Tag Archives: Peter Kay

How to write, structure and maintain a TV soap opera like Coronation Street

Many moons ago, I used to work a lot for Granada TV in Manchester, home of Coronation Street which, since its birth in 1960, has been the UK’s regular ratings-topper.

I never worked in the Drama Department at Granada – mostly I was in Promotions with slight forays into Children’s/Light Entertainment.

But I remember having conversations with two Coronation Street producers at different times about the structure of the soap and they both, pretty much, ran it along similar lines.

The first, crucial pillar to build a soap on is a central location.

In Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale this is a pub – the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and The Woolpack.

River City in Scotland and Fair City in the Republic of Ireland have also taken the pub to their soapy hearts.

The pub allows you to have a central core cast – a small staff and ‘regulars’ who live locally – and a logical reason why new characters bringing new plots will enter and leave the ongoing storyline.

ATV’s ancient soap Crossroads used a variation of this by having the central setting as a motel.

In the case of Coronation Street, there was (certainly when I worked at Granada) a formula which went roughly like this…

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

  • one main storyline peaking
  • one main storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next main storyline
  • one subsidiary storyline peaking
  • one subsidiary storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next subsidiary storyline

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

I have always thought that EastEnders fails in ignoring or vastly underplaying the possibility of comic storylines. When Coronation Street is on a roll, it can be one of the funniest shows on TV.

I confess shamefacedly that I have not actually watched Coronation Street lately (well, it HAS been going since 1960, now five times a week, and even I have a partial life).

But another interesting insight from one of the producers at Granada TV was that Coronation Street (certainly in its perceived golden era) was also slightly out-dated. It appeared to be a fairly socially-realistic tableau of life in a Northern English town, slightly dramatised. But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date. It showed what people (even people in the North) THOUGHT life was currently like, but it had an element of nostalgia.

This was in-built from the start. The initial ‘three old ladies in the snug’ of the 1960s – Era Sharples and her two cronies) is what people thought Northern life was like but, in fact, that was a vision from the early 1950s or 1940s or even 1930s. So modern storylines were being imposed on a slightly nostalgised (not quite romanticised!) vision of the North.

In other countries where pubs are not a tradition, of course, you have to find another central location.

But, in my opinion, if you lessen the humour and harden the gritty realism, you may maintain ratings figures in the short or medium term, but you are gambling. And if your spoken lines sound like written lines (as they often do in EastEnders) then you are a titanic success sailing close to an iceberg.

But what do I know?

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British comedy audiences do not now and have never wanted true originality

Lewis Schaffer viewed in a way he might not like

Lewis Schaffer viewed in an unflatterling light

In his blog today, British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer does a U-turn.

He had previously criticised London’s Comedy Store for putting on “boring shows that set a poor standard for British live comedy”.

Now he says he has changed his mind and been persuaded that, currently, audiences “don’t want interesting” because of the global economic situation and other problems. He says they now don’t want chaos or anarchy, they want something less original.

But, I have to say, this is nothing new. ‘Twas ever thus.

What was the big comedy success on British TV thirty years ago?

Obviously, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

No.

It was Terry and June, the comfortable sofa-based sitcom much-derided by comedy cognoscenti then and now for being dull and unoriginal.

OK, there was also Fawlty Towers but – in pure format terms – Fawlty Towers is unoriginal. It is basically three OTT comedy stereotypes in a single location doing often slapstick comedy.

Monty Python was truly original and played around with the television medium. And Middle England did not watch it on its original transmissions.

I remember Monty Python’s original transmissions. They were shoved all over the place in the schedule. People did not watch in vast droves and it did not appeal to the core mainstream audience.

However, in the 1990s, Reeves & Mortimer did manage to combine originality with vast audience success… didn’t they?

No they did not.

They were a Channel 4 and BBC2 act. When the BBC foolishly attempted to put them in their own show on BBC1 at peaktime on a Saturday night, it was an unmitigated ratings disaster.

What have the big TV comedy successes of the past few years been?

