This is not a review of the year. It’s a review of my year. And a partial one, as I’ve run out of time and if I don’t post it now, it’s going to look pretty daft. So how was it for you? Here’s how it was for me. It’s almost done now, and what do I have to show for it? Well, a scar on my left knee. Early on in 2010, I tripped and fell at the top of the escalator that travels up from the Jubilee Line to the National Rail link at Waterloo, in London. I was wearing some new trainers whose laces were too long, and one of them got caught in the moving stairs as I was about to step off. This is the first time this has even happened to me, in a lifetime of travelling on escalators, and 26 years of using the public transport system in London on an almost daily basis. I tripped and fell flat on the floor. I picked myself up immediately to assure fellow travellers that I was not injured, dusted myself down, picked up my bag and kept walking. Although I’d fallen on my knees, my trousers were not ripped. This was a result. (A few years ago, I fell down some stairs at an overground station in South London and tore holes in both knees of a pair of trousers I really liked, something that made me self-conscious all day at 6 Music – I felt like Just William.)
However, closer inspection when I got home revealed a lot of blood and pretty big tear in my left knee – not the trouser, the knee. It healed quickly enough, but I didn’t get the Arnika on it quickly or regularly enough in those crucial first days and I’ve been left with a meaningful scar which I might not have been. This scar, just a short curve of angry red on my knee, might just sum up my 2010.
Firstly, to quote the title of William Leith’s 2008 book, bits of me are falling apart. Although the knee scar is a self-inflicted injury, I have reached an age where physical decline begins in earnest – the noises when you sit down and get up, the heartburn, the spiraling inability to drink heavily and do anything the next day – and all attempts at healthy living and preventative medication are launched on a sloping playing field. I have started running to stand still, in health terms, and by that I don’t mean I have started running. Better get used to it, I suppose. That and the fact that – apparently – people you know start dying when you’re in your forties. This is not as advertised. I kind of assumed that didn’t start until your sixties!
I haven’t started running, but I do plenty of walking – anyone who uses public transport does – and in fact, all that walking and observing and thinking and transport-using helped me create my first one-man comedy show for Edinburgh, Secret Dancing, a major achievement and milestone for me which, on its own terms, was a success. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the show, building it up around various unconnected ideas – unconnected ideas which in their very unconnectedness sum me up, for better or worse – and honing it in front of paying and unpaying audiences in London, Brighton, Northampton, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Along the way, I admit, I harboured desires to become a stand-up comedian, and in this regard, I experienced some amazingly open-minded and unprejudiced support from those who actually have become stand-up comedians, and are stand-up comedians, as opposed to writers who cannot resist a dabble. As well as the obvious, Richard Herring, I was encouraged by Michael Legge, Phill Jupitus, Sarah Millican, Gary Delaney, Mat Ricardo, Jason Manford, Peter Buckley Hill, Martin White, stand-up musician Jim Bob and Robin Ince. This counted for a great deal.
I came away from Edinburgh feeling satisfied. Satisfied that I had been able to perform the same one-hour, one-man set daily for 16 consecutive days to full houses – to remember what order it all went in and to project it, clearly, once without a PA, due to a technical mishap. I also realised, through homesickness and all-round tiredness, that this was not an alternative career for me. To actually make a go of it takes more time and energy than I have at my disposal. To continue dabbling would, I felt, be an insult to those who really have paid their dues and continue to put in the hours of practice, development and self-improvement the job demands. I was offered a number of gigs in London when I got back from Scotland, and I politely declined them all, before even realising that I must retire. I can still see myself playing the fool onstage with Richard next year, and I retain the confidence to walk onstage in front of people and talk should I be required to do so, but it’s not something I wish to pursue any further.
It’s not often you get the luxury of making a big decision like that. So I will always look back on 2010 with fondness for that reason. I had a go. The last two years have been tough, workwise, constantly spinning the requisite plates (and two platters called Work and Life), and devoting all that time to meetings, pitching and proposing and “bouncing a few ideas around” on spec, and for no money whatsoever, in the hope of at some stage eliciting some development money or an actual, paid commission.
