Regular visitors to Mint Custard may recognise the name of Rani Cameron as a big contributor to our little discussions, particularly those about comedy. Clearly someone who doesn’t just talk the talk, Rani has taken the seemingly drastic step of writing, producing and acting in her own sitcom. What’s even she’s done it alone, with no backing from television stations or production companies and with next to no budget.
The result is Retreat, the story of a bored paper shuffler who gives up her desk job to help run a holistic retreat in the English countryside. There she attempts to make sense of the dysfunctional, the disillusioned and the disquietingly odd people who live and work there.
Given it is entirely homemade and relies solely on amateur actors Retreat is a rather impressive – and yes, funny - debut which is well worth twenty minutes of your time. The trouble is the only place you’re likely to see it anytime soon is here in the glorious technicolour world of You Tube. Rani has kindly taken some time out to tell us why and provide some insight into what it takes to go it alone in the comedy world …
Hi Rani, thanks for talking to Mint Custard. Congratulations on episode 1 of Retreat - you must be happy to see it finally up there? Yes, thank you Mint. Very good of you to devote column space to it. I may never be interviewed again so I may milk it a bit.
We may never get to interview anyone again, so feel free! There's an old adage that aspiring comedians should talk about what they know. How much of Retreat is based on your own experiences? Well, a lot, clearly. But of course for legal reasons it is entirely fictional. Around here (Glastonbury) there is an awful lot of this kind of thing going on, so it's drawn from several sources. But for people around here it certainly has the ring of truth.
Did you take the idea to television companies? What reaction did you receive? Well I sent it to a thing called BBC Writersroom - they invite scripts to be sent and there is a possibility of them taking it up for development. My rejection was polite and I do remember seeing the word 'amusing' before I threw it in the bin. I tried Channel 4, and a few other places, but the chances of anyone seriously taking you up on it are extremely remote. A bit of paper isn't going to do it.
When did you first have the idea that you could do it yourself? Well, unexpectedly, a group of friends decided they would like to have a go at doing some comedy. The idea of radio was floated, but I said I couldn't do radio again, having already spent years in darkened, airless rooms for no pay. And then I showed them the Retreat script, written years earlier, and, gratifyingly, they thought it was funny and that we should make it.
Do you have any previous experience in comedy? Yes, through a Melbourne community radio program called The Third Ear, which I did with two very talented blokes who still do media-related stuff in Melbourne, John Richards and David Ashton. From there we moved on to ABC-TV, and worked on an aborted series involving most of the Melbourne stand-up scene. This did not go well (the stand-ups hated us). I also worked on the last episodes of a show called TVTV, all very ill-advised. And I was a writer and occasional performer on Full Frontal, which you are probably not familiar with Mint. Lucky you.
How long did it take to complete one episode from start to finish? I like to work very quickly, so I decided to shoot it over a four week period. I say quickly - that's as quickly as was possible, as it involved two shooting days a week, and that's all anyone could manage. Shoots were only a couple of hours long - again, no one had much time. You quickly realise when there's no money, there's no time either. After each shoot, I would edit the footage that evening. When we had all the footage, it was clear that the sound was awful, and some lines you couldn't even hear. But I had a friend who has the software to separate the sound from the pictures, and boost the sound. I cannot quite communicate how significant this was. It made the whole thing audible without us having to lay down a separate dialogue track. Don't you love technology? So all up, about six weeks. Not including writing obviously.
Do you know how that compares to a fully financed production? Well, that's a cumbersome beast, and you have pre-production, you have script development, you have casting, you have rehearsals, etc etc, and then post-production would be quite drawn-out as well. And of course most people would say there's no comparison because of the vast difference in production values. But I would say there's something to be said for the immediacy and freshness of self-made stuff.
