Writer’s blog: Monday

This seems like the only way to get me scriptwriting: prosewriting. Or diarywriting. The last time I wrote a daily blog, or diary, was for five consecutive weekdays in March 2011. It was a social experiment, really, as I have neither the time nor the inclination to write at a prescribed frequency – in any case, that would take the fun out of it. I blog when time and inclination align, which is not every day, and is sometimes only once a week.

I’m giving it another crack this week because I’m hoping it will get my scriptwriting juices flowing. I can’t reveal anything about either script I am currently writing, as I fear the jinx, and anyway, it would be unprofessional.

Day One

Last week I believed the hype and stayed away from London, even though I live in London. This was Boris Johnson’s doing. He personally ordered all Londoners to avoid London during the Olympics, and at the nadir of this Soviet-style propaganda campaign, his comedic voice could actually be heard coming out of the public address system of stations on the London underground and overground networks, warning us not to travel during the Games.

So, for the whole of last week, I worked from coffee establishments near to my home. And went home for my lunch. It was OK. I got a lot of writing done for future editions of Radio Times, which was more urgent than either script, so that was fine. The Guardian decided to wait until Wednesday before informing me that they were giving me two weeks off Telly Addict, by which time I’d already spent a couple of hours selecting clips for what would have been Friday’s. Luckily, I hadn’t started the script. If I’m honest, it’s a relief to get two weeks off, having done Telly Addict every week of my life, except one, since April 2011. (Usual self-employed turbine: don’t work, don’t get paid, don’t eat.)

I kept reading in the papers that Central London had in fact become a “ghost town”. So, having failed to write anything meaningful on Thursday or Friday, I decided to get back to normal, brave public transport, and do a week at my “office”, the British Library, which is where I am now. (The Library Tweeted last week that it was awfully quiet here. And it is quieter than usual. But not empty. And anyway, it’s a library, it’s supposed to be quiet, even when it’s full to the seams.) I’m glad to be here.

For the record, these are the songs that soundtracked my commute in.

LL COOL J Pink Cookies
BINARY The Prisoner
THE BEASTIE BOYS Rhyme The Rhyme Well
BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB Shuffle (partial: arrived at Library mid-song)

Not sure how interesting that is, but Samuel Pepys only wrote about going out for dinner and then going to bed and he’s the most famous diarist in the world.

Anyway, boring day ahead – for you – as I will be sat here, in reading room Humanities 1, with a break for my packed lunch, all day. Will check back in later. And you’re not allowed to take photos in the reading rooms of the British Library so I used one of me sitting in another building that’s strip-lit.

Progress report: some words written. In an attempt to psychologically kickstart my script, I decided to scrap what I’d written so far, even though I liked it, and even though I’ve been honing the first scene, because I suspect that “honing” has been a displacement activity, which was preventing me from “writing the next scene” (apologies for the writer’s jargon). Anyway, since starting again, I have reached scene three. This can’t be interesting, but there it is. I’m way too close to it to know whether the new scenes are funny enough in terms of comedy or efficient enough in terms of story yet. That’s why I’m having a break to eat my packed lunch in the cafeteria, where, unlike the vast reading rooms, there is noise, even during the so-called “quiet” fortnight of the Olympics. (One thing I love about the British Library, which I also love about London generally, is that you are always in the middle of a maelstrom of different accents and languages. I would miss this if I lived in the middle of nowhere, as I am sometimes romantically drawn to dreaming about.)

I have not been able to access Twitter for most of the day, which has been a blessing. And I have not checked any news feeds, so I have no idea if medals have been won or not. I learned before Twitter went down that Louise Mensch has resigned in order to spend more time with her family in New York and that the Americans have put a robot on Mars. (Maybe Twitter didn’t go down*; the British Library wi-fi has been playing me up all day, too, which has at least provided a bit of friction for my creative mind.)

*Twitter clearly didn’t go down. God bless the BL wi-fi. It helped immeasurably.

