Enthusiasm, Brent Forrester and the 344 bus

“Sally Stott is more enthusiastic than experienced… and probably isn’t being paid very much.” This is what someone who is very experienced and not especially enthusiastic said about me when I first started reviewing theatre plays (although despite his concern about my supposed lack of income, he didn’t object to me buying him a drink). Years previously, I had failed to get a job as a literary assistant in a big agency. Why? Because, as I overheard the interviewer later say, I was “too enthusiastic.” It was, after all, “only a job.”

As time passed, I inevitably got more jobs and more experience, as pretty much everyone who lives and works in a city for a certain amount of time does. However, while I like getting paid to do cool stuff as much as anyone else, I intend to never become more experienced than I am enthusiastic. Even if I end up with so many interesting and well-paid jobs that I have to increase my levels of optimism to a point where no one can bear to be in the same room as me, I will strive to maintain this imbalance – because if you can’t be increasingly passionate about whatever it is that you spend most of your life doing, what can you be?

“You love everything,” people sometimes say when I like something that they don’t. “You hate everything,” I sometimes say when they dislike something I love. While they might feel that I am too free with my praise, I sometimes suspect they are too sparing with theirs; that their emotions have been dulled by years of trying to find what’s wrong with things rather than what’s right. It’s easy to dismiss enthusiasm as naïve and childish while applauding criticism – however unfounded – as the mature and adult response, one based on thought and analysis rather than low-brow emotions. And yet, emotions are a large part of what both art and life are all about.

In the UK, it sometimes seems like being cynical rather than enthusiastic is the default position. There is a driver on the 344 bus, which (when I’m not cycling) takes me from Battersea to Central London, who says “hello” to every person who boards. This may not seem unusual to anyone who lives in the north of England – where both he and I are from – but in London it’s pretty rare. You can see it on the confused faces of the passengers. “Please do not be alarmed that you have a cheerful and polite bus driver,” he said a week last Friday to the bewildered top deck, “You can write about it in your diaries.” Or blogs.

Later that same day, I go to a talk by American screenwriter Brent Forrester, organised by the BBC Writersroom for comedy writers and producers – and gate crashed by some of us script readers – where he talks about the importance of “relentless positivity.” It’s something he sees as invaluable for generating ideas when writing as part of a team, which he has done a lot of, having worked as a writer and showrunner (someone who leads the group writing process) on The Simpsons and the American version of The Office. He explains that while it’s useful to ultimately decide which characters and stories have potential and which don’t, “an over-developed critical mind can end up permanently destroying ideas.”

Brent has just returned from running a four-day residential for BBC Comedy writers where they have been working in small groups to come up with ideas for new shows. He observes that sometimes British writers can put one another down and sees this as a “cultural thing” that doesn’t help team writing. He later talks about how he has experienced working in “cold, quiet and serious environments” and how this doesn’t lead to creativity. He also highlights how executives who sit in on writers’ meetings create a formal mood that isn’t conducive to developing good work in a relaxed atmosphere (this causes a few uncomfortable glances around the room).

While the people left the 344 bus on Friday looking happier than when they got on, we script readers left Brent’s talk feeling more inspired and upbeat. “Great question,” we spent the afternoon saying to anyone who asked anything – great or otherwise – in our basement reading room, in the same way Brent had to everyone who put their hand up in his post-talk Q&A.

American people have a reputation for being constantly positive and while it’s something that’s easy to sneer at, it’s also pleasant to be around and – if Brent’s dazzling writing career and cheerful persona are anything to go by – leads to a successful and happy life. He is a hugely experienced writer, but it was his infectious energy that everyone was talking about for the rest of the day, rather than his CV. Having worked on numerous great shows, I imagine if someone said he was more enthusiastic than experienced he’d take it as the compliment it clearly is.

Should writers ever give up?

“Never give up” is the kind of thing you often hear people say, whether it’s Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness or someone who likes your script but not enough to actually produce it. However, in real life, unlike the movies, when things don’t go to plan no subtle background music kicks in to emphasise that in half an hour’s time you will bounce back and achieve your dreams.

As a writer, you’re often left to get on with never-giving-up on your own, perhaps accompanied by the odd screenwriting book, which will also tell you to never give up – partly because its writer wants you to buy another book called Never Give Up on Buying Books About Never Giving Up.

