Writer’s blog, Week 40, Thursday

Blog25Sep14

It is Thursday. It was quiet when I came into this coffee shop in a department store and secured my pleasant window seat just after it opened at 9.30am, but it is now noisier than the trading floor of the stock exchange, except with crying babies. Which is not to say I am getting any less done. When you’re a have-laptop-will-work transient, you learn to shut the noise out. I put my earphones in and thought seriously about listening to the new U2 album, which arrived for free in iTunes, but I couldn’t bring myself to press play. That’s what happens when you give something away for free. I’d rather hear the noise of babies actually crying and toddlers doing that whining thing that isn’t really crying, more a chorus of disgruntlement. I channel my disgruntlement through my fingers into my laptop.

I read a really good blog this week from Danny Brocklehurst, the blessed younger-than-me writer with a CV that gleams with Clocking Off, Shameless, The Street and Accused – the sorts of strands I’d love to have written for, had I not backed myself down the cul-de-sac of comedy – and is now crowned with The Driver, a project I’ve known about for a long time as I occasionally have a coffee with David Morrissey, its star and co-producer. Danny’s blog (I’ve never met him, by the way, but feel sufficient writerly solidarity to call him by his first name), was on the fabulous Writers’ Room website, and was mainly about writing The Driver. Read it here.

I always find the story of a project’s genesis interesting, as I’ve been there myself many times, albeit predominantly these days with projects that do not come to fruition and therefore do not qualify me to blog about them on the Writers’ Room website! Danny says that once he and his co-creator had come up with the idea for The Driver, he sat down and wrote the whole first episode, without waiting for anyone to ask him to. This means he wrote it on spec, which means for free. I envy him, I can’t lie. To be able to afford to do that is such a luxury. I’d love to just sit down and write a script, but it’s not practical. If I was commissioned to write one – and I currently have one project “in development” – I’d be able to clear the decks and concentrate on it.

These were Danny’s wise words on being in development:

Development can be painful sometimes. But the secret to getting through it is to listen to others whilst trying to keep hold of your original vision. If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy.

I feel his pain – and recognise his truth. If you don’t have the time to read his blog, he says that of the three episodes that comprise The Driver, one of them had to be rewritten from scratch. No writer is too good, or too decorated, or too old, to have to do that. It’s part of the process.

Blog25Sep14d

I am off to see the Head of Development at a very successful production company this afternoon. I’ve met him and worked with him before, but at another company, so it’s like starting again; I’ve also been in to talk about possible projects with at least two other people at the same successful production company in the past. One project actually expanded to at least three further meetings and a lunch, followed by a frenzied period of development with another writer, which led to a brick wall, and neither of us was paid a single penny for our time. So, Danny Brocklehurst was able to afford to write a whole episode of The Driver for free, and this other writer and I were expected to work up a storyline for an imagined comedy, also for free. If you’re a writer, you have to write and you don’t need anyone else’s permission first. If you don’t have to write, you might not be a writer. But when writing becomes your living, it’s sometimes irksome to have to do it with no guarantee of any recompense.

Blog25Sepe

I wonder if the small soya latte that you make last for two and a quarter hours is the most perfect symbol of a writer’s life? It costs money. So when you sit and write for two and a quarter hours with no guarantee of any recompense, you are literally down on the deal before you start. But what better inspiration to write something inspiring than having invested three pounds, and made yourself irritable with toddler whining and a laptop battery that tells you you’re down to 48%? (I was inspired to write this, but it’s better than nothing.)

I will pitch two things at the meeting. Unless it’s my lucky day, I have a sneaking feeling that neither will go any further, because producers and heads of development can always think of a reason why a commissioning editor won’t “go for it”. They are paid to know this, but it’s not an exact science, as commissioning editors a) change jobs all the time, and b) change their minds all the time.

I was planning to put a comedy idea in at the next “offers round” at Radio 4, having licked my wounds after the cancellation of Mr Blue Sky for long enough, but was tipped off that the commissioning editor didn’t want anything “media-related”, which my idea was. I tried to de-media it, but it made no sense without the media angle, so I stopped trying to bend it into a new shape, with Danny Brocklehurst’s wise words resonating around my head (“If you start writing what you think others want, nobody is going to be happy”).

