Writer’s blog: Week 18, Friday

BlogApril26N

A quick bulletin from my daily life. It is the end of the working week, Friday, although I gave myself a day off on Tuesday, as I worked on Sunday. As usual, the lack of blog entries reflects the urgency of the work I should, by rights, be doing. (I should be doing it now. As you’ll have spotted, I’m not. I’m in the coffee shop of a department store where I have come to buy a bag.)

Without giving anything away, I’ve been hard at a pilot script these past couple of weeks for a terrestrial broadcaster, via an independent production company with whom I’ve worked before. I think I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s a comedy, based on an idea I had in an office when I was in a meeting to pitch ideas but had no ideas that I hadn’t already pitched, so I sort of improvised one and it turned out to be a goer. Fancy that! I’ve stated this for the record before, but some people still don’t seem to know, so I’ll say it again: I no longer write for Not Going Out, which is enjoying its sixth series on BBC1 currently, and although I wish it well, I find it odd to watch it now for personal reasons. The last episode I co-wrote was Debbie for series four, after which the writing team was streamlined down to a number that didn’t include me. (I’m still friends with Lee; he was kind enough to namecheck me on The One Show the other week.)

The reason I bring it up, is because as much as I will be forever grateful to Not Going Out for giving me the chance to write a broad, studio-based audience sitcom for BBC1, and to work on it from the ground floor up, what it made me want more than anything was to write a sitcom on my own. Now, I’ve done that for radio with Mr Blue Sky, which is now cancelled, and I’m rather hoping that one of the three – count ’em – three pilots I currently have in development will catch fire and get a full commission. This latest one feels like the most likely. As I mentioned on Twitter, teasingly, the script today required me to “research” (ie. look up on the Internet) a number of seemingly random subject areas which included:

  1. England-Scotland Home International games
  2. Job vacancies and job descriptions at a local council (for which I happened upon the website of Essex County Council)
  3. Progressive rock lyrics that mention “time” (for which I alighted, happily, upon the Marillion song Wrapped Up In Time)

My online history would certainly baffle future archaeologists, I like to think. And I’m afraid it will have to baffle you, as I can say no more about it. Writing comedy is hard. It is not the hardest job in the world, and would in fact not make the Top 100, but when you have decided that your best chance of earning a decent living is to write scripts, I would argue that writing comedy scripts is harder than writing drama. Which is why I dream of writing drama and not have to think of jokes.

BlogApril26bag

Talking of comedy, a smart black, leather shoulder bag I bought almost a year ago to the day stopped working the week before last, when two of its zips went. I tried to get it mended, first of all, but neither of the menders I visited could fix a zip on a leather bag. But having ascertained that the bag – quite a pricey one for miserly old me – was under a year old, I decided to take it back to the shop. I really liked the bag and was sad that it had become inoperable. The man in the shop, a department store, was very helpful and took the bag from me to send to the manufacturers to be repaired or replaced. I left the shop with a spring in my step; he had by definition agreed with me that an expensive bag’s zips shouldn’t break within a year, so I felt vindicated.

However, he called me back when I was on the train home and told me that the manufacturers could neither repair nor replace the bag, as they no longer sold that particular model. I was sad again. The store offered me a credit note which I could spend on another, similar bag. I looked at the bags and didn’t like any of them as much as the one I’d had for almost a year. So I asked, firmly, for a refund, not a credit note, and again, no resistance was offered.

I won’t mention the make or the shop, in case it looks like an invitation to exploit their decency. But when you go into a shop with a complaint you go in having rehearsed all the arguments first. When you don’t need those arguments, it’s almost a letdown. But isn’t it nice to get good service occasionally, when most commercial outlets seem to be out to fleece and humiliate you if you rock the boat? The blue bag in the picture above has become my temporary shoulder bag. As you can see, it looks cheap and cheerful, has no special pockets and gives me the air of a schoolboy on a games day. It also says “BADULTS” on it. This is the new, official name for the Pappy’s sitcom I script edited, and which airs on BBC3 in July. The bag – a free, promotional gift of the type I rarely get sent any more – couldn’t have arrived at a more convenient time.

The great thing is, I was carrying it when I went to see Spring Breakers at the Curzon Soho one afternoon last week, and who did I bump into, in the gents? Matthew Crosby of Pappy’s! Not only was he going to see the same matinee of the same film as me, so we could sit together like pals, but he was carrying a red BADULTS bag. Sometimes life is planned out for you by a higher power who can’t be God as God doesn’t exist, but there’s something out there pulling the strings.

