Fast shows

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Writer’s blog, Weeks 16-17, Monday

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Welcome to my world. My name is Andrew Collins. You may know me from my recently updated mug* on the film pages of the Radio Times, where I give three stars to two-star movies, or four stars to three-star movies just to annoy you. Or from my moving face in an oblong that magically appears every Tuesday morning or thereabouts on the Guardian website, so that at least one commenter a week can bemoan the fact that it’s a video and not a written review of the week’s TV, which is a bit like complaining that a cat is a dog. Although visible, both jobs involve writing. But what I’m doing most of the time, you can’t see. It’s me, at this laptop, stringing sentences together in the fervent hope that they will one day come out of the mouth of a professional actor.

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In order to stay sane, I also write that other blog, Circles Of Life: The 143 Best Songs In The World, which gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing, as I don’t have to show it to anyone in order for it to be published, as I publish it myself. Nor do I have to wait until someone asks me to write a short, personal essay about, say, Across 110th Street or Venus In Furs. I simply ask myself, and then do it. If there’s time. Incidentally, I was rather pleased that Scotts menswear (who make wear for men) have chosen to republish a number of my 143 blog entries on a special website celebrating the life of men over the 30 years they’ve been making clothes for them. (The site has been edited and designed by Sabotage Times and looks terrifically smart.)

There hasn’t been much time in 2014. As you’ll have picked up from previous Writer’s Blogs – few and far between of late – I’m hard at it.

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The above PhotoBooth photos were taken on the same overground train journey on Friday. They are not very interesting, but where I was going is. What I think I might once have referred cagily to as Sitcom A is now released from the captivity of superstitious secrecy, even while it remains below the line “in development”. It has been revealed – via the on-the-ball British Comedy Guide – as Wild Life, a single-camera comedy about a five-person nature documentary film crew on location. I’ve been developing it – which means writing and rewriting and rewriting it for a fixed amount of money which stays the same however much work I do – for two years at my management company, Avalon. But here’s where it gets interesting.

On Friday afternoon at 2pm, we staged the script for a small audience of invited TV bigwigs and comedy fans without nine-to-five jobs. This is habitually done in the world of comedy (we did it for Grass, way back in 2002, and landed a commission wit it), but usually in an airless conference room. We did Wild Life, scripts in hand, in a small theatre-above-a-pub in West London called the Tabard. A terrific venue, the cast rocked up at 10.30, and within a few hours were “performing” the script, live. It’s like a huge audition, for me as the writer**, for them*** as the cast, and for Avalon as the prospective production company. And it lasts half an hour, and then it’s done. I’d say we gave it our very best shot. It’s in the lap of the gods now.

** Although I wrote the script, we drafted in my old sparring partner Simon Day to help make it “funnier”, to use arcane industry jargon. It was a huge amount of fun being locked in an office with Simon again. And he did make it funnier.
*** Although Simon was away and couldn’t cameo on the read-through, as he would have wished, the cast assembled by Avalon was supreme: Frankie Boyle****, Miles Jupp, Isy Suttie, Craig Cambell, Adam Hess and Angela Simpson.
**** Frankie took to Twitter to “correct” the British Comedy Guide’s article. But don’t believe the hype, he is as nice as Noam Chomsky-reading pie in real life and I would love it if you could see him in Wild Life in a utopian future where my scripts get made.

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Meanwhile, what I’ll stick to calling Sitcom B, which I’ve been co-writing with the comedian who will star in it (a pattern that follows Grass and Not Going Out, an arrangement to which I appear to be suited), has hit its third draft, which is frankly unrecognisable from drafts one and two, and this is a good thing. This has been approved by our bosses at Avalon and has been delivered to the broadcaster, which is the BBC. Balls are up in the air again.

The above award-winning photo is me on my way home on the train from the Guardian on a humid Monday afternoon, hence the shirt. The big story in my professional writing life remains Drama A, another 50/50 co-write, which has just been rewritten for reappraisal by the broadcaster who has put it in development. What I will say is this: it’s weird – and a relief – not having to put jokes in.

Back to work, then. Telly Addict number #151 will appear miraculously here tomorrow morning at around 10am. In that shirt.

