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

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

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

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

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

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Writer’s blog: Week 4, Thursday

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This picture is a cheat, as I took it yesterday, Wednesday. But it is packed with significance, of a sort. On Monday, as documented, I travelled to Dorset and back on the train, about 12 hours round trip, door to door. That was pretty unusual for a working day, and a pleasant diversion. I haven’t travelled outside of London since then. Most days – and this is why I don’t inflict a daily diary on anybody – I’m in the British Library, or at the Radio Times office, or shuttling between meetings and work engagements in and around Central London, at the peak of activity either writing, or talking.

How interesting is any of this? How interesting in anybody’s daily life? As it happens, later today I am catching another train, this time to Northampton, as I’m giving a lecture/Q&A to journalism students at the University of Northampton tomorrow. It being a careers-based talk, I shall be roadtesting Andrew Collins: 25 Years in Showbiz, or Indecision: a Career Choice. There will be slides. I don’t write these talks, as such, but I shape them in advance, and use props, or images, to punctuate them and act as guides for me. I don’t like them to be too rigid; I prefer to roll with the reaction of the audience – if, that is, I can gauge it. Students can sometimes be inscrutable, but most are at an age when “cool” drives their personalities. I know this. I was one.

Here’s how my life works: I do a string of low-paid jobs and then, occasionally, if the stars align (fingers always crossed), I get a higher-paying job for which I actually have to block out weeks or months in order to fulfill the commitment. It’s not unusual for a self-employed person to exist in a permanent state of rollercoasting. A talk at a university is not a high-paying job, but I like doing them, they keep me in practice for public speaking, and it’s Northampton, so I can visit my parents and claim back the modest train fare. I am looking forward to both bits.

The snow’s almost melted in London. I’m glad to see the back of it. It breaks my heart to see how weak this country’s infrastructure is. God help us if there’s a war.

Yesterday, I did two low-paid jobs, and I managed to group them together so that I could do one, followed directly by the other – one was in Broadcasting House, the other in Western House, both BBC buildings, and next door neighbours. For both jobs, I was being interviewed for the radio, but pre-recorded, which means you say a hell of a lot more than anybody listening to the radio will ever hear. For the first, I was interviewed about the film Jaws. When the programme airs on Radio 4, I’ll let you know. This was fun. I had my childhood diaries from 1976 and 1977, so could revisit how, as an 11-12-year-old, I was affected by Jaws, long before I actually saw it. (I saw it in March 1977, when I was old enough to see an “A” certificate.)

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Next stop: 6 Music, where I was interviewed by Steve Lamacq’s producer Phil about Britpop – specifically the April 1993 “Yanks Go Home” issue of Select, on which I worked – for an ongoing history project about which I’m sure all will be revealed. I am an interviewer’s dream and worst nightmare: ask me a question and off I go. Especially if it involves remembering. I am good at remembering out loud. (Coincidentally, this hallowed issue of Select is one of my props for tomorrow’s talk at the University.)

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Anyway, the gaps between my visits to 6 Music are lengthening. The last time I was in, before Christmas, was to appear on Steve’s show when he was doing the TV Themes World Cup. Before that? October, when I literally just dropped by to empty my pigeonhole, which kindly pluggers and PRs still keep topped up with pre-release CDs by bands I’ve usually never heard of. It’s nice to be remembered by them. And I left 6 Music with about 20 singles, all of which I intend to listen to, out of gratitude for being given them, and out of eagerness to hear something new that I like. I get a Tweet at least once a week asking when Josie Long and I are back on 6 Music. Never, I fear. We had a great run in the six months leading up to Christmas 2011, but have never been asked back, which, after a calendar year, is a fairly easy to read sign.

