Whatever | April 2010

Whatever | 3D or not 3D
Will Avatar take Hollywood to the next dimension, or are those glasses making us blind?

WhateverAvatarApr2010 Just before Christmas in 1952, United Artists released a functional African jungle adventure called Bwana Devil. The first feature to be exhibited in Natural Vision 3D, its publicity made the famous promise, “A lion in your lap!” Advertising standards would take a dim view of the flimsiness of this leonine proximity claim today, but desperate times – as the 1950s were for Hollywood during TV’s first boom – called for desperate measures.

Just before Christmas in 2009, 20th Century Fox released a functional Pandoran jungle adventure called Avatar. The first feature to be shot in 3D using various bespoke gizmos in the field of motion-capture, its publicity revolved around special tie-in bottles of Coke Zero and director James Cameron talking the film up big-style at sci-fi conventions. No explicit promises were made, but Avatar might have been sold with the guarantee, “Little floaty specs of ash caused by an air strike raining down around your shoulders like dandruff!”

This is not meant as a facetious comparison, even though I have carefully written it as one. In actual fact, not that much has changed between the lion in the lap and the dandruff down the back, except that 21st century audiences are less gullible and more reticent to tear themselves away from small glowing boxes. Bwana Devil did well enough at the box office, as did the knock-on 3D flea circuses that propagated in its wake – House Of Wax, It Came From Outer Space, Robot Monster, The Creature From The Black Lagoon – at least until the sums stopped adding up. But none of them performed like Avatar, even if figures are adjusted for inflation, which they never are or else Gone With The Wind would always be number one and the all-time box office charts would cease to act as a team-building exercise for studio accountants.


The tin-hat difference between Bwana Devil and Avatar is that the former was conspicuous by its absence at the 25th Academy Awards – it was all 2D confections like High Noon and The Quiet Man that year – while the latter scored nine nominations at the 82nd. By the time you read this, you’ll know whether or not it took home Best Picture. If not, having already shamed his last film Titanic into second place with a world-beating $2.3 billion take (at time of going to press), Cameron will be able to dry his eyes on hundred dollar bills and toss them into a waste paper basket woven from the eyelashes of angels.

The twinkling aura of success that fizzes and pops around Avatar provides a welcome firework display to momentarily distract from an inconvenient truth: that the movies are in trouble. In posh film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James made his own prediction: that the Oscar will indeed go to Avatar, because, as he foresaw it, “this year the industry will vote for the financial, not the aesthetic Best Picture … The business will cheer the money, because they’re scared and they hope that 3D can save them.” In the same issue, Nick Roddick, writing as “Mr Busy”, penned a de facto obituary for Hollywood as we know it: “the studio system is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.” With execs being fired on a daily basis – two of them, Universal co-chairmen Marc Schmuger and David Linde announced that we live in “an era where brands have become the new stars” just before they received their redundancy packages – the impression is of an industry in panic. Why? Didn’t some film called Avatar just make, like, more money than any other film ever except Gone With The Wind and who cares about that old thing? Yes it did. In 17 days. (Now there’s a block graph on an overhead projector that’s going to make up for the lack of croissants at the News Corps shareholders meeting.)

Just as the success of Nirvana led to the signing of Tad, post-Avatar, film studios are literally sending completed blockbusters back to the menders and ordering up an extra dimension, from Clash Of The Titans to the final Harry Potter double-bill Deathly Hallows. The Times reported that LA’s celluloid-to-digital conversion labs are fully booked (“We can turn an older film into 3-D in around 16 weeks,” said the man at one such, Legend Films in San Diego), while super-geeks Peter Jackson and George Lucas are salivating at the prospect of running their respective sagas through the machine, just as Pixar have done with Toy Story. “2D or not 2D?” – that is not the question.


I wish it was a passing craze, like Sensurround™, Illusion-O™ and Vinnie Jones™, but with 3D tellys being rolled out, 3D Blu-Ray on the horizon and 3D football matches bringing new meaning to collecting up the glasses in pubs, it may be that the man from cinema chain USC was right when he told the Times, “It’s no longer a gimmick, but an expectation.” Not in my house. And I speak as someone who queued up to see Friday The 13th 3D as a teenager in order to experience a pitchfork handle in my face. Nick James is astute when he describes Avatar as “a film for 15-year-olds that grown-ups enjoy for its technological breakthroughs.” I also worry that all this tech-fetishism makes gawping idiots of us all.

Hey, I’m all for the industry being saved – I really like films – but Avatar is not exactly a quick fix. It took years to make and cost $310 million, plus $150 to market. It would be cheaper to release an actual lion into every punter’s lap.

