Writer’s blog, Week 49

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I know. It’s been a while. It’s been more than a while. A gentleman discerning enough to use an avatar of Mark E Smith asked me via the medium of social media the other day what had happened to my blog. He surmised, correctly, that I have been too busy to keep it up. The truth be told, this year has been one of working harder and earning less, a pattern clearly replicated across this whole stinking world. Although I’ve not been writing here, I’ve been writing. And although I’ve not been writing in the desired form of a script that has been made into a television programme, I have been scriptwriting. It used to be known as development hell, although it’s hardly a hell, as you do get paid a stipend to write a script, even if it never gets past the stage of being words on a screen. (Actually, I always print my scripts out to read them, as they don’t seem real until you are holding them in your hands. If they exist physically, you can pretend they’re being made into television.)

In the accompanying picture above (what would nowadays be called a “selfie”, although these were invented long before the camera-phone), I am sitting in a hotel room in Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, West Wales. The hotel is the Belle Vue and it’s right on the front. Here is the view from my window last night when we checked in at around 7.30pm after the five-hour, one-change train journey from London.

AberPM I love the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls cawing. Because I spent pretty much every summer holiday as a boy in North Wales, I feel very much at home in this country. I’ve spent more time in North and South Wales, though, and less in Mid-, and it’s my very first time in Aberystwyth. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll have probably guessed why I’m here. The groundbreaking Welsh/English detective noir Y Gwyll, or Hinterland, is set and shot in Aberystwyth. I am here, in a landscape you could not make up, in weather you’d usually have to put in afterwards, to effect what’s known in the trade as a “set visit”. That is, I’ve been invited to visit the set, which in this case, was an actual barn near a farm just outside Borth, where a temporary production base had been established under a gazebo.

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I did take some pictures of the filming of a scene involving Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias, Mali Harries as DI Mared Rhys and another actor as a farmer, but these may be embargoed, as series two of Y Gwyll won’t be airing on S4C (in Welsh) and then BBC Wales (in English and Welsh) until autumn 2015. There’s a one-off special on S4C on New Year’s Day, which is intended to sate fans of the show in the interim. (If you haven’t seen it – and you really should – it’s a case-of-the-week crime-solver that has its own broader arc about Mathias’s past, so you can dip in and it will still work.) I’m sure you’re aware that the show’s trick – which it didn’t invent, but is rare – is to film every scene with dialogue twice, once in Welsh, once in English (and some Welsh, where applicable), thereby literally doubling the work of the cast and crew, but in the process doubling its marketability in an international TV market, something that’s clearly working for them, having sold it to Denmark, Holland, Belgium, the US and Canada (on Netflix) and countless others. Not bad for a show set in Aberystwyth.

On our windswept arrival last night, Tash from the PR company (in charge of delivering me to my destination) and I repaired to a bar and cafe – highly recommended locally – called Baravin. While the cast and crew are filming, some based in Aber, others in Borth, many of them far away from hearth and home, this magnificently sited venue seems to be a magnet. It faces out onto the seafront and serves artisan pizzas, draught beer and something called an “espresso Martini”, which sounded like a terrible idea at the beginning of the evening, but a good one at the end of it.

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At Baravin, we met Richard Harrington, Mali Harries (both of whom I appear to have known for years, or at least that’s the impression I got from the warm way they greeted me) and producers the voluble Ed Thomas and more quietly spoken Gethin Scourfield. We had a tremendous evening with all four. I didn’t take my dictaphone out, but we chatted about the show, and the way it’s produced, and it’s all “colour” for the feature I will write to coincide with transmission of series two in about ten months’ time. Our hosts provided plenty. Richard is dark and authoritative onscreen (if you’ve not seen Y Gwyll, you may remember him from Spooks), but in real life, he feels hewn from the same rock as his namesake Burton. An elemental figure, I of course blame him for talking me into an espresso Martini.

You sensed he was up for going after-hours, but the rest of us were knackered and opted for ending the evening when the bar did. (His co-star and producer/director were not even drinking.)

It being Wales, where the stars are visible in the sky, and a promenade, where the sea puts you to sleep, I slumbered hard, woken only once at 4am when two young women who had gone after-hours sang a modern pop song under my window from the pavement below. I could only admire them.

