It’s difficult to discover much about “Pramface” creator Chris Reddy. He doesn’t have a Twitter account, a personal site or give too many interviews. And somewhat selfishly, his American oceanographer namesake hogs the first twenty pages of Google results.
Is he simply a reluctant self-promoter? Or is he taking a more principled stand against the ubiquity of modern celebrity? “Twitter’s great but I think I’m more suited to long form. I’d only end up redrafting every tweet eight times, then junking it and starting over. It’d be a weird feed to follow.” Besides, he deadpans, “Chris Reddy the oceanographer is doing really important work, so I don’t want to hinder him in any way.”
A 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the USA claimed that the MTV TV show “16 and Pregnant” reduced teenage conceptions by 5.7% in the 18 months following its first broadcast in 2009. And according to the Office for National Statistics, teenage pregnancies in England and Wales are at an all-time low. Theoretically this should be a concern for a series like “Pramface.”
Comedy in its most basic form is a recognition of shared cultural references. It’s not uncommon for a prospective audience to be wary of performers and performances which do not resemble their own experience.
Nonetheless, “Pramface” has prospered. Even with the sort of name that Owen Jones could be reliably expected to write a thinkpiece about.
OnTheBox talks to “Pramface” creator and lead writer Chris Reddy about finding the humour in teenage pregnancy, the reason John Milton would have made a kick-ass screenwriter and why it’s best to avoid Gavin and Stacey comparisons.
Did you have any experience of teenage parenthood to base Laura and Jamie’s characters upon?
Not directly, but in the research we talked to people who’d had those experiences. This show was written primarily as entertainment, but the subject matter meant we felt a responsibility to be authentic. Part of that is talking to people, and part is diligently doing your ‘imaginative research’, asking, ‘If I were that character what would I honestly do in that situation?’ that way you let the characters’ responses lead the storytelling. It’s a good principle in general but one we felt we had to particularly adhere to in this case.
What has the feedback you’ve received from teenage (or ex-teenage) parents been like?
Really positive, a lot of people have said it reflected their experiences. I think we tried to show the upsides as well as the negatives – life is not all angst and judgement!
We also tried not to be too moralistic or dogmatic. Taking a one-sided view then trying to force it on an audience is an excellent recipe for bad drama anyway. The key is to give the characters the differing moral world views then let them battle it out between themselves.
According to IMDB, people who liked “Pramface” also liked: The Inbetweeners, Fresh Meat, The Big Bang Theory, The IT Crowd, Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother.
(a) Do you see the similarities? Do you like the comparisons?
I think all you can conclude from the IMDB ‘likes’ is that people can enjoy more than one kind of show. I’m slightly in love with Modern Family – for me, it’s state of the art TV. I could go into lots of writer fanboy detail about how good they are at thematic storytelling and creating integrated narratives- but it’s just a really funny show.
(By the way every commissioning editor is currently saying “Make something just like Modern Family”.)
(b) Are these the types of shows you thought might be associated with Pramface when you wrote it?
I didn’t really have those kind of expectations. It’s natural for people to try and classify a new show in terms of what’s already out there, and that can work against you. If someone compares you to Gavin and Stacey before launch, then anything less than world domination is considered underperformance.
It’s been interesting to see the wider audience who’ve discovered it by accident from teenagers to octogenarians, people who were not expecting to enjoy it but then were surprised by how much they liked the show. One of the recurring twitter responses is “Pramface is actually really good”.
And I really think it is a show the whole family can watch – just not necessarily in the same room.
You wrote in a popular BBC blog about how to write a sitcom that “it was basically just one very long slog of writing, rewriting and rewriting again.” As a writer do you feel that that it’s a professional cross to bear and the necessary price of success?
You have to learn to love the rewrite. Boxing trainers say “The more you sweat, the less you bleed”, and rewriting is the sweating! You work hard on the script and you hopefully save yourself pain during the shoot, the edit, and the broadcast.
