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?