Writer’s blog: Week 26, Saturday

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It’s been a while since I squeezed one of these in, but it seems opportune. I’m in Northampton for a couple of days at my folks’, but still working, still writing, still pitching. It’s Saturday. The photo above is misleading, for I am not in Glastonbury, nor wearing a fisherman’s hat. I really like this atmospheric shot; it was taken of me at dusk, along the main commercial thoroughfare to the Pyramid Stage by my brother-in-law Paul at Glastonbury 2009, which was my designated “mid-life crisis Glastonbury”. (You can read about it in excruciating detail here.) I loved every second of it. But I haven’t been since, and it’s conceivable that I’ll never go again, mainly because 2009 was so perfect in every way.

I’ve been thinking about it as I watch – or fast forward through – the Glastonbury 2013 coverage I’ve taped. (Hey, I have no interest in the Vaccines, or Rita Ora, or the latest wide-eyed BBC3 presenters being run in*, and I was ready for bed at 10.30 last night in any case.) I hadn’t been since 1995 when I went in 2009 so it was a special occasion, and uniquely family-oriented, in that I was convinced to go by my brother-in-law.

Though I am not at Glastonbury this year, due to media and social media saturation, I am acutely aware that the festival is ongoing, as I type. I do not wish I was there, in actuality, but I do sort of miss it somewhere in my bones. It’s somewhere you can go and get away with a hat, for a start. I hope everyone who is there is having an epic time. For fun, here’s a photo of me taken at Glastonbury 1990, my second ever Glastonbury, which was a filthy one, and the inaugural year of the festival’s dedicated Comedy Tent, where I spent the bulk of the long weekend. I loved that, too, although it had been too wet to realistically pitch our tent on arrival, so we slept in the car. I think I’m too old for that shit now.

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It’s refreshing to get away from the fabled “hustle and bustle” of London – as I am doing by hopping it to the parental pile in Northampton – although I watched an episode of the BBC2 series The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads on Wednesday, which was all about life on London’s night buses and ought to have been enough to put anyone off moving to the capital, but, oddly, made me miss the place, and glad that I live there.

I’ve been resident of London for 29 years (minus the three where I moved out to Reigate by mistake), and although as you get older you’re inexorably drawn to a less stressful environment, I do find it hard to imagine living away from the smoke. And The Route Masters was a deftly captured – and slyly cast – snapshot of what makes the city simultaneously terrifying and joyful, with all sorts using the nocturnal bus service, which, since the relaxation of the licensing laws, really is an all-night proposition. I loved the Muslim driver Zajad, born and bred in London, who recounted being told by a fire-and-brimstone passenger that they were all going to hell: “I told him, we’re not going to hell, we’re going to Ilford.” Priceless.

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When I lived in Streatham, in South West London – must have been late 90s – I was on the top deck of a bus, coming home late at night, and a stupid verbal misunderstanding between two male passengers led to one of them drawing a knife on the other. The man on whom the knife was drawn looked shocked and disappointed that it had come to this, and did not raise the aggression levels. It seemed a possibly idle threat, but when a young man is standing up pointing a knife at someone else, you tense up. Someone ran down the stairs and informed the driver, and he stopped the bus – handily, right outside a police station. Officers boarded the bus and escorted the knifeman off, with his large but friendly looking dog, as it happened. It was one of those ugly moments you experience in cities.

I watched half of Eye Spy on Thursday night on C4, the “moral dilemma” hidden-camera show “narrated by” Stephen Fry, although he makes an appearance too, as if to bind the format to him when frankly, he’s effectively just the voiceover artist, it’s not “his” programme. In it, situations are created that test the moral fibre of members of the public – £30,000 in cash left in a phone box, an actor playing a racist waiter in a small restaurant, a boy in a wheelchair at the bottom of some steps – and instead of these stunts being played out for our vicarious pleasure (except they are), they’re framed as a social experiment.

EyeSpy

In brief, you get to see how much citizens of this country use the phrase, “What the fuck?”, which is an awful lot. I question the social efficacy of the format, but it did monitor how much racist abuse from a waiter diners will put up with, and you couldn’t help but feel proud of the Londoner who was first to stand up to the actor playing the racist waiter. (They did the same “test” in a restaurant in Manchester and not a single diner said a word. This is not conclusive proof that people in Manchester will put up with more racism than those in London, as it is not proof of anything.)

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So, what have I been doing? Gathering my thoughts for a “corporate” next week. I’m hosting a series of Q&As at an “away day” for a large international media company, where various TV shows are previewed and their producers questioned before a large audience of delegates. I enjoy doing these gigs, as it means I get to meet executives from TV; people who make telly. These are the people I hope to be working with, and the reason I spend a lot of my time working for free – out of necessity – on pitches. I’ve been working on one today. At least the corporates help pay for the days when I’m not being recompensed for my time.

Next week’s busy, as I’m also interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright about their new film The World’s End for Radio Times. The weird part of that is, I’ve only seen the first half of the film, as the second half isn’t going to be finished until the day after the interview! This can’t be helped, as my deadline is Wednesday. I really liked the first 45 minutes, by the way, but then I was bound to: it’s Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright! Sometimes you can take a confident flyer. I am also meeting a producer about another scriptwriting project on the Friday, which is more unpaid work, but vital, as such connections lead to other connections, and writers exist in a permanent, cosmic join-the-dots puzzle, hoping to make those connections.

