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.

 

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Writer’s blog: Week 4, Thursday

BlogWk4Wed23Jan

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: 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.

A PLACE TO BURY STRANGERS Onwards To The Wall
MASSIVE ATTACK Ft. HOPE SANDOVAL Paradise Circus
THE PHARCYDE Passin’ Me By
LL COOL J Pink Cookies
BINARY The Prisoner
FOSTER THE PEOPLE Pumped Up Kicks
LANA DEL RAY Radio
GRACE/PLANET PERFECTO Not Over Yet 99
M WARD Ft. ZOOEY DESCHANEL Rave On
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.

Caution, horses

I found myself staying at the Premier Inn, Braintree last night. It was for a family wedding, which was a great success and a lovely day for everybody since you ask, but that’s not why I write. In my perfectly serviceable bathroom was a fairly typical sign:

CAUTION

Hot Water

I even photographed it, because I can. It was accurate, in the sense that the hot water tap beneath the sign on the sink, helpfully marked out with red piping, did indeed produce hot water, when you turned it. The cold water tap, in blue piping, produced cold water. I ran that hot tap for a good long time when shaving, and even at its hottest, it was just above lukewarm. There really was no need to warn me of its temperature with a specific yellow sticker on the wall. CAUTION Water That’s Nothing Like As Hot As You Expect It To Be, might have been a more helpful and pertinent sticker.

Above the towel rail, as you can see, I was warned again:

CAUTION

this towel rail can get hot

This is not a surprise. It is a heated towel rail. It is designed to get hot. The switch that turns it on and off was outside the bathroom door, and clearly marked TOWEL RAIL. I did not turn it on. It did not heat up. But had I chosen to do so, in order to use up some more electricity while in the room, I would have pretty much expected it to “get hot.” I am not actually complaining about my stay in the Premier Inn, which was perfectly serviceable, and didn’t cost me that much money. But these danger signs are becoming more and more common, their insidious application to walls and other surfaces clearly driven by fear of litigation, which is one aspect of American culture I was hoping we’d keep at bay, along with prom night, the rude phrase “can I get?” and guns, but we are losing the battle.

I often use the British Library. A more stoutly and traditionally British place you could not imagine, in the sense that it offers a warm, subsidised welcome to people from all four corners of the earth, who crowd its public spaces, speaking in every language under the sun and partaking of something we in London can be justly proud of. But the journey from Euston Road to the front entrance of the Library building is becoming more and more perilous, or so the signage would have you believe. There’s a piazza between the road and the doors, which does indeed get slippery underfoot when it’s icy or wet. There are signs everywhere telling you this:

CAUTION: PIAZZA CAN GET SLIPPERY WHEN ICY OR WET

Then, if you are brave and intrepid enough to actually traverse this Total Wipeout-style assault course and reach the shallow steps leading up to the front door, you are assailed by seven identical signs, two on each of the three shallow steps and one for luck, which say:

CAUTION: STEPS

These signs, blots on a fabulous architectural landscape, render the otherwise beautiful piazza in front of the British Library laughable. And just that little bit less British. Whatever happened to KEEP CALM, CARRY ON AND MIND HOW YOU GO?

I understand. I get it. Certain individuals must have tripped up the steps at some point. It’s an everyday hazard. We all trip up. I tripped up the escalators at Waterloo station last year. I cut my knee. And even today, because I am still wearing my wedding shoes, which have slippy soles, I slipped while crossing the car park of the Premier Inn this morning, and almost skidded into the path of a thankfully slow-moving van. There were no signs up warning me not to do this, so if I had been injured, I could have sued the Premier Inn chain, presumably, and possibly Lenny Henry in person. And by golly, I would have! Although I imagine a crack legal team could avoid liability by shifting the blame skilfully onto the manufacturers of my shoes, which bear no sign saying CAUTION: SOLES CAN PROVE USELESS ON SLIPPERY TARMAC or BEWARE OF ONCOMING VEHICLES WHEN WEARING SHOES IN BRAINTREE.

Have we, the public, become more idiotic and clumsy over the past 20 or so years? Have we lost the use of our senses? Or our legs? Can we no longer commune with the climate and work out for ourselves when it might be icy or slippery? Are we constantly burning our hands on things that are designed to be hot? Or are these alarming signs merely part of some broader conspiracy to keep us all in a constant state of panic and fear, and thus distracted from more important issues such as the fanatical dismantling of a once-decent and compassionate society that was built up in the postwar years when socialism was not a dirty word on the left but was ultimately deemed too hazardous to the forward march of monetarism and free market capitalism to maintain.

WARNING: END OF NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE

WARNING: END OF FREE EDUCATION

CAUTION: DO NOT BE POOR

 

 

 

 

 

PS: Alan Williams sent these signs from a factory in India, which are rather refreshing: