Comment isn’t free

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First, a few unpaid words from Stephen Hull, UK editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, the newspaper that was never a newspaper and always a website which empowers its writers by not paying them. He was being interviewed by media interrogator Steve Hewlett on Radio 4 (as reported on the New Statesman website). If you are a writer, or someone hoping to make a career out of writing, make sure you are not holding any hot drinks. Ready?

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So, conveniently, payment robs comment of authenticity. All those words I’ve written for money – and indeed all those words written by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Paul Morley for money – are in some way inauthentic. Oh, and paid writing’s only purpose is to attract advertising.

As an unpaid blogger, by choice, and a paid writer in other quarters – a line of work I have been pursuing for 28 years – this not only infuriates but saddens me. The Huffington Post is successful, innovative and decorated. It is a beacon for our times, when print, deserted by traditional advertisers, is choking on its own thin air. It offers a high-profile platform and shop window for its writers (it calls them bloggers to stop them getting fancy ideas above their station), and you can’t buy that kind of exposure. Except you are buying it. You are buying it with your time and your expertise; your ability to rearrange the English language into sentences. Writing is not a mystical art. All but the technically illiterate do it every time they fill out a birthday card or leave a note on the fridge. But increasingly, as those public outlets for writing dwindle – farewell, the printed Independent; hello, unloved piles of wafer-thin giveaway NMEs thrown back into cardboard gondolas at Sainsbury’s and railways carriages decorated in crumpled copies of today’s Metro as if in dirty protest – the once romantic idea of wielding a quill for money withers on the vine. People would rather watch a Vine.

I’m lucky. I was first paid to write my first ever review in 1988, a year out of college – and not a college where I studied journalism, or the written word: this was the 80s, a golden era of opportunity between the closed shop and the internet. I was paid £23.00 for this review by the publisher IPC, as quaintly typed out in the payslip above, which marks the day I became a professional writer. It seemed like an awful lot of money to me. I would have paid IPC to see my words in print.

ThisIsThisMy only qualification to write this review and see it published was a single copy of a fanzine I’d put together [left], and the skill of being keen enough to ask. This century, I’m often asked to give advice to people wishing to get a start in the media. I’m a media veteran. I’m always happy to tell people my own story, although with each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant to today’s literary and journalistic wannabes. For years I’ve been telling students that I envy them. In the mid-80s, I had to type up my fanzine on an electric typewriter, cut it out and Pritt-stick it down, and pay to have it printed at a high-street Kall-Kwik, then hawk it around in a shopping bag at gigs hoping to sell a copy for a pound. (I sold one by mail-order – it was mentioned in a magazine called Underground and two kids turned up at my flat to buy one, with cash. I was fucking cock-a-hoop.) These days, you need only a broadband connection to publish instantly to the world. No guarantee that a single soul will read it, of course, but it will look professional and you will by definition be a published writer. You can publish a novel in the same way. It’s liberating. It’s also demonetising.

I wrote about the curse of unpaid labour in the media three years ago. I wasn’t paid for writing it. I wrote it for free, here, on this blog. I commissioned myself to write it, sub-edited it myself and headlined it Keeping up appearance fees. If you have the time, you can read it here. Most of it is still true. I will precis the salient points here.

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When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too. This will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. When, in 2013, James Gandolfini died, I was contacted on the day by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm the next afternoon. Having gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this TV show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

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Without wishing to come across as some kind of square, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I was at the time writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline, something I was being paid for.

I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the 28 years’ mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay a plasterer for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with – ones you would instantly recognise on the telly – but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path, but to borrow a phrase, I like to think I’m never the problem.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee for the Gandolfini appearance on the current affairs show and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster that day at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have been. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

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So I declined, politely, and wasn’t on. I wonder who was? It doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee for talking about James Gandolfini offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Perhaps they could pay contributors with that instead? I’ve also been offered unpaid slots on TV and radio shows where my reward was to be able to plug something. This is actual bullshit. Literary festivals are currently under fire for not paying authors (and I mean really famous bums-on-seats authors, not authors at my level) for personal appearances, again, on the understanding that they will be able to flog a few books afterwards. I’ve promoted my books this way, and a) people who run festivals, bookshops and libraries where the event is likely to be tend to be really nice, and b) you do get to sell a few signed books. Should authors be paid a small stipend on top? Or is the platform – like the Huffington Post – enough? Are you being paid “in kind”?

