One of the best things about being a scriptwriter is walking on to the set. For so long, you’re visualising a place in three dimensions as you spend months shuffling around characters, plots, ideas. You get so used to it being an imaginary place, existing only in your head, that it’s a tremendous psychic jolt when it actually gets built and you step into it for the first time. Your mind goes: My God! I Can’t Believe They Made That!
I’ve done this job for quite a few years, so arranging a few sofas and chairs in a living room set doesn’t quite shock me any more. Now that I’m writing for Veep I’m seeing the American budgets make big American things and the MGICBTMT effect is stunning again. Last year on season three on show, Kevin Cecil and me co-wrote an episode called ‘Clovis,’ named after the imaginary silicon valley company that Selina Meyer and her team visit. I worked out the entire rationale of what it would be called that. It’s named after the Clovis point, kind of flint spear tip found over much of North America, dating from about 15,000 years ago. Clovis the company would themselves say: “just as those early settlers of America designed a universal tool for their civilisation, we are designing the new universal tools for ours.” I knew this would never make it into the show because it didn’t have jokes it. But I was enjoying being intellectually rigourous about the whole thing. I passed these thoughts on to the director to pass onto the art department.
When I got on the set, I was imagining there might be a couple of posters stuck to the wall featuring a Clovis point on them somewhere. What I was NOT expecting was a huge clovis-shaped megalith for the characters to walk past. I was beside myself with glee. You’ve never seen someone get so excited by a big assembly of wood, wire, plastic and paint.
The monolith barely features in episode itself. And an even madder thing didn’t feature in the episode at all. It was set in San Francisco, but filmed in Maryland, so to make the whole thing look more Californian, four palm trees were uprooted from a much warmer east coast (somebody told me South Carolina), loaded on a truck, driven up the coast, and inserted into the ground for just one day. I’ve never seen full size trees moving for television before. The trees didn’t make the edit.
I love big sets. It’s such a treat. And in more reflective moments I consider the carbon footprint. But it’s such a fun way to destroy the world.
Part of the comedy writer’s job is to spot the buzz words and cliches of the age, and either avoid them, or use them in a very particular way; by putting them in the mouths of your most (intentionally) annoying characters. If there is a character in a show who tells everyone to chillax, or talks about things “going forward”, The chances are it’s the one that the writer/writers wanted us to feel irritated by.
There is one word which has been so overused for so long that I’m constantly surprised it hasn’t attracted more flak. It deserves some. It’s “Passion.”
Hotels always seem to have a passion for service. Delicatessens boast of their passion for food. Job interviewees are ordered to bring along their passion for coffee, or communication, or learning, or innovation, or excellence. Passion, passion, passion. As soon as you notice the word you see it everywhere. It’s the ultimate cure-all. When you have passion, apparently, everything is solved. And of course it gets applied in my job. Time and again aspiring writers are told that they need to have a passion for it.
Well what’s wrong with that? You might ask. Passion has to be a good thing. It can be – but we’ve got to understand what it is and what its limits are. People love to talk about passion because bestowing “passion” on anything is deliberately invoking the imagery of sex. And sex is sexy. Passion is a dark-eyed flamenco dancer with fabulous dress and a rose between her teeth. Who wouldn’t want her around?
Passion, as we now use the word, is a child of the 60s. It’s about the fulfilment of your personal emotions. So long as you are serving your own needs in this way, you’re bound to be on the right path, or so the narrative goes.
Passion certainly has its uses in writing. It’s probably what got you into in the first place. When you are gripped by a new idea and you simply can’t scribble it down fast enough because of the possibilities racing through your head, that’s passion. Great. But there’s a problem: passion is a state of high emotional arousal. Nobody can live like that all the time. What do you do when you’re a couple of months into working on that project, and you still aren’t sure what the ending is yet, and one of the characters still isn’t working, and it’s all become heavy going? Perhaps that passion is flagging. Perhaps it’s gone. Perhaps it’s working against you – and you passionately want to throw it all out and go and play in the sunshine. That’s when you need something more powerful than passion.
