Yes indeed, this week marks exactly twenty years since publishing my first book, Best of the Britcoms, the first real accomplishment of my gloriously mediocre writing career.
I’ve told the story many times of how the book came about: having become a delirious fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus upon finding it by accident on PBS in 1975, I enjoyed the flood of British sitcoms that soon came to PBS–first Fawlty Towers, and then dozens of other comedies that have come and gone from American TV screens in the decades since. I began videotaping all of them, most of which became the 3-hour prime time schedule on WLIW (Long Island, NY) every Friday night for years.
I taped them for fear that they might be suddenly yanked off the air without notice, leaving me with no means to continue watching them on a regular basis. Over 300 hours of Britcoms later, all recorded and numbered on videocassettes that encroached on my living space, I decided that there must be something constructive that I could do with all of this British comedy. I appreciated how creative, even daring, many of those programs were, especially compared with most American sitcoms of the same time period. I was also certain that there were other fans out there across the country who loved Britcoms as much as I did, but who, in those pre-Internet years, hadn’t any real way of learning more about them.
One night in 1995, while munching on a snack with my future wife Karen at our favorite diner, I hit upon the idea of writing a book, much like a viewer’s companion, of the Britcoms that were being shown in the U.S.–not just the well-known series, but the more obscure gems as well. I decided I would devote a chapter to each program, packed with as much information as I could find (if only every meal I had at that diner produced the same inspiration). I assigned myself the task of spreading the word, and the information, about British sitcoms, via the book.
I then realized that the first thing I needed to do was begin contacting people at the BBC and other U.K. broadcasters and production companies (the vast majority of the Britcoms to air on PBS were BBC productions). I had never even placed an overseas phone call before, but I somehow found the main number of “the Beeb” in London, and kept asking for whoever might be able and/or willing to help me.
I found the head of the BBC Press & Publicity Department, Jenny Secombe, who happened to be the daughter of legendary comedian Harry Secombe, co-star of the classic and influential 1950s radio series The Goon Show with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. I wondered if I had been one of the few people requesting to speak to her about something other than her father. I sent her a fax (remember those?) to explain the goal of my book. Jenny was the first person to say, basically, “Yes, we’ll help you.” I was ecstatic.
From that point on, I began contacting agents who represented the sitcom writers , directors, and producers, and just about all of them gladly arranged for me to interview their clients by phone. Before I knew it, I was speaking to people who were unknown in the U.S., but who were celebrities to me, having seen their names on the credits of my favorite Britcoms for years. Interviewing the actors was a thrill as well, after watching them perform and making me laugh week after week. I was thrilled, and genuinely surprised, by the level of cooperation I received. After all, I was just some unknown American attempting to write his first book, but everyone I interviewed–including those “big shots” of British television–was polite, talkative, and encouraging.
The late Richard Briers, who had a long and celebrated career on television, and is probably most associated with the late-1970s Britcom The Good Life (known in the U.S. as Good Neighbors) was one of the stars I spoke with, and he was also kind enough to agree to write the
foreword for the book. He sent me a little note after I sent him a copy of the book after its publication.
The person who was perhaps most helpful to me during my research was a girl named Eva de Romarate, who was working as an assistant at the BBC Press & Publicity Office. Despite her own busy workload, Eva never failed to obtain materials, phone numbers, and countless miscellaneous bits of information for me. We e-mailed constantly, and she even sent bulky packages of promotional materials via snail mail. Once, when a package I had been expecting from her was weeks overdue, I sadly concluded that it was lost
somewhere in the world. Eva then gathered duplicates of what I had asked for, and sent them all to me again. Not long after receiving it, the original package arrived. I was mortified. But she took it in stride. When Karen and I visited London as part of our honeymoon in 1997, we met with Eva for a while to chat at her favorite pub.
Then came the chore of finding a literary agent to represent me in my quest for a publisher. I didn’t find one until August of 1998. At the same time, I contacted PBS affiliates across the country that had already been airing Britcoms regularly. My strategy was to interest them in the book, and have them respond with letters agreeing that it could be used as a gift item for their periodic on-air fundraisers. Enough letters would, hopefully, convince some publisher that this would be a winning proposition.
To my amazement (and giddiness), it worked. The letters came. My agent found Taylor Trade Publishing in Dallas, which became my publisher.
Once I got the interviews, photos, and everything else organized the way I wanted, there followed months of checking and proofreading galleys, and planning a promotional strategy with Taylor’s publicist. Finally, on the last week of August, 1999, I received the e-mail, “We’ve got books!”
A number of press interviews and reviews (including an A+ from Entertainment Weekly) followed. It felt good, I have to admit.
Ten years later, I decided it was time to revise and make additions to the book, so I added seven more chapters, and updated most of the others. The revised edition of Best
of the Britcoms arrived in early 2010 (but, unfortunately, without most of the original photos, as the BBC prices for licensing photos had skyrocketed in that intervening decade).
So goes the (long) story of my first steps into the world of pop culture “expertise.” And there’s a brand new book on the way, so stay tuned!