A N.Irish comedy writer walks into a Media Festival.

A fellow writer asked me last year, what’s all this got to do with me? We’d sat through talk after talk of production companies, the same each of BMF’s seven years. I was the least bit suspicious.

The keynote this year was from Wayne Garvie. It was inspiring. Wayne spoke about the quality of ‘reality tv’ against scripted material. Praising scripts, he warned scripted quality was eonomically un-sustainable. In this, an opportunity for new voices, who might take advantage of the lessons of low-budget shows (and film), produced outside the institutional framework. He said we should be brass-necked about who to pitch to, we should target the big guys, for whom one commission would keep our wheels turning. Northern Ireland’s remoteness was a disadvantage, for here we could work outside the London bubble.

Wayne’s optimism empowered the room. In the Q&A Wayne admitted bringing our own people in, was a necessity for keeping vision and feasibility intact. I’m all for jobs for mates, but don’t the BBC have full-time staff, best trained in production?

‘Why is no comedy from Northern Ireland commissioned? Are we just not funny?’

That was the subtitle of an afternoon panel. I’d already been to it, in a dream, earlier that week. I woke myself up asking questions.

For years, NI TV Comedy productions have come from the Hole in the Wall Gang (HITWG), with quality sinking deeper since their debut twenty years ago. Think below-par Father Ted, Mrs. Brown’s Boys… “parochial”, remarked someone in the audience. That’s all that has been commissioned. The host of this panel was to be Tim McGarry, front-man for the HITWG; brave choice for a panel.

On the stage were comedy commissioners from the BBC, Channel 4 and RTE, with two folk from the Belfast Comedy Writers Group (BCWG). The BBC’s Chris Sussman I’m not sure I liked, but certainly respected his frankness, suggested no new NI comedy was produced, because nothing he’d come across was quite good enough. He’d looked. Claire Childs, co-founder of the BCWG protested, saying she’d sent him several works from different people and had heard they hadn’t been looked at. (One aspect of the BCWG is to share scripts, read them aloud in front of a large group, and provide feedback in criticism and praise) Just as the host put a pass on this, a voice interrupted from the second row.

“I have two million followers for my comedy channel on Youtube, two million on Facebook and Twitter, how come my work is being ignored? You have an audience for this stuff, yet you just look over it.”

The rant continued, despite calls to shut up, and the request of a commissioner two rows front to meet him after. Now, we’ve all heard this. BCWG members had, with a similar rant/no listen at a prior meet. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. It was conceivable, just maybe, this bloke was a member of Loyalists Against Democracy, the online comedy outlet that enjoyed global acclaim in 2012, re-branding fundamentalist’s FLEG. Maybe this guy was one of the anonymous members of LAD, the comedy circle which brought joy and amusement to people trapped behind the lines while riots erupted over Belfast? My business was ruined that year, a number of friends were terrorised during hijackings and blockades, and I wouldn’t have to look too far to find others in the same place. Point being, comedy has a business in Northern Ireland. It’s Maslow’s sixth need. It keeps us company, gives us the strength to go on. We’re now in a bullshit war on Syria. Trawling through Casetteboy’s archives doesn’t stop the massacre or the reprisals, but the escape into poking fun at tyrants serves to compassionately hold our hand and readjust our brain as we travel further down the rabbit hole.

 NI comedy has to be given populist voice. LAD surely have racked up those two million hits. Shouldn’t commissioners be going to them? As the man asked, “why jump through hoops to get noticed if you already have a strong following?” Anyone who has commissioned work knows there are less hoops if you have that power.

Tim McGarry’s hosting style, when faced with such fireworks, was to use his eejit-Irish affectation to move quickly on. I empathise. However for all the palaver, there was a sense Tim was the elephant in the corner. Tim’s been employed as a writer/actor for ten or so years at the Beeb, and as a producer on one of his series for the Beeb. Last year’s Number 2s, was a Hole In The Wall Gang (HITWG) sitcom for TV, from radio. A below sub-par Thick Of It based at Stormont, Number 2s was wholly panned by non-critics too. According to one source, HITWG recur in debate at Belfast Comedy group-meets: have they monopolised BBC in-roads? Are they bringing down standards we can recover from? Do HITWG project a notion that the North-irish are just not funny? The same people asking, respect McGarry for his decades of plugging away, which is why no-one got volatile with him in the same way the commissioners got it.

The BBC Comedy commissioner expanded on the production company theme. Paraphrasing, writers are not likely to be commissioned by the BBC without having gone through a company, without having a group around them. I am unsure if that’s true. There was a call-out (in January?) from the BBC Writers Room, for new Northern Irish sitcom scripts. I put up an innovative, amusing piece with legs on. I read scripts by colleagues that were very good. The short-lists were announced hush-hush.

In the pub the evening of Day 1 of the festival, I was told the result of that call-out was the commissioning of Number 2s. It’s not the first time open call outs for fresh work has brought in ‘the gang’. Selecting industry veterans as new voices defeats the purpose surely? Certainly there’s enough history for the BBC to see HITWG as a safe choice, but the writers who took months preparing for the BBC’s call out have bills to pay, families to look after and time they cannot waste.

CLARIFICATION:
The BBC Craic Off challenge finalist for this year was Jeff Hare, link to his blogging about the  experience on the BBC website.

For the most part, writing is a solitary desk job. I would like the luxury to form networks of lighting and sound-men, actors and stage-hands, but it’s not convenient. The third row ranter ended his spiel with, “Do you know why I get ignored by the commissioners? Because I use the word ‘cunt’”. A laughable response we think, but what gets commissioned relates to the language you use. Number 2s (like all of HITWG output), fights Stormont’s parliament of pantomime with pantomime, a limp-wristed fey giving in to the schoolyard bully with drag-dress and a silly dance. Whether Northern Ireland on the box speaks of our own exclusive divides, or just as any-place (you could be here), it’s time we were treated to something more than he’s-behind-you.

The Belfast Comedy Writers captured the panel on video. Worth a watch before the shit all stinks.

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