Humans of Middlesbrough

Huge thanks to Tees Valley Screen, Northern Film + Media and the BFI Network for funding this stupid film about Middlesbrough I wrote and directed. Here’s what filming it looked like. Pics by Jay Moussa-Mann.

Friday’s Short Story: The Designer Fire Brigade

storytellerI phoned the designer fire brigade this morning. They were very friendly, considering I was having to shout over the sound of the fire alarm. We arranged a meeting and I went in to discuss my fire-fighting needs.

We sat in a very nice little conference room, and Melvin, the head designer fire fighter, took me through the process of assembling a mood board. They gave me a pile of magazines, some scissors and a Pritt stick. First of all we concentrated on the colours and shapes that summed up my living space at the present moment: I found lots of warm colours, reds and golds, and carefully pasted them into a collage, along with some photographs of people looking sad. Melvin seemed very pleased when I had finished. “Oh, is it hot in here or is it just me?” he said, sort of fanning the air round his face with his hand.

Then I had to put together a second mood board to help me visualise how I might like my living space to look after the designer fire fighters had finished with it. Again I cut pictures out, the colours now cooler – lots of blues and greens, more oceanic. Pictures of kitchens and bedrooms not filled with acrid smoke. And I found some shots of people looking happy. One in particular, of Matthew McConaughey leaning against a chain fence in a sun-drenched Los Angeles alleyway, really seemed to sum up how I would feel if the designer fire brigade could effect the kind of transformations their brochures had promised. Again, Melvin nodded in approval.

He would take the boards, he said, and present them to his firefighting team, perhaps on Wednesday, and they would discuss strategies and solutions, and could they get back to me some time next week with a game plan and, a ha ha, a price plan?

Anyway, by the time I got home the urgency of the project had gone, really. I phoned the designer fire brigade and thanked them for their help and advice. They were very understanding. These things happen, they said, and the final bill, when it arrived, would reflect that, they said.

And as Melvin pointed out to me, charcoal is the new black.

The Designer Fire Brigade
by Harris
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Friday’s Short Story: Secret Origin

A bat flew through Bruce Wayne’s window. Superman was rocketed to Earth from a dying planet.

I was nine and tidying up the bookshelves in the corner of the classroom, because I was a good boy and I got asked to do things like that. The rest of the class were busy with a maths worksheet. I didn’t like maths. I liked being a good boy. I was quiet, I kept myself to myself. I liked tidying the shelves, putting everything in order.

The classroom door opened and in came Mrs Ramshaw; huge, hairy and angry, a furious grey-permed sunset of a face above a formless planet of a body. With her was a little girl who had obviously just been crying.

“Mrs Murphy, Shelley says that one of the big boys made her cry at dinner time. Shelley, can you see the boy who made you cry?”

Shelley scanned the class. Everybody, boys and girls, looked guilty. They fiddled with pencil cases, looked at the ceiling. I tidied the shelves.

It was me. It was me who had made Shelley cry. I wasn’t a good boy. I was a bad boy. I had done it and I was going to get told off. Mrs Ramshaw would shout at me in front of everybody. I might get the slipper. My stomach felt cold and empty as fear and guilt and more fear replaced the blood in my veins. Being told off was the worst thing in the world. The universe was looking at me, cold indifference had turned to icy interest. This was not an improvement.

“Can you see the boy, Shelley?”

I kept tidying. Putting the shelves in order.

“No,” said Shelley.

Shelley couldn’t see me because I was tidying the shelves because I was a good boy.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mrs Murphy. Come on, Shelley. We’ll try Class C.”

They left.

School is where you learn the most useful lessons. Everything was in order. I didn’t get told off. Good boys tidy the shelves during maths and good boys don’t get told off. The emptiness in my tummy turned to warmth. The best feeling in the world: relief. I had got away with it. And the shelves were neat and tidy and the universe was looking away from me again.

I would never be bad again. Honest. I’m a good boy.

I am very quiet and keep myself to myself.

Secret Origin
by Harris
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How to Write a Comedy Sketch

“…the room is full of milkmen, some of whom are very… old.”

A few handy hints and tips for the aspiring sketch writer, from an aspiring sketch writer.

The best sketches are generally those with a clear and simple purpose or idea behind them:

    Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch: Cleese wants to return a parrot, Palin doesn’t want to let him.

    Armstrong and Miller Fighter Pilots: Contrasting the stiff-upper-lip attitude of WW2 with the perceived lazy and entitled youth of the noughties.

    Two Ronnies Fork Handles – Customer persistently asks for goods which sound like other good. Hilarity ensues. (For about the first two minutes of what is an eight minute sketch)

These sketches set out their controlling idea and stick to it, exploring the ramifications and never deviating. This is good.

Work out what your sketch is ABOUT, and if there’s bits of your sketch that aren’t about that, then maybe you’ve written two sketches which need surgically separating.

Unless you want your sketch to be a meandering bit of banter between two characters, you’re going to have to give those characters wants and/or needs. That’s what will drive your sketch, and how you’ll know you’ve got to the end, because your characters will either:

a) have what they want
or, more likely
b) have failed utterly.

With hilarious consequences, of course.

By which I mean, if the joke in your sketch does not arise from the character or the situation, and can stand alone, it probably doesn’t belong in there. Set it free.

That last one is important. Comedy is too potent a weapon to be aimed at the powerless, no matter how annoying you might find them. Punch upwards! Fight the power! Don’t kick a social group when they’re down. If your sketch is about how stupid, evil and lazy chavs are, and look, they eat Greggs pasties and shop at Primark the idiots then well done. You just gave David Cameron an erection, and you know what he does when he has one of those. Your sketch just fucked a pig.

Keep your characterisations and references up to date. Shop workers don’t call customers “sir” any more. The police don’t say “ello ello ello”. Doctors don’t say “and what seems to be the problem?” any more. The great sketches reflect their times; yours should reflect our time.

I don’t care how camp they are. This isn’t 1975. Gayness should no more be a defining character trait than straightness.

The punchline is in there, and it’s probably not a pun. Also avoid the following endings “I’ve heard of… but this is ridiculous”, “Get out!”, and “You’re fired!”. I’ve done two out of those three ad I still feel dirty.

Some of us have seen what happens when you stick a reference to a recent tragedy/atrocity into a sketch for shits and giggles, and it’s not pretty. Alienating an audience is easy. Getting them back onside is not, and if they feel you’re just pushing their buttons with no good reason they are going to hate you.

This is really important. If you have an idea for a sketch, get it written. And then, and this is important, get it rewritten. This takes the pressure off the first draft. The first draft will most likely not be as funny as you thought it would be. And that’s fine! That’s normal. If you really want to take the pressure off, try to write the shittest version of your idea. Anything to get it down on paper. This will also allow the next few ideas to come bubbling to the surface of your mind. Then you can get them written too. And then rewritten. And so on…


Shock Exit For Sidney

Shock Exit For Sidney is a feature-length comedy screenplay I’ve been working on as part of NFM and Screen Yorkshire’s Triangle scheme. Through Triangle I’ve hooked up with producer Sarah Brocklehurst (who produced Black Pond) and director Duska Zagorac and together we’re pretty determined to make a big, silly comedy about a man and his kettle (kettle pictured not necessarily kettle from the film. Unless its agent stops playing hardball).

Here’s a news thing about the scheme…


‘Course, now I have to write the thing. That kettle isn’t going to write its own dialogue. Luckily I just bought some software that might help.