Holding pattern

Hello, all. Another rolling apology for not tending to the blog garden as regularly as I should be. Not only am I up against the aforementioned Mr Blue Sky script delivery deadline, which looms ever closer each day (the first full cast read-through happens on March 5, on which day all six scripts will need to be in shape), but I’m doing 6 Music Breakfast all this week and next. It goes without saying that I enjoy both jobs, and could have said no to 6 Music, but I am determined to fit both in, and emerge triumphant and not as throaty and tired as I feel today. (I’m mainlining Vitamin C, and going to bed as early as 9pm, and not drinking, so I’m looking after myself.)

Breakfast is a blast. I like the photograph above of me hugging Alex Horne, and he hugging me back. I thought I’d publish it to raise a smile. Also, lest we forget, it means I am podcasting on a daily basis. The bite-sized best-of Breakfast Podcast is available all week right here. Yesterday’s includes the Alex Horne interview, too. (He does too many things, as I do, many of them in the evening when I am nodding off in front of Friday Night Lights, and he has a young family. I don’t know how he does it.)

I am also beholden to Radio Times to supply at least a weekly blog for their website, so, if you don’t already, why not bookmark this page, and maybe have a glance at my most recent blogs about The Muppets, and J. Edgar. I’ve been managing to fit in numerous film screenings, so there’s a massive backlog of reviews I’ve not had time to write: Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Girl Model, Carnage, the DVD of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Pt 2, the list goes on.

Thank you for bearing with me. It’s amazing that the blog still gets over 500 visitors a day, even when I don’t post anything new. Normal service will be resumed. And there’ll be another Telly Addict on Saturday. I don’t remember when I was last this busy, but the self-employed do not complain about such things.

2011: the year of our lord

Right, this promises to be solipsistic. I’m gearing up to compiling and publishing my lists of the year. I have already calculated my films of 2011 for the Radio Times website and you can read it here, although I may tweak it before re-publishing in this parish. (Also, I was duty bound to explain what all of my choices were, as it’s Radio Times, whereas here I will assume foreknowledge in a cavalier manner.) It might be time to assess my working year, however, which can’t be chopped up into a list. I fully realise the year is not strictly over yet, but having been involved in the production of the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, we’re working on the first issue of 2012 already, so it is all over in our office.

For the past few weeks I have been marvelling at the writing in Rev on BBC2, which is now most of the way through its second series. I’ve already made clear my adoration of Fresh Meat, created by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, which returns for its second series next year, but I sort of expected it to be good, due to their pedigree. (I’ll be honest, I’ve always had trouble connecting with Peep Show, their key work, but I admire it and appreciate it, and enjoy the performances – I just find the P.O.V. device distancing, that’s all. But everybody involved with The Thick Of It and In The Loop must be feared for their talent, and what’s more, I’ve seen Bain and Armstrong interviewed and they talk a good fight too. And they worked on the mighty Four Lions.) I have never met them, but I love them.

But James Wood, who co-created Rev with Tom Hollander, and has written every episode so far apart from two, has less overt pedigree. I remember seeing one episode of Freezing, but I never saw Down To Earth, on which he was one of many writers, and this means, for me, he comes out of nowhere. With Rev. I mean, really! I am so enchanted by it. Clearly, the cast are out of this world, from Hollander, who always strikes me a very humble performer, which suits a vicar, and the already-anointed Olivia Colman, through Miles Jupp and Simon McBurney, to the great Steve Evets, but a great cast do not a great sitcom make. It’s also directed by Peter Cattaneo, who made The Full Monty and Lucky Break so he knows what he’s doing, but again, you can’t brilliantly direct an average script. With comedy, it really is all in the writing. And Wood writes like a dream. It’s funny, of course, and the plots sit together, as they should, but it strikes me that this is a writer who enjoys the art of conversation. He must be a good listener. Having set up the congregation of characters in series one, in two, he seems to have earned the right to just sit back and let them live.

I write. Clearly I’m going to focus on the writing when I’m enjoying fiction on television, or at the cinema, in the same way that, as a drummer, I hear the drumming on a record I like. It’s instinctive. I know when I like the sound of a guitar, but I wouldn’t even be able to attempt to reproduce it, so I take it at face value. But I’m interested in the drumming on a technical level. Because I can type words in order, I feel I have an understanding of how James Wood might have written an episode of Rev. We might even use the same software. In this, we are in the same business. And yet, I’m pretty sure I’m not in the same league.

I’ve spent another year in which writing and broadcasting have wrestled for my very soul. There have been weeks, especially in the summer, where I’ve done more talking than writing; in other words, when someone has been ill or pregnant or on holiday from 6 Music. I was asked on Friday morning, by text, if I could fill in for Steve Lamacq that afternoon. I could not, and had to say no. It’s rare that I say no. I am like the emergency plumber of 6 Music. This is fine. It keeps things varied and unpredictable. I’m not going to get into a mind-numbing routine there, am I? Even my shows on Saturday morning, which began with Richard Herring in January, then stopped, and then restarted with Josie Long in December, before they stop again in two weeks’ time, have been built on balsa wood foundations. I have learned not to get too comfortable.

