Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #032 with Tom Worsley.
Tom’s first credit was in 2008 and since then he’s been busy building a career as a comedy and children’s writer. He’s a writer who’s been on a journey and is seeing his persistence, hard work and talent paying off. He’s just signed with an agent and will soon have his name appearing on one of CBeebies’ longest running series. A former BBC Writersroom Scottish Voice and a regular contributor to BBC Scotland’s Breaking the News, Tom’s story is filled with advice and lessons that we could all benefit from.
When did you start writing?
I always enjoyed being creative and making up stories when I was younger, whether it was drawing my own comics as I was an avid reader of the Beano or typing up short stories on our first computer. I just liked being able to create characters, mostly heavily plagiarised from cartoons and television, but it was just something I always did.
It felt like a natural progression to try writing scripts. I remember getting a script book (for the sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf) when I was 10 or 11, all packed with unusual and alluring TV jargon, and that was it. I wanted to become a writer.
Red Dwarf was the first proper ‘grown up’ show I got into. I was obsessed with it. I can distinctly remember thinking that the four principle cast members must be the funniest people on the planet. But wait, they don’t write the words, do they? The words are written by the mysterious pair of ‘Rob Grant & Doug Naylor’. So, what, is writing scripts an actual job? So that was that, aged 11 I’d made my mind up about what I wanted to do. Seems annoyingly precocious looking back and it’s been a curse ever since.
What was your first credit as a writer and how did you land it?
My first credit was in 2008 for a pilot under the much-missed Channel 4 ‘Comedy Lab’ strand called ‘School of Comedy’. It was an adult sketch show where all the characters were played by teenagers. Bugsy Malone meets the Fast Show maybe? The cast were great. It was quite an early role for Will Poulter before he became a bona fide movie actor. It was a novel and fun project to get to play a tiny part in. I think my sketch (a policeman who couldn’t give bad news) was the very first one in the show.
So before that, around 2006/7, I’d challenged myself to write 2 sitcom spec scripts to send out to producers and agents. I was determined to write something I was proud of to send out to people. I had to slavishly try to find the contact details of anyone who might read them and I sent them to, I think, 5 or 6 producers each. And when I say ‘sent’ I mean an actual printed paper copy. In an envelope with a stamp and everything. It seems insane now or like I got my break in the 70s or something but that’s how it was done, kids.
I remember months later getting an email from a producer, a phenomenally nice guy called Alex Hardcastle (now one of the biggest directing names in US comedy… Actually, I’m sensing a theme here with people’s Hollywood successes from this show. Mine must be on its way; time difference or something.) He loved the script and invited me for my first ever meeting. The script didn’t go anywhere (welcome to the industry) but he happened to mention this sketch pilot he was working on, and ‘did I write sketches?’. I hastily wrote some and sent him a sketch packet and a few got picked for the pilot and subsequent second series. I’d done it. Got my name on the telly. At the end of the writer’s list, but that’s the alphabetical lottery for you.
I also started out writing for a sketch comedy series (The Impressions Show on BBC1) and have a genuine love for the format. How important is it for new writers to get their break in this format?
I fully understand why sketch shows aren’t being made – the cost is clearly huge and they’re easy to get wrong, but sketch shows have given breaks to basically the best and most successful comedy writers in the UK. Would we have Bain & Armstrong? Simon Blackwell? Oriane Messina and Fay Rusling? Sketches surely are the building blocks of learning how to write longer narrative comedy. How to build a funny moment to maximum effect, ending a scene on a big laugh. Writing lots of pacey gags, or the element of surprise. It’s incredibly sad that there isn’t a long-running, non-topical sketch show for newer writers.
Some of my first memories of watching comedy were the later series of Smith and Jones. A barrage of sketches, loads of amazing writers (not to mention Mel and Griff being brilliant). My personal favourite show would probably be Big Train. Series 1 is as close to perfect as you can get. I can’t think of a funnier set of performers together on screen either.
What was the experience like after your first credit? Were you able to get more work straight away or was it a challenge? As someone who has a six-year gap on his CV… I know the struggle!
I look back on my first credits and have to hold my hands up and admit I made a lot of mistakes after that. There was no guidebook on the industry of how to shape your career. Whereas now there’s plenty of advice and help through podcasts – for example the brilliant Sitcom Geeks – and the BBC Writersroom is incredible right now, but back then the internet felt a much sparser place.
I managed to get a meeting with the company who made School of Comedy – the first producer to buy me lunch, so I’ll never forget that – to discuss a script but I really struggled to build on those first credits. I couldn’t get rep’d as I was just too green and inexperienced; too nervous and just not ready. I thought that getting that elusive first credit would be the defining moment and everything would unfold from there. It just didn’t happen.
