As a leading scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant I get lots and lots of request from writers asking for notes on their spec sitcom script– often they’re requesting notes AFTER the script has been turned down by the BBC Writersroom.
Usually the BBC Writersroom doesn’t provide notes on scripts that don’t get past the first leg (and there’s often 4000+ plus scripts that get knocked back at each window). This leaves writers rudderless and wondering exactly what’s wrong with their sitcom script?
UK Script Consultant
If you want to find out what’s wrong with your script, I’d suggest that BEFORE you send your sitcom script anywhere – You GET FEEDBACK from a Pro Script Consultant FIRST. Notes from me, or someone like me can help you get your script onto the next round of the competition – or from the ‘No’ pile across to the ‘Consider’ pile. But you need to get the notes before not after, in an ideal world.
Sitcom’s are so hard to launch anyway – especially for writers starting out.
Without a literary agent – there are almost no places to send a sitcom in the UK.
Nearly all UK production companies WILL NOT ACCEPT unsolicited scripts for very good legal reasons. UK prod companies will accept scripts from agents only – and even then might not read them!
The BBC Writersroom is THE only place to send scripts and get them read – but it won’t make or put into production unsolicited scripts – the BBC Writersroom remit is to find writers it can mould into writers on original shows like ‘Eastenders’ etc. It has only ever put into production one script (in a 25+ year history).
Generally, there is almost NO WAY to launch and original sitcom in the UK without a track record – there are many writers with successful track records in sitcom who can’t get one made now.
Sitcoms aren’t been made for the same reasons original drama became so limited in the UK– there are very limited slots in UK TV, and the likes of Bake Off/Masked Singer/Love Island/Gogglebox and other reality shows deliver FAR bigger audiences and costs a FRACTION of original scripted TV be that comedy or drama (or sitcom).
If the BBC/ITV does want a sitcom – there are many experienced sitcom writers out there to approach (who probably have a desk draw full of scripts / concepts). The BBC/CH4 is more likely to go with people who have delivered in the past. But as I said, the cost is prohibitive compared to cheap reality TV concepts – which deliver bigger viewing figures).
Recent sitcom critical successes (Toast of London) have not translated into viewing figures. So, it’s essentially for the UK market at least, an almost impossible nut to crack.
Sitcoms are not getting commissioned from seasoned professionals – so it’s impossible to go in with no track record as a sitcom writer and get a show made (just won’t happen).
On top of the realities of the business…
Trust me, I’m a script doctor
The pilot of a sitcom is one of the toughest things to write in TV comedy. Here’s why…
Go back and have a look at the first episode of ‘Only Fools…’ it staggers around a lot, trying to find the correct tone. The whole first series does that a little. Even John Sullivan struggled.
The aim of a first episode is to establish characters, the general situation, and be funny as well.
This is a terrifically difficult thing to do in the space of just 30 minutes. Especially when it comes to CHARACTERS, because the characters are the most important element in a sitcom (despite it being situation comedy) the characters and audience feelings about the characters will be the difference between sinking or swimming.
You need a Del Boy, a Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, a Mr Mainwaring, Fletch in Porridge, a Hyacinth Bucket, a Stephen Toast, a Father Ted, a Fraser, even a Mrs Brown etc.
These characters need to be upfront, at the centre of the show and need to be established quickly.
Sitcom characters can grow, but they rarely change. For example, Del Boy is pretty much the same person all the way through the series right up to the end of the show, but beyond that, crucially, Del Boy is the same person from episode to episode.
For example: DEL might lose money on an unlikely deal at the end of one episode, but by the start of the next ep he’ll try against all odds to do the exact same unlikely deal or scam again. It’s like he’s stuck, by his own character to try and try again and never learn (He Who Dares…).
Because Del never learns or changes, it means the situation doesn’t either. It’s in his character to try constantly. Sitcom characters that don’t learn or change (Basil Fawlty, David Brent) are the core of a great show.