Packed lunch: homemade chilli, naturally. Pretty good, if I may say so. The addition of garam masala to my trademark coriander seeds/cumin/mustard seeds/fennel seeds mix made it interesting. I shall be eating this again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, so won’t mention it again.

I am avoiding the rush hour on a train. Loads of extra Olympics-looking people, lots of families, which is nice, and people genuinely caped in Union flags, which is astonishing, but not enough of them to prevent me from going about my business. (Enough to prevent me from walking up escalators by standing on the left, but it is ever thus in a city full of visitors.)

I have decided to avoid Olympics coverage for the early part of the evening by going to see a new Hong Kong film called A Simple Life at the cinema. I think the Olympic flame will stay lit without me fanning it. For the record, I was in the next room when Saturday’s historic Team GB victories were achieved, so I heard it, as it happened, and was very pleased for everybody involved and I appreciate what it means for sport and for the national mood, but I am not hooked by the Olympics. I actually find it all a bit overwhelming; so many events, so many heats, so many teams, so many interviews with puffed-out athletes after winning or not winning, so much cheering.

I saw the start of the marathon yesterday morning, and heard a commentator say that perhaps the crowds who’d so valiantly and noisily lined the rain-lashed streets of Central London should hold back on the cheering a bit, as they still had another two and a half hours to go. I Iiked the patrician practicality of his advice, but I suspect they did not heed it. These games started with cheering, and they will end with cheering, and inbetween there will have been cheering. It is impossible to be cynical about it. The sport and the people have roundly beaten the sponsors and the politicians, and that’s a result I can get behind. From the next room.

A Simple Life was a lovely film; moving and very sad. Ready-garlanded with awards – particularly in China and Hong Kong, but also honoured at Venice – I won’t go into too much detail about its plot. Based on the experiences of one of its producers, and directed by Ann Hui (whose past work I do not know), it’s basically about a movie producer (Andy Lau) whose family servant (Deanie Ip) needs looking after in her autumn years, which he selflessly sets out to do. Perhaps too long at two hours, it was nonetheless gentle and occasionally funny amid the sadness, and showed a slice of modern Hong Kong life. And, like so many films from China and Hong Kong, it was full of food and eating.


Archive fun: Bilko

Because I am currently suffering a quite debilitating bout of writer’s block – or is it writers’ block, as we all get it? – specifically, unable to write a decent page of script when I am currently trying to write a decent script, I find myself scanning my own written archive. Displacement activity, chiefly, although when the words won’t come, it’s useful to remind oneself that words did come. I woke up this morning, this morning being Monday, the first working day of the working week, in a bit of a panic, and once I opened my laptop, instead of opening the document I’m supposed to be writing, and writing in it, I idled around my blog archive. I read, in full, the piece I wrote about Quentin Letts and squirrels in July 2010, and thought it was pretty well written. You can still read it. (And in fact, some of you are, as it’s always somewhere in the Top 20 of most read blog posts, which is why I happened upon it this morning.)

It’s not going to help me write a script, as it isn’t in script form, but it at least reassures me at a sensitive, self-conscious time, that I can, if the stars are correctly aligned, string a sentence together. The killing joke is: nobody commissioned me to write about Quentin Letts, and I was not paid for writing it. You can’t make a living writing for nothing. But writing for nothing can set you free as a writer. Maybe I should imagine that the script I am writing, or not writing, is actually for this blog and that it doesn’t matter what it’s like. Maybe it’ll get written that way. (That said, a deadline is a surefire muse. Unfortunately, the script I am writing, or not writing, does not have a distinct deadline. The sooner I write and deliver it, though, the better.)

Anyway, before I do something useful towards my professional goal, having already written some words this morning – ie. that preamble – I was contacted by a man called Steve Everitt on Twitter last night asking me if I had the “clout” to get the BBC to show Bilko. (Steve really likes Bilko, only one season of which is even available on DVD, apparently. He is co-founder, writer and researcher at The British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society, launched in 1985 “with Mr Silvers’ full blessing” – it’s here.) I don’t have any such clout, sadly. But the brief Twitter exchange reminded me how much I used to love Bilko as a kid. I loved the characters, and without really knowing much about it, I guess I must have loved the scripts, without which my favourite characters would have been mute.