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Tempted out for a pre-breakfast walk along the front to the pier this morning, I felt blessed to witness the murmuration of starlings, who shot out from under the Royal Pier and filled the sky. I don’t think my non-iPhone really captured the glory, but you can’t blame me for trying, presented with that. This may be a writer’s blog, but I’m painting a lot of this with pictures.

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One full English/Welsh inside me, and we were off to the set. This is me, pretending to be a vital cog in the Y Gwyll machine, sitting on a plastic chair under the gazebo, watching a monitor and wearing some headphones so that I can hear the Welsh and English words being said by the actors into the microphones. I am well wrapped up against the cold. It would have been pathetic of me to even admit to myself that I was feeling the cold, as I was only on set for half a day, and these dedicated professionals do it for twice that long, every day, for weeks on end.

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This photo depicts me and S4C Drama Commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd, whom I have met before, showing our frozen appreciation for the arrival of on-set catering in polystyrene boxes wrapped in tin foil and cling film. (For the record, I am holding two portions of main course and dessert, only one of which is for me.) After about five hours of being among the elements, it was the thought of getting into a warm car and being driven to a warm train station where a warm train awaited that was keeping me alive.

Ten hours on the train there and back, but 20 hours spent in the salty, reed-filled embrace of Aberystwyth and Borth, getting a boyhood Proustian rush from the Welsh signs, the stern, symmetrical, chapel-like Welsh houses and the sight of endless sheep. Ceredigion really is “Hinterland Country” now. If you know the first series, you will literally spot houses and bridges and garages you’ve seen on telly in real life. This is a show that, unlike so much geographically faked TV fiction, lives and breathes its authentic, living, breathing environments. Gethin and director Julian Jones let us accompany them on a location scouting trip to Borth where we trod infinite dunes and were almost literally run off private farmland after a wrong turn.

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An unusual day in a writer’s life, and a rewarding one, whose printed fruits exist only in the future.

Writer’s blog, Week 29, Friday

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It’s Friday. Not quite the end of the working week, as I have to write and clip Telly Addict tomorrow. Yesterday, I found myself in Hastings, just for one day, and – a complete stranger in town – I was surprised and delighted to run into an old friend from Chelsea School of Art, who was in the year above me and whom I may not have seen since the 90s, maybe even the 80s: Peter Quinnell (whose website is here should you wish to commission one of his fabulously arch collages, which he has been perfecting for 25 years). The reason I mention it, is that he called me “Andy.” Because when he knew me, in the mid-80s, I was called Andy.

I dug out my 1979 diary, above, as it marks the first transition from my birth name Andrew, to what I felt was the cooler and more casual Andy. As you can see, I carefully Letrasetted “Andrew Collins” onto the Boots page-a-day diary to confirm ownership, presumably when I first got it, for Christmas 1978. However, this was the year punk broke in Northampton (sorry, but it was), and certainly the year puberty broke in my endocrine system, hence the later branding, in punk-styled ransom lettering, carefully sealed under Sellotape: “Andy Collins. Private!”

The name-change, aged 14, was non-negotiable. It went on all my exercise books. I practised writing it, and elongated it into an artistic “signature”. I was saying to the world in a first flush of defiant individualism: Andrew – he dead.

It’s weird to be called Andy again. But perfectly normal for Pete to do so, as I was sealed in the aspic of time as far as he’s concerned. Still Andy. Still a student. Twenty eight years have passed since he graduated from Chelsea; 27 since I did. We all reinvent ourselves to a degree, although he was instantly recognisable when I saw him unlocking his car on Hastings’ Old High Street, and he only had to look twice to recognise me coming towards him. I must have looked something like this when he last saw me:

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And now I look like this.

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Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego … If you can identify which film that quote comes from, you’ll be ahead of me here. Yesterday I was tasked with telling the 46-year story of the Planet Of The Apes franchise for Radio Times, to tie in with the fact that the second rebooted entry in the series Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is imminent, and the first, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, is showing in two Saturdays’ time on C4. This is the kind of piece I am retained by the magazine to write. Most of the time, the film section is headed up by a straightforward actor/director junket interview, but occasionally, it remains unfilled until the last minute – Wednesday afternoon – when I must step in and provide a 750-800 word feature from scratch. It’s a bracing commitment.