Is writing something that you’d ultimately like to cede responsibility for and just retain creative oversight, so that you could hang “out in the British Library having lattes, or [having] Soho lunches with glamorous actors?”
Well I suppose creative oversight describes the role of showrunner which is something that happens more in the States than in this country. And we do have additional writers on the show. For example, this year the director from Series 1, Dan Zeff, came back to write an episode. It was great to have one of the original creatives come back and join in again, even more so because I was able to exact revenge by giving him a load of script notes.
In interviews Sean and Scarlett have done to promote Pramface, they’ve both gone out of their way to mention you by name for the quality of your scripts. How do you find the quality of a performance differs when there is a generously amicable relationship as opposed to purely professional one?
The writer/actor relationship is an odd one. In some ways it’s the closest collaboration in the process.* Between you, you create the detail of the character small and large. But, unlike the actor/director relationship, you may not actually meet much during this process.
In the end, the show is only going to be as good as the weakest element allows. So casting is hugely important for a writer. Equally script selection is hugely important for an actor. So I suppose the main emotion in this ‘generously amicable’ relationship is relief that we’re not going to ruin each others showreels!
* The producer says ,“the most important creative relationship is with the producer who gets the bloody thing off the ground in the first place” – that is a direct quote from her.
A lot of what you wrote in your BBC blog echoed many of the same things that playwrights such as David Mamet have written on the art of scriptwriting. Do you have a theatre background?
I don’t have a theatre background. I’ve never really been drawn to anything other than screenwriting. Most good writing technique was established before the invention of the TV, and there are certainly core narrative principles that hold true across theatrical, literary and screen storytelling – Aristotle nailed a lot down in the Poetics but he never had the benefit of seeing the Wire or Breaking Bad!*
*If you’re looking for good visual technique in literary history, read John Milton- that guy would have made a kick-ass screenwriter!
Do you think having a theatrical background helps at all?
I think a theatrical background can be a hinderance. Sometimes you see playwrights transferring to television and not really taking full advantage of the medium. Often they’ve developed good narrative chops but you sometimes end up with what feel like filmed stage-plays.
Execs secretly like these shows because they’re cheap to make. Certain types of writers like them too because they think it’s a chance to demonstrate their ingenuity, “Look I did this whole episode in a room, or a lift, or a wheelie bin.”
Of course with genuinely gifted writers it’s no problem. David Renwick did it plenty with “One Foot in the Grave” and those episodes are as entertaining as anything you’ll see on TV.
But as budgets get crunched, I think we’ll see more shows being pushed unwillingly towards this style which is a shame. Displaying ingenuity is all very well, but I don’t want all comedy to become a low budget genre. I like my moving pictures moving! If you’re a TV writer your aspiration should always be to try and do something inherently televisual.
Ideally you want to make the viewer a participant not just an observer, and television offers lots of ways of doing this. You involve the audience by creating doubt and intrigue through comparison and contrast, by shifting chronology, by accelerating and slowing rhythms, by moving the camera, by having a rich variety and density of well-composed shots, by having well lit, well populated scenes in interesting locations with good art direction and sound design. These are all really great techniques for creating interest, but they do cost a bit more than just filming four people talking in three rooms.
You’ve also written Pixelface – is it more difficult to get yourself in the right mind frame to write for children?
It’s easier in a way. I’ve been lucky that the kids shows I’ve worked on were always quite ambitious about comedy.
Pixelface was a spin off from the sketch show, Sorry I’ve Got No Head. There was a recognition with both those shows that kids were watching adult comedy and were quite grown up in their humour, and demanding of quality if not actual sophistication (kids still love fart gags). So we just went for funny.
Both those shows were great fun to work on, and I naturally write quite clean so writing for kids didn’t feel like a restriction.
I recommend writing for kids TV as a training ground. On Pixelface we had a team of four writers and we wrote 26 episodes between us. Just the act of story lining that much material teaches you a lot about structure and just getting it done!
Pramface Series 3, Episode 2 is on BBC 3 at 10pm tonight