I don’t believe commissioning editors when they say, “We don’t want anything to do with the media,” because if they didn’t, why would Episodes or W1A be on my television?

U2free

The project I actually have in development is moving at a slow pace. (Once someone is paying you some development money, they earn the right to ask, “How soon can you get it to us?”, but you are not entitled to deliver a draft and say, with similar urgency, “How soon can you get your notes back to us?”) Luckily, I pitched a feature idea to the Guardian last week and they said an immediate yes, so I researched and wrote it, and delivered the copy yesterday and they like it. When TV moves at treacle pace, it’s refreshing to write something for a daily newspaper (albeit for the weekly Film section, so the publication window comes round less often).

Peakypass

On a similarly straightforward note, I had a job on Sunday which was paid, and yet entirely pleasurable: to host the Q&A after the world premiere of the first episode of the second series of Peaky Blinders in its spiritual home of Birmingham. That is a shot I took of my own access-all-areas pass as I sat, alone, in the green room beforehand, while stars like Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, creator Steve Knight and Benjamin Zephaniah soaked up the Brummie love on the red carpet. I’ve done a lot of Q&As, and if I could make my living out of doing it, sometimes I think I would. It’s fun. I find it thrilling rather than nerve-wracking, and I love meeting talented, creative people, even if we’re miked up in the process.

Being the host, moderator, facilitator, whatever, gives you a hint of importance, but you always know your place in the hierarchy, so it’s both elevating and humbling. But who wouldn’t want to see their name on a cinema seat?

Peakyreserved

It goes without saying that Steve Knight, a prolific and voluble individual with internationally acclaimed screenplays as well as this vast civic passion project under his belt, is one of those writers who’s currently inspiring me to get out of the comedy cul-de-sac. For a man so busy, I was surprised and encouraged to learn that he starts writing very early and likes to knock off at around 2pm. God, at least he’s about five years older than me – that’s far less worrying when you think your moment might have passed. I genuinely don’t believe mine has, but it crosses my mind more than it used to.

Also, he’s among the three men who came up with the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the late 90s. So I guess – I hope! – he too can afford to write a script for free.

And U2 can certainly afford to chuck out an album for free. I wonder what it’s like?

 

 

Advertisements

Fast shows

Golden-syrup-2

Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?

At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)

The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).

As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans – all illuminating about the process.

TA93gr

Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.

That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.

So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.

in-the-flesh

In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.

RT14ACBroadchurch

The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.

I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?

A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.

TA153grabTA146

I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.

I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.

Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!

Golden-syrup-2

The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.

2013: Writer’s blog

BlogWk4Mon21Jan BlogWk6WedFeb6caravan BlogWk10TuesRoundhouse BlogApril26N BlogMay30 BlogWk26Friday Photo on 2013-10-03 at 10.23 #2 Photo on 2013-10-13 at 09.15 BlogTues17Deccapsule

Behold, a year in “selfies”, although taken with my laptop not my phone, and holding a variety of mugs in a variety of places, including my old bedroom at my Mum and Dad’s house, a dressing room at the Roundhouse, a dressing room in a car park in Glasgow and a hotel lounge in Cheltenham. Having this week parodied my gender once again and organised 2013 into a series of lists, how about a more considered review of the year? This time last December, I will have been glancing over my shoulder and bemoaning the loss of Word magazine. A year and half on from its demise, I can state that nothing has replaced it. What I can’t have known last Christmas is that I would stop being asked to deputise on 6 Music in 2013 and have thus spoken nary a word on the radio all year, apart from a couple of appearances on Front Row (for which I remain grateful). Maybe this is for the greater good. If I didn’t read out my weekly TV review in a little rectangle on the Guardian website, I would be a writer and a writer only. There’s something appealing to me about that, after more than 25 years of dabbling and failing to commit. Signing with Avalon in March 2012 helped to focus me on what I really want to do with my life: write scripts. (And edit other people’s.)