On a more paid note: yesterday, I delivered the second draft of a pilot sitcom script that’s in development with – I think it’s safe to say this – the BBC. That is, I delivered it – eg. emailed it – to the execs at the production company who are paying me to write it, and who will deliver it to the BBC, whose commissioning editor is paying them to pay me to write it. We all hope we will get paid some more money in order to write a lot more of it, with a view to actually making it into actual telly. So fingers crossed that the BBC will like it. I’ve certainly put a lot of time and effort into it, and so have my producers with their copious notes, and I really like the made-up characters I’ve invented and put into it. I could imagine writing five more stories for them, at least.

It’s good to see one’s family. While at my Mum and Dad’s, I get to see my brother, who lives about 40 minutes away in a less towny place, and his family, and dogs, and I get to see my sister, who lives five minutes away, and her family, and guinea pig. They’re good, my family.

I walked to the Weston Favell Shopping Centre this afternoon, for some fresh air and exercise, and I found it particularly hostile to pedestrians. It’s not clear which way you have to walk to get into it – and I speak as someone who lived in or near Weston Favell for the first 19 years of my life, and remember the mall when it first went up and was called the “Supacentre”. But it’s set behind a car park, a petrol garage, and a drive-thru McDonald’s, all of which rather suggest you ought really to pull yourself together and be in a car.

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Ah! The official website gives directions only to people planning to “get here” by car or bus. There is no official pedestrian route to it. Well, there is, as I managed it somehow, but only by crossing lots of roads and going the long way round. (There’s a pretty scary looking “walkway” but this only works if you are walking from the direction of Standens Barn; I would have had to cross a road to get to it, which rather defeats the object.) When did Britain become America, and when did Northampton become LA?

Still, at least I’m not at Glastonbury!

JenLong*Incidentally, before I get back to work, I should add that I encountered, for the first time, a young presenter on BBC3’s Glastonbury coverage called Jen Long, whose energy and fluency and ability to hit her mark, in a field, were commendable. I thought she was great. I’ve looked her up and she’s on Radio 1 in the night, and she runs a fanzine, and she used to do Introducing on BBC Wales. I expect great things of her.

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Writer’s blog: Week 23, Thursday

Secrecy, pilots, filth, Clash songs, film maths and the Stone Roses …

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I spoke to my Dad on the telephone yesterday (with Mum in the background), and he said that they’d assumed I was busy as I hadn’t blogged much recently. It’s cool that they understand how this works. It’s a Thursday. I am still busy, attempting to panel-beat this latest pilot sitcom script into a recognisable shape, but I’ve just this moment sent off the latest draft of a remodelled story breakdown, from which to build the second draft of the script.

It’s weird; I read a Guardian blog yesterday by Caitlin Moran in which she talked us through the entire set-up of the pilot of her first, autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves, which is being developed by Big Talk and co-written with her sister. If you follow Richard Herring’s daily Warming Up blog, you’ll be well up to speed on the content and progress of his latest pilot, Ra-Ra Rasputin, too. The British Comedy Guide publish an exhaustive, constantly updated list of all the comedy pilots currently in development with the proviso, “most pilots are never seen”. There are about 80 at present. It makes depressing reading if you’re in the business of developing comedy with a view to it ever “being seen.”

It’s possible that I am alone in never revealing the details of projects I have in development, for fear of jinxing them. Am I simply superstitious? Or realistic? I was at a social gathering on Saturday night and the question, “What are you working on?” came up. I explained in basic terms what my sitcom was about to the person who asked me, with the same proviso, “It may never get made.” This is the business I work in. (When, in 2005, I “helped” Lee Mack develop Not Going Out – his phrase – we actually shot a non-broadcast pilot at Thames, with a studio audience and a fully functioning set, with no guarantee that the show would be commissioned to series. It was, so we re-cast, re-wrote and re-shot that episode.)

Anyway, if I mentioned the title of my sitcom, or the broadcaster, or production company who are funding its development, I guess it would be in the public domain and would go onto the demoralising British Comedy Guide list. On points, I’d rather keep it to myself. Needless to say, it’s a largely solitary process, with occasional bursts of feedback with actual other human beings, and by turns enjoyable and dispiriting. But you fight on. Because I am waiting for my two immediate managers to sign off on the new story, I am reluctant to forge on with the new script. So I’m writing a blog about not writing a sitcom instead.

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So, what other stuff have I been doing that’s not shrouded in superstitious secrecy? I saw the new Irvine Welsh film, Filth, last night, although it’s not out until October, so I’m not sure reviewing it would be the done thing. I don’t mind revealing that it features perhaps James McAvoy’s best performance in front of a camera, certainly one that’s vanity-free, as his character, the depraved Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson, descends into a private hell before our very eyes. Welsh was at the screening, and got up to introduce the film, by saying, “I hate these preambles … so why don’t we all just watch the fucking film?” (The director Jon Baird was also in attendance, and one of the stars, the mighty John Sessions.) I’m interviewing Welsh tomorrow, and looking forward to it.

While we’re on the subject of development, if you’re lucky, your pilot will move from the British Comedy Guide’s pilots list to its new comedy list, where shows “in production” are logged. (There are fewer shows in production than at pilot stage, although by their rules because the pilot of Raised By Wolves is being made, it counts as “in production”, which it sort of isn’t, strictly.) I am more cheered by this list as two shows I’ve script-edited are included: Badults, the six-ep Pappy’s sitcom which is shot and edited and ready to go on BBC3 in July, and the Greg Davies vehicle for C4, Man Down, whose pilot I script-edited and whose title I came up with – fame, autographs later etc.! (I may or may not be editing the series, we shall see, but I’d like to.) What I will say for Badults and BBC3 is that it was commissioned last August, while we were all in Edinburgh, and that’s a pretty rapid turnaround from script meeting to edit suite, so let’s all be grateful for that.

