Comedy Scribe Monday #11: Chris and Jen Sugden of Victoriocity
Welcome back to #ComedyScribeMonday! It’s a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.
This week, our guests were Jen and Chris Sugden (@JenSugden and @chrssgdn), creators of the comedy-mystery podcast Victoriocity. It follows Inspector Archibald Fleet (Tom Crowley) and budding journalist Clara Entwhistle (Layla Katib) as they unravel a murder case in the mad, steampunkish sprawl of Even Greater London.
The digest below includes tweets from Jen and Chris, from us, Sean Howard (@passitalong) and Eli McIlveen (@forgeryleague), and from other participants on Twitter. I’ve reordered and made some minor edits for clarity.
The foundations of Even Greater London
Sean: I can’t tell you how excited we are to have Chris and Jen Sugden with us this week. I had no idea what to expect when I first started listening to Victoriocity but I was immediately captured by the production values and I can never get enough Tom Crowley in my life! Where did the alternate London idea come from?
Jen: Thanks very much! The production values are all Dominic Hargreaves (@jmdhox)! Chris actually came up with the idea to set the story in an alternate Victorian past so I’ll let him answer this!
Chris: A few ideas came together to create Even Greater London. One was HG Wells’ The Invisible Man. There’s something inspiring about the Victorian sense of possibility. I thought: what would it be like if you combined their imagination and our age’s capabilities?
Jen: I really wanted it to be Victorian London because I do a lot of research on the Victorian period and wanted to explore those sensibilities but when Chris suggested exploring these in a reimagined past I thought: Yes! This is going to be fun.
Chris: Then there was the sci-fi/fantasy world-building comedy, like Adams and Pratchett, who we’ve always been enormous fans of. And finally there was Actual Real-Life London, which dominates the UK in a mass-psychological sense I wanted to explore literally!
Eli: Yes! I mean, you’ve got a mad-science-powered London that’s swallowed up most of England, the Thames is frozen solid, and Queen Victoria is a cyborg. What is it about that era that makes it so much fun to meddle with?
Jen: It’s such an exciting period in terms of social, political and technological change and advancement — and you can see in contemporary discourse the varied (often fraught) responses to the vast changes that happened in this period. We’ve imagined those responses on a much grander scale, so how people feel about the world, “The Tower” and the change it has wrought is always inspired by actual contemporary responses to technological advancement and social change.
So Clara is often in awe of what she is discovering, and admires that advancement — but at the same time she can’t always make sense of it. Fleet has ceased trying to make sense of it and generally just feels things could be simpler.
Sean: And this SOOO explains Queen Victoria and Albert. Which was SO FREAKY but SO WONDERFUL!
Jen: Thank you! These are two of my favourite characters (played by the wonderful Ida Berglöw-Kenneway and Nathan Peter Grassi). But again, this is inspired by the real Victoria and Albert.
We imagined an extreme version of their relationship. Albert was the husband, but Victoria was the Queen. This created tension as it upset traditional Victorian gender roles. We play out that tension but with Albert now trapped inside Victoria!
Eli: Oh, poor Albert.
Jen: Yes, poor Albert indeed. I think he loves Victoria but has very mixed feelings about what has happened to him. I imagine he wasn’t asked!
Shaping the story
Eli: I can definitely hear the Adams/Pratchett influence in the crazy inventiveness of your worldbuilding and the witty narration. Was there ever any question in your mind whether to use a narrator?
Chris: If there was it can’t have been for long. As soon as we had the Even Greater London concept, it seemed like a narrator would be needed to help make sense of it. Also it’s just a fun style of writing that adds some variety alongside the dialogue.
Jen: Also, as soon as we heard Peter Rae read the part, we knew there was no going back. His voice is the stuff of dreams.
Eli: Victoriocity is full of intrigue, plot twists and surprises. How do you go about weaving a mystery? Did you map out the story and players before starting on the scripts, or did it “grow in the telling”?
Chris: The plot was mostly mapped out, but we had to rearrange some things as it came together. You don’t want to force characters to behave a certain way, but there needs to be a direction, and as it’s episodic we wanted clear cliff-hangers.