BlogApril26

In case you’re interested, I am reading a bracing non-fiction book called Going South by the Guardian‘s economics editor and his friend Dan Atkinson, who is the Mail On Sunday‘s economics editor. (As literary aside: I had a meeting at a production company two weeks ago where the head of development I was pitching to recommended a George Orwell book called Coming Up For Air, which I’m looking for a secondhand copy of presently.) Going South is explained by its subtitle: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014. Although I am a bit shot on economics, I’ve been educating myself on this vital area of all our lives – not least by reading the Guardian‘s correspondents, and the New Yorker‘s unstoppably readable James Surowiecki. Elliott and Atkinson paint compelling if gloomy pictures of political, social and financial life in Britain today – in that sense, it’s a kind of self-hating book, but I like those.

I was particularly taken with a passage about the attitude to a car alarm going off. They write that the “common occurrence of the ignored wailing of the car alarm” encapsulates much of what’s up with our society. The alarm is ignored “partly because it is assumed it is sounding in error; partly because, even if the car is actually being stolen, no call to the police is thought likely to produce much in the way of response; and partly because any attempt to confront the suspected car thief immediately puts the citizen in danger.” They conclude that ignoring the alarm is “an entirely rational response to the way the world works.” How depressing, and true, that is.

I am reminded of “broken window theory”, which I first read about in The Tipping Point (how quaint and gradual the examples in that book now seem in the age of YouTube and Twitter). Basically: if a broken window is left broken, it will lead to a decline in the area where the building is, and to worse crime. So fix the window. Here’s the passage from the original 1982 Atlantic Monthly article where the theory was first aired by two criminologists:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

I think of this theory often, when I see bags of rubbish left outside charity shops overnight, or on weekends when the shop is closed, or when I see an empty shampoo bottle left on the floor of the showers at my gym, just dropped there by a previous occupant as if perhaps their mum will be round later to pick it up after them. If we don’t pick up our own detritus, we may not complain when crime occurs on our doorstep.

IRON MAN 3

I saw a preview of Iron Man 3 in 3D last Wednesday but reviews were embargoed until this Wednesday. I think it’s pretty good, considering it’s the third part of a franchise – and when Iron Man has been seen in the Avengers movie, too. I still hate 3D, but the film itself, under new management with Shane Black at the helm (he co-wrote it with a British writer Drew Pearce, who wrote No Heroics for ITV2, which just shows that dreams can come true), has a certain wit and verve, and its story is one where all that has been built in the previous two films is destroyed, literally, to bring Iron Man back to basics – and then allow him to defeat the baddie in an even more spectacular way at the end of course. It’s a shame that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, who is now a CEO of Iron Man’s company, becomes little more than a standard damsel in distress in the end. This happens to Rosamund Pike’s assistant DA in Jack Reacher, which is out on DVD.

Compared to Jack Reacher, which starts promisingly and collapses into boring gunplay and car chases by the end, at least Iron Man 3 has the common decency to sag in the middle and then improve for the climax. And I can’t say why, as it’s a spoiler, but there’s a scene with Ben Kingsley which is almost worth the price of admission alone. That’s all I’m saying.

Have a nice weekend. (It’s been sunny, hasn’t it? I’ve actually worn a soft M&S jacket rather than a big M&S waterproof coat four times this week. I give thanks for the belated arrival of spring. I much prefer not to look like Liam Gallagher between my neck and my knees, but practicality dictates. Not that he’d be seen dead in M&S.)

Advertisements

Writer’s blog: Week 6, Wednesday

BlogWk6WedFeb6caravan

At last. I’m doing something interesting. It’s Wednesday, and instead of photographing myself self-consciously looking to one side in the British Library canteen, or on a train, I write today from Glasgow, which in itself is unusual, and from within a caravan, which is even more unusual. This caravan is my dressing room, for today I am an actor. Look, there’s my name on the door. The caravans are parked up in the car park of a suburban industrial estate, which is where Scottish production company The Comedy Unit live. (They live in a unit.) They are currently making Secret Dude Society for BBC3, or “the Pappy’s sitcom” as it’s colloquially known.

My work as script editor finished just before Christmas, when pre-production turned into production, and any further edits to the script would be the responsibility of the writers and producer. I have just been into makeup (which is another, bigger caravan) although you won’t notice, as I have been made up to look like myself. This is because I am playing “Andrew Collins” in the show. I only have two lines, but it’s a lovely gift from Pappy’s, in return for being the schoolteacher who’s been marking their homework with a red pen since September.

