To have a sketch broadcast on Newsjack is an incredible achievement. You’ve nailed the Five F’s and delivered something that has stood out from hundreds of submissions.
Nice one! You’re the best!
But what about the rest of us losers?
It’s quite easy to listen to a wonderfully written sketch and become disheartened. How could one person ever write something as good as that?
The truth is that it’s unlikely to be the work of one person. What you’re hearing is the final product of a journey that started as a headline…
Everybody has their own process. Some people like to get hands on with an actual newspaper, others have particular websites they visit for sources. My method is to use the News app on my phone.
I am currently subscribed to 42 different channels and following 51 topics, covering a diverse range of political opinions, subject matters, and regional scope. This has built a feed of headlines from across the world and ensures that I get the BIG stories from multiple perspectives and also obscure articles on pizzas, dogs, and dogs eating pizzas.
During each series of Newsjack I spend my time trawling through this feed. If something jumps out as having potential, I’ll ‘heart’ it and create a bookmark to return to nearer the deadline. If I see something and also have a take on it at that moment, I’ll copy/paste the headline and maybe key points from the article into my notes app. I’ll label it as a sketch or one liner and drop in a couple of thoughts/jokes/character ideas.
From this point I’m going to use a real example of the process I went through starting in my news app and ending up with a broadcast sketch in Series 20 Episode 1.
Step 1 – The Headline
Okay, The Guardian, you’ve got my attention.
This is a headline that feels like it has potential. There’s room to have a play here and it doesn’t appear to be a front page story that loads of people will jump on. Feels more like a sketch than a one liner. Maybe something putting Victorian themes into a modern environment, a workplace perhaps?
Step 2 – Notes App
At this stage, I’ll type in some very basic thoughts. This story is about the return of illnesses which were known for being excruciatingly painful. It’s a cheap shot, but I’ll note down that this could be compared to the recent Spice Girls reunion. There’s a potential one liner there, but it also could form part of the host’s intro to a sketch.
Still keen on the idea of showing the impact of these illnesses in a relatable modern environment. Where would there be conflict? The workplace…management…a return to work interview. This would provide an opportunity for a good back and forth.
I tend to do most of my writing on my phone. I have numerous apps installed to do this (Final Draft, Word, Ulysses)…but often stick with the basic notes app. It doesn’t suit everyone but I’m a big fan of walking and writing.
So now that I’ve got my story, a very basic premise and the makings of an intro gag, I tap out a loose first draft.
Step 3 – The Phone Draft
As this is in the notes app, I don’t know exactly how long the script will be on the page and I don’t bother with any formatting or character names. I always try to include as many people in the cast as possible and often use the introduction of new characters to provide a twist (which isn’t ALWAYS advisable…you’ll see in a bit).
Here is that initial draft.
Research shows that Dickensian illnesses are making a shocking comeback in the U.K.. It’s the biggest resurgence of an excruciatingly painful epidemic from a bygone era since the Spice Girls announced their reunion tour.
Look, I’m always in favour of a good sickie. But even I, somebody who was once signed off with acute Malteaser exhaustion, can’t help wondering how this will impact on already stretched workplaces.
Good to see you back Debbie. Sorry to have to call you in but we need to run through your return to work interview.
Ok, let’s see. Reason for absence?
The extremely contagious and deadly virus which until this exact moment was believed to be eradicated? How are you feeling now?
Much better. The blindness has started to ease off now that some of the blisters on my cornea have erupted.
And when you phoned you said something about also experiencing symptoms of…
Oh, Blue death.
Let’s just the diet was a MASSIVE success. (Begins to cough, basically vomits). Nothing left in the system except gas and tar now.
And are there any reasonable adjustments we can make to assist your return?
Well, as you may have noticed my left foot has disintegrated down to a blunt rotten stump after developing fire-foot so maybe the code for the disabled loo?
Okay, now in line with company policy I do need to advise that you’re showing as red on the sickness tracker. In fact we’ve had to go to the darkest shade of red available before technically becoming black to highlight just how much of a problem you are.
