We caught up with award-winning producer Gus Beattie to find out how he racked up 1.7m views for his new sketch comedy series...
Hi Gus, thanks for taking the time to speak to us! You started out as a sketch writer and presenter, but wound up as an Executive Producer at the Comedy Unit, before eventually forming Gusman Productions. What can you tell us about your comedy journey?
In the late 90s I was looking for a career change & keen to break into the creative industries, so I enrolled on a radio production course as I felt that would be a good starting point. Around the same time I started writing sketch and sitcom scripts and through sheer persistence, eventually got my first sketch on ‘Only An Excuse?’ on BBC Scotland, which was huge for me.
I was then offered a job at Central FM as a commercial producer and presenter, so was starting to pick up lots of great creative experience in radio. I then got noticed at indie The Comedy Unit in Glasgow and had a sitcom in development with them as well as being on their roster of sketch writers. I got to know the then bosses Colin Gilbert and April Chamberlain, and when a job came up to front their radio operation they offered me the post. After 13 successful years there I felt it was time to have a go at setting up my own indie, and here we are with Gusman Productions! Been quite the journey.
"I felt the smart money was on being a producer"
I gather you still write as well as produce - can that be a tricky thing to balance?
I don’t harbour the same writing ambitions I had - these days I only write material for a host script or if we need a gag on a certain subject. Legendary radio comedy producer Bill Dare had written an article where he pointed out that you could fit into his kitchen the number of people who made a living from comedy writing in the UK so I felt the smart money was on being a producer! When you’re a comedy producer the ability to write gags is a vital skill to call upon, but these days I’d definitely call myself a producer rather than a writer.
What are the top 3 things you consider when pitching new show ideas? What are the 3 things you look for when someone is pitching to you?
I’ve got a big thing about believability in setting and character in sitcom. Audiences need to be able to not only relate to a character but believe in them and what they do. Take Ramesh in Fags, Mags & Bags (played brilliantly by Sanjeev Kohli) - the audience is under no doubt that he’s a shopkeeper, he’s knowledgeable and passionate about the shop. Donny & Sanj have created this recognisable backdrop of a corner shop with a set of believable and compelling characters and it chimes with the audience because there is a truth at the heart of it. Once you have that in place you can have as much silliness and fun as you want, and they do! The 3rd thing of course is being funny. I was schooled at The Comedy Unit and it’s all about the jokes.
"In terms of sitcom I’ve got a big thing about believability in setting and character."
You've got an impressive set of commissions and awards under your belt, including the cult Fags, Mags and Bags, the excellent Sketchorama and the legendary Absolutely. What's your secret to finding and producing comedy gold?
I trust my comedy instincts & feel I collaborate well with talent. With something like Absolutely, I was a huge fan and passionate about the show and just knew there would be an audience for a return for those guys. Working closely with Gordon Kennedy I presented to the gang the idea of doing a special guest slot on series 2 of Sketchorama and they liked the idea - we've now done two series of The Absolutely Radio Show on the back of that.
Likewise with something like Sketchorama it was about identifying a market for a certain type of programme - at the time there’d been a big explosion of live stand-up showcases but there wasn’t anything similar for live sketch. Happily Caroline Raphael at Radio 4 agreed and we did 4 series and two specials. I could never have imagined the success we’ve had with Fags, Mags & Bags, that’s been a barmy old ride! We’ve now done 40 episodes and it’s as popular as ever.
You left your senior role at the Comedy Unit after 13 years to head up your own company - Gusman Productions. How are you finding your new creative freedom?
I wish I’d done it years ago! I loved my time there but I’d become a bit of an ivory tower at The Comedy Unit, and was just thought of as “the radio guy” which was fine, but I needed a new challenge. I'm just really enjoying exploring new creative opportunities and working with new people.
"I trust my comedy instincts & feel I collaborate well with talent."
You recently produced the fantastic GIfted and Gallus sketch series which has achieved over 1.7 million views on Facebook. What can you tell us about its development?
