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As we hit 2,000 downloads of LCW's first group-sourced podcast, Bureau of Lost Things, its director Glenn Cooper reflects on how we made the silly series and looks ahead to more. Maybe.

BUREAU OF LOST THINGS PODCAST COMEDY SITCOM

londoncomedywriters

11/12/2021 13 min read

All six episodes of the Bureau of Lost Things were released to a public eager for fun and distraction early in 2021. You may have been a very captive audience, but thank you all for taking the time to listen and share. I feel certain that there will be a second series, Her Majesty’s Government permitting.

Rambling Pub Anecdote

I was asked to give some insight into creating the series and hopefully inspire more of you to do the same. BoLT is a very collaborative experience so maximum credit to all those involved in the planning, writing, acting, producing, editing and promotion of the series. Therefore this is my own very personal perspective on the whole project. If you’re not familiar with the series it might an idea to pop off now and listen to an episode. Otherwise what follows will feel like a rambling pub anecdote about some funny people that you’ve never met doing crazy things that you don’t really care about.

Okay, if you’re still with me, back in the dim mists of time Helen Green, Robin Bailes and I huddled around a laptop in a very noisy West End pub. Despite the distractions of raucous leaving parties and the questionable delights of Wednesday Night Ukelele Club, we came up with the bare bones of a classic, studio-style sitcom. The idea was that we would each do about ten pages of a script, present them at a London Comedy Writers meeting, invite feedback and hopefully encourage other writers to join us on the creative journey. The ultimate aim was to have a show that would give our members both writing practice and a showcase for their work. Maybe we could record it too?

Fan of Bagpuss

Keeping our concept simple, we settled on four mismatched people stuck in a room together. We wasted a lot of time wondering why they were there. Was it hell or purgatory? We concluded that, as long it wasn’t purgatory, when it came to our potential audience it didn’t really matter. Of course we needed a catalyst every episode; something that would disturb the balance of this world. A mundane workplace and random lost property provided the ideal backdrop. I’ve always been a fan of children’s TV show Bagpuss so that may have been a very strong influence (that and several pints of Camden Hells Lager). Warming to the idea, we decided that abstract concepts could be lost things too. I still marvel at Robin’s idea of ‘lost virginities’ hanging like flaccid wetsuits on a rail.

Creating characters, two girls and two boys seemed easy to cast and manage. We needed an ‘in’ to the world, so Will was our new boy trying to get to grips with the job. Ray was the pedantic old timer with Veronica a manager who prefers spreadsheets to people and Cara essentially the artful dodger. I remember taking a workshop given by Jurgen Wolf, creator of the Golden Girls, who said give your character an object and tell me what they’d do with it – that will reveal who they are. Great practice for Bureau of Lost Things. Imagine if Ray found a ladder. Of course he’d store it in the reptile house. Snakes and ladders – Ray logic.

By the end of the evening we had a 200 word bio for each character, a list of personal values, quirks and neuroses. We avoided rigid backstories as this isn’t Chekhov and we wanted the opportunity to speculate about our heroes’ origins in future episodes. Luckily this decision later allowed us to hide a little continuity error about the strange death(s) of Cara’s parents and turn it into a nice running gag across the series.

Names were chosen to be recognisably different and age appropriate. I’ve seen many a script ruined by unlikely 20 year olds called Bert and Bill or too much quirky writing where all the characters have the same initial.

Dinner Date With a Dog

We would allow ourselves one guest character per episode but, ideally, the foursome should be enough to provide friction for a good story. Of course, it wasn’t long before we were breaking our own rules. Sending a script back to Olly Allsopp with a note saying ‘too many characters’ he promptly changed Veronica’s dinner date Esteban into a dog. We couldn’t fault the logic and it did make for a very funny and surreal scene.

