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.

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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.)

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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 6, Wednesday

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At last. I’m doing something interesting. It’s Wednesday, and instead of photographing myself self-consciously looking to one side in the British Library canteen, or on a train, I write today from Glasgow, which in itself is unusual, and from within a caravan, which is even more unusual. This caravan is my dressing room, for today I am an actor. Look, there’s my name on the door. The caravans are parked up in the car park of a suburban industrial estate, which is where Scottish production company The Comedy Unit live. (They live in a unit.) They are currently making Secret Dude Society for BBC3, or “the Pappy’s sitcom” as it’s colloquially known.

My work as script editor finished just before Christmas, when pre-production turned into production, and any further edits to the script would be the responsibility of the writers and producer. I have just been into makeup (which is another, bigger caravan) although you won’t notice, as I have been made up to look like myself. This is because I am playing “Andrew Collins” in the show. I only have two lines, but it’s a lovely gift from Pappy’s, in return for being the schoolteacher who’s been marking their homework with a red pen since September.

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An actor’s life can be a lonely one. I have discovered that. I am alone in my caravan. The other three actors who are filming today are in their own caravans. Whenever my next-door neighbour, the actor Kim Wall, enters his caravan, it shakes, and so does mine. I am holding up today’s call-sheet in the picture above, but have been careful not to show anything that’s on it, as I suspect this is not for public consumption. I will have to check with the producers before I reveal any more about my cameo role. In fact, I’d rather keep it a secret until the show is broadcast – it’ll be more fun that way. I am expecting to be called to costume any moment, so I’ll stop typing.

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Another rare thing was waking up in a hotel room this morning. There is something slightly extravagant about taking a train up to Glasgow and being put up in a hotel in order to deliver two lines in a sitcom, but that’s entertainment. There is also something about travelling alone that lends you the air of a sales rep. Breakfast for one, all that. Fortunately, I was rescued from the tragedy of eating room service, alone, last night, as Pappy’s – that is, Matthew, Ben and Tom – are pretty much living up in Glasgow for the duration of the show and they took me to their local tapas bar, where we drank beer and picked at “small plates” until midnight, subsequently joined by none other than my old radio pal Josie Long, The Pictish Trail aka Edinburgh’s fine-bearded Johnny Lynch, and “young comedian” Tom Deacon, who I like very much. (Tom is also up to deliver two lines for Pappy’s.)

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Anyway, here’s another pathetic shot of me in Room 212 at the Abode Hotel (or the Adobe Hotel, as Matthew erroneously calls it, imagining it to be photoshopped and daubed with mud). It’s nice to stay in pleasant hotels, but it’s nicer to stay in them with a friend, spouse or partner.

Hey, I like to think of myself as well-travelled, but until today I had never seen or used one of these before:

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It’s a kind of self-contained, ready-loaded individual plastic coffee filter-ette. Environmentally destructive, it also makes a disgusting cup of coffee, I discovered this morning while waiting in my room to be picked up and ferried to the “unit base” and thence to the filming location. (Mind you, I put UHT milk in it, and that’s against nature, and the downside to making coffee in a hotel room is, of course, that you use water from a bathroom sink, which isn’t for drinking.)

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As I type, I’m on the train home from Glasgow and back in the stultifying realms of the usual sort of Photo Booth picture I take of myself for Writer’s Blogs. The actual filming took very little time, although it was thrilling to be around technicians and crew who know exactly what it is they’re doing. It’s like a well-oiled machine. If something went wrong, you just know these people would deal with it, and get back on schedule.

Director Ben Kellett (the man you see at the end of Mrs Brown’s Boys, taking a bow with the rest of the crew and family), whom I’d never previously met, seems to be “on it”, and Pappy’s seem pleased with the way the show’s panning out. I won’t give anything away about my tiny cameo, or Tom Deacon’s, but it’s in what’s planned as the final episode, and this was my costume. (I wore my own trousers.) Oh, and when I mischeviously Tweeted the shirt earlier, one brilliant wag asked, “Are you playing Jason Manford.” Now that’s comedy.

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It’s been a fun trip. I managed to write a 1,000-word feature on Judd Apatow for Radio Times on the train journey up, and my Films Of The Day copy for Radio Times on the train journey back. I’m like a shark; if I stop moving, I die.

By now, this caravan will have been converted back into a dressing room for the next actor. But it was mine for a couple of hours. Mine.

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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.)

portillotrain

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.

