Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #007 with Jeffrey Aidoo.
Fed up of watching terrible TV, Jeffrey decided to take action. Praised for the authenticity of his writing, he’s had success with various high-profile competitions, writes regularly for some of the biggest radio series around, and is working hard to achieve his goals.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always loved TV and film. I literally thought to myself one day, probably after watching a terrible TV show – “I could do that.”
It’s funny because the internet is a gift and a curse. The first article I read was something along the lines of “Anyone can write a script for television”. The second article was “Just because you love television, doesn’t mean you can be a TV writer”. Both are true in their own way. I just started downloading lots of scripts and reading them to understand format and structure and in 2017, I wrote my first script.
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
I signed with my agent the following year. After I wrote my first script I submitted it to a Channel 4 competition called 4Stories. It was shortlisted and I had an interview with the team who were impressed that it was my first script. Even though I didn’t get selected for the scheme in the end, the team at Channel 4 told me I should get an agent. In hindsight that was the worst advice they could have given me.
For the next few months I was on a mission. I contacted a few agencies telling them my script had been shortlisted and asking if they wanted to read it. I had a great response from all of them and they all had the same follow up question – What else have you got?
At that point I had nothing! So I was in a crazy position where I had all of these agents interested but nothing more to show them. It was frustrating. So I made a decision not to focus on trying to get an agent and instead focus on my writing. Focus on building up a body of work instead. If you have the right product (i.e. great scripts), the agents will come to you.
In 2018, I saw a tweet from Collective Talent Agency who were looking for new talent to add to their books. I connected with Steven Russell (my agent) who loved my first script. He asked the classic question – what else have you got? At this point I had my own personal slate of scripts so was easily able to send him another one to read.
To be honest I had other agents looking to sign me but Steven really loved my scripts and believed in me as a writer and storyteller. You need an agent who believes in you and cares about your scripts as much as you do.
A lot of new writers overthink getting an agent. It’s understandable and I definitely rushed into meetings that I wasn’t ready for. Can you speak a bit about the real role of an agent and the relationship you have with yours?
I have a great relationship with Steven. We’re honest with each other about goals and aspirations. He listens to me and makes moves within the industry on my behalf based on where I’m looking to take my career. He always gives me really great advice as to what to focus on in order to gain the right amount of experience and exposure to progress.
Your agent is an extension of your art and your voice, so it’s important you choose the right agent who takes the time to get know you as a person and you’re more than just a name on their books.
My advice would be don’t just try and get an agent just to say you’ve got representation. Be picky. It’s a two way relationship, the aim is for both of you to help each other. You’re the writer, you’re the one with the great, unique product. An agent needs to prove to you they’re the right person, just as much as you need to demonstrate your value.
Having an agent can and should move your career forward. Steven has daily meetings with production companies, commissioners etc so of course he can open doors for me that I could never have opened without representation. Steven is sending out my script to all the right people which has got me in the room with so many awesome production companies and TV networks, so my name and work is starting to get recognised. All of which I couldn’t have done without his network of contacts (or it would have taken me twice the amount of time).
The commercial side of things is also a big advantage. An agent will fight those battles for you and make sure you get paid what you deserve. An agent has the key to open doors that you can’t do one your own but you need to be ready to step through those doors once they are opened.
What advice do you have for people when they approach industry contacts? Simple things, like how to know when to send a polite follow up email are often a mystery and looking back, I think I missed opportunities as I was afraid of annoying a producer.
It’s a fine balance. Firstly you shouldn’t be afraid to contact commissioners, producers etc. Be polite, keep it super brief initially. Get straight to the point. If you’ve written a great script that’s been placed in a scheme or competition, lead with that. Let them know why you’re specifically contacting them. It’s a good way to show you’re aware of what they’ve commissioned or previously produced.
If someone has requested your script or agreed to read it, I always give them 6 weeks. If I haven’t heard back, I’ll send one chaser. After that I would move on. Don’t take it personally, people are busy, priorities etc. On to the next one. Their loss.
Don’t beg anyone to read your script and don’t think there’s only one production company or producer that can make your script happen. The world’s a big place, keep going and you’ll find the right home for that script eventually. Be patient but at the same time, know your worth and believe in your script. But ultimately if you don’t ask, you don’t get, so be bold.
You made it into the BBC Writersroom Comedy Room in 2018. It’s one of THE goals for new writers. How can people stand out from the thousands of hopefuls when they submit?
For sure, BBC Writersroom is the equivalent of winning an Oscar award for all new writers. I earmarked Writersroom as my first screenwriting goal.
