The time I came runner-up in a BBC sitcom award (part 1)

In 2002, aged 21, I was waiting in a queue at HMV when I spotted a booklet at the tills for BBC Talent. It was an initiative designed to find new writing and presenting talent, and one of the contests was a comedy scriptwriting competition: the BBC Talent New Sitcom Writers’ Award.

I thought I was pretty funny, but had never written a script in my life. The BBC wanted applicants to send in the first few pages of a sitcom script, but I didn’t have one. Fine, I thought, with characteristic 21-year-old chutzpah: I’ll write one! I’d had a good run of luck in the previous few years – winning Miss Harrow and getting a First in my degree – and so I told myself it was worth entering, even if I didn’t get through.

I’d been staying with my religious Asian grandparents in Leicester the previous year. They’d had an arranged marriage when my nan was just 19, and I wondered what it would have been like to be forced to have one myself. Though it might not immediately seem like an ideal subject for a sitcom, I thought the idea of rebelling against such a marriage had comic potential. I’d considered writing about this idea since staying with my grandparents, but had been finishing my degree and hadn’t done anything about it.

I therefore began to create a family of sitcom characters. But I told myself I couldn’t write about a Zoroastrian family like my mum’s, ’cause who the hell had ever heard of Zoroastrians? Every time I mentioned being Zoroastrian to someone, they either asked ‘What-Austrian?’ or made a joke about Zorro!

So I decided to write about a different Asian religion, mainly so I could make a daft pun. My main character, a Punjabi girl called Leila, was a feminist who hated men (forgive me, fellow feminists, but I was young). She was being wooed by a builder called Darren Hyde, for the sole reason that I could then call my sitcom Hyde and Sikh. Again, I can only apologise…

Me mirror.jpg

Anyhow, the premise each episode was that Leila’s parents would set her up with an Asian suitor, in the hopes that she would agree to an arranged marriage with him. She would then team up with the besotted and unreconstructed English builder Darren in order to scare off the suitor.

So I wrote the script according to the online template the BBC had provided. I found it again in the deepest recesses of my hard drive, and here it is!

HYDE & SIKH

Episode 1: ‘A Hairy Situation’

OUTLINE

Sassy Sikh girl verbally outwits besotted builder, parents and potential husbands alike.

SYNOPSIS

Leila Kaur is a 25-year-old Sikh solicitor living in Newark with her parents, who are trying to find her a suitable husband. Unfortunately Leila thinks men are pathetic, a view compounded by her biggest admirer Darren Hyde – an English builder who lives down her road. Darren is totally infatuated with Leila, and makes it his mission to intercept and thwart all the suitors who come to visit her.

SCENE 1: INT. LEILA’S HOUSE, 48 WARWICK STREET (MORNING)

LEILA COMES INTO THE KITCHEN, DRESSED READY FOR WORK. HER PARENTS ARE HAVING BREAKFAST. LEILA POURS HERSELF A GLASS OF WATER AND STARTS DRINKING IT.

LEILA’S DAD: (STRONG INDIAN ACCENT)

Hello my sweet flower. You are looking very beautiful this morning. How are you today?

LEILA: (SUSPICIOUSLY)

What do you want?

DAD: (SMILING)

I have some good news.

LEILA: (DRYLY)

Don’t tell me – you’re finally starting to understand the jokes on Goodness Gracious Me?

DAD: (SHAKING HIS HEAD AND ROLLING HIS EYES)

Nay. (GRINS SLYLY AND PROUDLY) I… have found a man.

LEILA: (COUGHING, SHOCKED)

Blimey. You’re having a midlife crisis? Don’t worry, it’s cool with me.

LEILA’S MUM (MRS. KAUR) IS SMILING AND NODDING IN HER WHEELCHAIR.

MUM: (IN A VERY STRONG INDIAN ACCENT)

Very nice man.

LEILA:

And Mum seems okay with it.

LEILA’S DAD LOOKS VERY SHOCKED AND BEWILDERED, AND THUMPS THE TABLE.

DAD:

No! I have found a man, for you!

LEILA CHOKES ON HER GLASS OF WATER, SPILLING IT EVERYWHERE.

LEILA: (SPLUTTERING)

What? Well… well you can just go and put him back where you found him! I’ve told you since I was thirteen, you’re not arranging anything with me. Goodbye!

SHE GRABS HER COAT AND STORMS OUT OF THE HOUSE, SLAMMING THE FRONT DOOR. HER DAD RUSHES AFTER HER AND REOPENS THE DOOR.

DAD: (YELLING)

Leila, come back here now!

