In today's update: an insight into the production process. Our head writer David K. Barnes is a near-religious diarist. He kept detailed notes on the Season 1 process. He's now gone through them and culled everything to do with the development and production of just one episode.
DIARIES OF A HEAD WRITER: WRITING A SITCOM EPISODE
by David K. Barnes
In December 2014, I was approached to create and write a sitcom about competing funeral directors, eventually called Wooden Overcoats. This process was long, arduous, and agonising, which is why I’m now happily doing it all over again with a second season (currently being funded on Kickstarter).
I am also a keen diarist. For exactly two and a half years now, I have sat down in the evening and typed up the events, ideas and thoughts of that day. As a result, I have a full production diary of that first season of Wooden Overcoats, from conception to release. It makes for a sometimes embarrassing but often comforting read for me now. There have been days recently where I’ve thought, “Why am I writing this? Why isn’t this story working? Shouldn’t they get somebody better? I’m not as good as I used to be! In fact, I’ve never been good at all!” And then I read back and find that the David K. Barnes of yesterday was saying exactly the same things, running into problems and – mercifully – finding solutions. I’ve found keeping a diary invaluable to my progression as a writer. I’ve solved plot problems in it, devised ideas, given myself a stern talking to when I’m slacking…
I have compiled all those entries relating to the creation, planning, writing, development and production of one episode of my sitcom (Episode 4: Tempting Fête). They’ll hopefully be interesting and informative to everybody, but will also specifically strike a chord with every writer out there who, like myself, has found themselves wishing they could pack it all in, whilst knowing that they couldn’t live without it.
[In January, I write a pilot script for Wooden Overcoats called The Bane of Rudyard. A production team assembles around it and I am given the go ahead to produce another seven scripts, three to be written by myself and four by guest writers. By February, the other writers are hard at work on their own episodes, and I am left contemplating how I’m going to knock a series together.
Wooden Overcoats is set on the fictional Channel Island of Piffling. Rudyard Funn runs dodgy funeral parlour Funn Funerals with his mortician sister Antigone and assistant Georgie. A charming rival, Eric Chapman, arrives on the island and opens his own instantly popular funeral parlour opposite Funn Funerals. Other characters, such as a crazy Mayor and an agnostic Reverend, are also on the scene.]
February 2nd 2015
Bit of a failure for the most part. I woke up early and began happily reading but I soon lost the afternoon to Internet browsing and a frustrated effort at understanding how cryptic crosswords work. I had an idea for an episode of Wooden Overcoats in which Rudyard and Eric take part in a treasure hunt game at the village fete, which Rudyard takes ridiculously seriously and in which the clues are cryptic crossword type questions. I merely hurt my brain trying to make sense of them, however, so I have no idea if I’m up to writing such a scenario. Still, the village fete idea strikes me as a decent one.
February 3rd 2015
Well, I do have some very basic plot ideas for my episodes. Episode four needs to be another Rudyard v Eric romp episode, to counter-balance the two more Antigone focussed episodes either side of it…
[I here come up with the idea that eventually becomes Episode 6 of Season One. However, I still know that Episode 4 needs to be Rudyard v Eric focussed. I’ve given up on the cryptic crosswords.]
I popped over to [director and producer] John Wakefield’s for dinner and a long chat about Wooden Overcoats, the direction it was going in, and what my episodes should provide. A very useful discussion it was too; we now have a firm idea of the whole season and I know, roughly, what I should be doing. Some of the more high-concept ideas are being temporarily shelved. […] Episode 4 needs a plot but will spend time developing the village, the Mayor, the residents and the main characters’ positions within the set-up. Episode 6 will be the burial at sea episode, in which Rudyard can lose it a bit. […]
[For a few weeks, I re-edit the pilot episode and attend to edits on a stage play, whilst continuing to fine-tune details of Season One as a whole.]
February 16th 2015
This laptop is slowly falling apart. The disc drive refused to work for a few hours – leading me to balefully look around for the price of a replacement – before miraculously kicking into gear again. Then the screen started wobbling, owing to one of its hinges becoming unstuck, not to mention some cracks in the casing. It’s currently being partially held together with sticky tape. [I have a new one now.]