My biggest professional thrill of 2011 was radio-related, but did not involve me talking in between records. It was Mr Blue Sky on Radio 4, commissioned in July last year, made in March this year, and broadcast in May. After years of collaborating, usually with comedians, it was a joy to be able to put my name to something that I could call my own. Not since EastEnders have I had sole writing credit on anything. That’s a long time in showbiz. In the interim, I had it on every episode of Grass under Simon Day’s, and on 13 episodes of Not Going Out over four series under Lee Mack’s, and I realise I’m lucky to have had both. (I wrote one episode of Mumbai Calling, but I seem to recall it had a lot of other writers’ names on it, too.)

We assembled an impeccable cast for Mr Blue Sky, but at the end of the day, once again, it would live or die on the writing. That we had some nice reviews, supportive Tweets and were commissioned for a second series is all the affirmation I need that I didn’t do a bad job. It’s slow going when you’re trying to get something commissioned by television; radio is a much quicker process, and you get paid much, much less, but that doesn’t lessen the gratitude you feel, I can promise you. I’m hoping Radio 4 will repeat the first series before airing the second in 2012, as they only left episodes up for seven days on iPlayer, which was pretty mean, as it made it impossible to pick up if you missed the beginning.

I am currently writing series two – six episodes this time – and it’s a joy. No easier, but a very lucky thing to be allowed to do: take the characters established in series one and run with them. The prospect of being back in that studio with Mark Benton, Rebecca Front, Justin Edwards, Michael Legge, Joe Tracini and the rest of the gang is a mouth-watering one for the new year. (I’ve enjoyed seeing Javone Prince in the second series of PhoneShop, although he will forever be, to me, Kill-R in Mr Blue Sky.)

The BBC has long been my major employer, ever since my first tentative steps into broadcasting and writing on Radio 5 in the early 90s. But this year, the landscape changed. I spent a large part of 2011 writing Gates, a group-written, group-created sitcom for Sky 1, which airs early in the new year. Not a great year for Rupert Murdoch, but if you write and produce comedy you’d be mad not to look to Sky, as they are investing a lot of money in brand new, original, British-made programming. This won’t help you when Gates is on if you either refuse to, or can’t afford to, subscribe to Sky. But this as-yet unseen programme, set around the school gates of a junior school and starring the likes of Joanna Page, Sue Johnston, Tom Ellis and Tony Gardner, has taken up a fair chunk of my year.

It was interesting to be involved in group writing, although once the core four of us had spent many intensive days sat round the producer’s kitchen table, bashing out characters and storylines, we actually wrote alone, and I was asked to script-edit scripts right up to the wire. It involved a lot of work, and a lot of meetings, both at the production company’s offices in Shepherd’s Bush, and at Sky’s eerie campus in Isleworth, and, having just seen a couple of finished episodes, I think it will be worth it.

I can’t shed any more light on it at this stage, but I’ve also been in development with a comedy at another broadcaster, and have been commissioned to write the first script. This needs doing before Christmas, which is why I’ve been blogging less of late. I am under the cosh, with two commissions colliding, and although this is stressful, and not how one man’s workload would be sensibly planned out, I’m hardly going to complain.

My working life, as I’ve stated before, is essentially a series of meetings. The holy grail is a commission, whether it’s a pilot script, or a broadcast script, but there’s a sort of silver grail along the way, which is development money. I was paid by BBC Comedy to develop Mr Blue Sky for TV, and in the end they passed on it. So we took it to radio. I am currently being paid by another broadcaster to develop the other project which I can’t talk about. (All will be revealed if it comes off – this time last year, Gates was a project I couldn’t talk about.)

I get such a kick from actually sitting down and starting a page of script, as terrifying as that can be, and the really big news of 2011 was me actaully forking out and buying the software Final Draft. I used to have it when I wrote for EastEnders, as it is pretty much the industry standard format and they gave a copy to all their writers. However, I lost it when my laptop drowned in 2007 and was no longer an EastEnders writer by then. I have managed to survive writing a BBC1 sitcom, an episode of an ITV sitcom, a Sky 1 sitcom and script-editing a one-off comedy short for Sky (Shappi Khorsandi’s episode of this Christmas’s Little Crackers series, on over the festive period) using Word. I promised myself that if the secret sitcom went to script, I would stop fannying around like an amateur and pay the £140. This, I have now done. I feel like a grown-up again.

So, let’s hope, as we always do, that 2012 will be filled with scriptwriting. I will continue to aspire to be as good as Bain, Armstrong and Wood in comedy terms, but I continue to hold up serious drama as the biggest prize in sport. I started out writing drama, after, and EastEnders is the notch on my CV that got me my first gigs in comedy scriptwriting. The best comedy writing is, after all, drama with jokes. That’s certainly true of Rev, which is where we came in.

So, 2011 may well be the year in which I discovered my services would not be required on series five of Not Going Out, which airs in the new year, but that body blow was countered by better news with Gates and Mr Blue Sky – and the other thing. I shall be watching the new series for the first time as a viewer. It will be interesting. I remain bitter about it, but I promise not to let that cloud my judgment. There is enough bad feeling in the world, without adding to it.

