Chris Trengove

Writing about writing

Posts Tagged ‘writing

COMEDY WRITING: THE DIVINE ART

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I’d never claim to be a comedy writer. It’s a hard row to hoe, whose best practitioners are among the finest writers in any genre, but who also suffer from chronic lack of respect – after all, it’s just a laugh, isn’t it? Still, I’ve written plenty of funny stuff in my time, including loads of animation and, with co-writer Peter Lawrence, several well-received comic novels and a bio of Keith Moon (not without laughs.) Equally to the point, I’m a lifelong comedy buff, the sort of person who’ll watch a TV sitcom if he’s familiar with the writer.

In a desperate attempt to hold back the effects of gravity and pizza, I row regularly. Not on the nearby Thames, but in the living room on a Water Rower, with a telly on the wall opposite to stave off tedium. Recently I acquired, via EBay, a collection of ‘classic’ British sitcoms on DVD, originally giveaways with the Daily Mail. Swallowing my natural aversion to the Rothermere product, I settled down, over the course of several weeks, to work my way through some landmark BBC comedy. I was interested to see which series stood the test of time and which didn’t. Were the seventies and eighties the high water mark of British TV comedy? Or would the water cooler shows of those times now seem dated, corny and irredeemably naff?

In some cases, my suspicions were confirmed, in others I was pleasantly surprised. Hancock is still great, due to the genius writing team of Simpson and Galton and the lad from East Cheam himself. Only Fools and Horses is still pretty funny, in spite of some rather iffy of-their-time racial references. One Foot In The Grave stands out for its superb plotting, the ability of writer David Renwick to drop surprise comic bombshells. I still enjoyed Hi De Hi – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum not so much. While comedy often deals in stereotype, Perry and Croft kept just the right side of the line in HDH, but went too far in Hot Mum. (Generally, they’re pitch perfect – witness the perennial appeal of Dad’s Army, still running forty-odd years after it was first shown.)

CHARACTER STUDIES

It’s been said that sitcom only works if everything works – script, cast, production – but watching these old shows made me realise how much good comedy relies on character. Plotting is great, gags are fine, but it’s the characters that reliably make us laugh. That’s usually why catchphrases work – they’re an integral part of the character that says them. Which leads me to Are You Being Served? This is a show that has attracted equal parts praise and opprobrium, both then and now. Does camp character Mr. Humphries present an unacceptable ‘mincing queen’ stereotype, or is he bravely out and proud in an era when the tabloid press routinely referred to gays as ‘poofs’ or worse? I always found the show funny (partly because I’d worked in a store very much like Grace Brothers) and looking back, I realise that again, it was the characters that made the show. The actors went to town on them, and in most cases it was their finest hour. Mollie Sugden was a fine actress with an impressive body of work, but she’ll always be remembered for her versatile and much-loved pussy.

Recently the BBC made a new ep of Are You Being Served?, with the show supposedly updated to the eighties. I tuned in without much hope – in my book, most remakes are pointless exercises – but was pleasantly surprised. I laughed quite a lot, and later, reviewing it in my mind, realized that writer and actors had again concentrated on the characters, sticking as closely as possible to the original template (and props to John ‘Boycey’ Challis here – his Captain Peacock was almost superior to Frank Thornton’s original.)

INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

But what of the modern product? Do we have anything these days that stands up to comparison with the so-called ‘golden age’ of the seventies and eighties? Here goes – and I’m aware that comedy is the most subjective of all the art forms, one man’s hilarity being another man’s knuckle-gnawing tedium. First of all, much of the comedy from that era often wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I never found Till Death Us Do Part that funny (and a lot of it is wince-making now, despite writer Johnny Speight’s intention to satirise working-class Toryism rather than celebrate it.) Nor Steptoe and Son, nor The Good Life (although I loved Bob Larbey’s far less successful The Other One.)

Over the last couple of decades we’ve had the sharp satire of Ab Fab; the game-changing mockumentary style of The Office; the demented and often semi-surreal Father Ted; and the retro homage of Miranda. Which leads us to now. If you were to believe the pundits, TV comedy is currently a desert. I beg to differ. Plebs – writers Basden and Leifer – is sharp, filthy, and crucially, very funny. It’s been largely ignored, perhaps due to its berth on ITV3. Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner has got funnier and funnier as the series have progressed (in passing, Mark Heap’s loony neighbour is superb.) Greg Davies’s Man Down is consistently entertaining, and occasionally hilarious.