I didn’t improve as a writer, I was too passive. And then I started to rush my work, the ideas suffered and suddenly years had passed and I lost any chance of building momentum. I still had meetings here and there and met people who would later prove hugely influential in my career, but honestly, there was a long period – 6 or 7 years which I look back on with regret.
So if you get that door open, be proactive and keep getting better. Nothing is handed to you.
You’ve just signed with an agent. Congratulations! What was the process like to get repped?
It’s been a long process really. I was getting meetings with agents far too early in my career, when I just wasn’t ready. So my advice is don’t contact anyone too soon because you don’t get many chances to impress people. Get your scripts to development producers first.
I remember reading a quote saying “agents want writers, not people who want to be writers.” You’ve got to do a lot of the early hard work yourself. Get contacts, meet producers, get to understand the industry, get placed in competitions and try and get some credits under your belt. That’ll show potential agents you’re hardworking and are writing good stuff that’s opening doors for you.
A huge part of my getting repped was timing and luck. They had a fresh space on their books – which is rare – and I think were looking for someone who was going in the direction writing for kids that I was. Also, being based in Scotland as I am means I stood out a bit more.
I was known to the agency and had always had positive feedback from them. I went away, got better, built my CV and tried again. Perseverance is important. Don’t give up. If an agent says you have potential and likes your script then set yourself the goal to go away and improve your writing, meet producers, get your first commissions – and then eventually go back to them and show them how hard you’ve worked.
You can network and impress without an agent. It’s difficult but essential to get some doors open by yourself first.
You were a member of the BBC Writersroom Scotland ‘Scottish Voices’ 2018-2019 group. How did you get involved in this and what was your experience like?
I think I had a slightly unorthodox way in compared to some people. I moved to Scotland in 2016 for a new start, but wasn’t really thinking about my writing career, it had just stagnated and I wasn’t really writing much. But of course BBC Scotland was on my doorstep and the new BBC Scotland Channel was being talked about and it made me think perhaps it was time to try and get back in and start my career over again.
I managed to get a script to a BBC Scotland in-house comedy producer and got a general meeting with him. He happened to mention that the BBC Writersroom were just about to launch here and that he’d recommend my script to one of the producers heading it up, an absolute dynamo and huge influence on my career, Angela Galvin. She liked the script and we met from there.
If the work is good enough, people will want to meet you. Taking the story back a few years I’d had an unofficial mentor and cheerleader (now a brilliant award-winning writer himself) who I’d met years previously at a production company. I was able to name drop him in my Writersroom meeting and it turned out Angela had worked with him and had known him for years, so suddenly there’s a connection there that gave me a bit of legitimacy. I’d been impressing the right people.
That networking connection had been made some 6 or 7 years before. A meeting I’d had in around 2010, a writing pal I’d made who was always on the other end of an email for advice, had, unbeknownst to him, helped me all these years later. I think this shows just how important making new contacts really is. So when the BBC Writersroom ‘Scottish Voices’ launched I got the call. And it changed my life.
As part of Writersroom, you had the opportunity to pitch a 15-minute radio comedy. This became Sue & John, which was initially inspired by your calls back home to your parents. What was your experience like writing this?
Joyful, stressful, hilarious and panicked in various combinations.
When we received the brief from BBC Radio Scotland about what they were looking for you suddenly realise you’re not just writing for you, you’re writing within a channel’s parameters and that can feel a little frustrating at first because suddenly it’s not just about what you want to do. Your idea must fit and you can’t just write whatever you want. There’s audience demographics to think about. Style of humour. Let it guide and inspire. Find creative ways to fit your project to the needs of a broadcaster.
For example, the average age of the listener of BBC Radio Scotland was, something like, 56. So straight away I knew I wanted to write something about people in and around middle age. Write for the listener. My dad had just retired and each time I spoke to my mum on the weekly missive back home I’d get the latest update on whatever bizarre or embarrassing scrape they’d managed to get into as they struggled to adapt to a new life as retirees.
Their escapades and faux pas-ridden days seemed like gold and by the end of the briefing session, scribbling manically, I had the basic topline and characters that I wanted to write. A newly retired couple must find their place in the world and get to know each other all over again following retirement as their new life begins.
From getting the commission you’re working with a producer, script editor, the Writersroom, the BBC Scotland comedy commissioner and the head of Radio entertainment. Notes are flying around, fresh ideas and directions to go. I got my first notes and felt like giving up. I was overwhelmed. It was all too much; a world away from writing for myself in a back bedroom. I felt lost. But these notes aren’t there to stifle you or hold you back; these people are there to drive you on and make the project the best it can be because they’ve done this thousands of times.