My Family. Very cosy. Vastly popular. Much derided by comedy critics and the comedy industry.

Now we have Mrs Brown’s Boys. Again, disliked by circuit comedians, possibly through jealousy.

And then there is Miranda… indeed, anything with Miranda Hart in it.

We are not talking cutting edge (or even necessarily funny) here.

Who are the biggest stand-ups in the UK?

Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay.

Personally, I admire Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay’s technique, but I would not pay to see them.

Comedy Store audiences would.

Because – a vast generalisation – the larger the audience appeal the less original and less ground-breaking the performance.

Originality does not equate with success in the same way that success does not necessarily equate with talent.

I have heard it said that Lewis Schaffer is a “comedian’s comedian” – other comedians will stand at the back of his audience with mouths open just to see what happens.

He could be a major mainstream TV presenter of factual documentaries. Lewis Schaffer. He is basically Bill Bryson with attitude.

He could even, perhaps, be successful performing at the Comedy Store in London.

But we will probably never know.

To quote the great American comedian Donald Rumsfeld:

There are known knowns.

There are known unknowns.

And there are unknown unknowns.

Lewis Schaffer, oddly, fits into all of those categories.

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Edinburgh Fringe ‘Big Four’ venue boss shocker: English ‘man’ is Scots woman!

So You Think You’re Funny?

Tomorrow night is the final of the So You Think You’re Funny? talent show for new comedy acts in the Gilded Balloon, one of the ‘Big Four’ venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. In past years, the contest has ‘discovered’ acts including Johnny Vegas, Dylan Moran, Peter Kay and Lee Mack – and it is now in its 25th year.

Jason Cook will be compering tomorrow night; celebrity judge will be Ruby Wax; and also on the judging panel, as always, will be Gilded Balloon boss Karen Koren.

“Ben Elton and all those alternative comics had started in the early 1980s,” Karen told me yesterday. “By 1988, when we began So You Think You’re Funny?, Saturday Live had been on TV but my idea was to find new comedians because they were few and far between – or, at least, scattered – in Scotland. That’s how it started.”

The ‘Big Four’ venues at the Fringe are, it is usually said, run by English men who went to public school.

Karen Koren is definitely not an English man

“I am not English,” Karen told me,” I’m definitely not a man and I didn’t go to public school. Well, I went to a private school, but I wasn’t boarding or anything. It wasn’t posh!”

In fact, Karen was born in Norway but brought up in Edinburgh; and Anthony Alderson who now runs the Pleasance venue was born into a Scottish family.

Another ‘fact’ which is always said or assumed is that all the Big Four owners are based in London and swan up to Edinburgh in August to make money at the Fringe then return South.

“I live and work here all the year round,” Karen points out. Her Gilded Balloon company produces stage and occasionally TV shows in Scotland.

When the Gilded Balloon started in 1986 Karen focussed, from the beginning, on comedy… well, from even before the beginning.

“I had actually started staging comedy in 1985 at McNally’s,” she told me, “a place I was a director of and all these wonderful new alternative comedians were there. Christopher Richardson at the Pleasance and William Burdett-Coutts at Assembly were doing comedy to subsidise their theatre shows, but I focussed on comedy.

“At that time, there weren’t loads and loads of comics, but there was a great camaraderie. Everyone helped each other. It wasn’t the struggling business it is now where everyone wants to be stars. Today there’s not the same support mechanism we had in those days.

The original very very late-night Fringe show

“Comedy at the Fringe had started properly in the early 1980s, really with Steve Frost and his wife Janet Prince. They wanted places to perform in Edinburgh. Janet and I started Late ‘n’ Live together, but she lived in London and I kept going with it.”

When I first came to see comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe in the mid-to-late 1980s, Late ‘n’ Live was the one late-night show. Comics used to go there after their own shows finished to drink and watch – and sometimes heckle – other comics.

Late ‘n’ Live has been rough this year,” Karen told me yesterday.

“Financially or physically?” I asked.

