This was one of my biggest projects: a fifty-minute pilot for a comedy science series, paid for with my own money. Below you will find an account of my trying to get it made and broadcast. It is a tale of frustration and dashed hope. I only took one still photograph during the shooting of it, though I had planned to take many. It shows the scene towards the end of one comedy sketch, which was written to illustrate the selfishness of genes, and the reason why all mammalian species produce as many males as females. The characters have just been in a fight, and have settled down to continue their committee meeting.
I had been trying to break into television for a while. I was contacted by a guy from Ulster Television, the local ITV channel there, who wanted someone to do some research for a proposal idea he had about human instincts and psychology. His boss's son was a friend of mine, and at a meal some while before I had talked to his father about evolution and the like, and that's why he thought of me. I took the job. This consisted at first of compiling a reading list of books on the topic, and writing out the basics of human evolutionary psychology, and coming up with themes for a television series. I did the work, sent him the stuff, and from this he hoped to put together a proposal for one of the big channels to commission.
Of course, as soon as I had the bit between my teeth, I galloped away with the idea. I proposed how the whole thing could be done as a comedy series. This didn't instantly convince my employer, so I wrote a load of scripts for comedy sketches illustrating my point, and sent that to him too. He politely said that it was interesting, but took it no further. It wasn't the approach he had had in mind.
I met him in London, went to a public seminar with him at the LSE (London School of Economics) on the topic, and then we met a few of the academic players in the field. Time went by, and we continued to correspond about the project, but his interest in it was waning while mine waxed. I was sure that I was onto something with my idea, but couldn't convince him that it was the way to go. He thought that it wouldn't work.
After a while, I decided that I would make a pilot myself, with my own money. I had nothing else better to do. It would be expensive. I was unemployed and poor, but it would be a good thing to do, so that at the end of the year I would have something to show for my having been alive during it.
I already had the script, although I added to it, and I sent this to a lecturer at Newcastle University whom I knew, who taught evolutionary psychology and agreed to check it for me. He kindly did this, and approved it without a quibble. I approached Northern Arts for funding several times, and filled in their many forms, and went through all their procedures, and ended up with the standard result: nothing. My applications were for money, which I told them was to spend on hiring equipment so that I could shoot videos. Despite turning me down several times, it never occurred to them to tell me that they had a camera which they lent out to people. I found this out by accident, went back to them, and managed to get the use of the kit for one week, for the cost of insuring it.
I borrowed a boom microphone (with no boom so I used a long dowel I had) from a local video company, and was given old used tapes by a local editing company I knew. I hired costumes from a shop in Sunderland. Since I had no car, I had to take the train, going each way looking like a human wardrobe, with coat hangers and costumes hanging off me from every convenient point. I couldn't afford to pay anyone, but by asking around, and contacting old friends, I was able to get three people to help on various days with the camera work, and by the skin of my teeth managed to find locations and actors (many from the Newcastle Actors' Centre) to fill the cast.
It was an intense week. On Monday, everything went wrong, and I got almost nothing done. I then worked about as hard as I have ever worked in my life, getting up very early every day and going to sleep very late. I had decided, after considering alternatives, to present the pilot myself. This was really for convenience, because I knew that I would always be available, and that I understood the script, which meant that I wouldn't have to use any time explaining it to someone else.
I wasted very little footage. I knew what I wanted, and shot what I needed. When the time came to hand back the equipment, I was satisfied that I had near enough what I had been after. The next step would be cutting it. I 'phoned around, trying to find someone who could let me use some editing equipment cheaply, and I was asking one local company, which then on the spot made me a very generous offer: three days editing on their non-linear (computer) equipment for £350.
On the first day of cutting, I digitised all the footage, and as it went into the machine, I sat there and noted it all down. I hadn't been able to play it before, because it was on a tape format that professionals use, and wouldn't play on anyone's home video. I then got to grips with the way the machines worked as I did the job. I was lucky, in that I was able to work late that day because of some other project that was keeping people busy in the next room. The next day was a normal length day, and the third was a long and tense one, in which I had to finish everything. Someone helped out by typing captions for me, and I just managed to get the job done and "lay it back to tape". In three days, I had cut a fifty-minute pilot. I have since been told many times by professionals that this is impossible.