Pappy'sdoor

I think I’m right in saying that a year ago I had two comedy pilot scripts in development. One of those, Total Class for Channel 4, has since fallen by the wayside (I may as well name it now it’s dead). The other, for the BBC, has enjoyed a belated surge of energy with a top-level cast assembled around it with a view to a read-through for the broadcaster in the New Year. Fingers crossed for that. (The surviving script was commissioned at the same time as Total Class, but I’ve been working really hard on rewriting it from scratch.) In addition, I now have another sitcom in development, of which more presently, but which began life in February over a desk in the offices of production company The Comedy Unit in Glasgow when I was up to cameo in series one of Badults (which they produce and which I script edit). Below is a snapshot of Tom, Ben and Matthew aka Pappy’s, exec Gavin, me and producer Izzy at an early London session for series two of Badults, which is pretty much ready to shoot in early 2014. A very happy association for me. (Although I did the work in 2012, the first episode of Greg Davies’ Man Down for C4 also afforded me a script editor’s credit, which I was proud of when it went out. I also thought of the title.)

Badults2read11Oct

It’s been fantastic working on Badults (and appearing as “Andrew Collins” in series one, episode six) as it fulfills my desire to hang around with talented comedians – something I’ve always done – while essentially restricted to the backroom, which is where I feel most comfortable at my age. Anyway, fingers also crossed for what I’m calling “the Scottish sitcom”. The script now rests in the inbox of its commissioning editor – again, after rewrites; again, with a big name actor attached – and we await the thumb up or thumb down. It was ever thus, and will forever be. One can just about subsist “in development” but it’s a commission one dreams of.

To lose Word and 6 Music in less than two years has had quite an impact on my income at a time when money is an issue for all but the privately wealthy. (It was an eye-opener to discover this year that Virgin were more than happy to print an updated edition of my Billy Bragg book but did not have the funds to pay the author to actually write the new chapter.) There can’t be a soul reading this who isn’t affected by the continuing economic woes of austerity Britain. I can say without a doubt that I have never hated a sitting government as much as I hate David Cameron’s. It’s almost bracing.

Thatchercovers

When Thatcher died this year, I refrained from actually slipping on my dancing shoes, but it was sobering to remember a) how single minded and driven she was, and b) how fundamentally her free-market zeal changed this country. In Thatcherism’s place (she’d never have privatised the Royal Mail, remember), we have something potentially more terrifying: a bunch of self-serving, privately-educated, out-of-touch hereditary hoorays whose hatred of the poor and the weak and the old outstrips Thatcher’s. I don’t remember an issue that has made me so regularly angry as the dismantling of the welfare state, which continues apace and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are at the mercy of a political class with no empathy and barely any experience of ordinary life as it is lived by millions.

5206523594_60805d4fae

I do not wish to live in a country where food banks have to exist. Poisonous Tories like Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey seem not just happy with the situation, they clearly think it’s the poor’s fault for having to swallow their pride and use food banks. There but for the grace of God, or circumstance, go any of us.

Daily_Mirror_2_5_2013StarRolf Daily_Mirror_11_5_2013Starstuart-hall-girl

The papers were full of ever more shocking headlines about celebrities and their alleged sexual misconduct (or in the case of Stuart Hall, no longer just alleged, as he pleaded guilty in April to the indecent assault of 13 girls aged between 9 and 17 years old, between 1967 and 1986). As with the Catholic priests before them, it seems all to have been about male power with these DJs, presenters and musicians. The crimes of Ian Watkins of Lostprophets struck a new low in November. If any good has come of all this, it’s the possibility that other victims will no longer remain silent.

Chris-Huhne

More perversion, but of the course of justice. As a Guardian reader not a contributor, I hereby protest the newspaper’s willing part in the rehabilitation of the sleazy liar Chris Huhne, whose columns it regularly and prominently prints, crediting him as a former cabinet minister and not as a convicted criminal.