Whilst at work, developed the story outline for episode four of Wooden Overcoats, Tempting Fete. The essential idea is Rudyard begins organising the fete with traditional games and fete staples but, when the Mayor remarks that he hopes this fete will be a little more exciting, Rudyard loses his nerve and starts trying to make everything more complicated. The result is a fete filled with obstacle courses and games with labyrinthine rules and things, which nobody enjoys.
Threaded throughout the episode is also the suggestion that people on the island are emotionally and even sexually repressed; people don’t talk to each other much, and are in unhappy marriages and so on. Rudyard ignores Eric’s suggestions of keeping things simple, but the episode ends on Eric stripping the fete down to its bare essentials of tables and chairs and organises a speed-dating event, which all the villagers enjoy. It reignites a sense of community and liberality, and Eric is made vice-chairman of the village council. Eric tries to tell people that all this was Rudyard’s idea really, but everybody realises Eric’s just being modest and they like him all the more for it (much to Rudyard’s chagrin).
As a result, the episode should do several things…
[I list all nine of them in some detail. They include developing the Eric/Rudyard dynamic, how the village works, how the village is influenced by Eric, how Eric’s premises are becoming a social hot-spot, Rudyard’s propensity for being his own worst enemy, Antigone’s sexual and emotional repression, and giving some decent material to the Mayor. I realise Georgie hasn’t got much of a role and hope that I can find one for her.]
I’ve an idea for a scene where Rudyard’s doing the funeral for the vice chairman and, since everybody barring the deceased’s family is at the fete, Rudyard has to improvise everything including the eulogy; the speech he gives should be a somewhat pained insight into Rudyard’s mental state. [This scene was never written owing to time constraints; see further below.]
A Hell of a lot to pack in but it means I’m doing my job of ensuring each episode ties things together and advances emotional threads for the series.
February 18th 2015
Prepared to write a few scenes of Wooden Overcoats episode four. I was initially stalled when it took ninety minutes to name a new character. [Lady Vivienne Templar, named partly after the Saint, Simon Templar, for no good reason.] And then came the moment when I had no idea how to start the episode – and that moment has dragged on for three hours. Three hours of staring at the screen, typing out permutations of the same words and hoping something will click. I know how the first scene is meant to go, that’s no problem. I just can’t start. […] This is just embarrassing.
February 19th 2015
After work, I procrastinated wildly, and then tackled the script again. […] For some reason, it was like pulling teeth. A lot of laboured gags, many of which I excised, some of which remain in the script, flopping about like landed carp. Madeleine’s bits remain difficult. I wish I’d never introduced the character. [I always found – and still find – writing Madeleine’s narration the most difficult part of the scripts but am intensely glad I introduced her to the series.]
The Mayor doesn’t feel right this time either. It feels like a different character. In fact, so does Wavering. I don’t know. I’ve got tomorrow off so after my meetings I’ll endeavour to knuckle down and knock out some scenes. [...] I know what I want to put into the episode, it’s just getting the characters to sound good whilst they’re doing it.
February 20th 2015
Spent a few hours trying to write more Wooden Overcoats episode four. I just about struggled to the end of the first scene. It’s at least five pages too long and filled with some dire stuff. Or maybe it’s brilliant. How would I know? I’ll be tearing it to pieces once I’ve written the rest of the episode.
February 21st 2015
Tiring day at work, followed by trying to structure the remaining plot of WO episode four. Various scenes I wanted to do, and relationships I wanted to explore, will have to be cut or at the very least diluted substantially. I’m trying to do too much in a half hour episode. At the moment, I’m concerned that the episode is too linear – it really is just Rudyard dashing around – and that Antigone and Georgie have even less to do than in my pilot. That’ll be mitigated by the fact that the episode will be sandwiched by Antigone-centred episodes by other writers, and Georgie has a reasonably substantial role in episode three.
