Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Limited ambitions

As I'm STILL without any telly at home, here's something from the past.

Cue the twanging harps and wibbly dissolve...

Picture the scene, Britain, mid-nineties, a typical indie tv production office (cheap furniture and staff in the open plan bits, expensive fittings and execs in the surrounding offices).

I was producing my first show, and we were due to shoot a one-off pilot episode to test the concept. It was a mix of factual items and comedy nonsense, all around a reasonably strong formatted idea, and had a tried-and-tested set of people appearing in it. Well, apart from me, moonlighting as a games reviewer. I was (a) free; (b) had seen the games so could comment; (c) free, and (d) looked stupid in the wig they made me wear so gave everyone else a cheap laugh.

Speaking of cheap, the show had a TINY budget. Weeny. Infinitesimally small (sp?). We filmed it in a disused old benefits office in Poplar, opposite Kwiksave (now it's an Aldi - is that up or down market?) and a canal full of sludge and broken Kwiksave trollies. The only pub nearby (you can tell I haven't changed much) said that we had to sit in the 'saloon bar' as we had a lady with us. Er, she was a lesbian and more macho than anyone else - but I wasn't going to argue with the man-with-three-teeth behind the bar.

Anyhow, the set looked ok and we'd come up with the monitor-point-of-view shot idea that made it just about filmable on the money we had. (Basically, we'd see a wide of a room and the characters enter - we'd then cut to a fixed camera 'within' the big tv in the corner, with a curvy-not-flatscreen-in-them-days effect on it, and use that for the rest of the scene, saving on relighting and moving camera. Most scenes ended with the main character pressing a button on the tv, cutting to footage so it was surprisingly effective)

Anyhow (ii) I'd spent three months honing the show, making sure the comedy stuff was easy to film and not too visual, as we couldn't afford props and redressing the set was a no-no. (Although we did a Dickens Xmas past/present/future thing, and the set looked jolly fine covered in Kwiksave Bargain Tinfoil as the future. The characters remarked on how the future looked quite like the present, just covered in tinfoil. Postmodern an' everything, eh?)

Anyhow (iii), the exec producer liked the scripts, the actors were happy, the content was good, I was cooking on gas, as we'd say in them days.


The boss came in. "I've written the pilot episode", she announced to everyone, "It's much better than your silly scripts". And with that she hurled a script at me.

Er... um... this was wrong on SO many levels. The boss had no sense of humour - she admitted as much. She hated the secondary character, the only really good actor and comedian. The Carry On-style innuendo and postmodernism made her cringe. She could write, and write well, but drama not comedy.

Her script was incredible. It had a robot supermodel in it, loads of outside scenes and a variety of perplexing remarks I think the boss thought were jokes. But weren't.

I went in to see her and said we couldn't film it, it cost too much. She said she'd pay herself for the extra time.


So we did it, as written. Every last scene. The robot supermodel, Candy LaBelle - I can and will never forget the character name - was an American actress hired at huuuuge expense for 3 days (£300!). I say actress, but, bless, she couldn't act. She had lots of complex techie lines to say and it took 30+ takes to get anything useable.The final denouement had her blowing up. We used a blow-up doll for that. Somehow.

Ooof it was awful. I mean really unfunny, illogical and slow. I cut it together, crying into my Sky-issue plastic coffee. I took it to the boss, gave her the VHS and walked out of the room to hide in the disable toilet. Pretending the Sky coffee had given me the shits.

She called me in half an hour later, stony-faced and ashen. I started to try and say that I thought it was a bit wooden, and too long, and-

She stopped me.

She told me it was awful. Shit. Dreadful. To cut it to pieces to rescue it, somehow, as we couldn't reshoot it and had to use it. But drop in new bits, filmed later. Some jokes perhaps. She'd leave us alone from now on, she knew comedy wasn't her thing but she now realised that you can't be overly ambitious on 10p an episode. That our brand of silly jokes, cheap jibes and implausible campery sort of worked, for no logical reason.

I left feeling ten thousand feet high. We made the eps we'd written and they were funny. Damn funny. The show rated really well, everyone in the office thought it was incredible, I was the toast of indie producerville. EP 4 went out - Candy LaBelle - hacked to bits but still not too good. We'd just about rescued it (even if some bits made no sense)

And the boss left me alone, for 12 whole episodes, a record in that office. She promoted me to a new show on a big channel, and most of my team came with me. She then had a hissy fit saying we'd ruined the show for the team taking over, that we'd all got the new show on our minds and forgotten the old one (which was wrong as the episodes that she was watching go out had been made long before we'd been promoted, and were the funniest of the lot)

I end this anecdote brutally as I've a train to catch. I think we've all learnt something there. I don't know what it is, apart from "leave me be please lady", but there you go.


Matt Bearman said...

haha - afraid to say too much? I KNOW who you are! ah-hahaha etc.

I can't remember if I've told you that I read IHAS a couple of years ago, and it's really good - not because I know the author but because it really is really good.

So glad I taught you everything I knew about video production (This is a joke - sometimes I have to announce it). Those three seconds stood you in good stead.

Here's one for you. Have you any idea at all what happened to Dave Johnston? In fact, thinking about it, have you any idea at all who Dave Johnston was?

Anyway, one day we need to have a beer and a reminisce. I still have some painfully bad stuff on VHS - and some of your stuff too, which isn't.


TVSecret said...

Hello Mr... heheheh...

Send us yer email and let's talk some more... and beer and talking about the weird old days is something I enjoy


PS: Dave Johnston rings a bell but my addled brain - even more addled at the mo as starting on a big show - isn't up to the task right now