Writer’s blog: Week 23, Thursday

Secrecy, pilots, filth, Clash songs, film maths and the Stone Roses …


I spoke to my Dad on the telephone yesterday (with Mum in the background), and he said that they’d assumed I was busy as I hadn’t blogged much recently. It’s cool that they understand how this works. It’s a Thursday. I am still busy, attempting to panel-beat this latest pilot sitcom script into a recognisable shape, but I’ve just this moment sent off the latest draft of a remodelled story breakdown, from which to build the second draft of the script.

It’s weird; I read a Guardian blog yesterday by Caitlin Moran in which she talked us through the entire set-up of the pilot of her first, autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves, which is being developed by Big Talk and co-written with her sister. If you follow Richard Herring’s daily Warming Up blog, you’ll be well up to speed on the content and progress of his latest pilot, Ra-Ra Rasputin, too. The British Comedy Guide publish an exhaustive, constantly updated list of all the comedy pilots currently in development with the proviso, “most pilots are never seen”. There are about 80 at present. It makes depressing reading if you’re in the business of developing comedy with a view to it ever “being seen.”

It’s possible that I am alone in never revealing the details of projects I have in development, for fear of jinxing them. Am I simply superstitious? Or realistic? I was at a social gathering on Saturday night and the question, “What are you working on?” came up. I explained in basic terms what my sitcom was about to the person who asked me, with the same proviso, “It may never get made.” This is the business I work in. (When, in 2005, I “helped” Lee Mack develop Not Going Out – his phrase – we actually shot a non-broadcast pilot at Thames, with a studio audience and a fully functioning set, with no guarantee that the show would be commissioned to series. It was, so we re-cast, re-wrote and re-shot that episode.)

Anyway, if I mentioned the title of my sitcom, or the broadcaster, or production company who are funding its development, I guess it would be in the public domain and would go onto the demoralising British Comedy Guide list. On points, I’d rather keep it to myself. Needless to say, it’s a largely solitary process, with occasional bursts of feedback with actual other human beings, and by turns enjoyable and dispiriting. But you fight on. Because I am waiting for my two immediate managers to sign off on the new story, I am reluctant to forge on with the new script. So I’m writing a blog about not writing a sitcom instead.


So, what other stuff have I been doing that’s not shrouded in superstitious secrecy? I saw the new Irvine Welsh film, Filth, last night, although it’s not out until October, so I’m not sure reviewing it would be the done thing. I don’t mind revealing that it features perhaps James McAvoy’s best performance in front of a camera, certainly one that’s vanity-free, as his character, the depraved Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson, descends into a private hell before our very eyes. Welsh was at the screening, and got up to introduce the film, by saying, “I hate these preambles … so why don’t we all just watch the fucking film?” (The director Jon Baird was also in attendance, and one of the stars, the mighty John Sessions.) I’m interviewing Welsh tomorrow, and looking forward to it.

While we’re on the subject of development, if you’re lucky, your pilot will move from the British Comedy Guide’s pilots list to its new comedy list, where shows “in production” are logged. (There are fewer shows in production than at pilot stage, although by their rules because the pilot of Raised By Wolves is being made, it counts as “in production”, which it sort of isn’t, strictly.) I am more cheered by this list as two shows I’ve script-edited are included: Badults, the six-ep Pappy’s sitcom which is shot and edited and ready to go on BBC3 in July, and the Greg Davies vehicle for C4, Man Down, whose pilot I script-edited and whose title I came up with – fame, autographs later etc.! (I may or may not be editing the series, we shall see, but I’d like to.) What I will say for Badults and BBC3 is that it was commissioned last August, while we were all in Edinburgh, and that’s a pretty rapid turnaround from script meeting to edit suite, so let’s all be grateful for that.


I have become obsessed with Springwatch on BBC2 and, in particular, presenter Chris Packham’s now-traditional song titles game. In previous years he’s slipped in titles by the Smiths, the Manics and the Cure; this year, it turns out, it’s the Clash. I managed to pick up on five on Monday night, but, by contacting him via the miracle of Twitter, was able to establish with the man himself that there were nine! (That said, two of them were 48 Hours and Deny, which do not leap out of a link in the same way that Drug-Stabbing Time does.) I’m enjoying the rest of the content – birds in reedbeds, weasels raiding nests, sandhoppers under seaweed – but it’s the Clash songs that are keeping me on the edge of my seat.