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I have become obsessed with Springwatch on BBC2 and, in particular, presenter Chris Packham’s now-traditional song titles game. In previous years he’s slipped in titles by the Smiths, the Manics and the Cure; this year, it turns out, it’s the Clash. I managed to pick up on five on Monday night, but, by contacting him via the miracle of Twitter, was able to establish with the man himself that there were nine! (That said, two of them were 48 Hours and Deny, which do not leap out of a link in the same way that Drug-Stabbing Time does.) I’m enjoying the rest of the content – birds in reedbeds, weasels raiding nests, sandhoppers under seaweed – but it’s the Clash songs that are keeping me on the edge of my seat.

I am keeping a watertight register of all the films I see this year, new and old. We are nearing the end of May and this is what the month looks like with a day to go:

The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Fast & Furious 6 | Justin Lin | US
The Eye Of The Storm | Fred Schepisi | Australia
I’m So Excited | Pedro Almodóvar | Spain
Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
Star Trek Into Darkness | JJ Abrams | US
Rockshow | Paul McCartney | US
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann | Australia/US
Miracle | Gavin O’Connor | US
The Hangover Part III | Todd Philips | US
Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Filth | Jon Baird | UK

That means 11 new films (some of which have yet to be released), and two old ones: coincidentally, the Wings concert film Rockshow, originally released in 1980 but shown at the Curzon; and Miracle, a 2004 Disney movie about the American ice hockey victory over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a politically charged event I learned about on an American National Geographic documentary about the 80s. Not a storming total, 13, compared to the 23 I saw in January and the 20 I saw in March, but should you care, that means I’ve seen 78 films this year so far. But never mind the quantity, feel the breadth! I’m all about variety and it’s usually the smaller, not necessarily English-speaking films that give the most sustenance. (Not a vintage month in this regard, May; in April I went to Russia, Denmark, Israel, Argentina and Ireland.) I wish I’d never seen The Hangover Part III, for instance; the experience subtracted from my total life experience.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films

When I was teenager, and first becoming obsessed with films, I started to log them in my diary. At this stage, it was mostly films I’d seen on telly, or on video, and so voracious was my appetite – fuelled by filmographies in assorted film books, like The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films, which I got for my 15th birthday, or David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, which I got for Christmas in 1981 – a film’s age did not matter. Bring on the films, old and new! Thus it is written that I saw a total of 83 films in 1980, the year my cinephilia almost eclipsed my love of punk rock. My final tally for 1981 would be 121 films. In 1982, when video rental really kicked in, it was 144, and in 1983, I managed a storming 175. As I wrote in Where Did It All Go Right?, I have never stopped being proud of myself for this intense self-education.

As today is the day that Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made Of Stone premieres, beamed around selected arthouses by satellite (it goes on general release on June 5), I thought I’d reprint an expanded cut of the review I wrote for Radio Times.

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Shane Meadows, a teenage fan when the Stone Roses shook the world with their potent blend of psychedelic rock and swaggering Mancunian groove in the late 80s and early 90s, never saw them live. Thus, this potentially conventional feature-length chronicle of their 2011-12 reunion becomes something more personal. Shadowing the well-preserved four-piece on the road to triumphant shows at Greater Manchester’s Heaton Park – via bonhomie-fuelled rehearsals, a joyous secret gig in Warrington and some bumpy European warm-ups – Meadows gains access-all-areas, his camera often skulking in corridor and dressing room. The band are at the top of their game, musically (and the sound mix does them proud), but Meadows puts the largely middle-aged fans centre stage; their heartwarming stories dominating the Warrington section as grown men leave jobs, families and errands to get in the queue for a golden wristband. Eschewing obligatory talking heads (backstory is told via archive interview, with some genuinely unseen home movie footage), artfully moving between crisp monochrome and glorious colour, and with footnotes-to-camera by the wide-eyed director himself, Made Of Stone replaces hagiography with infectious empathy. A witty, honest and valuable tribute.

Writer’s blog: Week 18, Friday

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A quick bulletin from my daily life. It is the end of the working week, Friday, although I gave myself a day off on Tuesday, as I worked on Sunday. As usual, the lack of blog entries reflects the urgency of the work I should, by rights, be doing. (I should be doing it now. As you’ll have spotted, I’m not. I’m in the coffee shop of a department store where I have come to buy a bag.)

Without giving anything away, I’ve been hard at a pilot script these past couple of weeks for a terrestrial broadcaster, via an independent production company with whom I’ve worked before. I think I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s a comedy, based on an idea I had in an office when I was in a meeting to pitch ideas but had no ideas that I hadn’t already pitched, so I sort of improvised one and it turned out to be a goer. Fancy that! I’ve stated this for the record before, but some people still don’t seem to know, so I’ll say it again: I no longer write for Not Going Out, which is enjoying its sixth series on BBC1 currently, and although I wish it well, I find it odd to watch it now for personal reasons. The last episode I co-wrote was Debbie for series four, after which the writing team was streamlined down to a number that didn’t include me. (I’m still friends with Lee; he was kind enough to namecheck me on The One Show the other week.)