I’d be interested to hear from you which writers you admire, in comedy or drama. In many ways, the best writing often goes unnoticed. Sometimes, clever writing can jar. (Not everybody liked Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, which was in places quite obviously “written”, but I thought it was just about the best thing on TV. My Top 10 TV Shows is coming soon, though. Just have to do a bit of work first.) Let me know.

Overnight sensation

So, Episode 2 of Mr Blue Sky – starring these people [above] – aired on Radio 4 this morning at the convenient time of 11.30am; I listened to it on headphones via my laptop in the British Library, which felt a bit weird. Secretly listening to my own work. Luckily it raises smiles rather than guffaws! (Or in my case, winces, and hopeful faces.)

As with the first episode last week, I have already received a handful of very positive comments on Twitter. This is gratifying, and I appreciate every one of them. How else am I to gauge how well it’s going? I certainly can’t trust my own opinion (and anyway, I know what’s coming next, and the necessary pauses are like daggers in my heart when I listen live – I can only hope they aid easy listening for everybody else). Unlike TV, with a radio show there are no overnight ratings. I used to refresh Media Guardian’s ratings page all morning after an episode of Not Going Out went out. Indeed, radio is simply not about ratings unless you’re playing RAJAR wars as a station, or else you are a breakfast show. Numbers are largely irrelevant. It’s more important that the general reaction is positive, and for that, you have to ask around. (Have they closed the Radio 4 message boards, by the way? These used to be a bearpit. If they have gone, I’m glad.)

A lot of Radio 4’s most loyal listeners just leave the station on all day. This is the mark of their loyalty. I guess one or two will have heard Mr Blue Sky in the course of their day, by accident. This is the way speech radio works – I understand that. But it does also mean that unless you sit down to listen to it, or put it on headphones, most of the subtle drama and “bittersweet” tone are going to drift off into the ether, or be drowned out by the noise of a lawnmower or the postman. (A comedy with a studio audience at least has guide laughter attached.)

I’m feeling it’s going down OK. I get that impression. But radio listings in newspapers are, in general, tiny and tokenistic, so unless you’re “Pick of the Day”, which you only ever will be in week one, you’re on your own. We were picked out in, I think, four newspapers, although one, the Mail, said it was “unfunny and unconvincing” so that didn’t really increase traffic. (It should be noted that my colleague Jane Anderson, radio editor at Radio Times, kindly made Ep2 a pick in this week’s magazine. Every little helps.)

As far as I’m aware, I’ve only had one printed review, by the lovely Elisabeth Mahoney in the Guardian. (You can read it here.) But there’s no sense of Mr Blue Sky taking off or catching the public’s imagination. Even those enthusiastic folk at the British Comedy Guide aren’t discussing it (four comments, one by me!), despite this generous interview with me by the site’s Si Hawkins. Hey, deal with it! This is just the way it is in a crowded multimedia market full of stuff.

In many ways, Twitter presents a false impression – if people didn’t like it, I would expect them to have the decency to keep quiet about it (and if hey don’t have that decency, I’ll probably have already blocked them anyway). I merely point out that being on the radio has to be an end in itself, and not a means to another end, such as being carried shoulder high around the streets and bringing traffic to a standstill. It is an end. I am one of the lucky ones: four half hours of radio with my name on them. I must admit, I felt as nervous when Ep2 went out, in my ears, this morning, as I did when Ep1 went out, in my Mum and Dad’s living room, last week. At any stage, I assume the whole edifice of legitimacy will come tumbling down, and I’ll have my BBC pass revoked.

If, like most people, you are not glued to a radio at 11.3oam, Ep2 will be available for seven days here. (And no, for those that keep asking, it will not be available as a podcast, as Radio 4 do not tend to put narrative comedy or drama out as podcasts.)

And an opportunity to publish a nice new photo [above], which I have belatedly extracted from my phone, even though my phone does not allow you to upload photos to a Mac. I love the people in this photo.

Be glad of first night nerves

It doesn’t get any easier. The first episode of Mr Blue Sky aired this morning, at 11.30, on BBC Radio 4. I was as nervous before it went out as I might have been waiting in the wings to go onstage. (Actually, in the action photo above, I have emerged from behind the glass to play the second of two cameo parts, a cancer patient called Mr Bellamy, and I am breathing in the rarefied thespian air of Justin Edwards and Mark Benton for a brief moment on the shop floor.) Come half past eleven, there was literally nothing I could do about it: the first 28 minutes’ worth of my first solo-written sitcom was being given birth to, in public, and if I had, somewhere along the line, made a massive mistake, it would no longer be a secret. My cover would be blown. All that work, all those accursed rewrites and rethinks, all those drafts when it was in development as a TV sitcom, all that heartache when it was bounced from pillar to post, all that stress as it took shape in the mouths of professionals in a West London recording studio, all of them kind enough to give the impression that they thought it was alright … no hiding place! Mr Blue Sky went into the world. By midday, I was spent. (It’s on iPlayer here, by the way.)