I am keeping a watertight register of all the films I see this year, new and old. We are nearing the end of May and this is what the month looks like with a day to go:

The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Fast & Furious 6 | Justin Lin | US
The Eye Of The Storm | Fred Schepisi | Australia
I’m So Excited | Pedro Almodóvar | Spain
Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
Star Trek Into Darkness | JJ Abrams | US
Rockshow | Paul McCartney | US
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann | Australia/US
Miracle | Gavin O’Connor | US
The Hangover Part III | Todd Philips | US
Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Filth | Jon Baird | UK

That means 11 new films (some of which have yet to be released), and two old ones: coincidentally, the Wings concert film Rockshow, originally released in 1980 but shown at the Curzon; and Miracle, a 2004 Disney movie about the American ice hockey victory over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a politically charged event I learned about on an American National Geographic documentary about the 80s. Not a storming total, 13, compared to the 23 I saw in January and the 20 I saw in March, but should you care, that means I’ve seen 78 films this year so far. But never mind the quantity, feel the breadth! I’m all about variety and it’s usually the smaller, not necessarily English-speaking films that give the most sustenance. (Not a vintage month in this regard, May; in April I went to Russia, Denmark, Israel, Argentina and Ireland.) I wish I’d never seen The Hangover Part III, for instance; the experience subtracted from my total life experience.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films

When I was teenager, and first becoming obsessed with films, I started to log them in my diary. At this stage, it was mostly films I’d seen on telly, or on video, and so voracious was my appetite – fuelled by filmographies in assorted film books, like The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films, which I got for my 15th birthday, or David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, which I got for Christmas in 1981 – a film’s age did not matter. Bring on the films, old and new! Thus it is written that I saw a total of 83 films in 1980, the year my cinephilia almost eclipsed my love of punk rock. My final tally for 1981 would be 121 films. In 1982, when video rental really kicked in, it was 144, and in 1983, I managed a storming 175. As I wrote in Where Did It All Go Right?, I have never stopped being proud of myself for this intense self-education.

As today is the day that Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made Of Stone premieres, beamed around selected arthouses by satellite (it goes on general release on June 5), I thought I’d reprint an expanded cut of the review I wrote for Radio Times.


Shane Meadows, a teenage fan when the Stone Roses shook the world with their potent blend of psychedelic rock and swaggering Mancunian groove in the late 80s and early 90s, never saw them live. Thus, this potentially conventional feature-length chronicle of their 2011-12 reunion becomes something more personal. Shadowing the well-preserved four-piece on the road to triumphant shows at Greater Manchester’s Heaton Park – via bonhomie-fuelled rehearsals, a joyous secret gig in Warrington and some bumpy European warm-ups – Meadows gains access-all-areas, his camera often skulking in corridor and dressing room. The band are at the top of their game, musically (and the sound mix does them proud), but Meadows puts the largely middle-aged fans centre stage; their heartwarming stories dominating the Warrington section as grown men leave jobs, families and errands to get in the queue for a golden wristband. Eschewing obligatory talking heads (backstory is told via archive interview, with some genuinely unseen home movie footage), artfully moving between crisp monochrome and glorious colour, and with footnotes-to-camera by the wide-eyed director himself, Made Of Stone replaces hagiography with infectious empathy. A witty, honest and valuable tribute.

Writer’s blog Week 46


Again, not actually sure if it is Week 46. It might be Week 45. I don’t really work in week numbers, other than the week numbers we use at Radio Times – which is where I am today; check out the ducting in our office! – but these refer ahead to the week of the issue we’re working on.

