On the third day

Day Three of Mr Blue Sky – after a working weekend I spent script editing someone else’s script, but don’t feel sorry for me! – and it’s all slotting together. We had an easy morning, in that we recorded all of Harvey’s monologues from all six episodes, which by definition, only required one actor, the mighty Mark Benton, who did such a sterling job, we were ahead of schedule by lunch. (The most complicated day we’ve saved until last – Friday. That’s going to be a frazzler, with pretty much the entire squad in, including all three of our star cameos, Simon Day, Greg Davies and Angus Deayton. Photographic evidence of this car crash of talent will be forthcoming.)

By lunchtime, the whole family was here. They are not a family. They are four – sometimes five, sometimes six – unrelated professional actors, but in the bunker of a radio production, the lines between reality and comedy drama blur, so that actors are often addressed over the talkback by their character names, and this is not meant as an insult. If anything, it’s a compliment! When Tyger Drew Honey arrives, having been stuck in traffic in Hammersmith, we say, “Robbie’s here!” When Mark arrives, having been stuck in the same traffic, we say, “Harvey’s here.” Nobody’s going “method” but if they wished to, they’d get no complaints from in here, behind the glass.

In the pic above, we see Tyger, physically blurred, as he is a highly caffeinated 16-year-old and very seldom still. Sorcha Cusack, who plays his racist grandmother Lou, is like acting royalty, and – guess what? – a sweetheart. She hits her mark every time, and is a pleasure to have around. And she was Brad Pitt’s mother in Snatch.

Below, we see Mark and Claire Skinner, as Harvey and Jax. The scene they are recording involves the couple being in bed. This is why they are doing some top quality “quilt acting” as it’s known in the trade. No, it’s not a sex scene. Mr Blue Sky is family listening.

On Friday and today, the weather has been glorious, which is apt, of course, but also frustrating. Because I am working in my breaks and during lunch, I literally do not see the outside world between the 9am start and the 6pm finish. The glorious weather is wasted on me. But again, do not feel sorry for me! This is the best gig in the world.

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Out of the blue

Day Two of Mr Blue Sky series 2. The palatial middle studio at Soundhouse on what is now an ominously deserted industrial estate in Shepherd’s Bush is our place of work until the end of next week. Already, we are into a rhythm. We’re recording the six half-hour episodes very much out of sequence, in order to accommodate the intricacies of actor availability. There is something utterly thrilling about seeing massive piles of scripts, especially if you wrote them. This is why I was drawn to pointing at them in the above pic.

In the background of this shot from the green room, or anteroom, or outhouse, is Navin Chowdhry, who plays builder Rakesh – and imbues every one of his lines with such seductive innuendo we had to get him back to provide romantic intrigue with the happily married Mrs Easter. In the foreground is Rosamund, star of all the This Is Englands and Life’s Too Short, and, as of now, the new Charlie in Mr Blue Sky. In real life, as in fiction, she turns out to be something of a force of nature. You need one of these on a gruelling week of drama. (Last year we had the walking fireworks display Joe Tracini, who now belongs to Hollyoaks and, one must assume, keeps their morale up when the going gets tough.) Rosamund travels down each day from Nottingham, so she wins the prize for the longest commute, I think. The other cast members travel from as far afield as the South coast and from as near afield as pretty much over the road. Although there is much about the piecemeal assembly of a radio comedy that is not like a day at the office, it does a good impression of a day’s work, in that we start at a fixed time, end at a fixed time, and break for lunch.

Today, as you can see below, those nice people at Pieminister sent over a box of pies for us to mark National Pie Week. Although some of our cast – naming no names – are watching their weight, most of us tucked in. This was a welcome invasion by the outside world into our mostly windowless existence. Here are the cast eating their lunch (I have saved their blushes by not actually showing them shoving food into their mouths, but you can see the hands of TV’s Claire Skinner delicately dissembling her Big Cheese Pie with a plastic knife and fork.)

This was my Cow Pie before I dissembled it.

