The Verse’s Tamara Stidwell met BBC Radio writer Harry Venning, a guest speaker at Brighton University, sharing creative advice and industry insight.
Harry stumbled into radio when a BBC employee came across his comic strips Clare in the Community in The Guardian. “I never planned to write for radio, it just sort of happened,” he says. But over a decade later, with eleven successful series aired on BBC Radio 4’s peak hour, the decision to swap ink for microphone has been life-changing.
Clare in the Community is based on a politically correct social worker called Clare, played by actress Sally Phillips, who likes to “sort out other people’s problems while ignoring her own.” BBC’s Creative Director Simon Elmes called it “an instant hit, capturing the PC tone of our times” it also won a Sony Radio Award.
How did he come up with the idea? Initially Venning was inspired by his ex-girlfriend who was a social worker, and would come home reeling off her chaotic day working with the homeless. Then all Venning had to do was to bring this cartoon Clare to life. But he didn’t think of himself as a comedy writer, “you have to think of yourself as a playwright,” says Venning, “the comedy will be driven through the character”.
But as the writer, Venning has very little say over the casting of the characters, that’s down to the commissioners, in this case the BBC. “To achieve a really good story you must have a likeable lead character.” Well, they hit potluck when Sally Phillips, coined “the mistress of comic timing” by The Stage, became the ‘Clare’ that the listeners loved.
For the writing process, here’s Venning’s three steps:
1. Map out the plot. Which isn’t particularly easy, he says when “you have used up every single possible idea for the last 13 years!”
2. Develop the scenes. But be careful of continuity, “advances take place in each episode, but don’t let their house burn down and bring back the same house in the next episode.” And also don’t forget that “other characters only exist for the purpose of the lead character.”
3. Instil the extra comedy. “Add in more gags at the end” says Venning, “the producer will probably cut out most of them anyway.”
When pitching your idea to a production company, it is crucial to remember that the pitch is merely the tip of the process. “A pitch for Macbeth is a Scotsmen with a pushy wife” laughs Venning, “really we all know Macbeth is more than that!” But try to introduce characters organically because “exposition kills drama” so when beginning a series “begin at episode 4, when the characters are fully fledged, then work on how this situation came about.” Also, don’t be scared to make the most of radio’s opportunity, “if you want a naked Vicar have a naked vicar!” Because “no one can see that they’re only in their collar til you say ‘Oh vicar where are your clothes?’”
Fundamentally though, when writing comedy, work with someone who “enthuses you”, Venning has found this in co-writer David Ramsden whom he says he has shared “many a side-splitting laugh with.” Without their team work, sharing of ideas and hours spent whittling down ideas, the longevity of the series, he says would not have been possible.
Lastly, when ending the scene, “unless the momentum is so great that you don’t want to slow it down” end on a gag, because “you can’t go wrong with leaving the listener laughing.” And “oh yeah,” says Venning, “don’t pop in a pregnancy and think that’s the end, only to find out that the BBC are re-commissioning you, because then oh sh*t, you have to add in a baby and well what do babies do that’s worth listening to? They just gurgle.”
Nonetheless, Venning has pulled out all the stops and created a character who symbolises the modern day drawing humour from the bizarre interactions everyone can at some point relate to; a relationship breakdown, a cantankerous old woman, team-building activities at a work place, the people who naturally fill our lives with situational comedy without us even asking for it.
If you’re thinking of writing for radio, “don’t give up.” That’s Harry Venning’s advice, stick at it, he insists, because when you’re doing something you love “it’s always worth the agonising over”. After a lively and enthused seminar today where creative ideas were flung about as we concocted characters for a radio-sitcom, it was hard not to feel excited about this world of sound.
A good place to start approaching ideas, is the BBC’s Writers Room.