Here’s where I reach for the words of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was an absurdist writer in revolutionary Russia. He wrote unhinged little stories, many just a paragraph long. He founded an art movement called Oberiu which turned out slogans like “Art is a cupboard!” and “we are not cakes!” As Stalinism tightened its grip, you couldn’t get away with this sort of thing any more, and eventually Kharms was interned by the NKVD. He died of starvation in a prison during the siege of Leningrad. So there’s no doubting his dedication to his art. Amongst a small collection now entitled “the blue notebook”, because that’s what he happened to write it in, he put down this luminous aphorism:
To have only intelligence and talent is too little. One must also have energy, real interest, clarity of thought and a sense of obligation.
When I came across this a few years ago, it struck me as a great set of guidelines to writing. I would argue that the last item on the list is the most important.
Sense of Obligation. Like duty, or responsibility, it’s not an easy sell. It sounds like such a drag. It speaks to us from the pre-1960s era when people were burdened with the task of thinking about things that weren’t themselves. Obligation is Passion’s slightly frumpy sister. Doesn’t get as much interest from the boys. Goes out to milk the cows and dig the ditches while Passion fusses over her toenails. She’s not nearly as sexy as Passion. But by god she’ll get the job done, long after Passion has declared herself too tired, dashed her fan to the ground and stomped off in her big shoes.
This sense of obligation – a flinty, bloody-minded determination to get the job done regardless of anything, because, well, we’ve just got to – is a trait shared by just about every professional comedy writer I know. In the end, that’s what you need just as much as Passion to get you over the line.
So by all means be passionate in your writing. But if you are still writing when the great muse passion has stood you up – then you’re a proper writer. And don’t worry, Passion will come back. She always does in the end.
I posted about this earlier in the year; now d-day has come. My friend Marcus Gipps, who in his day job is a publisher at Gollancz books, decided to be a publisher in his spare time as well. He’s collected together all six books in the Uncle series by J.P. Martin. These are an extraordinary series of children’s novels which first appeared in the 60s and 70s but have since fallen out of print. However, they have picked up a strong cult following in the intervening years. Marcus tells me that cheaply produced copies of the last couple of novels have changed hands for hundreds of pounds.
Marcus’s “The Complete Uncle” is a beauty of book – cloth binding, all the original Quentin Blake illustrations scanned in afresh, and additional material from Neil Gaiman, Martin Rowson, Will Self, Richard Ingrams, JustinPollard, Garth Nix, Kate Summerscale and (I think you’ll see what I’m building up to here) Andy Riley. I’m drawn Uncle, the elephant who is the main character of the books, as I see him.
Most copies have already been sent out to the backers of Marcus’s kickstarter, but there’s a few left over for general retail. These are being sent out to Waterstones, British Amazon, and some independent bookshops too. These six books are some of the most beautifully imaginative and funny fiction I’ve read in ages.
I’d better add something up here which we’ve been working on for a couple of months: me and Kevin Cecil are adapting one of David Walliams’ bestselling children’s books. It’s going to be a big BBC1 special. The BBC did the same thing with one of his other books, Mr. Stink, in 2013. That starred Hugh Bonneville, Johnny Vegas and Sheridan Smith, and turned out to be quite a big hit.
We’ve worked with David quite a lot before – on Little Britain and Come Fly With Me. It’s great to be doing it again.And the great thing about this one is, it earns me quite a lots of cool points with my eight-year-old son.
David is ridiculously busy at the moment, what with having a child, filming a new sitcom, and judging Britain’s Got Talent, all at the same time. He’s probably writing a new book as well. But the TV gangsta granny is already in great shape script-wise. We hope to be pulling in some big comedy names for the main parts in the near future. I’ll tell you as soon as we have them. when people hear about the project they often ask if it’s animated – but it’s most certainly going to be live action.
Anyway, more of the details are available here.
I’m delighted to trumpet about an exciting new project which I’m a small part of. My friend Marcus Gipps, an editor at the fantasy and science fiction publisher Gollancz, is a lifelong fan of the Uncle books by J. P.Martin. These are a series of six children’s books published in the 60s and 70s which relates the adventures of a pompous elephant just called “Uncle” who lives in a staggeringly vast castle called Homeward. As well as exploring his own infinitely large house, he must constantly do battle against the anarchist Beaver Hateman who lives in the rival castle of Badfort.
