#040 Ben Ellis

“Even if only a handful of people watch or listen to your work, at least you’ve got your material out there and connected with people.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #040 with Ben Ellis.

Ben’s writing career started with a credit on the BBC sketch show, Man Stroke Woman. After writing across multiple sketch shows, he moved to long form, working on the development of various sitcom projects. Since 2017, he’s been on the writing team for the daytime medical-drama series, Doctors. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he launched the brilliant Life’s a Gas podcast with Sara Starling. It was genuinely fascinating to discuss Ben’s career with him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

When did you start writing?

I’ve enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I used to write little short stories, and I enjoyed writing poetry, too – though I was never really very good at it; I wasn’t exactly a budding Dylan Thomas!

I began writing a lot more by the time I was at college; I just found that I had all these characters and stories in my head which were all bursting to get out. So I’d write as a release.

I also found that writing was a good way for me to process some of the personal issues I was going through at the time – it was a way for me to get rid of some of that pent-up teenage angst!

What was your first credit as a writer?

My first credit was for a BBC sketch show by the producer of ‘The Office’ called ‘Man Stroke Woman’. It was made by Talkback Thames who I’d sent some narrative comedy material to and they liked my writing and offered me some work on the show.

I was so happy to get a foot in the door. I only managed to get a few sketches onto the show, but I couldn’t have been more chuffed. It’s an amazing feeling to get your work out there and to see it performed on the telly or hear it on the radio. It just makes you feel so proud of all the work you’ve put into it.

As well as writing, you also work as a freelance designer. How do you balance the two jobs?

Well I’m terrible at multi-tasking, yet somehow I manage to balance the two jobs! I prioritise my work depending on deadlines. With the design work I’m often given quite tight deadlines, but this is fine, as even though it’s a creative process, it isn’t as immersive as writing, so I find that I can just crack on with it and get the work done relatively swiftly.

Whereas with the writing, often it can take me a few days to get my head around a project. I find that I need thinking time whenever I write; my brain needs to find the characters and the tone of whatever I’m working on.

Man Stroke Woman had an amazing cast including Nicholas Burns who went on to portray the iconic Nathan Barley. What was it like writing on the series?

It was such a great show to work on. I joined the team on series 2 so by that time I already had a feel for the series, and I was a big fan of it, so this made it feel a bit easier to write for the cast – who were all wonderful.

I only remember attending one meeting with the other writers and then the rest of the work was done remotely and I’d liaise regularly with the script editor via email. I have really fond memories of this time – and it was such a great first gig for me.

I think I was very lucky to have made it onto the show and I have a lady by the name of Clelia Mountford to thank for helping me get a foot in; Clelia was a development executive for Talkback at the time and she really championed my work. She’s now gone on to have her own big production company called Merman, which she co-owns with Sharon Horgan.

“If a producer enjoys reading your script then they’ll come back to you and you can begin a dialogue.”

What advice do you have for writers who are considering sending their work off to producers?

Sending out spec scripts to producers is a great way to establish some good professional relationships, so I’d definitely recommend this approach. I’m still in regular contact with a number of producers I initially contacted this way many years ago, and it’s led to some good work over the years.

To any writers reading this who are thinking of approaching producers, I would suggest that they go for it, but that they first do their research on producers and production companies, and then target those they feel might be a good fit for their work.

If a producer enjoys reading your script then they’ll come back to you and you can begin a dialogue. It may be that they love your script enough to develop it, or it may be that they love your writing, but don’t quite gel with the script, in which case they’re likely to want to read more of your work in the future. But whatever the feedback is, getting that response will help you massively to develop your script and to shape your style of writing, so it’s all positive in the long run.

Never be disheartened by unfavourable feedback – it’s designed to help you so embrace it and use it!

You cut your teeth working on multiple sketch shows. This was my experience too and I know of many writers who had a similar journey. Why is sketch comedy such an important format for writers?

For me, sketch writing was very important for my development as a writer; it enabled me to write to deadlines for the first time and to work with industry professionals, like producers and script editors. It also enabled me to meet and work with other writers, which helped build my confidence. So it was an invaluable experience for me.

I think sketch comedy is such an important format – especially for newer writers – because it’s a great way to learn the craft of comedy writing and to gain some credits for your work.

Sketch writing can be difficult to do – some ideas can just come very quickly and you’ll feel like you’ve struck gold immediately, but there are some ideas which, for some reason you can just never seem to figure out – a bit like a puzzle you can’t seem to solve!

So it’s not an easy job, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you’ve hit the jackpot and got some of your sketches made.

