Please tell us why you had to hide away for so long (slight return)


The facts: series one of Mr Blue Sky is being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra starting tomorrow. As regular readers will know, this was one of the proudest moments in my professional writing career, seeing my first solo sitcom commissioned by the BBC and for it to run to two series, on Radio 4 in 2011 and 2012. The happy cast-and-crew pic above is the series one line-up.

I wrote at length about the making of the first series in March 2011. Also, the terror of it going public in May 2011 and a general reflection upon the madness of putting yourself into the public domain. I duly blogged during the making of series 2 in March 2012. (These are not required reading or homework, I merely make them available again via handy links.) That series aired in April last year, since which, well … the end was nigh.

Getting the commission was one of the happiest moments of my career, especially after the long, slow journey it had been on, over a course of years, from inception to conception. It vindicated all the time put in, much of it unpaid and speculative, as per industry law. Equally, when we failed to secure a third series, having worked hard on a story breakdown for it, and allowed ourselves to get excited when we were called in for a meeting about the changes and given the wrong impression that we were in with a shout, it was one of the great disappointments of that same career. I would have loved to write some more for Harvey, Jax, Robbie, Charlie, Ray, Sean, Kill-R, Alan Leopold, Lou and the rest of the gang.

So, if you missed it, maybe have a listen. It won’t bring the show back, but it’s lovely to have it back in the public domain.


It’s over

Those following my Electric Light Orchestra-themed headlines this week will have guessed today’s. For today is Day Seven, the final day of the recording of Series 2 of Mr Blue Sky. Above is today’s schedule. I don’t know if you are able, or can be bothered, to read it, but it lists, in order, every scene we have yet to record, and because today involves the entire cast (minus Navin), plus three star cameo turns, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. (I know, pretty tasty.) All you’ll see, Harvey ie. Mark Benton, is in every scene except one. This man is earning his radio pittance.

Here are a few of Rob’s photos from yesterday, when the whole family performed a scene from the wedding episode (spoiler alert!), outside the studio in the post-apocalyptic car park of the industrial estate that is earmarked for destruction. (My face, as you can see above, is similarly ravaged, except by biscuits.)

I bet The Archers never do this. (Actually, they might. I didn’t know anybody did this in radio drama.)

At 11.40am, after a full morning’s acting and green-light pressing, we are on schedule. Would you like to see the fictional Easter family pretending to be in a car?

I’m going to post this now, even though we’re totally in the can just yet. I’ll put the last batch of pictures up tomorrow.

Strange magic

Day Six of Mr Blue Sky series 2. Though I didn’t log it, yesterday was Day Five, which was actually a half-day, and I wasn’t able to attend the recording due to my Guardian Telly Addict videocast, which had to be moved in order for me to be available for the whole day tomorrow, which will be Day Six and the final day of the recording. Yes? (Telly Addict will go up at the usual time, around 4pm on Friday.) Having recorded Simon Day – who cameos in this series as the book-burning neighbour Mr Leopold – and Mark outside in the car park on Tuesday, and Claire and Navin in a van in the car park yesterday, studio director Wilfredo had us all outside in the cloudless sunshine again this morning for some more exterior scenes (you type “EXT.” in a radio script, and you do not imagine you’ll actually be outside, but Wilfredo is something of a guerilla sound recordist). Frankly, it was lovely to be able to process some Vitamin D after a week of being anything but free range.

Above, in a photo taken by production assistant Rob, you can see producer Anna, Justin Edwards (who plays Harvey’s best friend, the oncologist Ray, and has had a nice neat haircut for his part in the new series of The Thick Of It, which he is making concurrently), Michael Legge (who plays Harvey’s megalomaniac boss Sean and is, in real life, hungover), Mark (method acting the sound of Harvey climbing into a van), and Wilfredo. Below, for a later scene in which Harvey and Ray drive to Gatwick (hey, no spoilers!), Wilfredo records them in the cab of the same van.