Having said that, those wraparound 3D specs did create the dazzling illusion that Camerons one-dimensional characters were two-dimensional.

Whatever | September 2008

Whatever | Festivals If blanket TV coverage of music festivals is to rival sport, where’s its equivalent of Alan Hansen? WhateverGlasto2008 Back in the studio after a lacklustre nil-nil draw in Group C between France and Romania, BBC pundit Alan Hansen looked set to bust out of his pressed white shirt as he declared, with a degree of overstatement, “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Harbour a grudging respect for him or hate him, his assessment must have chimed with the thoughts of many Euro 2008 viewers at home. Punditry in motion. As it happened, three weeks of goalmouth incident, questionable pronunciations of Xavi and jibes about the astrology-based decisions of the French coach later, the Euro 2008 final coincided with blanket TV coverage of another heavily sponsored outdoor summer spectacle, Glastonbury. While BBC1 showed the entertaining clash between Germany and Spain in one field, over on BBC3 it was the Fratellis, Kings of Leon and Buddy Guy in another. The constant refrain of those committed enough to attend major sporting events and/or music festivals is, “You had to be there.” But for the majority, television is our best chance of a ringside seat. Since I stopped going after Glastonbury ’95, I have been the target armchair festivalgoer as the Beeb’s coverage has expanded like cosmic insulation foam to fill all nooks of the digisphere. As with Wimbledon, you can even press the red button and select from a multi-screen menu which game, set or match you wish to view. In many ways – most of them logistical and hygienic – it really is better than being there. WhateverGlasto2008 However, this comparison between sport and live music on TV throws up a problem. As one gradually morphs into the other – slick, branded, omnipresent, relentlessly cross-promoted and with saturation point never too far around the next corner – the big difference between the two becomes ever more apparent. There is one crucial element missing from festival TV. I’m talking about its total dereliction of critical judgement. Imagine if, during this year’s fulsome Glastonbury coverage, Mark Radcliffe had swivelled round on his backstage hay bail and exclaimed to Jo Whiley, “Well, that was the worst set I’ve seen on the Pyramid Stage in my life.” It’s unthinkable. Alan Hansen can call the Polish defence “abysmal”; Radcliffe must describe Shakin’ Stevens as “a trooper.” This is not a criticism of Mark or Jo or any other presenter, whose job it is to talk everything up, in order to justify the vast sums invested in securing rights, setting up outside-broadcast shop in Pilton for a week and supplying content to BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, Radio 1, 5 Live, 6 Music, 1 Xtra, BBC online and BBCi. But I can vouch for the fact that, once a broadcaster is onsite, the tendency is simply to cheerlead. “The atmosphere is amazing!” “It’s shaping up to be a vintage Glastonbury!” “It’s not just about the music.” It’ll be the same for T In The Park, Reading and Leeds, Cambridge … TV and radio coverage is less like editorial, more like advertorial. The irony in all this round-the-clock, welly-wearing Pollyannaism is that music fans are no strangers to music criticism. Whether old enough to have been raised on the sturm und drang of the weekly music press or new enough to be fluent in the snap judgements of blog and Facebook, the type of person who will actually sit down to watch Glastonbury on TV (and there are 1.9 million in peak-time, down to a respectable 500,000 after 11pm) is exactly the type who would welcome at least a heated debate on the merits of Jay-Z, rather than to hear the party line parroted (ie. that he “won the crowd over”). WhateverGlasto2008 Sporting pundits are there to dissect a match; to marvel at the way Torres lifted Xavi’s pass over the keeper’s legs, but also to bemoan the ref’s decision not to book Silva after that surreptitious headbutt on Podolski. Why are we not grown up enough to hear the same degree of expert critique from football’s festival counterparts? In fairness, this won’t come from DJs like Jo or Zane or Fearne, ambassadors for the Corporation with future guest bookings to protect, but can a substrata of critics not be arranged in a studio to offer something a little more incisive? “The atmosphere seems oddly corporate and stilted this year.” “Is there a festival the Verve aren’t playing?” “Is Beth Ditto still at it?” Actually, a couple of years ago, Jo Whiley did break ranks and offer a unique glimpse of editorial. After the Alison Goldfrapp set, she said, “It just goes to show that you can be thin and still have cellulite.” Not even Hansen would be that incisive.