I’m trying to simplify the story as much as I can. Essentially, the through line is: Rudyard is put in charge of a fete; Rudyard panics; Rudyard starts organising it and ends up actually doing a fair job; Rudyard then loses his nerve owing to the Mayor’s “So long as you’re not doing dull games like….”and begins panicking and over-thinking everything; he puts on a terrible fete as a result; Eric solves it.
However, even writing that I’m discovering plot problems. The Mayor seems perfectly fine with a traditional fete – with games and rustic dancing and so on – in the first scene, so why he’d be against all that later… So that’ll have to change. In fact, it should likely be Eric who says it. Maybe as a joke. That would be more in keeping. When Rudyard goes to see him, Eric makes an off-hand remark that it’s all very traditional. And Rudyard interrogates him and then falls to pieces. Yes. That makes much more sense, and means Rudyard’s downfall comes from his own paranoia and over-thinking everything, rather than an out-of-character and somewhat mean-spirited remark from the Mayor.
Excellent, yes. That makes for a much better episode all round, free from traditional sitcom contrivance. The episode is now very much formed by the lead character’s insecurity, which should be satisfying to write, perform and listen to.
[This is an example of me discovering, panicking over, and then solving a plot problem as I write, and is why keeping a diary is the best thing I ever did. Episode 4 would indeed follow the plotting I devised here.
I refer to scenes and diluted relationships. For fans who want such details, Lady Templar was originally a more tragic character with a husband who didn’t love her, which the listener experienced when Rudyard went to her mansion to discuss fete ideas. Rudyard was meant to improvise a speech about hardship at his funeral, which in the finished episode is merely summarised by the narrator. And the finished episode has a subplot about Antigone being a fortune teller which doesn’t really go anywhere; this was originally to build to a scene where she was alone with Eric for the first time and had to read his fortune. I thought this would have been a powerfully erotic and still very funny sequence but it was cut for time, and because a similar scene ended up appearing in Christopher Hogg’s Episode 2 so we didn’t need it here after all.]
February 28th 2015
A flick back over this month’s entries reveals a month of reading, editing, planning and plotting, but precious little writing. I’ve also spent over half the month avoiding writing episode four, meaning I’ve now got an entire month to write three episodes, edit four episodes, and write a short play about a monkey, whilst juggling shifts at work and taking a detour to Portsmouth to visit my relatives.
[My day job got in the way of writing, and I was also writing a short play about a monkey, called Monkey. Portsmouth is where I was born and where my family lives.]
March 1st 2015
[…] I actually got some writing today. Not as much as I’d have liked but I am over a third of the way into episode four. I finally got that tricky first scene into a decent shape and sprinted my way through the next one, a three-way dialogue between Rudyard, Antigone and Georgie. It could do with some more gags but it’s a fair first draft. Antigone is written quite loosely at present […] but I think I’ve written a very funny scene for Georgie. When it’s just the three of them alone, she has lots of amusingly snide comments to make. Once I hit upon her being the essentially unflappable one, things fell into place. […]
Another day off tomorrow, so we’ll see how far I can get. Now that I’m beyond the psychological stumbling block of the first scene, I should have an easier time of it. The first scene was the most difficult to write in the pilot episode too.
March 2nd 2015
And yet an easier time of it there was not. […] I managed to crawl through a further two scenes today, constantly going back and making revisions and re-writing as I’m going. It’s what you’re told never to do – better to just make a bolt towards the end and get it done – but I just can’t work that way. I can’t start the next scene until I know I’m happy with the scene before. […] Where it does help is in setting up gags for later on – an entire scene with Rudyard in Wavering’s bathroom came about owing to a one-liner I tossed into the first scene – but I am disappointed in myself that I’ve spent over two weeks on this episode, when the pilot took about four days. Still, at least there’s some progress.
A reading on Monday is being organised for the pilot episode and, most likely, episode four. That could be fun or utterly horrific. We’ll find out as it comes.
March 3rd 2015
Managed to get in a little bit of writing, with two pages of Antigone / Georgie dialogue. The thing Georgie most wants out of life is a helicopter.
March 4th 2015
[I begin panicking over deadlines relating to Wooden Overcoats and my stage plays and call fellow writer – and voice of Eric Chapman – Tom Crowley for salvation.]
