Interviews – Media – Nigel Smith

Nigel Smith has been appointed to track down new comedy talent for UK commercial TV producer and broadcaster Carlton Television. He was offered the job after successfully producing a three-week sitcom festival for terrestrial station Channel 4. Here, the former local newspaper reporter and busker talks to us about the world of TV comedy, and offers some original thoughts on how to get into television writing – and how to get on once you are there

New title: Development producer of comedy, Carlton Productions

Former title: Producer, Channel 4 Sitcom Festival

Date of birth: Mid 1960s

What were your reasons for changing positions?
I was poached by Nick Symons, head of comedy at Carlton, after the Channel 4 Sitcom Festival. It was a fantastic opportunity – a high profile job with a decent salary. I love comedy and jumped at the chance of finding new writers and seeing their manuscripts taken through to production. The job also puts me in a strong position to get my views noticed and also time to develop myself as a writer.

What does your new job involve?
I read through manuscripts, select new writers, then develop their scripts with them. I then take them through to the finalized version. My job also involves watching a lot of TV.

What do you miss about your last job?
During the Channel 4 festival, I knew all the shows we worked on would be shown on TV. Now I work in development where only a few of the shows make it onto the screen. Also, at the festival, there was a big team feel of everyone clubbing together.

Where were you educated?:
English degree at Queen Mary College (now Queen Mary and Westfield College), London. I didn’t have the greatest time at college. I didn’t get on with my tutors and found many of the students quite pretentious. In my third year, I got involved in stuff outside college – theatre, a band and then moved towards the London scene.

What was your first job?
News reporter on The Dagenham Post. After college I got hold of a copy of the Yellow Pages and looked up as many newspapers as I could find. I then wrote to them all saying: ‘Give us a go. Let me come and write for you for a week. Don’t pay me – if you like me, take me on; if you don’t, don’t.’ I had always wanted to be a writer, so I thought journalism would be a good first step.

How did you move from newspaper journalism to writing and producing comedy?
I didn’t like the career path thing in journalism that says you should go from a local to a national or into radio. Instead, I left the paper and went busking in Europe for three months. I came back and worked for a PR company, but I was still a struggling writer. My American girlfriend at the time then said: ‘Why don’t you come to New York and be a struggling writer?’ So I went to New York.

I got so much encouragement in the US, where wanting to write is a normal thing. I started hanging out with a bunch of actors and we put on a play near Time Square. It was great – anything seemed possible. Then after a year, I came back to London and reality kicked in. I got a job on the Hackney Gazetteand applied for a place on the National Film School’s two-year writing course, but didn’t get one.

How did you finally break into television?
I was unemployed, aged 30, and just wrote and wrote. Eventually I got an agent and that is when my career started. It is fantastic to be told by a professional who, for the first time, says you are not wasting your life and that your writing is good. This is so different from your mum or your girlfriend and friends giving you encouragement.

How did you become interested in production?
My agent got me a job as a reader for Humphrey Barclay, the famous comedy show producer, who was then controller of comedy for London Weekend Television (LWT). The job was for three months but lasted two and a half years and developed into a writer’s job.

What concerns you most about your job?
The entertainment world is a flaky business – there is no guarantee of success. For me this is also part of its charm. Who knows if a new comedy you think is great is going to be a success? Every successful writer has had his flops, but people remember the good stuff.

Any tips on getting into TV entertainment?>
Comedy is not rocket science – you don’t have to be 40 years old to be an expert and know what is funny and what show will work. If you have intelligent opinions, people will listen to you. Television eats comedy like nothing else. If you’re funny, you’ll get work in TV. Shows always need scriptwriters. Look at the schedules, pick out a few shows, then write to the producers. Radio’s a good place to start.

Pearls of wisdom?
Always work with people more talented than you. If you’re a writer and want to get involved with comedy, then get in with actors. Comedy is about performance. And if you want to be a writer, make it your full-time job.

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