Writer’s blog: Week 47

Wednesday

I give up. I don’t know what week number it is. Anyway, we’re hurtling toward December, I know that much, it’s Wednesday, and the heat is on at the Pappy’s sitcom for BBC3, Secret Dude Society (the working title seems to have almost hardened into a title, but not fully so hold your horses for a bit longer). As I type, I’m currently on the East Midlands train, more literally hurtling back to London Euston from Northampton for a full day’s script meeting with “the boys” – Matthew, Ben and Tom, who are not boys – our fastidious Scottish bosses Gav and Rab from Glasgow’s illustrious, industrial estate-based production company The Comedy Unit, and producer Izzy (with whom I previously worked on the cruelly cancelled Gates for Sky). I am, as previously stated, script editing the six-episode series. The onus remains on “the boys” to come up with the goods, which, after all, they will be acting out in a TV studio in February before a live studio audience, but my job is to help pat it into shape. It’s cool to be part of someone else’s first sitcom and to be around a conference table with creative, funny people.

I was involved in a talk at the University of Northampton last night, part of a series called Articulation, a sort of “tag lecture” with fellow alumnus Bill Drummond. I will write about that unlikely and amazing experience once I have the photographic evidence that it even took place.

Thursday

I am unnaturally soothed by the repetitive, mundane, always-looking-sideways-off nature of the PhotoBooth pictures I take of myself to illustrate Writer’s Blog. They are spectacularly uninteresting, and reveal little about my physical context (oh, not those ducts at Radio Times again!), but they are honest and true. And they reveal the routine nature of my life. And the occasional fluctuation one way or another in terms of the size of my double chin.

Arrived in London at 10.27 yesterday morning, as advertised (I must admit, I am generally quite lucky on this train from Northampton, the 09.25, which I regularly take after a sleepover at Mum and Dad’s), and joined Pappy’s and co round the circular conference table in a ground-floor conference room at the West Kensington-based media company who own The Comedy Unit by 11.00, unnaturally hot, as ever, after a trudge in too many layers with too many bags. (This time of year is always a conundrum: waterproof outer layer, optional jacket underneath, optional cardigan under that, over shirt … how to strike the perfect, temperature-controlled balance? On Stephen Fry Gadget Man on C4, he demonstrated an air-conditioned jacket, from Japan. I don’t want one.)

With all six scripts at varying stages of completion, we read aloud, and made notes, and shared notes, and made more notes, from 11am-6pm, and ate the traditional platters of M&S sandwiches and sausage rolls (cheese ones for the veggie) while we worked, so as not to waste valuable time. It was, as you can imagine, as hard and tiring as the equivalent time spent working down a coalmine. I still love the fact that the sort of food we eat in the middle of a working day is exactly the kind to ensure a slump, mid-afternoon: bread, pastry, sponge, potato. We are a curious race.

My day at Radio Times today has been focussed. I have had to supply a week’s worth of Film of the Days for the magazine that will hit the armchairs of Britain in two weeks’ time, as we are in “Christmas pick-up”, which is where everybody works super-hard in order to get the famous Christmas double-issue (our biggest seller of the year) out in good time for the festive period, which means foreshortened working weeks in order to pull all schedules forward. (This means that the staff get an actual week off for Christmas, secure in the knowledge that the issues for the first week of the New Year is already “in bed”.)

Arrived home to find that my annual Cats Protection advent calendar had arrived in the post today. You may be unsurprised to hear that this is my favourite charity after Thomas’s Fund, of which I am a proud patron. What can I say? I like cats. It is also an annual New Year tradition to scan the opened calendar, even though it is impossible to do it and let you see inside each door, without removing the doors, which would be counterproductve, as the names of the kits are on the door.

Oh, alright, here’s one where the doors are off. You’re so demanding.

Anyway, it’s good to think of those less fortunate than ourselves at this cold and festive time of year, so spare a thought for those who haven’t been sent a Cats Protection advent calendar.

Read an alarming but expected piece in today’s Media Guardian about BBC4 controller Richard Klein considering axing the currently ongoing, back-to-back Top of the Pops repeats from the late 70s. They’ve had to yank a couple presented by Jimmy Savile in recent weeks, and one presented by DLT, and you can understand why Klein might be nervous about forging on with the initiative into 1978 next year. (After all, even though Kid Jensen, Noel Edmunds, Peter Powell etc. are free from any implication of wrongdoing, it’s the atmosphere of adult male DJs surrounded by fawning teenage girls and introducing the lovely Legs & Co with a glint in their eye that now seems to have curdled with recent revelations.) I love these re-runs – shown in full, unedited, they present valuable social documents, and I hope BBC4 keeps airing them. It’s too easy to edit the past, and these half-hours show 1976 and 1977 as they were, with The Jam rubbing seditionary shoulders with the frankly offensive Barron Knights. Save TOTP!