From this brief description it may sound a bit like Babar the elephant, or innumerable other children’s novels. But as soon as you read a page or two of these books, you realise you are in the presence of a startlingly original imagination. The court of Uncle contains a one armed badger who is always there, but seldom speaks. One of the main characters at Badfort is Jellytussle, a creature made entirely of jelly. The family who run Uncle’s art gallery are terrorised by a giant slimy fist which reaches through windows to grab them. The tallest tower in Homeward turns out to contain a Fritzl–like colony of children who have never been outside it. These mindbending jolts just keep on coming. Over the years, the books have picked up a lots of famous admirers including Spike Milligan, Will Self and Neil Gaiman. Best of all, the illustrations are by Quentin Blake, surely the seminal children’s book illustrator of the 20th century.
Surprisingly,despite all this cult success, the books have been out of print for years. tatty old paperback editions now change hands for hundreds of pounds on eBay. Marcus decided it was time to get the books back out in the world – so he has made a kickstarter to get them published in a single beautifully bound volume.
The kickstarter went to live yesterday (27th March) with a target of £7000 – which it smashed through in four hours flat. So the reissue is definitely going to happen. I’m doing a new drawing of uncle for the book, and writing an introduction. Other drawings and/or introductions will come from Martin Rowson, Neil Gaiman, and others. It will be on high-quality acid free paper. if you buy a copy through the kickstarter there are all kinds of options for goodies you can get with it, starting with getting your name in the thanks when it’s published. The book will cost £30 – which I know is a bit of money, but you’re getting six whole books in one volume for this, plus all the additional material from myself and others.
Follow the link to the Kickstarter to find out more. but, really, I can’t recommend Uncle enough to you. It’s the great lost gem of British children’s literature.
This morning I did my first live appearance of the year… Some onstage cartooning for Mark Watson’s 25 hour comedy marathon in aid of Comic Relief. If you haven’t heard of this – Mark is a comedian who invented a new genre of stand-up a few years back: endurance comedy. Over the years he has done several shows which were 24 hours long. A one-hour comedy performance is knackering enough. This, his longest ever at 25 (in honour of the 25 years which red nose Day has been going for) will apparently be his last marathon gig. As I write this, he is more than halfway to the end, but he’s still got 10 hours to go.
And the great thing is, the whole thing is streaming live here: http://www.rednoseday.com/whats-going-on/mark-watsons-25-hour-comedy-marathon . There are lots of ways to give money to comic relief, but the easiest today has to be sending a text to 70005 with just the single word “MARK”. You will automatically donate five pounds.
The other reason I’m telling you all this is that all the pictures I drove over the 45 min or so I was on stage will be up for auction! I’m not completely sure how they’re going to do it, but if you follow the hash tag #25hours on twitter, they will probably tell you at some point. Failing that the web address I gave in the last paragraph should have some info.
perhaps inevitably, all the drawings are bunny suicides. There’s lots of other things I could draw, but you know how bands normally play their biggest hits at charity gigs? I suppose cartoonists are like that too.
As soon as I learn precisely how you can get hold of these I will tell you here. Every penny will go to Comic Relief.
It’s coming up to 10 years since the Blankety Blank Comic Relief sketch, starring Peter Serafinowicz, Matt Lucas, David Williams, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Sarah Alexander, and Martin Freeman.….
That’s quite a lineup. Me and Kevin Cecil were slightly involved in it – it was very much Peter’s baby, but we were asked to spend a couple of hours throwing in a few extra ideas. Hard to be precise which ones 10 years on, but I’m pretty certain we wrote a lot of the bad tempered exchanges between Martin Freeman’s Johnny Rotten and Simon Pegg’s Freddie Starr.
It feels like a long time ago now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this cast wasn’t all that famous when this was broadcast. Little Britain wouldn’t appear on the TV until later in 2003. Shaun of the Dead premiered in 2004. That’s why this stellar lineup was tucked away quite late in the evening of Red Nose Day. And because it was quite late, it was allowed to be quite weird. The words “yellow reggae” cracked me up at the time, and still make me laugh now.