The reason I bring it up, is because as much as I will be forever grateful to Not Going Out for giving me the chance to write a broad, studio-based audience sitcom for BBC1, and to work on it from the ground floor up, what it made me want more than anything was to write a sitcom on my own. Now, I’ve done that for radio with Mr Blue Sky, which is now cancelled, and I’m rather hoping that one of the three – count ’em – three pilots I currently have in development will catch fire and get a full commission. This latest one feels like the most likely. As I mentioned on Twitter, teasingly, the script today required me to “research” (ie. look up on the Internet) a number of seemingly random subject areas which included:

  1. England-Scotland Home International games
  2. Job vacancies and job descriptions at a local council (for which I happened upon the website of Essex County Council)
  3. Progressive rock lyrics that mention “time” (for which I alighted, happily, upon the Marillion song Wrapped Up In Time)

My online history would certainly baffle future archaeologists, I like to think. And I’m afraid it will have to baffle you, as I can say no more about it. Writing comedy is hard. It is not the hardest job in the world, and would in fact not make the Top 100, but when you have decided that your best chance of earning a decent living is to write scripts, I would argue that writing comedy scripts is harder than writing drama. Which is why I dream of writing drama and not have to think of jokes.

BlogApril26bag

Talking of comedy, a smart black, leather shoulder bag I bought almost a year ago to the day stopped working the week before last, when two of its zips went. I tried to get it mended, first of all, but neither of the menders I visited could fix a zip on a leather bag. But having ascertained that the bag – quite a pricey one for miserly old me – was under a year old, I decided to take it back to the shop. I really liked the bag and was sad that it had become inoperable. The man in the shop, a department store, was very helpful and took the bag from me to send to the manufacturers to be repaired or replaced. I left the shop with a spring in my step; he had by definition agreed with me that an expensive bag’s zips shouldn’t break within a year, so I felt vindicated.

However, he called me back when I was on the train home and told me that the manufacturers could neither repair nor replace the bag, as they no longer sold that particular model. I was sad again. The store offered me a credit note which I could spend on another, similar bag. I looked at the bags and didn’t like any of them as much as the one I’d had for almost a year. So I asked, firmly, for a refund, not a credit note, and again, no resistance was offered.

I won’t mention the make or the shop, in case it looks like an invitation to exploit their decency. But when you go into a shop with a complaint you go in having rehearsed all the arguments first. When you don’t need those arguments, it’s almost a letdown. But isn’t it nice to get good service occasionally, when most commercial outlets seem to be out to fleece and humiliate you if you rock the boat? The blue bag in the picture above has become my temporary shoulder bag. As you can see, it looks cheap and cheerful, has no special pockets and gives me the air of a schoolboy on a games day. It also says “BADULTS” on it. This is the new, official name for the Pappy’s sitcom I script edited, and which airs on BBC3 in July. The bag – a free, promotional gift of the type I rarely get sent any more – couldn’t have arrived at a more convenient time.

The great thing is, I was carrying it when I went to see Spring Breakers at the Curzon Soho one afternoon last week, and who did I bump into, in the gents? Matthew Crosby of Pappy’s! Not only was he going to see the same matinee of the same film as me, so we could sit together like pals, but he was carrying a red BADULTS bag. Sometimes life is planned out for you by a higher power who can’t be God as God doesn’t exist, but there’s something out there pulling the strings.

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In case you’re interested, I am reading a bracing non-fiction book called Going South by the Guardian‘s economics editor and his friend Dan Atkinson, who is the Mail On Sunday‘s economics editor. (As literary aside: I had a meeting at a production company two weeks ago where the head of development I was pitching to recommended a George Orwell book called Coming Up For Air, which I’m looking for a secondhand copy of presently.) Going South is explained by its subtitle: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014. Although I am a bit shot on economics, I’ve been educating myself on this vital area of all our lives – not least by reading the Guardian‘s correspondents, and the New Yorker‘s unstoppably readable James Surowiecki. Elliott and Atkinson paint compelling if gloomy pictures of political, social and financial life in Britain today – in that sense, it’s a kind of self-hating book, but I like those.

I was particularly taken with a passage about the attitude to a car alarm going off. They write that the “common occurrence of the ignored wailing of the car alarm” encapsulates much of what’s up with our society. The alarm is ignored “partly because it is assumed it is sounding in error; partly because, even if the car is actually being stolen, no call to the police is thought likely to produce much in the way of response; and partly because any attempt to confront the suspected car thief immediately puts the citizen in danger.” They conclude that ignoring the alarm is “an entirely rational response to the way the world works.” How depressing, and true, that is.

I am reminded of “broken window theory”, which I first read about in The Tipping Point (how quaint and gradual the examples in that book now seem in the age of YouTube and Twitter). Basically: if a broken window is left broken, it will lead to a decline in the area where the building is, and to worse crime. So fix the window. Here’s the passage from the original 1982 Atlantic Monthly article where the theory was first aired by two criminologists:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

I think of this theory often, when I see bags of rubbish left outside charity shops overnight, or on weekends when the shop is closed, or when I see an empty shampoo bottle left on the floor of the showers at my gym, just dropped there by a previous occupant as if perhaps their mum will be round later to pick it up after them. If we don’t pick up our own detritus, we may not complain when crime occurs on our doorstep.

IRON MAN 3

I saw a preview of Iron Man 3 in 3D last Wednesday but reviews were embargoed until this Wednesday. I think it’s pretty good, considering it’s the third part of a franchise – and when Iron Man has been seen in the Avengers movie, too. I still hate 3D, but the film itself, under new management with Shane Black at the helm (he co-wrote it with a British writer Drew Pearce, who wrote No Heroics for ITV2, which just shows that dreams can come true), has a certain wit and verve, and its story is one where all that has been built in the previous two films is destroyed, literally, to bring Iron Man back to basics – and then allow him to defeat the baddie in an even more spectacular way at the end of course. It’s a shame that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, who is now a CEO of Iron Man’s company, becomes little more than a standard damsel in distress in the end. This happens to Rosamund Pike’s assistant DA in Jack Reacher, which is out on DVD.