Watched Sky’s documentary about Bradley Wiggins, A Year In Yellow (can’t imagine why Sky had exclusive access to him … oh yes), and found myself utterly captivated by it, despite my threadbare interest in sport and almost non-existent interest in cycling. Not only did it explain the Tour de France for me – thanks to intelligent and eloquent input from three cycling journalists who were a credit to their trade and chosen sport – it depicted Wiggins in an honest manner. He seems decent, self-aware, dedicated, a family man, averse to fame, a bit shy, a lover of peace and quiet, proud of his tower-block roots (his Nan, who raised him, still lives on the same estate) and committed to the purist notion that he will not leave his wife for a supermodel, nor takes drugs to enhance his sporting performance. I wish him well, and will review this programme, with clips, on next week’s Telly Addict.

Friday

Just heard from the University of Northampton that some official photos of my night with Bill Drummond are on their way, so expect a full account soon. I’m off for a meeting with my agent today, what we call a “catch-up”, which is always done face to face. Clearly I can’t give anything away, but I will say this: I’ve had some encouraging news from a particular broadcaster this week about one of the projects I have “in development”, something I’ve developed and written by myself and have invested a lot in. Not a commission, as yet, but not a knockback, or an interminable series of notes, and that in itself is promising.

As mentioned above, but not stated for the record before, Gates has not been recommissioned by Sky Living. I’m sad about this, as I felt we – the team who wrote it – had more stories to tell about these parents and teachers. It is not to be. And there was me thinking everything got a second series on Sky! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that Mr Blue Sky – a far more personal project – was not automatically recommissioned by Radio 4, but we’re in the process of re-submitting it as we speak and have fingers crossed for a good decision before Christmas. If we get the green light – and again, I have loads more stories to tell with Harvey, Jax, Ray, Sean, Lou etc. in a third series – it may not air until 2014, but it would mean a concrete commission for the New Year. I’d love to end another uncertain, up-and-down professional year with something positive in the diary for 2013.

I do know that Personal Training, the short film I wrote with Simon Day, who stars, will be airing in the New Year as part of Sky Atlantic’s Common People strand, for which ten character-based shorts have been made by Baby Cow. That has been officially announced: it begins in January as part of Sky Atlantic’s Comedy Monday line-up. We shot it in two days, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. It marks the debut of Simon’s latest character, Colin Reed. We wrote a film about him for C4, years ago, which was put into development and then cancelled before it went into production after one of those pesky management changes that happen all the time. We have always been determined to get Colin out there, and thanks to Sky, and Baby Cow, that is definitely going to happen.

The estimable Stuart Jeffries, who has written scathingly about C4 in the past, has gathered his thoughts on the 30-year-old channel for the Guardian this week, a very good read. Over the years, as both presenter and writer, I’ve been in and out of meetings at all the major broadcasters, including C4, although off the top of my head, I think the only actual programmes I’ve been involved in have been clips shows (nothing wrong with those, of course, although they’ve thankfully dried up).

When I was still paired with Stuart Maconie in the 90s and simultaneously on ITV with the Movie Club and Radio 1 with the Hit Parade, we paid our first visit to C4 at Horseferry Road to pitch our own comedic cultural magazine show (Get Culture!) with a supportive commissioning editor who left the channel about a week later. We learned a valuable lesson that day: you’re only as popular as the current commissioning editor thinks you are.

The late Harry Thompson, whom I interviewed about Peter Cook for Radio 4, and had stewarded The 11 O’Clock Show to fruition, gave me an insight into how C4 then worked: some excitable exec would designate some up-and-coming comedian as “the new face of the channel”, tell them so, wine them and dine them, try them out in a few things, and then tell them that, in fact, they were no longer “the new face of the channel”, because somebody else was. In this, I guess C4 are not so different from the BBC, or ITV, or Sky, who have long been in the business of creating a Hollywood-style “stable” of stars. But unless you have signed a contract, it’s all meaningless.

When Simon and I developed and wrote the 90-minute version of Personal Training for C4, in 2007, we had every reason to believe it was going to air. Instead, it was never shot. You weather such setbacks, or else – as I always say – you get out of the business. When the 10-minute version airs on Sky in the new year, all the agony and the ecstasy will have been worth. (You could conceivably write scripts that are never made forever and live off it. But what kind of life is that? And in any case, unmade scripts will eventually start to work against your professional reputation!)

