Writing & Selling TV Comedy course attendee has sitcom optioned – interview with Phil Charles
Phil Charles is a scriptwriter and part-time lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. He attended the third Writing and Selling TV Comedy Course and has since had his sitcom idea ‘I Hate Being Gay’ optioned by Channel X.
We thought we would catch up with him and see how things are progressing…
Can you tell us about your writing experience and why you decided to take the course in the first place:
I’ve had a few different careers, but it was when I was an advertising copywriter I realised I wanted to be a scriptwriter. So I did a scriptwriting course, worked hard at writing and polishing a spec script and sent it out there. Amazingly it got optioned and I was able to secure an agent. I’ve now had various commissions on existing drama and comedy drama series. I’d always wanted to write all out comedy but knew it was hard and also knew that if I wrote a sitcom people didn’t find funny I’d be devastated. I’m a sensitive little thing! I’d been developing I Hate Being Gay as a comedy drama, but it just wasn’t coming together for some reason. So I went back to the drawing board and played around with it and one day had a light bulb moment. I realised it needed to be a slightly silly sitcom. As soon as I made that decision it started coming together.
Although it still had the same title, as a sitcom it was now a very different project as all the characters and storylines had changed. The central character is a gay man who doesn’t really like the gay scene or a lot of things people assume a ‘poof’ would love. The conflict/comedy comes from the fact his friends and family love him being gay and are trying to get him to embrace his sexuality…for their own gains. But sitcom was the one genre I knew very little about. I avidly watch my fav sitcoms, but I’d never actually attempted to write one. Around about the same time I heard about Cofilmic’s sitcom course. It was perfect timing. I immediately booked a place hoping it would teach me all about sitcom and give me the incentive to get the 1st draft of my pilot sitcom finished. It absolutely did all of these things.
How was the course helpful for you:
In so many ways. Although I was a commissioned writer, I’d only written drama and comedy drama. I knew sitcom had a whole host of rules and conventions and that there were many different types, studio, single camera etc. David (Isaac) who took the course was brilliant. As a writer who’s had his own original sitcom on TV and who writes for existing sitcoms, he absolutely knows his onions. The course really helped me decide what type of sitcom my idea suited best and really got me on a sitcom-writing roll. Being a morning person I can never usually write in the evenings, but I was coming home after the sessions on a Saturday afternoon buzzing and then writing all evening. Things David would say or clips he’d show sparked me into thinking what I could do with my own sitcom. Knowing David was going to feedback on work I sent him weekly during the course was also a major incentive to get scenes written fast. His feedback was invaluable.
What happened at the live showcase:
I almost had a coronary, that’s what happened at the live showcase. Without wanting to sound like a drama queen, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve been as nervous in all my life. One of the reasons for this was that I’d invited a few friends. They’d seen stuff I’ve written for existing shows on tele, but this was going to be the first time they’d see any of my original work performed. And in a genre I’d never written in before. Scary! And I suppose the nerves were so bad because I knew it was going to be the moment I’d find out if my writing could make people laugh or not. I was terrified my script wouldn’t summon so much as a titter and that there’d be tumbleweed blowing through the theatre during my 10-minute showcase, all my friends on suicide watch for the next couple of days. But there really wasn’t any need to be nervous as there was a great atmosphere, everyone involved and everyone coming to watch were all really supportive.
The actors were absolutely brilliant. I was totally in awe of how they could just turn it on like that on the night after just a very brief rehearsal. They really brought my characters to life and it’s them I have to thank for the excerpt of my sitcom getting laughs. Especially as they kindly agreed to use props I’d made while at the same time struggling to hold their scripts.
I’d been so busy worrying about what my friends would think I’d completely forgotten there were going to be industry people at the event. At the end of the showcase David introduced me to Matt Tiller, Director of Programming at TV production company Channel X. Matt had produced David’s sitcom, Lunch Monkeys, and presently producing Jason Cook’s sitcom, Hebburn. I was thrilled to hear he’d enjoyed my showcase and he offered to read the whole pilot episode. So although the night was terrifying to be begin with, I was on a real high by the end of it. A natural high I hasten to add!
So where are you up to now:
After the showcase I redrafted my pilot episode and sent it to Matt at Channel X. Thankfully, him and his bosses really liked it and optioned it. So over the past few months I’ve been redrafting the pilot with the help of Matt and Channel X’s notes. Once the script was as polished as we could get it, Matt verbally pitched it to the Beeb who showed interest. So the script and proposal has just gone off to them and we’re now playing the waiting game to see if it’s something they want to develop. So in a few weeks time I’m either going to be the happiest boy in Manchester or found hanging from a tree. Joke! Please don’t hang from trees.
Any tips for others starting on this journey:
Yes, when it comes to sitcom it’s character, character, character. When I first started developing I Hate Being Gay as a sitcom I wasted a lot of time trying to think of a really original setting that hadn’t been used before. But I was going around in circles and driving myself mad. It wasn’t until I wrote a scene involving my two central characters simply sat in their lounge that the magic started to happen and I knew it had to have a domestic setting as opposed to a work setting. Yes, an original precinct is great, but ultimately you need a set of characters who are going to clash and conflict with each other. In a funny way, of course. My sitcom isn’t new in its setting (the main character’s flat and his sister’s flat across the hall), but it’s the ‘sit’ that makes it original. So I advise playing around and exploring characters before spending time trying to think of a setting that’s never been done before. If it’s funny and original in some way, hopefully producers won’t care if it’s set in a flat. And if you do the course try and turn up on day one with a solid idea. You don’t need to have written any scenes, but a clear set of characters and a vague concept will really help.
What are your ambitions for the future:
Well my main ambition is for I Hate Being Gay to be green-lit, loved by the public and for it to run and run as I have story ideas for it simply oozing out of me. But in case that doesn’t happen I’m developing a few new sitcom ideas as I’ve really caught the sitcom bug thanks to David and the course. I’m also developing a comedy feature as I’m a great film lover. So whether it’s small screen or big screen, I’m determined to get some original comedy made.