2013: Writer’s blog

BlogWk4Mon21Jan BlogWk6WedFeb6caravan BlogWk10TuesRoundhouse BlogApril26N BlogMay30 BlogWk26Friday Photo on 2013-10-03 at 10.23 #2 Photo on 2013-10-13 at 09.15 BlogTues17Deccapsule

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.)

Pappy'sdoor

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.

Thatchercovers

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.

Chris-Huhne

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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Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

TV 2013: The returning

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I doubt I’ve ever watched as much TV as I did in 2013. Self-evidently, it’s because I’ve been reviewing TV throughout the year, again, thanks to the Guardian’s continued patronage of Telly Addict, which has now reached its 134th edition. There’s a special review of the year up now, although, in the heat of trying to put together a definitive list, I forgot to mention The Returned, which is something of an omission. I’ll provide a Top 10 here, as it’s easy enough to siphon out the highest echelon from another quality-packed year. But after that, they’re in no order. All entries here are, in my fallible opinion, what the piece of furniture in the corner was made for.

1. Utopia, C4*
2. Breaking Bad, Netflix
3. Ripper Street, BBC1
4. The Returned, C4
5. Louie, Fox
6. Parks & Recreation, BBC4
7. Gogglebox, C4
8. Fresh Meat, C4
9. Game Of Thrones, Sky Atlantic
10. Broadchurch, ITV

Friday Night Lights, Sky Atlantic
The Walking Dead, Fox
Sound Of Cinema, BBC4
The Fall, BBC2
Love/Hate, C5
Y Gwyll, S4C

The Job Lot, ITV
In The Flesh, BBC3
The Village, BBC1
Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic
Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, Comedy Central
The Wrong Mans, BBC2
Bates Motel, Universal
Hannibal, Sky Living
The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic
Boss, More4
The Good Wife, More4
Nashville, More4
Fried Chicken Shop, C4
The Route Masters, BBC2
David Bowie: Five Years, BBC2
Family Tree, BBC2
The Great British Bake Off, BBC2
Southcliffe, C4
Dates, C4
Mad Men, Sky Atlantic
It’s Kevin, BBC2
London Irish, C4
Oliver Stone’s Untold History Of The United States, Sky Atlantic
The United States Of Television, BBC2
Suits, Dave
Veep, Sky Atlantic

I feel certain I’ll have missed essential titles off this already fairly swollen list, so let me know if I have.

*Having named Utopia as my TV show of the year, it would be rude of me not to provide a link to it at the Channel 4 Store website, as Channel 4 DVD were kind enough to send me a copy just before Christmas when I merely asked them, via Twitter, where I might buy a physical copy at short notice (having failed to find one in my local HMV). For that, they deserve a link. It was re-watching the whole thing between Christmas and New Year that just edged it past Ripper Street in my final list. It was close run.

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)

InsideWritersRoomcoming-up-for-airbilly-bragg-still-suitable-for-miners2013

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.

Music 2013: Where are we now?

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVArcade-Fire-ReflektorArctic-Monkeys-AMKOD-12JimBobWhatIThinkAboutChrisTTTheBearbilly-bragg-tooth-nailJon-Hopkins-Immunitymusic-david-bowie-the-next-day-album-cover

Ah, music. A whole calendar year without once stepping in front of the mic at 6 Music has seriously affected the equilibrium of my musical clearing house. Though I seem to have been jettisoned by the network, my DJ’s pigeonhole was not sealed up, so some new music still got through, thanks to an assortment of kindly pluggers and expectant artists and managers, all of whom were sending me records in good faith that I might play them on the radio. This was not to be. (My only success in this regard was composing a piece celebrating 80s indie for Front Row on Radio 4, which allowed me to play short bursts of classics like Candy Skin by the Fire Engines and Don’t Come Back by the Marine Girls on national radio, not to mention plug Cherry Red’s historic Scared To Get Happy compilation.) Still, it means I have heard some new music in 2013, although not much. As I have discovered to music’s cost, there’s nothing like having a radio show to focus, organise and refresh your musical tastes. (I still miss the good influence of Josie Long and it’s been two years now!)

My exile from 6 Music has nonetheless pushed me back into the real world, where albums must be purchased. This really concentrates the mind. It makes your purchases more conservative. You buy records by artists you already like – Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, a resurgent David Bowie – although I’d lately lost my faith in Arctic Monkeys and hadn’t even sought out their new album AM for old times’ sake, but then I saw them storm it on Later and I put my money on the counter. So that’s how it works. I won’t order my Top 10 albums, as in earning a place here, they are all winners. I am on friendly terms with three of these artists. Luckily, they have all made records I like this year.

My Bloody Valentine m b v (m b v)
David Bowie The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
Arcade Fire Reflektor (Sonovox)
Jon Hopkins Immunity (Domino)
Various Artists Scared To Get Happy (Cherry Red)
Kitchens Of Distinction Folly (3Loop)
Billy Bragg Tooth & Nail (Bragg Central)
Jim Bob What I Think About When I Think About You (The Ten Forty Sound)
Chris T-T and The Hoodrats The Bear (Xtra Mile)
Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)

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I accept that the modern music scene is based on tracks, but I shall continue to call them songs, as I pretty much hate the modern world. A few songs have filtered through and found purchase and these are them.

Rob St John and the Coven Choir Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey/Shallow Brown (Song By Toad)
Steve Mason Fight Them Back (Double Six)*
Cud Louise
Daft Punk Get Lucky (Daft Life/Columbia)
Cloud Boat Wanderlust (Apollo)
This Many Boyfriends Tina Weymouth (Angular)
Low Plastic Cup (Sub Pop)*
The Wonder Stuff Get Up! (IRL)**

*These singles both came out at the very end of 2012, but I didn’t hear either until 2013, and I think they were on albums released in 2013, so fuck off.
**I think this one did, as well.