Gemma Arrowsmith interview: “Sketch comedy is NOT solely the domain of Oxbridge.”

Back in the summer, we interviewed Gemma about this and that. This was of course before the news about Russell T Davies.

Hi Gemma! You’re the reason we exist. How does that make you feel?

I am so proud of everyone in Next Level Sketch. There are loads of sketch groups, but how many sketch writing collectives are there? It’s a brilliant opportunity you have set up for people to showcase their writing. 

In the intro to these questions I’m going to do a little précis of many of the awesome things you’ve been involved with, but is there one single show, tv or radio, that you’re proudest of being part of?

I’m probably best known for writing on Tracey Ullman’s Show and Spitting Image, but before that I was in a bunch of children’s TV shows such as DNN and Relic: Guardians of the Museum. The children who watched those shows are now in employment and occasionally I get recognised. I love that. Other than that, I’d have to give the obvious answer: my own Radio 4 show Gemma Arrowsmith’s Emergency Broadcast which was recorded in lockdown and went out earlier this year. IT’S STILL ON BBC SOUNDS CHECK IT OUT

Was there a particular moment when you knew that comedy is what you were going to do?

I saw a brown VHS tape at our local video rental shop when I was 10. That tape was Fawlty Towers and watching that marked the moment I wanted to write and perform comedy. I couldn’t believe how funny it was. I mean, Duckula and Danger Mouse were funny but this was on a whole other level. The Next Level, I guess. 

As well as writing and performing, you also teach sketch comedy. Any especially joyful memories or moments from that you’d like to share?

The best thing in the world is watching someone go from having never written or performed anything before, to storming a live showcase. Some of my students have gone on to form sketch teams, and others have got their sketches onto radio and TV shows. Those are the BEST emails to receive. 

I personally was tricked / encouraged onto your beginners’ Hoopla sketch course by two improv friends. Within two hours I was pretending to be an old woman who had written a series of extremely horny romantic novels, and was having the time of my life. I always thought, consciously or not, that being on stage was for posh people, and I say that as middle class white guy (but who was the first in his family to go to university). How do we democratise writing and performance, and what are the barriers to that?

I remember the old lady who wrote horny romantic novels! She was great! Can we see more of her?

Now, I will try not to make my answer to the second part of your question too much of an essay but you’ve touched on something which I have been known to get on my soapbox about. I run an occasional free online sketch course for those who might not be able to afford my regular courses. I’ve had people attend that course from their hospital beds. I’ve had people attend that course from remote islands. There is an immense hunger to learn the craft. But access, both physical and financial, is a huge barrier. How do we democratise that? I wish I had the answer. But I’m writing this in the week that the UK government has announced cuts to university arts funding. And one thing I am certain of is that this is the opposite of progress. I once ran a workshop for a group of refugees and they wrote some really clever acerbic sketches. Sketch comedy is NOT solely the domain of Oxbridge. It’s open to anyone with a good idea. Or at least it should be. 

How would you describe the difference between sketch and stand-up comedy to an alien from one of the unexpectedly habitable moons of Jupiter? I only ask because we’re making that jump at present and the new beats and rhythms are taking a while to get used to.

If the human onstage looks quite cool, it’s probably stand-up. If they’re doing silly voices and bringing on props and wearing wigs, it’s probably sketch comedy. 

Despite being a former journalist, as you can see from these rambling questions my editing needs some work. What is your best tip towards becoming a more ruthless editor?

As a script editor available for hire, my obvious reaction would be to get a script editor like me to do the edit for you. 

I find it hard to abandon ideas, even if they’re not working. How as a writer does one avoid spending too long applying coats of varnish to turds?

Remember that in the time it takes you to agonise over ‘perfecting’ one sketch which isn’t working, you could probably write three new, better sketches. That’s the beauty of ideas that are only 2-3 mins long. This isn’t a 120 page screenplay. If it’s not working, bin it. Start something new. You will have a good sketch in less time, I guarantee it. 

Doctor Who requires a new showrunner. What will you do when they pick you for the role?

  • Top choices for my Doctor: Paterson Joseph, Robbie Gee, Ace Bhatti or some new exciting person no-one has ever heard of who just aces the audition.
  • Live episode 
  • I will produce a series of videos called “Coal Hill Writing Academy” in which I teach basic writing structure for an episode of Doctor Who. Imagine some future showrunner 20 years down the line saying they watched those videos and that inspired them to give writing a go!
  • Destroy and reinstate Gallifrey so many times it will make your head spin.

Finally, any upcoming creative projects you’re allowed to plug or tell us about? 

I’ve spent lockdown furiously writing on a bunch of shows, none of which I’m allowed to talk about. What a deeply annoying answer that is to give you. But I’ll be banging on about them endlessly on Twitter when the time arises so follow me there: @mmaarrow. In the meantime, did I mention my sketch show Gemma Arrowsmith: Emergency Broadcast is available on BBC Sounds? 

That’s it! Thanks for reading.

Published by jamesofwalsh

My past blogs haunt the internet like ghost ships on a digital sea.

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