I got a dozen VHS copies made, which wasn't cheap, and then had to think of what next to do with it. I had shot it in five and a half days, and completed it for a total cost of about £825.
One of the first people I sent it to was my erstwhile employer at UTV. He politely said that it was very interesting, and that's as far as that went. UTV was not pursuing the project any longer. Another person to see it early on was my friend, the son of the UTV man's boss. My friend, a geneticist, loved it, and showed it to his father, who reportedly said, "Any commissioner who sees that will know that it is gold". But nothing happened.
I wanted academic back-up, to give my proposal credibility, so I started sending copies to the top writers in evolutionary psychology. The first was a local North-easterner called Matt Ridley, who writes excellent popular works on the topic. I was delighted to receive a hand-written letter from him, saying that he loved it, that he showed it to his wife who loved it, and that he would be happy to write any supporting letter I might want, and he recommended a few other academics to show it to. I hadn't expected that much. Helena Cronin was at the centre of things in evolutionary psychology, and organised events at the LSE. I sent her a copy, and she first had two of the PhD students working under her to view it, and they both sang its praises to her.
I went down to a conference at the LSE, held at the ICA. This was something of an eye-opener for me. There was a debate, between two definite sides, each having several speakers. One was demonstrating what evolutionary psychology was all about, and spoke in measured and reasoned tones, backing up every clear point with simple evidence. The other was a succession of outraged charlatans who ranted against evolution psychology on the grounds that it must be evil. These people wantonly ignored everything the other side said, and criticised it for things that it never said, nor would ever say. One was an academic who made a career out of going round conferences claiming that the other side was saying something it flagrantly wasn't. This was in spite of having his error pointed out to him clearly and repeatedly. Another came out with the classic line "I'm not interested in facts - I'm a social scientist!" Yet another said that the idea that emotions all have functions was ridiculous, adding "I can't see the value of grief." The jaw-dropping ignorance displayed by these people was something I hadn't expected, and this was the first time I had encountered the vitriolic and at times hysterical opposition to evolutionary psychology. One woman was near breathless with fury, as she accused one speaker of blaming society's ills on single mothers, despite the fact that he hadn't. Until then, I had thought that I was just someone who knew a bit about human evolution. Then I learned that I was in a camp.
After the conference, I was astonished to learn that some supposedly intelligent people had come away with the impression that the know-nothings had won the debate. I said to Helena Cronin that if that was all they had to say, then "we" had nothing to worry about. It seemed more important for my series to be broadcast.
More praise came in from various academics. One night I got a call from the other half (also working in the field) of one of the big-hitters who was very helpful and encouraging, but who made it clear that her chap would be giving me no help, because he was working on a telly project of his own.
The video was tested on many audiences. So far, it was clear that people well acquainted with the ideas in it liked it, but what about the general public? I showed it to the cast and crew, and they loved it. I showed it to my rock-climbing club members, and they loved it. I showed it to students, and they loved it. Better still, they all understood it.
I had to get television people interested in it. I lent a tape to the editing company that gave me the tapes, and it seems that everyone there and many of the clients and people wandering through gave it a look. I learned that my friends there had considered me very unwise to use my own money to make it, but had changed their minds after they saw it. Oddly, the first comment I got was "You're wasted behind the camera."
Every director I showed it to wanted to direct it. Every producer I showed it to wanted to produce it. This is not an exaggeration, although I'll have to admit that the numbers weren't vast. Every company wanted to make it. It is true, however, that every television company just wants to be making something because the alternative is making nothing and penury. The difficult bit would be getting a commissioner to commission it. There are very few television commissioners in Britain, and there are no qualifications for the job. All commissioners live in terror of backing the wrong project. They have to pretend to know what they are doing, and go to some lengths to create the illusion that it is a science known to them. Commissioners are swapped around and dismissed frequently. It is not a secure job.
All producers claim to have the "inside track" with some commissioner or other. They claim that some special understanding or bond or secret arrangement will enable them to get a commissioner to look at a project presented by them, and look upon it favourably. Of course, they are not independent advisors. They say this in the hope that they will get the commission and the work. Commonly they advised me not to go it alone, but instead to approach a commissioner through them, and thus show that the project had the backing of the industry, and was not being put forward by a lone nutter.