I’ve been forcing myself from the margins of showbiz onto the public for most of my life. Why? Why do I put myself through it? I don’t know. The search for approval is the usual diagnosis of this unsavoury habit. Some kind of emotional neediness is another. But my Mum and Dad were always very attentive and appreciative when I shoved cartoons under their noses as a tiny boy, and shoved more elaborate cartoons under their noses as a more complicated teen. (I guess even they grew blasé about my creative itch and the yards of drawing paper it consumed, and once you’ve seen your eldest son in one school play, you’ve seen him in them all, but you dutifully turn out anyway, because you made him and it’s your fault.) I remember a few milestones very clearly: the first scribbles of mine that were actually “printed” – and by that, I meant rattled off on some ancient carbon-based contraption at Abington Vale Middle School (don’t look for it etc.) when I was about eight? I had rudimentary drawing skills. I wasn’t that good. I was just more naturally equipped than most kids with a pen. So the headmistress, via my form teacher, pressed me into service to supply a couple of illustrations for a lyric sheet for an end-of-term carol service. These had to be scratched into some carbon paper – a most irksome process for a boy used to felt tips and crayons. Anyway, one was of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, another was of a carol singer, a large musical note emanating from his mouth in the traditional Beano style, while a pound note was dropped into his hat. Miss Malins, the headmistress, was moved to comment upon the illustrations at the service, as the circular design I had etched into the pound note made it look like a ten pound note, and she cautioned parents that they need not donate such an extortionate amount!

After a misleading brush with top billing in an Abington Vale Primary School Wind In The Willows (I was a slapstick Toad with eggbox eyes), my school drama career settled into the rhythm of one spear-carrier after another. In fact, in one play at Middle School, I played a “Sentinel”, whose job it was to stand motionless beside a king’s throne throughout, even when Anita Barker tickled me with a feather duster. It got a laugh, without me lifting a finger. One Christmas, my friend Angus and I performed a two-hander at an end-of-term talent contest called The Dentist, which we’d conceived, and in which I played the patient and he played the dentist, but whose hilarious comic conceit was ruined by the curtains being already open when Angus and I laid out most of my Dad’s toolbox on a table, thus giving away the escalating narrative before it had started. We didn’t win.

At Weston Favell Upper School, my friend Paul Garner and I achieved a modest, geeky kind of “fame” when, through his Dad, who worked at the Chronicle & Echo, we had caricatures of film stars we’d drawn printed in the paper, which led to an appearance (above) on Look East. This was my TV debut. Our next door neighbour, John, who had a proper camera, took the photo off the telly, as it went out, as nobody had a video. Also at Weston Favell, I helped write and conceive Not The Sixth Form Revue (this was in 1982, so you must forgive the now rather hackneyed title), and gave myself a couple of plum parts, but I understood the democratic sketch group aesthetic and kept out of most of it, finding an equivalent level of satisfaction hearing my words coming out of other performers’ mouths. I guess this is when I realised that I was in fact better off writing for other people, and that there was gratification to be gleaned from doing just that. The career in journalism which eventually awaited me after four years of drawing more pictures and failing to impress any of my tutors with it, gave me a chance to communicate with the public, or at least the NME‘s readership, without having to wait behind curtains for my entrance. My first byline in the paper consisted of just my initials, after a couple of capsule reviews of Vietnam films. This thrilled me to the bone nonetheless. In those pre-computer days, the only way to validate your words was to see them in print.

I think if I’d landed at the NME ten or 20 years earlier (ie. if I’d been born ten or 20 years earlier), I might have remained satisfied with shoving my words under people’s noses and never have troubled television or radio with my face and my voice (neither of which I was entirely in love with at any stage, especially the latter). But this was the 90s, and journalists were being increasingly recruited as pundits – what we’d now call talking heads – and I was willing and able. (“Able” in the sense that I will keep talking when there is a dead air to fill.) Along with my new soulmate Stuart Maconie, who had a better face and a better voice, I drifted from print onto the airwaves, and we were suddenly writing words for ourselves to say. I wonder if anyone remembers Fantastic Voyage, our first radio comedy show, six parts on the old Radio 5, in which we played hospital radio DJs called Andrew and Stuart? We both got radio careers out of this fertile period of cross-pollination, but unlike Stuart, I was restless and still casting around for something else to do, and he edged ahead of me into mainstream broadcasting, while I dabbled with a new toy: scriptwriting.

At Family Affairs, and then EastEnders, I learned new skills. This was the toughest of all the jobs I’d ever had, and for that reason alone, it gave me the most satisfaction. After anything between four and six drafts of an episode of EastEnders, to see the finished programme go out, on BBC1, with a guaranteed audience, and to have your name at the beginning or the end of it, was the feeling of a job well done. (I saw more experienced writers than myself taken off an episode if it wasn’t progressing fast enough between drafts, and knew that I was only as useful as my last script. This keeps a writer on his or her toes. You can get away with a lot more as a music radio DJ than you can as a television scriptwriter. Radio is transient, and that’s why it’s such a lot of fun to do.)

Had, at any stage, I concentrated on just one aspect of the media, I might have become an expert, or a specialist, or a master of one single trade, rather than what I am: a hyphenate, a dabbler, a fly-by-night, a second or third choice for the occasional lucrative panel game if somebody’s dropped out, someone who had a crack at stand-up for a year, someone who has been on any number of TV and radio shows once, never to be asked back, and a writer who’s most known for collaborating with others, because I’m fairly easy to get on with and don’t have tantrums.

