2013: Writer’s blog

BlogWk4Mon21Jan BlogWk6WedFeb6caravan BlogWk10TuesRoundhouse BlogApril26N BlogMay30 BlogWk26Friday Photo on 2013-10-03 at 10.23 #2 Photo on 2013-10-13 at 09.15 BlogTues17Deccapsule

Behold, a year in “selfies”, although taken with my laptop not my phone, and holding a variety of mugs in a variety of places, including my old bedroom at my Mum and Dad’s house, a dressing room at the Roundhouse, a dressing room in a car park in Glasgow and a hotel lounge in Cheltenham. Having this week parodied my gender once again and organised 2013 into a series of lists, how about a more considered review of the year? This time last December, I will have been glancing over my shoulder and bemoaning the loss of Word magazine. A year and half on from its demise, I can state that nothing has replaced it. What I can’t have known last Christmas is that I would stop being asked to deputise on 6 Music in 2013 and have thus spoken nary a word on the radio all year, apart from a couple of appearances on Front Row (for which I remain grateful). Maybe this is for the greater good. If I didn’t read out my weekly TV review in a little rectangle on the Guardian website, I would be a writer and a writer only. There’s something appealing to me about that, after more than 25 years of dabbling and failing to commit. Signing with Avalon in March 2012 helped to focus me on what I really want to do with my life: write scripts. (And edit other people’s.)

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I think I’m right in saying that a year ago I had two comedy pilot scripts in development. One of those, Total Class for Channel 4, has since fallen by the wayside (I may as well name it now it’s dead). The other, for the BBC, has enjoyed a belated surge of energy with a top-level cast assembled around it with a view to a read-through for the broadcaster in the New Year. Fingers crossed for that. (The surviving script was commissioned at the same time as Total Class, but I’ve been working really hard on rewriting it from scratch.) In addition, I now have another sitcom in development, of which more presently, but which began life in February over a desk in the offices of production company The Comedy Unit in Glasgow when I was up to cameo in series one of Badults (which they produce and which I script edit). Below is a snapshot of Tom, Ben and Matthew aka Pappy’s, exec Gavin, me and producer Izzy at an early London session for series two of Badults, which is pretty much ready to shoot in early 2014. A very happy association for me. (Although I did the work in 2012, the first episode of Greg Davies’ Man Down for C4 also afforded me a script editor’s credit, which I was proud of when it went out. I also thought of the title.)

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It’s been fantastic working on Badults (and appearing as “Andrew Collins” in series one, episode six) as it fulfills my desire to hang around with talented comedians – something I’ve always done – while essentially restricted to the backroom, which is where I feel most comfortable at my age. Anyway, fingers also crossed for what I’m calling “the Scottish sitcom”. The script now rests in the inbox of its commissioning editor – again, after rewrites; again, with a big name actor attached – and we await the thumb up or thumb down. It was ever thus, and will forever be. One can just about subsist “in development” but it’s a commission one dreams of.

To lose Word and 6 Music in less than two years has had quite an impact on my income at a time when money is an issue for all but the privately wealthy. (It was an eye-opener to discover this year that Virgin were more than happy to print an updated edition of my Billy Bragg book but did not have the funds to pay the author to actually write the new chapter.) There can’t be a soul reading this who isn’t affected by the continuing economic woes of austerity Britain. I can say without a doubt that I have never hated a sitting government as much as I hate David Cameron’s. It’s almost bracing.

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When Thatcher died this year, I refrained from actually slipping on my dancing shoes, but it was sobering to remember a) how single minded and driven she was, and b) how fundamentally her free-market zeal changed this country. In Thatcherism’s place (she’d never have privatised the Royal Mail, remember), we have something potentially more terrifying: a bunch of self-serving, privately-educated, out-of-touch hereditary hoorays whose hatred of the poor and the weak and the old outstrips Thatcher’s. I don’t remember an issue that has made me so regularly angry as the dismantling of the welfare state, which continues apace and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are at the mercy of a political class with no empathy and barely any experience of ordinary life as it is lived by millions.

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I do not wish to live in a country where food banks have to exist. Poisonous Tories like Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey seem not just happy with the situation, they clearly think it’s the poor’s fault for having to swallow their pride and use food banks. There but for the grace of God, or circumstance, go any of us.

