The recently launched Female Pilot Club has been going from strength-to-strength. Here we talk to founders Abigail Burdess and Kay Stonham to find out more, plus Georgia Pritchett who has written one of the scripts due to be showcased at the next event.
Can you explain what Female Pilot Club is?
Abbie: We get great comedy actors to do public read-throughs of brilliant out-of-option comedy scripts by women.
Kay: It's an attempt to raise the profile of female comedy writers and increase the pool of female comedy writing talent known to producers and commissioners. By doing that we hope to increase the number of green-lit comedy series written by women, which historically has been very low.
Why did you setup the club?
Abbie: There's a frankly weird gender imbalance in comedy writing - a recent study by the Writers' Guild found only 11% of broadcast comedy had a woman credited as a writer. We wanted to find a fun way to address that imbalance.
Kay: We also thought it would give women writers the chance to hear their work read by the absolute best comedy talent around and so find out what really works for an audience and what doesn't.
How have the nights you've held so far gone?
Kay: All the writers we've worked with so far - Lorna Woolfson, Julie Bower, Pip Swalllow and Janice Hallett - have found it incredibly useful. They've had lots of approaches and meetings with producers off the back of their readings and landed at least one option. One or two also mentioned that getting the email saying that we had chosen their script was a great boost. We get so many knock-backs as writers it's great to be able to support and promote each other a bit.
Abbie: We've only run the club twice but they've just been amazing nights - we've got wonderful actors to come and support the cause including Jordan Stephens, Kerry Howard, Arabella Weir, Robert Webb, Vivienne Acheampong, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tom Brittney, Lucy Porter, David Brain, Anna Crilly, Amanda Wilkins and loads more. They've both sold out - the second one before we even officially put it on sale or tweeted the link - so they are really good fun. It's a great chance to see real quality comedy actors mucking around up close with some brilliant material.
How do you pick which scripts to showcase? How can writers get involved?
Abbie: First, we choose scripts which are funny - and which will read funny in front of a live audience. There are also some great scripts we read which are more visual, so we're talking about how to frame those so they might work live.
We choose scripts which we can cast successfully. We also look for something that's harder to define - scripts which we feel ought to be aired - the subject matter or the central conceit is something special even if the script might not yet be perfect or the writer might be new - we are looking for a spark - a great story world, an interesting central character, a hell of a dilemma, a beautiful central relationship, a strong voice.
We're not broadcasters so we don't have to worry about what's cheap enough to make - we only have to worry about whether the script has something to say and its said in a funny way. We try to achieve a balance between writers who are already amazingly successful, and know exactly what they are doing and first-timers. Please send your script to email@example.com
Kay: I couldn't add to that! 'What she said!' Oh, wait, yes I can. We're obviously trying to create a great evening in the theatre so we look for two scripts that will work together well. Maybe one broad with copper bottomed gags and one where there are a few more 'thinkers'. But the scripts definitely need gags. You can't hear wry smiles in a comedy club, and Abbie and I like to hear the audience really LAUGH!
Georgia, tell us about your sitcom, which Female Pilot Club will be reading...
Georgia: Bump is about a British couple who are desperate to have a baby. They travel to the United States to find a surrogate. The aim of the script is to explore the relationship between the two couples and examine the pain, anxiety and humour in a situation where the stakes are as high as they get - a human life.
Why did you submit it to Female Pilot Club?
Georgia: I went to the very first Female Pilot Club and thought it was amazing. The scripts I heard were brilliant, the acting fantastic and the whole evening really inspiring. I then contacted Kay and asked if I could send a script to her.
How do you cast the readings?
Abbie: We have a sit down with Emily Chase, our great comedy actor friend who's got the magic touch when it comes to casting, and fantasize about who our dream casting would be - and then we ask them - and amazingly often they say yes. Obviously we're lucky that lots of our brilliant comedy mates have helped - there's been a lot of support for the cause. Casting's a dark art really, sometimes you just get lucky like with Maddie Rice and Jordan Stephens playing the will-they-wont-they in Julie Bower's script and the chemistry was just magical.
Kay: Turns out Abbie, Emily and I know some lovely and very generous people. Also I think actors really support the cause. They'd like to see more female written comedy scripts on TV and are willing to turn out to try and help make that happen, and remember, they're all doing it for free! As are we.
What does a live reading add, as opposed to an executive reading the script in their office in their own time?
Georgia: A reading really brings a script alive. This is when you find out if the characters are working, if the jokes are funny, if the pace and the rhythms are right and if you are telling the story in the best way possible.
Kay: It's the energy and buzz of an 'event'. You can get your friends and the producers who like your work to come and hear it performed brilliantly, and hear people saying how great it was in the bar afterwards. Writers have told us that's energised them to carry on pushing with a script that they really believe in but has had a lot of knock-backs, or alternatively given them the energy and self belief to go off and write an even funnier one!
Abbie: Of course a good producer can 'see' a script, but when you read a load of scripts it's so easy to go script blind. They're used to be more development reads; when your script is in development and gets read by good actors in a TV office somewhere. But, even if you get a development read, getting a laugh in that environment can be tough - because there's no audience, weird air-conditioning, the producer has to leave because their prostate is bothering them, anything can throw off a laugh. In comedy, you have to direct the audience's attention to the same thing at the same time. In drama, maybe, as an audience member you are allowed to be thinking 'Has that actress had a nose-job?' At the same time as 'Did she kill the narc?' but in comedy, two questions at once will kill the laugh. Of course, by the time a script is getting made, a good producer will create a read-through environment in which a script is actually funny, but that's not when you need it, as a writer. You need it when the script is finding its feet, or when you are remembering 'Hey! This script is genius! Why isn't it on TV?'
