A nervous producer’s guide to working with new talent

By Rebecca Papworth

Working with new comedy talent is a high risk venture as a television producer. The chances of finding astonishing gut-wrenchingly funny talent ahead of any other producer trolling the comedy superhighway is slim, Jim.  

So a Free Fringe show in The Rush Bar in Edinburgh 2011 is not the obvious starting point of a commission. Hats off to Up The Creek Comedy Club’s new talent tsar, Pollyanna McGirr, who dragged me to see Inel Tomlinson and Johnny Cochrane - sharing a slot to save on costs.

Two very different acts, with very different styles. Johnny; all good looking swagger and cheeky charm and Inel; high-energy observations with jaw dropping physicality.  Did I mention they're both black? Well Johnny is mixed race, but the risk in terms of development had increased about 100 per cent. 

It doesn't take Charlie Brooker's laser vision to conclude that British comedy hasn't over-burdened itself with the need to represent the black working class experience.

But Fresh Prince of Bel Air has always been a favourite sitcom and Laurel and Hardy make me cry with joy, so that night in a rain-sodden Pleasance Courtyard, I asked Johnny and Inel if they'd ever considered becoming a double act. My theory – that getting one black guy on TV is hard enough, but two might be like dazzle camouflage – struck a chord. No one could think of another British black comedy double act that had made it to TV, so merry on ginger beer, we agreed to meet up post-festival and talk further.

Taking the decision to develop new talent forces the producer on an internal journey the equivalent of John the Baptist’s 40 nights in the desert, to subsume the inner critic and persuade themselves that yes, their instincts are king and they have found the next best thing since Miranda.

Fortunately it wasn't just the giddy Edinburgh atmosphere that made a Johnny and Inel double act feel like it might have legs. One meeting became two, three and four, and gradually we laughed, argued and chewed over the loose script of a taster.

Johnny and Inel are warm, accessible and both ex teachers - we were out to make something with broad appeal, without sacrificing authenticity, cool but inclusive. It became obvious to me that CBBC, generating comedy heat with Horrible Histories, might be a good home for the guys. 

So small candles were lit and sometimes prayers are answered in the guise of the Brave Talented Commissioner, someone who despite the rush of ideas garble and the ‘what it could be’ logic, catches a sentient glimpse of what the producer is offering and realises there's something worth developing. Hearing back from commissioner, Melissa Hardinge, that the controller and channel team laughed a lot at the taster, was the equivalent of a Jaeger cluster bomb for an Earl Grey-drinking producer. 

Shortcut many months of development hell when, unexpectedly, like a Christmas card in January, an email drops into the inbox from the outgoing controller saying the series is green-lit. Good Luck.  A thrill not felt since Glastonbury 2009, waves of goodwill and the chink of champagne glasses. Talent on full beam, Joy to the world. Just thirteen half hours of comedy sketch show to be made with brand new talent in less than six months. Gulp. Black tea, check please.

Working with new comedy talent can feel like flying an aeroplane blindfold into a cloud. It's sensible to expect the worst, but sometimes it’s a risk worth taking.

  • Rebecca Papworth develops comedy at Princess Productions and is series producer of The Johnny & Inel Show, which airs at 5.15pm on Tuesdays on CBBC.

Published: 22 Jan 2013

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