I wrote other spec scripts and sent those off to production companies and the BBC but no one was interested. I thought about evolving a novel out of one of them, a non-science fiction story set in a boys’ school, but the story was incredibly dark and I had become wary about wasting yet more time on something that would just get rejected again.
I couldn’t forget the book. As with that long ago theatre company I imagined that I could somehow get ‘Diamond Roads’ out there myself. I bought the diamondroads.com domain and started to develop material to put on a website. The novel’s chapters were quite small and I thought I could develop a short story out of each chapter and post one every week. I wrote one of these stories and then another but each one took a lot longer than I expected.
I developed a logo and tried to think of ways that the site could make enough money to pay for everything I wanted it to be with interactive games, decent artwork and graphics. As with the two sequel screenplays, the character, world and story were both substantially developed by this work and I looked again at the novel with a view to turning it into a screenplay, a straightforward one distilled from the novel but far simpler that would be cheap to produce.
I didn’t do it because I realised that being a screenwriter in the UK is a bit like being a big-game hunter in the UK. There just aren’t the elephants. As for the website, I didn’t have the resources to do what I wanted and I couldn’t bear for it to be substandard. I’m cursed with the need to do things properly. It’s annoying, even to me.
Like most writers, I had clung on by my fingernails for years with no results at all. Somehow, I needed to get my stuff out there. Screenplays took too long to complete, as long as novels. Although the word count is smaller you have to write the equivalent of a novel just to know who your characters are.
I saw an ad for a short course in comedy sketch writing and applied. Whatever the genre, my stuff has always had humour in it. Like science fiction, humour is essentially subversive both politically and narratively. The good stuff never does what you expect. Wouldn’t it be better to write a load of comedy quickly in the hope that if some of it was rejected some might get through?
The problem with sketches though is that you need someone to perform them with and I have always been a lone warrior. I don’t say that in any grandiose way. Someone at an interview told me that’s what I was and that the reason I wasn’t getting the job was because they were after a team player. Fair enough. All the things I’ve loved to do, from sabre fencing to writing have been solitary and Charity Freestone is a loner as well.
On the course was a lad called Imran Yusuf who was also doing a stand-up comedy course. That appealed to me far more than sketches and eventually I did the same. I spent five years doing stand-up and loved (almost) every minute of it. Like any creative endeavour though it’s a craft and one that takes a long time to learn. After all that time I finally had a decent twenty-minute set. I also did three stand-up comedy shows at the Edinburgh Festival, which I’d first gone to as a stage manager for a fringe production in 1993 and dreamed of returning to. The first comedy show got the worst review of anything I’ve ever read for anything ever and I nearly quit again but I was stronger now and clung on. I was a better comedian as a result and my next shows were better.
I also had a comedy pilot produced for BBC 7. It was called ‘Wonderworld’ and this time I was in it. It’s got some great jokes but I’m no Alan Cumming. The production was for another competition, this one called ‘Witty & Twisted’. Unlike the first one in 1993, there was a prize, which was production of a series. My idea, about a crap theme park, was based on experience from my day job, as ‘Burn Your Phone’ had been. It too had a radio shaped idea in that staff at theme parks and other attractions constantly talk nonsense into walkie-talkies, so again there are many pictures that can be painted with dialogue and sound. My next blog will detail the recording.
I didn’t win and get the series produced but the producer Ben Walker and I put together a proposal for a four part series and submitted it. It was turned down. I never found out why. The reason was “insufficient slots” whatever that means.
Instead I had the chance to submit non-commissioned gags for radio comedy shows. After five weeks of work, two were accepted. I got £15. It was as if the harder I worked and the better I got, the less well I did. None of my sketches were accepted. Something died in me, probably my love for the BBC.
I ran a comedy club with my wife Vicky (not the poet). True to our love of science fiction it was called ‘Comedy Rocket’. The first one was in Waterloo, which you would think would be close enough to the centre of everything to pull a decent crowd but the bit our club was in was actually deserted once the commuters left for the day and we stopped it after six months. The next one, above the Round Table in Leicester Square was much more successful and the one in my brother Adam’s pub in Somerset actually made money.
By now I was working as a project manager for themed attractions. It’s a demanding job at the best of times although I love it. Doing comedy was another job on top of that one and it was killing me. I had to decide to either pack in the day job and try and get comedy gigs even though they hardly pay or stick to the day job. I chose the job because although stand-up comedy is awesome, literally the nearest a mortal can get to having a superpower when it goes well, telling the same jokes night after night appealed less than a job in which I got to build rides, make films and help create shows.
There were more personal reasons as well. My friend from college Gary Smith died of cancer. It’s the first time someone my age had died. This tragedy made me realise that I had to decide what was important to me. I’d done a lot of work to understand myself in my years in London. I finally felt I was alright as I was instead of thinking that being a professional writer would solve all my problems as I had always secretly felt it would. Finally and most importantly, I became a father. I just didn’t have the time to truck around motorways all night in order to tell knob jokes to students.
I did my final gig on 1 June 2010. We had just moved to our new flat and everything was beautiful. I had written a few more stories because I can’t not write, and during the stand up years I spent more time travelling and doing admin that actually writing. I decided that this would be what I would do, just write short stories for family and friends. I knew that short stories, like science fiction, were anathema to the publishing industry, but no matter. I would just send stuff around by email and that would be it. There would be nobody to say no.