James Leavey's Corner
Write A Sitcom? Don't Make Me Laugh!

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
If comedy is the new rock 'n' roll, sitcom writers must be the equivalent of Lennon and McCartney.What a great job - make the nation laugh every week and earn a fortune.

With this in mind, a couple of years ago I worked closely with Dennis Main Wilson, the most influential and rebellious BBC comedy producer-director who helped create, among many other things, The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour, Marty (The Marty Feldman Show), and Till Death Us Do Part (which became All in the Family, in North America and elsewhere).We had decided to turn the Grandma cartoon character created by Britain's greatest cartoonist, the late Carl Giles, into an animated British rival to The Simpsons.

Dennis and I worked at his house in Blackheath over several months, most of the time on developing the main characters.He chain-smoked cigarettes and sipped large tumblefuls of his favourite whisky, Bell's, while I stuck to the Havanas and single malts."The comedy," he was forever telling me, "will follow."

A few months ago my co-writer, Beverley Legge, and I were commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to write a "highly polished treatment" for a new sitcom.It's the first step towards what we've always dreamed of, sad old sods that we are.The trouble is, Dennis has died, and we would have welcomed his advice on how to create laughter on demand.

So I decided to pick the brains of some of Britain's finest sitcom writers.

According to the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy by Mark Lewisohn ("the definitive and only guide to all 2600 comedy programmes screened on British TV since 1936") whose 800 meticulously researched pages have justbattered their way through my letterbox and flattened the cat, Simon Nye's Men Behaving Badlyis the British sitcom of the 1990s, rivalled only by Absolutely Fabulous.

Not many people know that Men Behaving Badly, which introduced the New Lads, Gary and Tony (famous for their smoking, drinking, puerile humour and shagging), was based on Nye's 1989 novel of the same name.Or remember that the first two series were broadcast on ITV before it moved to BBC and worldwide acclaim.

I asked Nye, a former linguist who has translated books on Wagner and Matisse, how he got started."It's all part of the same thing," he says, "fiddling around with words.It then became blisteringly obvious that I would have a better time writing comedy and earning more money.The novel wasn't very good, there's a bleakness to it which is mercifully lacking in the sitcom."

Harry Enfield starred in the first two series after talking a reluctant Martin Clunes into taking the part of Gary.Then Enfield dropped out and Neil Morrissey moved in.The rest is British sitcom history.

Nye, who prefers to write alone, has since adapted Men Behaving Badly for American television, but believes it suffered from miscasting.Another of his sitcoms, Is It Legal"has been broadcast on Channel 4 and Nye is busy developing several others.

Any tips for new writers" "It's a good life," says Nye, who has given up smoking, not that this has stopped him making fun of the subject, "but you need to make sure the jokes come thick and fast."And just how close are his Laddish characters to his own personality""I'm somewhere between George, the cardigan-wearing, middle-aged bloke in the office," he admits,"and Gary."

Unlike Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, the illustrious creators of Birds Of A Feather, and Goodnight Sweetheart, who are now working on a new sitcom, Starting Out."It's about two young people starting out who meet, fall in love and try to deal with life's problems," says Maurice Gran. "It appeals to us because you very seldom see really young people, 20 - 22, starring as the main characters in a comedy.They usually only appear in soaps where they scream at each other and have abortions."

What's the most difficult thing about writing sitcoms""Deciding where to go for lunch," says Gran."I don't find it difficult.That said, sitcoms have always been a form that's been done in this country by a remarkably small number of people.There's only about dozen writers who can really be said to be masters of that particular craft.

"You can't predict where the ability to write comedy comes from. but I'd say that most comedy writers have a slightly strange relationship with the world."

Having been described as seriously off the wall myself, I found Gran's remarks oddly encouraging. Writing comedy is a hard, serious business and I sometimes wonder if I'll ever live to see my first sitcom aired.Is age a problem for sitcom writers""In the past it was a bit of a middle-aged person's game," says Gran, "but over the last decade, comedy writers have been getting younger and younger.I think you've got to be a bit of an old tart to place some value on storytelling and not just on catchphrases."

Good comic storytelling is something shared by husband and wife writing team, Gavin Petrie and Jan Etherington, who confirmed that BBC radio has long been the cradle of new sitcom writers, so maybe there's hope for me and Bev yet.

Their first sitcom, Second Thoughts, starring James Bolam, Lynda Bellingham and Julia Sawalha (before she got even better known in Absolutely Fabulous) was based on their real life relationship and became the third major BBC radio sitcom of the 1980s to be adapted for television - all three of them poached by ITV.

"It's very important in a writing partnership to tell the truth," says Etherington, "because you can waste a lot of time being pleasant to each other and not coming out with the right stuff.You've both got to like what you're writing or it won't work, even if that means, in our case, that one of us may end up spending the night on the couch as a result."

Some people have fallen off their couch laughing at three of the unlikeliest and funniest sitcom characters in recent years - the unholy trinity in Father Ted.

They were created by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews who moved from Dublin to London, where they started writing sketches for Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, followed by their first sitcom, Paris, starring Alexei Sayle and pre-Men Behaving Badly Neil Morrissey.

"The plus side of writing with someone is you can ask them if a line's funny," says Matthews, "but it's quicker to write on your own as you don't argue about everything.Most arguments in writing partnerships are over completely trivial things and when you see the final programme it makes no difference at all.

"Writing sketches for The Big Train" (their latest award-nominated comedy show)is very easy but the trouble is you have to do bloody millions of them."

The final series of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins's Drop the Dead Donkeyhas now been aired but the good news is that Hamilton has beenworking on the third series of his brilliant radio sitcom, Old Harry's Game, in which he also stars as Old Nick,now being aired on BBC Radio 4.

Multi-talented Hamilton, who once wrote for Dave Allen, one of my favourite comedians, was asked to take over the co-writing (with his usual sitcom writing partner, Guy Jenkin, and Barry Pilton) of Shelley for Thames Television.Then he created his first sitcom, The Kit Curran Radio Show.So how Drop The Dead Donkey come about""Guy and I wanted to do an office sitcom," says Hamilton,"and we had the idea of doing a newsroom and letting them talk about things in the news to give it a bit of an edge."

I asked him if you have to be a manic depressive to write comedy."No," he replied, "all the comedy writers I've ever met are good laughers and see the funny side of life.

"I came out Oxford Circus tube not long ago and there were lot of brothers of Islam standing around, demonstrating.A white van pulled up at the traffic lights and the driver leaned out, gave me the thumbs up, and shouted 'Oy, Satan!'The Muslims stared at me stonyfaced while I tried to explain that I wasn't really the Prince of Darkness."

It's the sort of reaction Bev and I get when we admit to attempting to write a sitcom.The trouble is there's a long way to go and it's by no meanscertain we'll ever get there.But we'll have a laugh trying.

And I'll have a large cigar.

Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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