With Tom Crowley’s help, I managed to reach the Eye of the Storm. In writing, you spend ages procrastinating and waiting for the impetus to write. Eventually, you hit the storm, which is blind panic, where you run around the flat tearing your hair out and cursing your parents for having given birth to you in the first place, and wondering how you can possibly begin to get anything written, let alone to a reasonable standard. And then, after a short time, you reach the point of complete calm and equanimity, where you just sit down and begin to write. “This needs to get done, so I shall get it done,” you say to yourself and the words suddenly seem to appear on the page.
I knocked out one thousand words relatively easily this evening, introducing new quirks of plotting and delivering what I believe to be some pretty fine comic material. […] For an episode that was meant to be about the community, I’m happy that the regular cast have a lot to sink their teeth into, whilst we still get a great deal to experience with the community characters and setting (the council scene, and the scene in the vicar’s bathroom, not to mention the fete itself). I can only hope that this desire to just get stuff done can last me the month.
Tomorrow I need to finish off episode 4…
March 5th 2015
Did it. It’s four hundred words over the limit but we’ll see what can be cut tomorrow night. I need to hack out four pages from somewhere. I still think it’s a jolly good episode, overall, but then I haven’t re-read it yet. But the plot’s strong, all the characters have stuff to do. […]
March 6th 2015
Read my draft again, and didn’t like it much. Nowhere near as funny as it should be. As first drafts go it’s in damn good shape, even if there are some occasions when I’m sure the jokes aren’t landing in the way they should. Annoyingly enough, the Antigone / Georgie fortune telling scene is one of the prime culprits; the scene has two big punchlines and I can’t find either of them.
March 7th 2015
Made a couple of edits to WO episode four this morning before work and sent off a new version to the team. One of those sudden-over-breakfast edits was cited by Felix as his favourite line in the episode. [I think this was Antigone’s “The shadows protect me,” line - a nice example of fun ideas arriving on the spur of the moment.]
March 9th 2015
Actors arrived for the reading of episodes 1 and 4, with [directors and producers] John and Andy in attendance. It was a highly encouraging evening. Lots of laughs and people really engaging with the characters. Everybody is very excited. […] John said the first scene of episode four – the council scene, that I seemed to spend weeks on – was the scene that made him realise that Piffling Vale was a real world. […] Seems they’re happy with episode four as it is, and don’t want any changes. I’ll likely make a few but I’m happy to know that it’s pretty much finished.
[Inbetween now and late May, I write my other episodes and edit the whole season. Episode 4 receives a few tweaks but remains substantially unaltered. Because, as demonstrated above, I put in a lot of planning and tend to rewrite as I go, I sometimes find that later drafts rarely require more than minor dialogue tweaks.
On May 24th-25th, the cast and crew sit down to read the whole of Wooden Overcoats Season One. It’s a joyful and immensely reassuring 48 hours, with lots of laughter and useful feedback. This is when we all meet Ciara Baxendale, who is cast as Georgie on the strength of he readings.]
May 25th 2015
[…] She basically is Georgie, with every statement she says. She also revealed that her mother has always wanted her to be an undertaker, to the extent that Ciara has an entire wardrobe of clothes which were bought for her for use at funerals or in the funerary trade. She was even bought a top hat. […]
[The episode is recorded on June 23rd, by which time I’m convinced the script is an utter failure.]
June 23rd 2016
[…] Episode four, by contrast, is very standard sitcom. […] It’s a very warm installment, without ever being particularly funny. Mind you, I think that might be improved greatly by the performances. I feel bad for giving them such rubbish to work with. At some point they’ll actually realise. Oh God. […]
October 15th 2015
Episode Four released today. I was rather dreading it but the performances and production really lift it. Everybody’s done a great, great job. [I spend a while praising the main cast in particular, but I won’t include that here because they might be reading.] All in all, the episode functions pretty damn well. Develops the characters a little bit, shows us how the community works. Andy Secombe nearly steals the episode with his wind-up crab line. Very enjoyable. […] Yes. I'm very happy with it.
[And I’m still very happy with it, thank God.]