Compared to Jack Reacher, which starts promisingly and collapses into boring gunplay and car chases by the end, at least Iron Man 3 has the common decency to sag in the middle and then improve for the climax. And I can’t say why, as it’s a spoiler, but there’s a scene with Ben Kingsley which is almost worth the price of admission alone. That’s all I’m saying.

Have a nice weekend. (It’s been sunny, hasn’t it? I’ve actually worn a soft M&S jacket rather than a big M&S waterproof coat four times this week. I give thanks for the belated arrival of spring. I much prefer not to look like Liam Gallagher between my neck and my knees, but practicality dictates. Not that he’d be seen dead in M&S.)

Writer’s blog: Week 14, Good Friday

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I am, unusually for a working day, sitting in my kitchen. It is Good Friday. The British Library is closed, which is fair enough, as Good Friday is a bank holiday. I have too much to do to contemplate a day off, but I’m not angling for sympathy. To everyone who does get the day off, on full pay, I wish you a most excellent day (and likewise on Monday, which is Easter Monday, when I will be writing and filming Telly Addict at the Guardian just like it was a normal Monday). At least at home, I can drink my own coffee, and not pay through the nose for it.

Actually, of late, and to beat the system, I have been taking a flask out with me, charged with homemade coffee, which I then decant into a paper Peyton & Byrne cup in the Library canteen. There are polite notices up stating that only food and drink purchased on the premises can be consumed there, but I don’t believe this has ever been aggressively policed – at least, Library users are exactly the type to bring in their own sandwiches. Tupperware tubs are prominent, and, frankly, as long as most diners pay through the nose for Peyton & Byrne’s expensive cakes, I feel sure that capitalism ticks over. I don’t flaunt my not-bought-on-the-premises food and hot drink, and if I’m meeting someone, I always buy Peyton & Byrne’s coffee, and if the person I’m meeting is paying, I always have an overpriced cake too!

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Talking of food and drink, I’m hooked back into Masterchef. I usually favour the Celebrity version for reasons shallow, but I reviewed the first episode of the new series of the Civilian one for the Guardian and haven’t been able to tear myself away. It’s formulaic, but some of the most comforting telly is, and Gregg and John move ever further into self-parody, but, again, it isn’t broke, so why fix it? (The irony here is that Masterchef has repeatedly tried to fix itself when unbroken, but aside from the impossible new “palate test”, this series is relatively untinkered.)

I was given the basic Great British Bake Off Learn To Bake book for my birthday earlier in the month, and I’m also watching Paul Hollywood’s Beard on BBC2 and finding him a stout and reliable tutor, so cooking is back on the agenda. I made this marbled chocolate banana bread at the weekend, which was supposed to be baked in individual tiny cake cases but I chose to do it in a single loaf tin. The result is not “marbling” in the elegant Baroque sense. But it tastes bloody nice. (Someone on Twitter asked if it was gluten-free. I’m afraid not. I have tried baking with rice flour, and various ancient grains, none of which truly did the job. The gluten is the protein that binds dough, and without it, you’re on the back foot. I avoid wheat for reasons of waistline expansion and maintenance of general energy levels, but I am not allergic to it, so when it comes to cake, it’s gluten or the highway.)

BananabreadmarbledMar24I’d read that you can freeze individual slices of cake, but never tried it before, so – after a call-out for tips and advice on Twitter – I wrapped them in tin foil and put them in a sealable bag. Yesterday I took one out, and by the time I was ready to eat it, it was as good as new. (Typically of Twitter, someone re-Tweeted my call for advice to food writer and TV cook Nigel Slater himself, who said, “It should work, but I’m no expert.” I was happy to report back to him that it did work, which makes me an expert.) When you’re baking to save money on shop-bought cake and biscuits, you have to learn how to ration. There’s a war on.

I should, by rights, have been in Glasgow last night, attending the studio recording of the final episode of “the Pappy’s sitcom” for BBC3, which as you know I script-edited. (I think it’s still called Secret Dude Society, but that may not be fixed.) However, it was being filmed in BBC studios, and the wrap party was also being held on BBC premises, so I didn’t travel up for what would have been, for me, a massive jolly, as the NUJ and Bectu were on strike from midday, over redundancies and “bullying”, and it would, for me, have been inappropriate. (It’s an entirely personal matter, and I make no judgement on anyone else.)

Anyway, I got a lot more work done yesterday and this morning as a result. As usual with these writer’s blogs, I cannot give too much away, but I have three comedies in development, currently, all at varying stages. Of the two pilots script that I’ve written, one, with C4, is written and delivered, and has hit a stalemate, but it’s not over yet. The other, for the BBC, was delivered last year and sent back for a complete overhaul – it’s the one that gave me writer’s block – and I have finished the second draft, which I wrote again from scratch, a blank screen. It’s almost ready to go to the broadcaster. The third comedy has only just been green-lit for development, and I’m carefully constructing a story breakdown with a production company before launching into the script. In comedy terms, I have three plates spinning. It’s all about keeping them from crashing to the floor.