You've called yourself a zero budget sitcom, but it must still be expensive to do this? For anyone thinking of going down this path what type of things are involved? Well, the Flip Mino [camera] cost £70 on Amazon. Apart from that, it's a lot of begging, or just asking people for things. Luckily in this area people are very generous and supportive of any creative endeavour, particularly Paddington Farm, where we did the exteriors. They even let us light a fire in their barn. People would drop out at the last minute and you have to think on your feet. One morning I had to drive around the Somerset levels for 45 minutes looking for a guy in a caravan, because we needed someone to hold the camera. None of us have any money anyway so we just had to be resourceful.
Are the actors people you know or did you have to do casting as well? We did do some auditions. That was pretty funny. We found our first Robin at the auditions. He was drop-dead gorgeous, charming and all the ladies in the room went a bit funny. But then he suddenly left town, and two weeks later we heard he was in jail for murder. It's that kind of town. We found Gareth through friends, to our relief - we couldn't go ahead without a Robin. Nino [from the first scene] was from the auditions - fantastic young bloke. Steven (Graham the gardener) was a last-minute replacement, as the other guy left town that morning. But that was a blessing, as Steven was really good.
There's a nice contrast between the wide open fields of Somerset and the inward-looking, slightly institutionalised atmosphere at the retreat. Was that deliberate? Absolutely. But this is what you find out here. This incredible environment and, in it, these oppressed [repressed?] people. This is what I find interesting, the contrast, not only with that, but with the stated purpose of these places and the behaviour of the people who run them. It's all peace and love until you get into the kitchen. Then it's all sturm und drang.
It might just be me but Retreat has some parallels with Julia Davis' Nighty Night and Steve Coogan's Saxondale. Were either of these influences on you? I actually couldn't sit through Nighty Night, perhaps I'm too delicate. It's very black and she's amazing, but I found it too disturbing. I have seen Saxondale, quite enjoyed it, never thought of it in connection with this. But I guess it's the lost in the seventies thing.
What type of comedy did you love growing up? The Young Ones was massive with me and my friends. I still love it. Then Monty Python which I now find dated although I still love Holy Grail. I did like Fast Forward, which was the precursor to Full Frontal. That probably made me want to be a comedian, a condition I have tried but failed to purge from myself.
Which comedians inspire you in 2010? Oh, it's a long list. Stephen Mangan, Sharon Horgan, Jo Brand, Peter Capaldi, Armando Iannucci, Mark Heap, that girl from The IT Crowd whose name I can't remember but I adore her [Katherine Parkinson]. Sarah Millican. Bill Bailey. There's too many. Oh and I love Steve Carell in anything, and Tina Fey.
What has been the reaction to Retreat so far? Well, it hasn't been seen by as many people as I would like, mostly friends, who like it, but maybe that's because they're kind of involved. Nobody's said anything bad so far.
Are you looking for help to complete future episodes and if so what do you need from people out there? Oh, people out there probably have enough on their plates. It would be lovely if people liked it and said so. That would give me a reason to continue. Obviously money would be great, but feedback is the most elusive thing at the moment. I found moral support was what I most needed, when I was out on the Somerset levels looking for this caravan, asking myself, "Why am I doing this?" Why indeed. I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it, I suppose.
Given the role the internet plays in people's television-watching habits, do comedians even need television companies any more? It may be moving that way. Certainly it would be lovely to have a TV show, and have armies of people, and on-set catering, and massive media exposure. But maybe all that is not essential, maybe the essential part is the creative part, which does not need all that stuff. There are a lot of talented people who never get their chance. It would be wonderful if that would change.
As television companies cut back on funding for new talent, do you think Retreat represents a likely do-it-yourself future for people trying to break into TV comedy? Why not? It's very important to have your chance, have your say. That was the main thing for me, to actually have a go at doing it the way I wanted. And let me tell you Mint Custard, it's not as hard as they all make out. Particularly the acting, which I find piss-easy. Why they have to give themselves all these awards is beyond me. The hard thing is finding an audience. I may never find mine, but at least I did it the way I wanted. If this document is the only thing that survives me, I won't be too unhappy.
Watch Episode 1 of Retreat on You Tube here. And leave comments. Nice ones. And make sure you spell them properly...