At the beginning of this year, I note, I was putting the finishing touches to the second draft of an ambitious comedy-drama I had in modest development with BWark, who make The Inbetweeners (and who thus had a very good year). That went to BBC Comedy and was rejected on the grounds that they had no hour-long slots. We duly took it to BBC Drama, who showed interest – showering me with praise, in fact – and then rejected it as they didn’t have the slot for it either. It now sits in limbo. That’s been a disappointing outcome. So was the fate of the sitcom I developed with another writer, which was again forged in the white heat of enthusiasm at an independent production company and was decisively turned down by BBC Comedy, this time because of the subject matter, which was out of fashion that week, after which the production company dropped it like a hot brick. (I was never paid a penny for all of the work that went into developing the proposal. Plumbers get a call-out charge. Writers do not.)
I am not moaning. It’s the game. If you can’t stand the rejection, you’re in the wrong job. I am lucky enough to be connected to an ongoing BBC sitcom, Not Going Out, whose fourth series begins on BBC1 in the first week of 2011. This, as you probably know, was cancelled, then reinstated, against all BBC orthodoxy. It returns in a later slot, on a less important day than Friday, and there are only six episodes, instead of the usual eight, but I was very grateful to be commissioned to write one of them, with Lee Mack – gagged up by a whole team of other writers, of course – and it’s called Debbie, or was.
Writing for a popular mainstream sitcom does open doors for a writer. I can “get a meeting”, as they say in LA, but meetings do not pay money. However, this was ultimately a good year: I finally got a commission for a sitcom I’ve been trying to get commissioned – literally – for over ten years. At the beginning of 2009, amid great hope, I had it in development with BBC Comedy, but, after nursing me through six drafts of a pilot script, they passed on it. Due to the tenacity of the production company, Avalon, it has now found a home at Radio 4 – Mr Blue Sky will be my first ever solo-written comedy, four episodes ordered up, and we start rehearsals in February. This has been the best news of 2010, professionally. (The worst was probably BBC2’s loaded decision to move The Persuasionists, the advertising-set sitcom on which I was script editor, to some godforsaken graveyard slot mid-run, to protect it from being seen by anyone. I was angered by the personal abuse Iain Lee, one of the stars, endured on Twitter, and impressed by Adam Buxton’s response to the show’s failure. All I can say, with my hand on my heart, is that when we were making it, and filming it, we all thought it was very funny. It just goes to show.)
My other source of professional joy has come from 6 Music, who, after a long period of estrangement, put me back on the subs’ bench last Christmas, and have been giving me work ever since. This was the year that the axe hovered over 6 Music, and a phenomenal groundswell of support saw that axe withdrawn. I can take no credit for any of this – it was the listener campaigns that saved 6 Music – but it has been a fabulous time to be connected to the network again. (The fact that, coincidentally, I was in the studio when Lauren Laverne read out the reprieve press release – I was there filling in for Grace Dent’s regular TV review slot, ever the deputy – was the most glittering prize.) Sometimes permanence can come from transience, as Richard and I discovered: asked to fill in for the missing Adam & Joe in February, we are still in “their” slot, almost a year later. We may not be contracted beyond the show we are actually presenting, but we feel like part of the furniture, and that, in its own way, helps pay back for all the free podcasts we’ve given away since February 2008.
I have, as I have made clear, mixed feelings about the way the podcast, or at least the semi-fictionalised relationship that drives it, has been evolving. Most of it is a joy, but regular listeners will have detected discomfort in some of my reactions to some of the extremes the Podcast Richard Herrin visits upon the Podcast Andrew Collings. This is kind of par for the course, I know, but controlled comedic abuse is one thing; when that spills over into the way I am regarded by our audience, it’s something else. Richard gets away with a lot, because our relationship is based on proximity and a three-dimensional dynamic; my skin is not yet tough enough to handle the occasional shot across the trenches, usually fired in anonymity. Richard is far better at processing comment than I – this is something I have learned this year. When Richard refers on the podcast to my “made-up charity”, it is funny because he knows that it gets under my skin and is a very bad thing to say about a registered charity, and he also knows it isn’t made up … but when someone on Twitter says it, my hackles are raised. I need to get over this! Can I really be that I am becoming more sensitive in my old age, and not less? Who predicted that?