I sincerely hope 6 Music will get me back in 2013 to emergency plumb for one of their regulars. It’s the best place on earth to broadcast from. But here’s the scary bit: although people I know at 6 Music are always cheery and pleasant to me when I venture back into the office, each time I go in, more faces have appeared whom I don’t know. This is bound to happen. Eventually, all my contacts there will erode, and my name will fall off the whiteboard. It happens. You’d be amazed how many people who don’t listen regularly to the station still think I have a regular slot on the network. (The guys from BBC Bristol who interviewed me about Jaws did.) You have to move on.

Remember the theme of my talk? Indecision. It’s indecision that’s driven and stunted my career at the same time. Not being able to decide which path to take – or to commit to one branch of the entertainment industry – has lead to an enormous range of work over those 25 years, but it has also prevented me from specialising in anything. I accept that as my destiny.

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And here I am, in the British Library canteen again, contemplating that very conundrum. Any questions? (That’s what I’ll be asking at the University of Northampton tomorrow.)

Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 2

Day five Pt 2

Phew. Anyway, I’m in a local Caffe Nero, as I couldn’t face the commute to King’s Cross. (Hence: no commute soundtrack today, sorry.) As you can see, I’m wearing my “From The Midlands With Love” t-shirt, as it feels like a summer day, and because I am from the Midlands with love. This is a rare garment in my current wardrobe, as it has words on it. (I’ve long since stopped wearing “band” t-shirts, and in fact, rarely wear t-shirts any more, in a deluded bid for maturity. Maybe I would wear t-shirts if I was a “festival dad” but I don’t have that parental excuse!) The slogan refers to Miles Hunt and The Wonder Stuff’s ongoing, civic seven-inch covers project which you can read about here (and see some videos). I like the t-shirt.

Hmmmm … this just in. My sitcom Mr Blue Sky has not been recommissioned for a third series by Radio 4. I am a little shell-shocked by this bad news. Not that a third series was ever in the bag, but I foolishly allowed myself to become a little bit confident that there was more life in the show. (I had dared to dream; never a practical way to live your life.) They have given us many reasons why, which I won’t go into, but I’m sad not to be writing the stories I had planned for Harvey Easter and his family, which I thought were rather promising. We’ll still push for it on TV, of course, but I feel too winded to contemplate the practicalities of that right now.

Working in TV and radio, and the media in general, is not for the faint-hearted. You win some, you lose some, and you cannot allow the losses to get you down. (We won when Radio 4 were kind enough to commission Mr Blue Sky in the first place, and to support it through two series and ten episodes, so I’m calling that a result.) You get knocked down, you get back up again. You pitch something else, to someone else, and keep banging on doors. Hey! Gates starts on Sky Living next Tuesday. Maybe it will be well received and we’ll get a second series of that. Maybe this script I’m writing right now will be commissioned. Maybe the meeting I had in the Groucho will develop into a project. I will say it’s been a tough summer for work, what with Word closing down as well, although that was as much a loss for British culture as it was for my accountant, and must be kept in perspective. I am putting on a stoic, determined expression. Do you want to see it?

Well, the beauty of working near your house is that you can go home for your lunch, rather than cart it around with you, as I normally do. I rather skilfully remixed the last portion of this week’s chilli with the first portion of my latest soup. A thrilling mash-up, it picked me up a bit when I needed it. I am now back in a coffee shop, but a different one, where I am nowhere near a window but very near a wall-hanging of something Italianate and esoteric. (I resent the dominance of Caffe Nero in my working life, as they charge extra for soya milk, which is a scandal, but they do offer wi-fi, which clinches it every time, and their loyalty card is – I think – the most generous of all the chains.) I am trying to look melancholy in this pic, but I’m not very good at it. I have a beautiful smile, ordinarily, which is key to my athletic prowess, but I haven’t been using it in these diary pics, as who wants to sit and smile at their laptop in public?

