The American Dream

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Cult British comedy hails from a cloistered isle where subtlety, eccentricity and surrealism can thrive. US shows may surge across the Atlantic but only a select few wriggle back against the tide; established big-hitters like The Office and Little Britain that are checked in fully-formed before being re-packaged. A Brit writer pitching a fresh idea exclusive to the US market is virtually unheard of, so how did Green Wing creator Victoria Pile get on when she landed Stateside?

“It never happened,” muses Victoria with a wry smile, when asked when she realised she was funny. The four-times-Bafta-nominated creator of Green Wing and Smack the Pony started penning broadcast-worthy sketches for the Beeb while still at Uni, so surely that switch must have flicked earlier than most? “I’m constantly surprised when my work is appreciated by other people,” she continues. “That sounds fake, doesn’t it? But comedy writers need a lot of stroking, and positive feedback – me more than most.”

It doesn’t sound fake. We’re sipping water in her spacious North London front room: it’s comfortable, but clearly a well-lived-in family home where this writer can squeeze in some precious keyboard time before the kids get back. She’s rented some space above a shop to use as an office, she tells me, but the decorators are still in so it’s a working-from-home job ‘til they’re done.

“I get fearful of expectation,” Victoria’s prepared to admit. “I prefer to do a low-profile project and see if it makes a ripple than go out all-guns-blazing. I’ve always abhorred publicity: I don’t like people seeing stuff until it has to be seen.”

So it was an intriguing career curveball, following Emmy and Bafta-winning hits and mounting public anticipation, to plunge into a notoriously competitive overseas market to produce a pilot, set in a police precinct, rather than risk dropping the bat in Britain.

“America lured me, partly because I didn’t have to recreate something else immediately here: I went to avoid the second-album syndrome,” she goes on. But far from burying her head in the sand, she’d buried her head in a goldfish bowl. “Over there you’re exposed so completely; you can’t just say, ‘Let me do it, and then you can have a look.’ Every step of the way, you’re naked.”

Dismantling the tight-knit Green Wing team in 2006 – cast and crew largely handpicked by Victoria herself – felt “like breaking up a family unit,” she admits: “A lot of the cast spent more time with us than with their own families, and that was the hard act to follow, not whether we’d do something funny again.”

Of course, ‘funny’ couldn’t be more subjective. “I struggle, because people say I have a slightly perverse view; an unusual take on things. I never understood that. I always assume I represent a large number of similarly minded people; it’s just how I see the world. You can’t choose how to approach something comedically; well I can’t, anyway,” she goes on. “Vogues change, and when I started out I was very much into the style of comedy that I’ve since developed, and other people weren’t. Now we’ve gone about-face and there’s more trend for big studio-based comedies. But I’ll always go for what I instinctively find funny.”

But protestation aside, it was for idiosyncrasy rather than conformity that Victoria’s agent and manager, who had existing positive relationships with US networks, “hoiked” her across the Atlantic. “Now, I’m not a ‘networks’ person,” she begins, settling back into her chair: “I prefer HBO and cable; they tend to be more off-centre.” It’s already clear that this will be no pleasant fiction where a saucer-eyed Brit skips through bountiful fields of cotton candy.

“I don’t want to slag America off,” she’s keen to stress. For while it’s tempting to snuggle you down with a dustbin-sized vat of popcorn and sensationalise this cautionary tale like a gravelly-voiced Hollywood trailer, the simple truth is that the studio-driven US market is an acquired taste for a British writer. Especially one whose devoted creative control at the helm of her own complex shows have attracted monikers like “visionary” and “genius” from cast-member Tamsin Grieg and fellow Green Wing writer Fay Rusling respectively.

“You have to be prepared to have a lot of top-down input,” is her delicately democratic way of putting it. The fact that American networks can pay extremely well is no secret, and Victoria draws attention to various fellow writers who have sustained a healthy trade contributing scripts to other shows. Suffice to say that getting a fresh one off the ground is somewhat different.

“There’s a certain hypocrisy in saying, ‘We want you because you do something different; we love your work; we understand your process and we want you to do it over here,’ when that’s the very thing that they cannot let happen,” she declares, frowning slightly as a shadow of that past frustration crosses her face. “They crush it, and crush it, and crush it, and crush it, and you end up with something that’s neither my choice nor their choice.”