You have to pick through the notes, understand them (and if you don’t, then ask). I learnt more about story, character and editing my work than I ever could writing on my own. Plot, character decision making, the drive of the story – I’m a much better writer now thanks to this experience.
You’re currently back home with your parents for a visit. Has it inspired a follow-up script yet?
I’ve typed most of this in the garden of their Gloucestershire home. Thankfully I have Twitter to sound off about all their bizarre and unusual traits… Why has my father got a PIN set up for the TV package when it’s just him and my mother…?
You submitted to the BAFTA Rocliffe Childrens and YA competition earlier this year. One of the benefits of the competition is that everyone receives a written feedback report – much more valuable than a ‘no’ or silence. What was your script about and how did you get on?
The first thing I would say – and this is for any competition – use the deadline as a driver to get the script written. Got an idea but can’t quite nail it, or not really motivated to finish it? Find a script competition with a deadline. Set yourself a weekly target. Blank page to finished script is scary. Blank page to some basic notes as you mull over an idea is much less scary. Make that Week 1. Week 2, character ideas. Week 3, story ideas, Week 4 plan the plot etc. After 2 months you could have a finished script. Use the deadline as fuel. Make yourself do the work and send it off. You’ll feel great.
I’d wanted to write a children’s spec for a while on the back of a commission to write a children’s scripted podcast pilot and then working on CBBC’s Swashbuckle. The competition drove me on to do it. I’d had a few half-ideas in my head and decided to smoosh (smush? Is smush a word?) them all together – technical writing jargon – to write a time travel comedy about a gang of kids in a detention group. Back to the Future meets Breakfast Club.
It wasn’t short-listed but the feedback was priceless. It’s constructive and helpful. It contained some things I half expected to be flagged up regarding the length of the script, and the scenes being too long (I hate editing my own work!) but also had amazingly helpful advice about the accompanying pitch document. It was too busy, too many layers, muddled. What was it really about? I needed to find the real story and make sure it was clear. Clarity is key.
It’s worth entering because at the end of it, it doesn’t matter how well you get on in the contest, you’ll have written a script you can improve on and then send out to the big wide world.
We had a chat over Twitter before about how to approach producers and production companies. What tips do you have in this area? Has anything promising come from the emails you were sending at the time?
Be nice. Be polite. Be honest. Be prepared to wait a long, long time.
If you introduce yourself to 30 people, you’ll probably get 20 responses back. That’s not a slight on the other 10, by the way. They might have assistants who choose to filter out emails, they might be having a bad day, they might have 12 months’ worth of introductions from writers to get through, or quite simply they might just forget to respond. That’s the way it goes. These people are very, very busy and under a lot of pressure.
If you get 20 responses, maybe half might read your script? Of those 10, maybe 5 actually will find the time to do it. They’re not being rude, there’s just not enough time in the day. Be patient. It’s frustrating (I hate waiting. Waiting and queuing) but put it to the back of your mind and move on to the next thing.
It’s all about persevering. And luck, you might drop a great script to someone who that week is looking for new writers for a similar project.
Also remember these producers were all in your shoes. Hustling and asking people for their time. They’re not scary, they don’t want to steal your idea, and it’s not a closed shop. They want the next Russell T Davies or Sharon Horgan. They’ll be kicking themselves if it’s you and they didn’t read your script. Find producers whose work you like, or companies with development teams who’ve made stuff you’ve laughed at. Sincerity and honesty goes a long way.
On the back of writing a spec script, you’ve had meetings with some of the country’s biggest comedy production companies. How important is it to get in a room (or a Zoom) with these companies?
It’s important because that first meeting is basically them making sure you’re nice. And cool. And aren’t, well, a prat (which I am, but I have to hide it) because they don’t want to work with people like that. They want lovely people with lots of drive and energy. If you get into a meeting (Zoom meetings can be hard, I’d much prefer to be face to face) chat about yourself, your life. What comedy you like. What comedy of theirs you’ve enjoyed.
Come to terms with the fact you will embarrass yourself and it’ll haunt you for years. I once trod a biscuit into the carpet at Tiger Aspect. It happens. You’ve impressed them with a script but you need to impress them with yourself. You do that by being friendly, open and positive. Show them what you would bring to a project.
You’ve recently been working with CBeebies on the new series of Swashbuckle. It’s a pirate themed gameshow for kids with a regular cast of characters and short sketches between rounds. Kind of a modern-day Fun House or Finders Keepers but with added comedy. What was the process like writing on the show? Due to the format of the series, I imagine the pandemic has caused huge delays.