Be fearless with your script. Don’t hold back. I remember writing the first draft for my script, BrixCity. I was so nervous that it would be a subject matter that the readers wouldn’t have a clue about. I was worried about using certain phrases and terminology that would go over their head. But after reading the first draft, I realised I was watering it down too much. I tore it up (virtually of course, so I just pressed delete) and started again.
I kept it real, kept it raw. Ultimately when I got the feedback as to why my script was chosen, they told me the authenticity of the script was clear.
So my advice is to be true to whatever story you are telling. Don’t worry about whether you think anyone will understand your world. It’s your world! Create it, make it unique and invite people in.
What were your biggest takeaways from your time in the Writersroom? Are you still in contact with the group?
The wealth of opportunities available for writers. I went into Writersroom with tunnel vision, thinking you’ve only made it when you have your own TV show. I learnt it’s a long road to get to that point but you can have fun and learn so much on that journey. There are so many different ways to flex your writing muscles.
Writing for radio never crossed my mind, but finding out household TV shows such as Miranda started off as a radio show really brought home the fact that there are many different paths to landing your own show. So be open and embrace all types of opportunities that come your way.
Networking is also extremely important. Writersroom will certainly open the door for you but it’s up to you to step through it and be bold. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Be persistent. Reach out to producers, commissioners and sell yourself. Believe in yourself as a writer, because if you don’t, nobody else will.
The comedy room gang are still very much in touch. We have our WhatsApp group and we’re constantly being each other’s cheerleaders and supporters. It important to come together with like-minded creatives and help each other progress and grow.
Newsjack is one of the best ways in for new writers. The golden ticket is obviously that sweet invite to the writers room. What’s your experience been like and what’s the secret to being successful with the show?
Just about every established comedy writer from the UK that I’ve ever spoken to talks about Newsjack. How it started their career in comedy. At first I took it with a pinch of salt and thought, really? Is this little radio show that important? Trust me, it is! I’m living proof that Newsjack can 100% launch your comedy writing career.
I started off just like everyone else, submitting jokes and sketches and now I’ve been in the writer’s room for the past few years. Writing on Newsjack has led to me writing on several other BBC radio shows such as The News Quiz, The Now Show, and Dead Ringers.
There is a 100% guaranteed method to getting invited into the Newsjack writers room. Persistence. Well, first you do have to be funny but apart from that, the key is persistence. Submit every single week. Don’t worry if you don’t get anything featured, it doesn’t matter, just keep submitting. As long as you keep the funnies flowing, regardless of whether you make the show or not, your name will start becoming recognised by the team and you will get something on and you will be invited in.
It’s just about having patience. Believe me. The problem is a lot of people become disheartened too easily and give up. Don’t.
Submit, forget, repeat. That’s the formula. Don’t dwell on it.. Submit, forget, repeat… Then at some point you’ll add success to that formula.
What’s it been like writing for Dead Ringers, a show with a lot of history and a such a dedicated fan base?
Writing for Dead Ringers was amazing. It’s a show I grew up watching and listening to so getting the chance to write for it was a real honour. The creator Bill Dare has such a wealth of knowledge about comedy and writing so just being in the room with him and the other writers was such a great learning experience. Everyone was really friendly and welcoming. I got to work with some fantastic talent and being able to write sketches featuring such well known characters and celebrities was a real blast.
A lot of writers get their foot in the door with an entry-level opportunity, but then struggle to find a way to move forward. What advice do you have on building a career?
Versatility is the key. We would all love to be handed the keys as a show runner on a primetime TV show but the reality for most of us is that won’t happen straight away. You have to work your way there by gaining experience writing for different shows and gaining credits. Look at areas you may have never considered. Writing for radio, writing for children’s TV. Going out and making your own content. Connect with like-minded people, writers, and directors and put out your own content on social media. The opportunities will soon start coming to you.
You’re a drama writer with a load of scripts under your belt and success with the Screenwriting Goldmine Awards. When it comes to developing an idea, how early do you know what category it falls into?
The landscape of television has really evolved over the years and genres have just blurred so many lines that when you’re developing an idea I don’t think you should worry too much about what category it falls into.
We used to talk about a comedy or a drama. Now we talk about dramedies… I had a meeting with a production company the other day and they mentioned a new category called Trauma-edy. It’s getting ridiculous but the point is you if you concentrate on the idea and make the idea the best it can be, the industry will find a category to put into it, even if has to make one up.
What’s your number one tip for writing a script that stands out?
Scene description in scripts can sometimes be the most undervalued tool used by a writer. You’ve got so much opportunity to add to the story and show off your unique voice, your comedic voice or dramatic voice simply by the way you describe how someone walks into a room.