“The audiences have been very, very…” she started. “Well, I made a TV programme called The Late ‘n’ Live Guide to Comedy and maybe audiences now think they can misbehave dreadfully. We’re going to have to shake them into shape. We’ve had a couple of rough nights.”

“Is it like that thing,” I asked, “with Malcolm Hardee’s club The Tunnel, where its reputation fed on itself?”

“That’s right,” said Karen. “Late n Live has always been fairly rowdy, but in a good-natured way. But now, in the Recession, maybe people are a wee bit more desperate… people are not doing so well financially or whatever… so maybe they’re just a bit ‘hungrier’ and want to ‘make’ things happen.”

“Do you think the comics are precipitating the behaviour?” I asked.

“No,” she said immediately. “Not at all. Though I think if you put a comic on who doesn’t know Late ‘n’ Live… well, there was an American comic who went on and talked about not being able to use Scottish money in England and he was saying it as a joke but the minute you touch on that  kind of subject in Scotland… Ooh! Oooh! Ooooh!… and the audience reacted and he only did five minutes. He walked off. Though he came back and did very well but… The problem is we have to put on comics who are challenged by the audience in order to make it work, but…”

“Lots of changes over the years,” I said.

“I expanded from one small theatre to 14 in the heyday of our building in the Cowgate,” said Karen. “And then we were up in Teviot one year before the fire which burned down our old building. So now we are in Bristo Square.

“I did have another venue called The Counting House at the beginning of the 1990s. I named it The Counting House because that’s where they counted the money above the Peartree pub and that was around the time I gave up my full-time position as the PA to the Norwegian Consul-General in Edinburgh. Before that, I had taken my holidays in August to coincide with the Fringe.”

Did I mention the Malcolm Hardee Show?

“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you had had the Counting House. That’s where I’m doing the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in Friday.”

In Edinburgh, promotion is everything.

Karen, of course, knew Malcolm from the 1980s onwards and he appeared many times on Gilded Balloon stages.

“We all still think about him today,” Karen told me, “though I loved him better when he was sober than when he was drunk. But I nearly always did what he asked me at the Gilded Balloon, that was the odd thing.”

“He must have been ‘challenging’ to put on,” I suggested.

“But always entertaining,” Karen said. “The last time he was on, he just took it upon himself to go on Late ‘n’ Live speccy-eyed and glaked-looking and then just took off his clothes. And there he was with the biggest bollocks in showbusiness.”

“And that was the act?” I asked.

“Well,” said Karen, “a pint of beer might have been involved. I actually found some film of that recently – the last time he was on stage here – when we were making The Late n Live Guide to Comedy… and I wanted them to use it on the TV series, but they wouldn’t.”

“Because it was in bad taste?” I asked.

“Well,” Karen said, shrugging her shoulders, “they screened footage of Scott Capurro pissing on the stage and, although there was a big ‘X’ over his baby elephant trunk, you could see the glistening pee well enough.”

“Censorship is a variable art,” I said.

“Yes,” laughed Karen. “At least Malcolm never peed on stage.”

“Well, perhaps not in Edinburgh.” I said. “I once saw him go to the back of the stage at the Albany Empire in Deptford and pee during a show.”

“Well, that’s OK,” said Karen. “He had his back to the audience… With Malcolm, it wasn’t just about his appendage, it was about what he did. He always gave people a chance. I listened to him when he told me about the young Jerry Sadowitz – Oh – go on – Give him a chance! – and I did and that was something I always did do with Malcolm. He did play all the Big Three venues, as they then were, and he invented the Aaaaaaaaaaarghhh! at the beginning of show titles so he would get the first listing in the Fringe Programme. And he had the art of being noticed with publicity stunts – writing a review of his own show and getting it published by The Scotsman and all that. We all do still think about him today. Never forgotten.”

Karen Koren talks about Malcolm Hardee in this video made by the Gilded Balloon which opens with The Greatest Show on Legs, currently performing in Edinburgh (with Bob Slayer replacing the late Malcolm) for the first time in over 30 years:

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Even average run-of-the-mill advertisements today are a bloody sight better than Van Gogh ever was – and funnier

I was talking to comedian Martin Soan‘s daughter Sydney yesterday.

