Part I: Bottom Line on Above the Title

Posted by Diane Messias
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

A huge shoutout and welcome to all our new members from the UK.  Great to have you in the community!

In your honor, today’s guest blog comes to us from across the pond.

Diane Messias lives in London and is a former BBC Comedy Producer/Director (One Foot In The Grave, The News Quiz). Also with extensive experience in theatre, Diane has worked as a freelance comedy writer for the past 20 years, and teaches comedy writing and standup at Secret of Comedy

She is available for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and George Clooney's cell number.

Prepare to laugh.

Enjoy!

RB

So you arrive on Planet Earth, take a look around, think about what you want to be when you grow up. Jewish, huh? OK, we have the legal profession or playing the violin. Hmm. Well, since I had a grudge against my mother, I chose the violin. (And no, she isn't deaf, she just forgot to remove the earplugs).

Music college, subsequent engagement as music director for a satirical stage show. Starts to write material and becomes the show's script editor. Directs several productions, including two sell-out, publicity-attracting runs at the Edinburgh Festival, offered job with BBC Comedy as a producer/director. Five years on staff, a couple of decades freelancing. Wakes up in middle of the night with brilliant idea for a banner proclaiming: “You don't have to be mad to work here, but we are”. Starts to quite like grey hair.

Life as a producer/director? Maddening. Demanding. Frustrating. Exhausting. Exasperating. Head-Banging. Incessant. (Hang on, aren't they the Seven Dwarves from my last pantomime script?) But, like childbirth (though far more painful), we do it again and again. Why?
Good question. I'm glad I asked it.

Erm...

...Oh yes, I know this one! It's because we're feisty and bolshy (sure there weren't nine Dwarves?), passionate about pulling a perfect rabbit out of an ill-fitting hat for a deadline of yesterday. With never enough money. We're workaholic problem-solvers, bit-in-teeth determined wizards, lip-smacking, nit-picking, indomitable big-picture seers. (Gosh, quite thirsty after all that).

You don't get very far if you can't grasp problems, or make difficult decisions, often on the spot. Or if you're scared of upsetting people, or unable to keep everyone on their toes and inspire them to give their best work to your all-too-narrow time frame. And you must be able to communicate effectively, if only to say “No!” and “Do it better!”

The truth is, you have no idea what's going to land on you on any given day, and as the saying goes, 'We make plans, God laughs'. (I have that on good authority. Check out the surname, why don't you).

Unlike being an accountant, you don't have to sit at a desk all day and wear suits where the trousers are too short. (What do accountants wear now that anoraks are fashionable?) Nor do you have to spend years studying a subject where you automatically pass the final exams if you've managed to stay awake for 10% of the course. Anyone can be a producer or director, and most professionals have interesting tales of how life conspired to lead them there.

However you've entered the profession, there's a surprise every day. (And sometimes the surprise is you're still working). Just what's in store for you as a decision-making creative? Here, in easy-to-bin sections, is my lowdown on what to expect, whether or not you're expecting it. Don't say I didn't warn you. (I told you not to say it!)

Here comes the science bit.

DEAD END JOB

The first thing you need to grasp when you embark on a career directing or producing is always work with children and animals, never actors. Oh, sorry, wrong piece...should read: everything that goes wrong is your fault, everything brilliant is down to somebody else. The bottom line is that you are the bottom line. (This is why I'm such a fan of invisible panty line underwear. Professional purposes, obviously, therefore tax deductible. Though not entirely sure what Steven Spielberg files them under).

If your PA distributes the script with 87 pages of page 87 (that's what it means, right?) and 0 pages of pages 1 – 86 and 88 – 119, even after 20 years experience (me? Bitter?) - it's your fault. Meanwhile, when your lead actor wins an award for his compelling portrayal of a compelling doctor (every show should have one...oh hang on, every show does have one), mostly based on his fluent pronunciation of the word 'plethysmograph' - which is entirely down to you having worked with him for 72 hours straight acquainting him with the syllables on an individual basis - it's totally due to his brilliance in the role. Get used to it, buck stopper.

REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE

You'll come across a lot of successful people in the industry wiping away a tear as they acknowledge their humble beginnings, trembling as they recall how they got to where they are now thanks to the support of their one-legged mother, their plastic surgeon, the casting couch of their former agent...but that's the Oscars for you. All fine and good, yet it's today (Wednesday, or possibly Tuesday if you're reading this in the US) that matters.