Not all potential guests and contributors are egomaniacs. Given the choice between appearing as a pundit on Channel 4 News and getting home in time to watch Channel 4 News, I’d always choose the latter. I turn down roughly 75% of the offers I get to be myself on radio and TV. It may be more. Frankly, I don’t have anything to flog. And I have no deep need to hear my voice or see my face. I will always jump at the chance to be on Front Row on Radio 4, because I love the show and, oh, I will be paid. Not much. But enough to take a short detour via Broadcasting House and get to talk to the always amenable people who make Front Row.

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I was invited last week to mentor someone hoping to break into the media by an entirely admirable charity-based body that encourages that very thing. I’ve done unpaid work for them in the past. My choice. I like them. But I had to decline the mentoring gig, as I remain a self-employed freelancer and I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to this year-long commitment. (Others in the media who have taken it on seem to work for, or run, production companies or TV channels.) Also, I would, in a roundabout way, be training someone to steal the work that puts food on my table! After all, it may be tough to break into the media and earn enough to actually live on in a digital age where writers are called bloggers and comment is literally free at the point of sale, but at least the young have youth on your side. This is a valuable currency in the magpie eyes of a demographically myopic media. I was delighted to be asked to host the red-carpet coverage of the Bafta Film Awards for Bafta many years ago, the first time the august body had produced its own content for its own website; it was deemed a roaring success and as a result, the next year, I was replaced by a younger, more attractive and more famous host. It was the day I stopped dreaming of being a TV presenter. But even in this cruel Logan’s Run world, the one thing I can offer is something that money can’t buy – experience. It’s just that increasingly, broadcasters and content providers want it for for nothing.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE. UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO. OR IT’S FOR CHARITY.

I will donate the non-existent fee for this article to myself.

 

There at the New Yorker

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Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.

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Whatever | April 2009

Whatever | Trying to choose a newspaper
Hold the front page! Newspapers still matter!

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I think my newsagent hates me. I regularly pop into his shop, but it is not to buy a Boost or a Lotto scratchcard; rather, it is to change my newspaper delivery order. Again. I fear he’s getting tired of re-inputting my latest fickle, print-based whim. I want to tell him … although I don’t think he’ll care … that I’m going through a media-life crisis. Those publications that have defined me for years no longer seem satisfactorily to do so.

I am a loyal subscriber to a number of publications, although I had to let the NME go last year when they stopped running anything over 250 words and, some years ago, I had to cancel my subscription to Your Cat when the same features about collars and worming started coming round for a second time. But I care passionately about which daily newspaper I take. After all, it says a lot more about a person than shoes or haircut in our increasingly promiscuous, mix-and-match age, especially when the only badges people now wear are company IDs round their Orwellian necks.

In London, with three separate daily freesheets in circulation, each as timorously gossip-weighted as the next, it’s a badge of honour to tuck a paper you actually picked out and paid for under your arm on the train home.

I was brought up in a Telegraph-reading household and have been a Guardian reader since the Miners’ Strike: as much a bid for undergraduate independence as wearing no socks or getting all the way through an Einsturzende Neubaten album. But I have, of late, been dallying with other dailies. Come the latest promotional period, when they all start to vie for the floating voter with booklets and Pizza Express vouchers, I began to shop around, weary of my beloved Guardian’s ceaseless manufacture of “personality journalists”, interns plucked from obscurity and offered a shot at the title, as long as they’ll mug for the lens and have wackily self-deprecating photos all over a light-hearted feature about whether haggling works in brothels or how to survive avian flu by living in a hole.

So, what the hell, I flirted with the Times for a few days – after first checking with Ben Elton that it was OK to buy a Murdoch title now. Altogether less concerned with attracting younger readers, I found it to be serious, literate, stimulating and non-hectoring, and its columnists more varied than the Independent’s (another fleeting ex of mine). But I wasn’t ready to commit.