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I’m printing this picture in memory of Richard Griffiths, who died yesterday but whose passing was announced today. I feel certain it was taken at the first Empire Awards, which were in 1996, although I can find no record of the event to confirm it. I was definitely at the first Empire Awards, and the second, as a chaperone, and I had a terrific time at both, with various approachable film people, so who knows? I seem to recall a whole load of people connected with Withnail, so was there a special award for that film, or for Bruce Robinson? Don’t look on Wikipedia, as it’s not there. If anyone can help, I’d be grateful. I certainly jumped at the chance to have my meeting with Richard Griffiths captured on camera, and it’s a treasured Polaroid in my archive. Someone on Twitter pointed out that he can only have been 48 at the time, as he was merely 65 when he died. I am 48 today. Mortality is a terrible c—, if you’ll pardon the apposite language.

Two further things before I sign off:

Went to the cinema this afternoon – awarding myself half a Bank Holiday, as I’d completed my main writing task of the day by getting up at 6.30am – and after the trailer for A Late Quartet, starring Christopher Walken, I heard an older gentleman in the row behind claim loudly to his wife, “That’s Angelina Jolie’s dad!” (I resisted the urge to turn round and say to her, “It’s not. Don’t listen to him.”)

Now that we’ve seen the David Bowie exhibition, with all of his costumes on display, seeing footage of him on TV has taken a new turn. Catching the end of another repeat of BBC4’s Ziggy Stardust documentary (the one narrated by Jarvis), we found ourselves going, “Ooh, we’ve seen that cape!” and “Ooh, we’ve seen that fishnet vest!” It reminded me of my own dear Nan, who used to love to point out places she and Pap had been on holiday if they ever turned up on television. “Ooh, we’ve been there, Reg!” she would shout, if they showed, say, Minehead.

Happy Easter.

 

Writer’s blog: Week 10

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More solipsism, good idea. It’s Thursday and I took this picture last night, in the dressing room at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London. I was hosting the first of three previews and Q&As for the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival (formerly the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival). You may recall I did some intensive hosting at the Festival last August, and had a rare old, star-spangled time. I’m hoping to do the same again this year, hence my access to this glamorous dressing room last night. It wasn’t my dressing room, I was sharing it with at least four other people, possibly five, as it was also our green room.

Our first preview and Q&A was for The Incredible Mr Goodwin, a brand new vehicle for the swashbuckling talents of daredevil escape artist Jonathan Goodwin, whose amazing feats you may have seen on the likes of Dirty Tricks, or Death Wish Live, or The Indestructibles, or One Way Out, being buried alive, sticking needles through his hand, hanging from great heights, that sort of caper. This is the show that will, hopefully, put him up there with Derren Brown, Dynamo, and other hip performers who do astounding feats – although call Goodwin’s stunts “tricks” and you might feel the weight of his inflated upper arms!

There’s a teaser here, if you dig that sort of thing. It’s like an urbane, well-read Jackass with a wife and kids.

It’s on Watch, which is part of the UKTV “family” of channels, alongside Dave. It’s interesting that it’s on a boutique channel, but that’s a sign of the times. Watch, or UKTV, gave Goodwin and his producers at Objective the budget and freedom they needed to make what is a pretty glamorous, transatlantic “fuck-off moment” compendium (Goodwin’s description), and they’ve been marketing the hell out of it. (He hung from a burning rope off the London Eye on Tuesday, which proved an effective teaser stunt.) I hope the show draws a record audience to Watch, as they’ve taken quite a big punt on this, and as anyone who makes television will tell you, it’s no longer the case that the big terrestrial broadcasters hold all the money.

Anyway, I enjoyed meeting Jonathan – as affable and candid in real life as he seems onscreen (think: the medical opposite of David Blaine, who happens to among those whom Goodwin has advised in the past) – and his producer Matt, and the half-hour Q&A was easygoing and informative. We had some smart questions from the audience, too, which was made up of industry onlookers and paying punters, my favourite being: “Have you ever been psychoanalysed?” (He hasn’t.) Goodwin’s wife and baby appear in the show, to point up the humanity of a man who is prepared to be buried alive or to climb a skyscraper using only gloves and grippy trainers.

The bonus came at the end of our session, when the screen rolled up and Goodwin revealed a large bed of nails, which – surprise! – he didn’t lay down on. He plucked a woman from the audience and cajoled her into laying down on the nails, which turned out to be less painful than you might imagine, apparently. This is because the weight of the body is evenly distributed over the nails. Then came the reveal: his producers lifted the bed of nails, and left a lower bed bearing just the one six-inch nail. At which Goodwin stripped his t-shirt off and laid down on it. For the count of ten.

Whether or not the stunt is 100% honest and “real” or not, it bloody looked real from where I was sitting. And that’s the appeal. In the first show, he pushes a needle through his cheek and pulls it out of his mouth using pliers. He climbs beneath an SUV as it barrels down a runway. He monkeys up a building, past the window cleaner. He puts his hand in a bear trap. It’s entertaining stuff, and it was fun to sit next to Goodwin himself and watch the show on the big screen. He relished watching the reactions of the Roundhouse audience when, onscreen, he pushed the needle up his nose and out of his throat. These stunts require an audience, sometimes a close-up audience of a handful of “witnesses”, to make sense. I must admit, it’s not my usual cup of tea, but Goodwin won me over, with his affability and his apparent minimum of ego.