She is writing what sounds like a fascinating university dissertation on Humour in Graphic Art and I told her I don’t think her father is actually a comedian at all – he is a performance artist with humour in everything he does. Art ain’t just Tracey Emin’s unmade bed in a Saatchi gallery.

A famous English comedienne once wisely told me that, because of the money involved, the best creatives go into the ad industry, the second best go into television and the third-rate go into PR for the publishing industry because there’s no money into it.

People complain about advertising hoardings in the street but they wouldn’t complain about a new art gallery which has free entry and, every day, changes the art it displays. That’s what ads are. You drive down the road or you walk down the street or you take a tube train anywhere in London and you’re travelling through an ever-changing art gallery. Some of the most creative people in the country are creating continually visually and verbally exciting works of often high originality, displaying them across the country at roadsides, on buses, in trains and stations… and these very creative and usually very costly visual works are constantly being changed for something new and equally visually stimulating and original.

In the Renaissance, art was sponsored by people who had the most money – the Church and the Medicis. The same applies today. The ad industry, using commercial businesses‘ money is sponsoring sometimes great, though always transient, art. I still remember some of the images in a famously surreal Benson & Hedges ad campaign of long ago. They were a bloody sight better than Van Gogh’s awful pictures of sunflowers or dodgy-looking chairs. And I remember the Benson & Hedges cinema ads. Particlarly one shot in the desert with a lizard and an isolated luxury house with a swimming pool.

People complain about ads between TV programmes but they don’t complain about the quality of up-market art films on TV or in the cinema. Per minute of screen time, an ad very often costs more than a mega-budget movie. And often both are directed and designed by the same people.

The ad industry attracts, most often, the brightest, best, most creative visual talents in the country because that’s where the money is. The best graphic artists, the best photographers, the best directors, make-up artists, designers and cinematographers earn their living from the ad industry. The highly-regarded British film industry is built on the financial cashlow provided by our ad industry which supports and stimulates the talents of the best creatives.

Capitalism?

It’s bloody great for Art and ‘twas ever thus.

But what I don’t understand is this…

It seems to me that US ads are concerned with selling the qualities of the product – all those dull shampoo ads telling you the scientific reasons why the product supposedly works.

It feels like UK ads are more concerned with making jokes, adding surreal images, linking the product to a general but very vague happy feeling. What are those Guinness ads about? They’re not about the quality of the beer – not when you are watching Peruvians doing odd things in Andean villages. What are the Marks & Spencer ads about at Christmas? Not about the products they sell; this year it’s all about Peter Kay and Twiggy prancing around very entertainingly.

US ads have a tendency towards the hard-sell. UK ads seem to be soft-sell sometimes to the point of the joke or the surreal image overwhelming the product. The artists seem to have taken over the asylum.

What’s that all about?

Is it because, as American comic Lewis Schaffer currently says in his act, the British like to define themselves by their humour – or, as Colonials like him would say, humor?

All countries believe they have a sense of humour/humor but Britain, suggests Lewis, is the only country that actually thinks its strongest defining factor is its humour. Even Margaret Thatcher had to try to appear to have a sense of humour to soften her image. Being seen as ‘strong’ is not enough in a British leader; he/she has to be seen to have a sense of humour.

President Obama has to show humour too, for PR reasons. But Americans do not see humor as their best characteristic.

The Americans arguably like to see their best quality as being go-getting and full of energy. The French define themselves by their food or as great philosophers. The Germans are efficient. But the British think their single main national defining characteristic is their humour.

To an extent, you can get the feel of a country by watching the type of ads they create. In UK ads, humour often seems more important than products’ qualities.

For sure, any day, I’d rather watch Peter Kay dancing in a Marks & Spencer TV ad than hear about the quality of their beans or sprouts – or look at another badly-drawn bunch of sunflowers by Van Gogh.

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