“I was treated fantastically well, with a lot of respect, and actually given a lot of freedom according to other sources,” she reflects; perhaps proof positive that incompatible personalities and working practices were at least partly responsible. “It was a strangely enlightening experience. We did do a pilot; I’m going out there to pitch something else, and I’m trying to do co-productions at the moment. But the things you hear are absolutely jaw-dropping: until you’re immersed in it, you don’t quite believe it’s possible.”

“I spent most of the time either in hysterics with laughter, or in tears with disbelief at how they conduct themselves. Considering it’s the epicentre of the entertainment industry, I was horrified at the outmoded, archaic, creative-crushing things that went on.”

By way of example, Victoria recollects a memo that was passed her way encouraging producers to perpetuate the influx of British talent, but not to sign any deals: “It recommended reinventing the format with your homegrown crew,” she explains. “Rip the idea off, in other words. It was an article in an American publication. They’re not embarrassed about it: ‘We don’t need to buy the formats; we’ll just do it ourselves.’ It makes you slightly fearful of sending things ad-hoc as a writer. As an actor there are some brilliant people there; lovely casting directors; in fact everyone’s brilliant apart from the system.”

And what a vast system it is. The same year that she was in the midst of it all, the network commissioned eighty scripts – a quarter of which were produced as pilots. Three went to series, and all three of them were pulled. “There was not one success out of the whole season’s production,” laments Victoria. “What I didn’t realise was that there’s a rush of British actors coming out every year to do the pilot season: if you get picked up, you’re made forever.”

“I fought tooth-and-nail to get Stephen Mangan out there, but we were also forced to have two ‘named’ stars from their stable – Jason Alexander [Seinfeld], who’s fantastic but wasn’t right for the part, and Orlando Jones [one of the original cast of Mad magazine’s late-night sketch series MADtv], who again is a tremendously talented comedian, playing completely the wrong part.”

Half-an-hour in, and Victoria has already demonstrated pretty transparently how involved she expects to be when getting a comedy show off the ground, and it’s similarly clear that this approach won’t transplant well to US soil. But there isn’t a flicker of a toy-throwing tantrum in her voice: frustration, yes, but she’s not precious for the sake of it. Her talent’s rooted in a more temperate climate, where tight creative control happens to be what she’s very, very good at – and taking that away can mean letting a project sway off course.

My timely reminder that, for her seminal creation Green Wing, she’s credited as creator, producer, casting director, script editor, film editor and writer – albeit one of several in many cases – is met with a mixture of a smile and a wince. “I didn’t choose those titles,” she points out, “but as a description of the job description then yes, it’s accurate. You need somebody trying to achieve what they want, or don’t know they want. Quite often all I know is what I don’t want.”

It may take a couple of seconds to unpick the sentence, but makes sense. And for commissioners, collaborators and cast alike, it boils down to putting your trust implicitly in someone else’s creative vision.

“You have to have quite a loyal and tolerant group of people to contribute to something blindly,” she agrees. “But as a ‘tame’ writer you’re exempt from some of the difficult decisions that rack us all. You’re in a childlike state: write as freely as you like, and we’ll take the best bits. All the writers on Green Wing had careers in their own right, but as a unit we were like a different writer.”

Her confession that she once associated each member of the team with a body part – the kidney, the little finger and so-on – prompts the obvious question: which was she? “It depends who you ask,” she smiles darkly. “Probably the stick up the arse. Although the real answer, of course, is the c-word.” Whether this refers to gestating and giving birth to her precious creative baby, or something infinitely more self-deprecating, we both decide to leave hanging.

A likely byproduct of building a tried-and-trusted team of bodily organs is that you’ll want to work with them again, and shipping Green Wing stalwart Stephen Mangan across for the pilot season is a case in point. Mark Heap, too, had been penciled in from the outset, but was replaced at the studio’s behest by Jason Alexander. Does she often put pen to paper to shape a character with a favoured actor already in mind?

