Written by Emma Kennedy

Arts

How to make a sitcom

Three years in the making and birthing, The Kennedys is now on BBC1. Its creator and writer Emma Kennedy tells us how it happened.

Emma's BBC1 sitcom, The Kennedys. All photos: BBC.

Emma’s BBC1 sitcom, The Kennedys. All photos: BBC.

When you’re in a creative industry the struggle is real. Whether it’s trying to persuade a publisher that your book idea is the bomb, or convincing a TV commissioner that maybe, just maybe, people other than you and anyone you owe money to may tune in and watch it, the scrabble towards the green light is strewn with stones smothered in axel grease and encrusted with broken, upturned lemonade bottles. And you’ve got no shoes.

So that’s the first hurdle.

The second is when that publisher or commissioner looks off into the middle distance, nods, and says, “Yes, I think I like this idea,” and then fixes you with a penetrating stare not unlike Judi Dench in the Bond films and adds, “Now go away and make that happen.”

From that moment, you are catapulted at speed back down the mountain and expected to re-climb it.

It’s a bit like when Uma Thurman in Kill Bill 2 sends herself off to Kung Fu Master Pai Mei to try to master the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Actually, it’s a bit harder than that, so crouch and get ready to scrabble.

The clamber upwards intensifies. First things first, you have to go away and write the thing: hour after hour alone in, in my case, a shed with only that one alarmingly large spider in the top right corner for company. Stuck on a sentence? Take a quick look at Twitter. Can’t figure how to bring those three story strands together? Take a quick look at Twitter. Can you make that joke a bit funnier? Take a quick look at Twitter. You stare longingly at the spider and then find yourself genuinely morose because you will never be able to have a conversation with your dog.

The hours turn into weeks, then months. You started writing in shorts and a T-shirt. Now you’re in your chunkiest cardigan and are wearing a large furry hat with bear ears. You can’t remember the last time you washed your hair and you’ve given your belly button a first and second name. You’ve written the first drafts of six episodes but you’re still at the bottom of the mountain. Trust me, the work hasn’t even begun.

“You surround yourself with people who will never utter those two little words, ‘That’ll do’ that mean nobody gives a shit.”

Now, you have to send it to people. People who will go through what you’ve written like a small tenacious forensic scientist in every cop drama you’ve ever seen. The pernickety one. The one that everyone hates because it means more work for everyone but who always ends up being in the right. You will get pages of notes. Pages of them and you will read them with a dull ache in your chest and know that every single thing (apart from that one note that was clearly ridiculous) means you have to write another draft. And then another. And then about six more.

I have learned, over the years, that the biggest favour you can do for yourself as a writer is to have no emotional attachment to a first draft whatsoever. Get it down, get it done. Ten drafts later and your finished product will bear little if no resemblance to where you started and this, you come to understand, is precisely what you need and should want. Because if you didn’t, you don’t care. You want it to be the best it can be, right? So you go back to your shed and you nod to the spider and on the wheel turns.

kennedys 3

“You allow yourself a brief moment of thinking, ‘That’s it. My work here is done.’ But it isn’t.”

You surround yourself with people who will never utter those two little words, “That’ll do” that mean nobody gives a shit. The scripts get better with each pass but, you realise, will never be finished. There’s always a chance a line can be better and this drives you on. You give the scripts to gag pass writers who offer up extra jokes. You like some of them so much a few of them will go into the scripts and you’re grateful like when a stranger helps you with a flat tyre. You give the scripts to the actors and you watch life being breathed into these characters you’ve lived with in your head but they’ve given you some ideas so you start rewriting to accommodate their talents. Those characters are theirs now.

Then the director reads the scripts and she has things to say and you write again, changing scenes because there isn’t a car park where we’re filming and that joke won’t work now. Nobody says “That’ll do” and you love them for it.

Shooting scripts are issued. You allow yourself a brief moment of thinking, “That’s it. My work here is done.” But it isn’t. You’re on set and you think of new gags and you feed them in. The actors ad-lib. The show isn’t mine, it’s ours and you can see the top of the mountain. You sit in editing suites persuading people why Led Zeppelin can be the only music used over slo-mo walking and you show them and they believe you. You think you’re done and then the Big Bosses arrive and they would quite like a voiceover please. So off you go and write it. The spider is still there.

And finally, after three years from start to finish, it’s signed off and that’s that. But have you mastered the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique? That’s up to the people who watch it to decide.

The Kennedys is on BBC1, Fridays, 9.30pm. Catch up on the first episode on iPlayer.

@EmmaKennedy

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Written by Emma Kennedy

Emma Kennedy is the author of nine books, a scriptwriter and the Fun Editor at Tatler. She's an occasional actress, she won Celebrity Masterchef and is a Guinness World Record Holder.