A week since Happy Valley reached its satisfying finale on BBC1, so on Telly Addict we catch up with that; also, Amber, an RTÉ One drama about another fictional kidnap showing here on BBC4; A Very British Airline, which is basically a long advert for British Airways on BBC2; Dinner At 11, a social/TV experiment from C4 involving preternaturally eloquent and politicised 11-year-olds (look out for Grace); and a lovely snippet of For No Good Reason, the feature-length portrait of Ralph Steadman which aired on Sky Atlantic. I wrote to Ralph when I was an art student and asked if I could become his assistant. He wrote back and said no, but to keep up the good work. I loved him then and I love him now.
As I type, we’re mere hours away from the final part of Happy Valley on BBC1, brutal and brilliant and one of the landmark dramas of the TV year so far, and featured heavily in this week’s Telly Addict. While animated by ensuing episodes of Sally Wainwright’s fem-centric Hebden Bridge crime saga, I have been let down by the way From There To Here unfolded in its second episode, also on BBC1, and also covered this week, for balance. Plus: the 1950s-Dublin-set Quirke, also on BBC1, which I’m loving, so I am, and Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed on BBC2, a rare treat for those of us who’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint. For fun, I cover Four Rooms on C4, which returned for its fourth series and is basically a posh Cash In The Attic, but no less fun for that. Happy Valley! Happy Valley! Happy Valley!
It’s all a bit behind schedule this week, with Telly Addict not recorded until Tuesday morning due to the pesky Bank Holiday and a “technical issue” holding up its launch. It eventually loaded on Wednesday (although the Guardian has been kind enough to leave a nice plug for it up until this morning). Anyway, in it, the amusing nature of Jack Bauer saying the word “pub” in 24 on Sky1; a fine new historical drama, set in 1996, from the BBC1, From There To Here; the same channel’s one-off karaoke tribute to Dylan Thomas for his centenary, A Poet In New York; Gogglebox reviewing Gogglebox winning a Bafta on C4; and a fast look at The Fast Show Special on BBC2.
Also, in other Guardian news, and in a much faster turnaround, an email arrived on Tuesday telling me that the box set of Boss (both seasons, currently still showing on More4) was out in June. On the same day I asked my friends at the Guardian Arts Desk if they’d like me to write about it for G2’s excellent Your Next Box Set slot. They said yes. I wrote it on Wednesday and delivered it on the same day. And it’s in the actual paper today. Hooray. You can read it here.
Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?
At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)
The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).
As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans - all illuminating about the process.
Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.
That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.
So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.
In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.
The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.
I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?
A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.
I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.
I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.
Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!
The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.
The Guardian seems a bit stingy about Telly Addict at the moment, rarely leaving the traditional plug for it up on the homepage for longer than a day, which, it seems, reduces traffic to a trickle, thus sealing my longterm fate by their own hand. Boo! I can’t really do much more than provide an alert on Twitter and on this blog. So …
This week, we have two historical dramas, the Game Of Thrones-influenced Vikings on History and Penny Dreadful from Showtime on Sky Atlantic (I won’t ruin it for you, but I much preferred Vikings); also, the return of Showtime/BBC co-prod Episodes, and my highlights of Sunday night’s Bafta TV Awards, which I hope you enjoy.
I was sad to read of the death, aged 74, of the Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf “H.R.” Giger. Through his groundbreaking, influential designs for the alien and its environments in Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, influential murder mystery in space Alien – a style that was known as “biomechanical”, a precisely airbrushed cross between the visceral and the metallic – he had more than crossed my radar. Although I was under the age of consent to see Alien on release in 1979, as an avid teen film fan I bridged the gap by requesting The Book Of Alien – a lavishly illustrated making-of by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross – for my birthday in March 1980. Via the portal of this otherwise conventional softback souvenir, I entered the rarefied, graphic world of Giger (the book was full of initial sketches and designs by various artists, but his dominated).
This book, though cherished, did not change my life. But Giger did, in 1987, although I didn’t even know it at the time. I was a student at Chelsea School of Art in 1987, on the cusp of graduation and what I hoped would be some approximation of a “career” as an illustrator or more specifically a cartoonist (my chosen area of expertise in the sense that it chose me: I wasn’t much good at proper drawing). I had been an avid reader of the NME since the year Alien was released, and had keenly rolled with its evolutionary punches as it morphed from the inky rag of the post-punk era to a post-modern media studies pamphlet designed with acres of white space in the early-to-mid 80s. What I didn’t know, as a reader, in 1987, is that the paper was on its knees, commercially speaking. This would have been no concern of mine; as long as my weekly fix of music news, culture and dangerous Marxist politics arrived on a Tuesday, all was well.