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One Thursday in February, I bought all the papers, boosting their ABC circulation figures en masse. It made interesting reading. No surprise, the red-tops were identical, juggling that day’s two big celeb stories: the ghoulish Jade Goody Death Watch – cue: product placement of Hycamtin, the “miracle cancer drug” – and Carol Thatcher’s dismissal for comparing Congolese tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a golliwog in mixed ie. not all racist, company. The Mirror led on gollies being sold at Sandringham’s gift shop, as, with zero glee, did the Mail, whose editorial line was that Thatcher was being witch-hunted because of her mum (“Revenge on Maggie”) and the golliwog was an “innocent children’s hero.”

But while the once-xenophobic Sun found space for the opinion of Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse (“as a black footballer I’ve experienced racism in many different countries”), the Telegraph gave burdened white man Charles Moore the floor. His conclusion: that the BBC had “revealed its contempt for those who fund it” and was “culturally target-bombing” innocent racists (“I think Carol should start a Golliwog Club to defy the BBC ban and I think we should all join”). Sometimes, they make it easy for you.

The Guardian lifted its skirts in my direction with an investigative piece on corporate tax avoidance, which was all their own work and an actual exclusive. The golliwog story was downplayed on Page 8, although I feared one of their journalists would be blacked up in the next day’s G2 to gauge the public’s reaction. I had narrowed it down to two. Or three. I ordered the Times, missed the Guardian, then cancelled the Times.

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All of which may be irking my newsagent, but whatever the outcome of this battle for my soul, at least it will have ink on its fingers. On election day in November, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times were selling out as fast as vans could deliver them, and Nick Ferrari, reporting for London talk station LBC made this stirring speech: “It’s enough to gladden the heart of an old newspaperman. Whatever you say about the Internet and everything else, people still like to hold onto a manifest product of the news.”

You can’t make an impromptu rain hat out of the Internet either.

Published in Word magazine, April 2009

It’s not easy being Green

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There is a general election in 15 days. That’s just over a fortnight. Assuming you registered, there are only two ways to vote: with your wallet, or with your heart. (Actually, three: tactically, which feels like beating the system but might equally be a case of being beaten by it – then again, I’ve never lived anywhere marginal, so it’s not been an option for me personally.) Now that all the manifestos are in, and we’ve all read them – right? – we can make an informed decision where to put our cross. I will be putting mine next to my local Green Party candidate. Why? Because the Green party stands for most of the things I stand for. Or vice versa.

They are, it has to be said, a utopian party. And yet, they have had one sitting member of Parliament since 2010; also, one peer, three MEPs and two members of the London Assembly (I live in London). They finished fourth at last year’s European elections, beating the Lib Dems. Realistically, the Spock-like Darren Hall could win Bristol West in 15 days’ time, but the Greens are standing in around 90% of seats in England and Wales, compared to 50% five years ago (search for your local candidate here), and the recent “surge” in membership, which doubled last year, has been something to behold. (The party has more members than the Lib Dems and UKIP.)

Many consider a vote for the Greens, or any of the other “smaller” parties, as a protest vote against the Westminster cabal. In many ways, my own preference for the Greens is a two-fingers to the disgusting Tories and the ruined Labour party (the Lib Dems were a spent force the day they formed the Coalition). In my fevered dreams, the Labour party would make these manifesto promises. In reality, the Green party does.

  • End austerity
  • Introduce a new wealth tax on the 1%, a “Robin Hood” tax on the banks and close tax loopholes
  • Increase the minimum wage to reach a living wage of £10 an hour by 2020
  • A publicly-funded health service, free at the point of use (remember when it was actually like this?)
  • Ban fracking
  • Invest in renewable energy, flood defences and building insulation
  • Scrap tuition fees
  • Bring Academies and Free Schools under local authority control
  • Re-nationalise the railways (frankly, if they just promised this, I’d vote for them)