BowieIsV&A

I didn’t get out as much as I might have liked this year. When one is watching the pennies, staying in and watching all that amazing telly that’s on seems a far wiser option. Holidays are for another epoch. However, the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A was a treat. So was a foreshortened trip to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, despite the rain. David Morrissey and Esther Freud’s evening for the charity Reprieve was the poshest thing I attended all year. The Edinburgh TV Festival was as reliable as ever: enjoyed seeing Kevin Spacey and Vince Gilligan live, and hosting Q&As with the Wrong Mans gang, Greg Davies and John Bishop, as well as catching Sarah Millican and Richard Herring’s latest shows. And to repeat the Wrong Mans experience at Bafta in London, this time with James Corden in attendance, was a cherry on a cake (splendid to meet Nick Moran, too). Professionally, it was a pleasure to interview Steve Coogan, Irvine Welsh, Judd Apatow and the World’s End triumverate for Radio Times.

ColinACgrab1c

While we’re in the approximate area of my profession, can I retroactively plant a tree to commemorate finally getting Simon Day’s character Colin on the actual telly? Common Ground was Baby Cow’s compendium for comic characters and Simon and I were chuffed to see Colin come to life, finally, even for ten minutes on Sky Atlantic, having previously written a 90-minute film about him for C4 and had it scrapped by an incoming exec back in 2006. (I wonder where I developed this thick skin?) I even had a cameo as a man walking past a bench, pictured above.

143mainfull2blur

As a writer I’ve been too busy for most of this year to blog as regularly as I used to. (I never even reviewed the Morrissey book or the end of Breaking Bad or Gravity.) But starting a new blog, Circles Of Life: The 143, was a tonic – and a healthy corrective to any ideas above my station I might have harboured: I may be “followed” by thousands on Twitter, but a mere hundred or so are interested enough to read my essays on the 143 best songs of all time. It really does feel like an exclusive little music-appreciation society, and I intend to plough on in 2014. I welcome your patronage.

I hate to sum a year up by saying it presented something of a holding pattern, but it did. Lots of groundwork was laid for potential growth in 2014. I’m grateful that circumstance has helped focus my ambition. And I’m grateful not to have had to use a food bank, or have my benefits slashed. All work is precarious, whether you’re in employment or self-employed. Telly Addict could go at any moment. Radio Times could do some sums and discover that it doesn’t need a Film Editor. The Scottish sitcom could be rejected, with compliments. But you must have faith.

They may not be in it at all, but we really are in it together.

And I was very pleased with my home baking, including the controversial grape muffins. Let us eat cake.

Muffins20JulLemonDrizzle2JunLemonGrapeMuffinsSep8

Archive fun: Bilko

Because I am currently suffering a quite debilitating bout of writer’s block – or is it writers’ block, as we all get it? – specifically, unable to write a decent page of script when I am currently trying to write a decent script, I find myself scanning my own written archive. Displacement activity, chiefly, although when the words won’t come, it’s useful to remind oneself that words did come. I woke up this morning, this morning being Monday, the first working day of the working week, in a bit of a panic, and once I opened my laptop, instead of opening the document I’m supposed to be writing, and writing in it, I idled around my blog archive. I read, in full, the piece I wrote about Quentin Letts and squirrels in July 2010, and thought it was pretty well written. You can still read it. (And in fact, some of you are, as it’s always somewhere in the Top 20 of most read blog posts, which is why I happened upon it this morning.)

It’s not going to help me write a script, as it isn’t in script form, but it at least reassures me at a sensitive, self-conscious time, that I can, if the stars are correctly aligned, string a sentence together. The killing joke is: nobody commissioned me to write about Quentin Letts, and I was not paid for writing it. You can’t make a living writing for nothing. But writing for nothing can set you free as a writer. Maybe I should imagine that the script I am writing, or not writing, is actually for this blog and that it doesn’t matter what it’s like. Maybe it’ll get written that way. (That said, a deadline is a surefire muse. Unfortunately, the script I am writing, or not writing, does not have a distinct deadline. The sooner I write and deliver it, though, the better.)

Anyway, before I do something useful towards my professional goal, having already written some words this morning – ie. that preamble – I was contacted by a man called Steve Everitt on Twitter last night asking me if I had the “clout” to get the BBC to show Bilko. (Steve really likes Bilko, only one season of which is even available on DVD, apparently. He is co-founder, writer and researcher at The British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society, launched in 1985 “with Mr Silvers’ full blessing” – it’s here.) I don’t have any such clout, sadly. But the brief Twitter exchange reminded me how much I used to love Bilko as a kid. I loved the characters, and without really knowing much about it, I guess I must have loved the scripts, without which my favourite characters would have been mute.

