We'd called it Biffovision as a placeholder - it was also the title of my column in Edge - but I never wanted the final thing to be called that, as I felt it suggested it was mine, rather than mine and Tim's. I was overruled in the end, when we couldn't come up with a better alternative.
We also told Cheryl that we wanted half the audience to hate the show, and the other half to love it.
"That's exactly the sort of thing we should be making here!" Cheryl enthused.
She gave us a pilot commission there and then. Only one problem: we had to have it finished and on air by the end of the financial year, in four months. At this stage, we didn't even have a script.
We would later learn that there was never a massive amount of enthusiasm for Biffovision. BBC Comedy basically had a bunch of money left over at the end of the financial year, and needed to spend it to ensure they'd be given a similarly healthy budget the following year.
Biffovision was the TV equivalent of those "essential" council roadworks which spring up around March/April.
In all honesty, I don't remember much about the writing of Biffovision. Which is strange, given that it was my first time working concertedly with Tim since We Two Vets, eight years before.
I sort of recall that we got together at points, and the rest of the time we wrote separately, but pinged our scenes back and forth via email. Watching it now, it's pretty clear to me which parts were mine, and which parts were Tim's. Even individual lines within a sketch or scene jump out at me as belonging to one or the other of us.
It might not be apparent to anyone else, but I think we have very distinct voices. I tend to paint in broader, sillier, brush strokes, while Tim brings meticulous, surreal detail to the table. Or something. I dunno. I just know which bits belong to whom.
I can remember going into the script and adding stuff like "Please don't let us in" during the Ghost Train sketch, and "10 points to Gryffindor", to up the randomness, whereas BW's song at the end is pure Tim, as is "I just leave them on trains".
There was something so liberating about the freewheeling, go-anywhere, nature of Biffovision. Now The Weather had felt like the first step towards writing something for me, rather than for other people. Biffovision went all in - and Mark and Hartswood let us indulge whatever nonsense we could conceive of. When Beryl Vertue visited the set, I felt slightly self-conscious about the sheer lunacy. Then I remembered she used to work with Spike Milligan.
NOW THIS HAPPENS
The whole idea of the kids TV show structure came from Digitiser. We felt Digi worked because it had a framework that we were able to subvert; we wanted something like that. It was also my chance to pay homage to everything that I loved watching as a kid. Swap Shop, Grange Hill, Monty Python, Scooby Doo, and Doctor Who - Professor Derek Doctors was originally meant to be Dalek creator Davros.
Sue Vertue used her Terry Nation connections to find out whether we could licence the character, but the BBC blocked us (we didn't know it - but this was because the Doctor Who team were planning to bring Davros back to the show later that year).
Two scenes proved controversial. One was the ghost train sketch, which ended on a punchline that was in some respects a lot stronger than the "ghost tramp" stuff that's in the finished episode, but with hindsight was somewhat tonally at odds with the rest of the show, and - to be honest - a bit on the rape-y side. The other was a sequence about "black face soap", which Mark - rightly - felt might be misconstrued as slightly racist.
There was also a scene we dropped altogether, about a time machine which turned out to be a cardboard box full of chips. You can see a tiny glimpse of it at the very end of the episode, when BW goes mad.
Casting the show took longer than expected, though I knew I wanted at least some of the cast from Now The Weather.
Ingrid Oliver and James Lance had both impressed me. James, in particular, worked incredibly hard to find Mr Hugo's voice and tics.
Awkward pauses, glances to female chests, and smoking at work, were all his. Aside from being someone who surprised me by being a really nice bloke, his dedication blew me away.
James's old Alan Partridge co-star Simon Greenall came in to play BW and Father Christmas. During one break in shooting, BW began trembling and shouted "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell" - which, suffice to say, Simon felt rather bad about when he remembered that the studio was filled with children.
All of whom thought it hilarious.
We had support from Cav Clerkin - who I'd loved in Sharon Horgan's Pulling - Jim Howick, and a bunch of newer comedy faces, who Mark Freeland felt would play well with BBC Three.
Our miniscule budget meant that we had just three days in which to film, and a lot of the peripheral roles - such as the members of the studio audience, the grown-up schoolboys, characters in the lollipop man sketch - were played either by Tim and I, or members of our families, purely for financial reasons. The Future Kids and the "Is it a horse?" girl are various offspring of ours. Also, the kids in Mr Botton's classroom are entirely made up of my eldest daughter's real school friends.
I even did all the drawings on the wall behind Mr Hugo's desk, and Tim and I had a lot of fun coming up with names for the audience name badges.
From beginning to end, there was a lovely sort of homespun family feeling to the whole shebang; which was enhanced by Hartswood being run by an actual family.
Alas, the only moment of tension was down to me.