You can read the Green manifesto in full here. If you’re one of those people who likes to tear things apart, I’m sure there’s plenty here that doesn’t quite add up to the last penny. (I expect you also lapped it up when Natalie Bennett had a “brain freeze” on LBC, or was railroaded by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics – a privatised railroad, of course – as it’s easy sport to debunk what is still thought of as a single-issue party and whose ideas go beyond bean-counting and deckchair rearrangement.) But since when did sums that don’t add up stop the bigger parties in their race to the bottom line, parties who are funded by corporations, while the Greens are not. You can guarantee that no party funded by big business and lobby groups will tackle climate change, or re-nationalise anything, or tax the super-rich because the super-rich are their donors. And although two MPs (pleeeeeeease!) doesn’t quite add up to a Parliamentary majority, I’m thinking with my heart here, and inside my ribcage, I can feel the steady beat of progressive thinking.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, and I’ll be proud to swell the figures for a party that speaks directly to me. And if we didn’t labour under the yoke of First Past The Post in this particular democracy, some of the smaller parties would have a louder voice, without all the blackmail and manouvering that’s afoot as we speak. I would happily consider a vote for Plaid Cymru or the SNP if they’d bothered to stand a candidate in my area – and I certainly welcome female leaders, who have already, between the three of them in the TV debates, made Ed Miliband’s “Hell, yeah” posturing seem pretty pathetic. So the Green Party it is.

I have gone back to my constituency to prepared for not having voted in the government. And although it’s not easy to be Green – they’re always begging for a fiver, for a start! – it feels right. If the majority of the comments under John Harris’s latest election film for the Guardian prove anything, it’s that the Green party has a target painted on its back and a sign saying, “Mock me.” I remember when I was a member of the Labour party back in the idealistic 80s and was accused by a firebrand from the SWP of supporting “a racist party” (I never did inquire why) for my audacity to sport a “Vote Labour” sticker on my coat. To make a choice is to draw fire. But an election is all about making a choice. Unless you follow Russell Brand, whose first-past-the-postmodernism refusenik stance has found traction since he put his head above a parapet it would be much easier to hide behind, and I feel the pain of any young voter disinclined to vote for the yes-minister dinosaurs. But no vote at all is a negative form of protest, like atheism: it is an absence, not a stance. Polly Toynbee insists disaffected Labour votes put a peg on their nose and vote for them anyway. A vote for the Greens requires no such protection. The air’s cleaner over here.

Oh, and by the way, to save your typing fingers, I know the bin collection has gone awry in Brighton Pavilion.

TV monitors

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It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.

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He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).

Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)

Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.

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First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)

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AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?

DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.

AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?

DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.

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AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?

DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.

AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?

DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.

AC: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!

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The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.

While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”

I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”

It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”

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I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”

Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”

Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”

I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”

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So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”

A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”

I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.

On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”

For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”

Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”

How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”

Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”

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Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.

An Englishman abroad

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Take Down The Union Jack is a song by my friend Billy Bragg, who writes stirringly and without hysteria in today’s Guardian about not just the Scottish Referendum, which takes place tomorrow, but about the differences between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism; one essentially rooted in ethnic cleansing and misguided nostalgia for Empire, the other in civic determinism and forward-facing pride. It’s no wonder that those on the English – or British – left gaze in awe and envy at the currently animated, consumed, fixated Scots, whether they are YES or NO voters. Even the crucial undecided – the YES AND NO campaigners – are statistically likely to turn out to place their cross tomorrow, such is the engagement with the debate. Registration to vote in the referendum in Scotland is a heart-stopping 97% among those of voting age (a demographic which is in itself refreshingly inclusive, welcoming in 16-year-olds). In the European election in May, the turnout was 34.17%.

I am the Scots’ worst nightmare: an Englishman with an opinion on their nation’s future. But my opinion is almost 100% heart, as I don’t get a vote, so there’s no point in engaging my head. My YES is hypothetical. I’m not Scottish, I don’t live in Scotland; the fact that I love Scotland is frankly immaterial. I know Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as I know, say, Manchester or Bristol, and better than I know Oxford or Newcastle. This is mostly because I visit Edinburgh every year for at least a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and have had consistent cause to visit Glasgow in my adult life, too – drawn up there to commune with the many Glaswegian bands that have risen in the city’s suburbs, and more latterly to work with The Comedy Unit, Scotland’s premiere comedy production house. I like Scots. My most recent trip to Glasgow – last Tuesday – was to attend the autumn season launch of Scottish Gaelic language broadcaster BBC Alba at the Royal Concert Hall. To drink deep of this ancient language was to brush past Scottish history and its future in the same spectral moment. They served excellent breakfast baps, too.