Do you have any tips for writing a good sketch? If you have a secret formula for endings… that would be useful!

When writing sketches, I find that I first need to get my brain into sketch writing mode – almost like it’s a switch in my unconscious that then enables me to access those silly and outlandish moments you often can’t get away with in narrative comedy!

I’ve never written a song before, but I’ve heard music artists talk about the process of writing a song and how they get a feeling for a song before the melody starts to form and take shape. For me, I’d say this is similar with sketch writing; I get a sense of the characters and situation and then I start to build up the sketch and the short story I want to tell.

My tip for writing a good sketch is to keep it succinct. I find it’s often best to get in there, get to the funny and then get out.

Endings can often be very tricky to write! I always ask myself: 1) is the ending satisfying 2) Does it pack a punch? 3) Does the pay-off work? If the answer to all 3 is “Yes” then the ending works. If the answer is “No” then it needs more work.

“I’ve learnt not to take it too personally when a project gets pulled or shelved.”

You’ve had a number of projects in development over the years. It’s definitely an interesting area to work in. How did you get started in this and what lessons have you learned over the years?

I’ve had lots of my own original projects in development over the years – several of them were in development with broadcasters, but for reasons beyond my control just didn’t quite work out.

It’s frustrating and it can be a little upsetting after putting all the hard work in, but I’ve learnt not to take it too personally when a project gets pulled or shelved and to just move on to the next project if this happens.

I tend to work with several of the same producers, so often it’s a case of me developing an idea for a specific producer to send out to broadcasters.

One of the development projects was a 4 Poofs and a Piano sitcom (who I remember as the house band on the old Johnathan Ross show). How did you approach developing their act for a longer form narrative format?

A producer friend of mine named Graham Smith – who’s the former Comedy Commissioner for Channel Five – approached me and asked if I’d like to write something for the 4 Poofs.

As a fan of theirs, I was very keen to get involved, so Graham, the 4 Poofs and I had a meeting at their agent’s office on Denmark Street to discuss initial ideas. We were all in agreement that their sitcom should be camp and quirky, so we wanted lots of outlandish moments and silly storylines with some cabaret style songs thrown in. And that’s what we eventually came up with.

Tonally it was rather similar to ‘Toast of London’ as it gave this comedic, often daft view of life on the fringes of showbiz. I think we may have perhaps gone a little too far with the silliness though – I remember we had anthropomorphic household appliances in one episode – there was even a duet between a fridge and a toaster…and no drugs were taken during the brainstorming session for this!

In general, how did you find the progression of sketch to sitcom writing?

I found it quite difficult getting back into writing narrative comedy at first, after working on sketch shows for a few years. Though they have many similarities, they’re very different in terms of character, tone and structure. So it wasn’t an easy progression, but it was one that I really wanted to make as I was keen to develop more narrative comedy. So I stuck with it and continued to develop my style.

A common theme that I’ve noticed in the careers of writers is that everybody has a person or multiple people who have given them a leg up at one point. Who were the people who supported you along the way?

As I mentioned earlier, Clelia Mountford was incredibly supportive at the start of my career. In fact, I’ve often thought that I might not have carried on writing were it not for Clelia’s support and encouragement back then. The producer, Ash Attalla was also very supportive and I owe him a debt of gratitude for letting me join the team on ‘Man Stroke Woman’.

But there have been so many other producers and development executives who have helped me along the way. When I moved into drama writing, the BBC development team were incredibly supportive and encouraging – which helped enormously as I moved from one genre to another.

“I’ll never forget how chuffed I was when I learnt that I’d successfully passed my training and to had made it onto the team!”

Staying on that transition to drama; you were accepted onto the highly competitive Doctors shadowing scheme in 2015. What was the experience like?

It was a brilliant experience. I really loved it; I enjoyed the training – it felt like going back to school or uni for a few days and I turned into a real swot, jotting everything down in my notepad and reading all the books that were suggested to us.

Honestly, I had such a positive experience on the scheme. After we’d done our initial training and after we’d visited the set in Birmingham, we then began working on our shadow scripts.

The idea was to write a not for broadcast episode and this would be assessed and this would determine whether or not we could join the writing team on the series, so there was a lot riding on it.

We were given 10 weeks to write it all and I had a really lovely script editor by the name of Ros Ward who was a writer on the show herself.

I’ll never forget how chuffed I was when I learnt that I’d successfully passed my training and to had made it onto the team! Hard work but completely worth it.

What led you to apply for Doctors and how easy did you find the transition to writing drama?

