What if … the mechanical shark had worked in Jaws?

Another little item I wrote for Word magazine, in 2009, that I’d forgotten about (and has never been published online). I was asked to imagine a “what if?” scenario from the world of entertainment.

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May, 1974, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: first day of the Jaws shoot. The three life-size, $200,000 mechanical great white sharks designed by effects veteran Robert A Mattey work like a dream. The saltwater has no adverse effect on the steel rails running under the surface, the eyes and jaws look realistic and the polyurethane skin does not need constantly replacing. The rushes looks fantastic. The film comes in on time and on budget. Director Steven Spielberg and editor Verna Fields do not need to “hide” the shark: it appears, full face, in scene one, requiring no suspenseful two-note musical theme from John Williams. Jaws opens in 409 theatres in June; audiences get an initial shock on seeing the shark, but the film peaks too early. Word gets out. Box office tails off. The big studios see no quick way of making a mint in summer, and continue to indulge the left-field “movie brat” directors. Universal files for bankruptcy. A nervous Fox opens Star Wars in just 300 theatres. It becomes a minor cult. No sequel is ordered. The studios doggedly pursue the European visions of the new wave of auteurs throughout the 80s until moviemaking becomes a high-risk, low-return business and the new multiplexes are closed, leading to a minor boom in arthouses. Jaws enjoys a revival as an ironic midnight movie. In 1993, Spielberg finally gets an Emmy for Watch The Skies, a single-camera sitcom about a man in Phoenix convinced he’s seen a UFO. People who have been swimming in the sea without fear ever since have no way of describing rare shark sightings: “It was a like a scene out of … ?”

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There at the New Yorker

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Thanks to an enterprising gentleman/scholar called Gavin Hogg, and his ongoing blog project to log all issues of the much-missed Word magazine, I have just re-read my autumn 2005 article on the New Yorker, which is my favourite current magazine and I suspect always will be. I don’t get commissioned to write “long-form” articles that much. The occasional meatier piece for Radio Times (I’m working on a Star Wars story right now, and I’m going on the set of Peaky Blinders this week), and the even more occasional feature for the Guardian or G2 (although the newspaper’s filo-pastry-like commissioning process is sometimes as impenetrably layered as the BBC’s!), but I mostly, these days, I seem to talking again – on the radio, on the Guardian website, on further talking head shows – and my writing work is all beneath the surface, in script form, in development. So, it was an education to re-read what turned out to be an educated three-page feature in its original – and rather fetching layout. I reprint it here, as – what the heck! – I’m rather proud of it. It was from the heart, and decently researched, and comes from a place of genuine love, which is always a good place to start. I wish Word magazine still existed, but remain truly thankful that it ever did.

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Andrew’s Columns

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There once was a magazine called The Word, although I always called it Word, as that it what it was originally called. Had I never written a single word for Word, I would have been its most ardent admirer (and subscriber), and would have lamented its passing with the same moistened eyes. As it happens, I did write for it, but I looked forward to the new issue arriving every month for 114 consecutive months between February 2003 and August 2012 not just to see how my words looked on the hallowed page, but to read all the other words by all the other smart and witty people on all the other pages.

Records show that I began writing a regular page column for Word at the very end of 2004, initially about TV and called Telly Addict. (Not a bad name.) In November 2006, that column’s brief was expanded to include … everything. It was renamed Whatever to reflect this. Whatever ran until the end of 2010, when it stopped. I was sad about this, but pulled myself together and carried on writing reviews and features for my favourite magazine until its final issue, including the third before last cover story, about the Stone Roses. (My only other cover story was Elbow, both pictured.)

As the magazine did not reprint its articles or reviews on the website (which instead predominantly acted as a water cooler for the Word massive), I find I am sitting on an awful lot of my own published writing that I remain very proud of. With the passing of the years, some of it even takes on a socio-historical sheen. So, without rhyme or reason – and mainly because I chanced up a random column from 2010 about the disruption to life as we know it caused by an Icelandic volcano while clearing out my email’s “sent” folder this morning – I thought it might be fun, if not necessarily an actual public service, to reproduce some of these columns here.