And here I am, scriptwriting, but also on the radio. It doesn’t get any easier. I’ve been forcing myself from the margins of showbiz onto the public, sometimes by stealth or as a stowaway, for most of my life. Searching for approval and being too thin-skinned to ignore criticism. But I listened to the first episode of Mr Blue Sky go out, live, at 11.30am this morning, at my Mum and Dad’s, with my Mum and Dad, in the very living room I left behind in 1984 in order to go and seek my fortune in London, a city I adore and despise at the same time, but it’s where the work is. They seemed to enjoy the show. Others, on the internet, and by text, were equally supportive. I knew that the actors were good, and that the production was good, and the editing, and the badly-played piano, and the closing theme tune by Jim Bob, but I had no idea if the script was.

I was nervous when the actors first read it out, round a massive table at Avalon, in March, and I was nervous when I first listened to the finished programmes, on disc, about a month ago. But none of this compared to the butterflies I felt when I woke, feeling a bit sick, this morning. It’s a ridiculous ordeal to put yourself through. But the satisfaction when it’s not a complete disaster is the clincher.

Ironically, while I’m up at my parents’, my next job is to get out my old felt tips and draw the caricature for that nice man who bid £363 for me to do so on TwitRelief. So I’m back at my Mum and Dad’s, drawing a cartoon to shove under someone else’s nose. I’m slightly apprehensive that I won’t be able to actually draw a caricature any more. But fear gives courage wings.

Day Four Pt2

Cheers. I look happy in this picture, too, don’t I? This never happens. I mean, it pretty much never happens. I am in a pub. On my own. At lunchtime. Here is my excuse: I left the coffee shop at St Pancras and headed over to Tottenham Court Road in Central London to where the studio is. The studio where we are recording the extra scene for Mr Blue Sky. When I got there, it turned out that, it being lunchtime, the producers and editor had gone for lunch. So, unwilling to give any more money to a coffee shop and having used up my Costa loyalty card privileges, I went to the nearest pub, and, using a special logic based on a combination of factors (it’s a nice day; I never do this; there were lots of spare tables; I felt a bit spare and lost; I need somewhere to wait for Michael Legge; it’s what Steve Lamacq would do and I am Steve Lamacq this week), I gave money instead to a pub for a pint of Staropramen, which I am hip enough to know is called “Star” when you ask for it, if you are an experienced drinker.

I am no longer an experienced drinker. I feel illicit. I know that I can drink a whole pint and still operate for the rest of the day without falling asleep, especially as I have many packed lunch elements still in my bag to help see me through my radio show, but it’s rare at my age to feel illicit. This is highlighted by the fact that I am clearly in a student pub. It’s near to the University of Central London, or UCL, which is huge, and if you ever hear students complaining about tuition fees again, tell them to stop ordering lunch from a pub, as all these students are. It’s seven or eight quid for a fish and chips or burger, and if they can afford to pay that when I can’t, they must be rolling in it. (Debt. They are rolling in debt. But they would be rolling in less debt if they made a packed lunch every day, like I do.)

Because I don’t go to pubs much, I like going to them. When I was at college, I used the canteen, where food was cheap and subsidised, and so were we, as we still got grants for being a student. Maybe UCL doesn’t have a canteen. I bet canteens are nicer now than they were then, too. Ours was like a school canteen. We loved it, but it was. I bet university canteens are all modern and healthy now, and I bet they have sandwich shops too. I do not deny students the right to go to the pub. But they shouldn’t eat in them.

(Ha ha, I accidentally pushed in front of three students at the very crowded bar because they were too busy talking, presumably about the cuts, to hear the barman say, “Next, please!” They were next. But I went next as I was alone and not talking to anybody. They should take pity on me. I have no friends.)

Well, here I am in the edit. This is where my Radio 4 sitcom, Mr Blue Sky, is currently being turned into an actual thing that they can play out on the radio by my producers Anna and John and editor Rich. I don’t think my presence there on a daily basis would help. Better to just turn up, as I did today, and listen to a completed edit. Also, we had Mark Benton and Michael Legge in to record my brand new scene, one which we didn’t realise we needed in Ep1 until it was lashed together. It’s an establishing scene which, when you hear it on May 16 on Radio 4 at 11.30am, you won’t notice, hopefully.

I had to leave for 6 Music before they’d finished, and it took a while for Mark and Michael to get back into character, after two weeks away from the show, but as I left, they were Harvey and Sean again, and in safe hands. (The studio requires a code tapped into a keypad to operate the lift, and another code to get into the actual studios from the corridor – that’s high security.)

The 6 Music show was dominated by Roundtable, which, neatly enough, was revived for what used to be the Teatime slot when that slot was mine, and is now Steve’s. But for this week, it is mine again. Not much has changed. Some records, reviewed by a trio of guests, either musical or comedic, or, in the case of Matt Berry, both, as his new LP is why he’s on the market. As ever, it’s a potentially sweat-inducing presenting job, as you have to keep on top of the tracks being played, jolly along the panellists, read out extracts from what used to be called the “chatroom” and time your way up to the news, and to the handover to Marc in Manchester at 7pm. Also, it’s your job not only to impart information about the records under the hammer, but to elicit meaningful comments from the guests.