The Future Kids sequence was meant to start with the Future Kids using their hands to eat yoghurt out of a bucket marked "'Ghurt". The first take had me doubled-up. On the second take, Mark ran down from the gallery and said that there was no way we were using the yoghurt. He was visibly agitated, and explained that "Obviously the yoghurt is meant to be semen".
This hadn't even occurred to me. It was just 'ghurt as far as I was concerned. I don't know whether I was annoyed that he'd interrupted something which I thought was really funny, or because he thought I might've put my own child into a scene which required eating semen out of a bucket. Either way, I got annoyed, and had a little sulk.
Other sequences had been shot by Tim and I, in the interest of time and budget. The whole Baby Factory scene was filmed in my dad's shed, while the videos shown during the Pop-Pickers segment were shot by us in my living room and local woods.
In fact... the weird rock structure you can see us fannying around on is part of an ornamental water feature at Grims Dyke - the former home of WS Gilbert of "And Sullivan" fame, and part of the body of water in which he drowned (I'm going back there very soon to film something for Found Footage - and drown somebody).
Tim and I sat in on the dubbing session for Scranton-K and the Funtron-9 joke computer. Tim had to be asked to leave, because was unable to control his laughter every time Ingrid read the line "Sherrif's hair and poo" - ruining the take. It was like being back at Teletext. I was happy.
For me, the thing I love most about Biffovision is how it incorporates so many different elements; the way the brilliant music, animation, puppets, props and cast all came together. It felt rich, and made a success out of its tiny budget.
It was probably the most satisfying time I've had in my career - still to date. Sitting in on the editing, realising that the opening sequence wasn't working - and then being able to turn it into something completely different which did work... that for me is something I've never forgotten.
Biffovision, and my other two pilots, showed me how much I loved writing for TV - when I was allowed to have some degree of creative control. It was the time when I wasn't writing because I wanted a career, or success, or to prove anything. I was able to do it because I loved doing it. Over the course of that year, I fell in love with doing it. Unfortunately, as in other areas of my life, allowing myself to love had made me vulnerable to being hurt and disappointed.
Mark Freeland did his best to sell the show to the BBC as a showcase for new talent - be they animators, actors, or musicians.
Unfortunately, it was pretty clear that the odds were stacked against us, once we heard what time BBC Three was showing the pilot; in the early hours of the morning. We tried our best to whip up enthusiasm for it online, and had a nice write-up in The Times, but BBC Three's scheduling decision didn't exactly scream of confidence.
It was no massive surprise when we were told that it wasn't going to be commissioned for a series. Danny Cohen, then controller of BBC Three, felt the whole thing was too nostalgic and backward-looking. Also: just plain weird.
Robert Popper rang me after seeing the finished episode, and said it was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. He told me he'd spoken to James Lance, who never usually watches himself on TV. He'd had to watch Biffovision twice to try and wrap his head around it.
Looking back, I think this shook me more than I realised at the time. Although we'd set out to make a show that was true to the spirit of what Tim and I had done while writing Digitiser, and would deliberately alienate half the audience... we - or, at least, I - didn't think it was that weird.
The rejections for Biffovision, Now The Weather and Too Much Too Young followed in quick succession. The momentum that my career had briefly enjoyed was over. Tim had his travel writing career to go back to, but I felt cut adrift.
I tried to put a brave face on it - certainly, I was getting used to rejection - but I defy anyone not to be affected by having Christmas cancelled three times in a row. Not only that... but to have Christmas cancelled because of something you'd done with the best of intentions.
I began to doubt my own instincts, if not my ability. I knew I could write scripts... I just didn't know whether I could write things which other people found funny. I started to doubt whether I was ever going to be able to make a career out of screenwriting. It felt so unsafe, so insecure. And unfair.
Not helping matters... My Parents Are Aliens had also been cancelled, when ITV decided to stop making children's shows. I'd written the final episode.
Without those projects to distract me, it forced me to focus once again on issues closer to home. For a while I'd been optimistic, happy, but with that optimism gone all the old problems and feelings rose to the surface. Things were bad.
I had no Digitiser. No regular work. And a marriage that had fallen apart. We were living separate lives.
The next 18 months were set to be chaos; Lenny Henry, cryptozoologists, and the lowest point of my life.
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART ONE: WE TWO VETS - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART TWO: HUSK & HORNBLOWER - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART THREE: NORTH OF WATFORD - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART FOUR: KNIFE & WIFE - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART FIVE: SOOTY - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART SIX: CROSSROADS - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART SEVEN: EASTENDERS - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART EIGHT: IS THIS IT - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART NINE: TOO MUCH TOO YOUNG - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART TEN: NOW THE WEATHER - BY MR BIFFO