Hitchcock style, I appear in the next photo, too. And that’s not my iPhone, as I will never buy an iPhone, it’s Anna’s.

This happened last year, on the recording of the first series: a certain degree of hysteria has set in. There is a lot more mucking about in the studio. It’s fine. Mark and Justin were telling jokes in there this morning and kindly offering them to Michael for an upcoming stand-up gig. None of them are suitable. This is how you want actors and comedians to behave under pressure. It’s been kind of the opposite of a rollercoaster ride, the recording, in that it’s pretty steady – despite the massive emotional ups and downs of the scripts, naturally – working our way through the scenes, ticking them off, or making them go green on Anke’s grid. I have to say, it’s been as physically draining and mentally demanding as I remember Series 1 being, except cranked up, as we’re doing half as many episodes again this time. (“Physically draining” sounds unlikely – not to mention insulting to everyone with a physical job – as I am mainly just sitting on a chair, listening and eating biscuits, but I’m not used to eating so much wheat, so it does take it out of me. After seeing what happens when Richard Herring occasionally suggests that his job is hard, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I’m not even paying for these biscuits.)

I can’t believe we actually finish tomorrow. (Finish recording and say goodbye to the lovely actors; the edit begins on Monday, of course, with just three weeks to go before the first episode airs on Radio 4.) As I sign off, I am listening to a professional actor saying the word “recalcitrant” in the studio, a word nobody except Will Self says in real life, and which I only put in because I’ve always liked the sound of it. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas during the filming of Star Wars: “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as shit can’t say it.”

Join our club

I have been reading and reviewing the splendid new coffee table book BBC VFX by Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker (Aurum, £30), and found my old Airfix Modellers Club membership card (circa 1977) while doing so – the two things are inextricably linked, as I used to envy Irvine whenever he appeared on Swap Shop or Model World, showing how he’d made the Liberator for Blake’s 7 using turrets and doors and other bits from Airfix kits. Anyway, during the same bout of research, I found the following piece which I wrote for the Times in February 2005 about clubs [including mention of the ELO Fan Club, circa 1978, pictured], and I reprint it here in case you are, or were, also an inveterate joiner. (Unless you are a Times subscriber you won’t be able to access my review of BBC VFX when it appears on Saturday – needless to say, it’s me telling you that I really like the book in 1,500 words.)


If I should ever drown, I’m convinced my life will flash before my eyes as a series of laminated membership cards, affiliation certificates and enamel badges. That’s because I am an inveterate joiner. Quite unlike Groucho Marx, I’m happy to be a member of any club that will have me as a member.

Ever since boyhood I have had an urge to join. I can write my own autobiography in clubs and societies, each one pinpointing a different need and a distinct life-phase. First, there was the Tufty Club, founded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1961, but with a membership of two million at its peak in 1973. Based around a stiffly-animated but sensible squirrel, I dimly remember watching some road safety films in a church hall and having a badge, but little else. I was under five, the club’s target age.

More significantly came the Warlord Secret Agent Club, a covert society run from the pages of the boys’ war comic (home of Union Jack Jackson and unreconstructed dialogue like “Take that, my slant-eyed friend!”). For a 20p postal order you got a wallet, badge and code-breaker. Ideal accessories for the combat games my brother and I played around the fields and building sites of suburban Northampton.

I simultaneously joined the school choir, getting in touch with my inner softy, and the Airfix Modellers Club (membership no. 106339). There was also the Dennis The Menace Fang Club, whose black plastic wallet contained top secret passwords D.I.N.G. and D.O.N.G. (which stood for Dennis Is Never Good and Dennis Owns Naughty Gnasher). In 1978, when I reached upper school, I flirted with the Weston Favell Bird-Watching Club and notched up just the one field trip before self-consciously letting my membership lapse. The shifting musical tastes of a teenager are mapped by the ELO Fan Club (a certificate and five bent Walkerprints, 1979) followed by the 999 International Information Service (late discovery of punk rock, 1981; a few Xeroxed newsletters).