I once directed a stage actor of the female variety (you have to be so careful with the PC thing these days) who, strange to relate, enjoyed being at the centre of attention. To the extent that in rehearsal, when it was the other actors' turn to say their lines, she took off her top to reveal a mouse drawn onto one of her breasts, with whom she proceeded to perform a double-act. (The mouse turned out to be quite talented. That's all I'm saying). A couple of comments having failed to bring a halt to this highly-unprofessional behaviour, I lost my temper and told her in no uncertain terms that if she continued to make a tit of herself (sorry), I would re-cast her part. This seemed to rattle her, and she stormed off stage shouting: “I don't know who you think you are, Diane!” To which I replied: “I think I'm the director, Bimbo!”*
And do you know, I was right.
*Not her real name
Always remember what you're there for. (Yummy, these bacon sandwiches are delicious).

MAGNIFICENT OMNISCIENCE

We are (mostly) only human. (Look, I can't help my surname, just get over it.) But when you're brought into a project as a producer or director, there's nothing you don't know, OK?

I made a radio series for the BBC with a very well known English actor as one of the leads. He was (still is) extremely charming, and at my behest the cast and I met in a plush hotel opposite Broadcasting House to enjoy some pre-production luvvie bonding. The Actor insisted on ordering champagne – which he also insisted on paying for – and across the bubbles we discussed absolutely every single aspect of his character; from background to foreground, via Glasgow Central and Effingham Junction on the 4.56. (Delayed by an hour and a half, wouldn't you know it). By the end of the process I was exhausted; this is not the typical way actors behave when booked for a (rather poorly paid) radio job involving not much more than reading from a script in front of a mic, even with a live audience present, and especially when there's ample time for as many retakes as necessary. But I left our meeting safe in the knowledge that John Gielgud couldn't have put more effort into working on what was to become his definitive portrayal of Hamlet. (To be a rrradio actooor, or not to be a rrradio actooor, that is the question...)

Quite late in the evening the day before the recording, my phone rang. I answered it to find The Actor on the other end of the line. “Diane”, he breathed silkily, “Just to confirm I'll be at the recording studios in good time tomorrow. Also to ask something I forgot the other night [THERE WAS NOTHING YOU FORGOT TO ASK THE OTHER NIGHT, APART FROM THE CHARACTER'S SHOE SIZE!!! I didn't say]...what do you want me to wear?”

Dear reader, (Charlotte Bronte also had this problem with her characters), let me reassure you that not a lot of actor was hurt in this story. And, in answer to his question, I advised something monochrome, since BBC radio was still in its black and white infancy.

MY WHOLE LIFE'S A JOKE
I've spent much of my career - in theatre, in print and at the BBC - involved with political satire. (Aren't politicians – both those in and out of jail – funny? Thanks for your contribution to my income, guys!) A show I produced and directed for many series at the BBC, and contributed to as a writer, was the well-known weekly satirical round up of the news on Radio 4, Week Ending.

Obviously, topical shows have an extremely short lead time. The programme's first airing was late Friday evening, so pre-production would start on Wednesday with two writers' meetings. One was for non-commissioned writers, which meant any member of the public who wanted to submit a script for potential selection could attend, the other was for commissioned writers. Commissioned writers earned their title by having had material on the show regularly. They were awarded anything from a minute to three minutes commission a week, meaning even if none of their scripts was chosen for a particular show, they would still get paid for the number of minutes of their commission. They might be commissioned as a lone writer, or with a writing partner or partners; this depended on how they usually wrote.

(In the US there is a tradition of shows being written by teams; the script for Week Ending was comprised of sketches penned by writers on an individual basis.)

Both meetings followed the same format: the producer runs down a list of stories she wants covered, with subsequent discussion of potential angles and off-the-cuff jokes from all and sundry (some so terrible, I nearly put them in the show), but in the commissioned writers meeting particular stories were assigned to a specific writer or partnership.

POINT OF INTEREST (Knew we'd get to it sooner or later!): The writers' room was at the end of what was known as the Comedy Corridor. Harry, one of the producers, kept a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig as a pet, who he was fond of bringing into the department on Bring Your Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig To Work Day. (Security did try to stop the pig from entering the building, but Harry merely whipped out from his pocket a copy of BBC Rules and Regulations, and pointed to the part which stated that dogs were not allowed onto the premises. “Show me the part where it says pigs are prohibited”, he demanded. Which of course, security never managed to locate. Thus I, too, avoided chastisement on the days I took in my giraffe.)