The process is good fun because you start by coming up with an idea, just a short paragraph, which is a main sketch idea and then a couple of little pre-sketches that lead into it with a simple story. If the producers like the idea they’ll ask you to flesh it out over a page with more detail or a bit of dialogue. That’s the key bit because if you do a good job and it works, you get a script commission and all is right with the world. It can be pot luck because they’ll be working with 10-12 other writers and they have to balance out the types of sketches or topics covered, so a great idea might not necessarily make the cut. That’s the cut-throat (pirate pun, nice) nature of it sometimes.
I wrote two episodes for series 7 and one for series 8 but of course the pandemic managed to make the production run aground (two puns for the price of one) so I’m in the strange position of having a really great credit waiting to be shown off and it hasn’t actually been on yet! It’s agony. I’ve seen the rough cuts of some of the sketches already so I’m desperate for them to be broadcast.
It’s been a horrible time for the industry and for me personally from a career point of view felt like it ruined all my momentum. Here’s hoping the rest of the year and beyond will see all the arts being able to recover.
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
When I create a character I start with broad brush strokes. Don’t be scared to start with one, big over-riding character trait. Make them a little cartoonish if needs be; make them big and over-bearing. Start with one bit of personality. Say, that’s your arrogant one. He’s the daft one. She’s the excitable one. You can temper it later and add some more subtlety, but just make sure all the characters are very different as your first step.
Each character must be identifiable from the first pages. Set their stalls out as soon as they say their first lines or walk into the room. You can add other layers and traits as you go along.
Do you have any tips for writing action lines?
Avoid putting in things about ‘camera swoops in and pans across’ or ‘tight on so-and-so before a smash cut to…’. That’s a massive red flag for me. You can have flourishes and make the action lines fun and lively, sure, but keep the descriptions simple and don’t put in directorial stuff.
You have credits across multiples series of Breaking the News (both the TV and radio versions). Do you remember the first joke you got on?
I was sat at my day job surreptitiously listening through one headphone waiting to see if anything I’d submitted had made the cut… And when it did, I could have jumped out the chair. It was a line about a Nazi board game being discovered somewhere. The punchline was “It was called ‘Hess Who?’” Not that clever, and I’m not entirely sure it works but I’ll take it. I had another joke on a week later which was ‘Labour launch their new party calendar. It only has 11 months of the year as Labour haven’t yet worked out how to tackle May.’ Out of date, I grant you. But I liked that one.
What’s your process for writing a topical joke?
The briefs of Breaking the News basically give you the feedlines, which are usually one line about a news story. X has done Y, or Town A has had event Z and you’ve got to complete the joke. Always throw out your first idea as it’ll be too obvious. Puns must be really good to make the cut. Link the story to something else in the news and make it doubly topical is useful. Keep it clever and don’t go straight for making a joke about someone’s hair (Boris Johnson’s) or terrible tan (Trump).
It doesn’t have to be bitingly satirical either, just a bit of daft business about a story is great. I think it was John O’Farrell who talked about the ‘detonator word’. That’s the word or phrase that basically brings out the laugh or reveals the joke. You want that as close to the end of the joke as possible. Writing topical lines teaches you how to write short jokes, and where to put the killer bit.
What are your current writing goals?
To be able to write full-time. To be able to be involved in enough projects that I can commit to it fully and make this my proper full time job. I also wanted to win a BAFTA before I’m 30 but unless time travel is invented or my birth certificate is wrong that won’t happen.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
There’s a Simpsons podcast, ‘Round Springfield’, where they have writers on from the classic era which is really useful and a fun listen.
Former Cheers and Frasier writer Ken Levine has a blog which is definitely worth reading.
There’s also a website called TV Writing (it’s on Google Sites, whatever that is) which has about a million US TV scripts from that last decade on which is mind-blowingly good.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Waiting. I’m incredibly inpatient and I will always expect my script to be read immediately. I think when you’re younger, maybe you feel like you have all the time in the world? As I get older and the years fly by it’s hard not to get anxious. But as the brilliant Simon Blackwell said ‘don’t worry about missing the boat, another one will always come along’.
The awful lack of career path for comedy writers compared to the US is frustrating. We don’t have late-night, or sketch comedy, or sitcoms running across all the channels. It just fees like a constant slog sometimes, rather than a ladder you can get on and work up.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Arnold J Rimmer. Frank Skinner. Classic Simpsons. Tina Fey. That Alistair Green sketch where he can’t get his mask off because it’s caught on his glasses. Partridge. Diane Morgan. Police Squad. Caroline Aherne. One Foot in the Grave. Lou Sanders. Early morning Frasier on Channel 4. Stath Lets Flats. Anna Maxwell-Martin in Motherland. Seinfeld.
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