Sunday, 13 December 2009

Review of the, blimey, decade

Is it too early to do a review of the decade? I know all the papers and magazines have been doing them, but they have to get printed and all (I'm reminded of the Sunday Times review of the year in December 1980 which featured photos of all the celebrities who'd died that year, omitting the biggest news story of that week, and indeed the year, John Lennon who'd, inconveniently, got himself shot the day after they went to press).

Well, to warm myself up, let's look quickly at my previous decades and see how the noughties compare.

The sixties. Started the decade not born, ended it none the wiser.

The seventies. Started the decade as a primary school kid, ended it as an art student. The music from the second half of that decade remains the most influential on me.

The eighties. Started the decade as an art student, ended it going freelance in my dream job as a comics writer and artist. The music from the second half of that decade remains some of the worst ever made.

The nineties. Started the decade as a rising star in my chosen profession, about to buy our first house, ended it having plumbed the depths of financial quandry having learned that comics were not as secure a job as they'd first seemed, and was juggling stand up comedy and random illustration with running the comic festival and starting the Sitcom Trials.

So, the noughties. While still nostalgic for the easy years when I got to write and draw comics all day and all of the night and got paid well for it, the 00s weren't offering me that opportunity. I'd watched almost every comic I'd ever worked for cease to exist, I'd even worked for the biggest comic company in the world, Marvel, only to endure its filing for bankruptcy and slashing two thirds of its titles, all mine included (to this day I believe I owe them $250 in overpaid royalties, for which they can whistle). And as the 00s began my only connection with the comics biz was running the annual Comic Festival in Bristol. I'd started it in 99, and for a few years it went from strength to strength, and kept me gainfully employed (and paid) for about 3 months of each year. Unfortunately it was taking more than 3 months of my time, and year by year started to become a good way of not making money.

So I kept my other dream project going, The Sitcom Trials. This was to be the way by which I'd perfect my sitcom writing and get it onto the telly. Having had two pilots made by BBC radio in the late 90s I knew TV success was only an Edinburgh Fringe appearance away. I wasn't far wrong. We did the Fringe in 01 and 02 and, lo, we got a TV series. The ITV series of the Sitcom Trials in 03 certainly was a career high, and being courted by a major comedy production company who assured me they'd have the Trials on BBC3 by Christmas really felt like we were getting somewhere. While those deliberations went on I felt sufficiently encouraged to take the Trials to Edinburgh again in 04. After which run, the best show of the three we'd take up there, I came away with a cheque for £150 (that works out as quite a big loss) and the news that the major production company didn't think we'd end up on BBC3 after all, sorry.

The comic festival meanwhile started to become a money pit, as sponsors and publishers paid less and less and the novelty of the event waned. A financial cock-up in spring 04, where I suddenyly ended up owing more money than the show had made, was compounded by the show in November where, rather than rescuing myself from the spring's loss, it just got worse.

So it was that, by the middle of the decade, my two dream projects had gone from the heights of critical and financial acclaim to wiping me out and leaving me worse off than when I'd started them. And creatively I was doing nothing, no comics, a little illustration, and none of my sitcoms had made it big. In 2004 I earned most of my money from stand up comedy, I mean what sort of life is that?

Then, at the end of 2004, I spoke to the guys from the Beano, who I'd got to know through running the comic festival, and asked if I might get some work published in there. Suddenly I was writing and drawing for the Beano. By the end of 2005 my 36-page Christmas story was the lead strip in the Beano and, over the next few years, I produced some of the funniest, most satisfying and most popular comic strips of my career, including the Bash St Werewolves, the Bash St Zombies, Schools Out, The Ofsted Inspector, Invasion Of The Beano Snatchers, and Billy The Cat vs General Jumbo. I am so proud of that work I can't tell you. I was making my living from comics again, and this time they were comics that people had actually heard of.

At the same time my Comic Art Masterclasses, which I'd begun as a spin-off from the comic festival, caught on and became a popular attraction at schools. They also paid twice as well per day as writing and drawing for The Beano. So it was that, in 2008, I did 95 days of my Masterclasses. Given that, as part of each class, I draw a caricature of all the pupils, if I average 50 faces drawn a day, that means I'm drawing 4500 face a year.

And if all that weren't enough, the Sitcom Trials, the show that was guaranteed to lose me money and had had all its chances to get on the telly by now, threw up something surprising. One show I decided we should do Shakespearian parodies. I wrote a couple and thought that I didn't want any actors to screw them up. So, I thought, what would it be like if I put a couple of socks on my hands, did some silly voices and performed the scripts myself? In Autumn 2005 the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre was born. They played their first Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, making a bit of money, their second in 2008, doing even better, and their third in 2009, which earned me more money than I'd earned in any single month this century.

2005 saw The Beano, the Masterclasses and the Socks appear almost from nowhere, and as the decade approached its end I seemed to have my act together, creatively and financially.

Which brings us up to 2009, and you know I really mustn't grumble. The Socks second national tour comprised 36 well paid theatre gigs, the Fringe we've discussed; the Masterclasses I have yet to tot up, but I shall no doubt come back and note how many I did, all good; I've spoken at a Boys Writing Conference, taking my Masterclass work to a new level of appreciation, I helped devise a module of a school course, and I've appeared on the radio pontificating about comics and fannying about in silly voices; I attempted the world record for telling jokes in an hour (and failed but raised loads of money for Comic Relief); and of all things the bloody Sitcom Trials landed back on my plate and I hosted that for 7 weeks in the autumn, losing less money than it's ever lost me before.

So, as decades go, it's had some of the highest highs and some of the lowest lows, but the former definitely outnumbered the latter and I shall strive to keep being good at what I do, working hard to do good things, hopefully taking my Masterclasses to a more advanced level, maybe publish something connected with comic art, and striving to get the Socks onto the telly.

How was your decade, everyone else?


pmrussell said...

Sounds like a successful life thus far. Sure, we all have the highs and lows, but your highs seemed to scream success...or something like that. Ever thought of going international? I know some big names in the States who actually love silly humor. We have Pee Wee Herman making a real come back. I think that says it all. I know,you need someone to fly you over, it can be done.
Yeah, my last several decades (same as yours) were basically the same wonderful roller coaster ride. The best is yet to be.

Arfon Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arfon Jones said...

Just to let you know that I regard discovering the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre on Youtube to be one of the highlights of the year. Merry Christmas to you and all the best for 2010

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