SCENE 2: EXT. THE BUS STOP, WARWICK STREET (DAY)

LEILA STOMPS OUT OF HER HOUSE AND SITS ON THE BENCH AT THE BUS STOP A FEW DOORS DOWN. SIMULTANEOUSLY, DARREN HYDE STROLLS OUT OF HIS OWN HOUSE, WHISTLING, AND DOES A DOUBLE TAKE WHEN HE SEES LEILA. HE COMES AND SITS AT THE OTHER END OF THE BENCH, STILL GAWPING AT HER. LEILA TAKES ONE LOOK AT HIS SCRAGGY VEST, PAINT-SPATTERED CLOTHES AND LEER, AND MOVES RIGHT TO THE END OF THE SEATING ARRANGEMENT.

DARREN(WOLFWHISTLING)

Cor!

LEILA GIVES HIM A DISPARAGING LOOK.

DARREN:

Asian babe!

LEILA:

Earth is full. Go home.

DARREN LOOKS A BIT SHOCKED, THEN REGAINS HIS COMPOSURE.

DARREN:

Nah, they don’t have anyone as fit as you there.

LEILA:

No, not if you’re anything to go by.

DARREN LOOKS INDIGNANT, AND PUFFS HIMSELF UP.

DARREN:

I’m the sexiest bloke in Newark, I am.

LEILA:

Which reminds me, I must relocate.

DARREN:

And I own my own company.

LEILA:

Then why don’t you keep your own company?

DARREN:

I’m an entrepreneur, me. I have to make crucial decisions every day.

LEILA:

Let me guess: Daily Star or Daily Sport?

DARREN SIGHS, LOOKING PUT OUT.

DARREN:

You’re not impressed then?

LEILA:

How many times am I going to have to flush before you’ll go away?

DARREN:

Okay, okay, but just tell me one thing – where are you from?

LEILA: (GESTICULATING TO THEIR SURROUNDINGS)

What does it look like?

DARREN:

No, I mean really from.

LEILA: (ROLLING HER EYES)

Newark, you imbecile.

DARREN:

Right, yeh. It’s just that you’re so beautiful and exotic, and Newark, well… Newark’s the only town in England that’s an anagram of ‘wanker.’

LEILA:

You must feel very much at home.

DARREN: (SOUNDING HURT)

Come on, I was only asking.

LEILA: (RELENTING)

My family originate from the Punjab. I’m Sikh.

DARREN: (LOOKING HER UP AND DOWN)

You look alright to me.

LEILA STANDS UP TO SEE IF THE BUS IS COMING (CLOSE-UP ON EMPTY STREET), THEN SIGHS AND SITS DOWN AGAIN. 

DARREN(HOPEFULLY)

I heard a good Asian joke the other day.

LEILA: (SARCASTICALLY)

Now let’s see, would that be the one about the Asian lesbian called Mingita? Or the one about Asian people being so bad at football because every time they get a corner, they build a shop?

DARREN:

Nah, don’t worry love – I’m sexist, not racist.  I’m Darren by the way, of Darren Hyde Construction. I just moved into number 72, so you could say I’m right up your street.

LEILA:

Right up my nose, more like.

THE BUS COMES AND LEILA RAISES HER HAND TO STOP IT.

DARREN:

Wait… can I see you again?

LEILA:

Sure. Let me see, are you free…. never?

SHE FLICKS HER HAIR BACK HAUGHTILY AND GETS ON THE BUS.

Continued in Part 2 tomorrow…

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 35

Me: 12st 5lbs (total loss in 35 days: 9.2lbs)

I fell so far off the wagon last night that it rolled away into the distance. This week is a write-off dietwise – I have a book launch, lunch with a publisher and endless treats in the house for the eight-year-old. Will do much better soon.

John: 14st 3.25lbs (total loss in 35 days: 4.25lbs)

Go John!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

What it’s really like doing live telly

Every so often, a producer phones me up and asks if I’ll appear on live telly to talk about a particular issue (generally something to do with atheism). I don’t know why I fear this as much as I do – every telly appearance I’ve done bar one (The Alan Titchmarsh Show, which ironically wasn’t live) has been absolutely fine.

The thing is, I know that appearing on TV raises my profile slightly and I’ll meet interesting people and get a small fee (typically £50 or £100) – so I usually bite down my nerves and agree to go on. Then I dread it until it’s over. But I’ve done around two dozen live TV appearances now, and despite a few panic attacks when I was starting out, I’m beginning to get used to appearing.

So what happens when you go on live telly? Well, first you have to appear on the radar of a show’s producer for some reason. The Atheist Bus Campaign tends to be the way they find me, even ten years on. I reckon I’m now on some sort of atheist telly watch list!

Then they email, generally, and ask if I’d be willing to appear on their show the next day. I say yes if I can, for the reasons above. They then phone and chat to me about the topic in question, to check I’m articulate and can put across a strong point of view. Though obviously not too strong (‘they should all be killed!’ doesn’t tend to go down well).