25 years in showbiz

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As 2013 fades from view, and with it, one largely overlooked anniversary – that is, My First 25 Years In Showbiz – I ponder the fact that I had once considered actually marking my silver jubilee in the media with some kind of tour, or one-man show, but I seem to have settled with some determination into scriptwriting (under which umbrella I include script editing) as my chief creative outlet in recent years, and even radio seems to be fading now, so it seems more suitable to simply mark its passing with a blog entry. Writing prose for free: that sums up my current lot, too.

My quarter-century is well documented, not least in my third memoir That’s Me In The Corner, which you can now buy as an eBook for £5.42 from the evil, tax-avoiding Amazon. (I can’t. Or at least, I can, but I don’t have a Kindle to load it up onto.) So I thought I might cut the yakkin’ and sum up 25 years of indecision and happy accident in a single image. The grab above was captured from the studio webcam of what was the main 5 Live studio in Television Centre, a building now cruelly and unsentimentally condemned. I think an eagle-eyed listener grabbed it, and sent it to me. If it was you, raise your hand: it’s a superb shot. I’m dating it back to circa 2009? I am clearly waiting for the light to go green. My best guess is that I was filling in for Mark Kermode – a gig that I haven’t done since I was pushed off the subs’ bench by Simon Mayo’s producer and replaced by Nigel Floyd and Boyd Hilton because their names rhyme – and Simon was broadcasting from a sporting event, possibly the cricket, which is why the studio was otherwise empty. There I am, on my own, waiting, with my BBC canteen coffee, summing up my own career!

Actually, the very fact that it’s indistinct is perfect. Here are a few other images that either give me a Proustian rush or say something thematic about the past 25 years.

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I’m rather tempted to leave them uncaptioned. Let the images speak for themselves. If they say anything, it’s that I have spent a good chunk of the past 25 years being around famous and talented people and not complaining or being self-conscious about that fact. Not always by the side of a lake in Sweden, as above, usually in front of “branding”, but in the vicinity of talent, and that’s the key.

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This one needs captioning. It’s the mighty 6 Music team finally winning Digital Radio Station of the Year at the Sonys in 2012. I was not there, which is the significant part. I celebrated their win anyway.

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C&H166I hope you enjoyed that visual celebration of not knowing what to do with myself for 25 years. (My home life has been, it must be said, a whole lot less chaotic.) Let’s get on with the 26th and make it so boringly focussed, there’ll be nothing to illustrate it with bar a selfie of me at my laptop.

Happy New Year!

2013: Writer’s blog

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Behold, a year in “selfies”, although taken with my laptop not my phone, and holding a variety of mugs in a variety of places, including my old bedroom at my Mum and Dad’s house, a dressing room at the Roundhouse, a dressing room in a car park in Glasgow and a hotel lounge in Cheltenham. Having this week parodied my gender once again and organised 2013 into a series of lists, how about a more considered review of the year? This time last December, I will have been glancing over my shoulder and bemoaning the loss of Word magazine. A year and half on from its demise, I can state that nothing has replaced it. What I can’t have known last Christmas is that I would stop being asked to deputise on 6 Music in 2013 and have thus spoken nary a word on the radio all year, apart from a couple of appearances on Front Row (for which I remain grateful). Maybe this is for the greater good. If I didn’t read out my weekly TV review in a little rectangle on the Guardian website, I would be a writer and a writer only. There’s something appealing to me about that, after more than 25 years of dabbling and failing to commit. Signing with Avalon in March 2012 helped to focus me on what I really want to do with my life: write scripts. (And edit other people’s.)

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I think I’m right in saying that a year ago I had two comedy pilot scripts in development. One of those, Total Class for Channel 4, has since fallen by the wayside (I may as well name it now it’s dead). The other, for the BBC, has enjoyed a belated surge of energy with a top-level cast assembled around it with a view to a read-through for the broadcaster in the New Year. Fingers crossed for that. (The surviving script was commissioned at the same time as Total Class, but I’ve been working really hard on rewriting it from scratch.) In addition, I now have another sitcom in development, of which more presently, but which began life in February over a desk in the offices of production company The Comedy Unit in Glasgow when I was up to cameo in series one of Badults (which they produce and which I script edit). Below is a snapshot of Tom, Ben and Matthew aka Pappy’s, exec Gavin, me and producer Izzy at an early London session for series two of Badults, which is pretty much ready to shoot in early 2014. A very happy association for me. (Although I did the work in 2012, the first episode of Greg Davies’ Man Down for C4 also afforded me a script editor’s credit, which I was proud of when it went out. I also thought of the title.)