I was the sort of nerdy NME reader who pored obsessively over what I didn’t know at the time was called “the masthead” (ie. the list of staff and freelance writers), and noted any personnel changes with interest. As a student of art and design, I also mapped the visual changes in the NME in relation to whoever was designing it, and knew that the reigning art editor in 1987, Joe Ewart, had ushered in a starkly dynamic page layout, of which I approved. It was very much in keeping with advances in style magazine design over at The Face and i-D, except printed on shitty newspaper.
In 1988, I was living in a studio flat in South West London and attempting to keep the wolf from the door by taking on soulless freelance illustration work for a modest design agency. It was not “art”, but if I drew enough cartoon cats, cyclists and reindeers in a month for corporate handouts, I could pay the rent. (If you bought the puzzle magazine Puzzled around this time, you will have seen my cartoon owls, polar bears, penguins and other assorted fauna – this was the vertiginous level at which I toiled.) In order to satisfy my creative juices, I decided to produce my own fanzine and write about things that interested me and perhaps sell a few copies, like two new NME writers on the masthead whom I had quickly grown to idolise, Steven Wells (who produced Molotov Comics) and James Brown (Attack On Bzag).
I did not make my own fanzine, This Is This, in their image; instead, I went for neatly typed columns of copy with – yes – plenty of white space around them. I wrote about Tony Hancock, Stephen King, Gerry Sadowitz and the water metaphors in Lloyd Cole’s lyrics, and drew my own cartoon strips satirising TV-AM, Time Out and Apocalypse Now. I borrowed the photocopier at the design company that employed me and used it to “size up” my illustrations and create a clean page design. Then I paid Kall-Kwik to print me up and staple 100 copies. My aim was to carry them around in an Our Price plastic bag and sell them at gigs. I think I sold around a dozen.
However – and here’s where my life intersects with H.R. Giger’s, without his or my knowledge – I sent a copy of This Is This to James Brown, recently installed Features Editor at the NME, and, I hoped, a kindred spirit. The height of my ambition at this stage was to have my fanzine mentioned in the bitty news section Thrills, which James edited. Maybe I would flog a few copies by mail order. What I wasn’t doing at this point was looking for a job at the NME. The prospect was a fictional one.
I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now about how the office of a weekly music paper works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted a stamp. The probability that the brown envelope containing This Is This would have been opened, never mind the contents being read, was close to zero. I could never have imagined how high the teetering pile of envelopes on James Brown’s in-tray was. However, the stars were aligned for me, and he did open my envelope, and he did flick through my fanzine, and he did phone me up.
In the message he left on my answer machine he said he liked the fanzine and wanted to have a chat with me about it. I was cock a hoop, and yet still only dreaming of seeing my fanzine mentioned in the pages of the NME. He invited me up to the offices of the paper in London’s New Oxford Street – which was, for me, like visiting Mecca – and casually mentioned that he might be able to put a bit of writing work my way.
Now, the history books tell us that back the white heat of July 1976, the NME ran a small ad asking for “hip young gunslingers” to write “lively and incisive prose” in an effort to refresh the lifeblood of the paper in the wake of punk rock with a new staff writer. (Actually, the history book – Pat Long’s closest-to-definitive The History Of The NME.) It ended up with two from the 1,200 applications: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, with Ian Cranna, Paul Morley and Paul DuNoyer taken on as freelancers. No such formal clarion call went out in 1988, but Brown and his successor on the live desk, Helen Mead, were unofficially tasked with trying out some new writers. It was in this spirit of provincial empowerment that I found myself sucked into the wonderful and frightening world of the NME. (Barbara Ellen, Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq were among those who also had their professional lives changed in the same period of conscription.)
Though lured into the office with the promise of writing work, a part-time vacancy was going in the NME art room and, technically if not practically qualified, I was introduced by James to editor Alan Lewis and new art editor (previously Joe Ewart’s assistant) Justin Langlands, who seemed to like me – or perhaps just my dungarees and Age Of Chance baseball cap – and took me on. All of sudden, from a standing start, I had landed a two-days-a-week post at my bible, which quickly expanded to three days. When Justin took his first holiday in the August of ’88, I actually became Art Editor for a fortnight; that’s two issues of the paper I’d read and re-read for almost a decade under my aesthetic control (yes, I redesigned all the logos while Justin was away, and Justin reinstated the old ones when he got back).