We’re on schedule as I write, which is just after lunch. Our producer and production co-ordinator have created a spreadsheet that must be obeyed. As a writer, you just merrily knock this stuff out, without too much of a care for how long scenes are, or how many characters are in it, or whether or not a character is heard enough times in a scene to suggest that they are still there – all stuff that presumably becomes second nature the more you do radio drama, which is what this essentially is – but on the day, these poor actors have to make sense of it, hit their marks, live out the fiction in a plain studio and give their best performance. The Easter family of four has become five in Series 2, and with the addition of Harvey’s racist Mum for a couple of episodes (played with fabulous gusto by the amazing Sorcha Cusack of the Cusack dynasty), which means some scenes have six voices, which is both an amazing sight to behold through the glass, and an amazing thing to hear through the speakers, but quite a headache to choreograph.

This (below) is the man who makes much of it happen. He’s Wilfredo, our studio director, who works wonders with sound effects both digital and physical, and mans the desk throughout. He is a laconic and calming presence. When all around is chaos, he keeps his head.

I shall end today’s entry with a snapshot of the whole Easter family, who, as I write, are pretending to eat in a pizza restaurant. From left to right: Claire Skinner (Jax Easter), Tyger Drew Honey (Robbie Easter), Rosamund Hanson (Charlie Easter), Mark Benton (Harvey Easter), Kill-R (Javone Prince) and Lou Easter (Sorcha Cusack).

It’s a living thing

The sun is not yet shining in the sky as I am writing this over breakfast, but I am optimistic that it will. Today is Day One of Mr Blue Sky Series 2. It is a year to the day that we embarked upon the recording of Mr Blue Sky Series 1 at the Soundhouse studio in West London – on the same industrial estate as the Innocent smoothie factory (which has since moved) – and by luck and judgement, this is where we find ourselves today.

Previously on …
If you are not up to speed with Mr Blue Sky, it is my first ever solo-written comedy. It’s mine. All mine. Made by Avalon, it aired on BBC Radio 4 in May and June last year; four episodes. It revolves around Harvey Easter, played by the mighty Mark Benton, who is the world’s biggest optimist, a pathology challenged on a daily basis by the world around him. You can read all about the making of Series 1 in this rather long blog entry from last year.

Because it was a new show, I was rather superstitious about it, and did not even name it until we had finished recording. This year, I can be a little more open about it, as it’s Series 2. It starts airing on April 9, which is just over a month away, so it’s almost instantaneous. This reminds me why I love making radio. And it’s why everybody loves making radio: commissioning decisions can be made more easily, the technical task of making it is one unencumbered by wigs and lighting and requires only a very small and intimate crew, which means you all get to know each other very quickly and a healthy siege mentality takes hold; also, actors of a very high calibre can be recruited, as six half-hour episodes can realistically be recorded in six days, or thereabouts.

This is Day One of the recording. I guess the actual Day One was Monday, when we had the very first full cast read-through of the six scripts which I have been working on since before Christmas, to the detriment of many other things, including writing this blog. That’s how devoted to Mr Blue Sky I have been.

I will attempt to blog more regularly this time, and add pics as and when. As you can see from the pic above, taken by the spy Michael Legge on the way to the read on Monday, just over half of the original cast are back. It’s been something of a nightmare trying to reconvene the actors from Series 1, during which, for producer/director/script editor Anna, the word “availability” has been the bane of her life. As you can see, we have Mark Benton back, as well as Justin Edwards, Javone Prince, Navin Chowdhry and Michael, but the parts of Jax, Charlie and Robbie have been re-cast. So we welcome Claire Skinner, Rosamund Hanson and Tyger Drew Honey to the family! (The observant will have spotted that Claire and Tyger have already developed a fictional mother-son relationship on Outnumbered, so that worked out rather nicely.) Although it is sad when some of the original cast can’t come back, you have to admit, we’ve been very fortunate in being able to fill their big shoes with some big feet.

This is the studio control room. Javone and Rosamund are setting up through there in the darkness, ready for their first scenes together as Kill-R and Charlie. And … action.

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.