All this was a few years ago now, and I cannot recall how many producers I talked to, showed the tape to, and who exactly said what. The academics naïvely imagined that the series would be commissioned and presumably shot that year. I wasn't that ignorant of the world of television, but did have some reason to think that the following year was a viable prospect. After all, everyone liked it, and the time could not have been more ripe for a programme on the topic.
For some while, eight months actually, the project came under the wing of the biggest local company: Zenith North. The people there told me that I had come to the right place: they had just the right guy to direct it, just the right guy to produce it, and both of these wrote the world's greatest proposals. This last point was repeatedly stressed. They, of course, claimed to have the ear of the commissioners as well. Media people compete amongst themselves to be busiest. Being busy is a status symbol. Just try getting hold of a commissioner. They claim to be busier than it is possible for a human to be. The people at Zenith played this game a lot. They were never in when I called, and always too busy to return calls. Time went by.
Actually, we had loads of time. There was a deadline for proposals of this sort, and we had months to prepare. We had a meeting in which we watched the whole pilot, in order to pick out the bits that should go into a five-minute trailer/taster/promo for it, to entice a commissioner. It quickly became clear that I was there for appearances, as every suggestion I made was instantly ignored. I wanted to be part of the editing team, but they insisted on getting someone in London to do it. I had already by this stage considered making a five-minute promo, because getting a commissioner to watch anything at all, let alone a 50-minute pilot, is next to impossible. I couldn't afford to, however.
There was another meeting later on, at which I was shown the result. As I suspected, nothing I had picked out had gone in. Far more puzzling, though, was that this promo for a comedy show about science, contained almost no science, and no gags. A few times, they cut just before the big punch-line. I was mystified by it. What it did have, was an awful lot of me doing pieces to camera. When I first went to Zenith, I suggested Hugh Laurie for the presenter. If we had someone like him aboard with us, the project would look more tempting to a commissioner. Their opinion, however, was that this was an "authored piece", and that I should present it myself. I was flattered but doubtful.
For reasons I didn't know, they ended up rushing and just getting in a proposal by the skin of their teeth. The proposal, in the end, was 99.87% written by me. It was the proposal I had written some while before, and they had got one of their typists to copy it word for word, only she added a few embarrassing typos, and "Zenith North" at the end. I had written "homo sapiens sapiens (sic)", and she corrected this to "homo sapiens (sic)". I wasn't impressed.
After eight months with Zenith North, I wrote to them and copied the letter to the head guy at Zenith central, down south. What I wanted was for them to pull their finger out and do something. After that time, still no commissioner had seen the pilot, or heard of me, in fact, nothing at all had happened and I was pretty annoyed. The other possibility would be that they'd drop me. The next day I got a call from the head man himself, who said that if the relationship had broken down to that extent, then it would be better that we parted company. My worst fear was that nothing would change, and this was a better result than that. Back to square one. I hoped that the guys I been trying to deal with at Zenith North got a good bollocking.
I gave the occasional lecture at Newcastle University, and Durham University, using the video as a teaching aid. The students liked it. They wanted to know why it wasn't on telly. I told them "No one in television gives a stuff about science." This was one thing I had learned.
I was now back to approaching people with the project. I tried production companies, agents, and broadcasters, but seldom got very far. Having such a great pilot was something of a frustration, because everyone who saw it loved it, and yet no commissioners would view it, because they were all busy pretending to be busier than each other. Commissioners will not watch videos sent in to them from people they haven't heard of, no matter how great all the top academics in the field say the video is, nor how keen some producer somewhere is to produce it. Ideally, the commissioner has to be convinced that he came up with the idea in the first place, so I'm told by producers. All commissioners told me to send in a written document, so I would, always mentioning the video and how it demonstrated that the idea works. I now have in writing from two commissioners that there is no such genre as comedy documentary. This is interesting, because those same commissioners were asking for new ground-breaking cross-genre projects in all their wants-lists. Commissioners all want to be responsible for coming up with the Next Big Thing, but all live in terror of commissioning a dud.
One problem was that the proposal did not fall into a familiar genre, and did not therefore belong to any one department of the big broadcasters. At the BBC, the Documentary Department insisted that the proposal should be sent to the Features Department, which insisted that it belonged at the Comedy Department, which suggested the Science Department, which suggested the Documentary Department. Every producer I talked to said that the way to present a programme proposal was to say that it was like some other programme that was successful, but no one could think of a programme that my project was like.