“Since Green Wing I’ve done that… three times,” she reports after a moment’s thought. “I put Steve and Mark in all of them, in my head. But Mark didn’t get the part, and Jason wanted to do slapstick, drop his trousers and show his bum. There was a line in the script where he opens a drawer and there’s a portable vagina inside, and he wanted the prop to be made. You don’t need to see it,” she emphasises, sounding slightly exasperated as the voice of understated British comedy: verbal humour that conjures vivid mental images, rather than literally and figuratively shoving a vagina in someone’s face.

Setting aside comic preferences however, Victoria is quick to praise the talents of the lead actor that was dropped into her production from above: “Jason has incredible comic planning, hilarious timing, and knows a lot of martial arts so there were some incredible visuals,” she points out. But as she’s already made clear, it was the system, not the individuals, which crushed the project.

“They cut all those bits out, including some gorgeous nonsense with putty,” she reveals, with palpable regret that said putty-play won’t be lighting up our screens anytime soon. “He could equal Mark in many ways; in terms of physicality he was great. There’s a scene where he’s almost grooming the new boy: he comes round behind him, puts his hands round his neck and gobs on his cheek. The executives cut it out; they said it was leery and unattractive.”

Another “cracking scene” where Steve attends a lesbian meeting, shot with a gay female stand-up, survived right up until the wire: “They ripped it out the night before,” reveals Victoria, as if they’d torn the still-beating heart from her already maimed project: “They were too ashamed to take it out earlier.”

It’s revealing that when asked how the show was compromised, she recalls very specific episodes; vignettes that made her chuckle, but failed to crack a smile on the execs further up the command chain. Of course, even the pioneering hour-long format of Green Wing – with its series-long plot arcs that seemed so far removed at first glance from the self-contained skits of Smack The Pony – was built around sketches, expertly woven together as part of a wider narrative. Individual episodes are the blocks that make Victoria Pile’s comedy work, and sliding them out one by one is like a high-stakes bout of Jenga.

“You can cover more material with sketches,” she affirms. “Your territory’s wider. If you’re out to make a really comedic experience, you want the freedom to go hither and thither, to cover as much material as we do in our real lives.” She landed on a police precinct as a setting for the untitled pilot we’re discussing for much the same reasons that a hospital became the setting for her last hit show: you can find all sorts of people under one roof. Green Wing was originally intended to weave the lives of car park attendants, canteen staff and everyone else alongside the medical and admin staff, but it never quite happened that way.

“This pilot followed four detectives’ lives and loves: it wasn’t really to do with policing, but there was some procedural stuff in there because that’s what they wanted,” Victoria explains. “This body within the department is there to check up on procedures, and they’re so litigious. We developed a potentially fantastic relationship between the slightly anal character trying to catch everyone out, and normal detectives with their everyday lives. But it was the lack of interest in those peripheral things that screwed it for me: I wanted to indulge in the little idiosyncrasies of the characters; they wanted the story.”

From the off there was a lot of “slipping and sliding” and top-down adjustments, which as Victoria readily admits, was “exactly what I do, but done by someone else.” With very different sensibilities pulling in opposite directions, the chances of the comedy kernel surviving intact were slim to minimal. Pressing on, her team wrote two new blind scripts that impressed another network, and they commissioned a fresh hour-long script. Then the writers strike happened, and it all ground to a halt once more.

“Ultimately, in America all your experiences often come down to one person, and everyone’s curtailing to them,” she explains. “Over here, you cast someone and say to the broadcaster, ‘I’ve found some great talent, here’s the tape, have a look.’ Over there, you have to make a deal for two series before you can pass them. You need at least two other options, then you go to the studio – not the network – and they all perform in front of 40-odd people on stage, up against each other like gladiators. It’s The X-Factor, basically. Then if the studio executive agrees with you, you go forward to the network and do it all again.”

An observation that’s hardly worth making to a British audience – that a talented small-screen comic actor won’t necessarily take well to a live stage – is the final, forceful reminder that things are untouchably different over there. Victoria shrugs. “I’ve learnt a lot, and have less belief that they want what works here,” she concludes philosophically. “If I make a decision to do something that works there, that’s another matter.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 10 of 4Talent magazine

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