody left for him to banter with, apart from a new friend with whom he only plays the playstation."
It's a fair assessment and the crucial factor, in my opinion, is that the characters aren't quite nailed (due to me cramming for the show). No, no gripes from me. Actually, I very much enjoyed the opportunity. A lot of writing gigs are borne out of this type of spec request, so I consider it time well spent.