Lessons from my youth

At the moment I’m staying in the hilly and damp Cotswolds for the occasion of my brother’s wedding. The place I once called “home”.

Since I left “home”, my parents appear to have invested in a whole load of technology I really would have quite liked when I lived here. The most recent acquisition is a DVD recorder/player, something I have in common with Jane Espenson (aside from the fact that I’ve taken to blogging about writing using my own work as examples, to which this entry will be no exception). So I have finally been able to transfer my deteriorating home videos onto DVD where they will last for considerably longer, barring accidents or deliberate sabotage.

By “home videos” I don’t mean hours of holiday footage and my sister cleaning out the rabbit. There was some of that, but from the moment I left the womb I have wanted to make movies and when I bought a camcorder after years of saving up pennies (literally), movies is what I started making. Beginning with the lovely but oddly-named Children of Blibble (my surrealist homage to Toy Story), moving through various Robin Hood, Star Wars and James Bond parodies filmed with my younger cousins, and onto an extremely pretentious hour-long film made on holiday with my A-level friends (wait for it…As the Outside Temperature Rises), I painstakingly put together about fifteen hours’ worth of films, each one edited mostly in-camera then lovingly scored and mixed as far as was possible with a VCR. (I even wrote and recorded theme songs for the Bond films…even for a teenager, I must have had a lot of spare time on my hands.)

None of them are exactly masterpieces, but I swear I learned a hell of a lot about making films – the ambitious sequel to my first opus, Blibble 2000, seems remarkably pacey and well shot given my lack of equipment. And…er…the fact that it was shot entirely in my bedroom with a load of worn toys. No really – it even has a Back to the Future-esque time paradox, all the more impressive given that they were all made up as I went along. It is clear to me that even six or seven years ago, improvising nonsense before I knew anything about improvising, I still knew more about structuring stories than Russell T Davies does now.

Which probably says more about him than it does about me.

Being something of a completist, I have also spent many hours searching through old videos for other unique material I might rescue, knowing that even before I bought a camcorder, I very occasionally managed to borrow one. And this has yielded some fascinating footage. Mostly just plain bizarre, like a video of a fourteen-year-old James Lark miming to a recording of “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers” in an astonishingly weird parody of Kylie. But particularly interesting is half an hour of sketches I recorded at the tender age of fifteen with my friend Matthew.

The sketches are mostly very dull. There are a few moments of enjoyable visual humour, like a sped up video of two puppets fighting (oddly amusing) and a “public information video” about how to make your camera angles interesting, which is clearly copied directly from a Monty Python sketch. And lots of falling off deck chairs, for no apparent reason.

But on the whole, what it reminds me of is an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie. By which I don’t mean for a minute that Fry and Laurie are mostly very dull – they’re not – and it is clear that three of the things they had which we didn’t were Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and a script.

But in format it’s very similar, which is hardly surprising because back then A Bit of Fry and Laurie was the sketch show I had seen most often and most enjoyed. And I think I’m right in saying that this was before the short-sketch-short-attention-span format of The Fast Show had made its impact. Certainly it hadn’t on me. So apart from a few brief flashes of randomness, my youthful offering is a series of sketches which all last for about six minutes. As I say, without scripts or any discernable talent for improvisation, the result is far from entertaining.

But what the sketches do have – and this again I think is very Fry and Laurie – is some sort of basic concept, or idea, which is the reason for the sketch and occasionally makes their openings quite funny. There’s a scene in which a German tries to mug a Frenchman and because neither speak the other’s language they try to conduct the mugging in patchy English. There’s one where I march towards the house in a bowler hat and ring the doorbell; Matthew answers it.

Me: (angrily) I understand you wish to marry my daughter!
Matthew: (bemused) Er…no.
Me: (pause) Oh, right. (pause) She’s very nice…

If only we’d had the presence of mind to end it there, it would have worked.

And we probably should have been able to see that’s what it needed, not least because the best moment is a twenty second sketch: we’re eating breakfast, I say “pass the cereal, will you?”, Matthew picks up the cereal, does a rugby pass, I catch it, run down the garden and score a try. Again, it’s hardly comedy genius, but it’s unexpected and even made me chuckle.

If I was Jane Espenson I’d try to turn all this into a piece of advice, so I suppose my conclusion is this: if you can’t write, keep your sketches short and you might get away with it.

Or more usefully, I suppose it comes back to the golden rule of narrative improv which is to finish your scene when you’ve made your point and not drag it out for another four minutes.

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