I have a collection of scriptwriting books from the 1960s to the 1990s. I often wonder what happened to all the writers who used to own them. Did they never give up? One of the books Writing for the BBC (by Norman Longmate) had nine re-prints over 30-odd years. Thousands of people must have owned a copy. They can’t all have got commissions: if they had, there would be so many dramas, comedies and short stories on the BBC that there wouldn’t be room for anything else. Either these writers stopped writing or they continued with little or no recognition, perhaps for the whole of their lives. Is that sad? Or inspiring? Or a bit of both?

There are lots of stories about famous writers and artists who were initially rejected but persevered and went on to become very successful: Stephen King, JK Rowling, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna are just a few. Jarvis Cocker was singing about waiting for his life to take off, back in 1992 after over a decade of being in Pulp. It wasn’t until 1995 that the band had a number one album. It would clearly have been a mistake for him to have given up, but of course it’s easy to say that with hindsight.

Never give up, never surrender,” characters in the comedy Galaxy Quest say whenever they face a seemingly impossible situation, as if a go-getter attitude alone can break down locked doors or blow up enemy spacecraft. However, in real life persevering against the odds can seem like a never-ending and not particularly fruitful process. David Ferguson sums it up brilliantly in an article for The Onion. “Find the thing you’re most passionate about, then do it on nights and weekends for the rest of your life,” it begins, continuing: “…pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out.”

A while ago I asked agent Jean Kitson about whether writers should ever give up. She said this: “The absolute worst that can happen is that you’ll spend a chunk of your time doing something creative that you love, and for a lot of people it may never go any further than that. But if you don’t consider your writing a waste of time in itself, if it’s feeding a need in you, then it is not wasted.”

After entering the Alfred Bradley Award on three previous occasions, Ian Townsend finally managed to win its special Writersroom prize this year. I asked what had stopped him from giving up. “I always believed I was a writer,” he says, “it’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I was determined to prove a lot of people wrong – and also a few people right! – and demonstrate what I was capable of.” Having things he wanted to say, rather than entering competitions for the sake of it – as he had in the past – also helped. “It focused my writing,” he says, as did getting feedback on his work. “Many people told me I could write, but it wasn’t until somebody told me what was wrong with my writing that I took a chance and grew, as did my confidence and self-belief.”

I imagine that most people who write scripts want to see them produced but, as Ian points out, getting a commission isn’t the only way to achieve this. “I self-produced and put on my own plays for years,” he explains. However, his journey hasn’t been easy. “I will be honest, the last two years have been a real struggle financially,” he says. “There have been low times of giving up and thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?’” Like most writers, he has sometimes doubted himself and his work. “I have stopped before,” he says, “then something has sparked me into life – an idea, a story, a glimpse of success – and then I’m off again.” Would he have carried on forever, even if he hadn’t been recognised by an organisation such as the BBC Writersroom? “I love writing,” he says, “In short, probably!”

Although it obviously helps, you don’t have to be produced, paid or even read to keep writing, if that’s what you enjoy doing. People might reject you but they can’t stop you. After not getting past the initial round of a recent Writersroom sift, a new writer called Emma commented: “I’m delighted! It’s my first ever rejection slip; in my mind, that’s an important milestone. It means I finished something. It means I submitted it. It means I exposed myself to scrutiny. It’s an achievement! I’m over the moon, and it’s inspired me to crack on with my next one…”

Perhaps the reason why there are so many films about heroes fighting to achieve their dreams is that their stories are far more appealing than ones about people giving up. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters would have us believe that you can have anything you want if only you work hard enough for it. Maybe that’s why writers, who perhaps battle with rejection more than the rest of us, keep creating them. “Do, or do not,” George Lucas has Yoda say in The Empire Strikes Back. “There is no try.”

Written for BBC Writersroom

 

 

 

Why I won’t stop wearing make-up (for charity or anything else)

“But you look beeeeaaaautiful, babes!” Facebook friends might say, as if I need telling this. Or at least they might if I had posted a no-makeup selfie - which I haven’t. Rather than being peer pressured by the numerous ‘nominations’ I’ve had over the past few weeks, I am sticking to my usual method of charity fundraising, which is running around Battersea Park in the mud and rain with over-competitive commuters, before getting a cold. It’s more fun.