I moved into drama as I felt that I wanted to branch out into a new genre. What’s great about Doctors is that it enables me to sprinkle some comedy moments throughout my scripts; the show has some brilliantly barmy characters like Valerie and Karen on reception, so it felt like a safe transition for me – I could develop my drama writing, while throwing some silly into my episodes!

It wasn’t an easy transition, but the training really helped me to write appropriately for the tone of the show.

You’ve now been writing for the show since 2017. What do you enjoy about writing for the series and what advice do you have for anyone who would like to join the team?

Well I love writing as part of a team, and although with something like ‘Doctors’, you’re writing remotely, there’s a really supportive network to help guide you through the process; there’s a brilliant script editor and fantastic researchers and producers to help shape your episode.

For anyone wanting to join the team, I’d recommend keeping an eye on the BBC Writers Room website as opportunities are often posted on there.

What’s your number one tip for creating characters?

My number one tip for creating characters is to find their voice. Think about what the sort of things that character would say and what language they might use. This then enables me to shape my characters because we can learn so much about a person by the things they say, as well as the things they don’t. My characters often begin life as a one-liner.

How do you cope with rejection?

Rejection is never an easy thing to have to deal with, but I think I’ve developed a good way of coping with it over the years. I tend to not take rejection personally; if a script isn’t to a producer’s liking then that may be for a number of reasons. It may be similar to something else in development or the characters just might not resonate, but it’s never an attack on me or my writing. It’s just a case that the individual script isn’t necessarily the right fit for that particular producer.

And I always ask for feedback, which helps me to shape future scripts. So I like to try and take something positive from rejection where I can.

“Sometimes it can be like my brain just doesn’t want to come up with any words or ideas – like it’s on strike!”

Is writers block ever an issue for you and if so, how do you deal with it?

God yes! Writers block can be terrible. Sometimes it can be like my brain just doesn’t want to come up with any words or ideas – like it’s on strike! I find the best way to deal with writers block is to just try and write my way out of it. Often this can work, but if it doesn’t then I take a break and come back to it in an hour or so. This usually helps.

I find that I do a lot of my thinking in the bath, so a good soak can sometimes do the trick to get the cogs turning if nothing else works! I try not to worry too much about it though as that can just make the problem seem far worse than it is – and having that added anxiety really doesn’t help.

Earlier this year, you launched the fabulous ‘Life’s a Gas’ podcast. Can you explain the concept?

‘Life’s a Gas’ is a podcast series of character based monologues with a topical twist. And as the series was conceived under the last lockdown, that’s the common theme that runs through much of the first series.

I’ve had a bunch of ideas for podcasts in the past (including an audio version of this interview series) but the whole thing seems out of my reach. I’m not sure why but I never know where to begin. What was your process from idea conception to launching?

The idea for the podcast came at the very beginning of the year. I’d connected with Sara Starling on LinkedIn some time ago; Sara is this incredibly talented performer and voiceover artist (and the official voice of the defibrillator – as recently seen on BBC Breakfast, so if you ever need reviving, then it’s likely you’ll hear Sara giving out the instructions!).

Shortly after Christmas, while we were all still in lockdown and feeling pretty fed-up after a fairly poopy Christmas, Sara messaged me and asked if I’d be up for collaborating on a little comedy piece to try and lift spirits. I thought this would be a brilliant idea and a good way for me to keep writing during a time when all my writing projects were on hold anyway.

So I said “Yes” and I wrote this little 10-minute monologue for Sara to perform. Sara then sent me the recording of the monologue back and I just thought that it sounded so good; she’d done a wonderful job and really nailed the character – and had been given very little direction, too. I found myself laughing along and really enjoying it – which sounds strange and a bit narcissistic as I wrote the piece, but it was mainly Sara’s performance I was enjoying so much.

I wrote a handful of these monologues and Sara kept recording them and really knocking each one out the ball park. I couldn’t wait to share them online. We initially thought about uploading to YouTube, but then after doing some further research we decided that a podcast would be the best option for the series.

I’d never done anything like a podcast before, and to be honest it seemed like a rather daunting prospect, but it turned out to be fairly straightforward. Sara spoke to one of her contacts at the BBC who gave her some advice and I did my own research via Google and trusty old YouTube, so together we were able to crack it. And our host, Podbean guided us through the process every step of the way. So I’d actually say it went quite smoothly!

The trickiest aspect, we’ve found is to attract listeners. We tweet and use other social media, and also rely on word of mouth to get our little monologues heard. Listener figures could be larger, but we’ve been delighted by the feedback we’ve received so far. A few reviewers have likened the monologues to Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, so I was chuffed to bits about this!