It’s dark. It’s only just gone 4.30 in the afternoon and it’s dark. Is it any wonder we, as a species, get depressed, or at least melancholy and reflective, in the autumn? It’s also dark – pitch black – when I leave the house in the morning, as I have joined a cheap gym and have pressed myself back into the service of keep-fit, after too long in the sedentary wilderness due to fiscal belt-tightening. Anyway, when I woke up this morning at just before 6am, I seriously forgot that there was a US Presidential Election going on in America. I checked the BBC News website on my phone at the bus stop at around 6.20am and was relieved to read the first headline saying that Obama had won. My only thought was: phew. (I Tweeted this.)

I watched his victory speech, live, from 6.30am. I was at the gym, first in the changing room, where the TV had sound, and then on the treadmill, without sound (or headphones), so I wasn’t able to hear all of what he said in Chicago. I could, however, read the closed-captioning on Sky News and ITV Daybreak, and I was struck by the frequency of this particular phrase:


I may remember that phrase for years to come, as it marked a happy day in all our lives. (Unless you think abortion should be outlawed and gays shouldn’t marry and poor people should stop complaining about being poor, which is your democratic right to do.) Seriously, if Romney had got in, we’d be looking at four very anxious years, especially as the full extent of his party’s right-wing extremism was allowed to uncoil from behind the facade of private-equity sheen like a big, scaly snake. At least this way, America probably won’t bomb Iran. Probably.

One of the tellies at my gym seems permanently to be tuned to one of those channels that just shows infomercials, which at least make perfect sense without being able to hear them: they are simply and baldly selling a product, which you send off for, and if you don’t like it after 30 days, you get your money back. I found it pretty easy to ignore a half-hour “show” in which Robert Dyas the ironmonger demonstrated lots of products, QVC-style, including what looked like a simple jug, but there’s a recurring ad, which also goes on and on and on for 30 minutes, which advertises a fitness regime you can do at home called Insanity. I find it harder to ignore.

I’m slightly fascinated by Insanity. I don’t need to check to know that it’s American. What’s funny about it is that, unlike other fitness programmes, which are usually predicated on being some kind of shortcut to fitness, this one looks … hmmm … insane. They keep cutting back to a massed workout where a eugenically musclebound instructor called Shaun T throws himself around and ordinary bodybuilders copy him. (Nobody looks unfit in these videos.) But when they show film of ordinary members of the public – you – working out in front of the TV, it looks really cumbersome and awkward and unsexy.

Frankly, unless you live in a hall, or a mall, with masses of space, Insanity looks awful. Sure, the results are there to see: men take their t-shirts off all the way through the infomercial to reveal rock-hard pecs and abs – but I foresee quite a lot of junctures at which you, at home, could feel like throwing in the towel.

What’s sweet about the package is that, as well as the DVDs, and a book, they also entice you with an Insanity calendar, featuring, well, men and women in PE kit with hard muscles, smiling. I’ll stick to photos of cats.


Exciting day the British Library, as we had to evacuate the building at around midday. This happens sporadically; it’s a building with 14 million books in it, and I suspect it has pretty sensitive smoke detectors. It’s a huge upheaval, with hundreds of staff, readers and visitors forced not just out of the building itself, but off the grounds too, while the fire brigade investigate. The whole drill took about half an hour, but when you’re stood outside the gates, clutching your laptop (they instruct you not to take anything with you, but who’s going to leave their laptop?), unable to even nip to a coffee shop or pub until it’s blown over because your wallet is in your locker (maybe that’s just me), it feels like a major inconvenience. Once it’s clear that no book, or manuscript, or person, is in peril, you are at liberty to shuffle and moan and read Jonathan Freedland’s assessment of Obama’s second-term victory on your phone. (How did I ever survive without a phone that lets me read the Guardian on it? Why did you all stop me from getting one for so long?)

I should write something about writing. I’m waiting for some notes on one script I have in development with one broadcaster (let’s call it Script B), which, it has been reported back to me, they “really enjoyed.” Since a commissioning editor has no reason to pretend to have “really enjoyed” a script, I’m kind of hoping they actually did, and that the notes won’t make me want to give up writing for a living like the last set of notes on a different script – let’s call it Script A – in development with a different broadcast did. (That’s why I started writing these writer’s blogs in August, in fact.)

