#056 Jane McCutcheon & Vivienne Riddoch

“It’s always magical when you genuinely can’t remember who wrote what.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #056 with Jane McCutcheon & Vivienne Riddoch.

Jane and Vivienne are a writing partnership with credits for all the shows that comedy writers want to work on. They’re proof that putting in the work and routinely submitting to open door shows is a way into a successful writing career. They now have an agent and are working on top tier series, such as Horrible Histories and Have I Got News For You. They’re a great example of why it’s worth considering working as part of a duo.

When did you start writing?

Jane: We started at slightly different times; I started in 2013 with a bit of an epiphany moment; I’d been watching an episode of a sitcom and thought that if I had written it, I might have ended it differently. This then led me to discover fan fiction and I started writing that.

Vivienne: I started in 2012. I’d just finished reading Stewart Lee’s book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, which included a detailed analysis of one of his routines. His lifting the curtain on how comedy is constructed was like a lightbulb moment for me and I decided to learn how to write a joke. Not necessarily about lightbulbs. It coincided with a Newsjack series so I started to send jokes, then sketches. It took me a year to get my first joke broadcast, and 18 months for my first sketch.

When and where did you meet each other?

Jane: We were both invited as guests to the writers’ room of the wonderful Live From Kirrin Island podcast. We’d “met” some of the writers on the various British Comedy Guide forums as well as at Newsjack recordings.

Vivienne: The podcast was a brilliant experience as we discovered the joys of collaboration and bouncing ideas off each other. We also went on to work with the team – led by the incredible producer, Alison Pritchard – on the Damn The Torpedoes! Series for BFBS.

Note from Chris: For more on Live From Kirrin Island, check out my interview with Dan Sweryt.

What was the first thing you wrote together and what do you remember about the experience?

Jane: Not long after we’d met on Live From Kirrin Island, we started writing together on Newsjack submissions. I asked Vivienne if she’d like to join forces. Vivienne wasn’t keen. But I am quite persistent.

Vivienne: I couldn’t see how it would work as we don’t live near each other, but Jane’s dead crafty. She asked if I would “just take a look” at a sketch she’d written. I made a few suggestions, added a couple of gags and oops! She’d got me in her icy grip.

What was your first credit as a writer?

Jane: Mine was Canal Cafe’s NewsRevue; a song – I rewrote Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” as if it was Ed Miliband at the Labour Party Conference. The show runs all year and it’s great for giving you the discipline of writing regularly.

Vivienne: My first one was also NewsRevue; it was a sketch about a bakery putting cigarette-style warnings on the buns. I’d been submitting sketches for a year so it was a great moment. They put on a very successful Edinburgh show every year, too, so there’s also the opportunity to get a Fringe credit under your belt.

Jane: Together, our first credit was for a couple of one-liners on Newsjack, in our very first week as a partnership.

Vivienne: That’s the first time Jane’s ever mentioned that.

Jane: Then, a couple of weeks later, we had our first Newsjack credit for a sketch.

Are you full-time writers or do you balance with a day job?

Jane: I have a full-time job and fit this in around it.

Vivienne: I’m freelance and my workload varies. I try to ring fence writing time but it’s a constant challenge. Before the pandemic, I wrote on the commute and in my lunch hour; now, I mostly work from home and sometimes find it trickier to carve out dedicated writing time.

“Agents are interested in seeing your long-form ideas rather than gags and sketches.”

When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?

Jane: In September 2020; it was during the pandemic, so we met by Zoom. We approached them as some of their clients were writers who worked on the type of shows we were interested in.

Vivienne: Agents are interested in seeing your long-form ideas rather than gags and sketches. We’d sent the agency some examples of our work a year earlier, which didn’t really grab them, and they invited us to send some other work that might be more suitable. Using their previous feedback, we worked on some other ideas, which they found more appealing.

What’s the best thing about having an agent?

Securing an agent is about forming a long-term relationship. It doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be inundated with work but it does mean you have an industry expert who is an incredibly useful sounding board for what might work, what the current trends are, and so on. It helps to open doors, particularly in terms of broadcasters’ commissioning rounds, but it’s definitely a long game.

What are the benefits of working as a duo?

Jane: Moral support. Plus your individual ideas can grow in all sorts of amazing ways.

Vivienne: It’s always magical when you genuinely can’t remember who wrote what. Plus Jane’s way more organised than me; if it was left to me we’d miss all the deadlines…

What is your process when writing a project – how do you divide the work?