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The papers were full of ever more shocking headlines about celebrities and their alleged sexual misconduct (or in the case of Stuart Hall, no longer just alleged, as he pleaded guilty in April to the indecent assault of 13 girls aged between 9 and 17 years old, between 1967 and 1986). As with the Catholic priests before them, it seems all to have been about male power with these DJs, presenters and musicians. The crimes of Ian Watkins of Lostprophets struck a new low in November. If any good has come of all this, it’s the possibility that other victims will no longer remain silent.

Chris-Huhne

More perversion, but of the course of justice. As a Guardian reader not a contributor, I hereby protest the newspaper’s willing part in the rehabilitation of the sleazy liar Chris Huhne, whose columns it regularly and prominently prints, crediting him as a former cabinet minister and not as a convicted criminal.

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I didn’t get out as much as I might have liked this year. When one is watching the pennies, staying in and watching all that amazing telly that’s on seems a far wiser option. Holidays are for another epoch. However, the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A was a treat. So was a foreshortened trip to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, despite the rain. David Morrissey and Esther Freud’s evening for the charity Reprieve was the poshest thing I attended all year. The Edinburgh TV Festival was as reliable as ever: enjoyed seeing Kevin Spacey and Vince Gilligan live, and hosting Q&As with the Wrong Mans gang, Greg Davies and John Bishop, as well as catching Sarah Millican and Richard Herring’s latest shows. And to repeat the Wrong Mans experience at Bafta in London, this time with James Corden in attendance, was a cherry on a cake (splendid to meet Nick Moran, too). Professionally, it was a pleasure to interview Steve Coogan, Irvine Welsh, Judd Apatow and the World’s End triumverate for Radio Times.

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While we’re in the approximate area of my profession, can I retroactively plant a tree to commemorate finally getting Simon Day’s character Colin on the actual telly? Common Ground was Baby Cow’s compendium for comic characters and Simon and I were chuffed to see Colin come to life, finally, even for ten minutes on Sky Atlantic, having previously written a 90-minute film about him for C4 and had it scrapped by an incoming exec back in 2006. (I wonder where I developed this thick skin?) I even had a cameo as a man walking past a bench, pictured above.

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As a writer I’ve been too busy for most of this year to blog as regularly as I used to. (I never even reviewed the Morrissey book or the end of Breaking Bad or Gravity.) But starting a new blog, Circles Of Life: The 143, was a tonic – and a healthy corrective to any ideas above my station I might have harboured: I may be “followed” by thousands on Twitter, but a mere hundred or so are interested enough to read my essays on the 143 best songs of all time. It really does feel like an exclusive little music-appreciation society, and I intend to plough on in 2014. I welcome your patronage.

I hate to sum a year up by saying it presented something of a holding pattern, but it did. Lots of groundwork was laid for potential growth in 2014. I’m grateful that circumstance has helped focus my ambition. And I’m grateful not to have had to use a food bank, or have my benefits slashed. All work is precarious, whether you’re in employment or self-employed. Telly Addict could go at any moment. Radio Times could do some sums and discover that it doesn’t need a Film Editor. The Scottish sitcom could be rejected, with compliments. But you must have faith.

They may not be in it at all, but we really are in it together.

And I was very pleased with my home baking, including the controversial grape muffins. Let us eat cake.

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Wrong on so many levels

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Tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 24, The Wrong Mans explodes onto BBC2, with only its own Hollywood-style trailer to beat. You can hardly have failed to notice that it’s one of many attempts on the popular imagination of Mr James Corden this autumn, which has also included the Toronto Film Festival premieres of imminent Billy Elliot-style Paul Potts biopic One Chance, in which he stars, and an American romcom Can A Song Save A Life?, in which he has a supporting role, plus a seventh run of A League Of Their Own on Sky1 as we speak. Of these, you get the feeling that, for the mutliple-stringed-bow-wielding Corden, The Wrongs Mans has the most riding on it, personally, and for self-evident reasons.

It’s a comedy thriller, in six parts, a feat that’s rarely attempted. A half-hour comedy that comes on like a Hollywood blockbuster – thanks to the resourceful acumen of director Jim Field Smith, and an injection of US cash from the Netflix-like Hulu. It stars Corden and co-writer Horrible Histories’ Mathew Baynton as two lowly Bracknell Council employees (actually, one actually works as a post boy for a company outsourced by the council) who get sucked into a dangerous underworld plot after Baynton picks up a discarded phone after a car crash in the opening minutes of Episode One that was make-or-break for the production. The pair almost talked themselves out of the expensive stage direction, second-guessing that it would prove a barrier to being commissioned. (It’s possible they’re being coy here – my fervent hope is that someone who co-wrote and starred in Gavin & Stacey has a bit of auto-clout in BBC pitch meetings.)