I didn’t realise this was mahogany serious.
Oh it’s mahogany alright. Over the last six months you’ve phoned in with TB, scurvy, whooping cough, exploding elbows, measles, George Ezra face, double-gout, scon-mouth…
It’s actually scone-mouth. Regional thing. Like the old bread roll or bun debate. Speaking of which, I also had baguette-leg.
The only one I can discount is the particularly bad case of man flu. You have my sympathies there.
It’s not my fault. It’s that accounts manager. He and his boys in accounting keep coming in when they’re sick and spreading it around.
Mr Fagin would be the first person to say that he isn’t a saint but I find it hard to see that he’s as black as you paint.
Mr Fagin, you got a minute?
Alright sir, what can I do you for this fine morning?
I know you’re super busy but Debbie here has suggested that you may be spreading germs in the office.
(Cough) nothing of the sort sir. Picture of fine health here. (Vomits)
That’s what I thought.
Oh and Mr Fagin.
Can I have my wallet back please you old scamp?
We have fun here. I’ll get you next time ya Mudlark.
Sorry I’m late boss. I had a weird night.
Let me guess; crumblenose, turniptose, moulding mouth syndrome…
Visited by three ghosts. It’s all good though. After some serious reflection I have a brand new outlook on life. Going to do a Costa run if you want anything, on me!
We really need to stop using that 1800’s recruitment agency. Sure the labours cheap but at what cost…what cost…
I edit as I go until I have something that is as close to a workable sketch as I can get. Then I email to myself and switch the computer on.
Step 4 – The Newsjack Template
A quick copy and paste of the raw text into the Newsjack template. At this stage I apply the necessary formatting and now can see how long my sketch is overrunning (no more than three pages is the goal). It’s always overrunning.
So now it looks like this (kinda…the formatting’s been lost a bit):
Victorians in the Workplace
KIRI: Research has shown that Dickension illnesses are making a comeback in the UK. It’s the most concerning resurgence of an excruciating epidemic from a bygone era, since The Spice Girls announced their reunion. Look, I’m always in favour of a good sickie. But even I, somebody who was once signed off with Malteaser exhaustion, can’t help wondering how this will impact on workplaces.
BOSS: Good to see you back Debbie. We just need to run through your return to work chat. Let’s see. Reason for absence?
DEBBIE: Small pox.
BOSS: The extremely contagious and deadly virus? How are you feeling now?
DEBBIE: Much better. The blindness has started to ease off now that some of the blisters on my cornea have erupted.
BOSS: When you phoned you mentioned experiencing symptoms of…
DEBBIE: Blue death.
BOSS: Cleared now?
DEBBIE: Let’s just say the diet was a MASSIVE success.
BOSS: Are there any adjustments we can make to assist your return?
DEBBIE: You may have noticed that my left foot has rotted down to a weeping stump resembling a part-gnawed wet potato. So maybe the code for the disabled loo?
BOSS: In line with company policy I do need to advise that you’re showing as red on the absence tracker. It’s so bad in fact, I’ve had to use the darkest shade of red available.
DEBBIE: I didn’t realise this was mahogany serious.
BOSS: Over six months you’ve had TB, measles, scurvy, whooping cough, gout, double-gout, exploding elbows, and George Ezra face.
DEBBIE: It’s not my fault! That accounts manager keeps spreading his germs!
BOSS: I find that hard to believe. Sure he ain’t a saint, but, well…
SFX: DOOR OPENING.
BOSS: Have you got a minute Fagin, me old mucker?
SFX: MORRIS DANCER WALKING.
FAGIN: ‘Ello gov’na, what can I do ya for?
BOSS: You’ve not been coming in with contagious symptoms have you mate?
FAGIN: (COUGH) nothing of the sort. A picture of fine health. (VOMITS)
BOSS: Right. Now that’s cleared up can we get some work done?
SFX: FAST FOOT STEPS.
EMPLOYEE: (OUT OF BREATH) Sorry I’m late sir. I had the most perculiur of nights.