What’s really driving my working days, though, is the Pappy’s sitcom, whose working title is The Secret Dude Society, for BBC3, and which I am script editing. I like script editing; it harks back to my years in magazine publishing, when I edited as much as I wrote. It’s the closest I get to being a teacher, almost literally “marking” other people’s work and handing it back to them.

I find I am now often hired out to script-edit pilot scripts at various stages of development – in this capacity I’ve been lucky enough to work with Joe Wilkinson, Greg Davies and Shappi Khorsandi in the past 12 months – but the only full series I’ve edited has been The Persuasionists for Bwark on BBC2 in 2010, a show which I think legally has to be prefixed with the description “ill-fated.” For various reasons, it didn’t hit the spot, despite the talent involved, and the channel buried it mid-series after some bad reviews, but I sincerely hope its failure was nothing to do with my script editing.

Anyway, Secret Dude Society is another six-parter, producer by those kings of Scottish comedy The Comedy Unit, based in Glasgow, where, in January, Pappy’s will perform their first sitcom before a live studio audience. I won’t give anything more away other than what it is in the public domain already. I can, however, publish this exclusive shot of Matthew, Tom and Ben working very hard on a train home from Glasgow in September, at the start of our “journey” (but about halfway through our journey).

The “boys”, as we have taken to calling them, in true showbiz style (they are all about 30), are – naturally – also on tour, while writing five further episodes to make six along with the pilot (a read-through of which clinched the Grail-like series commission, before I came onboard). This is the way comedians like to work, it seems; a state of “up against it” seems to fire them. I’m thoroughly enjoying working with Matthew, Ben and Tom, and the wily Scottish men of the Unit. The funny thing is, as a script writer I seem unable to employ the advice I offer other writers as a script editor. Editor, edit thyself? I don’t think so. Turn out it’s much harder to “mark” your own work.

By the way, I saw Skyfall for the second time on Tuesday night. I really enjoyed it, again, after an interval of only three weeks. That’s the mark of a decent film. I also caught a bit of Never Say Never Again on Sky’s 007 channel, in which Sean Connery appeared, without irony, in denim dungarees with no shirt on underneath. That’s the mark of a shit film.

I’ve seen lots of other films that I haven’t had time to review here, but I have been very busy over the last few weeks and haven’t been blogging nearly enough. And I am going to have to stop blogging right now. I’ve worked out that since the tragic demise of Word magazine, there is a frustrating vacuum in my creative life, as nobody is employing me to write prose any more. I have plenty of dialogue to write, and other people’s dialogue to edit, but outside of my Radio Times duties, I don’t write articles any more. I find I use the blog to keep my prose-writing muscles toned, but no money changes hands, and so I feel kind of guilty for spending any time doing exactly what I am doing now.

That can’t be right, can it?

Nor can this, Medusa-like ball of paranoid ire Melanie Phillips’ refreshingly mad view of Obama’s re-election, linked to here for balance. Don’t worry, it’s not a link to the Daily Mail website so you won’t be adding to their hits.

Writer’s blog: Week 37

Alright. I haven’t got time to write a daily diary. It’s the hard-bitten truth. I put in a week’s worth last month, but only to ostensibly unblock my writer’s block, which worked, as it happens. It’s something to do with exercising your keyboard fingers and jump-starting your brain. It’s more fun to write, than to write for a job. But when you write for a job and it’s going well, it becomes fun, so that’s always there to fire your turbines.

I wondered if I might get a weekly diary going, though. Just as an exercise. It may well be all about writing, but that’s the nature of the game.

Monday was a Bank Holiday. Because I’d spent half of Saturday working, and the other half traveling back to London from Edinburgh, I allowed myself the Monday off, like ordinary bank employees. Also, I drank a certain amount at a family barbecue on Sunday, with some downtime in mind.

