Having worked out that writing screenplays was something people actually did for a living, I watched an interview with Richard Curtis. I took three things from it. Firstly, that he didn’t seem to care what people thought of him and wrote with total confidence about the world he knew. Secondly, that he seemed to love what he did for a living and thirdly, that his living seemed to give him a house considerably larger than mine. That wasn’t altogether surprising as I didn’t actually have a house, or a flat, or a bedsit, and was staying in a mate’s flat sleeping on a makeshift bed made from cushions and table cloths (padded). With all the evidence stacked up, I decided if I wanted to be a scriptwriter and live in Richard Curtis’ house then I was pretty certain I’d have to write a script. So I did. (Little did I know that the films I would get made would all be low budget, which meant the only way I was ever getting in houses like his would be to give a quote for the painting and decorating.)
I knew that if I could just get to the end of one draft then no one could say I wasn’t a writer. They could say I was a bad one, but as my Dad always said, better to be bad at what you want to do than good at what you don’t. Something generations of men in my family had managed to pull off, while a select few of us had managed to just be bad at things we didn’t want to do. Anyway, armed with the mantra that ‘you need to write about what you know’, I set out to write a pilot for a show that I called The Stress Diet. While we’re on the subject of writing what you know, I later discovered that particular piece of writing advice is completely wrong. A writer I hugely admire set me straight, pointing out that you should not write about what you know, but about who you are. That said, back then I had no idea who I was so it wouldn’t have mattered either way.
The Stress Diet was the true story of how I left a six-year relationship and in so doing became hugely anxious and lost a dramatic amount of weight. The person in question was a wonderful, funny, beautiful woman who absolutely adored me and wanted nothing more than to be with me and support me in whatever I wanted to do. Not my kind of thing at all. I was brought up to believe that being in love was about lazy contempt, a long and determined effort to undermine, humiliate and fundamentally destroy the person you’re with. So I left her, and it seemed to me that the tales surrounding that would make a funny TV show.
After several months of further procrastination that included going on a typing course, learning how to use a typewriter before eventually purchasing an old computer the size of a Fiat Panda, I wrote it. I had a script. It was okay, hugely naïve, not very good, but done. I had never read any books on structure or story. I had no idea about acts or inciting events or turning points, I couldn’t save the cat or build the story or get the monkey out of the tree, but what I did have was something that was quite heavy and stapled together and looked a bit like that thing that fell apart and flew away at the beginning of Murder She Wrote - a script. I was excited, but had no idea what to do with it. So for a few days I contented myself with forcing friends to hold it to see just how heavy it was, somehow equating its weight to my talent. They were fun days but the novelty wore off as you would suspect it might, mainly because people started saying thinks like ‘I thought it might be heavier than that’ or ‘it’s nowhere near as heavy as ‘This Life.’
It started to occur to me that the weight of a document might not be all that mattered, so I managed to read a couple of books on Story, one by Robert McKee and one by Sid Field. They were undoubtedly helpful and one of them really quite bulky, and while to this day I believe there is no replacement for actually writing scripts, I don’t subscribe to the view of some writers that you can’t learn the craft from a book. I think one of the things that makes being a screenwriter so soul destroying is that you absolutely can. It may not have a spark or character or a sense of dialogue, that stuff depends on life experience, awareness of the medium and a desire to share things about yourself and those close to you that ruin relationships, but you can absolutely learn to deliver a competent screenplay. It may even get made if the right bankable actor who doesn’t know good from bad decides he or she wants to do it. If you don’t believe me, turn on your television and open your film listings (or movie listings if you’re in LA, did I mention that you should be in LA? You should be in LA).
I was talking to a writer the other day who told me that he had never read any of those books, instead he had decided to read all of the plays of Ancient Greece. He said he’d rather sit through tome upon tome of miserable Greeks bemoaning their inability to affect their own destiny than half an hour of Robert McKee banging on about how he once wrote an episode of Columbo. Writers are snobby about that shit. Well the truth is he’d sold more than me, so that made him an expert.