But looking at this footage a few days ago, it doesn’t seem nearly as weird as it used to. This brings me to the second reason why it feels like a long time ago: the presence of Johnny Rotten. For the benefit of those too young to remember, Blankety Blank was one of the lightest of light entertainment shows which dominated the early evening schedules in the 1980s. It was built on a fairly flimsy premise– a simple word association game – but that didn’t matter, because it was just an excuse for Terry Wogan to engage in genial chats with half a dozen celebrities at once. The personalities on the show were for the most part well-known faces from other comedy and entertainment shows. With the exception of Kenny Everett they were a safe and cosy bunch. When Peter wrote this Blankety Blank parody in 2003, the mere idea of having the fearless and dangerous Johnny Rotten on a mainstream light entertainment show like Blankety Blank was a preposterous joke.
In 2013, it’s no longer incredible, because it’s already happened. Under his more grown-up real name of John Lydon, the formerly unusable punk god did a whole series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. That culture clash between him and the stars of panto was mined to the full, but this time for real instead of in an unhinged Peter Serafinowicz sketch.
This is just one example of what you might call The March of Absurdity. It’s a real problem for comedy writers. Comedy thrives off barriers and taboos. Then you’ve got an expectation to subvert, and you’re in business. Less barriers means less unwritten codes for comedy to scrape up against. When I was a kid, the Morecambe and Wise show once featured Angela Rippon, a newsreader whose name and face were known to everyone in the country, as one of a line of dancing girls. At the time this was considered utterly mind blowing. A BBC newsreader! Dancing! With just tights on her legs! These days, Children In Need love to get newsreaders dancing. We now expect our newsreaders to fool around in funny costumes. What was once a bold comic idea gradually became the norm. So – it’s a lot less funny.
There’s another one which sticks out in my memory. Me and Kevin wrote a lot of The Armando Iannucci Shows, a Channel 4 series which though it didn’t make a big splash when it aired in 2001 has since become obscure cult viewing. One of the programs follows Armando as he goes to see “Ibiza Uncovered – the Opera.” Ibiza Uncovered was a very trashy late night show, really just an excuse to show lots of flesh. Unthinkable that it could be turned into an opera, so we had great fun writing the lyrics. “The club is charging £20 admission/do they still have the sex show at Manumission?/no, but Paul Oakenfold is on the decks./Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie’s on the decks.” Just a couple of years later, Jerry Springer the Opera was a massive stage hit. Without it, it seems unlikely that the Royal Opera house would have been able to put on an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. Opera about low culture subjects? People are fine with that now. So that sketch couldn’t work if we wrote it today.
When mainstream culture delights in playing the comedy writer’s game of juxtaposing things to get amusing results, it makes it a whole lot harder for people in my profession. What looks crazy and impossible now might just be commonplace in a few years. So, here’s my plea to society and the media: put up more barriers. Be more sober, more serious. Create more taboos. Make more lines which can’t be crossed. The comedy writers will thank you for it.
Every now and again somebody encountering my full name says, “Andy Riley! Like in Father Ted. Father Andy Riley, Father Desmond Coyne….”
They’re referring to a scene in the Father Ted Christmas special where a priest claiming to be an old friend of Ted visits the parochial house. Ted doesn’t know who he is, but pretends he does; the problem is he doesn’t know this priest’s name. Ted encourages Mrs Doyle to guess what it might be. She launches into a long list of names of mounting absurdity. Father Chewie Louis, Father Stig Bubblecard, Father Peewee Stairmaster, and lots more until she finally hits the correct name of Todd Unctuous. It’s very funny.
Whenever this comes up, I’m always quick to point out that it’s not a coincidence. Father Andy Riley is me. Me and my writing partner Kevin Cecil worked with Graham and Arthur, the writers of Ted, a year or two before. While they were writing the later series of Ted, we were in the habit of dropping by their office at Talkback productions whenever we were in the building, to drink their tea and talk about comics and stuff. We probably did it on the day they were writing that scene, which is why we got on Mrs Doyle’s list. Kevin was the third name on the list but sadly got chopped out in the edit. He’s there in the Father Ted script book though.
So, naturally, this is my favourite bit of Father Ted.
It draws from a very deep well in Irish humour. I’m not the only person who’s noticed the similarity between this and a scene in Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman”. This is O’Brien’s masterpiece – written in about 1940, rejected by his publisher, hidden away for decades, only being published in 1967 after his death. It’s a hilarious, disturbing, genre defying novel set in a nightmarish roral Irish district. It features some brilliantly weird theorising about bicycles. Incongruously, it was a major influence on the second series of the TV show “Lost.”