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You do need a weatherman to know which way the wind will blow tomorrow, as Scotland stands on the precipice of history. The polls have been kissing each other in the middle for weeks. All I can do is observe. I felt that the UK establishment’s last-minute surge north was mismanagement and hubris in a grey Westminster suit. However, I was wrong when I guessed that the “effing” David Cameron’s arrival, shoulder to confusing shoulder with Gordon Brown, Lord Reid, John Major and Nick Clegg, would surely, counterintuitively, clinch the YES vote.

It had the opposite effect and nudged the blue-faced YES-sayers back into second place. It may have been a pathetic, transparent last-ditch attempt to stem the tide of Scottish dissatisfaction with being run from a weekend barbecue in the Cotswolds, but the scaremongering worked. It’s still too close to call. Alex Salmond is clearly no angel – he’s cosied up to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch in his time as First Minister – but his belief that Scotland should govern its own affairs is more compelling than the man.

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When the only Scottish newspaper with an opinion to back the YES campaign is the Glasgow Sunday Herald (not the weekly Herald, which is NO), and the UK print media almost multilaterally in the “Better Together” camp (expect the Guardian and the aptly-named Independent, unless you know different), we’ve had to cover our eyes and ears to the again belated chorus of disapproval, half-truths and apocalyptic predictions. At zero hour, the likes of the Telegraph and Mail are now desperately gunning for Salmond’s personality, as if that’s the only factor that’s driving Scottish overtures for divorce, and obsessing over a loud-mouthed faction in St James’ shopping centre in Edinburgh – a display or boorishness that did the YES camp no favours, even if it was unrepresentative. (Pat Kane was on Sky News last night “defending” the actions of a scrum of compatriots when it wasn’t his job to do so, and he was the very opposite of the Tory media’s caricature of a YES man: cool, calm, collected, oh, and gung-ho for the New Scotland however the vote plays out.)

I have no idea what will happen if the Scots vote YES. Nor does anyone in Westminster, or Holyrood, or at the Bank of England, or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or on the board of Asda, or Irvine Welsh, or Eddie Izzard. Martin Amis was eloquent on Channel Four News when he observed that his preferred NO lobby was saddled with a semantic dead weight: “You can’t campaign for a negative.”

But the UK establishment, as I keep calling them, the keepers of the status quo, have been all about the negatives. Never mind “Better Together”, the message I’ve been hearing is “Worse Apart.” Whether it’s the NHS, pensions, oil, water, Team GB, the BBC or the money it will cost to redesign that nice Union flag, all have felt like threats. In the past few days, the Government and the opposition have reverted from stick to carrot, offering more devolved power if the Scots vote NO. But surely, with a binary YES or NO vote (and one sensible enough soul on Twitter suggested there should have been a third, grey option on the ballot for “a bit more devolved power, please”), any Scot interested in more autonomy would vote YES, not NO. And isn’t Westminster giftwrapping autonomy and making you beg for it like Greyfriars Bobby precisely why independence seemed so attractive in the first place?

Whether, as Billy Bragg and my other left-wing friend who writes for the Guardian John Harris suggest, the referendum will encourage further positive independence campaigns in favour of conscious uncoupling from the Bullingdon hegemony in England and Wales and even Northern Ireland, I don’t know. This whole thing may blow over. But to have galvanised an entire nation in debate, discussion, leafletting and – alright – the occasional scuffle in the street, the referendum, or #indyref, has been a force for good, I think.

Here is a picture of some lovely people queuing up to see me for free in Scotland in 2010. (Warning: some of them might not be from Scotland.)

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I am English by birth and by blood. I don’t much care for the place, as, from where I live in London, the disconnect between Westminster, the City and the weekend oligarchs of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and what we’ll call The Rest Of The Country is toxic on so many levels, and it’s turning us on each other.

They say the vote tomorrow is one between heart and head. The UK establishment want it to be between heart and wallet. Because they would do, wouldn’t they? It’s the only card they’ve got.