But to me the current reigning monarch of TV comedy is Sharon Horgan. A few years back Pulling raised the bar for anarchic, female-centric mayhem, and recently Catastrophe confirmed that Horgan has staying power. But with the recently broadcast one-off The Circuit, documenting a dinner party from the deepest abysses of hell, she staked a claim to Mike Leigh territory and established herself as a major comic writing talent.

Denmark has apparently got the happiest population in the world, and it does sound like a nice place to live. But it’s never going to produce a B B King or a Lenny Bruce, or for that matter a Hancock. Too happy, see? By the same token, the UK is full of miserable exploited bastards who are scraping by on fourpence a week and spending tuppence of it getting off their heads. But we’ve always produced great comedy, from music hall stage to the age of the podcast. In my opinion TV sitcom is in rude health, only matched by our reputation for stand-up. Nice to know we lead the world in something.

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Written by Chris Trengove

September 5, 2016 at 5:06 pm

CAN YOU LEARN TO WRITE?

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19th April 2016
No. Not really. But you can learn to write better, if you have some talent, or flair, to begin with. As the actor Steve Martin famously remarked: “Some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, uh, not have way.” You need that way, and if you haven’t got it, no amount of creative writing courses or workshops is going to make much difference (although your grammar and spelling might improve, which is always good.) It’s the same with most branches of the arts: you could (probably) teach a chimpanzee to play the piano if you gave him enough time and enough bananas, but the end result wouldn’t be art, or even entertainment. Because by and large, chimps don’t have a flair for music.

So, flair, talent, call it what you will – what else do you need? Something else that can’t be taught: the ability to come up with ideas. Good ones, preferably. A young acquaintance recently sent me some fragments of her writing, just a few hundred words each, stream of consciousness really. They weren’t poems, they weren’t journalism, they didn’t fit into any recognizable format, so weren’t publishable. But they had an energy and rhythm that showed that the writer did have a way with words. Even better, there were the beginnings of original ideas swimming around in there, unformed and undeveloped, but ideas nevertheless.

My old friend and long-time writing partner Peter Lawrence has recounted how, as showrunner, he picked new writers for the iconic show Thundercats. He was prepared to overlook inexperience and unfamiliarity with the format, provided the script had an imaginative idea at heart. Scripts can be edited for structure, style, dialogue but you can’t edit in a good basic idea.

Flair, talent, ideas, they all coalesce in the creative imagination. It’s not a coincidence that people proficient in one branch of the arts often excel in another form: Steve Martin (again) is an interesting writer and a banjo player of professional standard; funny man and movie star Dudley Moore was an internationally recognized jazz pianist; writer Henry Miller was an internationally exhibited artist, as was ‘godfather of punk’ William S. Burroughs. There are many more examples. Flair, imagination, ideas, these guys had them all in spades.

So if you can’t learn to write, what can you learn? I have to go back a few years, to 2004, when I was first asked to mentor at a scriptwriting workshop. I was a little sceptical, as my writing career had been firmly based around the principle of ‘write; then write some more; then write some more.’ Honing my craft, I’d worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter. I wrote a lot, and over the course of the years worked out what was bad and what as good, and bit by bit impressed enough people that I was able to make a living at it. Workshop? A word that I’d hitherto only associated with piles of old tyres and an ailing Ford Mondeo on a ramp. However, I said yes, as I was curious, I was going to get paid, and I make it a professional rule to say yes to everything.

Truthfully I had no idea what to expect, or even what I was supposed to do, but over the course of the first week, at a big old house in the Kent countryside, it slowly became apparent that I wasn’t expected to be a teacher of writing – the participants all had at least some professional experience – but a kind of roving counsellor-cum-sounding-board-cum-sympathetic ear. I was able to help not by commenting on paragraph structure or the minutiae of dialogue, but by talking, guiding, suggesting, throwing ideas at the participants that they might not have thought of themselves.

What I was offering them was the practical expertise that I’d built up over the course of a couple of decades, helping them out of holes that y might have written themselves into, working with them to make their projects as good as they possibly could be. Often, it was simply a case of pointing out a way forward that hadn’t occurred to them: “why don’t you try this?”, “why don’t you try that?” In the end you have to teach yourself, and a good educator is someone who gives you the tools and inspiration to do just that.