From my new vantage point, I set about bothering all the section editors for writing work, and one by one, they caved. My “journey” from layout boy to actual bylined NME writer had begun. The rest is autobiography. But without H.R. Giger, the man whose art had so captivated me in The Book Of Alien, my life might never have wound its rudderless way in this direction, and the NME might have remained a weekly newspaper I pored over and not one I actually tinkered with from the inside. The “media”, as I did not yet refer to it in 1988 – and an industry of which I did not count myself as a member – might have remained over there. I have no idea if I would still be a freelance illustrator, providing print-ready artwork for puzzle books, but it’s conceivable. If not for nine erect penises …
In 1987, when my wildest dreams still revolved around perhaps drawing my own comic strip for a newspaper, the NME I loved was undergoing one of its habitual regime changes. I couldn’t have known how seismic. According to Pat Long’s account, sales had fallen below 100,000 copies for the first time in 31 years. It is sad to say, but choosing Neil Kinnock as its cover star in the week of the General Election – a decision that thrilled me to marrow of my bones as a reader, and cemented all my political ideals – was symbolic of the NME‘s propensity to back a loser. The paper’s owners, IPC, saw that famous cover (“Lovely, lovely, lovely!”) as the shortest suicide note in history. Editor Ian Pye was sacked, and “safe pair of hands” Alan Lewis was parachuted in.
His commercial instinct and desire to drag the NME back to being about – hey – music were seen as anathema to remaining stalwarts like media editor Stuart Cosgrove PhD – a mid-80s appointee of editor Neil Spencer, under whose leadership the paper entered what was, for me, a purple patch of polemic and pretense. It was future Channel 4 Controller of Arts and Entertainment Cosgrove who produced an issue devoted to censorship while Lewis was on holiday in September ’87, which involved the reproduction of a sexually explicit painting by H.R. Giger known as Penis Landscape. It had been given away as a poster by Californian punk activists the Dead Kennedys in 1985 with their Frankenchrist album and landed the band and their lable in legal hot water. It depicted nine erect penises entering nine orifices that could be vaginas or anuses. What could possibly go wrong?
The NME folklore passed down to us was that the printers had refused to print it and downed tools. According to Long, it was more a case of the colour repro lab complaining about having to print it, but the industrial kerfuffle gave IPC management the excuse to get rid of the staffers it considered “troublemakers”, notably Cosgrove – who I presume considered it a cause worth dying for – and Joe Ewart. “Media” returned to being a token section of the paper with film and book reviews in it, and Ewart’s assistant, Justin, took the art reins. (Having worked under him, I know that Justin was surprised and delighted to get the gig, although the trade-off was allowing Alan into the design room, whose lack of design finesse did not stop him wielding a scalpel and demanding bigger, clearer, more literal layout.)
Without understanding its significance, with a few months of my arrival in Justin’s art room, the NME moved offices back to IPC’s skyscraping HQ King’s Reach Tower in Waterloo. We were the unruly child, taken in hand and put under the same roof as Mum and Dad. I had no real idea that I was part of a new era, but events have proven that to be the case. Under Alan’s earnestly commercial helm, we started to produce a tighter, brighter, more focused, less discursive and more humorous paper. The circulation went back up. We even managed to cover Acid House within the newly revived, conventional rock format, made easier when, during the Madchester boom, guitar bands took E and picked up samplers, while Lamacq and new lieutenant Simon Williams plugged directly into an energised, corporate-sponsored indie scene. (As Lamacq told Long, “Everyone at that time wanted Danny Kelly’s approval,” and this genuflection to the larger-than-life successor to Alan Lewis generated real heat in the office, regardless of musical affiliation.)
If you’d asked me my preference as a media outsider in 1987, I would have wished for a Labour government and the continuation of the Ewart/Pye/Cosgrove regime. I would have cheered a pullout H.R. Giger anal fantasia every week and stuff those evangelistic reactionaries in the print trade. But it was not to be. There’s only so much sticking it to The Man you can get away with when you’re part of the machine, which the NME always was. (Believe it or not, we never referred to it as a “brand” in the late 80s – that was all to come.)
So rest in peace, H.R. Giger. You changed my landscape, and very possibly paved the way for Hull indie rockers Kingmaker to breach the Top 20 in 1992.
Two big new cop shows this week on Telly Addict: Prey on ITV by first-time writer Chris Lunt (way to start an IMDb entry!); and Happy Valley on BBC1 by veteran Sally Wainwright, which surprised me; also, the German miniseries Generation War on BBC2; the exceptional and frank documentary from Rupert Everett, Love For Sale, on C4; and sketch show Cardinal Burns on C4. Oh, and a bit of Gogglebox Zen.