I felt sure I had written something about Bilko at one point, so I searched my entire writing archive, which goes all the way back to 1996 (anything to not have to write that script, or to not have to not be able to write that script), and I found this short, 650-word column.

It was written for Front Row on Radio 4 in September 2005, which means I will have read it out in a studio at Broadcasting House, and it will have been transmitted on Radio 4. I reprint it here, because otherwise, it will not exist outside of my swollen archive. I might reprint a few other things here, too. Why the hell not? Get them out there. This “column”, as they’re quaintly called in radio, is not a classic piece of writing, but it’s succinct, and, hey, it’s about great scriptwriting. So it might help.

BILKO by Andrew Collins

The first TV programme I ever saw in colour was the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat. For an eight-year-old, it was a near-hallucinogenic experience. Top Cat himself was yellow. Benny was blue. Choo Choo was pink! What a brave new world these cats represented.

But the move to colour was only partial. Many shows in the early 70s – made before the VHF-to-UHF revolution – remained black and white. One of them was the grown-up live-action sitcom The Phil Silvers Show, upon which Top Cat was unofficially modelled, and which nobody called The Phil Silvers Show, not even Phil Silvers. Bilko is what they called it.

The joy of growing up in that era is that in television terms there was no apartheid between black-and-white and colour. I didn’t care whether programmes were old or new, imported or homegrown. I only cared whether I liked them or not. Bilko was already about 15 years old when I first saw it, its 140-or-so episodes having been made between 1955 and 1959. I didn’t care. I liked them. I liked them, aged 8, because they were funny.

I like them today, aged 40, because they represent a golden age of US sitcom when the great stars of burlesque and vaudeville still dominated with their fast patter and their schtick, and when writers were all schooled in radio, where dialogue was king and, as the stage stars’ material was eaten up by the voracious new medium, they had to supply new stuff by the yard, making for a dynamic combination of comic timing and finely tuned scripts. I also like them because they’re funny.

Master Sergeant Ernie G Bilko, skiving leader of the motor-pool platoon at Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas, is not just one of the greatest creations of TV comedy, he’s one of the greatest creations of TV. All bluff and bluster, c’mon-c’mon and hut-hut-hut, his one aim in life is to skew the graph between income and effort – despite the show being originally called You’ll Never Get Rich. He disproves this mainly by playing poker; gambling on, say, how many times a visiting lecturer will twitch during a lecture; and conning people, using not just sleight of hand but sleight of personality.

While the great characters of British sitcom – Hancock, Mainwaring, Steptoe, Fawlty, Trotter, Brent – are losers or at best middle managers, Bilko is a winner. He is the confidence of the “no second class citizens” Eisenhower era on legs. In the course of a typical episode, he starts in the middle, aims for the top, falls to the bottom, then claws his way back to just above the middle. Like his doppelganger Top Cat, [sings] he’s the indisputable leader of the gang – he’s the boss, he’s the VIP, he’s a championship – anyway …

Bilko would, of course, be nothing without two men. Phil Silvers, whose charismatic, spin-bowling performance is the engine of the show. You may have your favourite supporting characters – Doberman, Paparrelli, even Colonel Hall – but they’re just cogs without the lubricant applied by creator Nat Hiken, who wrote or co-wrote the first 71 episodes before bailing out, knackered. They say his scripts were twice as long as the average sitcom, so fast was the delivery. His command of multiple storylines makes him the father of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The highest compliment to Bilko came in 1956, when the Pentagon stepped in and forced CBS to alter the “fruit salad” of medals on Bilko’s conniving breast. They urged the removal of two Purple Hearts and three World War 2 Victory ribbons.

But even stripped of his gongs, beaten to 32nd place in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest TV Characters by Miss Piggy, and criminally unavailable here on DVD, he’s the chief, he’s the king, but above everything, he’s the most tip top, top cat.