As previously stated, I do not romanticise my own writing ability. If anything, I have delusions of adequacy. But I know I can write quickly, and to a reasonable professional, spell-checked, word-counted standard, and I never play the prima donna or tortured artist. Brief me at 2pm and I’ll deliver 800 words by 3.30pm. (Luckily for me, the sub-editors at Radio Times are wizards, so you’re always going to look better on the page than you ought.) Anyway, the reason I bring up the Apes feature is that, rather than just trot out the story, I tried to personalise it. This is encouraged. I reflected on the early 80s and an era in which my school- and then college-pal Paul Garner and I were obsessed with movie makeup effects.

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This imported 1983 issue of horror/fantasy/sci-fi journal Cinefantastique, which we both pored over as it were a holy sacrament, sums up our religion during that devoted period. In gory detail, its vast cover story unpicks makeup genius Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film Paul and I were dying to see. Although both of us loved drawing and caricatures – Paul actually produced a full-size, Mad magazine-influenced spoof of Planet Of The Apes (one of our favourite films) – he was the ingenious one who also moved into 3D model and mask design. I just sat on the sidelines and thrilled to his amateur triumphs: a full-head werewolf mask, a Woody Allen forehead and glasses (which I wore in a play). He went on to earn his living as a commercial artist, storyboarding and creating incredible bespoke prints, usually with a horror/fantasy/sci-fi theme. Once you’ve seen Peter Quinnell’s work, you might want to browse Paul’s.

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See, there’s a link here, and it was too good not to get down while I sit here in the Library. In writing about my fanboy love of makeup artists for next week’s Radio Times (they’ve headlined it, “Confessions Of A Fanboy”, which it kind of isn’t), I reminisced about my friend Paul, who pursued his love of art and design and made it his profession. Although I’ve seen him on and off into the current century, he will still think of me as “Andy”. In visiting Hastings and bumping into another friend, from college, who also called me “Andy”, I was once again reminded that I never pursued my love of art and design into a full-time career – although it opened the door for me to journalism, so I couldn’t have got here (wherever here is) without it.

I reverted from Andy back to Andrew in the late 80s, when I sought to establish myself as a professional illustrator, and had an invoice book and an accountant and my first answering machine. I drew the covers of these.

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I seem to remember I was discouraged by the design agency that employed me from signing the artwork, as it might be considered self-aggrandising by the client, Trinity-Mirror. So after all that fannying around about Andrew and Andy and Andrew (and, at one pseudonymous stage, Boone), I was anonymous.

I was the man with no name. The unknown artist. It squashes a man’s ego.

 

Writer’s blog, Week 26, Monday

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Back in London, as I missed the humidity, litter, scaffolding, oligarchs, controlled parking and housing bubble. They don’t even have an Aldi here! It’s Monday. A new week of fiddling while Rome burns, if fiddling is a metaphor for doing little bits of jobs rather than anything meaningful on a large-scale ongoing commission, and Rome is a metaphor for my career.

With Sitcom A in post-BBC3 limbo and Drama A in a holding pattern while a potential broadcaster gets round to reading the 32-page, 17,000-word synopsis (come on, hurry up!), my creative juices are being diverted into the channel marked “NEW IDEAS”. Although what we call in the trade “small jobs” overlapped and expanded to fill my three full days in glorious, sun-dappled, Northamptonian exile (a TV review for the Guardian Guide’s Other Side page which shouldn’t have taken that long but I still feel as if I’m on probation in the actual paper; my Telly Addict script plus clips; some time-consuming editing work which already feels as if it’s taken three times as much time as I charged for), I am now dedicating that key bumper period between being awake and falling asleep to formulating at least three new sitcom pitches.

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The World Cup is on. (The football one.) Because of the four- and five-hour time difference between here and Brazeel – to use the official pronunciation from ITV’s lilting credits sequence – some games kick off at 11 o’clock. At night. I’m usually tucked up in bed by then, not gearing up for 90 minutes of silky footballing action, sometimes involving a team that happens to share my nationality which has a Pavlovian effect on my general interest. England supplied their traditional dose of expectation and disappointment on Saturday night and into Sunday morning. I managed not to drink anything until 10pm, which was restraint in excelsis, but I was still imbibing at 1am, which is not my usual style unless at a wedding.