During this conversation, I force myself to ask the producer what the fee is. I always worry that by bringing up money, I’ll rule myself out, and instead they’ll choose someone who isn’t as mercenary as me. But seriously: you don’t ask, you don’t get – and even if the fee is only £50, it covers any necessary travel and the time taken out of your day to appear.

If you don’t get a fee, you’re effectively paying to go on the show, which is ridiculous as it wouldn’t be a show without any guests – plus most of these shows have big budgets (you can bet the presenters are being paid several thousand pounds per episode).

[I wore this green Dorothy Perkins dress for several TV appearances.]

Sometimes the producer will book you a taxi to the studio – this always used to be the case – but lately I’ve noticed that, as I live in London, they often say ‘It’s probably quickest if you just jump on the Tube’.

It’s not really, as I live 20 minutes’ walk from the Tube station and  it takes £10 out of my fee, but I don’t want to be labelled difficult. Plus I often get car sick, though I’d deal with that this summer for a luxury air-conditioned ride!

I’ll spend the evening before the appearance deciding what to wear. It will largely depend on the colour of the sofa I’m going to be sitting in front of – you need to wear a contrasting colour so as not to blend in!

Then I’ll iron the outfit and put every part of it out ready to wear in the morning. I’ll spend that night tossing and turning in bed, feeling nervous, going over and over my argument for the show in my head, unable to sleep. But back to generalities…

When you get to the studio, you give the receptionist your name and the name of the show you’re appearing on, and they call the runner to come and collect you. They also print out a pass for you, which you’re not meant to wear. At the BBC, your bag gets X-rayed, which is reassuring as long as it doesn’t contain a sex toy. Then the runner collects you and takes you down in the lift to the green room.

The green room is a kind of hotel suite with more armchairs instead of a bed, where all the guests hang out before and during the show. It always has a telly so you can watch the show before you go on, and facilities for making tea and coffee, and sometimes if you’re lucky there’s a tray full of pastries.

You can chat to the other guests – I always do, though sometimes they’re not very friendly, especially if they’re taking the opposing side of a debate to you. One girl who I shan’t name looked me up and down like I was a piece of muck, then asked disdainfully, ‘Where did they find you, then?!’

Sometimes you’re taken into makeup in a separate room, where a woman tries to make you look more aesthetically pleasing; sometimes the makeup lady just pops her head round the green room door and says ‘You’re fine’ or powders your nose.

Huge Nose.JPG

Then, before you know it, it’s showtime! You’re taken up to the studio with the other guests. The presenters generally say hi then, and you’re seated in a specific place. The studio is always quiet with no windows, and sometimes you can see yourself on the screens and/or the autocue on the camera.

When the presenter starts talking to you, time speeds up. You try and put your point across succinctly and articulately, without interrupting anyone, but it’s all a bit of a blur. If you’re lucky, you can see the questions she’s going to ask on the autocue or her clipboard, so have a few seconds to think about the answer. Usually if I get nervous, I sip the water they put out for guests on the table.

However, almost as soon as you start, the segment’s over and you’re being escorted back to the green room to collect your bag. These days, I check Twitter as soon as I get back to my phone, to see what the reaction to my appearance is. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a taxi home and speak to your friends, who have watched you on live TV.

So to finish, here I am on BBC Breakfast ten years ago, talking about Fawlty Towers while wearing my favourite green dress. I didn’t realise the camera could see me sitting on my leg!

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 28

Me: 12st 5.6lbs (total loss in 28 days: 8.6lbs)

I’m back on the wagon and am determined to stay on!

John: 14st 5lbs (total loss in 28 days: 2.5lbs)

John has fallen off the wagon and seems determined to stay off!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

The time I won £3,000 on Channel 5’s Brainteaser

In 2002, I came second in a BBC comedy scriptwriting competition. I was only 22 and took the runner-up prize with my very first script – which filled me with horror. I was a fraud! I had no idea how to write a script, and someone was bound to rumble me very, very soon.

Then a friend saw an MA in Scriptwriting advertised in the paper. It was at Goldsmiths College, University of London – a prestigious arts college. If I actually learned how to write scripts, I decided, maybe I wouldn’t feel so fraudulent. I submitted an application, initially got rejected, then finally accepted for sheer persistence after I metaphorically hammered on their door.

There was an ethnic minorities’ bursary for one student attached to the course, which would cover the £3,000 course fees. I told myself I’d most likely get it – after all, there were only 12 students on the whole course. The odds were good, right?

Unfortunately for me, the bursary went to the very talented Veronica McKenzie, the only other BAME student on the course.