Incidentally, my “commute” is today a very short bus ride, so I only had chance to listen to a couple of songs. Here they are, in case you’re interested:

CEREMONY Hysteria (single version)
WE ARE AUGUSTINES Juarez (album version)
ZEBRA AND SNAKE Money In Heaven (Kashi Remix)
DEAD FLAMINGOES Habit
MR FOGG Stay Out Of The Sun [partial, as I arrived at my destination]

These songs, by reasonably arcane artists, come from an ongoing playlist I imaginatively call 2012 New Singles!, which I build up every time I’ve emptied my pigeonhole at 6 Music. I like to keep up with the new music, and these selections have been quality-stamped and filtered out of the general swamp of newness.

Incidentally, I’m back on 6 Music next Saturday, August 18, and then again on Saturday September 1. Just two floating Saturdays in Jon Holmes’ 10am-1pm slot, but it’s been good fun the last two times. I have no idea what’s happening with that slot in the long term, so don’t ask me.

I might let the diary go now. It’s been a blast, as ever. Sorry so much of it has been me ranting, and the rest of it me not being able to specify what I’m actually working on, but I think my writer’s block has been alleviated a bit. I have certainly written some script this week. Finding out that another project has just bitten the dust is always potentially harmful to one’s concentration, but even after the Mr Blue Sky bombshell, I’ve been able to at least cut loads of stuff out of the latest draft of The Script That I Cannot Yet Name for the broadcaster I cannot yet name.

Actually, I had to cut the aforementioned “font joke”, so I may as well copyright it here. “I used Arial Bold – I wanted to make a clean start.” Don’t you dare nick that. I have witnesses.

I fully intend to drink a cold beer this evening to commiserate with myself about the end of the road for Mr Blue Sky, a project that was very dear to me, and I shall be toasting all those who helped make the two series we made for Radio 4 such a joy from one end to the other, including both critics and Tweeters who were so positive about it. In the meantime, I’ve just had a call from my old pal Simon Day (who was, of course, in Mr Blue Sky) about something else that may or may not be nearing the pipeline, so fingers crossed, and enjoy the remaining days of the Olympics. You all have beautiful smiles.

Telly Addict returns next Friday. I shall be mainly reviewing Celebrity Masterchef, The History Of Art In Three Colours and The Great British Bake-Off.

A lotta guts

The legendary Ernest Borgnine, who has died of renal failure at what can only be described as the ripe old age of 95, was a key player in my early, movie-loving life. As is well documented, I was taken to see The Poseidon Adventure, aged 10, by my Dad in 1975, and became frankly obsessed by the mother of all disaster movies. Although it scared the life out of me, exposing me to peril, degradation and mortality at a tender age, it also thrilled me, and my attempts to “process” this film that had made such an impression, stretched to reading the 1969 source novel, by Paul Gallico, practising holding my breath underwater at Kingsthorpe pool, and drawing pictures of characters and scenes from memory.

The 1974 Pan paperback of The Poseidon Adventure was a gift, as it bore two stills from the film on the front and back cover. (I still have it, so dog-eared now it looks as if it has been salvaged from the SS Poseidon by Michael Caine.) On the front, we see the characters Reverend Scott, cop Mike Rogo and his wife Linda, all scrubbed up for the New Year’s Eve party that will be their last taste of “civilisation” before the ship turns over. On the back, we see the party of survivors in the final stages of their escape, all sweaty and dishevelled now, with Rogo down to his vest, and Linda wearing the shirt he was wearing on the front cover.

You have to remember that this was an age long before video and the internet. It was simply not possible for me to look the film up anywhere. (Our library of books at home was tiny. Indeed, a couple of years later, I was able to borrow from Northampton Library a themed book called Thriller Movies by Lawrence Hammond, which contained valuable information about – and two more pics from – my feared but favourite movie, and Catastrophe: The End Of Cinema?, a pretty cheap tome, also provided pictorial relief.) Anyway, the Gallico paperback also had a cast list, from whose hierarchy, using my powers of deduction, I was able to hazard a guess at who played whom. Gene Hackman’s name was first, so he was Scott. Ernest Borgnine’s was second, so he must have been Rogo. (I was right. And so was I with regards the others, although I got Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin mixed up, and Arthur O’Connell and Eric Shea.)