Many people commenting on the no-makeup selfies (on Facebook and elsewhere) seem to think that it’s impossible for women to both own mascara and be happy with who they are.  For me, wearing make-up isn’t any more of a statement about my self-esteem than wearing a jumper. They’re both a way of looking presentable, similar to brushing my hair or tying my shoelaces. Some days I want to wear make-up, some days I want to wear a hat.  What I put on my head has got as much to do with anyone else as what I put on my face, and the phrase “it’s for charity so it must be good, right?” isn’t going to change that.

“But men don’t wear make-up,” you might point out. Well, maybe they’d look better if they did. Saying that, if the male backlash selfies (criteria: vast amounts of rouge, powder and lipstick) are anything to go by, most haven’t got a clue how to put it on. But, with time, I’m sure they could learn. Afterall it can’t be that hard, right? We girls can do it.

I don’t have a problem with anyone, male or female, trying to look good. It is possible to do other things as well (most people manage) and it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re self-obsessed or vain. And even if you are, when would it ever be OK for friends and strangers to tell you this? At the very least, it’s pretty rude.

There’s a misconception that all women think they look dreadful without make-up and that their insecurity levels go up and down depending upon how much foundation they’ve got on. In fact, a study by psychologist Nicolas Epley showed that women (and men)  believe that they are better looking – and better at everything - than they really are.

When I was a fashion student desperate to do something more controversial than sew sequins onto Lycra, I decided not to wear-up make-up for a week. It was boring. I needed it to look the way I wanted in the same way I needed red shoes, zebra print leggings and jacket covered in tiny mirrors (oh, why did I get rid of that…). The heavily made-up 90s pop/punk band Shampoo also did same for a magazine article. It made me think: if you were properly punk, Shampoo, wouldn’t you have just told whoever suggested that to fuck off?

In particular, I object to guys – who don’t have to put up with half of the crap that women do – telling me that I shouldn’t wear make-up. It’s as patronising as them telling me that I should. No, we’re not crumbling on the inside because we decided to put on a bit of lipstick this morning, thank you very much. In fact we feel great. And we look great too – better than you, and that’s partly because we’re wearing make-up.

Dear men who hate cosmetics: Rather than putting all of your energies into telling women how they should behave and look, as men have since the dawn of time, maybe you should be campaigning for it to be more acceptable to wear make-up yourselves? Put on some mascara, eyeliner and foundation (do it properly, don’t make yourself look like a clown because you’re not ‘brave’ enough to apply concealer in a non-ironic way), post a picture on Facebook and I’ll let you know how good, bad or beeeaaaautiful I think you look. Because you need me to tell you, right?

Theatre: Frankenstein

With plenty of purple velvet, strobe lighting, smoke and a pre-recorded soundtrack accompanying every scene, this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel is billed as ‘The Modern Prometheus’.  It’s like director Simon James Collier was planning to premiere something at Westfield Vue, but instead ended up in the theatre above the Lion and Unicorn pub.

Take away the many distractions – including scenes with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the author herself – and Adam Dechanel’s adaptation (part 1 of a Gothic Trilogy) is actually pretty literal. Victor Frankenstein, his love interest/ adopted sister Elizabeth and friends deliver their thoughts and handy plot information into the mid-distance as if each of them has swallowed the book. In trying to fit in every scene, the production struggles get to the essence of the tale – namely, what it means to be human or a monster – until some way into Act II.

It’s difficult for the cast to create anything other than melodrama when delivering their lines to soaring music. Sam Curry brings the twisted body of The Creature to life in a way that is fittingly gruesome. But a temporary wooden stage, which clunks every time the performers jump on and off it, otherwise feels unfortunately appropriate.

Lion and the Unicorn Theatre, London. Until 15 March.

Written for The Stage. 

What qualifies us to be script readers?

People are often asking what qualifies us to read their scripts. Why are we script readers for the BBC Writersroom and not you, or someone else? Have we been to university? Do we have nine GCSEs at grade A-C? Are we all ‘failed’ writers? If you’ve just received a “sorry you’re not progressing any further” email from the Script Room, I can imagine we might come across as a malevolent force, not unlike Sauron from Lord of the Rings, standing between you and your dreams of a red-carpeted shire.