Published in Word magazine, September 2008

2014: My Top 50 TV Shows


Now we’re talking. For almost four years now, I have been required to watch television for a job. It is a lovely job, even in the weeks when it is an uphill struggle to find anything to rave about into a camera at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross. (You surely know me well enough by now to know that I am a bad TV critic because I have too much empathy with people who make TV programmes and thus find it difficult to slag them off for dramatic effect. So be it.) I cannot lie to you: when, in November, I appeared as a talking head on Channel 5’s Most Shocking TV Moments, I was inordinately proud to be captioned for the first time ever as “Andrew Collins, TV critic”.


Most Shocking TV Moments was not one of the Top 50 TV shows of 2014, although it wasn’t at all bad, and was important in its own way.


I can definitely list 50 TV shows that I loved this year, which is a first for my cultural roundup of the year so far, currently a bit undernourished. That’s because I watch a lot more telly than I listen to records or read books. It’s best to get used to that, and not worry about it. Telly is in the best shape it’s been in for years and we should give thanks for that, while music’s in a parlous state and films are struggling to keep up with the small screen. You know it’s true. I’ve had a rethink since first publishing this list, which is a pointless qualitative exercise in any case, and instead of a Top 50 (or whatever the total is up now), I’m reverting to the Top 10, followed by all the rest, as, frankly, after that it’s a fairly random list of television programmes that I thoroughly enjoyed in 2014. There’s no way of measuring which was my 21st favourite and which was my 22nd favourite. (Also I caught up with two episodes of Toast after first composing the list and tried to move it up the chart, but it threw everything else out of whack and I conceded my folly!)

In its present state, it can do no harm, especially if it prompts debate or that warm feeling of “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”


1. The Leftovers, HBO/Sky Atlantic
2. Gogglebox, C4
3. Peaky Blinders, BBC2
4. Detectorists, BBC4
5. Hinterland/Y Gwyll, S4C/BBC Wales/BBC4
6. The Newsroom, HBO/Sky Atlantic
7. Game Of Thrones, HBO/Sky Atlantic
8. The Code, ABC1/BBC4
9. True Detective, HBO/Sky Atlantic
10. Gomorrah, Sky Italia/Sky Atlantic

The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies, ITV
Looking, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Missing, BBC2
Boardwalk Empire, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Happy Valley, BBC1
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Walking Dead, AMC/Fox
Intruders, BBC America/BBC2
Mad Men, AMC/Sky Atlantic
Toast Of London, C4
Olive Kitteridge, HBO/Sky Atlantic
The Good Wife, CBS/More4
Babylon, C4
Stammer School, C4
The Mimic, C4
Marvellous, BBC1
Boss, Starz/More4
Veep, HBO/Sky Atlantic
Penny Dreadful, Showtime/Sky Atlantic
Utopia, C4
Stewart Lee’s Alternative Comedy Experience, Comedy Central
The Honourable Woman, BBC2
Cilla, ITV
The Strain, Watch
Nixon’s The One, Sky Arts
The Legacy, Sky Arts
Plebs, ITV2
Scot Squad, BBC Scotland
Grayson Perry: Who Are You?, C4
The Bridge, BBC4
The Mill, C4
A Very British Renaissance, BBC2
The Village, BBC2
Uncle, C4
Suspects, Channel Five
The Great British Bake Off, BBC1
Dave Gorman’s Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
The Trip To Italy, BBC2
The Art Of Gothic, BBC4
The Life Of Rock With Brian Pern, BBC4
People Just Do Nothing, iPlayer/BBC3
Modern Family, ABC/Sky1
Rev, BBC2
Hannibal, Sky Living
Sherlock, BBC1
Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, BBC4
Louie, Fox
The Daily Show, Comedy Central
House Of Cards, Netflix


Glib conclusions? Thank the lord for HBO, and by definition, Sky Atlantic. Also, what a year for drama. And not just American drama. In the Top 10 we find an Australian drama, and an Italian drama, as well as one from the UK (Peaky Blinders, which I hymned at length for the Guardian’s Top 10 TV here), and more specifically one from Wales, in Welsh (which premiered on S4C, in its native language, in 2013, but expanded into countless other territories, from Denmark to the US and Canada, in 2014). Other notable British entries include The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies (which reminds us that ITV is the equal of the BBC when it wants to be), The Missing, Happy Valley, Line Of Duty and Intruders (a co-prod with BBC America).