My coming of age is marked by membership cards for the Nene College Film Society, the NUS and the AA, whose motto in 1984 was “It’s great to know you belong.” Then it’s The Whale And Dolphin Conservation Society (waking up to environmental issues in the late 80s), The Labour Party (lapsed after general election defeat, 1992), the NUJ (first job in journalism, plus first strike), Canons Health Club (mid-90s, didn’t we all?), the Soil Association (hardcore organic lifestyle badge of honour), RSPCA, PDSA (you get a Certificate Of Friendship), IFAW, WWF, CPL (once you’re on one acronymic animal charity’s mailing list …).

These days I belong to a whole portfolio of pointless online clubs which require no more effort than checking your email inbox. Even though I don’t especially like her, last year I joined the Pat Benatar Fan Club. Why? Well, I was feeling insecure, having turned 39 and moved to Surrey. And the name caught my eye when I typed “fan club” into a search engine. I could have joined the Hans Zimmer Fan Club or Baseline, the Andre Agassi Fan Club. I chose Pat’s because I could only name one of her hits, Love Is A Battlefield, and she seemed a very 80s person to have an ongoing fan club. I wanted to join and find out more.

On the same day I signed up for Benatar-News, “the Pat Benatar Fan Club News listserver”; the On The Buses Fan Club, whose first newsletter would inform me when the 70s sitcom was next repeated, provide the answer to a previous competition (“Mum used green stamps instead of money to buy her fun wig”) and sign off with a heart-warming “Ding ding!”; and Jane’s, the defence organisation, for free access to Jane’s News Briefs, Sentinel Risk Pointers and Defence Glossary (“a database containing over 20,000 defence-related acronyms and abbreviations”).

It goes without saying that signing up online is too easy. What, no postal order? No agonising wait for your SAE, bulging with documentation, badge and perhaps money-off vouchers? All you get these days is a login and a password. Who would want to join a club that’s so easy to join? At least when Groucho famously resigned from the exclusive Friar’s Club in New York with the words, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” he did so by telegram.

Proper club-joining should involve some physical effort and a field trip. Hence my recent application to MENSA. “Do you want to meet like-minded people?” asked the brochure. “Are you looking for intellectual stimulation? Take the first step to membership – NOW!”

Anyone can take the MENSA Home Test. I did, and excitedly sent off my answers. I scored 143, putting me in the “top three percentile” and earning me the chance to do the Supervised IQ Test for £9.95 at University College London with 29 other hopefuls, all at least half my age, and one bright spark aged 10. “People in MENSA are a bit mad,” said the bearded adjudicator. “Cleverness complicates rather than simplifies life.”

I’ll never know. I scored 138 and 106 on the two papers and was barred entry (“Under the rules of membership you are not allowed to retake this test for 12 months,” wrote Ms H Oliver, Testing & Admissions Coordinator).

The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society (est. 1976) required no such aggravation, just a tenner. As well as The Missing Page magazine and access to the archive library, joining offered me the chance to attend my first annual Reunion Dinner, along with 86 like-minded members (mostly older chaps whose wives stayed at home) at the Quality Hotel, Bournemouth, where Hancock lived as a boy. We swapped memorabilia, entered a “fun quiz” (41 out of 45), watched episodes and queued halfway round the dining room to get our menu cards autographed by special guest June Whitfield. I returned to Surrey satisfied that it really is great to know you belong.

And there was a copy of The Teapot Times waiting for me on the mat. Worth joining the Clipper Tea Club too.

It all seems so long ago now – living in Surrey, being 39 – I was actually in the process of working up a new non-fiction book about clubs and joining when I signed up for Pat Benatar, Tony Hancock and took the MENSA test. But my publisher convinced me instead to write the third part of my memoirs, which I did. They were never very keen for me to do anything but write memoirs, which is why I am no longer with them. Still, at least I got a piece in the Times out of it,