Dave from Frankie & The Heartstrings – a lovely band from the North East, whose singer, Frankie, I have guested on Roundtable alongside – is a bone-dry individual, but very funny, if you can listen past his deadpan delivery. He’s the one who came up with the line, “Crosby, Stills and Gash,” to describe Fleet Foxes. A fine, upstanding individual, and drummer (finest member of any band), he drank a glass of white wine in the pub afterwards before heading back to Sunderland. (If it turns out to be Newcastle, I will be killed.) Matt Berry, so familiar from The Boosh and The IT Crowd and Darkplace and Snuffbox, was very technical about the production techniques on the records, and held back from being overtly funny, even though he is. (He orderd a “scotch and coke” in the pub.) Meanwhile, Legge (pint of Becks) whom I know too well to be dispassionate about, brought a welcome frenetic energy to proceedings. I would say this, but he’s very good on the radio, I think. (Paul Simon and Yuck drew in terms of points given, for the record.)

Only a quick “one drink” in the pub afterwards, as we all had gigs and homes to go to, or trains to catch, but it was nice to unwind for a blessed hour.

A full day, and an exhausting one. Another full and exhausting one tomorrow.

Day Four

Important milestone to log at the start of Day Four: I finished reading one of my books last night before bed. The Kennedys by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, first published in 1984, which means the saga ends just as David Kennedy dies. He was one of Robert Kennedy’s 11 kids. (Did you know the Kennedys were Catholic?) It’s been a rip-roaring read and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in Camelot but doesn’t necessarily want to read lots of conspiracy theories about who shot JFK and RFK. It’s about the family, first and foremost, and the effect the deaths had on the family are what Collier and Horowitz are interested in.

Before the day begins, I am up very early and uploading a few CDs onto my laptop which I have managed to get from 6 Music: Submarine EP by Alex Turner, Grinderman 2 by Grinderman and Witchhazel by Matt Berry (I’m meeting him later when he guests on Roundtable).

Now I have to stop writing this and start writing a) five Films Of The Day for Radio Times (I usually split these duties with Barry Norman, but he’s been pressed into service memorialising Elizabeth Taylor, so I’m doing his), and b) some jokes for 7 Day Sunday. These must all be done and delivered by lunchtime. It’s another of those days where I split my day fairly evenly between writing and talking. These are the two main things that I do for money.

Please note, whoever it was who said they found this week of blog entries “creepy” and foreboding – possibly because of my black t-shirts – that I am wearing a bright green stripy top today.

Phew. I’ve been out and about a lot this week, with no clear days, so have only passed through the British Library sporadically and for short shifts. I completed the five Films Of The Day for Radio Times before I left the house: for the record, Wanted, Donnie Darko, Just Friends, The Kingdom and High School Musical 3, as we aim to please a wide audience with our choices and terrestrial premieres are automatically shunted to the top of the pile, for self-evident reasons of public service. If I have my own reservations about any of the choices, I am allowed to express them, and I made clear that you have to be child of a certain age to enjoy High School Musical, and I am not a child.

I sent my Radio Times copy through at 08.57 and travelled up to King’s Cross to write all my topical gags for 7 Day Sunday at the Library, sending those through, completed, at 11.24, and that’s my urgent work done. Incidentally, I seem to have been having more success logging on to the Library’s free wi-fi this week – it has been playing me up since before Christmas and despite their best efforts, the dedicated IT Support people couldn’t crack the reason why. Maybe they have fixed something at their end using all the information I gave them, including my AirPort ID number. It’s still not 100% efficient, but after that nightmare patch during which I couldn’t even log in and was forced instead to resentfully use up the monthly capacity of my dongle, I’m grateful for anything.

That said, I couldn’t get a network at all when I needed to send off my work, so I was forced into Costa in St Pancras (the station itself, paradise that it is, has free wi-fi). Here, I cashed in the chips on my loyalty swipe card for a £2.45 medium soya latte – unlike the other chains, they do not charge extra for soya – and completed my business. I can’t work out if it’s the Library or my ageing MacBook that’s the problem, but if the AirPort picks up St Pancras wi-fi instantly, it can’t be me, can it? I found myself at the centre of an uninvited commotion in Costa when, having picked up my coffee and paid, the metal rack where they display some cakes fell off the counter and onto me. It crashed to the floor, and I heard myself exclaim, “Fuck!” It must have been pretty precariously balanced to fall off the counter, but my first thought was to apologise to those in the queue behind me for saying, “Fuck!” “Sorry for swearing,” I said, which I hope was appreciated.

The Costa staff, whose rapid response was admirable, asked me if I was OK. I was OK. I was more worried about a) swearing in mixed company, and b) the wasted cakes. Maybe they put them back in the booby-trapped display rack and sold them. They were certainly picked up within the boundaries of the Five Second Rule.

Anyway, here’s a picture of me in the Piazza outside the British Library to calm me, and you, down.

(If you look in the bottom left-hand corner behind the woman’s head, you can just make out one of the seven yellow signs that read CAUTION: STEPS.)

