Notes from the TEFL Graveyard

Wistful reflections, petty glories.

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Location: The House of Usher, Brazil

I'm a flailing TEFL teacher who entered the profession over a decade ago to kill some time whilst I tried to find out what I really wanted to do. I like trying to write comedy (I once got to the semi-finals of a BBC Talent competition, ironically writing a sitcom based on TEFL), whilst trying to conquer genetically inherited procrastination... I am now based in Brazil, where I live with my wife and two chins.

Monday, 19 November 2007

SITCOM WRITING – THE DOMINION OF BBC INSIDERS AND THE LANDED GENTRY

I mentioned in my profile that I once reached the semi-finals of a BBC Talent comedy writing competition. If this sounds grand, perhaps I should add an important caveat, for fear of being classed a fibber. I did, in fact, reach a stage that “less than 10% of the entries got to”, but as the finalists were chosen from this filtered down group, I prefer to describe it as the semi-final, probably a little flatteringly. And the mild feelings of achievement generated by my having been selected within the top 10% are dependent on the assumption that there weren’t 2.4 million entries.

Whilst I was initially thrilled by my relative success in the competition, this elation soon became smothered by the clammy palms of regret, as my unbending tendency towards directionless procrastination had yet again brought me down just outside the box. I imagine the other entrants must have beavered away at their manuscripts for months, poring over every word and punctuation mark, carefully crafting a watertight plot using advanced algebra or sophisticated algorithms. I, on the other hand, sat down after work on the Wednesday evening before Friday’s deadline and typed up my slapdash submission in just over an hour, stream-of-consciousness style. Reading through it on the way to post it the next morning, it had some exquisite moments, I felt, but was largely rendered ineffectual by a total absence of coherent storyline.

However, the encouragement of receiving a letter printed on BBC headed paper telling me of my position amongst the contest’s pseudo-elite, and the accompanying invitation to submit more script ideas to the BBC’s Writersroom, spurred me into a relatively productive period in which I daily set forth. Around a month after receiving the competition feedback, I sent my first full script idea, complete with one whole episode fully written. I received a polite reply that, whilst they appreciated my trying, it wasn’t going to be developed. That was it. No reasons why, no comments. I thought they could have at least given me a sentence, even if it was, “This simply isn’t funny.” What if they’d looked at my script and just laughed - not for the right reasons, but because I’d submitted such a feeble attempt at merrymaking?

Putting this uncomfortable possibility to the back of my mind, I decided to up the ante and write a comedy drama based on the forthcoming Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal. This time I concentrated on getting the plot right first, eventually spending three months writing daily until I had a script that ran to over 220 pages. Again the reception was without warmth – curt, in fact.

In arranging these BBC Talent competitions and the like, the corporation is clearly looking for new comedy writers, but they do little to help those they allegedly think may have some potential. Comedy is one of the hardest things to write exactly because you never know if what you’re writing is genuinely amusing or whether you’re just being annoying – it’s so subjective. Forget asking your friends and family for an honest opinion – my mother thinks my writing’s great, but she thinks Max Boyce is priceless too.

And if the competitions are directed at finding new talent, it’s more than likely that contestants aren’t already professional writers, meaning that they have to divide their time between script-crafting and work that actually makes them enough money to pay the pantry maids and the footmen – which leads me to the premise of this post, that sitcom writing is the dominion of BBC insiders and the landed gentry.

In support of my hypothesis, the utterly brilliant The Office was written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant whilst the latter was doing a producer’s course at the BBC – hence he must have nipped to the comedy department during a fag break one day and had a word. Only Fools and Horses, another comedy institution, was developed by John Sullivan, who was working in the BBC Props Department at the time. See the pattern developing? I’m sure there are other examples, but I’m too lazy to research them.

Should the BBC deign to accept your script, there is little room for cracking open the Asti Spumanti – for every twenty scripts in development, only one will make it to the screen. So after all the honing, chiseling and grafting away at your masterpiece, you have a 5% chance of success, and no guarantee that it will be repeated in future – there’s no permanent job you are being led towards. And living on a different continent probably doesn’t increase your chances of glory.

So my comedy writing career ended not with a bang but a whimper - back to preparing the lessons.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous sandy mac said...

That reminds me - when I was kid I got several merit marks at school by copying out my older brother's English essays and passing them off as my own. Whilst I claim no credit now for my shameless plagiarism, I do feel my actions denoted a certain deal of resourcefulness (cratfy bugger, eh?!).

Do you think I should send the essays to the BBC? There was a nice one about the joys of Paki-bashing, if my memory serves me correctly - it was 1971, remember. They might be quite topical as a juvenile premonition of the fothcoming 'War on Terror', eh?

Or perhaps I should adapt them to the EFL millieu and knock up a few worksheets to go with them?

19 November 2007 at 14:39  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

Cheer up, velho, and remember that The Office was endlessly held up while the BBC pumps out cornea-searing horrors My Family and My Hero for series after series. The various creative suggestions I've made to my BBC bosses have usually been met with glances of fear and offers of postings to Tajikistan. Still, I can dream that "The Adventures of Timmy Snufflepaws and Adolf the Snake-Bastard" will make it to Children's BBC one day.

21 November 2007 at 00:57  
Blogger M C Ward said...

Get this - a TEFL teacher in Latin America joins the Cymru Rouge, rises through the ranks and is eventually sent as ambassador to Rutheria with his Ukrainian spouse, where he gets involved in cachaça-induced japes and sinister episodes of physical and mental torture. Maybe Timothy Spall would take the lead? I imagine a twenty-first century Citizen Smith meets Zorra Total.

21 November 2007 at 01:10  
Blogger No Good Boyo said...

Sod the BBC, that's got Hollywood treatment written all over it. (Rumbling Voice, over Rio scenes): Far from the Copacabana (cut to snaggle-toothed peasant riding a goat in a top hat) deep in the forests of Ruthenia, there's monkey juice that needs drinking (close-up of cachaça bottle slamming down on a table surrounded by sweaty men in ill-fitting uniforms). And here's the mouth that's going to do it (crash-zoom from across a cellar deep into the throat of a screaming man tied to a Medieval dentist's chair). (Clanging noise over smoky screen, with male silhouette slowly emerging) Sean Penn is mc ward. (Unhinged woman, stomping towards camera) Helen Lederer is his made-up scary Ukrainian wife who's nothing at all like Mrs Boyo. (Gurning thugs yell in close-up) Keith Allen, Ray Winstone and Ralph Brown are the population of Ruthenia, in...

21 November 2007 at 01:56  
Blogger M C Ward said...

I'm off to have some cosmetic surgery so the bruises have disappeared by the Oscars.

21 November 2007 at 15:57  

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