The weighing done I decided I should try and get an agent. Yes, great idea, all the handbooks said you needed an agent, but it turns out that unsolicited scripts are hard to get read. I had no idea what unsolicited meant, I assumed it was something to do with paying for sex, but once someone explained to me that it just meant ‘unrequested’ I formulated a simple, absolutely flawless plan. Instead of writing dozens of letters and waiting for months for the inevitable rejection from those that could be bothered, I’d just give up. It was all too hard. The voice in my head that had been there for me my whole life delivered one more time –‘Quit. Drive a van.’ So I did that. After all, who the hell were they gonna cast as the man who loses fifty pounds over six hours of comedy drama? It was never gonna happen. I also knew that I was not the kind of guy who could walk into an agent’s office, brash and full of bravado and think of a funny trick to get someone to read it. I was never gonna be the Spice Girls walking into Smash Hits singing ‘Wannabe.’ I was Nick Drake, I’d rather have killed myself than get involved. Besides I’d finished a script, I could say I was a writer now. I’d been calling myself a teacher for five years and all I’d done was teach Chinese waiters to count to three, so this definitely made me a writer. By the way, I wasn’t Nick Drake, wow imagine comparing yourself to Nick Drake, what a twat.
However, after a couple of months delivering sausages to butchers in Kent, I had a realisation – delivering sausages to butchers in Kent, while good for the part of me that enjoyed free sausages, was bad for the part of me that still wanted to be a writer. I’d had ideas for more scripts, and I was also starting to write a few jokes. Maybe I could try and sell some of those jokes to actual comedians. The problem with that was the same as the agent thing. Comics don’t take unsolicited material, which is ironic as they are mainly using jokes to solicit sex. Actually is that ironic or just two words that sound the same? So if I couldn’t sell jokes then maybe I could tell them. I’d do some open spots and become a comedian, and if I was good enough I would happily use unsolicited material from anyone who cared to give it to me. After all, I had enough sausages to live off for a year, what’s the worse thing that could happen?
So, with one screenplay written and sitting proudly and heavily on my desk (by now I’d traded in the massive computer for a ten year old mini clubman) and with several others brewing in my mind, I did an open spot in a comedy club. There I was, six minutes of material, a lot of puns and a tiny bit of observation and I was a comic. It’s incredible how many careers you can have if you do something once, and not even that well, but I did it just about well enough to get myself an agent, albeit a comedy agent not a literary one, but an agent nevertheless. Until I got the agent I’d spend most of my time calling pubs to see if I could turn up and do a spot only to feel sick to the stomach when anyone said yes.
Being a comic is, in itself, one of life’s great paradoxes, at least it was for me - a constant battle between the pleasure of being able to communicate an idea and the terror of the approaching moment when you are supposed to do it. I once drank so much before a gig that when the time came for me to get up and deliver my six minutes of nonsense, a profound nausea overwhelmed me and no sooner had I walked onto the stage than I passed out and fell off it. The last thing I remember was a heckle from the audience which went something like ‘sit down, you’re going to pass out.’ A strange heckle I thought, but not as strange as waking up on the floor of the pub being stared at by a mime doing ‘sad face.’ I had seemingly left the stage head first and landed on my chin (at that point I still only had the one) and the next thing I remember I was in the A and E department of a London hospital receiving twelve stitches in my mouth and six in my face. The attending nurse asked whether it was true I had fallen off stage as the fifteen members of the audience waiting for me outside were claiming. The humiliation was extraordinary, but not enough to make me stop.
Another year of good, bad and mainly indifferent audience reactions would pass before I decided to make my jokes sitting down, in private, without an audience and on a computer (a slightly smaller one than before, no bigger than a Sinclair C5). I was about to enter the wonderful world of ‘Development.’