We didn't really have a plan, but because we'd had a little success right off the bat, that's the direction I continued in. I knew I enjoyed writing scripts, and I had people who saw something in what I was doing, but looking back now I can see how raw and unfocused I was. I was feeling my way in the dark, and frequently bumping my head against the furniture.
Sooty changed all that.
I got a call out of the blue from a producer called Jo Jordan. She was, she told me, a friend of Robert Popper. As mentioned already, Robert was determined to get my career off the ground one way or another, and recommending me to Jo - the producer of Sooty - was his latest attempt.
By this point, I'd drifted away from writing spec sitcoms. Knife & Wife was happening, but I was also finding it hard to please either myself or other people with it (and in the process pleasing nobody). Had it not been for Robert, I wouldn't even have still been writing scripts. I'd had no contact from my then-agent for several years, and when I called her to mention Knife & Wife, she barely even remembered me.
She'd gone by the time Sooty landed in my lap, replaced by a new agent, Faye Webber. Faye would continue to guide me for the next ten years. By contrast, she loved my work, and saw potential in me. I grew to love her to bits, and genuinely wept when she told me she was leaving to become a writer herself.
Unlike some friends at the time, Faye believed that Sooty might be just what I needed. She was right.
Sooty allowed me to develop as a writer, without the intense spotlight glare of writing for adults. It was a place of safety and relative anonymity that I'd return to again, years later.
More than that - under the guidance of Jo and my script editor Jadie Montgomery - I began to develop as a writer. Each episode was 12 minutes long, but within that you had an A plot, a B plot, and had to make the story about something that kids could relate to. There was a main character who couldn't talk, another character who only spoke in squeaks, and another half a dozen or so supporting characters, as well as guest roles.
I loved working on Sooty. I loved the challenge of it. I could feel my writing skills improving.
I can't remember how many episodes I wrote that first series, but there were a fair few. I also took my two eldest kids to see the Christmas episode being filmed - the first time I'd been in a TV studio since my Nan took me to see a recording of Jim'll Fix It...
I wrote an absurdly ambitious homage to Gremlins in the form of Night of a Thousand Bears, an episode which featured Changing Rooms' Handy Andy and Carole Smilie - with Sweep in the Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen role - and one in which Sooty and the gang watch a zombie movie, and later mistakenly assume one of their hotel guests wants to eat their brains.
Also, there was a last-minute change to the series, after I'd watched DVDs of my episodes. Our Christmas special featured an animated sequence of Father Christmas flying his sleigh towards the World Trade Centre. It was scheduled to go out only a couple of months after 9/11, but somehow everyone had missed it. I put in an urgent call to the production team, and they managed to get it changed.
Best of all, I'd impressed the team enough that I was brought back the following year, this time as lead writer. Unfortunately, my second series proved to be a less happy experience. More on that later.
In the interim, I started picking up other little bits and pieces of development work, thanks to having proper credits under my belt, and being blessed with an agent who supported me.
Most writers who succeed in making a living out of writing will tell you how much of what they do will never get made. That's never more true than when you're starting out.
I worked for a few months as part of the writing team on an show called Freefonix - which didn't make it to air until years later, albeit without my involvement. It was the idea of Magnus Fiennes - youngest brother of the Fiennes dynasty, which also included handsome-boy Joseph, future Voldemort Ralph, and their uncle Sir Ranulph.
Also among the team were Mike Carey, who's name I knew from 2000AD (and who would go on to write the recent Brit-zombie movie The Girl With All The Gifts), the "Two Dans" - Tetsell and Robbins - and a guy called Alex Tate, who I later saw in a newspaper, being best man at the wedding of Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani.
Our lead writer was Barbara Slade, a banjo-playing American, who had written my favourite episode of Rugrats. Plus, a relatively new writer called Nathan Cockerill - who had worked on Robot Wars, and became a good friend. I got him a job on my second series of Sooty.
I also wrote a series of puppet interstitials for Fox Kids, entitled The Adventures of Brush Lee & Jackie Chain. The brainchild of an animation director called Ed Bignall - who was responsible for the early Gorillaz videos - we also had a stab at getting a show off the ground featuring Digitiser's Snakes.
We even went as far as recording a pilot, with impressionist Phil Cornwell doing the voices (and yes: yes he did say "I cuss you bad").
I mention all of this, because when I first started working in TV, meeting people like those mentioned above was surreal, and I spent much of my time suppressing how weird it all was. I would pretend to take it all in my stride, but on the inside I'd be wondering what I was doing there, feeling like an interloper.
Whether I'd bump into Ricky Gervais in Robert Popper's office, or Peter Serafinowicz would out himself to me as a Digi fan, or I was going for lunch with George out of George & Mildred... suddenly I was moving in very different circles. It was exciting for a time, but it's remarkable how quickly it all becomes normal.
I picked up some work writing Sooty-related links for Channel 4's 100 Greatest Kids TV Shows - subverting the Sooty norm, by having Sweep tell Jamie Theakston to eff off. My favourite sketch was sadly unused, which would've featured Theakston ripping off Sooty's skin, expecting to see a hand beneath, but being surprised by a trembling, shrieking, mass of guts and veins.
I spent some time developing grown-up shows with a few different producers - one I backed away from rapidly, when the producer insisted to my agent that he'd come up with an idea that I'd taken to him.
And then I was back on Sooty - and not a moment too soon: Teletext had just cut my salary in half, and culled all the humour from Digitiser. I needed every outlet for creativity that I could get. Also: money. The battles I'd been fighting on the domestic front had subsided for the time being, but Teletext's decision - and the way in which they went about it - kicked me back into the ditch. Looking back, it demonstrated how fragile and vulnerable I'd allowed myself to become. I would remain so for a few more years.
However, there would - once again - be no wallowing. The solution that I thought had worked before was to write my way out, and so that's what I did. Plus, I had incentive: the next series of Sooty was to coincide with the show's 50th anniversary.
To mark the occasion we hit upon a controversial idea: we were going to give Sooty a voice.
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