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This is me at the Guardian yesterday afternoon, fighting my way through the Lego (they’re doing their now-traditional Lego reenactments of the World Cup highlights, which are always a joy), to enact this week’s Telly Addict (coming imminently, watch this space) which includes a review of the opening ceremony and a little comment on the difference between the ITV and BBC presentation. I won’t be reviewing any games for the Guardian, and although somehow, in previous years, I’ve found time to post regular bulletins from World Cups and Euro Championships on this blog (representative samples: World Cup 2010, Euro 2012), I don’t see that luxury happening this tournament.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say (Pogba’s cake-style haircut, Andy Townsend’s continued use of the phrase, “got a toe to it”), it’s just that the best pithy commentary comes from armchair experts on Twitter, and my brain isn’t big enough to have my phone on during televised matches. The TV picture, the phenomenal Guardian World Cup Guide, conversation: that’s quite enough stimulus for me. I admire you if you can cope with all that plus social media and stay sociable in the room.

I’ve enjoyed the high-scoring matches I’ve seen so far, by the way. Own goals, yellow cards, famous players being rubbish, headbutts, physio breaks his own ankle … it’s not been without incident, has it? I can’t believe I had to choose between it and the Game Of Thrones season finale. Culture can be so cruel.Blog16JunG2

I may well make this radiant, sanguine face while producer Tom has left the studio to do something important and to tread Lego into the carpet. There’s a serious insurgency afoot in Iraq, and as if the imminent destabilisation of the Middle East and a faction too horrible for al-Qaeda committing something we loftily call “war crimes” wasn’t depressing enough, it means Tony Blair is on my television and in my newspaper. Fuck off! Admit defeat! Go and live in Donald Rumsfeld’s house if you like it so much!

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Stop press: managed one World Cup game – the game of one half: Germany Portugal – and the finale of Game Of Thrones. The latter lacked a character as vicious, malevolent and ruthless as Pepe. And it went to penalties. [Throw in further Game Of Thrones/football allusions here]

H.R. Giger changed my life

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I was sad to read of the death, aged 74, of the Swiss surrealist artist Hans Rudolf “H.R.” Giger. Through his groundbreaking, influential designs for the alien and its environments in Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking, influential murder mystery in space Alien – a style that was known as “biomechanical”, a precisely airbrushed cross between the visceral and the metallic – he had more than crossed my radar. Although I was under the age of consent to see Alien on release in 1979, as an avid teen film fan I bridged the gap by requesting The Book Of Alien – a lavishly illustrated making-of by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross – for my birthday in March 1980. Via the portal of this otherwise conventional softback souvenir, I entered the rarefied, graphic world of Giger (the book was full of initial sketches and designs by various artists, but his dominated).

This book, though cherished, did not change my life. But Giger did, in 1987, although I didn’t even know it at the time. I was a student at Chelsea School of Art in 1987, on the cusp of graduation and what I hoped would be some approximation of a “career” as an illustrator or more specifically a cartoonist (my chosen area of expertise in the sense that it chose me: I wasn’t much good at proper drawing). I had been an avid reader of the NME since the year Alien was released, and had keenly rolled with its evolutionary punches as it morphed from the inky rag of the post-punk era to a post-modern media studies pamphlet designed with acres of white space in the early-to-mid 80s. What I didn’t know, as a reader, in 1987, is that the paper was on its knees, commercially speaking. This would have been no concern of mine; as long as my weekly fix of music news, culture and dangerous Marxist politics arrived on a Tuesday, all was well.

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I was the sort of nerdy NME reader who pored obsessively over what I didn’t know at the time was called “the masthead” (ie. the list of staff and freelance writers), and noted any personnel changes with interest. As a student of art and design, I also mapped the visual changes in the NME in relation to whoever was  designing it, and knew that the reigning art editor in 1987, Joe Ewart, had ushered in a starkly dynamic page layout, of which I approved. It was very much in keeping with advances in style magazine design over at The Face and i-D, except printed on shitty newspaper.

In 1988, I was living in a studio flat in South West London and attempting to keep the wolf from the door by taking on soulless freelance illustration work for a modest design agency. It was not “art”, but if I drew enough cartoon cats, cyclists and reindeers in a month for corporate handouts, I could pay the rent. (If you bought the puzzle magazine Puzzled around this time, you will have seen my cartoon owls, polar bears, penguins and other assorted fauna – this was the vertiginous level at which I toiled.) In order to satisfy my creative juices, I decided to produce my own fanzine and write about things that interested me and perhaps sell a few copies, like two new NME writers on the masthead whom I had quickly grown to idolise, Steven Wells (who produced Molotov Comics) and James Brown (Attack On Bzag).

