What we find funny varies tremendously from person to person, so writing comedy is perhaps one of the hardest jobs in entertainment. I spent around five years writing a seemingly stratospheric pile of sketches and, by the end of that period, five of them ended up being performed in various stage shows in London. So, yes, it's a tough old game, but for every 10,000 failed writers there's one who bubbles up to the surface like a tasty carrot in a particularly indulgent broth.
And, whilst Tony Sarchet wouldn't fit in a soup bowl, he's a fine example of a comedy writer who's managed to translate his passion for comedy into a career which has seen his talents grace stage, radio and screen. It's a career which has seen him work with Stephen Fry, Who Dares Wins, Richard Wilson, Three of a Kind, Jasper Carrott and Spitting Image, so this role call of talent is a testament to his skill and one that I wanted to hear more about.
How did you get started in the world of comedy writing?
I wrote some revue pieces at school and then university and whilst there sent a few articles to Punch magazine. This led to a suggestion that I should start contributing to a BBC radio show called Week Ending - a weekly satirical sketch show that the Radio Comedy Department used as an entry point for new writers. Loads of us got started there.
What were the shows that made up your comedy landscape growing up and how did they
influence your writing?
I loved Spike Milligan’s writing, his books mainly - The Goon Show was before my time: but when
The Goon Show Scripts were published, I thought they were hilarious. On TV I remember at a young age enjoying The Frost Report and obviously I was a big fan of Monty Python. Eric Sykes was a great comic performer and there were a lot of brilliant sitcoms.
I would say my favourite was Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. Not only was it very funny but if you look back on it you can see that the writers Clement and La Frenais brilliantly managed to capture the way Britain was changing at that time – personified by Bob and Terry, the two main characters – one determinedly upwardly mobile, the other resolutely working class. The storylines were really clever too.
How did any of this influence my writing? I suppose it helped me get a feeling for what I found
funny. Beyond that I can’t really say.
You’ve written for both television and radio, so how does your approach to writing differ for
Some of the best comedy on TV is visual – Del falling through the bar in Fools and Horses for
example. The impact is immediate. Also, how people react, their facial expressions, can be as funny as what has just been said. On radio you can’t “do it with a look”, you have to have someone respond verbally. Of course, the silence before they do can be very funny – because it’s all going on in the listener’s head. People say radio is more of a writer’s medium because it is ‘all about the words’ but that also makes those words much more exposed.
On TV there’s also a difference between writing for a multi-camera format like a sit com or a single camera format like a film. The multi-camera format is more like writing a play – the characters move around on a set and the cameras have to find them. Writing for a single camera format you have to be much more aware of what the audience is looking at shot by shot. And in general the scenes need to be much more concise.
How do you judge whether a line you’ve written is funny?
It helps if you find it funny. In fact, that’s pretty much essential. When you come up with a line that works, you can just tell really, you get a feeling, a ‘yes!’, it makes you laugh, you get a warm glow of
satisfaction. The trouble is you also get that feeling with lines that don’t work.
So you try them out, to see what kind of a reaction they get. Even then, you can’t know. Different
audiences respond in different ways. In the theatre, a line will get a laugh one night but not the next. So was one of those audiences wrong?
In theory it’s a debate that could go on indefinitely. In practice, you take a script to a readthrough, a line bombs and no one else has to tell you, you just take it out. Conversely, sometimes lines you didn’t really much care for, place-holder lines, get a big reaction and you start to like them more.
It’s a tricky business.
What is the most challenging aspect of getting a script commissioned and put into
It’s not easy to get a script commissioned but it is harder to get a broadcaster to commit to it by
going into production. From their point of view saying yes is much more expensive than saying no.
You wrote for Richard Wilson just after he’d finished playing Victor Meldrew, so how did you
go about writing for an actor who had the shadow of such an iconic comedy character
hanging over him?
I didn’t really find that a problem for a number of reasons. First of all, Richard is a superb comic actor and a joy to write for. Secondly, High Stakes was set in the world of global banking and the character Richard played, an arrogant, hard-bitten but inwardly deeply insecure veteran of the trading floor was quite a long way removed from the world of Victor Meldrew.
Also, the comedy revolved around the rivalry between Richard’s character and the one played by
Jack Shepherd so the dynamics were entirely different. And the world I was working in with them,
sending up the lunacy of banks, their self-deluding arrogance and basic incompetence, was an
entirely different kind of comic nightmare from the one Victor Meldrew was living in.
If there was one decision in your comedy career that you could go back and change, what
would it be and why?
The decisions are not as harmful as the indecisions – and when it comes to those British television is the world leader. I found myself in the worst indecision maze of my career – so far - when working on a comedy drama series I developed for BBC drama which was about the chaos caused when a team of management consultants set to work reorganising a company. At the time, I didn’t pay sufficient attention to the fact that the BBC were actually undergoing that exact same process themselves.
The result was that every time I delivered a script it seemed to be to a different (interim) head of drama. The trouble was, each new (interim) head of drama liked it enough to commission another script and that meant that I effectively wrote four pilot episodes for a series that would only have been six episodes in total. It took up far too much of my time and ended up not getting made. It was a totally demoralising experience. I got drawn into the sunk cost fallacy - I should have cut my losses at a much earlier stage.
How do you feel that British television comedy has changed since you first started writing?
I don’t think I appreciated it then but the start of the 1980s was a good time to be entering the
comedy writing world – there were lots of sketch shows and some very good producers eager to do new stuff. It felt like you could write about anything. And there were a lot more scripted comedy slots in the TV schedules.
Nowadays it all feels far more cautious and much more performer-led. It’s certainly true that things aren’t given as much of a chance to grow. Back then I think if someone senior liked a show they would keep faith with it. It seems like there is much less of a gut-feeling approach to it these days and a much greater fear of getting it wrong.
It's been a pleasure talking to you, Tony, so many thanks!