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It’s been fantastic working on Badults (and appearing as “Andrew Collins” in series one, episode six) as it fulfills my desire to hang around with talented comedians – something I’ve always done – while essentially restricted to the backroom, which is where I feel most comfortable at my age. Anyway, fingers also crossed for what I’m calling “the Scottish sitcom”. The script now rests in the inbox of its commissioning editor – again, after rewrites; again, with a big name actor attached – and we await the thumb up or thumb down. It was ever thus, and will forever be. One can just about subsist “in development” but it’s a commission one dreams of.

To lose Word and 6 Music in less than two years has had quite an impact on my income at a time when money is an issue for all but the privately wealthy. (It was an eye-opener to discover this year that Virgin were more than happy to print an updated edition of my Billy Bragg book but did not have the funds to pay the author to actually write the new chapter.) There can’t be a soul reading this who isn’t affected by the continuing economic woes of austerity Britain. I can say without a doubt that I have never hated a sitting government as much as I hate David Cameron’s. It’s almost bracing.

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When Thatcher died this year, I refrained from actually slipping on my dancing shoes, but it was sobering to remember a) how single minded and driven she was, and b) how fundamentally her free-market zeal changed this country. In Thatcherism’s place (she’d never have privatised the Royal Mail, remember), we have something potentially more terrifying: a bunch of self-serving, privately-educated, out-of-touch hereditary hoorays whose hatred of the poor and the weak and the old outstrips Thatcher’s. I don’t remember an issue that has made me so regularly angry as the dismantling of the welfare state, which continues apace and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are at the mercy of a political class with no empathy and barely any experience of ordinary life as it is lived by millions.

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I do not wish to live in a country where food banks have to exist. Poisonous Tories like Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey seem not just happy with the situation, they clearly think it’s the poor’s fault for having to swallow their pride and use food banks. There but for the grace of God, or circumstance, go any of us.

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The papers were full of ever more shocking headlines about celebrities and their alleged sexual misconduct (or in the case of Stuart Hall, no longer just alleged, as he pleaded guilty in April to the indecent assault of 13 girls aged between 9 and 17 years old, between 1967 and 1986). As with the Catholic priests before them, it seems all to have been about male power with these DJs, presenters and musicians. The crimes of Ian Watkins of Lostprophets struck a new low in November. If any good has come of all this, it’s the possibility that other victims will no longer remain silent.

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More perversion, but of the course of justice. As a Guardian reader not a contributor, I hereby protest the newspaper’s willing part in the rehabilitation of the sleazy liar Chris Huhne, whose columns it regularly and prominently prints, crediting him as a former cabinet minister and not as a convicted criminal.

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I didn’t get out as much as I might have liked this year. When one is watching the pennies, staying in and watching all that amazing telly that’s on seems a far wiser option. Holidays are for another epoch. However, the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A was a treat. So was a foreshortened trip to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, despite the rain. David Morrissey and Esther Freud’s evening for the charity Reprieve was the poshest thing I attended all year. The Edinburgh TV Festival was as reliable as ever: enjoyed seeing Kevin Spacey and Vince Gilligan live, and hosting Q&As with the Wrong Mans gang, Greg Davies and John Bishop, as well as catching Sarah Millican and Richard Herring’s latest shows. And to repeat the Wrong Mans experience at Bafta in London, this time with James Corden in attendance, was a cherry on a cake (splendid to meet Nick Moran, too). Professionally, it was a pleasure to interview Steve Coogan, Irvine Welsh, Judd Apatow and the World’s End triumverate for Radio Times.

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While we’re in the approximate area of my profession, can I retroactively plant a tree to commemorate finally getting Simon Day’s character Colin on the actual telly? Common Ground was Baby Cow’s compendium for comic characters and Simon and I were chuffed to see Colin come to life, finally, even for ten minutes on Sky Atlantic, having previously written a 90-minute film about him for C4 and had it scrapped by an incoming exec back in 2006. (I wonder where I developed this thick skin?) I even had a cameo as a man walking past a bench, pictured above.

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As a writer I’ve been too busy for most of this year to blog as regularly as I used to. (I never even reviewed the Morrissey book or the end of Breaking Bad or Gravity.) But starting a new blog, Circles Of Life: The 143, was a tonic – and a healthy corrective to any ideas above my station I might have harboured: I may be “followed” by thousands on Twitter, but a mere hundred or so are interested enough to read my essays on the 143 best songs of all time. It really does feel like an exclusive little music-appreciation society, and I intend to plough on in 2014. I welcome your patronage.

