When Writing Becomes Teamwork
‘Nobody admires a good all-rounder.’
This was the motto of my earliest teacher/mentor Mr Scholar (really). It was advice I took to heart, by concentrating all my efforts on the subjects in which I excelled and dumping the vast majority I was lousy at. But it left me deficient in a number of skills, so when I set up a company I ran it with a friend who had what I lacked, and we formed a symbiotic working relationship that lasted decades. This, I must add, was more accidental than planned.
During that time I remained in an office with three or four other writers. This concentration of wit sharpened all of us up, and we hothoused ideas day and night. Creative collaboration forces you to consider approaches you would never normally try or even think of. Here’s one example of how it can work;
Caryl (nee Doris Abrahams) Brahms and ‘Skid’ (ne Simon Skidelsky) Simon met in a hostel and shared the same ridiculous sense of humour. First they wrote captions for David Low’s political cartoons in the Evening Standard, then they graduated to crime novels. ‘A Bullet In The Ballet’ (1937) was the result of a delayed meeting and a conversation over a cup of tea. Brahms did the ballet bits, and Skid wrote the parts that involved detection.
The first line gives you a taste of what’s to come: ‘Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later – here it is.’
The duo also wrote excellent historical farces, the best being ‘No Bed For Bacon’, which was very obviously the unacknowledged inspiration for ‘Shakespeare In Love’, although I don’t suppose anyone was paid for it, and ‘Don’t, Mr Disraeli’, which includes virtually every clean Victorian joke you can think of, plus a cameo from the Marx Brothers.
Collaboration seems a more common practice among humour writers than straight dramatists, although the Nicci French thrillers (husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) are a decent example. There are plenty of instances of brother writers, and a few sisters, but true collaboration really takes off when there’s a group.
Writing as part of a team has another effect; the constant intrusion of outside ideas forces you to reassess your own work and improve upon it. There once was an office known as the House of Fun, the home of a unique writers’ co-operative called Associated London Scripts, based in Shepherd’s Bush. For a while it contained a quartet of unparalleled comedy talents: Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Quite how they all shared assignments is unimaginable now, but a modern equivalent would be Reece Shearsmith, Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton. The question must arise – why are they always males and in quartets, like bands?
The Pythons, like the National Lampoon alumni that bred itself into SNL, had talents forged in the communality of university life, at a time of life before the profit motive overtakes the simple desire to write something clever. But given the power of social media, why aren’t more writers teaming up online? They can’t all be focussed on selling something to Netflix, can they?
It’s a cliché but one that holds true: Money sours art. When Netflix began it smartly concentrated on making a reputation for itself with a small number of good dramas. Now it wants global subscribers and is chasing a place of market dominance. To do that it needs a lot of product. Take a stroll through the Netflix catalogue now and you’ll see a level of rubbish never before offered at this volume.
Why would a group of writers create a show for a company that doesn’t care about quality? They don’t – but look up the number of writing groups in any city and you’ll be amazed. Some of the year’s best writing has come from new writers. The mistake many make is believing that writing is a meritocracy – it’s not. It’s the right work at the right time, spotted by a sponsor and given air to breathe. If your work isn’t getting noticed, don’t change it to make it more acceptable to disinterested executives with no imagination. Team up with someone and double your chances. I’ve worked in teams and it’s a lot more fun than working alone!