Friday, 24 February 2012

Writing radio sketches: ten things I've learned

For the past month or so I've temporarily turned away from the business of writing novels (as opposed to promoting them) and returned to a new aspect of my former craft of writing for the radio. The new bit is comedy rather than drama, and specifically comedy sketches.

I've been involved with a group of other writers, stand-up comedians, performers and producers in putting together a one-off comedy sketch show for BBC North called 'Jesting About 2'. The first manifestation of 'Jesting About', which was broadcast last year, has been nominated for a Sony Radio Award, so we had to be on our toes for this one. I have to say that I was the grand-dad of the group, but the others were very tolerant towards me and hardly ever suggested I might like to go for a lie-down.

The writing and rehearsals culminated in a recording of the show last weekend in front of a packed audience at Live Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne. The resulting programme, scrupulously edited no doubt by producer Ben Walker, will be broadcast courtesy of BBC Radio Tees and BBC Radio Newcastle on Good Friday and Easter Monday.

This was a lively and refreshing learning experience for me (as all writing projects are) and I want to share with you ten things I learned through it about writing comedy sketches for the radio.

1. Cut to the chase. In sketch comedy there is no time for establishing character or scene except for perhaps the briefest sound effect or 'atmos' suggestion. Characters have to establish themselves virtually instantly through words and tone, and the situation reveals itself simultaneously with the unfolding story of the sketch.

2. Don't stretch the sketch. There has to be a real economy about any sketch. Every word needs to be worth its weight. Short is a real virtue, and if you can make it even shorter it often works better.

3. Sketches obey Einstein's theory of relativity. A sketch short of jokes feels long even when it's short.

4. One laugh buys a few chuckles. A sketch doesn't have to be full of belly laughs but, just as kids need sweets, your audience has to be kept happy with at least one laugh-out-loud line per sketch (preferably two or three).

5. It matters where your best jokes are. A producer from a visiting BBC Newsjack team showed me how shifting the order of my sketch allowed me to keep my best joke for the punchline. So many sketches fail right at the death with a weak, unimaginative or lazy punchline; the quality of what's gone before will not save a sketch without a firm punchline.

6. Absurdity is prized in sketch comedy. I consider myself imaginative, but I quickly learned I had to reach further out of the box at times to please comedy producers and script editors. The younger writers were generally more comfortable with sheer absurdity than me, even if I was brought up on Monty Python. But there has to be a discipline even to the surreal - each sketch must have its own internal logic, and its own unity, otherwise it's just a mess. (My view is, absurdity piled upon absurdity can degenerate into a daft 'listing' game.)

7. A sketch can read well and play badly. Mostly, a sketch that seems to lift off the page in reading does well in peformance; occasionally a sketch that seems good on paper simply doesn't fly from a performer's mouth, and that's not always the performer's fault - sometimes a sketch may enter the mind more smoothly than it does the ear.

8. A sketch can read badly and play well. Nothing can save a rank bad sketch, but there have been several occasions in 'Jesting About 2' when a script that none of us has been quite sure about on paper seems to take on a new life when performed - sometimes a particular sketch and a certain kind of actor seem to be made for each other. The joint lesson of 7 and 8 is that sketches always need a good work-out both on paper and in performance.

9. A sketch can always be improved, and destroyed. Many of our scripts went through quite radical changes during what I would call the testing process - reading and rehearsal. In my case, a few that I initially thought unimprovable were greatly improved. Occasionally, with mine and others, the original spark was lost somewhere in the redrafting. And some just died on the operating table.

10. A sketch is never safe until it's aired. What a ruthless process a sketch show can be when the eleventh and twelfth hours are upon us. The final rehearsals of 'Jesting About 2', and the period immediately before recording, even as the auditorium was filling, were punctuated by the sounds of  pens scoring through lines, sheets being ripped out, whole sketches dropped, not always for qualitative reasons. During the performance, the same sounds reverberated in our heads whenever a sketch didn't quite work its magic on the audience - another one to be cut in the edit. And all this before Ben Walker finds he still has forty-five minutes of good material for a thirty-minute show. Rip, snip and clip. The only saving grace to all this artistic pain and heartache will be if the final programme sings as we hope it will - and makes you laugh.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Back to George's roots

Outside George Stephenson's birthplace, Wylam, Northumberland
Today I went back to George Stephenson's birthplace in Wylam, Northumberland at the invitation of the News Post Leader for a photograph to illustrate their feature on Mr Stephenson's Regret. It was my first return since researching for the book, and I felt a pleasing sense of oneness with the place, even though we couldn't go inside today as the National Trust don't open the cottage until the supposedly warmer days of March.