BlogWk6WedFeb6caravan2

An actor’s life can be a lonely one. I have discovered that. I am alone in my caravan. The other three actors who are filming today are in their own caravans. Whenever my next-door neighbour, the actor Kim Wall, enters his caravan, it shakes, and so does mine. I am holding up today’s call-sheet in the picture above, but have been careful not to show anything that’s on it, as I suspect this is not for public consumption. I will have to check with the producers before I reveal any more about my cameo role. In fact, I’d rather keep it a secret until the show is broadcast – it’ll be more fun that way. I am expecting to be called to costume any moment, so I’ll stop typing.

Photo on 2013-02-06 at 09.25

Another rare thing was waking up in a hotel room this morning. There is something slightly extravagant about taking a train up to Glasgow and being put up in a hotel in order to deliver two lines in a sitcom, but that’s entertainment. There is also something about travelling alone that lends you the air of a sales rep. Breakfast for one, all that. Fortunately, I was rescued from the tragedy of eating room service, alone, last night, as Pappy’s – that is, Matthew, Ben and Tom – are pretty much living up in Glasgow for the duration of the show and they took me to their local tapas bar, where we drank beer and picked at “small plates” until midnight, subsequently joined by none other than my old radio pal Josie Long, The Pictish Trail aka Edinburgh’s fine-bearded Johnny Lynch, and “young comedian” Tom Deacon, who I like very much. (Tom is also up to deliver two lines for Pappy’s.)

Photo on 2013-02-06 at 09.26 #2

Anyway, here’s another pathetic shot of me in Room 212 at the Abode Hotel (or the Adobe Hotel, as Matthew erroneously calls it, imagining it to be photoshopped and daubed with mud). It’s nice to stay in pleasant hotels, but it’s nicer to stay in them with a friend, spouse or partner.

Hey, I like to think of myself as well-travelled, but until today I had never seen or used one of these before:

BlogWk6Wed6Febcoffee

It’s a kind of self-contained, ready-loaded individual plastic coffee filter-ette. Environmentally destructive, it also makes a disgusting cup of coffee, I discovered this morning while waiting in my room to be picked up and ferried to the “unit base” and thence to the filming location. (Mind you, I put UHT milk in it, and that’s against nature, and the downside to making coffee in a hotel room is, of course, that you use water from a bathroom sink, which isn’t for drinking.)

BlogWk6WedFeb6train

As I type, I’m on the train home from Glasgow and back in the stultifying realms of the usual sort of Photo Booth picture I take of myself for Writer’s Blogs. The actual filming took very little time, although it was thrilling to be around technicians and crew who know exactly what it is they’re doing. It’s like a well-oiled machine. If something went wrong, you just know these people would deal with it, and get back on schedule.

Director Ben Kellett (the man you see at the end of Mrs Brown’s Boys, taking a bow with the rest of the crew and family), whom I’d never previously met, seems to be “on it”, and Pappy’s seem pleased with the way the show’s panning out. I won’t give anything away about my tiny cameo, or Tom Deacon’s, but it’s in what’s planned as the final episode, and this was my costume. (I wore my own trousers.) Oh, and when I mischeviously Tweeted the shirt earlier, one brilliant wag asked, “Are you playing Jason Manford.” Now that’s comedy.

Pappy'sshirt

It’s been a fun trip. I managed to write a 1,000-word feature on Judd Apatow for Radio Times on the train journey up, and my Films Of The Day copy for Radio Times on the train journey back. I’m like a shark; if I stop moving, I die.

By now, this caravan will have been converted back into a dressing room for the next actor. But it was mine for a couple of hours. Mine.

Pappy'sdoor

 

Writer’s blog: Week 47

Wednesday

I give up. I don’t know what week number it is. Anyway, we’re hurtling toward December, I know that much, it’s Wednesday, and the heat is on at the Pappy’s sitcom for BBC3, Secret Dude Society (the working title seems to have almost hardened into a title, but not fully so hold your horses for a bit longer). As I type, I’m currently on the East Midlands train, more literally hurtling back to London Euston from Northampton for a full day’s script meeting with “the boys” – Matthew, Ben and Tom, who are not boys – our fastidious Scottish bosses Gav and Rab from Glasgow’s illustrious, industrial estate-based production company The Comedy Unit, and producer Izzy (with whom I previously worked on the cruelly cancelled Gates for Sky). I am, as previously stated, script editing the six-episode series. The onus remains on “the boys” to come up with the goods, which, after all, they will be acting out in a TV studio in February before a live studio audience, but my job is to help pat it into shape. It’s cool to be part of someone else’s first sitcom and to be around a conference table with creative, funny people.

I was involved in a talk at the University of Northampton last night, part of a series called Articulation, a sort of “tag lecture” with fellow alumnus Bill Drummond. I will write about that unlikely and amazing experience once I have the photographic evidence that it even took place.