While sifting hundreds of scripts over the past few weeks and trying to decide what makes a good scriptwriter, I’ve also been thinking about what makes a good script reader. In the comments section of a recent Writersroom blog some of you were doing the same, posting feedback on the feedback one of us readers had written (sadly, not me).

In a world where everyone sees themselves as an expert, whether they’re phoning in to a TV talent show, writing a theatre review or arguing about films in the pub (all of which I do), what makes one person’s opinion better than another’s? Is it that a television producer, newspaper editor or the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing, Kate Rowland, trusts it? Is a good opinion one that reflects the majority of other people’s? If so, what about Vincent van Gogh? He, along with many others, was only properly recognised after his death.

When he was working in the Writersroom, Paul Ashton used to describe script reading as “making subjective decisions based upon objective criteria”.  For instance, most people would agree that interesting characters, strong dialogue and a compelling story are desirable things to have in a script – so much so that they have become clichés, regularly wheeled out in seminars, feedback letters and How to Write Your First Blockbuster books.

However, objectively providing examples of the above characters, dialogue and stories is a lot trickier. While many people (including The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) loved the Coen brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis, I found it slow and indulgent to a point where I’d quite happily never see another dark-haired, guitar playing bloke with a cat ever again – and that includes my boyfriend.  Does this make me a bad script reader? Does it mean I could be that person who rejected the Coen brothers?

No, thinks my colleague Eric*. We were having a debate in the last Script Room and he rightly pointed out that we readers are a lot more generous assessing scripts from new writers than we are when we talk about produced films. He felt that since we are purely looking for potential in the Writersroom, this meant we could be more objective.

“Potential”, is a word that the Writersroom’s new Development Producer Abigail Gonda also used when we readers reported back on our annual test script. She wanted, she said afterwards, to see if we could spot it. Interestingly, while a few of us gave the script different verdicts, the majority said it was a “yes” and virtually everyone agreed on what aspects worked or didn’t. Maybe we are robots or clones after all! Or maybe there was simply a general consensus – and that’s the best you’re going to get from “subjective decisions based upon objective criteria.”

“Script readers are typically highly educated,” says Creative Skillset’s description of us. They also point out: “The work is not always well paid [but] is a useful entry route into Script Editing and Script Development.”

All of us in the Writersroom are already (when we’re not script reading) doing the jobs we want to do, whether this is writing, script editing, performing, directing or other things. Amongst us are individuals who regularly write for the BBC, have created their own series and even starred in an Oscar-nominated film. We don’t need a foot in the door. We’ve already got two feet, two hands, a body and a head well beyond the reception area. However, since script reading isn’t well paid, a lot of people see it as an entry level job – which is perhaps the reason writers are sometimes suspicious about whether we’re qualified enough.

So, if we don’t get paid very much and we’re not hatching a plan to break into the Director-General’s office and tip him off his chair, why are we reading scripts in the first place?  One of my colleagues, Caroline*, said this: “On sift days, our lunchtime conversations pretty much always revolve around what films, TV or theatre everyone has seen recently and what was good or bad about them. It’s clear how passionate everyone in the room is about great drama.”

When I ask Caroline what else “qualifies” her to be a script reader she points out that she has “thousands” of script reports on her computer. Mine is the same. All of us have been reading scripts for years; some of us decades. We enjoy scripts, talking to each other about them, or things related to them, and discovering good ones. Perhaps this is what qualifies us the most – along with an ability to stay open to potential even if it’s 3pm and we’ve overdosed on custard creams.

Over the years, I’ve read on other script reading panels and have rarely met readers as qualified, experienced and careful with writers’ work as those in the Writersroom. Working with and talking to them inspires me to be better at everything I do, whether this is script reading or anything else. That’s why they have to remain anonymous. If they didn’t Hollywood, Channel 4 or the Coen brothers might come along and snaffle them up!

*Eric and Caroline are pseudonyms.

Written for BBC Writersroom

Worried other people might find The Wolf of Wall Street aspirational?