By this time, I had my web-site up and running, and was a research associate with the Psychology Department at Newcastle University. This position I had secured entirely by virtue of the video, and it helped me do more research, and to contact media types. Every now and then I would get an e-mail from an interested television producer. Some were guided to me by asking academics if they knew of anyone who would be suitable for a programme on the subject. A few times this led to something, but usually I would be made promises that were broken. Some approaches were from producers who effectively wanted me to write their proposals and do their research for them. The newspapers were full of evolutionary psychology at the time. The time couldn't have been riper.
As it turned out, some proposals went quite far. It is very difficult indeed to get accurate information out of television people, partly because they are having a tricky time getting information out of commissioners, but I did learn of two fairly successful bids, one of which apparently fell at the very last hurdle. Some while later, yet another producer contacted me, this time from Granada Television in Manchester. One might think that a company so huge, which was once a broadcaster, would be powerful and able to make its own decisions, but this is not so. This company has to join the same queue of beggars as all the rest of the production companies, and go cap in hand to the commissioners. There were false starts, delays, and changes of personnel, but in the end I was summoned to the headquarters of Channel Four in London (commissioners don't come to you - you go to them) where I met a Granada producer in the canteen and we talked tactics.
This was, I suppose, my big chance. The producer, a television veteran, told me how to play it. I was to let her do most of the talking. I was to play it meek. I was to nod in agreement with everything the commissioner said. I was to do all that I could to make the commissioner think that he had come up with all the ideas himself. Whatever he wanted, we would strive to assure him that we would give him it, changing the proposal wildly if necessary. She and other producers have told me many horror stories about interviews with commissioners. These often include how the commissioner uses all the precious time in the interview, for which someone has travelled the length of the country, trying to send a painting to a girlfriend, or asking for opinions on other programmes. They hold absolute power, and it seems that this corrupts.
We went into the interview. I'm not sure that I've ever had a weirder one. About a third of the time if not more was taken up with hearing about how annoyed he was that he had to get a new battery for his mobile 'phone. This, I had been told to expect. What I wasn't prepared for was the bizarre neutral tone in which he said everything. He was, perhaps inevitably, Scottish, and his delivery was by no means monotone, but nevertheless at no point ever made it clear whether what he said was good or bad. I was supposed to reassure him that the programme we proposed to make was not going to be like the things he didn't like, and was going to be like the things he liked. What the hell did he like? At one point he wanted to know how old I was. Should I be young or old? I couldn't tell. He said, "So you're like a new Alan Hart-Davis, are you?" in a way that left me unable to tell whether denial or confirmation would be a good thing. I was hampered by trying to defer to the producer, and by his utterly non-committal tone. He made it very clear by the way he directed the conversation that he was the boss, but he gave the little puppy that was me no pats or scoldings that would give me some clue about which way to jump. Near the end, he said that he'd get back to us with some word about some decision or other. "Is that okay?" he asked both of us. The producer said that it was. He noticed that I hadn't replied and he turned to me and repeated "Is that okay?" Was I actually being asked a proper question? Presumably not. "What are my options?" I said.
He didn't commission the show. If I had my time again, I would go in all guns blazing and just tell him what a great show it would be.
I still get the occasional enquiry from a media type sniffing around, but I'm not pushing the project as once I did. It could have been a piece of ground-breaking television, and could have represented evolutionary psychology to the public in an accurate and memorably amusing way. Instead, there have been a few other series made in the years since I made Built for the Stone Age, which touched on the subject a bit. All of them were agonisingly slow, as anything even slightly science-related is on British television for some reason. One big budget one was Human Instinct presented by Prof. Robert Winston and his moustache. Each hour long (check) episode packed in about as much as I would cover in five minutes using my format. To cap it all, at the end of the last episode, he then said that he didn't actually believe in evolutionary psychology.
