Writer’s blog, Week 40, Thursday

Blog25Sep14

It is Thursday. It was quiet when I came into this coffee shop in a department store and secured my pleasant window seat just after it opened at 9.30am, but it is now noisier than the trading floor of the stock exchange, except with crying babies. Which is not to say I am getting any less done. When you’re a have-laptop-will-work transient, you learn to shut the noise out. I put my earphones in and thought seriously about listening to the new U2 album, which arrived for free in iTunes, but I couldn’t bring myself to press play. That’s what happens when you give something away for free. I’d rather hear the noise of babies actually crying and toddlers doing that whining thing that isn’t really crying, more a chorus of disgruntlement. I channel my disgruntlement through my fingers into my laptop.

I read a really good blog this week from Danny Brocklehurst, the blessed younger-than-me writer with a CV that gleams with Clocking Off, Shameless, The Street and Accused – the sorts of strands I’d love to have written for, had I not backed myself down the cul-de-sac of comedy – and is now crowned with The Driver, a project I’ve known about for a long time as I occasionally have a coffee with David Morrissey, its star and co-producer. Danny’s blog (I’ve never met him, by the way, but feel sufficient writerly solidarity to call him by his first name), was on the fabulous Writers’ Room website, and was mainly about writing The Driver. Read it here.

I always find the story of a project’s genesis interesting, as I’ve been there myself many times, albeit predominantly these days with projects that do not come to fruition and therefore do not qualify me to blog about them on the Writers’ Room website! Danny says that once he and his co-creator had come up with the idea for The Driver, he sat down and wrote the whole first episode, without waiting for anyone to ask him to. This means he wrote it on spec, which means for free. I envy him, I can’t lie. To be able to afford to do that is such a luxury. I’d love to just sit down and write a script, but it’s not practical. If I was commissioned to write one – and I currently have one project “in development” – I’d be able to clear the decks and concentrate on it.

These were Danny’s wise words on being in development:

Development can be painful sometimes. But the secret to getting through it is to listen to others whilst trying to keep hold of your original vision. If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy.

I feel his pain – and recognise his truth. If you don’t have the time to read his blog, he says that of the three episodes that comprise The Driver, one of them had to be rewritten from scratch. No writer is too good, or too decorated, or too old, to have to do that. It’s part of the process.

Blog25Sep14d

I am off to see the Head of Development at a very successful production company this afternoon. I’ve met him and worked with him before, but at another company, so it’s like starting again; I’ve also been in to talk about possible projects with at least two other people at the same successful production company in the past. One project actually expanded to at least three further meetings and a lunch, followed by a frenzied period of development with another writer, which led to a brick wall, and neither of us was paid a single penny for our time. So, Danny Brocklehurst was able to afford to write a whole episode of The Driver for free, and this other writer and I were expected to work up a storyline for an imagined comedy, also for free. If you’re a writer, you have to write and you don’t need anyone else’s permission first. If you don’t have to write, you might not be a writer. But when writing becomes your living, it’s sometimes irksome to have to do it with no guarantee of any recompense.

Blog25Sepe

I wonder if the small soya latte that you make last for two and a quarter hours is the most perfect symbol of a writer’s life? It costs money. So when you sit and write for two and a quarter hours with no guarantee of any recompense, you are literally down on the deal before you start. But what better inspiration to write something inspiring than having invested three pounds, and made yourself irritable with toddler whining and a laptop battery that tells you you’re down to 48%? (I was inspired to write this, but it’s better than nothing.)

I will pitch two things at the meeting. Unless it’s my lucky day, I have a sneaking feeling that neither will go any further, because producers and heads of development can always think of a reason why a commissioning editor won’t “go for it”. They are paid to know this, but it’s not an exact science, as commissioning editors a) change jobs all the time, and b) change their minds all the time.

I was planning to put a comedy idea in at the next “offers round” at Radio 4, having licked my wounds after the cancellation of Mr Blue Sky for long enough, but was tipped off that the commissioning editor didn’t want anything “media-related”, which my idea was. I tried to de-media it, but it made no sense without the media angle, so I stopped trying to bend it into a new shape, with Danny Brocklehurst’s wise words resonating around my head (“If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy”).

I don’t believe commissioning editors when they say, “We don’t want anything to do with the media,” because if they didn’t, why would Episodes or W1A be on my television?

U2free

The project I actually have in development is moving at a slow pace. (Once someone is paying you some development money, they earn the right to ask, “How soon can you get it to us?”, but you are not entitled to deliver a draft and say, with similar urgency, “How soon can you get your notes back to us?”) Luckily, I pitched a feature idea to the Guardian last week and they said an immediate yes, so I researched and wrote it, and delivered the copy yesterday and they like it. When TV moves at treacle pace, it’s refreshing to write something for a daily newspaper (albeit for the weekly Film section, so the publication window comes round less often).