I was keen to break into short-form online comedy and when I set up Gusman Productions I saw that BBC Scotland had been delivering new comedy featuring new talent to audiences on social media through their ‘Short Stuff’ strand. So I pitched the idea of Gifted & Gallus as a short sketch series with the cast playing returning characters in various scenarios, with a view to developing a more narrative-led structure. The characters are all upwardly mobile & aspirational and the focus is on smart, quick, satirical observations about social media & technology and how it affects our own behaviour & personal relationships.
The UK will always have an appetite for sketch comedy and as producers we just need to think differently about how we deliver sketches to audiences. With so few opportunities for new sketch shows on TV, social media offers a chance to create & develop comedy formats with new talent which could potentially make the leap, plus help start-up indies like myself build a reputation for filmed content.
"The UK will always have an appetite for sketch comedy"
The first (and by far the most viewed) sketch focuses on Scottish culture, whilst the others cover more universal themes. Do you find it better to focus on a unique perspective or make the content as accessible as possible to a wider audience? Or should it always be both?
That is probably the most fascinating aspect to have come out of working on the project. Yes, we wanted the sketches to have a sense of regionality, but we tried to steer away from stereotypes and stay with universal themes that had broad appeal. However with Senga – The Glaswegian Siri, it shows you can have a unique Scottish identity, but deal with universal themes that can really punch through with audiences worldwide. One of the stars, Gerry McLaughlin, told me he was getting texts from friends & relatives in the US about the sketch! It’s something as producers in Scotland we’ve battled with in terms of finding a balance, but I think Scottish comedy has a unique sense of humour that can appeal to UK audiences and beyond and is something we should celebrate.
"The preferred model at the moment appears to be publishing longer form content on YouTube...and then chop up shorter clips to play out on Facebook "
Although billed by British Comedy Guide as a YouTube comedy series, it's actually Facebook where you've had the most success. What, for you, are the main difference between the leading sites when it comes to finding audiences online?
I think for sketches Facebook has emerged as an incredible driver for getting comedy content out to audiences. The appetite for content on there is insane and with the sharing and tagging culture on that platform, and a good sketch can quickly go viral. The knowledge accrued by the BBC Scotland social team was valuable in the pre-production process for Gifted & Gallus and we liaised closely with them to share that expertise with the writers in terms of how they shape their sketches & observations for an online audience.
The preferred model at the moment appears to be publishing longer form content on YouTube, where audiences have traditionally been more prepared to watch longer material and then chop up shorter clips to play out on Facebook with links back to full episodes on Youtube to help drive audiences.
Notwithstanding the juggernauts that are Netflix and Amazon, independent online shows are starting to blaze a trail. Why did the Chicken? think that soon they could start leaving traditional media behind - what are your thoughts on where the market is heading?
I think it’s already happening. The platforms are there and audiences are hungry for good content and for me moving into the online space seems to be a smart move not only for traditional shows, but because brands are also keen to become content creators. I think they want to move away from being the pre-rolled ad at the start of the clip and be at the heart of the entertainment experience. I worked on an online comedy project for Whyte & Mackay and it was great fun and a brilliant learning exercise.
"BBC Writersroom now have a dedicated team based in Glasgow...get in contact with them and let yourself and your passion be known"
What new shows do you have in the works?
At the moment I’m working on a very exciting new sketch project for Radio 4 which we’ll be announcing very soon. It’s my first major solo commission for Radio 4 and it’s for the 6.30pm comedy slot so putting a lot of energy and time into that. I’ve also got some cool feature docs coming up for Radio Scotland including the untold story of the characters from Govan who inspired Rab C Nesbitt, plus a few other bits and bobs towards Spring/Summer 2018. Stay tuned!
Finally, what advice do you have for new comedy writers, especially those based in Scotland?
Keep looking online for new writing initiatives and things that you can get involved with. BBC Writersroom now have a dedicated team based in Glasgow and have been very proactive in getting opportunities out there so, get in contact with them and let yourself and your passion be known. Also look at creating content yourself, as we’ve discussed the platforms are there so get in touch with the social media team at BBC Scotland - it's a great place for new talent to get their work out to big audiences.