The funny thing about Ernest Borgnine is that he looked like an Ernest Borgnine. That was the amazing thing about him. Although Anglicised just a little from Ermes Borgnino, it fitted his wide, beaten-up face and brickhouse frame, and although I wouldn’t have been clever enough to spot it, aged 10, he is very visibly Italian-America, wouldn’t you say? His “journey” through the film makes him an essential moving part: a foil to Hackman’s sometimes over-earnest and bullying persona; somewhat brow-beaten by his ex-prostitute wife but adoring underneath the bickering; tough, for certain, and a safe, blue-collar pair of hands, if not as mentally agile as the Reverend and perhaps forever destined to be a deputy. In many ways, although Hackman would soon be anointed as My Favourite Actor – a devotion that lasted throughout my teen years and into adulthood – Borgnine (whose name I initially pronounced Borg-neen) had an instant seat at my top table.

I caught up with his other key parts belatedly in the sort of films made in the 50s and 60s that were then showing on television: in The Dirty Dozen, Bad Day At Black Rock, From Here To Eternity, Ice Station Zebra, The Vikings, Flight Of The Phoenix – always the tough nut, usually a bad guy. In Black Rock, he was Coley, the “half-horse, half-alligator” who would threaten to “kick a lung outta ya!” I even enjoyed him as Angelo Dundee in The Greatest. The moment I saw that gap-toothed grin, I felt reassured that I would not be wasting my time with a film on TV.

It was, of course, Paddy Chayevsky’s adapted-from-TV Marty that, in 1955, alerted people to Borgnine’s more subtle, everyman acting chops. It won him an Oscar. After which, frankly, he returned to being a tough guy. It was years before I saw Marty. He remained perhaps proudest of the performance for the rest of his days.

To a younger generation, he’ll always be Santini from Airwolf in the mid-80s, although I missed that meeting. As he grew older and more grizzled, and even more lovable, I relished seeing the autumnal Borgnine in serious, late-20th/early-21st-century movies like Gattaca or the portmanteau 11’09″01 September 11, bringing the ballast that only age and experience bestow. He had already turned 80, but nothing like on his last legs.

In May 2001, I met him. Aged eighty-four and full of life, he was over in the UK not to promote his own work, but his wife’s. His fifth wife, whom he married in 1973, was Tova Traesnaes, Norwegian by birth and founder of her own cosmetics line by trade. Ernie, as we shall now call him, and indeed how he introduced himself to me, was here to accompany her on a promo trip. She’d become quite the QVC staple, and they made a happy couple. He’d agreed to come into Radio 4, at Broadcasting House, to conduct a one-one-one career interview with me for Back Row, the weekly cinema show I used to host. As you might imagine, it was about as exciting a professional engagement that I could imagine, right up there with interviewing Robert Altman a year later.

He made quite an impact. White-haired and beaming, he lit up the corridors of the Radio Arts department, saying hi to everybody, and even opening doors of closed offices to announce his arrival and shake hands. It is not meant to demean him to say that when a producer approached him to shake his hand, concealing something in the other hand which may have been a diary or a phone, he assumed it was a camera and that she was after a photo, and immediately fell into the pose of a man about to be immortalised. This made us love him even more.

It was rare that anybody broke the Dorchester Hotel promo protocol and ventured into our unglamorous offices to be interviewed in what was a cupboard like studio, with no booth or glass, just a small table, two chairs, a jug of water and a tape machine next to which a producer could perch. It was like a royal visit, seriously. Robert Altman came in too, as did – to name but a few good sports – Juliet Stephenson, John Barry and Tom Courtney. You could barely squeeze Ernie’s personality in there.)

