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.