Tasters, Fudge and Pick ‘n’ Mix

Tasters, Fudge and Pick 'n' Mix

Channel 4’s Mark Dolan walks the tightrope of pilots and creative turbulence.

I suppose the big challenge this year is to put a positive spin on shrunken budgets and a risk-averse commissioning culture. And the positive spin is this: we are in the era of the office pilot and the taster tape, and it could be a great opportunity for innovation.

Big, fat, expensive pilots are more carefully rationalised now and a channel is far more likely to physically come into the office of a production company and watch a few people in a room work through an idea, and feed through their thoughts thereafter. This is of course preferable for them, compared to the cost and potential egg-on-face caused by bankrolling a lengthy chunk of development and a full pilot.

Pilots from my experience are often a big creative fudge, aimed at keeping everyone happy and failing to keep anyone happy. It’s one thing for a pitch document to be full of stuff “they want to hear”; we know that happens, it’s the Realpolitik of telly. But once you actually get to making a programme, common sense and honesty need to prevail and there’s nothing worse than a botched pilot which is effectively a pick n’ mix affair, designed to tick commissioners’ boxes and get a series away, as opposed to being a good piece of television in itself. I’ve never done a bad pilot that suddenly became a great show once it went to series, or vice versa.

Without sounding like I’m about 80, I do remember a time when entertainment and comedy formats were primarily developed around the talent. It’s a fashion which comes in waves and it only takes a couple of high profile failures to make it go away again for a while, a bit like topical comedy shows. It takes a certain amount of courage to put all your eggs in one talent basket, but by focussing on the comic voice of one or two individuals, you are guaranteeing something that will feel fresh and original.

When I started working in TV about a decade ago, Leigh Francis, for example, had a fantastic collaboration with C4, starting with a show I hosted for E4 called Show Me The Funny and culminating in Bo Selecta. This small, steady investment paid back with multiple hit series, all effectively home grown. To use a football metaphor, it’s better and cheaper to take a player from the academy (which is what BBC 3 and E4 can be, as well as perhaps late night on the terrestrials), than buying an established overpriced Brazilian who sulks because he didn’t know that it rained a lot in Manchester.

It’s well known that channels will poach a brilliant presenter, only to ask the question “so what do we do with him or her now?” The reality now is that, notwithstanding a handful of big names, the format is now the star. It’s less of a creative gamble and perhaps (and I concede this), a safer, less exposed environment for a performer to grow their relationship with the viewing public. The trick for a talent is to hook up with a trusted producer, develop a great format and then shine within it. Herein lies the opportunity of the office pilot.
With commissioners willing to leave the security of the mother ship and watch an idea in its most naked form, nobody has anything to lose and the results can be startling. I know this is a bit of a pipe dream, but it may go some way to building a relationship with the channel which is more collaborative and one of shared creative responsibility. We can all grow it together.

Much the same can be said of short taster tapes, made on good will, creative bravery and bugger all money. These are particularly good news for an idea which is genius, but looks crap on paper (The Office anyone?). I made such a tape about nine years ago. We were paid in sweets but it led ultimately to a comedy series on Channel 4 (Richard Taylor Interviews) and a happy relationship thereafter. So who says there’s anything wrong with doing telly on the cheap?

Mark Dolan is a comedian, writer, and television presenter.