I hope you enjoy them, and that they bring back some fond memories of an era when you could publish magazines and a loyal knot of the discerning would buy them.

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An index of columns randomly posted so far:

June 2010 | Memories of the Great Volcano Inconvenience
November 2008 | The branding of everything
September 2008 | Unquestioning TV festival coverage
March 2007 | Health food packaged for idiots
June 2009 | The age of the overstatement
April 2009 | Choosing a daily newspaper
November 2010 | The death of the printed word
April 2010 | 3D or not 3D?
August 2008 | Barack Obama
January 2009 | Grey squirrels
July 2007 | Indie and the charts

Writer’s blog, Week 40, Thursday

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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).

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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?

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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?

 

 

Writer’s blog, Week 29, Friday

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It’s Friday. Not quite the end of the working week, as I have to write and clip Telly Addict tomorrow. Yesterday, I found myself in Hastings, just for one day, and – a complete stranger in town – I was surprised and delighted to run into an old friend from Chelsea School of Art, who was in the year above me and whom I may not have seen since the 90s, maybe even the 80s: Peter Quinnell (whose website is here should you wish to commission one of his fabulously arch collages, which he has been perfecting for 25 years). The reason I mention it, is that he called me “Andy.” Because when he knew me, in the mid-80s, I was called Andy.

I dug out my 1979 diary, above, as it marks the first transition from my birth name Andrew, to what I felt was the cooler and more casual Andy. As you can see, I carefully Letrasetted “Andrew Collins” onto the Boots page-a-day diary to confirm ownership, presumably when I first got it, for Christmas 1978. However, this was the year punk broke in Northampton (sorry, but it was), and certainly the year puberty broke in my endocrine system, hence the later branding, in punk-styled ransom lettering, carefully sealed under Sellotape: “Andy Collins. Private!”

The name-change, aged 14, was non-negotiable. It went on all my exercise books. I practised writing it, and elongated it into an artistic “signature”. I was saying to the world in a first flush of defiant individualism: Andrew – he dead.

It’s weird to be called Andy again. But perfectly normal for Pete to do so, as I was sealed in the aspic of time as far as he’s concerned. Still Andy. Still a student. Twenty eight years have passed since he graduated from Chelsea; 27 since I did. We all reinvent ourselves to a degree, although he was instantly recognisable when I saw him unlocking his car on Hastings’ Old High Street, and he only had to look twice to recognise me coming towards him. I must have looked something like this when he last saw me:

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And now I look like this.

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Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego … If you can identify which film that quote comes from, you’ll be ahead of me here. Yesterday I was tasked with telling the 46-year story of the Planet Of The Apes franchise for Radio Times, to tie in with the fact that the second rebooted entry in the series Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is imminent, and the first, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, is showing in two Saturdays’ time on C4. This is the kind of piece I am retained by the magazine to write. Most of the time, the film section is headed up by a straightforward actor/director junket interview, but occasionally, it remains unfilled until the last minute – Wednesday afternoon – when I must step in and provide a 750-800 word feature from scratch. It’s a bracing commitment.

As previously stated, I do not romanticise my own writing ability. If anything, I have delusions of adequacy. But I know I can write quickly, and to a reasonable professional, spell-checked, word-counted standard, and I never play the prima donna or tortured artist. Brief me at 2pm and I’ll deliver 800 words by 3.30pm. (Luckily for me, the sub-editors at Radio Times are wizards, so you’re always going to look better on the page than you ought.) Anyway, the reason I bring up the Apes feature is that, rather than just trot out the story, I tried to personalise it. This is encouraged. I reflected on the early 80s and an era in which my school- and then college-pal Paul Garner and I were obsessed with movie makeup effects.

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This imported 1983 issue of horror/fantasy/sci-fi journal Cinefantastique, which we both pored over as it were a holy sacrament, sums up our religion during that devoted period. In gory detail, its vast cover story unpicks makeup genius Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film Paul and I were dying to see. Although both of us loved drawing and caricatures – Paul actually produced a full-size, Mad magazine-influenced spoof of Planet Of The Apes (one of our favourite films) – he was the ingenious one who also moved into 3D model and mask design. I just sat on the sidelines and thrilled to his amateur triumphs: a full-head werewolf mask, a Woody Allen forehead and glasses (which I wore in a play). He went on to earn his living as a commercial artist, storyboarding and creating incredible bespoke prints, usually with a horror/fantasy/sci-fi theme. Once you’ve seen Peter Quinnell’s work, you might want to browse Paul’s.