Jen: We followed Wilkie Collins’s advice: “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait!”
Ely (@ShoMarq): And kind of building off this question, how did you build the comedy? Did you improv scenes together, did the actors ad lib, or was it a little more structured? A hybrid is my assumption. (I am not a comedian, I have no idea how people write funny things.)
Chris: I think my writing style is essentially improvising on the page. Define a situation, choose your characters, and honestly just write what they would say next. Jen is different. She can plan ahead.
Jen: So Chris will come down after a frenzied, coffee fuelled writing session with a page of perfect, hilarious comedy. I will write something tightly plotted with three jokes, that is four times too long. And then edit, edit, edit!
Chris: More seriously, we get together and talk about what a scene could be about, and sometimes we will improv some exchanges and then hurry away to write them down. It’s great to write out loud sometimes!
Jen: Actors did suggest changes which felt better for their character in the moment, which we took on board. And the post-credits scenes were partially scripted with some great ad libbing from Ida, Nathan, Tom Crowley, Molly Beth Morossa and Layla Katib!
Richard Brooks (@Kanga_Kanga): Can I ask, how important were your theatre links to the success of the podcast?
Chris: Hugely important for a number of reasons. We had worked with Dominic before and he’s totally responsible for bringing the world to life in audio form. Many of the actors we knew from our own shows or connections through that world.
Also live comedy shows — sketch and narrative — are how Jen and I had developed our writing over the years. There’s no escape from a live audience’s opinion! It was invaluable to learning how we should write, and how we should write together.
Jen: To add to what Chris said, I think these were hugely important in terms of script feedback also. For example, our comedy group The Dead Secrets (all fantastic writers) had to sit through multiple drafts! But their input (and that of others) was invaluable. Helen Marshall and Malcolm Devlin were also amazing critics. They are both fantastic writers and you should all check out their work!
Sean: As a follow-up to the great question from Richard, I’d love to know what you learned from creating Victoriocity. What was freeing? What was overwhelming? And will you do it again? PLEASE?! :)
Chris: It’s freeing to be able to write something that doesn’t have to be built somehow on-stage! You can let your imagination run amok. I’m not sure any of it was overwhelming but it was certainly a lot of work! As for doing it again, plans are in motion…!
Sean: You heard it here, everyone! Victoriocity is going to return!!! Woot!
Jen: Yes, I agree with Chris. The only limit with audio drama is your imagination and so it is wonderful. Though we sometimes make it hard for Dominic, fortunately he is a wizard and continuously amazes us with his design.
Roblivious (@robdmstringer): What can we expect from series 2 (he asks hopefully)? More lovely set pieces playing on classic Victorian places? (Pleasure Coast etc). Also I know Fleet may be going thru… changes… I hope we’ll discover more about the great man’s history!
Chris: Set pieces for sure. The city is there to be explored, as well as the world just beyond. And yes, Fleet has a whole new set of problems! And there might be a circus… no promises.
Sean: I am so thrilled that we were able to align timezones and schedules to get Chris and Jen on to a #ComedyScribeMonday. Your show is simply one of the best shows out there in my opinion!
I can’t thank Chris or Jen enough, let alone all the amazing people who participated in this weeks chat! Chris and Jen, where can people go to hear more or learn more?
Jen: Thanks so much for inviting us! We’ve had so much fun. And thank you for your kind words. We are incredibly lucky to have such a talented cast and team working on the show.
Chris: Thanks very much for having us! If you follow us and the podcast (@Victoriocity) you’ll be the first to hear about new things, which we hope to share before too long! If we are quiet, it’s because we’re writing :-)
You can listen to Victoriocity at Victoriocity.com or via your favourite podcast app. And while you’re here, check out our previous chat with Tom Crowley.
#ComedyScribeMondays are brought to you by Sean and Eli, the writers of Alba Salix, Royal Physician. Join us on Twitter every Monday at 1pm ET / 10am PT in North America, 5pm UK!