Another achievement: yesterday, I finished reading almost every word of last week’s New Yorker, which included a great expanded book review about Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan who was put in charge of America’s Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, a lyrical overview of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, a hilarious memoir by Tina Fey about her time as head writer on Saturday Night Live, a review of a New York revival of Jason Miller’s play That Championship Season and a nice piece about the father of gerontology, G Stanley Hall. Add that to the BP oil spill epic and you’ve got what counts as a vintage issue of the magazine. I don’t usually read all of it. The new issue has arrived to replace it, and there’s one piece I fancied on first flick through, something about writer’s block in Hollywood. Could be a bit heavy with roughage, this one. We’ll see.

My next stop is a studio in Central London where Mr Blue Sky is being edited, and where the new scene I have written will be recorded. Enjoying the Grinderman album, by the way.

Permission to be unfunny

The sun is shining in the sky. There doesn’t appear to be a cloud in sight. (Not that we’d notice, locked in a recording studio.) It’s happening. At last. It took 14 years for me to get here, but on Monday, I arrived at the West London offices of production company Avalon for the first rehearsal of my first ever solo sitcom, commissioned by Radio 4 in September. We are now at the end of the week, with all four episodes pretty much in the can and with an air date of Monday May 16, so I think it’s OK to name it and talk about it, without superstitious fear of disaster. (I have been holding back, calling it “my sitcom” and “the Radio 4 sitcom”, for fear of jinxing its delicate progress to fruition, and besides, it’s impolitic to reveal the cast until the actors’ contracts are dry, as the possibility of last-minute drop-out is very real – as I have learned – and that kind of thing does not send out good vibes. You’ll have to forgive my caginess. I still can’t quite believe this is happening, even though the hard part has now happened.)

The sitcom is named Mr Blue Sky, although the very name “sitcom” sends out misleading messages, as it’s not the type recorded in front of a studio audience. Rather, it has been recorded in a studio, as a drama with funny bits in. A risky strategy but after five years of working on Not Going Out, this is what I have been yearning to do. Without going into the plot too much, it’s about Harvey Easter, a 46-year old optimist living in North Surrey whose life throws at him many reasons to be miserable or pessimistic, but whose pathological ability to see the bright side pulls him through while all around is falling apart. Yes, there is a bit of me in Harvey, and always has been. Having stated that it is essentially a comedy drama, we must consult the Radio 4 Comedy Guidelines, which remind us that recording without a studio audience does not give me “permission to be unfunny.” It does, however, give me certain liberties, and allows me to step outside of the tyranny of punchlines.

I would say this, and I know that every writer says it about every cast, but we have an amazing cast. I’ve been involved, at a remove, with casting before, on Grass and Not Going Out, but I’ve never been consulted on every actor as I have been with Mr Blue Sky, so this one matters. When you consider the vagaries and variables of assembling a cast with eight principals and one supporting player, each one subject to taste and preference and to availability and contracts, to achieve one with no apparent weak links is a wonder indeed. The mighty Mark Benton, alumnus of too much to mention but let’s throw in Mike Leigh’s Career Girls, Catterick, The Street and Early Doors, plays Harvey Easter; comedy goddess Rebecca Front his wife Jax; the estimable and also The Thick Of It-linked Justin Edwards his best mate Ray the oncologist; Antonia Campbell-Hughes from Lead Balloon and When Harvey Met Bob the Easters’ daughter Charlie; Joe Tracini (The Great Outdoors, best thing in Coming Of Age) as son Robbie; Javone Prince (PhoneShop) as boyfriend Kill-R; up-and-coming actor a certain Michael Legge as Harvey’s assistant Sean; Navin Chowdhry (Teachers) as Rakesh the builder; and last but never least, Simon Day in two cameo parts, because it would have seemed all wrong not to have him.

Casting is fraught – as the jigsaw is assembled, you dare not get your hopes up about anybody, and we had to move the recording back a week, so that threw a further cat among the pigeons – but on Monday, with those amazing people sat around the conference table at Avalon, scripts in front of them, it all started to feel real. The first read was fun. I was more nervous beforehand than I have ever been before actually performing. This is my script. If it’s no good, I have nowhere to hide. I have worked very closely on it with my producer and script editor, Anna, and she’s been brutal at times, but you need that. I’ve had this story in my head for a long time, and though it’s been through many changes, Mr Blue Sky is still basically the same as when I first conceived it in … wait for it … 1997, when Mal Young, then series-producing Family Affairs for Channel Five, my first ever scriptwriting job, encouraged me to come up with something of my own. So I did. Harvey was a greetings card salesman at that stage, and he had three kids. Now he’s an assistant manager in a piano shop and he has two kids. But if his optimism once chimed with a broader optimism at the cusp of the Blair era, it’s become more and more misplaced as this country’s politics have decayed and corrupted. I like Harvey even more now than I did then. The bright side is harder to come by in 2011, so he’s even more out of step.