I was wearing trainers with too-long laces on the escalator because they used to be my gym trainers and when I cancelled my gym membership as part of an economy drive I decided to put them into daily service and was wearing them on the Tube for the first time. Nothing is unconnected. We are in a recession and I’m sure I’m not alone in watching the pennies this year. None of us knows if our job is safe. I may be self-employed, but cuts are being felt everywhere, including TV budgets, and these cuts affect us all, unless we are investment bankers. It’s been a long time since I lived under a government I voted in, but the coalition have proved anything but the coalition advertised. They are a Tory government in all but name. Labour may have ushered in this financial mess – by, ironically, behaving like a Tory government – but Cameron and Osbourne seem to see it as a Shock Doctrine-style opportunity for social engineering and a Thatcherite Trojan Horse. Nick Clegg is powerless, it turns out. He will never again be voted for by Liberal Democrats. This is a bad outcome for him, and when he became a flammable effigy for protesting students, he must have wondered what the hell he’d done.
I have long held the view that the young generation are apathetic and apolitical. I was delighted to be proved wrong in 2010. I was a student in the 80s when we had means-tested grants and benefits and rent rebates. It was easier to be left-wing and angry with that feather bed beneath us. Today’s students already have it tougher than we did, but the tuition fees rise seems to have broken the camel’s back, or dragged the camel away from Loose Women and out onto the streets and into the refectory. Good. New Labour kicked the idealism and out of this nation, especially over Iraq (I certainly found mine ebbing away after the anti-war marches in 2003), and it’s taken a while to get that back. I welcome it. There will be more to come.
I hope you either had a tremendous 2010, or you have made a commitment to have a better 2011., or both. There really is no point in sitting around moping and counting the lines around your eyes. I’ve been working too hard, I guess, but only out of self-preservation, and with my magpie eyes on a greater prize, hopefully not too far down the road. I know this: if you live like a shark, when you stop moving, you start to feel vulnerable. As detailed elsewhere on this blog, it’s been a vintage year for intellectually stimulating foreign movies – and some English speaking ones – and my laptop has held out for another 12 months, and Tony Blair had to cancel some of his self-aggrandising mini-Nurembergs when his book came out. Some of my tooth fell out, but hey, that put a stop to the Double Deckers I had drifted, imperceptibly, into eating on a regular basis, as if reverting to childhood. Always a good time to cut back on the white flour and the sugar and the alcohol, a New Year. Because I’ve been writing back-up gags most weeks for the inspiringly quick-witted and fleet-minded Chris Addision on Five Live’s Seven Day Sunday – and occasionally appearing on it as a guest, when someone has dropped out at the last mnute (I’m not proud; my career would fold if I started worrying about being second or third choice!) – a weekly commitment which continues in the New Year, I have probably read more newspapers in 2010 than in any previous years. I sort of hate them all, even the Guardian some days, but I don’t want them to close down. An exclusively wired world would be a cold and lonely one indeed. I demand tactility!
I wish Word hadn’t stopped my column. I wish I’d liked The Walking Dead a bit more. I wish I didn’t hate and love Twitter at the same time. I wish I’d looked after me teeth. I wish I didn’t care what anybody thought of me. I wish cream didn’t make me sneeze. I wish I liked modern music a bit more. I wish I was as energised by socialism as I used to be, and did more for the environment, and liked the way I looked more, but come on, there are people living without fresh water in Belfast. Spare a thought for them.
Tomorrow is another year.