27 Feb 2014
basac's picture
Earlier this week I got half-heartedly involved in one of those Facebook discussions that take up way too much of everybody's time. There'd been an article in 'The Guardian' about how a bunch of young feminist novelists had hit upon a whole new way to write about women, which was to make them less like Bridget Jones - characters whose whole point of existence wasn't just to find a boyfriend.
The indignation around this article from my writer friends was the idea that these young writers were in any way 'new'. And many of the people who'd written on the thread included writers who had been creating such figures in their own books and TV shows for many years. So they had a point, up to a point.
Nobody mentioned that this was a newspaper article, and newspaper articles are often written with the intention of either being deliberately provocative, or because of the all-embracing mathematical equation of journalism whereby one thing happening plus one similar thing happening equals one 'new' trend.
My small contribution to the discussion was to suggest that we, meaning us older gits who have been around the block and seen it all (or so we think), need to accept that each generation comes along and thinks it's creating something for the first time, and if that's how new readers and viewers are brought in then why complain?
Then someone got a bit too aggressive, someone disagreed with them, and for a moment it seemed as though the whole of Facebook would explode... then someone else made a joke and the equilibrium was restored. Phew! I know I shouldn't be joining in with these discussions, none of us should, really, should we, haven't we all got better things to do? What do you think? Why not leave me a comment about this with your thoughts below? 
I'm glad I did join in because the discussion did raise a question which I think is pertinent to every writer at every level in this business: when you're starting to think about your sitcom, or comedy screenplay (you fool, I promise you it's not going to get made) or sketch show, or stand-up shtick, how 'new' do you want it to be?
'New' doesn't necessarily have to mean 'throw away everything that's gone before' - the opposite, I think. 'The Young Ones' did that in 1982, and it spawned a slew of alternative TV shows that tried a little too hard to be different. It's all valid, part of the creative process, but sometimes there's no harm in going back to the simple and tested ways. Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle, for example, had been doing their 'new' thing for three years before it got on TV as 'The Young Ones'.
I can think of very few examples of shows or comedians since then who could be defined as having created something ground-breakingly different. I've got as far as Vic And Bob's Big Night Out, which aired on Channel 4 in 1990, Alan Partridge, possibly Eddie Izzard, whose hybrid creation of stand-up and improv began around the same time, Harry Hill's TV Burp, Rory Bremner's sketches starring Chris Langham as a Junior Minister being bullied by an Alastair Campbell figure that inspired 'The Thick Of It'. Very little else.
For me, the best new ideas and shows are those that take everything that's gone before and add one new element.
My favourite show so far this year has been 'Uncle'. Oliver Refson is not the first writer to put a misanthropic weak-willed loser whose heart is in the right place at the centre of his story, there are many examples all over sitcom land - Mark in 'Peep Show', Terry in 'The Likely Lads', Lee in 'Not Going Out' immediately come to mind - but the uncle-nephew relationship isn't an over-familiar one, and it gives the show a fresh perspective.
It's also worth noting that every episode of 'Uncle' follows what few rules there are in sitcom. First, it's a classic 'big idea' that we've seen hundreds of times in all comedy - 'the odd couple'. There's examples going far back past Morecambe and Wise and Laurel and Hardy all the way via Boswell and Dr Johnson to Shakespeare. One day I'll get to read the 2,500 year old comic plays of Aristophanes and I bet I'll find some wacky pairings there.
Second, there is the story in each episode of 'Uncle': our (anti) hero has a scheme, his nephew is dumped on him, so becomes part of the scheme, which of course starts well and then goes horribly wrong... towards the end of the episode all seems lost, but either the nephew or the uncle gets the other one out of the scrape and they're back to where they started. All accomplished beautifully, partly because the characters are so well-defined, but also because the show is packed with great gags. No hugs, no messages, as Larry David says, nothing learned, back next week to blunder again.
In the documentary 'No Direction Home', Bob Dylan explains how when he started out, he wasn't aware that he was trying anything different. All he was doing was taking the music he loved, the folk songs and stories of Woody Guthrie, and retelling them for an early 1960s New York audience. Only after that retelling began to have an effect way beyond the tiny Greenwich Village music scene, were we able to look back and see how Dylan's perspective was the one new thing that played such a huge part in the dramatic musical developments of the 1960s.
When you're thinking about how best to realise your new idea, there's a temptation to observe the sea of mediocrity that defines so much of what's out there, and believe the answer is to ignore the rule book and try something no one has ever attempted. Maybe you can. Maybe you're Jinsy, or the next Alexei Sayle. Maybe what I'm saying makes you sneer that this is exactly the kind of reactionary viewpoint that helps maintain that vast sea of mediocrity. If you think you can prove me wrong, great.
All I'd say is that you already have the unique extra factor which is you - your ability, your life experiences, your point of view. 
Impose them on something that's already there and you're already making something new.