I’ve seen the first two episodes and they work on all of the levels they’re supposed to work on. They’re funny and thrilling. The action and jeopardy are real, the reactions of the clownish lead characters are comedic, but no matter how stupid they are, their decisions drive the plot. It works. When I say I’ve seen the first two episodes, I’ve seen them three times, because I hosted a preview in Edinburgh at the TV Festival last month, and a follow-up at Bafta in London at the start of this month. The pics above and below were taken by official Bafta photographer Jamie Simonds and reflect the grandeur and high cast attendance levels of the latter gig. (James couldn’t get the day off of filming Into The Woods, the Hollywood musical shooting in Pinewood and starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, and sadly missed out on Edinburgh.)

For Bafta, we had Jim Field Smith, co-star Sarah Soleman, Baynton and Corden – with co-stars Nick Moran and Emelia Fox, script editor Jeremy Dyson and urbane BBC exec Mark Freeland in the audience, among other key crew – and it was a fine evening. I’ll give a few highlights of the conversation we had, but your best bet is to download or stream the Bafta podcast, which is available here. (There are plenty of others here on the Bafta Guru mini-site, too, including one from July with the cast and creators of Chickens.)

Corden and Baynton first met on the set of Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (a fine British music industry film, directed by Nick Moran, who challenged the three stars it is awarded in the Radio Times when I met him in the bar afterwards and proudly proclaimed it “a four star film”), but they came up with The Wrong Mans – terrible title, but you get used to it – when working together on Gavin & Stacey, where Baynton played Deano.

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Corden: “It was at that time when everyone was starting to watch those American box sets – 24 and so on … TV with higher production values and where the stakes seemed to be a lot higher. We wondered why no one’s trying to do that in a a half-hour comedy. We’d also been to see Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers film, and both really liked it and thought it was very funny and thought, ‘We should have a go at doing this.'”

“We had this great opening, and we wrote this script on spec. We didn’t pitch it as an idea to anyone, we just wrote 35 pages … We put in very specific details, like the fact that the car spins three times, because we wanted anyone who was reading it, a commissioner or anyone, to not be left in doubt as to what it would need to be made.”

Baynton: “Some of the stuff that you assume is expensive, isn’t. What is expensive is time.”

Field Smith: “With that car stunt we had one go at it. If that car doesn’t flip the way it’s rigged to flip, then we’re reverting to Plan B, which is a car skidding out of shot and a hubcap rolling back, which was exactly what we wanted to avoid. We tried not to make choices that are comedic choices. With so many actors coming and going some of them would show up and not necessarily know what the mood is. There were a couple of moments where I’d have to go, ‘No. Wrong show. We’re not making Naked Gun.'”

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While BBC2 is screening the episodes in traditional weekly instalments, Hulu is releasing all the episodes online at the same time so if you are resident in the US, or operate on the wrong side of the law, you can binge on it like it’s House Of Cards or Orange Is The New Black or something equally hip and glamorous. Baynton says: “That’s sort of how it was written. We want people to get to the end of the episode and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to watch the next one!'”

I suspect you will.

I must admit, I’ve loved hanging out with the Wrong Mans cast, execs and crew. I’d been dying to meet Mat Baynton ever since he played Charles Dickens as Morrissey on Horrible Histories, and although we were denied James Corden in Edinburgh, he compensated in London by hanging around afterwards for drinks when, as a fairly new dad with a wife and a two-year-old son and someone who had been in Pinewood all day, he would have been forgiven for hopping it early. It’s been a while since he shook off the prima donna reputation that dogged him around the time of Horne & Corden (I’ve met Matt Horne a number of times too, and he’s an unassumingly nice chap, too), and if anything, with nothing to prove after One Man, Two Guvnors and its Tony-magnet success on Broadway, Corden has nothing to prove. And yet he behaves as if he has. I don’t believe this is an act.

Mind you, he is a good actor. I’ve admired his work since I saw his film debut in Shane Meadows’ TwentyFourSeven when he was 18 (he played Frank Harper’s kid Tonka). He’s continually played his weight to his advantage and even though he’s slimmed down, it’s his physique next to Baynton’s wiry frame that makes their chemistry so comedic. There’s something Laurel and Hardy about them. Having been involved in the show’s promotion within the industry, I feel quite attached to it, but if I’d never met anybody connected with it and just seen the first two episodes, I’d say: watch it. It’s right on so many levels.

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