Meanwhile, back at the pig, it was uncanny how the thing used to ride up in the elevator and then run the entire length of the corridor straight into the writers' room.
(Just saying).

The following day and a half following the meetings was a frenzy of hopeful writers lumbering into your office to waft scripts under your nose, hovering over you while you endeavoured to find anything of value in it.

PROFESSIONAL TIP: Always try to say something nice about a script, especially if you happen to be 5'2” and the writer 6'4”. (Experience is a cruel thing). If the jokes are truly awful, the traditional response is: “Oo, what a lovely font!” [Wasn't that a film?] Writer emerges from producer's room happy in his choice of Hamerslag Retro, ego polished and intact for another day.

Thursday night consisted of final script editing, then putting together the running order – not a quick job - along with making separate lists of FX and music/stings ready for the studio managers the next day. Taxi home. Glass of wine. (Hic!) Three hours sleep.

In the studio the next morning by 8.30am. We used to record at the now defunct Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street in London, place of origination of many famous BBC shows including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. An hour and a half on FX with the crew before the cast arrived (who were booked from 10.00am until 3.00pm, but who became ansty if they couldn't get away soon after 1.00pm. (Can I cope under extreme pressure??? Wowufnegd dhrjdne xxysjsnbfosd should answer that question well enough. <DRIBBLES>)

PROFESSIONAL P.G. TIPS: The Paris Studio had a tiny cupboard known as the Tea Bar. A lovely Polish woman was ensconced in it, and it was her responsibility to provide cast and crew with beverages and simple hot snacks for the duration of the recording. One day I ordered my usual breakfast of tea and toast. She looked downcast and told me she was sorry, but she couldn't make me toast that day. Has the toaster blown up? I asked. No, she replied, as she reached for a piece of paper. It was a memo prohibiting the use of said toaster with immediate effect, until she'd attended a training course to be schooled on how to put a piece of bread into a toaster and take it out again once it had popped up.

Say what you like about the BBC (and I do, believe me), but they're nothing if not complete idiots, er, thorough.

And so the recording would finish two hours early, only interrupted by the odd rumble of Underground trains, workmen's drills, and having to rewrite almost an entire show in the process of recording it during the First Iraq War, when it was suddenly discovered that the Scud missile launchers being targeted so assiduously by the Allies were in fact made of cardboard. (Some evil dictators just have no respect for comedy producers. Tsk). To add to the mayhem, that episode happened to coincide with a news crew filming the recording process for a segment for Channel 4, since we were the only satirical show to be airing during the war anywhere in the country.


The cast would depart, the tape edited to time in the studio, a taxi taken back to the office, and the requisite playback er, played back. Programme delivered for transmission, journey home in time to listen to it go out on air, whilst pulling any remaining hair out. (See how useful multi-tasking is?)

Remember what I said about never working with actors? My very first time on the show I was introduced to the regular cast of three (plus one guest performer), only to be given the most horrendous time in every sketch by the most experienced regular cast member present. He was argumentative, belligerent, questioning everything I said and his characters' motivation (if he'd have thought about it, he might have worked out not being strangled by the producer would suffice) – I'd worked with difficult cast members before, but this was something else. At the end of the recording he asked me what I was doing that evening. “Getting outrageously drunk”, I told him. “Well,” he said, “you deserve it. I was testing you, but you passed with flying colours”.

There were also times of absolute brilliance, such as Jeffrey Holland (Spike in Hi-de-Hi) impersonating Gielgud in a pastiche of This Sceptered Isle from Richard II, under which we ran Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations; the writing was inspired (not my sketch, sad to relate), the acting awe-inspiring, and the pacing of the music with the text impeccable. Tears and eyes, ladies and gentlemen.

Comedy's a serious business, you know.


COMING NEXT TIME ON THE SAME BAT BLOG: I'll laugh, I'll cry, I'll consider taking up the violin again (anything for a laugh).

Part II of Diane’s blog will run tomorrow. Can’t wait? More of Diane’s wit and wisdom can be read and explored here.

And remember, Diane is available for remarks and questions in the Comments section below!

 
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