Because Mr Blue Sky hasn’t been recorded in front of an audience, we have been physically able to record it out of sequence, which is useful if certain actors are not required the whole way through, but that said, the plan was always to record it as close to chronologically as we could, starting with Ep1 on Tuesday, and finishing with Ep4 today. (As it’s turned out, we quickly got ahead of schedule, and were able to nip ahead to get scenes in the can early, allowing some castmembers to have the occasional early finish or late start – except Mark and Rebecca, who are in most of the scenes. Acting, like rock’n’roll, is a lot of waiting around.)

Because it’s a comedy, as a writer, you’re hoping for smiles at least, and laughs at the most, and we had enough of those at the first read to reassure me that I’ve not been writing a drama for the last five months. (Navin, in particular, found comedy where I wasn’t even aware that I’d written it! And Joe was such a bundle of energy – he’s actually 22, but plays 16 brilliantly – he kept the room lit up.) By the time we all rocked up at the recording studio in an industrial estate in Shepherd’s Bush on Tuesday morning (our nearest neighbour is the Innocent smoothie factory!), we’d broken the ice and felt confident about the task ahead.

That was Day 1. We had four days to get it in the can. There is a certain amount of boredom built in, at least for the actors, and they spend a lot of their days in the green room, but the studio complex is bijou and comfortable, with plentiful coffee, tea and biscuits, and most actors either know the other actors, or have a director, producer or other actor in common from previous jobs, and quickly find common ground for anecdotes and scurrilous gossip. I’d love to sit with them all day and hear their tales, but I am required in the control room, with Anna, co-director and co-producer John, runner/foley artist Calum, and studio director Wilfredo, a man whose laconic, dry sense of humour takes some getting used to, but what a hero he is, re-flooring the studio for different effects and blocking the actors so that they sound like they are coming down the stairs and entering the kitchen when that is precisely what the script requires.

I love the technicality of all this: the pick-ups and the retakes; the microphone effects; the actual rustling of a duvet to create the mood of two characters being in bed together; the startling variety of sound effects available digitally at the click of Wilfredo’s mouse; the soothing diplomacy over the talkback when actors are invited to try it a different way (“That was perfect, but …”); the dramatic shorthand created by simple proximity of actor to mics; the exaggerated noise of a door handle to suggest a door handle; the way you can hear every conversation the actors have in the studio between takes which is not exactly eavesdropping as they know you can hear them, but an insight nonetheless into their trade as they swap observations about which Sondheim musicals they’ve done. It is, needless to say, exhausting. With an hour off for lunch, you’re at it all day, and although – to pre-empt – it’s not as hard as being a miner, it’s amazing how tiring and emotionally draining it is. That’s not a complaint. I’ve been sleeping like a baby all week. Oh, and waking up at 5.30am and unable to get back to sleep as Mr Blue Sky bangs round in my head.

We had fun on Wednesday, which was Simon Day’s one day with us, as both of his scenes the intrepid Wilfredo decided to record outside, so that they sounded authentic. I won’t spoil the scenes by telling you what characters Simon was playing, or explaining why he and Antonia are standing by the bins in these photos (you can also see Joe – glasses – in the bottom pic), but it was a rare excursion outside of the stifling, windowless intensity of the studio and control room, and welcome for that. Yesterday, Thursday, Day 3, I noticed a certain hysteria setting in with the cast – more foul-mouthed swearing when mistakes were made, more silly voices, more uncontrollable laughter – this is understandable and expected. Cabin fever.

Certain traits and oddities and bits of trivia have arisen from our time together: Javone has given up alcohol and carbs until Lent; Joe can’t eat biscuits as they make him gag (he ate his first in ten years at the read-through and regretted it); Michael rubs his hands together before a scene; Mark wants to present a heavy metal show on 6 Music; Navin has a very good recipe for flapjacks; Antonia sounds American in real life but is from Northern Ireland; Wilfredo is so professional and dedicated he opts for a decaff tea; John wears a coat indoors; and pretty much every member of our multi-tasking cast is writing something currently or involved in pitching an idea to BBC3. Navin finished all of his scenes yesterday, and we bid our fond farewells to this nice man. The rest of the main cast soldier on until the end of today.

I guess I shouldn’t write too much. I’m going to do a diary of the production for Radio Times. Needless to say, it’s been one of the most intense and rewarding weeks of my stupid career. Whether the finished result will be worth all the heartache is up to you when you hear it in two months’ time. (Anna and John will take charge of the edit over the next couple of weeks. I will probably stay away. It could drive me mad.) Oh, and none other than Jim Bob has recorded ELO’s Mr Blue Sky as our theme song, which will play out under the closing credits. Maybe he will be able to make it available in full as a download? Either way, it’s another thrill to have his name attached to “my Radio 4 sitcom.” The siege mentality that defines these things got us all through it without any tantrums or friction.

Oh, and a big shout-out to Freddy, Julie and Annabel who run the studio, and brought us tremendous cake every day just when we needed a burst of sugar in the afternoon.

It’s stopped raining. Everybody’s in the play. And don’t you know, it’s a beautiful new day.

Meanwhile, here is a lovely, post-wrap group shot, taken using Wilfredo’s iPhone. A left to right would seem to be in order:

From left: Wilfredo, Calum, Joe Tracini, Michael Legge, Andrew Collins, Mark Benton, Justin Edwards, Rebecca Front, Javone Prince, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Anna Madley, John Pocock