Close-Up: Making the move from creative to TV comedy writer

There's many an adman who thinks he's funny, but how do you go about becoming advertising's answer to Larry David? John Tylee finds out.

So you're an adman with a TV sitcom idea buzzing around your brain and a burning desire to emulate Peter Souter, the creator of the comedy drama series Married, Single, Other, which has just made its debut in an ITV primetime slot.

There are a few things you'll need before you set out, assuming you've got a talent for comedy writing and an idea that can pass muster.

Your checklist should initially include the usual attributes for a creative: the patience of a saint, because it may take a couple of years even for good scripts to go into production; the hide of a rhino, to withstand the rigorous process that can see scripts being edited to within an inch of their lives; and the ability to deal with what may be less-than-flattering reviews.

However, if you're an adland creative, none of these should be a problem, Dave Waters, the former DFGW founding partner who has sold the rights of his sitcom, Non-Celebrity Chef, to the BBC, says. "You also have to be, quite possibly, stupid."

Fortunately, none of this deterred Souter, the former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO executive creative director, whose first stab at TV writing pulled in an audience of 6.5 million - 1.5 million more than the target.

Souter's achievement is considerable given that the odds against a script ever getting made are very long. Hardly surprising when major production companies will be offered up to 20 a month to inspect, even though none accept material submitted speculatively.

Hence the importance of finding a good agent. Waters got lucky by sending his script directly to Jon Plowman, the BBC's head of comedy, who was sufficiently impressed to give him a call.

This, though, is rare. Production companies meet regularly with leading agents who keep them abreast of the latest writing talent. A good agent will also sort out the contract. "My advice is not to take any money for your show until you know it's going to be made," Souter, whose agent negotiated for him to become one of three executive producers, says. "If you do, you risk losing a lot of control and the chance of a much better deal."

So how do you get your idea to stand out from the competition? "I want to read something that makes me laugh with characters that are funny and believable," Mario Stylianides, the head of comedy at Hat Trick Productions, says. "But also, with things so difficult at present, it needs to be a script I think will appeal to one of the channels."

And it might not be a good idea to do another adland satire. "The broadcasters are telling us they've been getting so many comedy scripts about the ad industry that they just don't want to see any more," Stylianides adds.

The form in which an idea is submitted will be key to the selling of it. While production companies won't expect to see a fully scripted series, they'll want something a bit more substantial than a synopsis because you can't make them funny.

And even when the ink is dry on the contract, a writer will have to be prepared for some savage editing. Waters has done around 27 rewrites on Non-Celebrity Chef, although he says a number were at his own instigation because he was unhappy with what he'd penned.

But Jonathan Thake, the former HHCL and TBWA\London creative whose advertising-themed sitcom, The Persuasionists, has been running on BBC Two, says it's nothing compared with what he had to put up with in his former day job.

"An advertising client once told me: 'I hate this script and I hate you.' If you're from advertising, you won't believe how polite TV script editors are."

Nevertheless, adlanders with a contract under their belts seem to ride on an adrenalin rush. "Disciplining myself to write wasn't a problem," Waters recalls. "In fact, the reverse was true. I had to discipline myself not to do too much."

Sadly, all the time and effort may not prevent poor reviews. This can be a bruising experience from which even Souter hasn't been spared. "You can be fairly sure that the writer has spent too long studying the life and works of Richard Curtis - either that or browsing in Clinton Cards," The Guardian said.

All that, though, pales into insignificance against the acid hurled at The Persuasionists. "So imbecilic, you had to see it to believe it," the Daily Mirror said.

Thake is philosophical about it. "Tell yourself that lots of geniuses were ridiculed in their lifetime," he advises. "Try not to remember that lots of morons were also ridiculed in their lifetime."

All of this makes you wonder why any agency creative, having faced the equivalent of a public hanging once for the sake of TV fame, would ever want to do it again.

But they do because the fear of failure should never be an impediment to a creative mind, even if you do have to take it all with a pinch of salt. Thake is currently developing a new comedy but admits: "I feel a sense of impending shambles."

DAVE WATERS

It's two years since Dave Waters had the idea of a satire based on the cult of the celebrity chef and featuring a cook in an Essex restaurant who yearns for culinary fame and fortune but gets thwarted at every turn.

Phil Jupitus has agreed to star, the BBC has bought the rights, Waters has written three of the first ten episodes of Non-Celebrity Chef and the first script read-through has taken place.

But because production costs are likely to be high, the BBC has still not given the green light. And Waters could yet find himself having to hawk the script elsewhere.

It's not an appealing prospect. "I don't think TV companies are very keen to buy scripts off ad people," he says. "They think they already have lots of good writers of their own."

JONATHAN THAKE

Jonathan Thake's The Persuasionists didn't manage to convince enough people that it was worth watching to stop BBC Two switching it to a graveyard slot just three episodes into its run.

Starring a group of agency creatives, the series attracted a torrent of vituperation. "This isn't so much Mad Men as Pathetic Men," a critic wrote.

However, some programme-makers believe Thake has been unfairly treated, pointing out the series suffered because it was studio-based with a live audience. "People just don't watch comedy that way any more," one says.

Thake, though, isn't deterred. "Most of my friends have plans to 'show everyone'. My plan is to write comedy."

PETER SOUTER

"They used to call me the poor man's David Abbott," Peter Souter declares. "Well, now they can call me the poor man's Richard Curtis." Certainly, it's hard not to spot the Curtis influence in Married, Single, Other, the new six-part ITV comedy drama exploring the lives of three couples.

And it will come as no surprise to learn that Souter and Curtis share the same agent. "It's just like getting started in advertising when you try bringing your work to the attention of the people you admire most," he explains.

He's currently scripting a second series and working on another project at the BBC.

"I wish I'd done this ten years ago," he says. "But it's all about having the confidence."

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