Do you feel uncomfortable with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s free market, three-hour long depiction of drugs, sex and 1980s excess? Are you unhappy with what you suspect might be ‘a celebration of greed’? Do dollar bills being used as ticker-tape make you want to puke in a bin – and not because you’ve overdosed on a handful of ‘ludes’?

Dear conscientious one, here are some thoughts to help free you from the terrible burden of worrying about the moral welfare of others. Hopefully, once you’re read them you will feel lighter, more streamline and able to move on to someone who actually deserves your concern. But first…:

  • Have you actually met anyone who has come out of seeing The Wolf of Wall Street and said, “Yes, this is how I want to live”? So far, I have only met people who (like wonderful you) are worried about how other, less wonderful people, might find the film aspirational. Who are these impressionable types with their cotton wool heads and zombie eyes? How are they currently functioning without your guidance?  Maybe you could go and find one, ask them and see how they respond.
  • Try pinpointing the parts of the film that concern you. Perhaps it is the cheery disregard for others in order to become rich? Or the fact that stockbroker Jordan Belfort spends all of his ill-gotten gains on prostitutes and yachts rather than, say, going to the theatre or subscribing to a Save the Whale charity?
  • Next, think about Jordan crawling down his country club steps, overdosing on drugs and dribbling spit. Or what about when he backstabs his friends, gets left by his wife and has a candle stuck up his arse? Do you know anyone who wants to be like this? Do you? Really?
  • You may be concerned that Jordan doesn’t ‘learn’ anything. Perhaps you were looking forward to a scene at the end where he delivers a monologue about ‘the error of his ways’. But lots of popular characters in films learn absolutely zilch. What does Withnail learn about drinking and taking drugs?  Or Hannibal Lecter about the negative effects of eating people? I think the last time we saw him he was on a plane with a lunchbox full of brains.
  • Sometimes it’s a painful film to watch – but is this really a problem? Isn’t it a good thing that you feel uncomfortable when Jordan and his friends start referring to a member of a ‘dwarf-throwing’ group as ‘it’? Or an apprehensive-looking woman has her head shaved for £10,000? Instead of feeling conflicted, why not congratulate yourself for being so right-on?
  • You may have got caught up in the energy, razzamatazz and “doesn’t Scorsese compose beautiful shots” moments which occur directly before the above scenes. But that is your choice. Nobody is forcing you to enjoy depictions of drug taking, objectified women or owning a helicopter. Maybe the film is simply holding up a mirror and asking you – like the crowd of desperate wannabe millionaires in the final shot – to consider just what you are prepared to buy into.
  • Still think wealth and excess are being glamourised? What if they are simply being presented as they appear in real life, with all their bombastic glitz? What if it is just you – and only you – who finds them glamourous? If so, maybe you need someone to educate you about ‘the error of your ways’, possibly through a monologue. And then you can go to the theatre – before relaxing to the music of those whales you saved.

How to become a successful writer – and get paid

“Are you quite sure you want to write for television? Well, of course you do. You are stuck in the endless tedium of an office, factory or behind the kitchen sink.”

This is how Eric Paice’s 1981 book ‘The Way to Write for Television’ begins. He goes on: “The sad fact is that most writers for the box are virtually anonymous. Their names appear momentarily [in] a long and rapidly moving credits list amongst producers, directors [and] make-up girls.”

If the idea of having your name listed alongside a “make-up girl” hasn’t made you snap your fountain pen in disgust, you might be wondering how to make the leap from your supposed life as a hapless prole to getting your first broadcast commission.  This may seem an impossible task, however many books you’ve read by people like Eric. I spoke to eight professional writers and asked them how they did it.

When I catch up with Sally Abbott she is in the middle of writing a mammoth episode for Casualty andknackered after writing day and night to hit her deadline. Previously a theatre producer at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, she wrote her first Doctors episode when her son was only 6-months old. Sally admits having contacts in the industry is useful, but says knowing people isn’t any help “if you’re actually not ready.

Her real break came from taking a play, Martha Loves Michael (co-written with her husband, the actor Michael Begley), to the Edinburgh Festival. “We didn’t get massive audience figures,” Sally says. But what we did get out of it is everything we’ve had since,” including the chance to develop a BBC TV show and an introduction to the BBC Writersroom.