I discovered yesterday that Lee Mack’s autobiography, Mack The Life, has been published in hardback, in time for Christmas. I knew he was writing it, as he tapped me for some clarification about the early days of Not Going Out last year. I look forward to reading it, as I sincerely hope I am at least a footnote. But Not Going Out, as important as it has been for me, professionally, was never my show, and series six – the first without Tim – is being filmed right now, the second series with which I’ll have had no involvement whatsoever. I’m glad it’s still going, although Tim’s absence will be a problem, I suspect. We shall see. I’m out. When you work on a show almost full-time for two series, then as one of a much larger team for two further series, this seriously reduces your annual income. Then, we you are relinquished altogether, that has an even more profound effect on your income. But it’s good to be forced to concentrate on projects of your own. Series six airs in the new year. (Lee and I remain friends, by the way.)

Roll on the end of the year. It’s around now, just before the advent calendar doors start to be folded back, that I always start to take stock of the disappearing year. Has it been an improvement on last year, or the opposite? Have the highs outranked the lows? Have the slaps in the face outweighed the pats on the back? Don’t know yet.

Writer’s blog Week 46

Wednesday

Again, not actually sure if it is Week 46. It might be Week 45. I don’t really work in week numbers, other than the week numbers we use at Radio Times – which is where I am today; check out the ducting in our office! – but these refer ahead to the week of the issue we’re working on.

It’s dark. It’s only just gone 4.30 in the afternoon and it’s dark. Is it any wonder we, as a species, get depressed, or at least melancholy and reflective, in the autumn? It’s also dark – pitch black – when I leave the house in the morning, as I have joined a cheap gym and have pressed myself back into the service of keep-fit, after too long in the sedentary wilderness due to fiscal belt-tightening. Anyway, when I woke up this morning at just before 6am, I seriously forgot that there was a US Presidential Election going on in America. I checked the BBC News website on my phone at the bus stop at around 6.20am and was relieved to read the first headline saying that Obama had won. My only thought was: phew. (I Tweeted this.)

I watched his victory speech, live, from 6.30am. I was at the gym, first in the changing room, where the TV had sound, and then on the treadmill, without sound (or headphones), so I wasn’t able to hear all of what he said in Chicago. I could, however, read the closed-captioning on Sky News and ITV Daybreak, and I was struck by the frequency of this particular phrase:

[CLAPPING AND APPLAUSE]

I may remember that phrase for years to come, as it marked a happy day in all our lives. (Unless you think abortion should be outlawed and gays shouldn’t marry and poor people should stop complaining about being poor, which is your democratic right to do.) Seriously, if Romney had got in, we’d be looking at four very anxious years, especially as the full extent of his party’s right-wing extremism was allowed to uncoil from behind the facade of private-equity sheen like a big, scaly snake. At least this way, America probably won’t bomb Iran. Probably.

One of the tellies at my gym seems permanently to be tuned to one of those channels that just shows infomercials, which at least make perfect sense without being able to hear them: they are simply and baldly selling a product, which you send off for, and if you don’t like it after 30 days, you get your money back. I found it pretty easy to ignore a half-hour “show” in which Robert Dyas the ironmonger demonstrated lots of products, QVC-style, including what looked like a simple jug, but there’s a recurring ad, which also goes on and on and on for 30 minutes, which advertises a fitness regime you can do at home called Insanity. I find it harder to ignore.

I’m slightly fascinated by Insanity. I don’t need to check to know that it’s American. What’s funny about it is that, unlike other fitness programmes, which are usually predicated on being some kind of shortcut to fitness, this one looks … hmmm … insane. They keep cutting back to a massed workout where a eugenically musclebound instructor called Shaun T throws himself around and ordinary bodybuilders copy him. (Nobody looks unfit in these videos.) But when they show film of ordinary members of the public – you – working out in front of the TV, it looks really cumbersome and awkward and unsexy.

Frankly, unless you live in a hall, or a mall, with masses of space, Insanity looks awful. Sure, the results are there to see: men take their t-shirts off all the way through the infomercial to reveal rock-hard pecs and abs – but I foresee quite a lot of junctures at which you, at home, could feel like throwing in the towel.

