WriterSlam Tips from Pete Thornton

To help all of you entering WriterSlam, we asked Pete Thornton, Head of Comedy for Tiger Aspect, to give you some insider knowledge on what he’s looking for from WriterSlam entries…

Why did you decide to get involved with WriterSlam?

I’ve been aware of TriForce and the work they do for many years. When they approached me about WriterSlam it struck me as a very clear, simple and hopefully effective initiative. It’s relatively easy to position yourselves as promoters of diverse talent, but some schemes struggle to then really connect with the industry through overly complicated or slightly muddy proposals. WriterSlam immediately struck me as a properly thought through idea from people who know how the industry works, warts and all, and have the skills and drive to change the elements that need changing and make a real, concrete difference.

Why is finding diverse voices important to you and Tiger Aspect?

Quite simply, if the programming coming out of the TV industry isn’t properly reflecting the make up of it’s audience then it’s missing it’s main purpose and flirting with becoming irrelevant. We are here to hopefully delight and surprise audiences, but also to serve them. If there are whole segments of the country who look through the programme guide and feel that there’s nothing there tailor-made for them, then obviously we aren’t doing our job. We’ve tried making programming for diverse audiences in the past without using diverse writers, and those projects have more often than not proven (perhaps unsurprisingly) to be catastrophic failures. When predominantly middle class, middle aged, white TV producers and execs try to second guess what young, urban, diverse, working class viewers want, then obviously you’re asking for trouble. This is why we so clearly need the route and branch overhaul of the industry that’s finally gathering momentum.

It’s not that TV producers have read fantastic diverse scripts and deliberately turned their back on them, that would be insane – everyone loves a great piece of writing no matter where it comes from. Likewise no-one would intentionally suppress the career of a promising BAME producer or director, TV isn’t an institutionally racist industry – we don’t stop and search young black people in corridors looking for concealed stationary – but the issue is that there just aren’t enough people from diverse backgrounds who feel they’re qualified, or suitable, or just plain welcome to try a career in telly, and that’s completely unacceptable.

The situation in terms of crews and talent behind the camera is being looked at through other initiatives now up and running with most of the major broadcasters. What I’m interested in is in getting a message out to anyone from a diverse background who ever thought of writing for comedy that the door is very much open – yes especially at Tiger, but I’m sure also at other Indies across the country.

Writing for comedy is not easy, and of course not everyone will succeed, but it’s our job, working alongside the team at Triforce to spot talent and give it the assistance, training and encouragement that it needs to grow and flourish.

A development commission is an amazing prize! What can the winner expect to happen?

We always pay proper fees to writers if they’re undertaking significant development work with us so the first thing we would do is to commission a treatment from the winning writer. This may seem like a retrograde step if a segment of script already exists, but a well written, clear, precise and hopefully entertaining document setting out the main building blocks of the show really helps to make sure everyone is on the same page. Primarily this should be about character – as all comedy comes from great characters – why they’re funny individually, why they’re funny in different combinations, what their ambitions are, what their general attitudes to life are and so on. Whilst there are other elements to a treatment (premise/setting/episode outlines/sample dialogue etc.), great character descriptions featuring clearly interesting, fun and original people are the most important pieces in the jigsaw, unlike drama, which is much more about compelling story. I only mention this in detail here as actually it’s really worth anyone thinking of submitting work to this initiative to spend proper time thinking about their characters before they put pen to paper.

Whilst we’re working together on this selling document we’ll be thinking about the best possible home for the idea from the various broadcast platforms on offer. Normally one or two obvious channels emerge and we’ll work with the writer to shape the treatment, and re-write the script sample s/he originally came up with until it feels properly bespoke for them. We’ll also help with preparation for any meetings that might be required. If the idea appeals to the broadcaster in question then they’ll have a chance to input creatively themselves at this stage and then if we’re all happy they’ll commission a script. The team at Tiger will remain on hand to help wherever we can in terms of script editing and general advice for as long as it takes. We’ve obviously been through the process before so hopefully can offer proper, intelligent support as we appreciate how hard it is to put pen to paper, let alone to do so to some sort of timetable and incorporating notes and suggestions from others involved in the creative process. Lots of support and encouragement will be provided.

Do you have any tips about what sort of projects you’re looking for?

Ones with brilliant jokes would be nice! It’s not easy to write great storylines featuring both believable dialogue and fantastic jokes, but this is (unfortunately) the job in hand. Often it’s the jokes that fall by the wayside. The old maxim of ‘write what you know’ holds true I think. As I said earlier, focus on character above all else. We get sent a lot of ideas which are largely concerned with the premise of the show. For me the premise is less important, you really just want a believable, understandable and familiar world that will form a great backdrop for lots of stories to play out over (hopefully) many episodes. So, don’t get hung up on highly original settings or unusual situations. Audiences want to spend time with people they can relate to (people like them or friends/relatives that they know) in situations they’ve experienced themselves and feel comfortable with. This is why a lot of successful comedies have quite dull or apparently unexciting situations – a school, an office, a family, a suburb of London. It’s also why shows set in fantastical settings such as space, or post apocalyptic worlds, or the future, are really hard to pull off.

Other than that we don’t want to be too prescriptive on what sorts of projects we’re after. There’s a fashion for quite bright, fast paced, upbeat comedy at the moment, so that’s worth bearing in mind – that and remembering to include the jokes of course.

Will you accept sketch shows?

Yes. Sketch shows have been out of favour for a while but the appetite for them is coming back. That said, not all broadcasters feel this way (C4, for instance, have said that they’re not in the running for one), so bear in mind that if you take one on then you’re narrowing your choices in terms of potential buyers. Also it’s really important to try to give any sketch show a sense of cohesion. Lots of disparate ideas thrown together are not going to make the grade. Sketch shows need themes, or a strong look, or some sort of hook that’s going to make the whole thing feel like a well loved and properly shaped half hour. Think about what elements your sketch show will need to make it feel really fresh and original, in a genre that many people have tried over the years (believing, mistakenly, that it’s easier to write than half hour narrative). Easier said than done!

Good Luck!