Three years later she made the plunge into full time writing after juggling it with producing theatre part-time. “It was coming up to the year I was going to be 40 and I just went ‘I’ve either got to go for the writing now or forget it,’” she says. So I gave my notice in at work.” She took two weeks away from her husband and children to write a spec script, which got her onto the BBC Writers Academy.  For the first time she had an original solo-written script and that changed everything. It may sound simple, but it wasn’t.

“We were absolutely financially broke and surviving on tax credits,” Sally points out. “If you want to create that space for writing, then you don’t go out, you shop really carefully, you make really big sacrifices. We didn’t go out for years because we couldn’t afford a babysitter.” While Sally now gets paid more than she once did, she is keen to point out the process doesn’t get any easier. “The bottom line is that writing is really, really difficult,” she says. “Virtually every writer I’ve met thinks they might not work again. It doesn’t matter how many awards they’ve won.”

By 2006, Levi David Addai’s first play, 93.2FM, had sold out at the Royal Court Theatre and was about to start a UK tour. Meanwhile, he was applying for jobs stacking shelves in Sainsburys. “After the first run of my play, in 2005, I pretty much lived off my bank graduate loan, until mid-2006 when I eventually got an office job,” he says. However, he found that working full-time took away all of his time to think. “I’d come home and my brain was exhausted. There was no fuel to write,” he says. He decided to go full-time as a writer and supplement his income with a few shifts in one of his local supermarkets. “However, I was rejected by all three.”

Sainsburys’ loss was television’s gain. Following his play’s tour, Levi was championed by script editor Esther Springer and went on to write for the BBC and Channel 4 and is now lead writer, co-creator and associate producer of the E4 drama series YoungersHe believes he couldn’t have done any of this without his theatre work. “I would have had no chance submitting an idea to a TV company cold. It was much easier to send an invitation saying ‘my play is on at this venue’…No slaving over a treatment, doing several drafts over several months or years. It was simply a case of the commissioner seeing my play, liking what I had to say and giving me a script commission. I was extremely fortunate.”

Lucy Moore is a writer and script consultant who, like Levi, started her career as part of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme. “I wrote some short plays that got put on, then I wrote a couple of short films that got made, then I wrote a half hour drama for Channel 4 that got made,” she explains. “And then I wrote my first feature film which got picked up by Miramax and didn’t get made.”

When she was starting out, she negotiated a three-day week in the admin job she was doing and then worked as a waitress evenings and weekends. “It was tiring, but it really helped to keep [two] days sacred for writing, staring out of the window, drinking tea,” she says. Alongside admin and waitress work, she also supplemented her income with script reading, puppeteering and teaching. “I still do bits of these, except the waitressing, which is too bloody exhausting,” she says.

“Since I’ve started writing I have never taken a regular job,” says Gabriel Bisset-Smith, whose new show, Addicted to Everything, co-written and performed with Rob Cawsey, is at Soho Theatre from 30th January-1st February. “Now this is not because I make a lot of money. I really don’t and have gone hungry many a night. But…when I have a busy day out and about, I can’t come home and turn it on. A lot of people can, but not me.” So how does he survive? “As I don’t have any kids or a wife or anything I can kinda get away with it,” he says. “Although I do have some very generous drink buying friends who may be (are) sick of me.”

The first piece Gabriel wrote was a spec script which he sent anywhere that took unsolicited work, including the Hampstead Theatre. “They liked it, but didn’t think it was right for them,” Gabriel explains. “However, they put me in touch with Paul Ashton in the BBC Writersroom. He read it and invited me to a weeklong workshop to develop drama for BBC3.” The channel liked another idea that he pitched, with fellow writer Claire Wilson, and put it in development.

“After that I rang up every other theatre that I’d sent the play to (and had still not had a response from) and told them I was working with the BBC,” Gabriel says, “They read my play a bit quicker and I was put on attachment at the Royal Court. It may sound like it was all quite quick but there were months and months of waiting involved, and a fair amount of sulking.”

“My background was directing theatre, which I’d done since school,” says Richard Hurst, co-writer of the BBC3 comedy Bluestone 42, the second series of which is about to come out“I wrote a bit but was never much good, except at silly little sketches. Then I fell into writing and directing comedy, and got given the chance to have a go at a sitcom with the rest of a sketch group (The Four Horsemen).”