This made it a fairly unusual Wednesday. I’d spent the early part of it waiting in for a tradesman whose office called to say he wasn’t going to make it. As I think of myself as a tradesman, I was a bit pissed off, but they re-booked him for 8.30 this morning, and he was there, bright and early, and did the job brilliantly, so I’m not complaining. The work I do for people does not require them to “wait in” for me, as I am likely to be sending it by email at a designated time, not knocking on their front door. (Interestingly, on Tuesday afternoon, I was trying to arrange a way of taking efficient delivery of the DVDs I need for the next GEITF Q&A – ITV sitcom The Job Lot, for which I will be talking not just to the writers, but to stars Russell Tovey and Sarah Hadland! – and after a few emails, I decided to just walk to the production company’s office and pick it up myself. That’s the kind of hands-on guy I sometimes have to be. So much fannying around otherwise.)

I seem to be doing a lot of hosting these days. I am a host, just like Hannah’s friend on Girls is a hostess. This is not such a terrible rung to have reached in my 25th year in showbiz. As I always say to the people who employ me in this capacity, I have yet to grow blasé about meeting and talking to people who make telly programmes. Whether it’s a writer, or a producer, or an actor, or an escapologist, they are interesting to me per se. I met a lovely guy called Rich last night. He works for UKTV. When I first knew him, in 1997, he was a runner at the production company which made Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club for ITV. This is how TV works, or can do. Jonathan Goodwin used to be a stunt adviser; he trained to be an actor; now he’s got his own show as a bald nutcase with his name in the title. (Yeah, been there, done that, in 1997 – always be nice to people on the way up, as you’re bound to meet them again on the way down.)

I’m pretty sure they’re nearly sold out, but if you’re a Russell Tovey fan, or Olivia Colman fan (who isn’t?), the other surprisingly intimate GEITF screenings are bookable here. Thanks to Liz for setting it all up, and to that large bunch of young people I fell into enthusiastic nerdy conversation with at the Roundhouse bar afterwards about Breaking Bad, Black Mirror and Game Of Thrones. I didn’t catch everybody’s name. (One gentleman among them lamented the fact that I am no longer on the radio with Josie Long. There is, almost literally, always one, wherever I go.)

These are the cats on today’s calendar. I like them. And thereby hang two tails.

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Writer’s blog: Week 4, Thursday

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This picture is a cheat, as I took it yesterday, Wednesday. But it is packed with significance, of a sort. On Monday, as documented, I travelled to Dorset and back on the train, about 12 hours round trip, door to door. That was pretty unusual for a working day, and a pleasant diversion. I haven’t travelled outside of London since then. Most days – and this is why I don’t inflict a daily diary on anybody – I’m in the British Library, or at the Radio Times office, or shuttling between meetings and work engagements in and around Central London, at the peak of activity either writing, or talking.

How interesting is any of this? How interesting in anybody’s daily life? As it happens, later today I am catching another train, this time to Northampton, as I’m giving a lecture/Q&A to journalism students at the University of Northampton tomorrow. It being a careers-based talk, I shall be roadtesting Andrew Collins: 25 Years in Showbiz, or Indecision: a Career Choice. There will be slides. I don’t write these talks, as such, but I shape them in advance, and use props, or images, to punctuate them and act as guides for me. I don’t like them to be too rigid; I prefer to roll with the reaction of the audience – if, that is, I can gauge it. Students can sometimes be inscrutable, but most are at an age when “cool” drives their personalities. I know this. I was one.

Here’s how my life works: I do a string of low-paid jobs and then, occasionally, if the stars align (fingers always crossed), I get a higher-paying job for which I actually have to block out weeks or months in order to fulfill the commitment. It’s not unusual for a self-employed person to exist in a permanent state of rollercoasting. A talk at a university is not a high-paying job, but I like doing them, they keep me in practice for public speaking, and it’s Northampton, so I can visit my parents and claim back the modest train fare. I am looking forward to both bits.

The snow’s almost melted in London. I’m glad to see the back of it. It breaks my heart to see how weak this country’s infrastructure is. God help us if there’s a war.

Yesterday, I did two low-paid jobs, and I managed to group them together so that I could do one, followed directly by the other – one was in Broadcasting House, the other in Western House, both BBC buildings, and next door neighbours. For both jobs, I was being interviewed for the radio, but pre-recorded, which means you say a hell of a lot more than anybody listening to the radio will ever hear. For the first, I was interviewed about the film Jaws. When the programme airs on Radio 4, I’ll let you know. This was fun. I had my childhood diaries from 1976 and 1977, so could revisit how, as an 11-12-year-old, I was affected by Jaws, long before I actually saw it. (I saw it in March 1977, when I was old enough to see an “A” certificate.)

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Next stop: 6 Music, where I was interviewed by Steve Lamacq’s producer Phil about Britpop – specifically the April 1993 “Yanks Go Home” issue of Select, on which I worked – for an ongoing history project about which I’m sure all will be revealed. I am an interviewer’s dream and worst nightmare: ask me a question and off I go. Especially if it involves remembering. I am good at remembering out loud. (Coincidentally, this hallowed issue of Select is one of my props for tomorrow’s talk at the University.)

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Anyway, the gaps between my visits to 6 Music are lengthening. The last time I was in, before Christmas, was to appear on Steve’s show when he was doing the TV Themes World Cup. Before that? October, when I literally just dropped by to empty my pigeonhole, which kindly pluggers and PRs still keep topped up with pre-release CDs by bands I’ve usually never heard of. It’s nice to be remembered by them. And I left 6 Music with about 20 singles, all of which I intend to listen to, out of gratitude for being given them, and out of eagerness to hear something new that I like. I get a Tweet at least once a week asking when Josie Long and I are back on 6 Music. Never, I fear. We had a great run in the six months leading up to Christmas 2011, but have never been asked back, which, after a calendar year, is a fairly easy to read sign.