I hate to sum a year up by saying it presented something of a holding pattern, but it did. Lots of groundwork was laid for potential growth in 2014. I’m grateful that circumstance has helped focus my ambition. And I’m grateful not to have had to use a food bank, or have my benefits slashed. All work is precarious, whether you’re in employment or self-employed. Telly Addict could go at any moment. Radio Times could do some sums and discover that it doesn’t need a Film Editor. The Scottish sitcom could be rejected, with compliments. But you must have faith.

They may not be in it at all, but we really are in it together.

And I was very pleased with my home baking, including the controversial grape muffins. Let us eat cake.

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Books 2013: coming up for air

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Ah, I can hear myself now, repeating exactly what I said last year. I haven’t read nearly enough books this year. And once again I blame – if “blame” is the apposite word – The New Yorker. On a weekly basis it floods my time with words that cry out to be read and processed, and I succumb. Sorry, books! That said, even though it’s not enough to even make a Top 10, I am delighted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of the following eight books, which at least cover a certain amount of ground and six of which were published in 2013. (Montague Terrace is a compilation of the Pleece Brothers’ sublime comic strips.)

Tracey Thorn Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago)
Morrissey Autobiography (Penguin)
Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson Going South (Palgrave/Macmillam)
Joe Moran Armchair Nation (Profile)
George Orwell Coming Up For Air (Penguin)
Gary and Warren Pleece Montague Terrace (Escape)
Mark Kermode Hatchet Job (Picador)
Christina Kallas (ed.) Inside The Writers’ Room (Palgrave/Macmillan)

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I guess there’s a theme. Three of the new books were sent to me by publishers at the behest of their authors. In Mark Kermode’s case, he actually asked me for my thoughts on Hatchet Job at the proof stage and thanked me in the acknowledgments. I also provided a quote for Inside The Writers’ Room, which I believe was used for publicity, although I saw no publicity for it. (It’s a great book for TV writers, or aspirant TV writers.) I paid for Morrissey’s book and indeed went out and bought it from a shop on the day of publication, which is something worth marking in any year. I also bought Elliot and Atkinson’s readable if scattershot vision of economic apocalypse.

Perhaps the square peg is George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, first published in 1939. (Hey, it and Montague Terrace are the only fiction titles in my tiny list.) I had a meeting with the head of development at a major UK production company in April who recommended it to me. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I mentioned it on Twitter and none other than comedy critic Bruce Dessau offered me his secondhand copy. I remain grateful to both parties, as I really did enjoy it.

Oh, and not in the list but pictured above as this is a review of the year in books: the brand new 2013 edition of Still Suitable For Miners (Virgin) gets a mention as it was the first book I ever wrote, way back in 1997, and remains close to my heart. Not only that, it means I get to spend some quality time with Billy Bragg every three or four years, which I did at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. I love the new cover artwork, too. Publishers are not falling over themselves to publish a book by me, so I take comfort from the fact that, in the past, one of them let me write a book about Billy Bragg, and that they continue to let me update it.

No point in resolving in 2014 to read more books. Not while The New Yorker continues to publish weekly.

So here it is

TA133Not quite a Christmassy Telly Addict, but it’s the last one I’m doing before Christmas, so it’s the closest we’ll get, and I have reviewed the seasonal end of Louie on Fox, and C4’s Superscrimpers Christmas! Also, the superb Lucan on ITV, The British Comedy Awards on C4, and some more Gogglebox on C4. I’m almost worn out, and looking forward to watching loads of television over the next two weeks and not having to think about which clips to use and what pithy judgements to make.

A Telly Addict round up of 2013 will be up on December 30, I believe. Have a good one.

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TA132I had already written and shot this week’s Telly Addict (the penultimate for 2013) when I belatedly discovered that Ripper Street has been cancelled by BBC1. This is cruel news, and adds an unwished-for layer of irony to my tribute to it as “the best UK continuing drama”. Elsewhere, Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World on C4; Liberty Of London on C4; 28 Up South Africa on ITV (a timely piece of scheduling, as it turns out); Robbie Williams: One Night At The Palladium on BBC1; and a bit of Gogglebox, despite the fact that a certain degree of its shine has come off due to an incident this week.