In order to make a living when he was starting out, Richard balanced his writing with directing and script reading. “I’ve always had other things going on,” he says, “And tax credits were a fantastic innovation of the last government – they gave you a little safety net while you were trying to build a career.”

Samina Baig started her career helping out on the sets of short films. “I ended up doing the cooking,” she laughs. She trained as a journalist and then worked in factual broadcasting, while doing her own writing in the evenings. “I started going to workshops on craft and structure,” she says. “Then in 2000, I just decided to go for it.  I thought it’s now or never, so I rather optimistically ditched everything.”

Although she had saved up some money, she now thinks this approach was naïve. “I would advise [people] to keep the day job,” she says. “I was just super-optimistic.” It took her a year or two to get her first commission, which came after she sent a script to the BBC Writersroom. “They put me on a development programme at Radio 4 called Sparks,” she says, “I got my first commission through that.” She has now had a number of radio plays produced (including a new one for Radio 4, Karma, being broadcast today at 14.15 and on BBC iPlayer for 7 days) and also written for BBC Continuing Drama. However, “one commission doesn’t automatically lead to another,” she points out, “You have to prove yourself time and time again.”

“I’d heard about a meeting at BBC Radio 4 where non-commissioned writers could go and pitch ideas for satirical sketches,” says Simon Littlefield who writes for shows including Radio 4’s The News Quiz. “I was unemployed at the time and thought, ‘What the hell?’” At the meeting, he met another writer, Felix Riley, and they started working together. “We got commissioned…And then worked six or seven days a week trying to break into other shows and trying to write sitcoms.”

By the time Simon got his first radio commission he was working full-time writing TV listings for national newspapers. “After a while this became a part-time job,” he says, “and then eventually I threw myself off a financial cliff.” Prior to this, he was lucky enough to have a very understanding boss: TV pundit Boyd Hilton. “[He] was incredibly relaxed about me taking four-hour lunches to go to the BBC (handily just around the corner) to write radio sketches,” Simon reveals. “And I used to write before going to work. And in the evenings. And at weekends.”

“I always wanted to be a writer, but I imagined it would be journalism or maybe think tank stuff or policy work,” says Danielle Ward. “Something with a bit of importance to it. But no, that never happened.” Instead, feeling “bored and lonely” she started doing stand-up at the Albany Theatre, a place where “loads of people from BBC radio used to go.” Producer Colin Anderson was in the audience and asked her to write for The Milk Run, a late night Radio 1 comedy show.

While working at the fire brigade in an admin job, she began writing short plays based upon Chat Magazine for Robin Ince’s Book Club, also at the Albany. Siobhan Bachman saw the plays and decided to produce an Edinburgh Festival show based upon them, Take a Break Tales. It helped Danielle to win The BBC Writers Bursary, which funded her – along with her stand-up gigs – for a year. “I could give up my job,” she says. “It was the big safety net I needed.”

Since then she has worked on a variety of TV and radio shows and is currently developing a sitcom. “Once people start to know who you are, work comes your way,” she says. “But I think you still have to be proactive. Unless you have a really big hit you can’t really rest on your laurels.”

The one thing everyone I spoke to has in common, despite being talented and successful at what they do, is that they have at some point found it (and, in some cases, continue to find it) challenging to balance making a living with doing their writing. “You may be enticed by the money,” Eric Paice tells the would-be writers of the 1980s reading his book, “though there is less of it than you might think.”

“You’re not a writer to make money necessarily, but you do need to make money,” says Samina. “Live cheap,” suggests Lucy. “Alternatively you could train for a ‘back-up career’ that allows you to work flexible hours for a decent amount of cash i.e. plumbing, IT support, lapdancing…”

“The obvious one is find a job that can help you write,” says Gabriel. “Become a night security guard and write on your shift.”  For Levi, the initial struggle was worth it in the end.  “There’s no feeling like getting something made and seeing what you’ve written produced – and that it worked,” he says. “Always appreciate that you are doing what you chose to do. No one forced you to be a writer.”

Written for BBC Writersroom

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