I have asked my old producer if he might transfer the interview onto a disc for me, and I can’t wait to hear it again. It was certainly a highlight of my movie-interviewing career, even if Ernie’s answers were well-rehearsed and he gave us nothing approaching a scoop. That wasn’t his job. For the record, we played the Borgnine interview out on May 26, 2001, in the same programme as piece on Johnny Depp’s new film Blow, a humorous column about Hollywood’s war with TV by Sue Perkins, and an item about Series 7: The Contenders.

On their way out of the building, as noisy and ebullient as they had been their way in, Mr and Mrs Borgnine-Taesnaes handed out cactus-based natural cosmetics.

I loved Ernest Borgnine, veteran of around 140 films, and would have done if I’d never been anywhere near his presence. He shall never be forgotten. “You had a lotta guts, lady,” he said, as Rogo, to Mrs Rosen (Shelley Winters) after she’d laid down her life in The Poseidon Adventure. So did he.

Please tell us why you had to hide away for so long

Just to say: Mr Blue Sky returns for its second series on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow, Easter Monday, at 11.30am – the same slot as last year – whereafter it will be on iPlayer. We have edited five of the six episodes, and they’re sounding good, in terms of performance and production, so thumbs up to the amazing cast and to producer/script editor Anna, studio director Wilfredo and editor Rich (who also provides Harvey’s terrible piano playing, which of course you have to be brilliant at the piano to fake). I’m hopeful anyone who liked Series One will enjoy Series Two. There’s a definitive entry for the show on the British Comedy Guide, so you’ll find the cast and crew etc. there.

It being a second series, it’s not easy to get previews in the papers, so I’m very grateful for the ones we have had. Radio Times were gracious enough to let me write about it as part of a broader piece about family radio; we also had a positive write-up in The List, Boyd Hilton was kind enough to give it four stars and a recommendation in Heat, and Stephanie Billen managed to wangle it a pick of the day for radio in today’s Observer (which doesn’t seem to be online, but she called it “likable”, which I can go with).

I’m not expecting the nation to stop what it’s doing and gather round the radio at 11.30 tomorrow morning, but I would appreciate your thoughts as and when you catch up with it, if indeed you do. Mr Blue Sky remains the thing of which I am most proud of, professionally, as it’s mine, and if it succeeds or fails, I have to take the rap.

Stop press! Thanks to Philip Townley for the tip-off, but as of 11.23 Tuesday morning, Mr Blue Sky’s being plugged on the main BBC webpage. You can’t buy that kind of publicity etc.

New world record

It’s a wrap, loves. Angus Deayton was our last guest of the Mr Blue Sky recording. He was helicoptered in to play an urbane Catholic priest in just one episode, which comprised three scenes that he unsurprisingly nailed. It must have been weird for him to turn up at 4.30 on the last day of a gruelling seven-day record and find bodies, Pret wrappers and discarded copies of OK! and G2 everywhere, and fellow actors in advanced states of hysteria and sleep deprivation. But he is a sport and picked his way delicately through the carnage. Greg Davies came in earlier and promised to put his scenes as the Customs Official (another spoiler!) in the can in one take. I won’t say whether or not he did, but he won the crown for the most swearing in the studio. And being the tallest, obviously, but that’s true wherever he goes outside of the Harlem Globetrotters. There was a lot of man in the room when he was in there with Mark and Justin.

Enjoy some final pics of actors in situ. It has been an exceptional week of fiction and fact. Although most of the cast dashed off (in Mark’s case, to his final performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric) we had a low-key “wrap party” at the Goldhawk pub, where myself, Anna, Wilfredo, Anke, Rob and – actors! – Javone and Navin – supped a few pints and a couple of glasses of free Swedish cider, forced upon us by a promotion at the pub. No doubt we will all fall under a heavy blanket of depression tomorrow. It’s normal. It’s what happens. But it’s been a memorable week.

It’s over

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

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

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

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

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