It’s a well-known cliché to write what you know; so as a career civil servant I had a very clear idea of what the Bureau would look like and how it would function. A particularly traumatic visit by the ‘Continuous Improvement Team’ to my own office shaped my vision of Veronica; her post it notes and the endless board blasting sessions. I wrote furiously to exorcise my CIT experience and found I had pages of script without even trying. Veronica exists in the real world - really she does. I’m not sure how I settled on a possessed fur coat as the catalyst but it gave me a great opportunity to be creative with the ‘ghosts’ of previous owners. Allowing Cara to play all these additional parts was also a cunning way to circumvent our own ‘only one guest character’ rule. Having a very clear idea of how the characters would react to any given situation made for a very easy writing experience.

It’s worth saying at this point that despite all the strange occurrences, the characters remain unfazed and, more importantly, unchanged by their experiences. Will is forever the new boy and Cara will still always be grifting. The supernatural or paranormal is very much the normal for those in the Bureau and the plotting doesn’t need to be complex: Things happen, the gang react, deal with it and, in Ray’s case, go back to happily practicing with their nunchuks. Every episode starts with the gang back in exactly the same place.

Clammy Gauntlet

We had a read-through at LCW for all three short pieces and got some very encouraging feedback. It was interesting to note that we must have nailed the core idea at our original meeting as we’d all written pieces that were similar in tone and captured how both mundane and extraordinary a day in the Bureau could be. We had also hit the laughs-per-page quota which is always nice. At this stage we didn’t have the spoken work intro to explain the work of the Bureau but the audience had clearly grasped the concept. At this point we threw the project out to the room and invited other writers to join us. Olly Allsopp and Andy Flood picked up the clammy gauntlet and started to write their own episodes. We had grand plans of a Hollywood-style writers’ room; scripting and live recording an episode a week. And after some very positive read-through sessions nothing happened. Honestly, nothing happened.

I believe this is what is known in the business as ‘development hell’. Robin left London and Helen was making a great success of our live shows so neither was available to push the project forward. Well, cometh the hour, cometh the man. I seem to remember Al Devey presenting himself as the 'can do' guy, informing me that, as I had written the largest portion of BoLT material, I was obviously the ‘showrunner’, and that we should join forces to get the bloody thing recorded. The dictionary definition of ‘showrunner’ is a person who has ‘overall creative authority and management responsibility for a series’. As a writer I loved the creative bit but had a sudden panic over the management element. Luckily Al is a great writer who also has very good organisational skills. This gave me the luxury of pushing my vision for the series while Al rang around trying to find recording studios for our zero budget and timetabling everything.

During this time we both attended a podcast workshop and bothered our friends over at Wooden Overcoats, asking them for advice. (Please check their podcast out; it’s funny, well produced and gives us a very high standard to aim for.) We researched all we could about recording but most online advice treats podcasts as two guys waffling in a room. There isn’t a lot of information about recording dramatised pieces with multiple speaking parts, plus effects. Obviously we were going to have to a lot of learning as we went along.

Actors Work For Biscuits

One of the many things that LCW is good for is finding actors. You can’t get to the bar without half a dozen jamming up the place. Luckily some will work for biscuits, crisps and mineral water. Three of our regulars; Mike Keane, Grace Morgan and Nick Ewans, stepped up - the fools! Although to be fair they’ve got a job for life if you the public want more BoLT. By a strange twist of fate, Al, Helen and I went to a film screening because we were paranoid that the filmmakers had beaten us to the idea of a quirky lost property office (the film, Lost and Found, was indeed quirky, but luckily bore no resemblance to our idea). There was a Q&A afterwards and emboldened by some complimentary beer we recruited actor Annette Flynn who had impressed us by portraying an unhinged receptionist in the movie.

We had our actors and Al managed to negotiate a deal with Outset Studios in South Wimbledon. Our scripts were shaping up nicely with Al contributing a complete episode and reworking Helen’s original treatment. I seem to remember Andy Flood having his script sent back for rewrites several times - I suspect I was drunk with power. But Andy was the consummate professional and did the work without a grumble. (Al’s note: The real reason Episode 5 ‘Memories’ was sent back is because Andy had based a plot point around the song ‘Remember You’re a Womble’. On investigating how much it would cost to licence this song the amount turned out to be about as much as we’d collect in LCW bucket donations over a decade of meetings. As much as we love Mike Batt, this was out of the question. Luckily Andy found an elegant solution in his rewrite.)

