Writing Comedy for TV

Vanessa Haynes prepares for her workshop at the Aspects Irish Literature Festival in Bangor with some choice advice

As part of the 22nd Aspects Irish Literature Festival in Bangor, which runs from September 25 – 29, the world of TV writing is highlighted with a workshop from top industry professional Vanessa Haynes on September 26 at the Marine Court Hotel.

Haynes joined LWT Comedy in the mid 1990s, where she worked in development under legendary producer Humphrey Barclay. She later joined Celador Productions, Kudos and Steve Coogan's Baby Cow, and has recently set up her own company, Mighty Sprite. She is one of the most dynamic script editors in the business.

Born in Middlesex and brought up in Buckinghamshire, Haynes attended a mixed secondary school in High Wycombe. 'We were pretty poor growing up,' she recalls, 'and, like a large chunk of my contemporaries in the late 80s, university wasn’t a realistic or even an obvious option.

'So I spent my early 20s working in all kinds of dead-end jobs. I could say that none of that has informed my work now, or the shows I naturally lean towards, but I’d probably be lying.'

Come the 90s, Haynes found herself working in the LWT press office as an assistant to the head of press. Unsure of what she wanted to do in television at the time, she worked on the basis that if she just said ‘yes’ to everything she might blunder upon a direction for her career.

Asked to conduct interviews for the LWT in-house magazine, she found herself interviewing the newly appointed head of comedy, Humphrey Barclay. 'Humph was a bit of a comedy legend,' Haynes explains with no little understatement. 'A former Cambridge Footlights-er, along with the Pythons, the Goodies and the late Sir David Frost among many others.

'As we spoke I realised I’d seen or heard pretty much everything he’d been involved in. I also realised that comedy existed as an actual industry. I was so excited by the revelation that I completely forgot to press the record button on my Dictaphone, and we were forced to conduct the whole interview again.'

Inspired, Haynes began spending as much time in the comedy department as she could, watching recordings of studio shows and writing script reports. When an opening came up for a script assistant's post, she was invited to apply.

'Whilst there I was lucky enough to see Spaced go into formal development and get to know the likes of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peepshow fame, as well as Kevin Riley and Andy Cecil, who helped write Black Books and went on to write Hyperdrive for BBC.'

From LWT, Haynes moved onto working as a script editor (later senior editor and storyliner) for The Bill. After more than four years, she moved on to independent production company Celador, where she worked as head of comedy development/development executive for just short of five years.

'That was a really, really wonderful time,' she says. 'Humph had been cajoled out of retirement by a former colleague, and native Northern Irishman, Paul Smith. Humph didn’t want to return to TV full-time, so suggested that Paul bring me in to run the slate and find the new talent.'

And find it she did, developing a wealth of talent. Whilst some of the projects didn’t get the ‘green light’, some did, including Live! Girls! Present Dogtown by Beth and Emma Kilcoyne, Angel Cake by Keith Temple and Skin Deep by Mark Oswin and James Griffiths.

'A lot of the writing talent I championed went on to do all sorts of great things,' Haynes explains. 'Rob and Neil Gibbons with Alpha Papa, Lawrence Rickard and George Sawyer with Horrible Histories and Amy Shindleer and Beth Chalmers with Pat and Cabbage.'

When it comes to her personal favourites of the projects she has been involved in, most viewers wouldn’t recognise the programme titles that Haynes cites.

'Actually, two of my favourites never even made it to screen. One, Facing Up, was piloted with ITV and set in the world of lookalikes. I cast Mark Heap in the lead with John Thomson, Tom Watt and Samantha Womack (then Janus) completing the ensemble.

'The writers behind it were relatively new at the time – Mark Oswin and James Griffiths – but we had such a blast making the show and couldn't quite believe it when the new head of the channel decided not to pursue it further. But that is the nature of development. Another project close to my heart was set in Afghanistan, but we were pipped to the post by another channel with a project on the same subject.'

Did she find that annoying? 'It’s just one of those things. We’re all seeing the same news, getting excited about the same things, reading the same papers, scandalised or inspired by the same events, so it’s inevitable. You just have to move on and be assured that, at least you were on the right track.'

From Celador, Haynes moved on to Steve Coogan and Henry Normal’s Baby Cow production company as development producer, then Assembly Media for a year before she moved to Kudos Film and Television working on developing Northern Irish writing talent in 2009.

'There’s a new generation of comedy talent slowly coming through, particularly writers, which is where my area of interest lies. Also in live comedy, which hasn't yet got a consistent indigenous presence in Belfast, but there are people trying to change that. With writers here, I've found they are more likely to look towards film or stage before thinking about television, but I am trying to get them to rethink that.'

Some may wonder if comedy from Northern Ireland can translate to a UK wide audience, as there isn’t much of a track record in that regard, aside from the likes of Patrick Kielty carving a niche for himself as a television and radio presenter.

'Do I think the dialect/slang/sensibilities can translate to a UK audience?' Haynes asks. 'Yes, I do. There have been some great examples in recent years of comedies being of and transcending their geographical setting. Shows like Hebburn, Gavin and Stacey and Mrs Brown's Boys.

'But I'm not convinced any particular country or region can take ownership of a style of comedy. In this day and age, when international inspiration is there at our fingertips, and comedy talent can broadcast themselves, I would say it’s clearer than ever that comedy has to have a universality at its heart.'

So what makes her laugh? 'Lots of things. Particularly those things that have something to say about life today. And absolutely anything that involves Amy Poehler (of Parks and Recreations fame). Or dogs on skateboards.'

Haynes set up her own company, Mighty Sprite, in January 2012 to develop her own slate of comedy and drama projects with a view to UK network. As well as that, she works as a script consultant, and is currently involved with a new project from of the talent behind Terri Hooley biopic, Good Vibrations.

'I’m working with Glenn Patterson and Colin Carberry, as well as the producer Chris Martin. They’re hugely talented people, and Glenn and Colin are astoundingly good writers. I'm very excited about their next project, but I'm afraid I can't tell you anything other than it’s a fabulous script. So you'll just have to trust me there and watch this space.'

Haynes has also set up a six-month sitcom writing scheme for Northern Irish writers. The scheme came to an end in March 2013, and was funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

'It was an invitation-only scheme for writers I'd come across already,' says Haynes. 'It was a great opportunity, and challenge, to get half a dozen local writers in a room to cook up a comedy collaboratively from scratch. We’re still working together now, so it can't have been that awful.  

'I felt, and still feel, that the comedy community here needs to be a little more joined up in its thinking. Writing is a very isolating and lonely experience, and it was great to see writers come together in a more formal capacity and spark off each other. And that's really what I'm hoping to see more of, writers inspiring each other and also working collaboratively with performers.'

The benefits of collaboration is just one of the things Haynes will be discussing during her workshop as part of the Aspects Irish Literature Festival, which will focus on the all-important pilot episode. So what makes a good comedy pilot?

'Put very simply, a good pilot episode hits the ground running. It’s clearly indicative of what we can expect from the series. Think of it as a show home where the tone is the colour scheme, the characters are the furniture and... before I run out of an awkward analogy, the stories are set up and explored in a way that is typical of the series to come.

'A great pilot will not feel like a pilot at all but immerse you into a world, the characters and dynamics, as quickly as possible. That's the short answer. If you want to know more, come on down to the session.'

Vanessa Haynes' TV writing workshops takes place at 2pm on September 26 at the Marine Court Hotel, priced £10. The workshop is strictly limited to a maximum of 20 people. Visit the Aspects Irish Literature Festival website for more information.