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I did not make my own fanzine, This Is This, in their image; instead, I went for neatly typed columns of copy with – yes – plenty of white space around them. I wrote about Tony Hancock, Stephen King, Gerry Sadowitz and the water metaphors in Lloyd Cole’s lyrics, and drew my own cartoon strips satirising TV-AM, Time Out and Apocalypse Now. I borrowed the photocopier at the design company that employed me and used it to “size up” my illustrations and create a clean page design. Then I paid Kall-Kwik to print me up and staple 100 copies. My aim was to carry them around in an Our Price plastic bag and sell them at gigs. I think I sold around a dozen.

However – and here’s where my life intersects with H.R. Giger’s, without his or my knowledge – I sent a copy of This Is This to James Brown, recently installed Features Editor at the NME, and, I hoped, a kindred spirit. The height of my ambition at this stage was to have my fanzine mentioned in the bitty news section Thrills, which James edited. Maybe I would flog a few copies by mail order. What I wasn’t doing at this point was looking for a job at the NME. The prospect was a fictional one.

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I’m glad that I didn’t know then what I know now about how the office of a weekly music paper works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wasted a stamp. The probability that the brown envelope containing This Is This would have been opened, never mind the contents being read, was close to zero. I could never have imagined how high the teetering pile of envelopes on James Brown’s in-tray was. However, the stars were aligned for me, and he did open my envelope, and he did flick through my fanzine, and he did phone me up.

In the message he left on my answer machine he said he liked the fanzine and wanted to have a chat with me about it. I was cock a hoop, and yet still only dreaming of seeing my fanzine mentioned in the pages of the NME. He invited me up to the offices of the paper in London’s New Oxford Street – which was, for me, like visiting Mecca – and casually mentioned that he might be able to put a bit of writing work my way.

Now, the history books tell us that back the white heat of July 1976, the NME ran a small ad asking for “hip young gunslingers” to write “lively and incisive prose” in an effort to refresh the lifeblood of the paper in the wake of punk rock with a new staff writer. (Actually, the history book – Pat Long’s closest-to-definitive The History Of The NME.) It ended up with two from the 1,200 applications: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, with Ian Cranna, Paul Morley and Paul DuNoyer taken on as freelancers. No such formal clarion call went out in 1988, but Brown and his successor on the live desk, Helen Mead, were unofficially tasked with trying out some new writers. It was in this spirit of provincial empowerment that I found myself sucked into the wonderful and frightening world of the NME. (Barbara Ellen, Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq were among those who also had their professional lives changed in the same period of conscription.)

Though lured into the office with the promise of writing work, a part-time vacancy was going in the NME art room and, technically if not practically qualified, I was introduced by James to editor Alan Lewis and new art editor (previously Joe Ewart’s assistant) Justin Langlands, who seemed to like me – or perhaps just my dungarees and Age Of Chance baseball cap – and took me on. All of sudden, from a standing start, I had landed a two-days-a-week post at my bible, which quickly expanded to three days. When Justin took his first holiday in the August of ’88, I actually became Art Editor for a fortnight; that’s two issues of the paper I’d read and re-read for almost a decade under my aesthetic control (yes, I redesigned all the logos while Justin was away, and Justin reinstated the old ones when he got back).

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From my new vantage point, I set about bothering all the section editors for writing work, and one by one, they caved. My “journey” from layout boy to actual bylined NME writer had begun. The rest is autobiography. But without H.R. Giger, the man whose art had so captivated me in The Book Of Alien, my life might never have wound its rudderless way in this direction, and the NME might have remained a weekly newspaper I pored over and not one I actually tinkered with from the inside. The “media”, as I did not yet refer to it in 1988 – and an industry of which I did not count myself as a member – might have remained over there. I have no idea if I would still be a freelance illustrator, providing print-ready artwork for puzzle books, but it’s conceivable. If not for nine erect penises …

In 1987, when my wildest dreams still revolved around perhaps drawing my own comic strip for a newspaper, the NME I loved was undergoing one of its habitual regime changes. I couldn’t have known how seismic. According to Pat Long’s account, sales had fallen below 100,000 copies for the first time in 31 years. It is sad to say, but choosing Neil Kinnock as its cover star in the week of the General Election – a decision that thrilled me to marrow of my bones as a reader, and cemented all my political ideals – was symbolic of the NME‘s propensity to back a loser. The paper’s owners, IPC, saw that famous cover (“Lovely, lovely, lovely!”) as the shortest suicide note in history. Editor Ian Pye was sacked, and “safe pair of hands” Alan Lewis was parachuted in.

