In the early 1990s, I belonged to a script-writing group called Player- Playwrights. They were originally formed in 1948 and would meet every Monday night in a church hall in Bayswater not far from Paddington Station. The idea was that writer members could write a new play, TV sit-com, radio drama - whatever - and the group, with its resident drama company, would perform it. Afterwards the group, like a pack of blood sniffing wolves, would then tear into the piece and give their opinion directly to the author, sitting amongst them with notebook in hand and a forced smile on his or her face. “Oh really? You didn’t like that character. How interesting. Let me make a note of that...”
It was a good way of getting immediate feedback to a new piece of writing and also a relaxing way to spend a Monday evening with some great people. And don’t think the Player-Playwrights group was composed entirely of amateurs. Far from it. Members included David Edgar, Jack Rosenthal, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (who had served as Presidents). Indeed, it was the presence of Marks and Gran one night that eventually led to me writing an episode of their hit TV comedy Birds of a Feather.
I had gone along to one particular meeting (conveniently just ten minutes walk from my Marylebone home) that had been long awaited by the regular members of PP. Two of the best known TV comedy writers in the country, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, were going to try out a new script. The famous team had already tried out many of their shows at the Players forum. Birds of a Feather, The New Statesman and Love Hurts had all been subjected to the criticism of the pack. After the piece had been premiered and dissected (and sadly to this day I can’t remember what it was), Maurice Gran got up on the stage to give a short talk on “How to become a successful sit-com writer”. Attention was avid amongst the writers, of which probably half were hoping that one day they too would be television sitcom writers. I was already a BBC sit-com writer (of a sort) but nevertheless was intrigued to learn some of the tricks of the trade from one of its most successful sons.
“If you want to become a hit sitcom writer,” began Maurice, “eat, sleep and breathe as many shows as you can. If you want to write good ones watch Porridge and The Golden Girls. If you want to avoid writing bad ones check out Wyatt’s Watchdogs. I watched it and didn’t laugh once!”
There was a stunned silence in the room.
Wyatt’s Watchdogs was a series that I had written for BBC1 television starring Brian Wilde and Trevor Bannister and everyone in the room save Laurence and Maurice knew this. Suddenly everyone was pointing at me and signaling to Maurice that I was the guilty author. Red-faced wasn’t the word for it. On an embarrassing scale of one to ten, it came in somewhere around twenty-three.
After the humiliation, the group plus Marks and Gran all decamped to The Monkey Puzzle pub in Sussex Gardens for its regular after-show drink up. Maurice was a Gentleman and came over and apologised. He had no idea that I had written Wyatt’s Watchdogs but if he had known he said he would still have slated it. He wasn’t a fan. Laurence then came over and bought me a drink. He said he had watched it too and he didn’t think it was as bad as his writing partner maintained. My mistake, in his opinion, was that I had written too many characters (there were seven regulars). He thought that size of cast was always difficult to pull off and the only person who could get away with that sort of ensemble writing was David Croft (Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served?, Hi-de-Hi! etc) He did compliment me, however, on some excellent one-liners.
As he was leaving, Laurence handed me his business card with his home phone number on it. He asked if I would be interested in perhaps writing for Birds of a Feather? I couldn’t believe it. It was typical of the man’s generosity.
As soon as I got home, I started hammering out an episode featuring the Chigwell three. This was too good an opportunity to let slip. Like most people I was familiar with the show and thought the three leading actresses in it, Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph played off each other perfectly. Each one of them brought something unique to the chemistry and they were all highly skilled at getting the laughs. There was no question about it, like it or loathe it Birds of a Feather was a hell of a slick show and in my opinion the only one that came close to rivaling top US shows like Cheers, Rosanne orTaxi.
After about two weeks, I had written what I considered a pretty good episode of Birds of a Feather. I got my agent Tessa Le Bars to mail it off to Marks and Gran and within a few days I was invited to join the writing team of Birds of a Feather series 4, which was just going into production.
This involved many visits to Elstree Studios where Alomo Productions made the show. I found there were about half a dozen writers on the show and although it was a team effort in a way, episodes tended to be written by individuals (except in the case of Gary Lawson and John Phelps who wrote together). The first thing I was handed was an enormous book called the Birds of a Feather “bible”. This contained everything that you would need to know about the show and its characters. Not only was every plot development noted from the previous three series but it also contained information like what Sharon liked to eat (pizza), Dorien’s favourite tipple (Champagne) and even what brand of cigarettes Tracey smoked! (Silk Cut). Next, we sat around with the regular cast and generally discussed where the show was going that season. (I seem to remember that year Pauline Quirke was keen her character opened a café so we had to include that storyline in our scripts).
Having got a feel of where the show was going, we then had to go away and come up with episode ideas – a treatment – and if that got the green light you then had to go away and write the whole episode.
That may sound pretty straightforward but it wasn’t. Under the eagle eye of experienced script editor Micheál Jacob and Marks and Gran themselves, scripts would go through many rewrites before being ready to film. One of the most important things was to achieve a high hit rate of laughs. This meant in effect a funny one-liner about every third line. Looks easy on the screen but it takes a lot of work.
My episode Wipe That Smile Off Your Tape revolved around Sharon joining a video-dating agency in an effort to find a bit of fun and excitement with a new man. She meets Mike who has backstage passes for a Rolling Stones concert at Wembley. However Tracey is far more keen for Sharon to date a shy flying instructor called Jimmy Bond and sets up a date for her sister behind her back.
With my rock ‘n’ roll background I particularly wanted to write about something with a music business flavour but The Rolling Stones was actually Laurence’s idea; I originally had it set at a Guns N’ Roses concert! He was right though, as it gave us lots of opportunities for Stones’ gags about their wealth, ages, groupies etc.
I had a great director, Terry Kinane, and two wonderful character actors; Tyler Butterworth played Mike and Nicholas Pritchard played Jimmy Bond. When it was transmitted, ten million people tuned in to watch, such was the popularity of the show.
It was great fun working on what was one of the country’s most successful TV shows and I learnt so much from Marks and Gran. And although Birds regular Peter Polycarpou wasn’t in the episode I wrote, I got to work with him when he starred in my stage comedy It’s Now or Never! a year later.
But it was an experience I would never have had if Maurice Gran hadn’t decided to slag off one of my shows at Player-Playwrights!