I hit the media ground running on Tuesday, with a 10.30 meeting at the offices of a TV channel which I won’t name for fear of jinxing my livelihood. It was a good meeting, or felt like one, and if I could only live off good meetings, I’d be a rich man, but I can’t. I can only hope that I made a good enough impression, and pitched some good enough ideas, for it to lead down the crooked path to work. (I got lost on the way to the building, and then lost again inside the building. I am like Mr Bean. But Mr Bean gets loads of work, so … )

Above is a picture I took, and Tweeted, at work on Wednesday morning. The accompanying caption was something like, “Oh no! They’ve put me in a writing room that contains Quality Streets! How am I supposed to get any writing done?” It was true. “They” had. And I thought it would make a funny picture. “They” are my management company, Avalon, whose offices are far, far away in West London, otherwise I might exploit them for a luxuriously-appointed writing space more often. (Not all of their offices are luxurious. One they put me in didn’t even have a plug socket. Another was out of range of the company’s own in-house wi-fi.) As it was, I had pencilled in two half-days of intensive writing with my friend Simon Day, which could not be accomplished in the quiet of the British Library, so we went legit and got a room.

But he blew me out, on both days, for perfectly valid reasons. So I made use of the room. The room with the chocolates in. (You might argue that since my management company take a percentage of my earnings, then I am already paying for the Quality Street, ultimately. It is therefore in my interest to eat them. Or not eat them, if you look at it another way.)

I haven’t had a rented office of my own since 2008, when the financial crisis dissuaded me from such profligacy. It doesn’t really matter but here is a picture of me in my last-but-one rented office, which was shit, and leaked rain onto my laptop in 2007, because I stupidly left it there over the weekend. I never let a laptop out of my sight any more.

The British Library has, it is well documented, become my default office since then, and I find it not only vitally useful as a library, but inspiring as a workspace. I’m here right now. In the canteen. Look. I think my hair has grown up since 2007.

But on Tuesday and Wednesday I was in the offices of Avalon Ltd., working. Most who responded to my silly Tweet about the Quality Street crisis appreciated that it was not a real crisis. One, however, satisfied the predictability quota by comparing my job to one working down a mine. You know the comparison: it’s the one where my job, which doesn’t involve dangerous physical labour under the ground, comes out looking pre-e-e-etty easy. Even though I am about as self-aware as anybody in an essentially administrative job can be – crippled by self-awareness, like any good woolly liberal – it’s helpful to have the non-dangerous, non-physical aspects of my job pointed out to me.

I ate some of the Quality Streets – the soft ones – felt a bit sick, and then got on with my writing. Then Mrs Thatcher dismantled the industry I work in and I found myself on the scrap heap due to market forces and Chicago School economic doctrine.

I caught up with a really good BBC4 documentary about the Nazi death camp Treblinka last night, and found myself in sick awe, once again, at the evil that must exist somewhere deep inside every man and woman, but which is thankfully kept buried for nearly all of us for nearly all of the time. I wonder if our current Tory government secretly wishes that it, too, could simply erase a large unwanted chunk of the population – not on ethnic, religious, sexual or physical grounds, like Hitler’s willing executioners did, but on social or economic grounds. If David Cameron could send the poor of this country to their deaths, and get away with it in PR terms, I think he might. Maybe I have gone mad. Or maybe the world has.

Talking of being a liberal, if you’ve been following my boring soap opera of a life, which would struggle to find an audience if it were an actual soap opera, you’ll know that an invisible switch has been pulled somewhere deep within the Twittersphere which means that I am constantly being “followed” (not actually followed) by illiterate teenagers who really like a certain tiny pop singer, know how to make this ♥ on Twitter, and seem only to be following me because someone else they follow is following someone who follows someone who follows me, and because being “followed back” is literally their only reason for living. This is not a crisis, or as bad as being a miner either, but it’s something that exercises my mind nonetheless.

I have learned a lot about a certain demographic since this started happening: largely American, sometimes Latino, always young, as in young enough either not to be able to spell, or too buzzing with youthful energy to have time to do anything as bo-o-oring or lame as spell (or too non-English-speaking to be able to spell in English, let’s be fair), and hopelessly devoted to one of three international pop acts – a young man, an older woman, and a group. I have learned about them not through choice but because, overnight now, without fail, at least a dozen of them follow me with their ♥s and their “xoxo”s and their desperate entreaties to “follow me bak”. I block them all, which is boring, and time-wasting, because they are either following me by mistake, or because they follow anybody, or because they aren’t real (you never can tell on Twitter), or because they are using software to automatically follow people in order to accumulate “follows”. It’s a mad, self-serving, insular world, albeit one populated by millions, and I wish no part of it.