Peakypass

On a similarly straightforward note, I had a job on Sunday which was paid, and yet entirely pleasurable: to host the Q&A after the world premiere of the first episode of the second series of Peaky Blinders in its spiritual home of Birmingham. That is a shot I took of my own access-all-areas pass as I sat, alone, in the green room beforehand, while stars like Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, creator Steve Knight and Benjamin Zephaniah soaked up the Brummie love on the red carpet. I’ve done a lot of Q&As, and if I could make my living out of doing it, sometimes I think I would. It’s fun. I find it thrilling rather than nerve-wracking, and I love meeting talented, creative people, even if we’re miked up in the process.

Being the host, moderator, facilitator, whatever, gives you a hint of importance, but you always know your place in the hierarchy, so it’s both elevating and humbling. But who wouldn’t want to see their name on a cinema seat?

Peakyreserved

It goes without saying that Steve Knight, a prolific and voluble individual with internationally acclaimed screenplays as well as this vast civic passion project under his belt, is one of those writers who’s currently inspiring me to get out of the comedy cul-de-sac. For a man so busy, I was surprised and encouraged to learn that he starts writing very early and likes to knock off at around 2pm. God, at least he’s about five years older than me – that’s far less worrying when you think your moment might have passed. I genuinely don’t believe mine has, but it crosses my mind more than it used to.

Also, he’s among the three men who came up with the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the late 90s. So I guess – I hope! – he too can afford to write a script for free.

And U2 can certainly afford to chuck out an album for free. I wonder what it’s like?

 

 

Advertisements

Who? What? Where? Why?

TA161

To quote my own blurb from the Guardian website: “Telly Addict Andrew Collins continues to look beyond the World Cup for essential TV and finds major head-scratching new drama The Honourable Woman on BBC2, revisits the dark Gothic horror Penny Dreadful on Sky Atlantic during its end-of-season crescendo, and admires two arts documentaries: Imagine … Monty Python: And Now For Something Rather Similar, and Rebels Of Oz with Howard Jacobson, both on BBC2. Plus, a sublime fake ad from Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on Sky Atlantic.” Now, back to the World Cup …

Writer’s blog, Week 25, Tuesday

Photo on 2014-06-10 at 09.37

Tuesday. Unless you’re one of these weird dilettantes who goes on holiday, you have to take your respite – even if it’s only geographical – where you can get it. A couple of days’ house-sitting for Mum and Dad in Northampton feels like a holiday, even though I have the same amount of work to do as if I were in London. A change of scenery is as good as a new play, sometimes. Because it’s sunny, I ate my breakfast on their patio. I could do this at home, but choose not to. I think I may be trying to make a few days’ hard work feel more holiday-like. Leave me alone.

Haven’t done a writer’s blog for a while – end of April – so there is much to update. I was at that time deeply optimistic about what had been previously coded Sitcom A but had entered the public domain via the British Comedy Guide as Wild Life. We staged a full-cast read-through in a small theatre above a pub in Turnham Green and it was a fabulous day. We couldn’t have put in any more effort – and by “we”, I mean my management company Avalon, our producer/director Sioned, and the illustrious cast, Frankie Boyle, Isy Suttie, Miles Jupp, Craig Campbell, Adam Hess and Angela Simpson.

It was not picked up.

I am disappointed by this outcome, but at least it draws a line under a project that was “in development” for two years. There’s only so much blood, sweat and tears you can put into something. During that time I was paid a one-off fee, despite all the extra rewrites and other energies expended upon it. A writer does not work by the hour, or the day, in development. (Actually, even when green-lit, a project pays a writer by the script, before residuals. This is why I sometimes wish I had the skills and training to be a plumber, where good work is paid for, and some even incur a call-out charge just to come and look at the problem. I never resent paying a plumber, as they can plumb and I cannot – despite my best DIY efforts in this vexed area!) Anyway, we move on.

Photo on 2014-06-10 at 09.38

Maybe Sitcom C should now be promoted to Sitcom B (I may call it The Scottish Sitcom, actually, for luck). It has – as previously logged – been turned down by one broadcaster, but is still “in play” with another, according to the exec at the production company which originally pitched it. With each day that passes without news, I imagine the worst.

What was Sitcom B last time we spoke (the collaboration with a very funny comedian based on one of his characters) has with caution and by default been upgraded to Sitcom A, in that it looked for all the world to have the best chance of being commissioned until BBC3’s move online was announced and all bets seemed to be off. Having, again, put a lot of hours in on this, I’d like it to go further, but nobody can legislate for the channel it’s pitched at being effectively shut down. I have made a new friend, either way. And no writing experience is wasted experience.