Jane: We discuss it and then work on the characters, sometimes taking a couple each and then discussing them. Then we work out what the plot will be together and one of us will write draft zero, which is all plot and very few jokes. Then we make it better in turns.

Vivienne: One of the strengths of our partnership is that neither of us has much of an ego. If something isn’t working we can usually deal with the other slaughtering our darlings. We’re very honest with each other, which is vital.

Do you have solo projects on the side or are you 100% a duo?

Vivienne: I started writing for theatre about four years ago. It feels like a very different part of my brain, and a more individual pursuit. The comedy still seeps in, though. Of course, I usually miss all the deadlines…

Jane: I might write some drama in the future but I haven’t had time recently.

“It’s also a good idea to bring cake. Producers love cake.”

You’ve worked on some of the biggest radio comedy shows of recent years. How did it feel the first time you were in the room?

Jane: The Newsjack, writers’ room, which was our first, was pretty nerve-wracking because you’re with a group of very funny writers and the deadlines are quite short.

Vivienne: It definitely helped to be there together. It’s also a good idea to bring cake. Producers love cake.

For those who aspire to get into a writing room – how would you describe the experience?

Jane: Fun but scary.

Vivienne: I agree. It’s important to be able to throw in ideas, even if they’re not fully formed. It’s all about collaboration, and your slightly daft suggestion might be a springboard into something brilliant.

What’s the most challenging aspect of writing topical comedy?

Jane: Finding an angle that no one else has thought of.

Vivienne: In a show like Dead Ringers, the material is led largely by the voice, which adds another layer of complexity.

Some topical shows (e.g. Breaking the News) have VERY demanding schedules due to the need for content to be as up to the minute as possible. How do you manage to stay on top of deadlines?

Jane: We used to stay up late and get up early, but we haven’t submitted to the topical open-submission shows for a while now. It’s less stressful just to listen to everyone else’s funny jokes.

So I assume that means you didn’t you submit to DMs Are Open? If you listened, in your opinion, what were the biggest differences between DMs and Newsjack?

Vivienne: We haven’t submitted to DMs Are Open, but it seems to have quite a different format. I think it’s a shame that there’s no studio audience, as that was a big contributor to Newsjack’s success. It was also great for the writers, too; I was in the audience when my first sketch was recorded and the producer, Carl Cooper, got the audience to give the writers a round of applause. I’ll never forget that feeling.

“Beginning a dialogue with producers can pay off further down the line.”

Have I Got News For You is one of THE shows that writers dream of writing for. What events/credits led to you writing for the show and what have you learnt from writing for such a high-profile series?

Jane: We had been in contact with the series producer about another show they were producing on the radio. They didn’t have any room in that writers’ room at the time but offered to send a page of one-liners to the current HIGNFY producer. We were then invited to come in and contribute additional material, which is mainly the videos at the start and stills at the end of the show.

Vivienne: How we started on HIGNFY is a great example of how beginning a dialogue with producers can pay off further down the line.

What are you currently working on (that you can tell us about?)

Jane: We are concentrating on 30-minute comedy drama.

What’s your number-one tip for writing a good sketch?

Vivienne: Think of it as a tiny play: it needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

Jane: And work out what the punchline is first if you can.

You mentioned Stewart Lee’s book up top. Are there any other books, scripts or other resources that you would recommend to other writers?

Vivienne: The Sitcom Geeks podcast, hosted by Dave Cohen and James Cary, is excellent. They also run courses – both in person and online – in all aspects of comedy writing, and their individual websites and books are fantastic resources.

Jane: Yes, they’re great. We actually did one of Dave’s in-person courses together and really enjoyed it.

“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it because the likelihood of getting anything made is very small.”

How well do your influences align? Are you both fans of the same shows/films or do you clash?

Jane: We have quite similar tastes but we also enjoy a lot of diverse things.

Vivienne: I think at times our differences make our writing richer.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

Jane: We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it because the likelihood of getting anything made is very small – so you have to enjoy the process.

Vivienne: Absolutely. And the more you do it, the better you will get.

What makes you laugh more than anything?

Jane: Cats doing funny things.

Vivienne: Jane watching cats doing funny things.

You can follow Jane on Twitter and Vivienne on Twitter. They’re represented by JFL Agency.

If you REALLY enjoyed this interview, please consider being awesome and buying me a coffee.

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