Scared scriptless

Hartley Pool's experience of TV comedy commissioning

In the winter of 2003, for no apparent reason, I suddenly decided I was the greatest comic genius ever known to man. I agreed with myself that just because I had only done four gigs, was making myself laugh more than the audience and had lasted a fairly meager 12 seconds at the Comedy Store’s King Gong, there was absolutely no reason not to step it up to the next level and become a household name. The problem was not the material, of course it wasn’t – my jokes were pure gold – it was the audiences. Rubbish audiences… and perhaps a miniscule hint of fractionally off timing in the delivery.

So I set about writing a sitcom script.

The omens were good – I settled into a new job in Cheltenham, taking up residence in the basement flat of a house frequently visited by The New Statesman writer Maurice Gran and his wife. I would sit at the half underground window, bashing away at the keyboard, see him arriving and think: ‘Ha ha ha Maurice, you have no idea – fifteen years from now they’ll be doing me as a Venn Diagram on Comedy Connections, and you’ll be way off the screen, trying to peep through the curtains.’

After cribbing as much as I could from the BBC Writers’ Room and a month of parlaying my semi-fictional experience as one half of a psychic cat nightclub act into a comprehensible thirty-minute script, I became aware that the last third was utter balls. I also became aware that the deadline for submissions to Channel 4’s Comedy Lab was the next day, and decided that chopping off the last ten pages and just sending it in like that was a hell of a lot easier than trying to write ten decent pages in…oh the next hour or so before the last post.

Life went on as normal, and I gradually forgot about my comic genius – especially following a gig in my hometown, where the audience genuinely seemed to think that my depressed, suicidal sad man act was not an act at all and, rather than laughing, sat there wondering whether they should call someone.

It was a complete surprise, then, when the phone call came:

‘Mr Pool? This is Cathy, from Channel 4. It’s about your script.’

‘Oh God,’ I thought, the gig having bereft me of any ego whatsoever. ‘She’s going to tell me off.’

‘Yes – erm, sorry about that.’

‘The Commissioning Editor Iain Morris would like you to come over for a little chat...’

Jesus Christ, it’s so bad he wants to tell me in person? Fuck, he’s going to hit me.

‘…he really likes it.’

And so, after telling everyone I had ever met that I was about to be famous, I booked a day off work, bought a discount National Express ticket and headed for London. For some reason I decided to spend the whole journey listening to Elbow on my portable CD player, and so by the time I arrived my enthusiasm was a little muted. Not to worry, though, I had my script, my amazing comic genius brain and great things were about to happen…

I sat on a sofa in the Channel 4 lobby, wondering about all the famous arses that had ever sat there, and then panicking that I really wasn’t normal to think things like that, then consoling myself that great comic minds probably thought this stuff all the time. Frank Skinner, for example, was always talking about arses.

Cathy arrived, and led me through the barrier and up the stairs, at which point I realized how nervous I was and really, really needed to do a poo.

‘Iain’s ready for you now – just through there.’ She pointed towards an untidy looking office.

‘Is there a toilet?’

‘No.’ She looked confused. ‘It’s his office.’

I clenched slightly just in case and walked into the room. Iain, who was younger and smilier than I had expected stood up to greet me. At which point I noticed he was dressed rather informally, and felt a bit silly that I’d bothered to change shoes just before coming in. What a fool! Genius doesn’t care about footwear!

‘I really liked your script – it’s one of the best I’ve read.’

I tried not to smile too much, lest he think I was being undermodest.

‘Well… you know… I’ve done a bit of comedy - stand up mostly.’

‘Oh yeah - whereabouts?’

We talked a bit about Bath Comedy Cavern, which he knew quite well, and then moved on to more serious matters.

‘So…I do like your script, it was definitely in the top ten.’

‘Yes,’ I said confidently, yeah – top ONE more like!

‘But I’m afraid we won’t be making it.’

‘Great – is it okay if I come and watch?’

‘Watch what?’

‘You…’ and then it hit me, ‘… not making it. Oh.’

‘So what else are you working on at the moment?’

I was still reeling from shock, and about the only thing I knew for sure I was working on was a fairly large turd, if I didn’t get out of there soon.

I looked in my bag, just in case there were any unremembered manifestos of mirth lying around. All I could see where my shoes. I took them out anyway, trying to eke out one last grunt of hope from my about to be missed opportunity.

‘Can I submit these?’

‘No. No, you can’t.’

Published: 16 May 2008

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