Mrs Brown will always be an overbearing mother, Fraser’s snobbish attitude will never change, Basil will forever be stuck in Fawlty Towers, raging against, anything and everything…
Harold should move out of his Dad’s house in Steptoe and Son, but he never will. We know this, and the characters will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. Ricky Gervias’s character in The Office ‘David Brent’, will never be a good manager, he can grow a little, become a bit more self aware, but ‘BIG’ change isn’t possible. He’ll always reach for his guitar, or say something inappropriate… A real BIG change in character – would kill off the show.
That sort of dynamic and character is very difficult to establish. That’s why an awful lot of sitcoms fail, and it’s why we have endless repeats of shows like Dad’s Army, Porridge, Only Fools etc – because these shows, despite being old, have nailed a formula that when it works, is very satisfying.
The situation itself is next –Rag and Bone man, Office Manager, Wheeler dealer, Hotel Owner, Prisoner behind bars (Porridge) crap TV presenter (Partridge) etc… These need to be original and compelling.
And then, there are the supporting characters. Seriously take a good look at ‘Only Fools’ supporting cast, beyond Rodney, Uncle Albert/Granddad, Only Fools also had –
- Boycie (could have had a sitcom on his own and I think did for a bit)
- Trigger (could have had a sitcom on his own)
- Slater (could have had a sitcom on his own)
- Mickey Pearce (could have had a sitcom on his own)
- Denzel (could have had a sitcom on his own)
- Raquel/ Marlene/ Cassandra (all three together are better than Birds of a Feather characters)
Recognisable, understandable and funny characters that make instant impressions on the audience – and these are just background support.
How to get a UK literary agent
UK agents are always on the lookout for good new writers, with a realistic attitude towards the business and of course a great script or two.
Agents want to take on writers who that they can secure work for. That means …
The sample script the writer sends the agent – the agent will ask- is something they can send out to a number of producers across lots of genres?
So, in that regard, sitcom or comedy/drama is the perfect genre to pick.
This is because a comedy/drama script can be sent to the producers of Eastenders, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, Emmerdale etc. But it can also be sent to the producers of kids TV, or children’s animation.
And the same script can also be sent to Doctors, and Casualty/Holby.
- The above returning shows need new writers on a regular basis.
- And the agent will need regular commissions to keep you on the books.
And believe me, agents will sack off writers who aren’t earning, and an agent won’t take on writers who aren’t open to writing the above shows.
Your original script will NOT get made. Your original script is there to get you WORK. It’s there to get you an agent, and get you work on regular shows, where a new writer can learn their trade proper and build up contacts, good will, and a reputation for being a good professional writer who will deliver filmable scripts on a regular basis without fuss.
After spending a good few years in the trenches of TV writing, working on regular episodes of the shows mentioned above – only then, will producers start to pay attention to any original scripts or ideas for shows that you have.
Agents have people walk through the door from time to time with great original scripts – but an unrealistic attitude, and turn their noses up at writing shows as mentioned above.
That writer won’t get anywhere (the agent may take them on for a while, hoping for a change of attitude – but eventually the agent will let them go). Happens all the time.
So, the two things needed to get an agent are:
- Good script the agent can send out as a sample and secure work
- Good realistic attitude from the writer about getting regular commissions and experience.
And on shows like Doctors/Casualty and the soaps (Emmerdale, Coronation Street) you WILL GET plenty of experience very quickly –
Typically, Emmerdale/Coronation Street/Hollyoaks are on a three month turn around – the writer gets commissioned for an episode (two week turn around on two/three drafts) and three months later the episode is ON SCREEN.
There are no other training grounds in TV like this, and writers will learn quickly. Not sure if a joke works? Not sure if you got the tone right in a big scene? You’ll find out the same time as millions watching if you nailed it or not. It’s the best way to learn.
If you need a script report or script coverage (and you do) – email me on firstname.lastname@example.org – I won’t bite and treat all writers of whatever level with respect .
Matthew Cooper has been a scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.
Matthew is also a director of feature films including the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham’ which was released in 2020. Matthew’s second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ was released in July 2021.