“You’ve got nothing to lose.”

What advice do you have for anyone who’s interested in podcasting?

I’d say go for it. Do your research and speak to someone who’s got a podcast if you can, and then record your material and upload it. You’ve got nothing to lose. Even if only a handful of people watch or listen to your work, at least you’ve got your material out there and connected with people.

And if you’re a new writer looking for representation then a podcast could be a good place to send potential agents to in order to show off your work.

What other projects are you currently working on (that you’re allowed to talk about)?

I’m currently working with the actress Sian Reeves on an exciting new TV comedy project, which is at the early stages of development, but we’ve already had a fair bit of interest in it. It’s been a really interesting project to work on as Sian and I have met a few times but our meetings have all been via Zoom, so it’s been a very modern development process so far!

I’m also about to start working on a new audio project with Sara Starling; we’ve hit on a character and an idea we feel really works, so we’re going to develop it further.

And there’s another big project I’ve been working on for some time but I can’t say any more about that at the moment, but it’s exciting!

So there’s quite a lot going on at the moment, and my projects are all at various stages of development.

What advice do you have for writers who may be struggling to find new opportunities or progress to the next level of their career?

When I first graduated, I knew I wanted to be a writer but just didn’t have a clue where to even begin. My late granddad put me in touch with a writer friend of his who wrote for ‘Coronation Street’, and we had a really useful chat over the phone. I’ll never forget his advice to me which was “Just keep writing”, and that’s the advice I always give to new writers who come to me asking for tips.

Just keep writing, keep developing your work and finding your voice, and then once you have something you’re comfortable with, look for those opportunities and you’ll find them.

A good agent will help you find the right opportunity once you find one, but until then, keep looking on websites like the BBC Writers Room and Chortle; go on LinkedIn and connect with other writers and producers. Apply for training schemes and enter competitions. You never know, your big break could be closer than you think.

“Good television inspires me to keep watching and creating.”

If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change? If you’re 100% against the idea of reboots, what are the shows/movies that inspire you?

I’m not a huge fan of reboots – unless they’re reboots featuring the original cast members and written by the original writers. Like, for instance, I really enjoyed the ‘Will & Grace’ reunion, and ‘The Conners’ (the ‘Roseanne’ spin-off) has been fun. And I’m really looking forward to checking out the new series of ‘Frasier’ soon (‘Frasier’ is my favourite sitcom).

So many different shows inspire me in different ways, from recent series’ like ‘Motherland’, ‘Mandy’, ‘Toast of London’, ‘Fleabag’, ‘Killing Eve’, ‘High Maintenance’, ‘Pose’, ‘American Horror Story’, ‘Line of Duty’, Grace & Frankie’ and ‘Ratchet’, to older series like ‘Nighty Night’, ‘Frasier’, ‘Parks & Recreation’, ‘Friends’, ‘Red Dwarf’, ‘Good Life’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’.

I could go on forever! Good television inspires me to keep watching and creating.

Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc).

Books: ‘Save the Cat’ by Blake Snyder is an essential read for any writer – whatever stage of their career they’re at. ‘Screenplay’ by Syd Field is also a great book, especially for anyone just starting out.

Scripts: ‘The Complete Talking Heads’ by Alan Bennett is a glorious read, and great for any writer wanting to develop their use of dialogue in their scripts. Nobody writes dialogue like Alan Bennett and his monologues are a joy to read – they read like poetry!

Podcasts: The Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine series ‘Dear Joan and Jericha’ is wonderful – it’s so funny and saucy, I love it. I’m a huge fan of Julia Davis.

YouTube: I absolutely love ‘Charity Shop Sue’. So, so funny. More people need to know about Sue.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?

Be patient!

What are your career goals?

Well ultimately I’d like one of my original series to be picked up…and then of course the BAFTA would follow – haha!

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

Writing on your own can be lonely. And when you spend so much of your day inside your head it can be very difficult switching off, so it’s not really the kind of job where you clock off at the end of the day. When I’m working on a project it’s very much a case of working on it from dusk ‘til dawn – and often I can wake up in the middle of the night with an idea in mind (I keep a notepad on my bedside table!).

Being a writer is a fabulous job though. I really do love it. When things are going great and the ideas are coming to me, I just feel so lucky and privileged to be able to do it.

What makes you laugh more than anything?

My dog when he pinches my socks off my feet and then spends half an hour trying to fight them; I think he’s trying to protect me from my own socks!

You can follow Ben on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn and listen to the Life’s a Gas podcast.

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