I hate they way they do science on television. They always insist on one-man's-journey-of-discovery crap, which eats up screen time while teaching the audience nothing. I sick of hearing "But why does bla bla bla? I wanted to find out, and I was told that there was a man in Switzerland who could tell me" and seeing the presenter driving his car [cut away to his hand changing gear - he can drive! wow!], pretending to be alone, supposedly to meet the guy, then seeing some Swiss countryside going past, hearing atmospheric music, then seeing the presenter arrive and shake hands with the guy who then says his line (this, of course, is take three): "Hello, do come in." This might be followed by a slow reconstruction of an experiment that has already been done and yielded results, and great screen time is used up drawing out the suspense of what results the experiment will yield. If you want my opinion, all this is crap. My approach is this: "Experiments have shown that X, and this means Y." No one cares about my personal journey of discovery. If they have any sense, then they know it's all staged for the cameras anyway. Camera crews don't go to Switzerland on the off-chance that they might meet someone who can help them - it's all worked out long in advance. Experiments take screen time, and the results and the meaning of the results are the interesting bit. Cut to the results! Then you can show what the results mean.
So, dear reader, thank you for your patience thus far. This was my experience, trying to get a science programme commissioned. It is next to impossible. Ground breaking television is not wanted. You only have to see how many antique-hunting and cookery shows there are to know that. Commissioners want to appear to want it, but that's another matter. No one in television gives a damn about science, and almost one seems to be able to do it properly. A Channel Four commissioner did see some of my pilot in the end, and did say "We know he can do it" of me. They claim to be on the lookout for new presenters all the time.
Perhaps if I grew a really big moustache, or changed my name to David Jason…
Addendum, August 2006
Since writing the above, I have made a few more feeble efforts with the video. One was to send it to another agent who might represent me. After some considerable correspondence back and forth, and my sending yet another copy of the tape out, I got a reply that the agency was already too busy with the clients it already had. Why, then, had it bothered with me? What an astounding bad and transparently false reason! I tried again with another agent. Again, months went by waiting for replies to very simple questions, and as always during this time matters were made difficult because the person dealing with me was always either on holiday or now working for a different company. No one in media seems to stay in the same post for long enough for a few returns of post.
After the traditional sending of a tape, hearing nothing, then at length discovering that they had lost and would I please send another, I got someone at the agency to watch the tape. Unusually, they wrote back with something useful. They wouldn't take me on, because - oh the usual reasons - but they suggested a couple of names who should see the tape. One was the controller of BBC2.
Armed with a name, and a recommendation from a well-known agent, I approached BBC2 and after the statutory delay of a few months, got them to accept a tape and even to admit that they had received it. Months went by. I 'phoned up every now and then, trying to judge the correct interval. Too often would seem like a pestering nutter, but too seldom would clearly get me nowhere. I was told that the top man had loaded the whole thing onto to his portable viewing gadget that went with him everywhere. More months passed. Of course I never got to speak to the man himself, but instead to an ever-changing succession of young sociable BBC staff who politely and with a little chuckle in their voice made it clear to me that given that I was nobody it was always unlikely that The Controller would see my tape in the near future, or ever.
Eventually, though I was sure that the best way to get this project going was for the top man to see the tape, my nerve broke. I asked them to get The Controller to decide what department the tape belonged in, and could they please send it to that department, making it clear that the tape was being assigned to that department by TC, and for it not therefore to be passed on. They would, but they couldn't find the tape. Would I please send another?
I did, and after another month or two, the tape was passed on. More months passed, and I heard nothing. Again I telephoned what I hoped was the right frequency of times (once every month or so). I was passed around three members of staff, each time the newcomer was definitely the person who was now handling all these sort of things, very efficiently, and kept a log of every tape in and every letter sent. Who was I? They had lost the tape. Would I send another? I did. Next time I 'phoned up, those people were no longer working there, and I had to start again with the new lot.
Months passed. I have just had an e-mail from yet another person I've not been dealing with before, turning me down. I won't quote the whole e-mail, largely because it is too depressing. The reason given was that the project stood no chance of success because - wait for it - this kind of show is so common that the competition to get these shows on air is intense. Apparently, there are loads of these programmes, mixing history and comedy, and…
Wait a minute.
Wait a fucking minute…
They hadn't watched the tape. No one who had seen even a minute of the tape could have made that, or a few other mistakes made in the e-mail. They had a copy (one of three) for getting on for eighteen months, and still no one had stuck the damn thing in a player. Back to square one. Actually, not square one, because I'm now several years older and tireder.
One good bit of news, though - they sent one of my tapes back!