When Writing Becomes Teamwork

Reading & Writing

‘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.’  

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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!

9 comments on “When Writing Becomes Teamwork”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    Here are some splendid groups about for sure, and some online too.

    I remember hearing Eric Sykes talking about working on The Goons with Spike Milligan, they used to collaborate but it eventually got to the point were Spike threw a typewriter and Eric suggested they write alternative episodes.

    And into the writing mix you can throw Marty Feldman with Barry Took and The Goodies, and the link to the Monty Python with At Last the 1948 Show.

    Wayne.

  2. Roger says:

    ‘Nobody admires a good all-rounder.’

    Don’t try to tell admirers of Gary Sobers or Ian Botham or Kapil Dev or… that.

    With The Goodies and Monty Python there’s also a link to radio’s I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. Perhaps one reason for the absence of women in the team line-ups – apart from pure sexism, conscious or not: didn’t all of the Goodies and Pythons go to all-male schools? – and perhaps for the lack of gay partnerships – is the need people feel to detach from them. John Cleese and Connie Booth worked together for twelve scripts for Faulty Towers but/and divorced. Perhaps four people are enough to give balance but few enough to actually know each other and their virtues and vices well. Brahms and Simon weren’t involved with each other and had other jobs too. Producing novels in the 1930s and 40s probably wasn’t as pressurised as producing scripts for radio or TV.

  3. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Always good to see a mention of Brahms and Simon. Love those books and still re-read from time to time.

  4. Graham Powell says:

    It’s not just writing – I work in computing, and when facing a tough technical challenge it really helps to have some sharp teammates to bounce ideas off of.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I think working together is a good idea in most enterprises unless one of the partners has very strong ideas as to how things “ought” to go. Typewriter throwing could well result there. Typewriter throwing – a good muscle builder that.

  6. Roger says:

    Typewriter throwing – a future Olympic sport. We’ve got to find something to do with them.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Spike Milligan didn’t, to my knowledge, throw many typewriters, but he did once throw a large glass paperweight at Eric Sykes, who ducked, and the projectile left the office by opening the window, in several thousand places at once, and landed in the road. I think that Eric Sykes went and retrieved it, and everything continued as it had, before Spike’s small ‘episode’.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    I could be wrong about the projectile, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Eric Sykes interview but I’m sure he said that they used to work together on scripts and then after an incident he suggested they work on their own script and these went out each week. He also spoke about doing a play with Jimmy Edwards, Eric Sykes was deaf so Jimmy Edwards used to go out of his line of sight and change the lines to great amusement of the audience.

    With the links I always remember John Junkin (who could do stony faced but also give the most worried look imaginable.), who worked with just about everyone, including Marty Feldman and several times with Tim Brook Taylor including Hello Cheeky with brings in Barry Cryer which then opens the door to just about everyone and swings things back to The Frost Report. Of course Took & Feldman worked on Round The Horne which then links Carry On and radio back to WW2. What a small world comedy in the UK is.

    Wayne.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    I was always fond of John Junkin – the daft radio show he made with Tim Brooke-Taylor, ‘Hello, Cheeky’ is often repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra. My favourite thing he did was the coach driver on Marty Feldman’s ‘Mystery Tour’ sketch, which makes hilarious use of undercranking, usually resulting in a mac wearing Feldman running after the coach, squeaking: “Wait for me!”

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