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See, there’s a link here, and it was too good not to get down while I sit here in the Library. In writing about my fanboy love of makeup artists for next week’s Radio Times (they’ve headlined it, “Confessions Of A Fanboy”, which it kind of isn’t), I reminisced about my friend Paul, who pursued his love of art and design and made it his profession. Although I’ve seen him on and off into the current century, he will still think of me as “Andy”. In visiting Hastings and bumping into another friend, from college, who also called me “Andy”, I was once again reminded that I never pursued my love of art and design into a full-time career – although it opened the door for me to journalism, so I couldn’t have got here (wherever here is) without it.

I reverted from Andy back to Andrew in the late 80s, when I sought to establish myself as a professional illustrator, and had an invoice book and an accountant and my first answering machine. I drew the covers of these.

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I seem to remember I was discouraged by the design agency that employed me from signing the artwork, as it might be considered self-aggrandising by the client, Trinity-Mirror. So after all that fannying around about Andrew and Andy and Andrew (and, at one pseudonymous stage, Boone), I was anonymous.

I was the man with no name. The unknown artist. It squashes a man’s ego.

 

Writer’s blog, Weeks 16-17, Monday

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Welcome to my world. My name is Andrew Collins. You may know me from my recently updated mug* on the film pages of the Radio Times, where I give three stars to two-star movies, or four stars to three-star movies just to annoy you. Or from my moving face in an oblong that magically appears every Tuesday morning or thereabouts on the Guardian website, so that at least one commenter a week can bemoan the fact that it’s a video and not a written review of the week’s TV, which is a bit like complaining that a cat is a dog. Although visible, both jobs involve writing. But what I’m doing most of the time, you can’t see. It’s me, at this laptop, stringing sentences together in the fervent hope that they will one day come out of the mouth of a professional actor.

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In order to stay sane, I also write that other blog, Circles Of Life: The 143 Best Songs In The World, which gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing, as I don’t have to show it to anyone in order for it to be published, as I publish it myself. Nor do I have to wait until someone asks me to write a short, personal essay about, say, Across 110th Street or Venus In Furs. I simply ask myself, and then do it. If there’s time. Incidentally, I was rather pleased that Scotts menswear (who make wear for men) have chosen to republish a number of my 143 blog entries on a special website celebrating the life of men over the 30 years they’ve been making clothes for them. (The site has been edited and designed by Sabotage Times and looks terrifically smart.)

There hasn’t been much time in 2014. As you’ll have picked up from previous Writer’s Blogs – few and far between of late – I’m hard at it.

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The above PhotoBooth photos were taken on the same overground train journey on Friday. They are not very interesting, but where I was going is. What I think I might once have referred cagily to as Sitcom A is now released from the captivity of superstitious secrecy, even while it remains below the line “in development”. It has been revealed – via the on-the-ball British Comedy Guide – as Wild Life, a single-camera comedy about a five-person nature documentary film crew on location. I’ve been developing it – which means writing and rewriting and rewriting it for a fixed amount of money which stays the same however much work I do – for two years at my management company, Avalon. But here’s where it gets interesting.

On Friday afternoon at 2pm, we staged the script for a small audience of invited TV bigwigs and comedy fans without nine-to-five jobs. This is habitually done in the world of comedy (we did it for Grass, way back in 2002, and landed a commission wit it), but usually in an airless conference room. We did Wild Life, scripts in hand, in a small theatre-above-a-pub in West London called the Tabard. A terrific venue, the cast rocked up at 10.30, and within a few hours were “performing” the script, live. It’s like a huge audition, for me as the writer**, for them*** as the cast, and for Avalon as the prospective production company. And it lasts half an hour, and then it’s done. I’d say we gave it our very best shot. It’s in the lap of the gods now.