Thursday

I am unnaturally soothed by the repetitive, mundane, always-looking-sideways-off nature of the PhotoBooth pictures I take of myself to illustrate Writer’s Blog. They are spectacularly uninteresting, and reveal little about my physical context (oh, not those ducts at Radio Times again!), but they are honest and true. And they reveal the routine nature of my life. And the occasional fluctuation one way or another in terms of the size of my double chin.

Arrived in London at 10.27 yesterday morning, as advertised (I must admit, I am generally quite lucky on this train from Northampton, the 09.25, which I regularly take after a sleepover at Mum and Dad’s), and joined Pappy’s and co round the circular conference table in a ground-floor conference room at the West Kensington-based media company who own The Comedy Unit by 11.00, unnaturally hot, as ever, after a trudge in too many layers with too many bags. (This time of year is always a conundrum: waterproof outer layer, optional jacket underneath, optional cardigan under that, over shirt … how to strike the perfect, temperature-controlled balance? On Stephen Fry Gadget Man on C4, he demonstrated an air-conditioned jacket, from Japan. I don’t want one.)

With all six scripts at varying stages of completion, we read aloud, and made notes, and shared notes, and made more notes, from 11am-6pm, and ate the traditional platters of M&S sandwiches and sausage rolls (cheese ones for the veggie) while we worked, so as not to waste valuable time. It was, as you can imagine, as hard and tiring as the equivalent time spent working down a coalmine. I still love the fact that the sort of food we eat in the middle of a working day is exactly the kind to ensure a slump, mid-afternoon: bread, pastry, sponge, potato. We are a curious race.

My day at Radio Times today has been focussed. I have had to supply a week’s worth of Film of the Days for the magazine that will hit the armchairs of Britain in two weeks’ time, as we are in “Christmas pick-up”, which is where everybody works super-hard in order to get the famous Christmas double-issue (our biggest seller of the year) out in good time for the festive period, which means foreshortened working weeks in order to pull all schedules forward. (This means that the staff get an actual week off for Christmas, secure in the knowledge that the issues for the first week of the New Year is already “in bed”.)

Arrived home to find that my annual Cats Protection advent calendar had arrived in the post today. You may be unsurprised to hear that this is my favourite charity after Thomas’s Fund, of which I am a proud patron. What can I say? I like cats. It is also an annual New Year tradition to scan the opened calendar, even though it is impossible to do it and let you see inside each door, without removing the doors, which would be counterproductve, as the names of the kits are on the door.

Oh, alright, here’s one where the doors are off. You’re so demanding.

Anyway, it’s good to think of those less fortunate than ourselves at this cold and festive time of year, so spare a thought for those who haven’t been sent a Cats Protection advent calendar.

Read an alarming but expected piece in today’s Media Guardian about BBC4 controller Richard Klein considering axing the currently ongoing, back-to-back Top of the Pops repeats from the late 70s. They’ve had to yank a couple presented by Jimmy Savile in recent weeks, and one presented by DLT, and you can understand why Klein might be nervous about forging on with the initiative into 1978 next year. (After all, even though Kid Jensen, Noel Edmunds, Peter Powell etc. are free from any implication of wrongdoing, it’s the atmosphere of adult male DJs surrounded by fawning teenage girls and introducing the lovely Legs & Co with a glint in their eye that now seems to have curdled with recent revelations.) I love these re-runs – shown in full, unedited, they present valuable social documents, and I hope BBC4 keeps airing them. It’s too easy to edit the past, and these half-hours show 1976 and 1977 as they were, with The Jam rubbing seditionary shoulders with the frankly offensive Barron Knights. Save TOTP!

Watched Sky’s documentary about Bradley Wiggins, A Year In Yellow (can’t imagine why Sky had exclusive access to him … oh yes), and found myself utterly captivated by it, despite my threadbare interest in sport and almost non-existent interest in cycling. Not only did it explain the Tour de France for me – thanks to intelligent and eloquent input from three cycling journalists who were a credit to their trade and chosen sport – it depicted Wiggins in an honest manner. He seems decent, self-aware, dedicated, a family man, averse to fame, a bit shy, a lover of peace and quiet, proud of his tower-block roots (his Nan, who raised him, still lives on the same estate) and committed to the purist notion that he will not leave his wife for a supermodel, nor takes drugs to enhance his sporting performance. I wish him well, and will review this programme, with clips, on next week’s Telly Addict.