I sincerely hope 6 Music will get me back in 2013 to emergency plumb for one of their regulars. It’s the best place on earth to broadcast from. But here’s the scary bit: although people I know at 6 Music are always cheery and pleasant to me when I venture back into the office, each time I go in, more faces have appeared whom I don’t know. This is bound to happen. Eventually, all my contacts there will erode, and my name will fall off the whiteboard. It happens. You’d be amazed how many people who don’t listen regularly to the station still think I have a regular slot on the network. (The guys from BBC Bristol who interviewed me about Jaws did.) You have to move on.

Remember the theme of my talk? Indecision. It’s indecision that’s driven and stunted my career at the same time. Not being able to decide which path to take – or to commit to one branch of the entertainment industry – has lead to an enormous range of work over those 25 years, but it has also prevented me from specialising in anything. I accept that as my destiny.

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And here I am, in the British Library canteen again, contemplating that very conundrum. Any questions? (That’s what I’ll be asking at the University of Northampton tomorrow.)

Writer’s blog: Week 4, Monday

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I feel like doing one of these, now that the year has sort of kicked in a bit. It’s Monday, and I’m on a South West Trains train from Bournemouth to London (you can tell it’s a South West Trains train because there are no seat numbers, so you can’t book, and they have not heard of power sockets on trains). I have not been to Bournemouth. But because of what I think of as “weather”, but the infrastructure of Great Britain thinks of as “an emergency”, the usual train from London to Dorchester South is now divided up into two bits, so you must change at Bournemouth.

Proustian rush: in 2004, I came to Bournemouth, on my own, to attend the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society annual dinner at the hotel where Hancock lived, briefly, as a child, Darlston Court. I was a member of the THAS for a couple of years, and enjoyed it very much, although I confess I felt a little out of place at the dinner, where, as a 39 year-old I felt decidedly young. The late Ray Alan and the still-going June Whitfield were guests of honour. A unique evening. Here’s a pic:

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Anyway, I was in Bournemouth this morning for about three minutes, the time it took to run down the platform from one train to another. My destination was Billy Bragg’s house, in Dorset, where I was called upon to interview him, off-camera, for the EPK (“electronic press kit” – get with the 90s record-industry jargon) that will herald his surprising new album, Tooth and Nail, in March. You can read about it and hear some music on his rebooted website. (You can also engage him in a free and frank dialogue about why you may only pre-order the album via his website from Amazon or iTunes. Although I’ll tell you in advance that there had originally been a link to HMV but HMV went down before the page went live. It’s funny how the massive chain of superstores now almost feels like an indie alternative, post mortem.)

As previously mentioned, I was down at Billy’s before Christmas to research the new chapter for my official biography, which I have now delivered, and for which we don’t have a specific publication date, but it will be available for the first time as an eBook. It was a brief visit, top-heavy with travel, light on actual engagement, but we had enough time to effect the genial interview for the cameras, and to eat a wrap and some soup, before I was shuttled back to the station for the two-train ride home. (It was good to meet Jack, who is making the films.)

I’ll be honest, the whole thing was an utter pleasure. Not the most taxing job in the world, I grant you, but I’ll be back down the mine tomorrow. It was a welcome chance to get out of London and to soak up the views of rural and coastal England which the train affords, much of it carpeted in snow. As I rather unkindly Tweeted, when we passed through the marshlands around the Wareham Channel, where wading birds dotted the uninterrupted view out to sea, the blissful sight was only tarnished by the seasonal phlegmy coughing of my fellow passengers in the “quiet coach”. (I dare not turn around to look, in the carriage I am in presently, as it sounds suspiciously as if someone is clipping their nails. Let’s at least hope it’s the fingernails.)

On a locomotive theme, I am thoroughly enjoying BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys, with Michael Portillo, the gentle travelogue brand that he has made his own over the past few years. Forget his politics. He’s a true rail enthusiast, and I always think of his bright pastel shirts and his Bradshaw’s Guide when I step on or off trains now. On a recent leg, he was travelling through Kew, and happened upon a plaque commemmorating the re-opening of Kew Bridge station in 1989 by then-Transport Minister in the Thatcher government, Michael Portillo. (I guess it’s ironic that a man whose party privatised – and thus tore the heart out of – the railway network in this country now promotes them.)

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Even though South West trains don’t have anywhere you can plug anything in, and the wi-fi/mobile signal was the very definitive of patchy the other side of Basingstoke, I managed to do some work on the way down, and on the way back. I am currently developing two comedy pitches (well, one of them is a comedy drama) for a certain broadcaster, based upon a reasonably upbeat meeting last week. This is where you work for free, on spec. It was ever thus, but I like the pressure to have to come up with brand new ideas; it’s amazing how fruitful that artificial process can be in getting the gears to go round.

You’ll be relieved to learn that I have now successfully seen all of the key “awards season” movies, just in time for last week’s Golden Globes, and in plenty of time for the Baftas and the Oscars. Django Unchained is now in cinemas, so you can go and see that, and Lincoln is almost upon us. I’m seeing The Sessions tomorrow, as that’s out, too. It’s always a golden time of year for the higher end of American cinema. But don’t expect it to last. Come March, I’ll be gagging for something in a foreign tongue. (On the subject of which, I’m delighted that Haneke’s Amour is being treated as “a movie” this year, and not as a “foreign movie”. It’s picking up nominations and awards left, right and centre. Good.)

I may not blog every day this week, but I will if anything out of the ordinary happens.