The production company who pitched Sitcom A also make Badults (that’s how I met them), which enjoyed a return to BBC3 before the drawbridge is pulled up, two Mondays ago. Having script-edited this series, I can honestly say I think it’s twice as strong as the first, which suffered many a sling and arrow on social media, but impressed the channel enough to get a second bite of the cherry. As is now traditional, we all watched Episode 1 go out live, round at Ben’s flat. Here we are.

Badults2flatlineup

From left to right: exec Gav (seen in cameo as the man with balloons in Ep1), producer Izzy, Badults Tom, Ben and Matthew, actors Ivan and Max, and script editor me. It’s a fun show to work on, and a thrill to see my name fly past in the end credits. I rather suspect its chances of a conventional third series are low, but nobody yet knows what the online BBC3 will look like, or if it will even commission anything longer than 10 minutes. (If I was fully online, I wouldn’t.) It’s very sad, and I hope David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and Alistair Campbell are pleased with themselves.

Drama A, incidentally, is moving at a pace slower than any comedy. We had a meeting with a broadcaster three weeks ago, at which positive noise were made (positive noises cost nothing – they literally give them away), and the first script and seven detailed storylines have been delivered. Why it’s taken me 26 years to discover this, I don’t know, but getting anything commissioned on TV is like trying to get the attention of a giant, distracted baby. Some days, you just run out of gurgling noises and funny faces.

Here’s your moment of Zen. BBC2 repeated I Love 1980 last weekend (as you know, I appeared on I Love 1980, I Love 1981 and I Love 1982), but it never turned up on iPlayer or On Demand, so I was unable to watch it. I found a shit version on YouTube, as a couple of people had pointed out how young I looked on it. (It was shot in 2000.) What you didn’t say was how fat I looked on it. I fear I have misremembered this particular bit of the past.

Ilove1980aIlove1980bIlove1980dIlove1982a

I’m so happy

TA157grabA week since Happy Valley reached its satisfying finale on BBC1, so on Telly Addict we catch up with that; also, Amber, an RTÉ One drama about another fictional kidnap showing here on BBC4; A Very British Airline, which is basically a long advert for British Airways on BBC2; Dinner At 11, a social/TV experiment from C4 involving preternaturally eloquent and politicised 11-year-olds (look out for Grace); and a lovely snippet of For No Good Reason, the feature-length portrait of Ralph Steadman which aired on Sky Atlantic. I wrote to Ralph when I was an art student and asked if I could become his assistant. He wrote back and said no, but to keep up the good work. I loved him then and I love him now.

Into the Valley

TA156HVjAs I type, we’re mere hours away from the final part of Happy Valley on BBC1, brutal and brilliant and one of the landmark dramas of the TV year so far, and featured heavily in this week’s Telly Addict. While animated by ensuing episodes of Sally Wainwright’s fem-centric Hebden Bridge crime saga, I have been let down by the way From There To Here unfolded in its second episode, also on BBC1, and also covered this week, for balance. Plus: the 1950s-Dublin-set Quirke, also on BBC1, which I’m loving, so I am, and Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed on BBC2, a rare treat for those of us who’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint. For fun, I cover Four Rooms on C4, which returned for its fourth series and is basically a posh Cash In The Attic, but no less fun for that. Happy Valley! Happy Valley! Happy Valley!

Slow shows

TA155Gj It’s all a bit behind schedule this week, with Telly Addict not recorded until Tuesday morning due to the pesky Bank Holiday and a “technical issue” holding up its launch. It eventually loaded on Wednesday (although the Guardian has been kind enough to leave a nice plug for it up until this morning). Anyway, in it, the amusing nature of Jack Bauer saying the word “pub” in 24 on Sky1; a fine new historical drama, set in 1996, from the BBC1, From There To Here; the same channel’s one-off karaoke tribute to Dylan Thomas for his centenary, A Poet In New York; Gogglebox reviewing Gogglebox winning a Bafta on C4; and a fast look at The Fast Show Special on BBC2.

Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane in Boss. Photograph: Chuck Hodes/S

Also, in other Guardian news, and in a much faster turnaround, an email arrived on Tuesday telling me that the box set of Boss (both seasons, currently still showing on More4) was out in June. On the same day I asked my friends at the Guardian Arts Desk if they’d like me to write about it for G2’s excellent Your Next Box Set slot. They said yes. I wrote it on Wednesday and delivered it on the same day. And it’s in the actual paper today. Hooray. You can read it here.

Fast shows

Golden-syrup-2

Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?

At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)

The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).

As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans – all illuminating about the process.

TA93gr

Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.

That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.

So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.

in-the-flesh

In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.

RT14ACBroadchurch

The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.

I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?

A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.

TA153grabTA146

I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.

I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.

Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!

Golden-syrup-2

The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.