What happened when world-renowned television comedy writer Ian Martin, famous for award-winning political satire, ran a scriptwriting club in his local primary school? Blood, gore, extraterrestrials and a hugely inspirational learning experience
I wait there in the school playground as Emergency Grandpa, and I am in awe of the energised, optimistic, tolerant humanity gushing out of Dallas Road Community Primary School, in Lancaster. And I think, as I thought years ago waiting in playgrounds as Default Dad: what would a world controlled by these guys look like?
A fairer, more humane society perhaps. More sharing. A refocus from military action in the Middle East to bee gardens and worm farms. A transfer of cultural influence from tetchy old men to preachy young activists. Livestock turned into pets, high-carb diets and a literary landscape entirely dominated by David Bloody Walliams. Bit of a mixed bag there, on second thoughts.
I wasn’t sure what I could offer the school but I got in touch anyway. As it turned out, deputy head Adam Newton wanted to start a school newsletter. I could definitely help with that. I mean, I was a journalist for years.
Admittedly this was back in the previous century, when the world of newspapers was all hot metal and typewriters, and the pubs opened at half-past five and everyone smoked indoors. But still. An ingrained skill set never leaves you. Even now, I have an unerring sense of when half-past five is.
A team was assembled. Very keen. We did some shared-learning stuff, turning raw material into articles. There were some lovely spontaneous ideas – one girl suggested a Guess the Teacher feature. Take a picture of a teacher, smother it in a comedy Photoshop collage, elicit some neutral answers to some non-leading questions, and challenge readers to guess who it is. Very popular, still running.
The Dallas Reporter’s audience engagement soon mirrored the sophistication of mainstream publications. Granted, the readers’ jokes were terrible. But there were some lovely pieces about visiting authors and musicians, retiring staff, the lollipop lady and so on.
With the newspaper up and running, Adam and I started thinking about a writers’ room. Suppose you assembled an interested bunch of would-be storytellers and helped them to shape a script from concept to filming? Why not? It was worth a shot and could be a laugh.
I’ve been in writers’ rooms in the UK (for the BBC) and the US (for HBO). Writers discussing storylines, characters, background and tone, cracking jokes, tossing ideas around. But on these occasions I knew what the premise was, where the story was taking place, who the characters were and what kind of show it was. Here, we were starting from scratch.
My main framing at this stage was that the story had to be set in the school itself, to simplify and focus and give the project a decent chance of being shot. Also, it had to be a comedy, that most accommodating of genres. Adam assembled a group of about 10 interested Year 5 and Year 6 pupils. And they were lively. Very, very lively …
The first two sessions were chaotic and exhausting. My job was mostly crowd control, trying to get the boys to shut up. Their loud, performative attempts to escalate a murder scenario were alarming. And worse, trite.
“A child’s body is discovered in the school!” NO. “Yeah, in the boys’ toilets but he’s still alive and screaming and he’s in, like, a big pool of blood!” NO. “It’s at night, yeah, and a kid comes out of the boys’ toilets with a big knife sticking out of him, bleeding to death …” NO. No stabbing, or screaming, or death. I mean, God, I know people are generally in awe of teachers but seriously, respect. Seventy-five minutes of this left me feeling like I’d done a 12-hour shift at Broadmoor.
The script had to be suitable for the whole school to experience. By the third or fourth session, we’d lost a couple of the louder gory-boys and had vaguely settled on a story. Still sort of horror, but with jokes in.
We arrived at a concept: aliens take over everyone in the school, apart from two playground enemies who must save everyone else in a race against time. And that’s when I began to marvel at the innate scriptwriting brilliance of children’s minds. Kids are absolutely fearless about plotting. You present them with a logic problem and they’ll blurt out the simplest and most elegant solution. I asked how the aliens might get inside the school. “Through the wi-fi,” one boy said. Of course. THROUGH THE WI-FI.
How might our heroes know something’s wrong? “So, Simon sees his mate and says, ‘Race you to the end of the corridor,’ but his mate says, ‘No, we must obey the rules,’ in a funny voice.” Obedience in a funny voice. Bosh, two clues there’s something’s wrong for the price of one.
The kids had a lot of fun imagining teachers behaving strangely, too. Someone suggested a scene in which a zombie teacher has twigged that our protagonists aren’t alien controlled – and he’s advancing, heading their way. They’re trapped. How do Simon and Jessie get out of this one? They can’t unlock the main door and the alien version of the deputy head is closing in …“The bell rings for lunch. The aliens have to pretend to behave normally so they all stop what they’re doing and just, like, shuffle off to the hall …”
Brilliant. This led us into devising a crazy lunch scene with alien dinnerladies dishing up weird slime; confused alien staff; alien kids trying to eat wall-bars and shoes; and Jessie incandescent with rage that she’d paid dinner money for fish and chips.
It was interesting – and funny – to watch a story develop with such fizzing imagination and such sure-footed dialogue. At one point, our two schoolchildren heroes make it to the IT suite, an entire zombified school in pursuit. They have to make contact with the aliens and stop the madness.
“OK …” says the boy in the script, word-for-word what the writer suggested in the room. “I know what to do. We need to hit F12, get into the source code ...” He’s interrupted in the script by the girl, exactly as he was in the writers’ room. She firmly moves him aside and addresses the computer in a loud voice, demanding an audience with the aliens. Bingo. Of course they respond.
About halfway through the writing process, Dallas Road was awarded School of Sanctuary status in recognition of its welcoming approach to refugee children. It was serendipitous, and nudged our story into a simple resolution.
The aliens weren’t hostile, just desperate. Their home world had been destroyed, their fugitive spacecraft had run out of hyperspeed. “We needed a place to stay. We saw Dallas Road was a School of Sanctuary, welcoming life forms from all over the world .” No spoilers, but our heroes work out a solution that gives the aliens a new life. Just not inside people.
Now the final script is taking a totally new bunch of kids into actually producing the movie. It’s called TIG. The script is being shot by Lancaster Film Institute, with the close involvement of budding actors, directors and crew. The filming process will be opened up into workshops for children interested in how it all works.
Bravo, everyone involved in this experiment. You created a beautiful alien monster.
Ian Martin’s writing credits include the award-winning political satires The Thick of It and Veep and new space comedy Avenue 5, currently airing on Sky Atlantic. Ian is trying to get other comedy writers to work in schools – for future announcements, follow him on Twitter @IanMartin.
This article originally appeared in the 6 March 2020 issue under the headline “An alien invasion? I loved being in the thick of it, says comedy writer”