His commercial instinct and desire to drag the NME back to being about – hey – music were seen as anathema to remaining stalwarts like media editor Stuart Cosgrove PhD – a mid-80s appointee of editor Neil Spencer, under whose leadership the paper entered what was, for me, a purple patch of polemic and pretense. It was future Channel 4 Controller of Arts and Entertainment Cosgrove who produced an issue devoted to censorship while Lewis was on holiday in September ’87, which involved the reproduction of a sexually explicit painting by H.R. Giger known as Penis Landscape. It had been given away as a poster by Californian punk activists the Dead Kennedys in 1985 with their Frankenchrist album and landed the band and their lable in legal hot water. It depicted nine erect penises entering nine orifices that could be vaginas or anuses. What could possibly go wrong?

The NME folklore passed down to us was that the printers had refused to  print it and downed tools. According to Long, it was more a case of the colour repro lab complaining about having to print it, but the industrial kerfuffle gave IPC management the excuse to get rid of the staffers it considered “troublemakers”, notably Cosgrove – who I presume considered it a cause worth dying for – and Joe Ewart. “Media” returned to being a token section of the paper with film and book reviews in it, and Ewart’s assistant, Justin, took the art reins. (Having worked under him, I know that Justin was surprised and delighted to get the gig, although the trade-off was allowing Alan into the design room, whose lack of design finesse did not stop him wielding a scalpel and demanding bigger, clearer, more literal layout.)

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Without understanding its significance, with a few months of my arrival in Justin’s art room, the NME moved offices back to IPC’s skyscraping HQ King’s Reach Tower in Waterloo. We were the unruly child, taken in hand and put under the same roof as Mum and Dad. I had no real idea that I was part of a new era, but events have proven that to be the case. Under Alan’s earnestly commercial helm, we started to produce a tighter, brighter, more focused, less discursive and more humorous paper. The circulation went back up. We even managed to cover Acid House within the newly revived, conventional rock format, made easier when, during the Madchester boom, guitar bands took E and picked up samplers, while Lamacq and new lieutenant Simon Williams plugged directly into an energised, corporate-sponsored indie scene. (As Lamacq told Long, “Everyone at that time wanted Danny Kelly’s approval,” and this genuflection to the larger-than-life successor to Alan Lewis generated real heat in the office, regardless of musical affiliation.)

If you’d asked me my preference as a media outsider in 1987, I would have wished for a Labour government and the continuation of the Ewart/Pye/Cosgrove regime. I would have cheered a pullout H.R. Giger anal fantasia every week and stuff those evangelistic reactionaries in the print trade. But it was not to be. There’s only so much sticking it to The Man you can get away with when you’re part of the machine, which the NME always was. (Believe it or not, we never referred to it as a “brand” in the late 80s – that was all to come.)

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So rest in peace, H.R. Giger. You changed my landscape, and very possibly paved the way for Hull indie rockers Kingmaker to breach the Top 20 in 1992.

 

 

Writer’s Blog, Week 7, Wednesday

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Coming up for air. You know the rules: if I’m not blogging, I’m writing. That is, writing for a living. It’s Wednesday. This is the first five minutes I’ve had to myself on a working day since just after Christmas. Some non-working days – I usually call them “Saturday” and “Sunday” – have become working days, in order that the work that needed to be done got done. On Monday evening, I printed a 58-page script out, at home in my office. A glorious reward in itself. A collaboration, it is the script that is the culmination of the project that has been exercising my co-writer and I since the day after Boxing Day.