I felt sure I had written something about Bilko at one point, so I searched my entire writing archive, which goes all the way back to 1996 (anything to not have to write that script, or to not have to not be able to write that script), and I found this short, 650-word column.

It was written for Front Row on Radio 4 in September 2005, which means I will have read it out in a studio at Broadcasting House, and it will have been transmitted on Radio 4. I reprint it here, because otherwise, it will not exist outside of my swollen archive. I might reprint a few other things here, too. Why the hell not? Get them out there. This “column”, as they’re quaintly called in radio, is not a classic piece of writing, but it’s succinct, and, hey, it’s about great scriptwriting. So it might help.

BILKO by Andrew Collins

The first TV programme I ever saw in colour was the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat. For an eight-year-old, it was a near-hallucinogenic experience. Top Cat himself was yellow. Benny was blue. Choo Choo was pink! What a brave new world these cats represented.

But the move to colour was only partial. Many shows in the early 70s – made before the VHF-to-UHF revolution – remained black and white. One of them was the grown-up live-action sitcom The Phil Silvers Show, upon which Top Cat was unofficially modelled, and which nobody called The Phil Silvers Show, not even Phil Silvers. Bilko is what they called it.

The joy of growing up in that era is that in television terms there was no apartheid between black-and-white and colour. I didn’t care whether programmes were old or new, imported or homegrown. I only cared whether I liked them or not. Bilko was already about 15 years old when I first saw it, its 140-or-so episodes having been made between 1955 and 1959. I didn’t care. I liked them. I liked them, aged 8, because they were funny.

I like them today, aged 40, because they represent a golden age of US sitcom when the great stars of burlesque and vaudeville still dominated with their fast patter and their schtick, and when writers were all schooled in radio, where dialogue was king and, as the stage stars’ material was eaten up by the voracious new medium, they had to supply new stuff by the yard, making for a dynamic combination of comic timing and finely tuned scripts. I also like them because they’re funny.

Master Sergeant Ernie G Bilko, skiving leader of the motor-pool platoon at Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas, is not just one of the greatest creations of TV comedy, he’s one of the greatest creations of TV. All bluff and bluster, c’mon-c’mon and hut-hut-hut, his one aim in life is to skew the graph between income and effort – despite the show being originally called You’ll Never Get Rich. He disproves this mainly by playing poker; gambling on, say, how many times a visiting lecturer will twitch during a lecture; and conning people, using not just sleight of hand but sleight of personality.

While the great characters of British sitcom – Hancock, Mainwaring, Steptoe, Fawlty, Trotter, Brent – are losers or at best middle managers, Bilko is a winner. He is the confidence of the “no second class citizens” Eisenhower era on legs. In the course of a typical episode, he starts in the middle, aims for the top, falls to the bottom, then claws his way back to just above the middle. Like his doppelganger Top Cat, [sings] he’s the indisputable leader of the gang – he’s the boss, he’s the VIP, he’s a championship – anyway …

Bilko would, of course, be nothing without two men. Phil Silvers, whose charismatic, spin-bowling performance is the engine of the show. You may have your favourite supporting characters – Doberman, Paparrelli, even Colonel Hall – but they’re just cogs without the lubricant applied by creator Nat Hiken, who wrote or co-wrote the first 71 episodes before bailing out, knackered. They say his scripts were twice as long as the average sitcom, so fast was the delivery. His command of multiple storylines makes him the father of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The highest compliment to Bilko came in 1956, when the Pentagon stepped in and forced CBS to alter the “fruit salad” of medals on Bilko’s conniving breast. They urged the removal of two Purple Hearts and three World War 2 Victory ribbons.

But even stripped of his gongs, beaten to 32nd place in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest TV Characters by Miss Piggy, and criminally unavailable here on DVD, he’s the chief, he’s the king, but above everything, he’s the most tip top, top cat.