Noisy Pubs

At this stage we had a strong idea of how the characters would sound so most of the rewrites revolved around issues like: ‘I don’t think Ray would say this' or 'Veronica wouldn’t do that’. I don’t recall any plots being changed, but we did have to ensure everything was clear without visuals as this was an audio only production. One of the main problems of audio is that you may have to give a bit too much exposition when something would be obvious if we could see it. By way of example; I had my reservations about Cara’s noise cancelling headphones but the joke worked very well with constant repetition and a little sound FX trickery. The benefit of working in audio is that anything is possible and really, there’s no way we could afford to film this stuff!

It’s always a problem getting good rehearsal spaces and consequently we had a series of read-throughs in or outside noisy pubs. Despite the background distractions these proved very helpful. We did some more script editing with the actors and characters blending together nicely. Now I can’t write BoLT without hearing our actors' voices. I’m credited with directing but the actors have such a great understanding of their roles that my direction essentially consisted of: ‘a bit faster please’ or ‘you missed a word there’.

We were not precious about the scripts and were happy to let the actors run with a bit of improvisation. Credit to Mike Keane for an excruciatingly funny prolonged end to a phone conversation when the script just called for a few umms, aaahs and “bye”.

Being conscious of the studio costs, we ensured all the scripts were ready to go with minimal fuss. Despite this, we did spend a lot of time getting familiar with the recording process during Episode 1. We experimented with a full read-through for spontaneity then recorded in small segments. In the end we settled on a middle ground where we read through to a natural pause or stopped when we felt we were losing momentum.

Lessons Learned

At this point a bit of a 'lessons learned' I think: You really need to keep a good log of your sound files and any edits/amendments. Credit to our sound engineer Darius for wading through a lot of spuriously labelled files in the early stages of production. I’d attended lots of BBC live radio recordings thinking ‘that looks like a doddle’ but found the multiple tasks of pressing a record button, annotating a script and listening for anomalies way beyond me. Much of my time was spent wondering if I’d accidentally recorded over the previous segment.

Needless to say my recording finger worked fine, but we did have a nasty panic when the studio initially sent us an incomplete set of audio files. Luckily all the files arrived the following day. It’s interesting to note that, after our caution with the first episode, we managed to record two episodes back to back in our next session. Somebody likened it to bringing up kids: you’re very involved with the first but get successively more relaxed with each subsequent one. We’re not saying Episode 6 was feral, but we were very certain of our child-rearing capabilities by then.

Pocket Buzzsaw

As Darius got to work making sense and giving depth to our creation, I started searching the net for suitable FX sounds. I’d hoped we could do some Foley work in the studio, hammering melons and recording marching boots in boxes of gravel, but we didn’t have the time or money. Sound library Zapsplat do a very good introductory deal so I spent quite a few weekends sourcing our sounds. It’s amazing how many types of footsteps there are: on snow, sand, wood, in a corridor (with or without) echo. Faced with sourcing Ray’s pocket buzzsaw I had to settle for a broken fan but I bet none of you spotted the difference.

Sounds suitably sourced and sent out, we waited for Darius to weave his magic. I’ve tried to get to grips with sound editing software and can safely say I don’t know how Darius does it. We were blown away when the first edit of the initial episode arrived. It sounded so full and three dimensional. We felt we were really on to something.

That’s basically the end of my recollections but I thought I’d end by using this opportunity to credit some of the people involved that I may have missed earlier and share some of the more interesting feedback received.