Naturally, I cannot go into any details, as it is “in development” and not a commission. There’s a lot riding on it though. It will be my first drama script since leaving EastEnders in 2002, since which I have been exclusively writing, or script-editing, comedy. I’ve realised over the last year or so that drama is what really gets my juices flowing. From where I’m sitting ie. on my settee, when TV drama is done well, it is far more substantial than comedy. (I even admire the comedy I love the most for its structure and plotting.) As misfortune would have it, I had another sitcom pilot script turned down by a broadcaster (it was the BBC, what the hell) in early January, but because I was so into writing this drama, I had no time to sit around and mope and conclude that I am no good at this. (Here is a selfie of me wracked with self-doubt.)

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So, my current project – we’ll call it Drama A – is a life-saver. The green-light came through just before Christmas, which was the best present a writer can receive: the go-ahead. Our brief was to provide one script and eight detailed story breakdowns for the whole series. This has been a massive undertaking. We have willingly let it infuse every moment of the waking day. It was actually a pleasure to succumb to it. I have been going to sleep at night thinking about, waking up in the morning thinking about, grinding away on the treadmill at 9.2kmh at a 6 gradient with it going around in my head, and falling upon the laptop of a breakfast with gusto. None of this means it will be a good script, but boy, have I enjoyed writing and storylining it. This is a pleasing development. Even if it fails to win a full series, it’s been an uplifting start to the year, a fruitful collaboration, and, crucially, a bit of paid work.

A new shirt for Telly Addict 2014 [pictured], which turned 141 weeks old this week. Still loving it. Still loving the engagement with viewers below the line. Still preferring this season’s neat, product-assisted new haircut on camera (I think it’s called age-appropriate). And I’ve just written a longer piece for the actual paper about medical documentaries. Look out for it in March.

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Another unexpected job came in amid all this: script-editing the second series of an existing sitcom and working for the firs time with a talented and much younger writer and performer. Interestingly, the first series was script-edited by a comedy writer I already hold in ridiculously high esteem, so I feel lucky to have stepped into his shoes. I’ve been sat in an office at a production company in Shoreditch with the writer and thoroughly enjoying bouncing story ideas around and turning the beats into Post-It notes (and ordering in lunch from Pret and not having to pay for it). More on this when it gets closer to fruition. I’ve enjoyed being the only clean shaven man in Shoreditch, too.

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Talking of heavily bearded areas of East London, I found myself perched on something that wasn’t strictly a stool beside the mighty Ben Watt (historically of Everything But The Girl) at Rough Trade East on Brick Lane last Thursday, interviewing him about his compelling and beautifully etched new part-memoir-part-detective-story Romany & Tom. It’s about his elderly mum and late dad, and paints a vivid and candid picture which will strike a chord with anyone with parents over the age of 70, a parent who is no longer with us, or just any parent at all. I had literally stepped in for Alexis Petridis, who had a bad foot, and it was more pleasure than work. (Thanks to Geoff Titley for the photo. He was among a particularly friendly and attentive crowd.)

A busy start to 2014, then, but welcome, as last year wasn’t without its financial worries. (Hey, join the club.) I also managed to squeeze in a fine social evening at posh burger joint and boozer in London with Chris Chibnall of Broadchurch fame (he’s writing series two and told me who the murderer is) (I’m joking, of course), especially as I was able to tap him for a few drama-writing tips at a crucial time for me. Also, the annual Radio Times Covers Party, one of the only glitzy dates on my calendar and an excuse, as is traditional, to play Zelig with willing celebs I have never met before. (You know the drill by now. The year I become blasé is the year I hand in my badge and gun.)

This year, I had my photograph taken by choirmaster Gareth Malone with top artist Grayson Perry, and my photograph taken by Grayson Perry with Gareth Malone. I think it may have been an art project.

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And here’s one of all of us, taken by Gareth’s wife! And finally, me and the Broadchurch posse: Olivia Colman, Andrew Buchan and that Chibnall bloke. (What’s he doing in the picture? All he did was write it.)

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After which I packed my best jacket away for another year and put my writing beret back on. Thank you for bearing with me while I have pretty much boycotted my own blog, and I hope you will excuse me if I slope off again for a bit. There’s a window of solipsistic opportunity here, of course, as I wait for my homework to be marked by the teachers. That’s exactly what it feels like when you’ve delivered a script. The red pen cometh.

Oh, and we were lucky enough to live on an incline quite a long way away from the Thames in London during the rainy season so avoided actual flooding, but it breaks my heart every time I see a family home underwater on the news. I fucking hate this government. Because it’s all their fault.

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.

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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.

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.