I find it intriguing that a number of dramas in the list have been based on novels: The Leftovers, Game Of Thrones, Intruders, The Strain, The Walking Dead (a series of graphic novels). Great long-form TV drama is often referred to, with critical reverence, as “novelistic”, and this seems now to be literal. I’ve often felt that a 90-minute feature film, the usual resting place for a novel, is the wrong medium; eight hour-long parts seems so much more conducive to capturing a book’s essence. (Hey, that’s why Lord Of The Rings was made into three movies.) Anyone see The Slap, another all-too-rare Aussie import, in 2011? That was a novel; it worked on telly. I guess the weird bit – and this will be true for my favourite show of the year The Leftovers – is how to produce a second series when the source has dried up.


Telly drama made the news in April when “Mumblegate” saw the BBC in the firing line – again – for the questionable sound quality of its latest original British drama, a three-part dramatisation of a novel, Daphe Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. This was mere weeks after I’d sat on the Bafta jury for Best International Programme with its talented writer Emma Frost (I really liked her adaptation of The White Queen in 2013). I enjoyed the first episode of Jamaica Inn, and said so in my Guardian review, but having viewed it on catch-up I think we missed out on the technical problems that bedevilled it for those who watched it live. Also, we watch so much mumbly drama in our house, we had no problem straining to hear what Sean Harris was saying. Others had a bigger problem, and a storm in a teacup brewed. Harris redressed the balance with his sweetly self-conscious acceptance speech for Southcliffe at the Baftas. But I felt sorry for Emma, because I am a writer, and there but for the grace of executive whim, go I.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the coverage of The World Cup on ITV and BBC in June and July, and you can re-read my enthusiastic but clueless reports, Braz1l, Bra2il, 3razil, Br4zil, Bra5il and 6razil here. That’s a lot of hours of television, right there.


My own contributions to the small screen have been limited this year. I was thoroughly proud to have script-edited the second series of Badults on BBC3, and – a new gig – the second series of Drifters on E4. One of my in-development sitcoms bit the dust, but not through want of effort and lateral thinking and getting Simon Day in to help gag it up.

My talking head was on the aforementioned Most Shocking TV Moments on Channel 5, also, for the same channel, I did Greatest 80s Movies, which I didn’t see, but I assume went out? More covertly, I added my two-penn’orth to Crime Thriller Club on ITV2, as I like the kind of crime thrillers that are on that channel and quite fancied talking about them with my head. Apart from that, I’ve been busying myself writing and rewriting my dystopian thriller, which is, yeah, yeah, in development. Here’s hoping it does something slightly more meaningful than get rewritten in 2015. Reuniting with Simon Day has been a positive thing, and I’d love to think we can do something together in the near future.

Telly Addict continues, of course, which is a bit like being on the telly, isn’t it? Here’s your static moment of Zen …


Writer’s blog, Week 49


I know. It’s been a while. It’s been more than a while. A gentleman discerning enough to use an avatar of Mark E Smith asked me via the medium of social media the other day what had happened to my blog. He surmised, correctly, that I have been too busy to keep it up. The truth be told, this year has been one of working harder and earning less, a pattern clearly replicated across this whole stinking world. Although I’ve not been writing here, I’ve been writing. And although I’ve not been writing in the desired form of a script that has been made into a television programme, I have been scriptwriting. It used to be known as development hell, although it’s hardly a hell, as you do get paid a stipend to write a script, even if it never gets past the stage of being words on a screen. (Actually, I always print my scripts out to read them, as they don’t seem real until you are holding them in your hands. If they exist physically, you can pretend they’re being made into television.)

In the accompanying picture above (what would nowadays be called a “selfie”, although these were invented long before the camera-phone), I am sitting in a hotel room in Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, West Wales. The hotel is the Belle Vue and it’s right on the front. Here is the view from my window last night when we checked in at around 7.30pm after the five-hour, one-change train journey from London.

AberPM I love the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls cawing. Because I spent pretty much every summer holiday as a boy in North Wales, I feel very much at home in this country. I’ve spent more time in North and South Wales, though, and less in Mid-, and it’s my very first time in Aberystwyth. If you’ve been following the story, you’ll have probably guessed why I’m here. The groundbreaking Welsh/English detective noir Y Gwyll, or Hinterland, is set and shot in Aberystwyth. I am here, in a landscape you could not make up, in weather you’d usually have to put in afterwards, to effect what’s known in the trade as a “set visit”. That is, I’ve been invited to visit the set, which in this case, was an actual barn near a farm just outside Borth, where a temporary production base had been established under a gazebo.