What’s sweet about the package is that, as well as the DVDs, and a book, they also entice you with an Insanity calendar, featuring, well, men and women in PE kit with hard muscles, smiling. I’ll stick to photos of cats.

Thursday

Exciting day the British Library, as we had to evacuate the building at around midday. This happens sporadically; it’s a building with 14 million books in it, and I suspect it has pretty sensitive smoke detectors. It’s a huge upheaval, with hundreds of staff, readers and visitors forced not just out of the building itself, but off the grounds too, while the fire brigade investigate. The whole drill took about half an hour, but when you’re stood outside the gates, clutching your laptop (they instruct you not to take anything with you, but who’s going to leave their laptop?), unable to even nip to a coffee shop or pub until it’s blown over because your wallet is in your locker (maybe that’s just me), it feels like a major inconvenience. Once it’s clear that no book, or manuscript, or person, is in peril, you are at liberty to shuffle and moan and read Jonathan Freedland’s assessment of Obama’s second-term victory on your phone. (How did I ever survive without a phone that lets me read the Guardian on it? Why did you all stop me from getting one for so long?)

I should write something about writing. I’m waiting for some notes on one script I have in development with one broadcaster (let’s call it Script B), which, it has been reported back to me, they “really enjoyed.” Since a commissioning editor has no reason to pretend to have “really enjoyed” a script, I’m kind of hoping they actually did, and that the notes won’t make me want to give up writing for a living like the last set of notes on a different script – let’s call it Script A – in development with a different broadcast did. (That’s why I started writing these writer’s blogs in August, in fact.)

What’s really driving my working days, though, is the Pappy’s sitcom, whose working title is The Secret Dude Society, for BBC3, and which I am script editing. I like script editing; it harks back to my years in magazine publishing, when I edited as much as I wrote. It’s the closest I get to being a teacher, almost literally “marking” other people’s work and handing it back to them.

I find I am now often hired out to script-edit pilot scripts at various stages of development – in this capacity I’ve been lucky enough to work with Joe Wilkinson, Greg Davies and Shappi Khorsandi in the past 12 months – but the only full series I’ve edited has been The Persuasionists for Bwark on BBC2 in 2010, a show which I think legally has to be prefixed with the description “ill-fated.” For various reasons, it didn’t hit the spot, despite the talent involved, and the channel buried it mid-series after some bad reviews, but I sincerely hope its failure was nothing to do with my script editing.

Anyway, Secret Dude Society is another six-parter, producer by those kings of Scottish comedy The Comedy Unit, based in Glasgow, where, in January, Pappy’s will perform their first sitcom before a live studio audience. I won’t give anything more away other than what it is in the public domain already. I can, however, publish this exclusive shot of Matthew, Tom and Ben working very hard on a train home from Glasgow in September, at the start of our “journey” (but about halfway through our journey).

The “boys”, as we have taken to calling them, in true showbiz style (they are all about 30), are – naturally – also on tour, while writing five further episodes to make six along with the pilot (a read-through of which clinched the Grail-like series commission, before I came onboard). This is the way comedians like to work, it seems; a state of “up against it” seems to fire them. I’m thoroughly enjoying working with Matthew, Ben and Tom, and the wily Scottish men of the Unit. The funny thing is, as a script writer I seem unable to employ the advice I offer other writers as a script editor. Editor, edit thyself? I don’t think so. Turn out it’s much harder to “mark” your own work.

By the way, I saw Skyfall for the second time on Tuesday night. I really enjoyed it, again, after an interval of only three weeks. That’s the mark of a decent film. I also caught a bit of Never Say Never Again on Sky’s 007 channel, in which Sean Connery appeared, without irony, in denim dungarees with no shirt on underneath. That’s the mark of a shit film.

I’ve seen lots of other films that I haven’t had time to review here, but I have been very busy over the last few weeks and haven’t been blogging nearly enough. And I am going to have to stop blogging right now. I’ve worked out that since the tragic demise of Word magazine, there is a frustrating vacuum in my creative life, as nobody is employing me to write prose any more. I have plenty of dialogue to write, and other people’s dialogue to edit, but outside of my Radio Times duties, I don’t write articles any more. I find I use the blog to keep my prose-writing muscles toned, but no money changes hands, and so I feel kind of guilty for spending any time doing exactly what I am doing now.

That can’t be right, can it?

Nor can this, Medusa-like ball of paranoid ire Melanie Phillips’ refreshingly mad view of Obama’s re-election, linked to here for balance. Don’t worry, it’s not a link to the Daily Mail website so you won’t be adding to their hits.