I also quickly realised that what I was doing was what a good editor does: clearing a way for the writer to best realize their ‘vision’, without compromising their creative signature. Like most writers, over the years I’ve edited and I’ve been edited, and I’ve come to realise that the greatest gift the good editor can bring to a project is simply a second pair of (informed, interested, expert) eyes. When you’re working on a project, there’s always a point at which you can’t see the wood for the trees. To mix metaphors, you’re so involved in nurturing your baby that you don’t notice that it has an extra couple of toes. It takes someone else to do that, to gently point the fact out, and to suggest solutions. Many psychiatrists see psychiatrists: to quote a fictional example, in The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi regularly sees a psychiatrist herself, colleague Dr. Kupferberg, to maintain and tune her own mental balance.

What else? Well, interest is all. I’m a lifelong jazz fan and occasional musician, and if I can’t play something, at least I know how it should be played, because I love the music and have spent countless hours listening to top players. But from talking to music teachers, I know that many come to jazz playing without any real history of listening – they’ve heard Norah Jones in a wine bar and think they like jazz, whereas what they like is something that sounds a bit like jazz. If you’re not into it, why would you want to play it? Same with writing – if you’re not a reader, you’ll probably never be a writer, and why would you want to be? Again I, and others in my field, report that many would-be writers seem to have read little. Or, if they’re scriptwriters, they don’t have a working knowledge of the classic movies or TV shows, even in the field they’re working in.

So, to go back to my original thesis – can you learn to write? No – but if you’ve got the spark, the basic skills, the right help can make a difference. Help you speed the process up. Perhaps help you bypass some of the heavy lifting that writers had to do before the advent of creative writing courses and the like. My experience of workshops over the years has shown me that overall, they provide a positive and inspiring experience for both mentors and participants. The people who take them already pretty much know to write; but by listening, trying this, trying that, experimenting within a nurturing environment, they can learn how to write just a little bit better.

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm

SAT NAV FOR WRITERS

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16th March 2016
The great thing about writing rules is that they’re there to be broken – just ask Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and any number of others. In any event, these aren’t even rules, they’re just a rough guide, a sat nav if you like, that can get you onto the right road, and, most of the time, get you where you want to go. However, if you wanted to go to Hampton Court and ended up at a block of flats in North London, well, you should have glanced at a map too. By which I mean that these are just tips that I’ve worked out for myself over the years. Mostly, but not always, they’re useful…

1: Keep going

Don’t be discouraged if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’ve just written is rubbish. All writers know the feeling, however long they’ve been at it. Just press on. Don’t look back. Get to the end. Then go back and assess what you’ve done. Chances are that what you wrote first time wasn’t so bad, and if it was: so what? As the old Hollywood saying has it, writing is re-writing.

2: It’s in there somewhere

Whatever you’re writing – book, TV ep, screenplay – don’t think of it as linear. Instead, consider it as a whole, as if you’re starting off with a block of stone and creating a statue. Somewhere in that block is the story you want, you’ve just got to chip off the rest of the stone. As you’re writing, think forward, think back, make the connections that turn a sequence of events into a coherent story.

3: Set yourself a target

Set yourself a daily word or page goal. 1000 words or 7 or 8 pages of a script is a reasonable target – although some can write much more (and some less.) At 1000 words a day, in a couple of months you’d have most of a novel.

4: Make a plan

Everyone who works in TV or film is familiar with writing to an outline, sometimes provided by others. Literary novelists may scoff, but it’s generally useful to map out a narrative in advance. At the very least, it’ll provide a rope and tackle to help climb that mountain of a first draft, and you don’t have to stick to it rigorously (or at all.)

5: Cut and cut again

When you’re getting close to final draft stage, analyse every line. What is it doing? Why is it there? Is it funny? Is it dramatic? Does it illuminate character? Is it advancing the story? If it’s not really doing anything, cut it. Very few pieces of work have ever suffered by being made shorter. As Truman Capote said ““I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:09 pm

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

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Looking back on book sales figures for the last year or so, I notice something of a trend: although sales are spread fairly evenly between the US and the UK, with a smattering from the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s noticeable that US readers lean towards our steampunk/fantasy output (the FRANKENSTEIN VIGILANTE series) and UK readers seem to have a preference for horror and smutty comedy (our HORROR series and LONDON CHRONICLES.) There are clearly plenty of cultural differences between the US and the UK (US goes in for religion, we go in for binge drinking, just for starters) but I’m intrigued by this trend. Anyone got any ideas?

Written by Chris Trengove

August 13, 2014 at 10:27 am