Replaced By a Real Dog

In addition to our regular actors here’s a big thank you to all our guests: Rachel Fenwick, Jon Hansler, Emily Stride, Jessica Flood, Gillian Horgan, Jordan Birch and Nathalie Smith. They all made the long journey down to the studio in South Wimbledon without a grumble and in some cases for very few lines - all total professionals. I’d also like to recommend Nathalie if you ever need a child’s voice at short notice and want to avoid the cost of a chaperone and all those pesky child labour restrictions. Yes, that was her in ‘(Would You) Like a Virgin?’ playing a small boy. My own foray into acting was sadly left on the cutting room floor. I gave my heart and soul barking away, playing Veronica’s canine chum Esteban but was replaced by a real dog called Olive in the final mix. I guess Hollywood is full of similar tales.

A big cheer also for Helen Green who was not only there at the conception but also provided the visuals for our online design. I’d forwarded some scrappy scribbles and thankfully Helen cut through the nonsense and gave us some sharp graphics and a very recognisable logo. To be fair it is her day job and thankfully she hasn’t charged us... yet.

That’s a nice segue into a question I get asked a lot. How much did it cost to produce BoLT? Well don’t ask me I’m the writer/director but I’m sure Al Devey has all the accounts in order if the taxman calls. In all seriousness, the largest outlay was for studio time and a smaller amount for the podcast platform. I do believe some beer and nibbles also came out of our shared budget but the project certainly hasn’t broken my bank. I think the most valuable thing was people giving up their time because they believed in our project.

Celebrity Dog Bake-Off

Of course now we can all step back and have a tangible product to showcase our talents to potential producers or agents. Which is another clumsy segue; this time into the subject of feedback. As is probably evident I’m not a great dabbler in social media. Twitter is as far as I stray and then only to like things that annoy others. If there is a great conversation going on about BoLT I’ve definitely missed it but I’m sure somebody will screenshot it if we do go viral. Therefore most of the feedback I have is via my non-writing, non-acting, dare I say it ‘non-creative’ friends. They don’t care how much love we’ve put into this series they just want to be sure they’re not wasting half an hour when they could be watching Celebrity Dog Bake-Off. It’s also doubly daunting when your name is plastered all over the thing.

After the first episode hit I got some pretty reasonable responses. ‘It’s funnier than you are in person’, ‘It was a good length for my commute’, and ‘I really love Cara’. The Cara thing spiralled as more people said, ‘Cara is great, more Cara’. By the third episode Cara had quite a following among my younger female colleagues. One said that she wished she could be more Cara. Obviously we’d accidentally captured some millennial feminist zeitgeist so fair play to Grace. She’ll be asking for a star on her dressing room door next.

Genuine Disappointment

Ray also got mentioned in dispatches for his pointless anecdotes and faultless pronunciation of ‘Bollocks’. Some commented how professional it all sounded with the ultimate compliment that it wouldn’t sound out of place on Radio 4. As far as I know my ‘sample group’ have listened to all the series now. Some had their favourites but overall the impression was that the series was consistently funny. A bit of confusion about some of the plots but I fobbed them off with ‘it’s surreal, don’t over think it’. There was genuine disappointment that we only had six episodes.

One friend had been using our Thursday release dates as the only escape from her hyperactive toddler in lockdown Wales. Sadly she may be a gibbering wreck by the time Series 2 comes out. Yes, there will be a Series 2. I’ve committed it to print three or four times now so I’d better get my act together. I’m currently writing a series guide/bible for our current and any future writers. With hindsight I should have been taking notes as we went through. Shuffling through scripts to make sure we don’t having any future continuity issues is important but a bit dull.

Extremely Positive Notes

Anyway let’s end on a few extremely positive notes. BoLT Series One has been played on Sunday evening on Radio Woking for a large part of 2021 (syndication!), the show was included in Welp Magazine’s Best 20 Podcasts of 2021 – Radio Editing alongside some really big names, which is another endorsement of Darius’s talents and, finally, we have now passed 2,000 episode downloads which is a great achievement and testament to how many of our friends from London Comedy Writers have been willing to give the show a try!

That’s all for now but I’m happy to receive feedback or answer any burning questions about BoLT via email on GDCWriter@gmail.com

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