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The Importance of a Lucky Break

28/08/2015 18:41 BST | Updated 28/08/2016 10:59 BST

Extract from Tomorrow's People: Making Cultures for Creativity, a new book from UKTV promoting British creativity.

In the TV industry, everyone remembers when they got their big break. But for me, unlike most people, it involved an actual fracture.

It was 2001, and I was trying to become a comedy writer in London. I was sending out scripts on spec, and entering competitions. With my writing partner, Dennis Kelly, I sent a script in to the BBC New Comedy Award - two sketches, in fact. They both had, well, sexual content. Nothing's really changed there.

I was a long way from paying the bills with my comedy, so I worked as a waitress at Mildred's vegetarian restaurant in Soho. Then one night, I came off my bike and hurt my arm. When I turned up for work the next day, I realised that my arm was just kind of swinging by my side. So I went to A&E at St Thomas' Hospital and, sure enough, I'd broken my elbow. I was so upset, but in fact that was the beginning of my career: I had to give up my job at Mildred's, and find a way to make money that didn't involve carrying plates.

Then Dennis and I were told that our script had won the BBC New Comedy Award. So I ended up at the Edinburgh Festival with my arm in a sling, and I had to live on my credit card for a while, but I had to make my comedy career happen. Rob Delaney, my co-writer and co-star in our Channel 4 series Catastrophe, went through the same sort of thing. He used to have a big corporate job. He had a Rolex and money in the bank. One day, he terrified his poor wife by telling her that he was leaving his job to be a comedian. For years, he didn't make a bean.

So my advice, to anyone starting out in comedy: break your elbow and leave your job. Next: find someone experienced, to help you develop. I was very lucky to meet Harry Thompson, who created Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Monkey Dust. He just really liked Kelly's and my voice. You can get disillusioned very quickly, because the stuff you send out at first isn't going to be very good - it's just not - but if someone sees a spark of something, they might care enough to spend time helping you get better.

You'll also need to grow a really tough skin, because a lot of the time it just doesn't happen. When you get your work sent back to you with a polite "no", it's up to you to keep going. And be prepared to throw stuff away. People get married to their big idea, people get married to their first script. They're told that it's good, and maybe it is good. But maybe it's not good enough. Or maybe it's not the thing people want at that time. Sometimes, you have to be prepared to completely start over.

Every series I've ever done has had at least one episode that's had to be binned, and it's frightening. You're in production, you're a ticking clock, but still you have to let a script go. You have to stop trying to make a silk purse out of something which is just all sow-y. And which is always going to be sow-y.

I started writing the second series of Catastrophe, by the way, while Rob was on paternity leave earlier this year with his new baby. A lot of what I wrote in those first few weeks might not make it into the final scripts - maybe as much as 50% of it. But I just kept ploughing through it. And the good news is, I could tell from Rob's emails that paternity leave was tough - so at least he'd have plenty of new material when he got back.

Even when you've finally made something that was considered good or did well - like my BBC Three series Pulling in 2006 - it really doesn't matter when you come to pitch your next project. You do have a bit of an advantage, because "new" is "interesting" and people think, "We want to see what's next." So you might get in the door quicker - but everything that you write isn't necessarily going to get greenlit. So that's kind of terrifying.

To be honest, I didn't feel like I'd stopped being "new talent" until about a year ago, when I started my own production company - Merman - with the producer Clelia Mountford. I've got two series in production - Catastrophe in the UK and Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, for HBO in America. So I suddenly have to be an adult, whether I like it or not.

Divorce is my first series for HBO, so in a way everything is new again. I had developed another series for HBO, which didn't get made. But then they were looking for a project for Sarah Jessica Parker, and they showed her those scripts. She asked to meet me - and she turned out to be a great lady. She's beautiful, she's tiny, she's a real thinker, serious about what she does. But also smart and funny - like, irreverent if you get a cocktail down her. She's fun.