BOSS: Let me guess; crumble-nose, turnip-toes, mouldy-mouth syndrome…
EMPLOYEE: Visited by three ghosts and after some serious reflection, I have a brand new outlook on life. Costa coffees for everyone! …No cakes.
BOSS: (SIGHS) We really need to stop using that Victorian recruitment agency. Sure the labours cheap but at what cost…what cost…Oi, give me my wallet back Fagin, ya scamp!
I’m happy with the script. But I’ll sit on it until close to the deadline in case I think of any extra gags. Then it’s time to attach to an email and fire off to Newsjack. Now I wait until Thursday in the hope that my submission makes the show.
Step 5 – Waiting.
While I’m sat here doing nothing, the script is running through the internal processes of Newsjack. This is where the real magic happens. It’s at this stage where the script could have some minor tweaks made to it…or it could basically be entirely re-written.
I’ve had sketches of “mine” which made the record. When I’ve read the revised scripts, all that’s remained from my draft is the intro.
This shows how much a concept counts. Even if you mess up the script, if you’ve hit on a really good take on a story – you could still end up with a credit. It obviously means more work for the Newsjack team though, so it’s not a tactic to rely on.
Step 6 – The Recording
So the Newsjack team have worked their magic and my script has made it to the recording.
This is how it looks by the time it’s performed:
Victorians in the Workplace – Chris Douch
1. KIRI: Research has shown that Victorian illnesses such as rubella and whooping cough are making a comeback in the UK- a result of the anti- vaccination movement in Europe and America. It’s the most concerning resurgence of an excruciating epidemic from a bygone era, since The Spice Girls announced their reunion. But I can’t help wondering how this will impact on workplaces.
2. BOSS: Good to see you back Debbie. We just need to run through your return to work chat. Let’s see. Reason for absence?
3. DEBBIE: Small pox.
4. BOSS: The extremely contagious and deadly virus? How are you feeling now?
5. DEBBIE: Much better. The blindness has started to ease off now that some of the blisters on my cornea have erupted.
6. BOSS: Um. Ok. Next question: have you sought appropriate measures to combat these symptoms.
7. DEBBIE: Oh absolutely. I held an amethyst in my hand all night and I put a tincture of violet and elderflower on my forehead before bed.
8. BOSS: And did that do anything?
9. DEBBIE: Well, it momentarily distracted me from the intense pain.
10. BOSS: When you phoned you mentioned experiencing symptoms of…
11. DEBBIE: Plague, yes. I have spoken to HR about it.
12. BOSS: Are there any adjustments we can make to assist your return?
13. DEBBIE: You may have noticed that my left foot has rotted down to a weeping stump resembling a part-gnawed wet potato. So maybe the code for the loo on the ground floor? Stairs are proving to be a bit tricky.
14. BOSS: Debbie, over the last six months you’ve had TB, measles, scurvy, whooping cough, rubella and mumps. There’s a pattern here. Can I advise you to get vaccinated?
15. DEBBIE: Oh my god, no! Vaccinations can make you terribly ill. (COUGHS)
16. BOSS: Is that-?
17. DEBBIE: That’s a bit of lung, yes. I think I might need the rest of the day off.
Yes, it’s WAY better now. What was I even thinking with THAT ending!? I really need to stop forcing characters just to try and include more of the cast. If the concept calls for two people…leave it with two people and find another way to introduce a twist. I didn’t even consider linking to anti-vaxxers! It was so obvious but I completely missed it because I was so focussed on escalating the Victorian theme.
Also note the number of lines – 17.
Keep your submissions short.
The sketch has now been recorded, but the journey is still not over. It’s onto the edit…
It makes it through but by the time it’s broadcast the script’s changed again.
Step 7 – Broadcast
The sketch hits the airwaves sounding like this:
The journey from a headline in my news app to broadcast on BBC Radio 4Extra.
Next time, in my FINAL post on Newsjack (which will be way shorter than this one) we’ll discuss what YOU shouldn’t write.