While walking by himself, the unnamed protagonist hears a small voice inside his head, which he deduces to be the voice of his soul. He wonders who his soul might have occupied before he had it.
I sensed a solemn question on the subject from within, one similar to many that had been asked the night before. It was a mocking enquiry. I lightheartedly gave a list of names which, for all I knew, I might hear:
Signor Beniamino Bari
The honourable Alex O’ Brannigan, Bart.
Mr John P. De Salis, M. A.
Dr Solway Garr.
His soul then interrupts to say that Signor Beniamino Bari is the right one. I’m pretty certain this passage is a big influence on Mrs Doyle’s speech. The “long list of funny Irish names which may or may not apply to an individual” has a great pedigree.
More recently, I discovered that it goes back a whole lot further than I suspected. When reading a book of Irish myths and Legends, I found what I believe to be the ancient ancestor of the Mrs Doyle/Todd Unctuous scene. It’s a passage in “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel,” a tale found in one of the earliest cycles of the Irish myths. Conair, the hero of the tale, is waiting to besiege a building full of fearsome warriors. A woman comes up to him and prophesy is that he will not survive. Conare asks for her name.
“Cailb,” she replied.
“A name with nothing to spare, that,” said Conare.
“Indeed, I have many other names,” she said.
“What are they?” Asked Conare.
“Not a difficult that,” she replied. “Samuin, Sinand, Sesclend, Sodb, Saiglend, Samlocht, Caill, Coll, Dichoem, Dichuill, Dichim, Dichuimne, Dichuinne, Darne, Darine, Der Uane Egem, Agam, Ethamne, Gnim, Cluche, Cethardam, Nith, Nemuin, Noenden, Badb, Blosic, Bloar, Uaret, Mede, Mod.” And she recited these in one breath,, and standing on one foot, at the entrance to the house.
Irish myths aren’t like the Bible. They’re more like the Greek myths: the gods are fallible and they mingle with men. They certainly don’t display superior morality to the mortals. And, I’d argue, the legends have an innate sense of humour about them; this bit is an example. You could claim that the speaking in one breath and standing on one leg refers to an important ritual whose meaning is now lost.. But I think the humour is intentional. And just look at it – not precisely the same formula as in The Third Policeman and Father Ted, but still a long list of possible names, all referring to one person.
Flann O’Brien knew a lot about the Irish sagas. his first book (At Swim Two Birds) one of the main characters is Finn Mac Cool, a hero from the old stories. He would have known The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. So I’m going to stick my neck out here. I contend that Mrs Doyle is a bit in A Christmassy Ted has a comic lineage stretching back more than 1000 years into the misty beginnings of Irish history. If anyone knows a comic riff which has been around longer, I’d love to know.
PS – I think I’d better mention that I haven’t tried this theory out on Graham or Arthur yet. Let’s see if they disagree.
My friends at the Cartoon Museum in London have a new summer exhibition on – and I’ve got a few things in it.
It’s called “animal crackers”, and as the name suggests it’s a big collection of animal-based cartoons.I’ve got two Bunny suicides cartoons and two Selfish Pigs pages in it. this polar bear and Penguin cartoon isn’t one of mine… It’s by Royston Robertson, and I’ve taken the liberty of using it here because I like it. And it’s in the exhibition.
animal crackers runs until 21st of October 2012, and all the details can be found here.
I thought I’d better mention the place where theress usually a nice pile of signed copies of my various books. It’s the Cartoon Museum, Little Russell Street, right near the British Museum in London.
I call in every now and then to say hello to the great Alison Brown, who runs the shop at the entrance most days. When I do, I’m always sure to sign whatever they have that’s got my name on it.
As well as their permanent exhibition, they’re currently showing cartoons by HM Bateman. He was one of the very best cartoonists operating in Britain between the wars, and was a very powerful inspiration for me at the age of 13. It was when I encountered his work that I became absolutely certain I wanted to be a cartoonist. I can’t recommend HM Bateman highly enough for anyone who’s remotely interested in cartoons (which I hope includes you).
You can find out more, and order books directly from their shop, here.