I did take some pictures of the filming of a scene involving Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias, Mali Harries as DI Mared Rhys and another actor as a farmer, but these may be embargoed, as series two of Y Gwyll won’t be airing on S4C (in Welsh) and then BBC Wales (in English and Welsh) until autumn 2015. There’s a one-off special on S4C on New Year’s Day, which is intended to sate fans of the show in the interim. (If you haven’t seen it – and you really should – it’s a case-of-the-week crime-solver that has its own broader arc about Mathias’s past, so you can dip in and it will still work.) I’m sure you’re aware that the show’s trick – which it didn’t invent, but is rare – is to film every scene with dialogue twice, once in Welsh, once in English (and some Welsh, where applicable), thereby literally doubling the work of the cast and crew, but in the process doubling its marketability in an international TV market, something that’s clearly working for them, having sold it to Denmark, Holland, Belgium, the US and Canada (on Netflix) and countless others. Not bad for a show set in Aberystwyth.

On our windswept arrival last night, Tash from the PR company (in charge of delivering me to my destination) and I repaired to a bar and cafe – highly recommended locally – called Baravin. While the cast and crew are filming, some based in Aber, others in Borth, many of them far away from hearth and home, this magnificently sited venue seems to be a magnet. It faces out onto the seafront and serves artisan pizzas, draught beer and something called an “espresso Martini”, which sounded like a terrible idea at the beginning of the evening, but a good one at the end of it.


At Baravin, we met Richard Harrington, Mali Harries (both of whom I appear to have known for years, or at least that’s the impression I got from the warm way they greeted me) and producers the voluble Ed Thomas and more quietly spoken Gethin Scourfield. We had a tremendous evening with all four. I didn’t take my dictaphone out, but we chatted about the show, and the way it’s produced, and it’s all “colour” for the feature I will write to coincide with transmission of series two in about ten months’ time. Our hosts provided plenty. Richard is dark and authoritative onscreen (if you’ve not seen Y Gwyll, you may remember him from Spooks), but in real life, he feels hewn from the same rock as his namesake Burton. An elemental figure, I of course blame him for talking me into an espresso Martini.

You sensed he was up for going after-hours, but the rest of us were knackered and opted for ending the evening when the bar did. (His co-star and producer/director were not even drinking.)

It being Wales, where the stars are visible in the sky, and a promenade, where the sea puts you to sleep, I slumbered hard, woken only once at 4am when two young women who had gone after-hours sang a modern pop song under my window from the pavement below. I could only admire them.


Tempted out for a pre-breakfast walk along the front to the pier this morning, I felt blessed to witness the murmuration of starlings, who shot out from under the Royal Pier and filled the sky. I don’t think my non-iPhone really captured the glory, but you can’t blame me for trying, presented with that. This may be a writer’s blog, but I’m painting a lot of this with pictures.


One full English/Welsh inside me, and we were off to the set. This is me, pretending to be a vital cog in the Y Gwyll machine, sitting on a plastic chair under the gazebo, watching a monitor and wearing some headphones so that I can hear the Welsh and English words being said by the actors into the microphones. I am well wrapped up against the cold. It would have been pathetic of me to even admit to myself that I was feeling the cold, as I was only on set for half a day, and these dedicated professionals do it for twice that long, every day, for weeks on end.


This photo depicts me and S4C Drama Commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd, whom I have met before, showing our frozen appreciation for the arrival of on-set catering in polystyrene boxes wrapped in tin foil and cling film. (For the record, I am holding two portions of main course and dessert, only one of which is for me.) After about five hours of being among the elements, it was the thought of getting into a warm car and being driven to a warm train station where a warm train awaited that was keeping me alive.

Ten hours on the train there and back, but 20 hours spent in the salty, reed-filled embrace of Aberystwyth and Borth, getting a boyhood Proustian rush from the Welsh signs, the stern, symmetrical, chapel-like Welsh houses and the sight of endless sheep. Ceredigion really is “Hinterland Country” now. If you know the first series, you will literally spot houses and bridges and garages you’ve seen on telly in real life. This is a show that, unlike so much geographically faked TV fiction, lives and breathes its authentic, living, breathing environments. Gethin and director Julian Jones let us accompany them on a location scouting trip to Borth where we trod infinite dunes and were almost literally run off private farmland after a wrong turn.


An unusual day in a writer’s life, and a rewarding one, whose printed fruits exist only in the future.

2014: My Top 50 books


I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

TV monitors


It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.


He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).

Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)

Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.


First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)


AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?

DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.

AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?

DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.


AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?

DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.

AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?

DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.

AC: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!


The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.

While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”

I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”

It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”


I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”

Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”

Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”

I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”


So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”

A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”

I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.

On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”

For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”

Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”

How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”

Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”


Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.

Writer’s blog, Week 40, Thursday


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.


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.


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?


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).


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?


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?