Writer/Performer Alex Lynch explains how he got his BBC Radio 4 comedy about work experience commissioned... whilst on work experience...
Before I tell you this story, let me just nip any cynical preconceptions in the bud by saying I had no close connections, my family are not in the industry, I'm not from Oxbridge - or indeed from any university - and I didn't have an agent (I still don't by the way). I suppose the best way I can sum up this strange turn of events is that I happened to be in the right place at the right time... but I did also work hard, persist and do a tonne of soul-destroying jobs for very little pay to get to this stage. One of those jobs (since you're asking) was being a human doorstop at a hotel when its revolving doors broke. I worked 7am until 7pm. It was a high point in my life.
When I was 20, I wrote a TV script about two rival interns, Tim and Miranda, on work experience in TV production. Over the next few years I would try and shop this round to companies to see if anyone was interested. The feedback was always an encouraging 'no'. It wasn't until 3 years later, when a radio producer suggested that I try writing for the 15 minute late night slot on Radio 4, that I came up with the idea for what eventually became Expenses Only.
It was 2014 and, without going into the grizzly details, I was having a really bad year. Death, trauma, heart-break (all the favourites) but most of all, I suddenly found I couldn't get work - at all! I'm from Brighton and, because of the inconsistency of freelance work and not knowing from where or when my next job was coming, I had to commute. I had become sick of working as a Runner on TV sets and wanted to move up, but not only could I not find a more senior job, I couldn't even find a runner job that didn't require you to either have your own car or live in London - because at 22/23 we can all afford that on £250-300 a week, right?!
I'd spent so much time job-hunting that it had almost become a job in itself. I was having to regress to doing internships and work experience just to keep in work, even if it was unpaid. I was still writing, or trying to. I'd been short-listed for a few things but generally my writing was going nowhere and, with such fierce competition, I was starting to seriously consider jacking it in.
In August 2014, I felt I needed a change of direction. I think it was the moment I was working on a hellish TV shoot in August and the 3rd Assistant Director lambasted me for putting one of the actor's sandwiches in a napkin because there were no plates, saying it was 'weird and unacceptable'. For those of you who aren't trained in this etiquette, the correct solution should have been to 'put it in a cup'... because, as we all know, nothing says normal like a sandwich in a cup.
I decided I wanted to move into radio but having had no previous work in radio, I had to bite the bullet and go back to work experience. I managed to secure a 2 week placement with Brighton-based radio company, Pier Productions. The Managing Director, Peter Hoare, asked to read a radio script after I mentioned that I wrote comedy. All I had was an early draft of Expenses Only which I'd written a month before, so I gave it to him. Incredibly, he liked it - not just liked it but told me that the Radio 4 Autumn Comedy commissioning round was coming up and he wanted to submit it.
After a number of different commissioning stages and proposals, I got a call in December from Peter telling me "Congratulations Alex, you're now a commissioned writer for Radio 4." I cannot even begin to tell you how that felt, to come from having absolutely nothing to show for my work to suddenly getting a 4-part series commissioned - I was only just 24! I owe everything both to Peter and to Caroline Raphael (the then Comedy Commissioning Editor at Radio 4), for having faith in, and taking a risk on a completely unknown writer. I wish there more people like them in this industry.
I had always wanted to make a show that was part-sketch and part-sitcom - I loved shows that played around with the format, one classic example and the main inspiration for the show being On The Hour. I decided to bring in a Narrator who became a character in himself and then also managed to incorporate relevant sketches I had written previously. Amazingly, they just slotted into place - it never once felt like I was crow-barring anything into the project, it was simply that they worked for that point in the show and they suited the style and format.
When I was writing the rest of the series, I had decided to set each episode with Tim and Miranda from the original script in a different industry. For this, I chose jobs both I and friends of mine had worked in; Advertising, Graphic Design and Journalism. I made the two characters come from different backgrounds so as not to appear biased in any way. For the third episode, which I had earmarked as 'Politics', I put out a request for some political stories and that's when Charlotte Michael got in touch. Charlotte and I had worked together before on a couple of things, but not as writers. We met up and her stories of working in Politics were so brilliant that I invited her to co-write the episode. Charlotte also became a very helpful second pair of eyes during editing and shaping scripts for the rest of the series.
On 1st July 2015, at the Bush Hall, we recorded the entire series of Expenses Only to a live audience... on the hottest day of the year, with no air conditioning. One of our cast members was also 8 months pregnant, but everybody in that room stayed and sweated it out for the whole evening like absolute heroes. I'm hoping most of the laughter on the track isn't just delirious.
We had a very large, talented ensemble cast thanks to our Director, Celia De Wolff/p], and ironically, we even had a young lad doing work experience on the day. Obviously, I degraded and treated him abysmally purely to highlight that I had learnt absolutely nothing from my experiences.
Aside from the fact that this is a subject I am all too familiar with, I chose to write about internships because I was annoyed at the time by interns being heavily misrepresented on TV. In a show that featured a character doing work experience, they were either meek and mild or gormless and stupid. The joke was always 'look at this twat who can't perform the most simple task' completely side-stepping the fact that most interns are being pulled every which way by everyone in the company, one which already expects them to know and do everything whilst not being paid. Also, work experience candidates are always portrayed as under 20. Generally, most of us are early twenties and, in some cases, older than that. Not that we're bragging about this...
I should point out that I'm not saying all work experience is terrible. I'm 25 now and I am actually very pro it, although I may not be selling it well; it is a useful way of getting a foot in the door. Some companies are very encouraging and endeavour to make it worthwhile for you, others are less thoughtful. I personally found hands-on work much more helpful to me in the long run than I would have found with say a media degree, but it all depends on the type of person you are; it's horses for courses and other such platitudes.
Well that's enough from me. Please listen to the show - I've no doubt my jokes about getting the coffee order wrong will inspire you all to go out and make something of yourselves. To those of you still slogging away in unpaid turmoil, just remember that persistence does pay off - and if it doesn't, well it's all good experience, isn't it? ISN'T IT?!
Expenses Only is on Radio 4 from Wednesday 13th July at 11pm.