Female Pilot Club is currently bi-monthly in London. Do you think there's scope to make it more frequent, and/or take it to other locations?
Kay: It would be hard to make it more frequent anytime soon. With no funding yet, this is definitely a labour of love for all concerned and there's only so much time and energy you can expect from people. You can't presume too much on people's goodwill. But we would love to take it on tour round the country and are currently looking for partnering opportunities with venues or festivals who'd like to help us make that happen.
Georgia, in recent years you've worked on American shows like Veep and Succession... is working in US television different from the UK?
Georgia: I've been writing for 28 years now and it wasn't until I worked in America that I worked with other female writers. It was amazing! To be with people with similar experiences, similar frames of reference, people who look and dress a bit like you - was a revelation. To see yourself reflected back is incredibly validating. It must be how white men feel all the time! It made me realise how rare it is for people who aren't white and / or aren't male to see themselves depicted accurately on TV.
I don't feel the sexism in TV comedy has improved in this country in the almost three decades I've been writing. Every single channel in the UK has told me "we already have something with women in it". The fact that the most popular sitcom in recent years stars a man dressed as a woman is thoroughly depressing. In the United States they have always had a tradition of women in leading roles in comedy - Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Roseanne, Ellen - whereas in the UK women played nags or slags for decades in sitcoms. Occasionally they'd get to be a battleaxe. They provided the set up lines, the men got the jokes. And the story. And the interesting roles.
Sorry if that sounds negative - but things REALLY have to change and that's why Female Pilots Club is such a great idea.
Can you give some general writing tips to those looking to create a sitcom?
Georgia: Always start with character. Think about who the people are and what their wants and needs are (which should be very different). You should be able to tell who's speaking if you cover up the names of the characters. And also work out what you want to say to the world.
Abbie: I mean, I don't know if I'm qualified, since I've never managed to get an original TV sitcom made! Don't do whatever I've done!
Actually, whenever I read a script I think 'Where's the short hose?' It was from an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond - this may not be your favourite sitcom but in this episode Raymond's long-suffering wife complains that he bought a hose that was too short, Ray says 'You just put your thumb over the end and the water arcs' - something like that - it's a lovely little character joke, it's satisfying in itself and you forget about it, then, of course, later, when the kitchen curtains are on fire, Ray goes to get the hose, but it's too short, so he puts his thumb over the water and the water arcs, and ITS STILL SHORT OF THE FIRE because Raymond is an idiot. MASSIVE LAUGH. So your script needs a short hose - it needs structure, it needs pay off, and if you can't remember why a joke is there it's probably a hangover from a previous draft, then take it out and leave room for the short hose. I also draw cartoons of all my characters - I find if I can't draw them in cartoon form I don't know who they are well enough. And if you want any more tips take my workshop!
Kay: Ditto. I have managed to get a lot of original comedy series commissioned on radio but not yet cracked it on TV in spite of many pilot script commissions and several near misses. But as to advice... well, I'd say it's never a bad idea to watch and read all the old and the great sitcoms, and to keep up with everything new that comes out (even though that is now insanely difficult to do). I try and make sure I've watched at least one episode of every new British comedy that comes out, and of course I binge like hell on the ones I love. But, then then I think you should completely forget everything you've seen and look at what's going on around you. Out there in the world is where all the great ideas and authentic comedy comes from. Also, I agree with Abbie, the writers that really have stuck out for us are the ones that know how to use structure - also those who don't make their characters moan all time!!
Being a freelance writer is tough. Any tips for surviving the rollercoaster?
Abbie: Work out where the limits of your job are. I used to get depressed because I had a 'to-do' list which said things like 'Get INSERT SITCOM TITLE HERE on BBC1'. Now that's not my job, my job is to 'Write script you'd like to see on BBC1' and 'Send BBC1 script to producers' and possibly 'Chase producers about BBC1 script' but some things are out of your control, and you might not get your sitcom script on BBC One, but the producers might pay you to write an episode of someone else's TV sitcom, or radio show, or drama, and you might enjoy that, and learn a lot from it, and also pay your rent with the proceeds.
I hate hearing from smug bastards who have it easy and then give you shitty life advice like, ''If you're short of money why not let out your stately home to the public six days a year to raise funds?' so it's probably worth saying I've only kept going because my husband earns more than me and I've fleeced him for cash on the bad years. I've also had a load of other money-making jobs and schemes. And there is zero shame in that. It will make you a better writer as well as staving off the incredible loneliness and, you know, scurvy.
Kay: Do whatever it takes to survive, I agree with Abbie that there's no shame at all in 'day jobs,' that's called real life. I think I'd add that if you don't see voices like yours on TV then please please try even harder to keep going and get your writing up there because yours are the voices we need. Much of our comedy has basically been written by clones for the last forty years, and even though many of those clones are my dearest friends I've had enough of them. I want to see comedy from a far broader section of society, and more stuff written by women, working class, BAME and LGBTQ writers would be a bloody good start.
Georgia: Just keep writing! The great thing about being a writer is you can do it anywhere and any time - whether someone is paying you to do it or not. You can write scripts and then try to sell them. And you learn so much every time you write something.
It's notoriously hard to launch a sitcom in the UK. What are your hopes and aspirations for Bump?
Georgia: People watch TV in a different way these days so I don't mind about channels or time slots - I would just like it to be made and to have two great women in the leads.