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I trust the Scots. And whichever way they swing, I believe Scotland will be a better place on Friday than it was before David Cameron noticed that its people were actually seriously going to be voting about something that they care about. Unlike, say, which MEP we “send” to the European Parliament, or who the next Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire will be. (I understand the last one has mysteriously stepped down; he won the vote in November 2012 with 51.35% of a 14.53% turnout.)

They have already taken away our freedom. I would like it back, please. And I’m perfectly happy to take my passport when I next go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or Skye.

Unbelievable

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Kate Bush is doing some concerts in London. You’ll have spotted this. It’s front page news, as she hasn’t done any concerts since 1979. I love Kate Bush’s LPs, especially the first four, which she isn’t apparently playing, and the fifth, which she is. I’ve lost my appetite for attending gigs, but these do sound rather special and a consensus seems to have been quickly arrived at that she’s on fine form, and, if you are old enough to have been at gig-going age in 1979, it was “worth the wait”. When an artist gets this much attention, and adoration, it can be a bit irksome if you happen not to like that artist, but really, move on, listen to something you do like. It’s not compulsory to kneel at Kate’s bare feet. Which is why I was taken aback to read the above-scanned letter in today’s Guardian. The full text goes like this:

• I played viola on Kate Bush’s last LP, and laughed myself silly at her nonsensical lyrics about snowmen. The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon this manifestly overrated singer is rather depressing, and summed up by your reviewer when he describes an audience who “spend the first part of the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause”. Enough said.
Bill Hawkes
Canterbury

When I started reading the first line, I expected to hear from a musician she’s worked with who wanted to add his or her own special perspective on this positive music event. But no, Bill Hawkes, Canterbury, is a viola player with an axe to grind. That he goes on to call Kate Bush “manifestly overrated” is ultimately a matter of opinion (to dismiss someone as “overrated” usually means you don’t rate them and can’t understand the fuss, but it’s still subjective and thus arguably valid). But to prefix this with a cheap dig at a former employer and to reveal that you “laughed yourself silly” at the “nonsensical” lyrics to which you were paid to provide viola accompaniment is simply bad manners.

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I looked up Bill Hawkes and he seems to be a viola player of some note. Born in Cambridge in 1967, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has been a violist in both the Balanescu and Nigel Kennedy String Quartets, also playing violin for Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. He’s obviously very confident in his ability, and perhaps with good reason – he must be to publicly belittle someone he’s worked with and to admit to “laughing” behind their back in the studio. I don’t have my copies of 50 Words For Snow, her last album, to hand, so I can’t confirm his contribution to it, although the thorough Discogs.com listing makes no mention of him, and his own, fulsome entry on the same site omits to mention any Kate Bush album. Which leads me to wonder: was he left off the credits, and is that his beef? If so, he should have said.

Maybe she was horrible to work with. Maybe she trod on his foot during the sessions, or stole his parking space. Maybe there’s some other bad blood we don’t know about, but there are ways and means of processing this – tribunals, even! – and name-calling in a public forum isn’t one of them.

I posted the link to his letter on Twitter, and many agreed with my assessment that Bill Hawkes is at the very least, even in the context of a personal or industrial dispute we don’t know about, an impolite man – and one who seems unconcerned that his actions may also make him look unprofessional. Assuming he is a freelance musician for hire, this looks a lot like an own goal. By all means have your say about the overratedness or otherwise of a famous artist in the public eye – write a letter to a national newspaper if you feel so moved – but don’t mock their work from the privileged point of view of someone who’s previously contributed to it. Is the current mania for Kate Bush really “rather depressing”? A female artist who dares to be over the age of 30 being received with great enthusiasm by – again – mature music fans attending actual live gigs in a recession? Regardless of who that artist is, there seems little “depressing” about it.

To reiterate, my point here is not about Kate Bush, it’s about good grace and picking your fights wisely and thinking before you press “send” (dear God, let’s hope he didn’t send the letter in the post). A couple of people on Twitter who agree with the opinion that Kate Bush is “overrated” basically defended Mr Hawkes on the grounds that he was “right” (or, that they agreed with his opinion), but even if I thought she was overrated, I wouldn’t be very impressed with the wording of this letter.

David Arnold, one of the few people I know who might actually look to employ a violist, said on Twitter, “It’s an odd way of asking for your p45.”