Age 22 (3).jpg

This meant I had to find £3,000 from somewhere. I was leafing through the Metro newspaper one day, and an advert jumped out at me: ARE YOU GOOD AT ANAGRAMS? DO YOU WANT TO WIN £3,000? Yes and yes!

The ad was for contestants for the Channel 5 show Brainteaser, which was produced by Endemol’s studios in Oxford. After a short telephone interview, I was given a date to appear on telly. I remember that they refused to reimburse travel costs, so I paid the £30 return in train and Tube fares vowing that I had to win, rather than end up £30 down.

I entered the Endemol studios and met the other contestants in the green room beforehand. I remember one of them, a lady called Joanne, trying to psych me out by listing all the TV shows she’d been on, including Bargain Hunt. She seemed very competitive and I could tell that she really wanted to win. In the green room were goody bags containing a purple Brainteaser-branded mug and pen, but being a design elitist I planned to give them to my nan.

The first round featured me and Joanne. We took our places behind two stands, but then I realised I had a big problem – I couldn’t see the letters on the screen! It was too far away and the letters were all fuzzy and blurry in front of my eyes. I’ve always been shortsighted, but glasses really don’t suit me and I’m too squeamish for contacts or laser, so I just sort of muddle along (don’t worry, I don’t drive).

Luckily, one of the elderly secretaries at Endemol had a pair of rather unfetching glasses which she lent me. We must have had the same prescription (about -1.5) as when I put them on the screen was crystal clear. With my sight problems out of the way, battle commenced!

Brainteaser-1.jpg

In one round, we had to rearrange the segments to make a word. I was a bit rubbish at this on the day, though I can immediately see that the above word says INDIVIDUALISM. Joanne raced into the lead, but I fought back hard and eventually won by a single point.

We also had to fill in crossword clues in another round, which I was slightly better at. I remember that one of the words was about a religious day at Easter, and I got it right – ASCENSION – which is ironic given my later career activities!

The presenter didn’t seem to like me much, as between the rounds she came up and whispered to Joanne, ‘You can still win this, you know!’ Eventually, after a very hard-fought battle, I won. Joanne was disappointed and I felt sorry for her, but I had an MA to fund.

I remember that I was so tense, I kept whacking the buzzer super-hard instead of pressing it gently. The presenter told me off, and her link into the adverts was ‘Will Ariane survive the next round? Will the buzzer? Join us after the break to find out!’

Brainteaser-2.jpg

With Joanne gone, the presenter asked me a few questions about myself. This was only my second time on telly, and I remember saying hi to my nan, who was watching. The presenter said, referring to the tense rounds between me and Joanne, ‘Your nan’s probably had a heart attack by now’ and I replied ‘I hope she hasn’t’ and the presenter retorted, ‘Well, of course we hope she hasn’t too – what sort of people would we be?!’

Ah, the joys of live telly…

After the break, I played a middle-aged woman called Glenys who was very sweet and gentle. This was a much easier battle, and I managed to buzz in (generally too violently) on 95% of the questions. I found the above round especially fun and easy – I can immediately answer STUDIO.

Then we played a general knowledge round which was not exactly Mastermind. Four clues would appear on the screen and you had to buzz in as soon as you knew the answer. (This one is TESS DALY.)

Brainteaser-3

Throughout the show, the presenter kept telling people to phone in on a premium rate phone line to win a competition by answering the easiest anagram ever. Brainteaser would finally be cancelled when the show was implicated in the phone lines scandal of 2007.

As for me, I was through to the final round, which was a solo anagram round in which the questions progressively got harder. If you answered another clue correctly you’d get more money, but if you tried to answer and failed, you’d forfeit the lot.

Adding a D to the word SUE to form a new word was easy, but adding a V to AROUSED? When I reached AROUSED (so to speak) I wondered if I should stick at £1,500, and nearly did – but then I found the courage to go for the £3,000, as that was what I’d come on the show for…

Brainteaser-4.jpg

… and let’s just say I SAVOURED my win! The £3,000 was mine, and therefore I could afford the MA. Though it was a nightmare course and definitely wasn’t worth the £3,000, but that’s another story entirely.

Winning Brainteaser gave me the confidence to apply for Countdown, which was a brilliant experience. I got the telly bug and would go on to appear around 20 times on news and current affairs programmes on the BBC, ITV1 and Channel 4. Plus my nan liked her Brainteaser mug and pen, and thankfully she never did have a heart attack.

Those specs, though…

Brainteaser-5

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 27

Me: 12st 6.4lbs (total loss in 27 days: 7.8lbs)

Same old, same old.

John: 14st 3lbs (total loss in 27 days: 4.5lbs)

John has digested and excreted the elephant!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!