Monday, 16 March 2009

New talent, old clips...

I've just spent a few minutes watching some clips from a comedy show we made in 2001. The fact I watched it is thanks to three things:-
  • New technology - Youtube, interweb, broadband streaming...
  • Old technology - a dusty old VHS copy being found and digistised in...
  • Not much to do - both for me to sit and watch it, and for the show's producer who did all the digitising heheh.
A bit of background - this show was made after we pitched a topical cartoon sketch show to our late-night bosses at C4. We made interstitials for them for 2 years and were coming to the end of a run, and pitched this as a new idea: a midnight(ish) topical show that could be repeated several times over the 4 nights the 4Later strand ran, and made for buttons.

They took a risk and said yes, gave us precisely six buttons and off we went. We spent five buttons on writers, getting in political journos like Simon Hoggart to give us insider info on politicians (interesting, but totally unusable as we'd have been thrown in jail if it had been broadcast) and big grand writers' meetings in an odd Docklands pub we called The Eighties (as it was full of chrome, red piping and alarmingly bad music).

Up'n'coming comedians and writers like David Quantick and, er, some other quite famous ones did some bits, we wrote some others, and the C4 lawyers screamed at us for daring to suggest nuclear waste could be dangerous. We then spent one button animating the whole half-hour show.

The only issue we ever had with C4 themselves was the title - they hated every one we came up with, so the working title, Pen Monkeys, was used. This was our pet name for the animators, and we did a very literal translation for titles and stings, with monkeys flying around on plane-sized pens. Oh how inventive.

The viewing experience was mixed - I'd totally forgotten the sequence about national monuments starting a world war when (then brand-new) President George W Bush accidentally pressed the wrong button. It was quite funny, and I can see why we thought it was just what a cartoon could and should do - a bunch of actors in silly hats couldn't - but God it went on a bit.

My producer friend says that when we did this we revelled in the animation being a bit shit, and as the telly didn't have any crap animation on, we were new and shiny and bold. Unlike today, when the internet is crammed full of low-quality 'toons. Hmmm. Not too sure about that myself, I'd have loved the animation to have been better, but we had no time, no money and (frankly) not that much ability to make nice proper cartoonery back then.

A sketch about killing Mrs Thatcher was less successful, but included to please our com.eds. if I remember correctly (ie I'm not making it up on purpose but my brain does have a tendency to do that to me). We shouldn't have been making 'topical' comedy about a PM who'd left office a decade before...

The show did what it needed to do - C4 liked it, commissioned a second one targeted more at their audience (ie less politics, more celebs), and made us stick to one animation style (Pen Monkeys used anything and everything, from 2D, 3D, hand-drawn, B&W, stills, cut outs...)

That second show was well-received, but it mattered not as the late-night original-content risky-business era was ending. The money went elsewhere and our show wasn't commissioned. Shortly afterwards 2DTV hit the air - twenty times our budget, primetime yet looking rather similar - and that was that, the market for 'topical animated comedy' was taken.

Oh well.

Anyhow, the reason for saying all this (eventually, he gets to the point) is that there doesn't seem to be any opportunity to do something as frankly barking mad as ask some blokes in a corridor with no comedy track record to make a topical satirical half-hour tv cartoon sketch show for the price of a Ford Mondeo. You can get lots of money to make comedy if you've got that track record. Or, it seems today, if you're the fat one off of Gavin & Stacey. Ahem.

But the opportunities we were offered don't exist any more. "Oh yes they do", you cry, "on the internets!". Well, yes, ish. With no money instead of tiny amounts of money, so only loners-in-bedrooms, rich people or big established comedians/companies "experimenting" can afford to do anything. Hence the distinct lack of any original comedic material on the web, and huge amount of digitised clips off of the telly.

We didn't quite succeed with either of our two sketch shows, either visually or comedically, but it was great that Big Important Channel 4 gave it a shot. I think with comedy you need to take risks - not necessarily expensive risks but creative ones. "No shit Sherlock", you shout annoyingly, but my view is that it's better to make ten comedy pilots of small amounts of dosh than one episode of, say, Horne & Corden. I'm picking that show out not because it's bad (TURNS TO CAMERA TWO LIKE HARRY HILL DOES OCCASIONALLY, RAISES EYEBROW SARCASTICALLY, TURNS BACK TO CAMERA ONE) but because it costs a lot of buttons.

Oh, and here's a link to the thing we did. Glacially slow, the worst mouth animation in the history of television, but at least there's weirdness and humour there. Somewhere.


Wednesday, 4 March 2009


So tv is in crisis - ITV laying off another 600 staff, Five getting rid of 20% or so of their workforce, the BBC... er, well, the licence fee isn't affected by THE DOWNTURN (as BBC News calls it, complete with naff sinking arrow on a red background)... C4 is being pressganged into merging with either Five, ITV and Five, BBC Worldwide or BT Vision - depending on which website you glance at... 

It's even affecting some of the smaller digital channels. I note The Business Channel went bust on January 1st. Insert your own joke here about why watch their business advice shows when they didn't follow it themselves.

The reason I noticed was I was hungover on New Year's Day, hopping around tv trying to find something OK to watch. Literally no-one else did - it was a small news story in Broadcast magazine in late January. It comes to something when even broadcast professionals don't notice a channel closing.

I think the next digital trend will be getting rid of the smaller +1 channels that cost zilch to produce but must cost a bit to broadcast. The bigger channels now get a fairly reasonable slice of their ratings from +1s but I can't imagine Living 2 +1 does. (Great name there, from the people who brought you Dave, Watch and now Blighty)

Dave counts as a bigger channel, in this kerrrr-azy age, and I suppose their +1 channel is safe now it's called Dave Ja Vu. Ho, and indeed, ho.

The reason I mention all this turmoil is twofold. Firstly, you wouldn't particularly notice things being much worse on air. There are still good sitcoms (Free Agents, Moving Wallpaper), Saturday night shiny floor shows (Saturday Takeaway), comedy (Harry Hill), panel shows (QI), drama (one of C4's rare excursions, Red Riding, starts tomorrow), as well as plenty of great imports airing now (30 Rock with Carrie Fisher! Mad Men back again!). And, in a rare lapse of scheduling, there are hardly any big 'sleb reality vehicles on. I don't include Dancing on Ice because no-one on it is vaguely famous, and how they can pretend it is about skill at skating when dead Mark Fowler off of EastEnders could hardly stand up on the rink never mind skate I don't know...

Just the odd programme here or there seems a bit cheap. ITV1 running police chasey car crashy things at 9pm, where drama used to be. Primetime repeats of shows already broadcast in primetime the same week - I think Harry Hill is on three times a week on ITV1 now. 

It's going to get worse. A lot worse. I'm no fan of Heartbeat and The Royal but that's lots of hours of drama just scrubbed from the schedule. To be replaced with Coronation Street's Most Hilarious Rovers Return Moments With Pip Scofield On A Stool On The Set And Twenty Nine Clips, Including Some In Black And White. Or other such quality items.

Small pockets of hope? Well, Sky 1 getting Stuart Murphy as boss might mean more original stuff on that channel. Original stuff not involving Shane Ritchie singing, or Noel Edmonds haranging councillors that is... I can only hope. And channels like Dave and Blighty slowly moving to originating content here and there - much as I adore QI and Top Gear there's only so many times anyone can watch the same episode, and their supplies of new material are small (15 or so eps of TG a year, 8-12 of QI considering both shows are on 600+ times a year)

Right, I'm off to download an episode of House to watch on my iPhone at the gym later. I'm thoroughly modern, me.