Don't imagine the Stephensons had all that cottage space behind me to live in. In fact the entire family, Old Bob and Mabel with what were eventually six children, lived in the one tiny room located where you can see the shutter just above my left shoulder. There was only one bed, with some of the children sleeping in a shakedown underneath. I can tell, you it's a very modest space indeed. This picture is taken from the likely position of the bed in the room.

Inside the Stephenson cottage
This eighteenth century cottage (George was born in 1781) has been beautifully preserved, and the fact there is no vehicular access for half a mile along the track where it is located means that you get a real sense of how it must have been over 200 years ago. The track follows the route of the wagon way that used to roll past the house: wagons drawn by horses in those days of course, not the working steam engines introduced around 1815 by George.

Artist's impression
George Stephenson's birthplace is by no means the only destination for visitors on the trail of the Stephensons in the North East. In the period covered by much of my novel, George and Robert lived in West Moor, Killingworth, in what became known as Dial Cottage because of the sundial father and son built above the doorway, and is there yet.

Dial Cottage
Robert's mother Fanny died in that cottage, as did his baby sister. Robert was subsequently brought up there by his Aunt Nelly, and it was only much later that George married again, to his long-time sweetheart Betty Hindmarsh. Again, don't imagine this cottage was then as big as it is now. Though George eventually extended it to four rooms as his position with the collieries improved, in the early years the cottage comprised one room and a garret reached by a ladder.  On the track near to the cottage George worked on his first locomotive Blucher while in the fields the boy Robert tried to emulate Benjamin Franklin's famous kite experiment and almost got himself struck down by lightning.

Dial Cottage is now on a major road called the Great Lime Road, but was once part of the much more romantic-sounding Paradise Row. I think it's a shame that North Tyneside Council have not preserved and furnished the interior of this cottage as the National Trust have George's birthplace, especially as Dial Cottage has the greater claim to importance in the Stephenson history, but there is a plaque, the sundial, and you can peer through the windows into the bare interior - though the last time I did I noticed an empty bottle of cheap sherry, evidence I guess of recent habitation by a down-and-out.

To be fair to North Tyneside Council they are involved, along with Tyne & Wear Museums with the Stephenson Railway Museum in nearby North Shields, which is home to an early Stephenson locomotive Billy. Having just checked the website I note that today is the start of a Half Term Family Festival which is running for the next month, so now's the time to take the kids - there's a train ride to look forward to.

Travel from North Tyneside to nearby Newcastle and you will find plenty of interesting Stephenson stuff, mainly in the vicinity of Newcastle Central Station. In Forth Street behind the station is the building that housed Robert Stephenson and Company, where Locomotion No.1 and The Rocket were built. Until recently, at certain times you could go inside the building and see part of the works restored by the Robert Stephenson Trust, and an excellent display. Unfortunately, private developers have now kicked the Trust out of the building, despite efforts at a reprieve. Ironically, the developers are labelling their commercial opportunity 'The Stephenson Quarter'.

Not far from the front of the Central Station is the Newcastle Assembly Rooms, now an entertainment and function venue, which was the original home of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society where Robert studied in the library and George demonstrated his miner's safety lamp several months before Sir Humphry Davy came up with his own 'invention'. A few steps across the road is the existing Lit & Phil Building, opened in 1825 and still housing the largest independent library outside London. The adult Robert saved the Lit & Phil from debt, became its President, and left a legacy. Next door is the Mining Institute where I researched parts of the Stephenson story from original documents and records. Right outside the door is a statue of George himself, dressed somewhat incongruously in classical robes.

Stephenson monument in Westgate Road, Newcastle
There are so many other places you can visit. There's Newburn Church (not always open), where George wed first Fanny Henderson, and later Betty Hindmarsh. There's 5 Greenfield Place (now a private home), where Robert and his new wife (also called Fanny) set up home in Newcastle. Later you should visit Darlington, home of the first public railway, and specifically Darlington  Railway Museum, which holds George's Locomotion No. 1, built for the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line. If you are travelling north, take in the fabulous Royal Border Bridge at Berwick, built by Robert to complete the railway from London to Scotland and thus fulfil his father's great dream; also Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington where the Newburn marriage registers are kept. But on no account should you leave Newcastle without walking along the High Level Bridge at road level, or perhaps better still wandering down to the Quayside to appreciate this fine piece of Robert Stephenson industrial architecture in all its glory, and see it in context with the other great bridges that span the River Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead. Is there a finer sight in England? See the pictures below, and my Writer in the North masthead.

Newcastle High Level Bridge, with the Swing Bridge in the foreground
Tyne Bridge in foreground, Swing, High Level and railway bridges behind
Newcastle bridges at night