From writer to author in under a year

Part 6: The competition entries

I’ve always been a writer ……..

I’ve only ever felt compelled to enter a writing competition three times: the first entry was to Buxton Opera House for a ‘Quest for new Musicals’ in 1990; the second was to a Channel 4 new sitcom competition in 1998; and the third was to the BBC’s search for a new sitcom in 2004. I got some encouraging feedback from the judges of the Musicals, “The writing and lyrics are much better than the music.” A, “Sorry to disappoint,” response from Channel 4. But nothing at all from the BBC. In fairness to the BBC, I didn’t really read the brief, and submitted a piece set in Lincolnshire in 1815 during the war with France. Imagine my amusement when I realised that they had asked for another 2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps!! So, here’s a little bit about each of them, for which I obeyed the advice, ‘write about what you know.’

Scandalous – The Musical

In collaboration with a musician friend who composed the tunes, I wrote the book and lyrics that weirdly presaged the love-rat scandals and resignations of the Tory Government that were to come, during John Major’s Premiership in the 1990s. What could I have known??!! Anyway, I knew the Westminster scene and had also just been to Amsterdam, where I had witnessed the prostitutes for sale in shop windows and thought how sad they all looked.

So, I naturally combined them both in a story about a Government backbench MP, known for controversially opposing legislation to make kerb-crawling illegal, and the beautiful Margarethe, an Amsterdam prostitute on holiday in London. They meet and fall in love, both concealing their true identities from the other. Throw in a suspended Red Top reporter anxious for a scoop, the wine bar gossips and rumour-mongers in both Westminster and Fleet Street (who sing a gossipy, commentary chorus throughout) it can only end in one thing – SCANDAL. Followed by the MP resigning his seat, the reporter re-instated and the beautiful ex- prostitute selling her story for an undisclosed sum!

In order to be turned down, we had to submit, 3 copies of a synopsis; a complete scene; lyrics for at least 3 songs; a design for a promotional poster (!); and a 12 minute cassette with a selection of musical numbers from the show. I remember the struggle we had recording the songs, with a single microphone on a short flex that couldn’t reach the piano. We had to move the piano (in a tiny space) and the composer maxed up the volume of his piano playing and I my singing! The resulting cassette really was not worth the effort. But the poster was excellent! And you know what? I could perform every scene of that musical for you even now.

What They Want – a sitcom

What Channel 4 wanted was a full script for a first episode (playing time 26 minutes) with synopses for 5 subsequent episodes, to demonstrate how the series story played out. The most difficult thing was meeting the script layout requirements.
The series was essentially about a married man having an affair with a single woman, and what happened when his wife started a job working in the same suite of offices as his lover. The husband, his wife and his lover: just when anyone thinks they will get what they want, they are inevitably thwarted. And the husband is humiliated and mocked in every episode. Yes, this was a revenge comedy. I loved writing it, but it was terrible. Channel 4 did the right thing.

A Stitch in Time – a sitcom

I have to admit that this is my favourite. It was set in 1815, during the Napoleonic war, in the sleepy Lincolnshire wold village of Upp, a mile from a military garrison in one direction and a mile from the hamlet of Atham in the other. Our heroine was Maude (aged 18), eldest daughter of the Reverend and Mrs Stitch and sweetheart of Captain Hampton, away with the army in France.

Maude is full of ideas for making life more interesting for her local community of (predominantly) women and the obligatory Curate, as the local military are almost all in France. But life in Upp is not as dull as Maude thinks, and her ideas (a War Effort Knitting Circle, a Campaign, a Book Group, a Cooking Competition, a Protest) are constantly being upstaged and thwarted by local goings-on. These include an escaped French prisoner of war being hidden in plain sight (disguised variously as a woman, a visiting naturalist, a French chef) sexual liaisons, secrets, subterfuge and the unexpected birth of a child to a spinster of the parish. I described it as, ‘Jane Austen meets Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley.’ But the eagle eyed amongst you will also have noted the men in uniform and Upp and Atham – say it aloud.

The BBC required the submission to include both a one sentence and one paragraph description of the set-up; an episode summary; a full cast of characters; a full scripted episode; and synopses of further episodes in the series. I actually still have the notes I wrote for more than one episode! It was a labour of love, featuring my home county; an historical setting; several love stories; references to favourite sitcoms; and pastiches of popular TV shows at the time, for example Ready Steady Cook!

I submitted the first episode, called Now that I’ve Found You, which relates to the search for a missing French POW. The Reverend Stitch and a returned Captain Hampton catch a poacher in a mantrap (it is Lincolnshire) and mistake him for the escaped POW. Maude’s best friend, Miss Bigg, has taken in the French POW and passes him off as her female cousin at Maude’s Knitting Circle. It still makes me laugh, but then I’m biased.

In the case of all the above, it was not the winning, but the taking part that was important. With each genre and the passing years, I became a better writer.