People talk about 1st drafts, 2nd drafts etc. One tip is complete drafts based on areas of the script. So get your first draft completed. Then do another pass where all you’re focused on is the story aspect, have you got the story right? Then do another pass on dialogue, making sure each character sounds different. Read your dialogue out loud, does it sound authentic? Then do a draft only focused on scene description. If it’s a comedy, is your scene description funny? It’s a chance to really elevate your script to the next level. Breaking up your drafts into various elements really helps improve your script from all angles.
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
After finishing writing my first drama script I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. Then I read Blake Synder’s – Save the Cat. After reading this book, I tore up the script (virtually of course – so pressed delete) and started again based on the knowledge of structure and pacing.
The concepts aren’t necessarily anything new or ground-breaking and you’ll find a variation of these concepts in just about any screenwriting book that you read. However I connected with this book, it’s a fun read and it really helped me shape my first script and I refer back to it all the time. So I’d always recommend Save the Cat. I’d also recommend saving a cat in real life if you see one in distress.
What are your current writing goals?
Ultimately my goal is have one of my original ideas and pilot scripts commissioned. Currently my agent and I are working hard to make this a reality and I’m having a lot of positive discussions so that’s always there, but it’s a lot term goal.
Getting your original idea for a show greenlit is a marathon not a sprint. So my current goal is to write an episode for an established television show by the end of this year. I ticked off a goal this year when I got the opportunity to be mentored by the comedy writing legend Andy Riley who runs a great mentoring scheme each year for writers from a Black or ethnic minority background. Working with him for a year was invaluable and I’d highly recommend all eligible writers to seek that scheme out when it comes around again.
Opportunities like Andy Riley’s mentoring scheme and Comedy 50:50 are really positive examples of people taking meaningful action to bring balance to the industry. From your perspective, are you seeing any real change or do we still have a long journey ahead?
How long have we got?
In most cases new writers and even established ones know how extremely difficult it is to be a writer, get things made and to get ahead. Now take that extreme difficulty and times it by one hundred. That’s how hard it is for a black writer. You only have to look at official stats which show how poorly represented Black people are behind the scenes in regards to writers, directors, producers, commissioners.
I don’t need even need to read the stats, I live that life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always so grateful when I get invited into a writers room and there are some great advocates for change out there. That being said it’s rare to see someone like me when I have meetings with production companies or sit in writers rooms.
There are a myriad of reasons as to why this is and we probably need a separate interview just to delve into that but for sure change is needed and the winds of change are stirring. That’s why I can’t speak highly enough about people like Andy Riley and his mentoring scheme. Andy is an Emmy Award winning comedy writer, (Veep, Black Books, Armstrong & Miller) acclaimed cartoonist, author. Working on multiple projects including season two of the current hit show on Channel 4 – Year of the Rabbit. With all this and more on his plate, he’s willing to dedicate his time and energy to mentor young black and ethnic minority writers.
You hear a great deal of talk about “diversity” and people wanting change but you don’t always see a great deal of action. What Andy Riley is doing (and has done for a good few years now so it’s not like he’s just jumping on a bandwagon) is taking action. Established writers, directors, producers etc should all take a leaf out of Andy’s book #BeLikeAndyRiley
This year Andy actually expanded his mentoring scheme and has partnered with The Dawson Brothers so they are taking on two writers instead of one. People like Andy and now The Dawson Brothers are advocates for change and are are examples of how you stop talking and start initiating change.
I welcome schemes like Comedy 50:50, BBC’s various schemes such as the Caroline Aherne Bursary supporting female talent and the Felix Dexter Bursary supporting Black and Ethnic Minority writers. BBC’s Writers Access Group for writers with a disability.
Ever voice needs to be heard. Organisations like Triforce Creative Network setup by Fraser and Minnie Ayers alongside Jimmy Akingbola have a strong ethos of inclusion and access, supporting creatives from all types of backgrounds trying to get ahead. The journey is just beginning but I’m encouraged to see these type of schemes and organisations that are focused on balancing the scales.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
The worst part of being a writer is something you just have to get used to and find a way to actually embrace and use to your advantage. It’s rejection.
Nobody likes rejection, but as a writer it’s something you will experience regularly. My advice is to see yourself as a superhero. Superman’s power source is the Sun, as a writer, rejection should fuel your superpower. The more rejection you get, the harder you work, the more determined you should be to prove people wrong.
The hard cold fact is sometimes decision makers don’t always know what they want. You don’t have to do much research to find out some of the most successful TV shows and films were rejected for years before somebody took an interest and the rest is history.
If you could travel back in time what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
It would be don’t get too emotionally attached to a script. Be prepared to park it for now, let it breathe and move onto the next project. Sometimes it all about timing, as long as you have a nice body of work, the right time will come along for that particular script.
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