** Although I wrote the script, we drafted in my old sparring partner Simon Day to help make it “funnier”, to use arcane industry jargon. It was a huge amount of fun being locked in an office with Simon again. And he did make it funnier.
*** Although Simon was away and couldn’t cameo on the read-through, as he would have wished, the cast assembled by Avalon was supreme: Frankie Boyle****, Miles Jupp, Isy Suttie, Craig Cambell, Adam Hess and Angela Simpson.
**** Frankie took to Twitter to “correct” the British Comedy Guide’s article. But don’t believe the hype, he is as nice as Noam Chomsky-reading pie in real life and I would love it if you could see him in Wild Life in a utopian future where my scripts get made.

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Meanwhile, what I’ll stick to calling Sitcom B, which I’ve been co-writing with the comedian who will star in it (a pattern that follows Grass and Not Going Out, an arrangement to which I appear to be suited), has hit its third draft, which is frankly unrecognisable from drafts one and two, and this is a good thing. This has been approved by our bosses at Avalon and has been delivered to the broadcaster, which is the BBC. Balls are up in the air again.

The above award-winning photo is me on my way home on the train from the Guardian on a humid Monday afternoon, hence the shirt. The big story in my professional writing life remains Drama A, another 50/50 co-write, which has just been rewritten for reappraisal by the broadcaster who has put it in development. What I will say is this: it’s weird – and a relief – not having to put jokes in.

Back to work, then. Telly Addict number #151 will appear miraculously here tomorrow morning at around 10am. In that shirt.

Writer’s blog, Week 10, Tuesday

Blog4Mar14a Happy birthday, Bobby Womack. It’s traditional for me to say that on my birthday. It’s my birthday. I’m still, miraculously, in my 40s, and found a single grey hair in one of my eyebrows the other day which I have yet to pluck expertly out for visual continuity. I feel OK, thanks. My eyesight is not as sharp as it was last year when I tried to avoid seeing the Oscar winners on breakfast news while I was on the treadmill in the gym (planning to watch the whole ceremony, as live, during the day) – what I’m saying is: it was a little bit easier to do so yesterday.

Clearly, I am giving myself the day off. (It was a close-run thing last night when I was called up at the last moment to spend at least part of today in the offices of a Shoreditch-based production company where I’m helping another writer storyline the second series of her sitcom, but I was stood down about an hour later, so the day is back to being my own again.) Even when you’re self-employed, as I have been now since I was 32, you have the moral right to give yourself the day off without written warning, especially when you’ve been routinely working weekends since Christmas. I am going to see a gay film.

It seems, momentarily, to have stopped raining, which is a plus. And there are two baby sparrows in the back garden, hopping optimistically about. I have delivered a workable draft of Drama A, as I am calling it, so the waiting game begins. Torture, in other words. Meanwhile, what I shall herewith name Sitcom A (as the previous Sitcom A has been rejected by the BBC, so this one moves up to most-likely-to position) seems to be enjoying a shot in the arm, in the form of interest from a performer who might consider taking the lead role, which will really raise its game when we request a “table read” as a way of impressing upon its potential commissioning editor that he should commission it. We already have a fine cast assembled, but the lead pulled out, and the replacement is a much bigger name, so maybe it was for the best.

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Not that anybody really cares, but of the eight main Oscar categories I was forced to predict for Radio Times, alongside my teen-cinephile hero Barry Norman (another annual tradition), I got half right. The one I wished I’d got right was Best Adapted Screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena, which went to John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. I enjoyed watching the whole extravaganza play out in “real time” during the day yesterday, with coffee and chocolate. I’ve been measuring out my life in Oscar ceremonies since I was that young teenager, steered into film appreciation by the BBC’s Film programme and not just Barry, but a string of replacements they put into his swivel chair in – I think – 1981: Ian Johnstone, Michael Wood among them. I’ve taken films seriously ever since.

I had a two-page feature printed in the Guardian yesterday about TV medical documentaries. I’m very proud of it. You can read it here. It’s proper, and a nice little marker flag on my CV: first two-page feature in G2. Like Matthew McConaughey says, if you make yourself in ten years’ time your hero today, you will never attain the position of “hero” but it will always give you someone to aim for. I’m definitely not the “hero” of myself in 2004, so maybe his crackpot, God-fearing theory holds some water.