Then I just started thinking about her, and what I'd like to see her do - the kind of thing I want to see her doing post-Sex and the City, and the kind of person she is now. I don't know why, but I just liked the idea of a very, very long-term, hard-core divorce. I'd been watching The War of the Roses, which is such a great movie, funny and dark. I talked to Sarah about it, and she liked it, and HBO let us take Divorce from idea to script to pilot to series very quickly.

A bit like my early collaborations with Harry Thompson, the trick for me with my first American series is to make it with a bunch of people who've done American shows a million times before. We've got the writer Paul Simms and the director Jesse Peretz, both of whom recently worked on Girls, and are very experienced. We have a writers' room of eight writers, so it's really great because you get all those brains thinking. And we've got this incredible divorce lawyer, who's consulting on the show and who's done some of the most horrific celebrity divorces. Ours is more of an emotional divorce, but money always comes into it. What I've realised is that people would rather pay a large amount of money to lawyers, than pay a much smaller amount of money to their ex.

My company Merman is a co-producer on Divorce, and my business partner Clelia is now making the third season of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, which she brought to the company as a start-up production. As a company, we're finding out what our thing is, what our voice is. Clelia will find a book that she thinks could be adapted, and then it's a question of putting the right people together and finding the right talent, as she did on A Young Doctor's Notebook when she was at Big Talk. Then there's me, writing and creating my own shows - so hopefully we have two interesting ways to attract writers and creators. Because I love reading scripts from new writers - it's like a "busman's holiday" kind of thing for me. And it's lovely not to have to start with a blank sheet of paper.

When I read a script, I'm looking for something that has a nuance to it that I haven't seen before. Because there are so many formulaic scripts, written from the same template. The big thing for me is when someone has a voice: it can be just a turn of phrase, it can be in the way someone puts a sentence together, or it can be in the storyline or the concept. That's exciting, because it feels new and it feels fresh and it makes you want to develop something further.

And I do think absolutely that the way forward for new talent, in the age of YouTube and Vimeo, is to make your own content. Of course, many online creators are sophisticated enough to sell their own stuff: I loved a Vimeo series of shorts called High Maintenance, and wanted to work with its creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair - only to find out that HBO had bought the whole thing.

But there's still an incredible value for new talent in working with production companies like Merman - people who have made shows before, helping you bring your idea to life. So at the moment, Merman are in development on a number of shows, as well as being in production on others. We're a tiny bunch at the moment - but we'll get bigger!

And if I could give a few words of advice to my younger self? I'd say: "Don't expect someone to tap you on the shoulder, and then hand you what you're looking for on a plate." Because the big handicap for me was that I was a dreamer, and I thought that once I got to London, someone would just discover me. So I didn't start grafting until I was in my late 20s, even early 30s. I do think that young people should mess around and have some fun and gain their life story - I needed to find those stories, and as it worked out, it was fine. But it might not have been.

I also didn't have the level of confidence that I needed to push myself forward - I was from a tiny little village in Ireland. Dame Judi Dench and Julie Walters have both worried publicly about how difficult it is for working-class kids to get into acting these days, and I would hate to think that all the drama schools are full of posh kids who've been given a leg up, or who are related to someone famous - that's horribly upsetting.

The arts aren't funded properly by the government at the moment, at both national and local level, which in turn means there aren't as many theatres and arts groups for kids from modest backgrounds to get involved with. So part of the solution is for there to be more arts funding from the government. I also had a good support network around me, I had parents who encouraged me, but not every kid has that. Which is why you need somewhere within your community where you can be encouraged.

Even then, there's no getting away from that advice to work hard. As someone who grew up on a turkey farm, I didn't go to drama school. To get into this industry, I simply had to graft as hard as I could. Oh, and I had to break my elbow.

This is an extract from Tomorrow's People: Making Cultures for Creativity, a new book from UKTV promoting British creativity.

The book is available as a free download from iTunes, Google Play and UKTV