Friday

Just heard from the University of Northampton that some official photos of my night with Bill Drummond are on their way, so expect a full account soon. I’m off for a meeting with my agent today, what we call a “catch-up”, which is always done face to face. Clearly I can’t give anything away, but I will say this: I’ve had some encouraging news from a particular broadcaster this week about one of the projects I have “in development”, something I’ve developed and written by myself and have invested a lot in. Not a commission, as yet, but not a knockback, or an interminable series of notes, and that in itself is promising.

As mentioned above, but not stated for the record before, Gates has not been recommissioned by Sky Living. I’m sad about this, as I felt we – the team who wrote it – had more stories to tell about these parents and teachers. It is not to be. And there was me thinking everything got a second series on Sky! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that Mr Blue Sky – a far more personal project – was not automatically recommissioned by Radio 4, but we’re in the process of re-submitting it as we speak and have fingers crossed for a good decision before Christmas. If we get the green light – and again, I have loads more stories to tell with Harvey, Jax, Ray, Sean, Lou etc. in a third series – it may not air until 2014, but it would mean a concrete commission for the New Year. I’d love to end another uncertain, up-and-down professional year with something positive in the diary for 2013.

I do know that Personal Training, the short film I wrote with Simon Day, who stars, will be airing in the New Year as part of Sky Atlantic’s Common People strand, for which ten character-based shorts have been made by Baby Cow. That has been officially announced: it begins in January as part of Sky Atlantic’s Comedy Monday line-up. We shot it in two days, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. It marks the debut of Simon’s latest character, Colin Reed. We wrote a film about him for C4, years ago, which was put into development and then cancelled before it went into production after one of those pesky management changes that happen all the time. We have always been determined to get Colin out there, and thanks to Sky, and Baby Cow, that is definitely going to happen.

The estimable Stuart Jeffries, who has written scathingly about C4 in the past, has gathered his thoughts on the 30-year-old channel for the Guardian this week, a very good read. Over the years, as both presenter and writer, I’ve been in and out of meetings at all the major broadcasters, including C4, although off the top of my head, I think the only actual programmes I’ve been involved in have been clips shows (nothing wrong with those, of course, although they’ve thankfully dried up).

When I was still paired with Stuart Maconie in the 90s and simultaneously on ITV with the Movie Club and Radio 1 with the Hit Parade, we paid our first visit to C4 at Horseferry Road to pitch our own comedic cultural magazine show (Get Culture!) with a supportive commissioning editor who left the channel about a week later. We learned a valuable lesson that day: you’re only as popular as the current commissioning editor thinks you are.

The late Harry Thompson, whom I interviewed about Peter Cook for Radio 4, and had stewarded The 11 O’Clock Show to fruition, gave me an insight into how C4 then worked: some excitable exec would designate some up-and-coming comedian as “the new face of the channel”, tell them so, wine them and dine them, try them out in a few things, and then tell them that, in fact, they were no longer “the new face of the channel”, because somebody else was. In this, I guess C4 are not so different from the BBC, or ITV, or Sky, who have long been in the business of creating a Hollywood-style “stable” of stars. But unless you have signed a contract, it’s all meaningless.

When Simon and I developed and wrote the 90-minute version of Personal Training for C4, in 2007, we had every reason to believe it was going to air. Instead, it was never shot. You weather such setbacks, or else – as I always say – you get out of the business. When the 10-minute version airs on Sky in the new year, all the agony and the ecstasy will have been worth. (You could conceivably write scripts that are never made forever and live off it. But what kind of life is that? And in any case, unmade scripts will eventually start to work against your professional reputation!)

I discovered yesterday that Lee Mack’s autobiography, Mack The Life, has been published in hardback, in time for Christmas. I knew he was writing it, as he tapped me for some clarification about the early days of Not Going Out last year. I look forward to reading it, as I sincerely hope I am at least a footnote. But Not Going Out, as important as it has been for me, professionally, was never my show, and series six – the first without Tim – is being filmed right now, the second series with which I’ll have had no involvement whatsoever. I’m glad it’s still going, although Tim’s absence will be a problem, I suspect. We shall see. I’m out. When you work on a show almost full-time for two series, then as one of a much larger team for two further series, this seriously reduces your annual income. Then, we you are relinquished altogether, that has an even more profound effect on your income. But it’s good to be forced to concentrate on projects of your own. Series six airs in the new year. (Lee and I remain friends, by the way.)

Roll on the end of the year. It’s around now, just before the advent calendar doors start to be folded back, that I always start to take stock of the disappearing year. Has it been an improvement on last year, or the opposite? Have the highs outranked the lows? Have the slaps in the face outweighed the pats on the back? Don’t know yet.