“Without writers, we are nothing”

That was the verdict of Sioned Wiliam, BBC Radio 4’s Commissioning Editor for Comedy, speaking at the WGGB annual general meeting at the Bermondsey Square Hotel, London, on Friday 19 June 2015. 

She added that “writers can be ignored and patronised like no other member of the production team” but that at Radio 4, which broadcasts more than 180 hours of original comedy a year, “writers are the lifeblood. I have enormous respect for writers… I have been blessed to work with some of the greatest writers… I could have done nothing without ‘that’ script”.

Wiliam started her comedy career as a member of the Oxford Revue, performing with Armando Iannucci, Rebecca Front and David Schneider. She became a producer at BBC Radio Light Entertainment in the late 1980s, working on shows with, among others, Jenny Eclair, Paul Merton and Steve Coogan. She became controller of Comedy for ITV from 1999-2006, and has spent the past three decades producing a diverse mix of programmes, including Tonight with Jonathan Ross for Channel 4. She has won a British Comedy Award and been nominated for three BAFTAs.

She took up her new role in January 2015, and said at the WGGB AGM that she wanted to balance Radio 4’s traditional listeners with appealing to new audiences, plus also showcasing a diverse range of voices.

Talking about the synergy between TV and radio, she said the “free flow” between the two was important, and barriers that used to exist at the BBC had been broken down, but that Radio 4 is not there to provide a “soundtrack for TV ”.

Describing great sitcoms as shows that aren’t afraid to be funny, with the ambitions of Seinfeld, One Foot in the Grave or Dad’s Army, she added that it was hard to attract writers to the genre, partly because critics often used the word sitcom as a pejorative term. But “when a sitcom is blessed with that alchemy – great performers, in a great role, written by a top writer or team of writers – there is nothing better.”

She praised Radio 4 comedy as a “treasure, brimming with the best talent in the country”, and that it was her mission to create “the best possible environment in which comedy can truly flourish.”

Questions from the audience focused on the value of the writer/performer, crossover between radio and theatre, radio and the digital landscape (Sioned Wiliam: “Young people listen on their tablets while they are on Facebook. They look while they are listening”), and how far comedy can push the boundaries in the current political climate. “Satire is all about poking fun at who is in power,” said Wiliam. “Radio 4 is not backwards in coming forwards. There is some edgy, interesting stuff coming up.” She qualified that by saying there “are places I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t want to joke about disability, for example, and I will say ‘no’ if I think something isn’t funny.”

Other speakers at the AGM included WGGB General Secretary Bernie Corbett, who said there were some tough years ahead and that we needed to worry about the level of cuts to arts and culture funding. He also said that it was important for WGGB to support campaigns in favour of BBC charter renewal. “We’ve got to warn against more filleting at the BBC. The era of salami-slicing needs to come to an end.”

TV Chair Bill Armstrong spoke about the union’s Free is NOT an Option campaign, to tackle unpaid development work in TV and film. 

In the past year, the campaign has gone from strength to strength, with support and interest from production companies, international writers’ guilds and MPs, including the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP, who has pledged his support in Parliament.

Coming months will see the publication of guidelines for writers on when to say ‘no’ and a template ‘right to pitch’ contract for use by producers. An industry-wide seminar is planned for the autumn. “The final battle will be to confront the major broadcasters,” said Bill Armstrong, adding that “Free is NOT an Option is a lesson in how a small union can and must operate… It can punch above its weight and make its voice heard, but only when we stop thinking of the union as a ‘them’ and realise that if we don’t act together and do what we can, no one else is going to do it for us.”

Results of elections were announced, including the new Chair, Gail Renard, who replaced Roger Williams and who has previously served as WGGB TV Chair, and Deputy Chair. Speaking at the AGM, she said: “I have taken on the post of Chair at a challenging time for writers. In television and radio, we have the BBC charter renewal coming up, plus we are tackling unpaid development work through our Free is NOT an Option campaign and are in talks with the BBC about their long running series shadow schemes

In film, we’ll be building on the success of this year’s ‘locked box’ agreement with the BFI, and setting our sights on updating our Pact agreement. In theatre, we’ll be supporting those fighting to keep our theatres open and funding from being cut. There is work to be done for radio, book and animation writers, and we also want to attract more videogames members.  As ever, we want to encourage all writers (new and experienced) to join us. Every one of us needs to recruit because there’s strength in numbers. As the Guild has proven over the decades, together we can move mountains.” 

The announcement of other WGGB Executive Council positions included former WGGB President and playwright David Edgar, who becomes Co-Chair of the Theatre Committee alongside Jenifer Toksvig, replacing Nick Wood. 

A motion was carried to increase the WGGB Full Membership subscription from 1 September 2015. Band A will be raised from £180 to £198 per annum. Increases to the other Full Membership bands, and Affiliate and Candidate Membership tiers, will be announced to members by email at a later date. 

In her closing remarks, WGGB President Olivia Hetreed said that the last time she spoke at a WGGB event was at the Writers’ Guild Awards following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In the wake of events in Charleston she said that watching President Obama speak, with the weariness of a man who had tried to change things and failed, she had realised the power of words, and the silences between those words. She called on those in the room, “the masters of words”, to use those words to effect change.

All photos: Em Fitzgerald