Some have asked me why it bothers me so much. Because it’s creepy? Because it’s irritating? And because I do not seek a PG audience for my Wildean witticisms and Parkeresque aphorisms and plugs and recommendations and leftist rhetoric.

Anyway, as well as the tweenies, I also found myself being followed by right-wing fundamentalist Tea Party Christian “patriots” last week. It was like a waking nightmare! At least they were adults, but again, they seemed to be passing me around and recommending me. I could find no prominent US politician called Andrew Collins, but I did, eventually, track the source of the virus to one of their flag-waving number (according to his charming Twitter bio, a family man committed to destroying the “cancer of liberalism”), who had been listing me among other “patriots” to follow. I informed him of his error, politely. And he politely apologised and Tweeted to his fellow Americans not to bother following me, as I was not “the Tea Party AC”, but “some lib from the UK.” I was so proud.

More Twitter fun yesterday, Thursday. While I was in Edinburgh, which is basically London-on-Tweed (don’t correct me geographically; it sounds good) during the various festivals, especially the TV one, I finally reached the point where my defiantly primitive 1G Samsung phone [pictured] stopped being funny. I have never owned a 3G phone. I did have an LG one two years ago with a touch-screen, but I smashed it twice, and resented paying another £40 to get it fixed, so petulantly bought the baby Samsung for £5 in Carphone Warehouse, much to the amusement of the hip young man who helped me choose it. I like to bring entertainment into the lives of others, especially if they have a job as hard as working in a mine. (Actually, maybe he thought I was a Wire-style drug dealer, who was only buying it to make one call before throwing it in the bin. Cool, eh?)

It’s not as if I am against Apple – I love Apple products and am one of their masochistic slaves – but I am trying to watch my finances, and would resent seeing £30 go out of the bank account every month just to have a fancy phone that might get stolen from my hand in the street by a child on a BMX bike for resale. I have found a good deal on a Samsung Galaxy Ace, which looks fine to me. I don’t want to watch films on my phone. I just want one that I can use to check my emails, check Twitter, check a map, and just generally check. I cannot do this on the stupid babyphone, which doesn’t even have a camera, and whose only advantage over smartphones is that it’s very small, and nobody is ever going to nick it, even if I asked them to. I have no experience with a 3G phone, but have seen them in action as nearly everybody I know has one: media friends, non-media friends, family, young and old. My stance has gone beyond noble Luddism (I can’t walk past a Spinning Jenny without kicking it) into the realms of self-abuse.

So, I asked Twitter if there was any meaningful reason with a Samsung Galaxy Ace wouldn’t do the job, and feared a barrage of abuse. None was forthcoming. Most said it did what an iPhone did, but just wasn’t an iPhone. Many gentlemen said their wives had one, and had no complaints. One young man told me he’d bought one for his Mum, and she had no complaints. That clinched it. I think I am going to get one, be like someone’s wife or Mum (respondents’ accidental sexism, not mine), and enter the early part of the 21st century, gingerly. If you think I am throwing £18 p/m (not including cashback) away, you can tell me. I will prevaricate for a few more days, I think. But I feel this was Twitter as a force for good, and not as a force for evil. I got a broad consensus, and that was very useful, as a consumer service.

And here’s today’s Commute Playlist (all new stuff from 2012, randomly sequenced, of course):

ST. SPIRIT Tooth & Nail
PAPER CROWS Changing Colours
BLUR The Puritan
FUNERAL SUITS All Those Friendly People
THE MACHINE ROOM Your Head On The Floor Next Door
ZEBRA & SNAKE Money In Heaven (Helsinki 78-82 Remix)
THE WINTER OLYMPICS I Prefer The Early Stuff
BOXES Sharks
RACE HORSES Cysur a Cyffro (hey, it’s in Welsh)
THE SLOW READERS CLUB Feet On Fire (at which point I arrived at my destination)

The great think about this playlist is that I have whittled down loads of stuff I’ve been sent at 6 Music so that it’s all stuff I have initially liked, and now I’m roadtesting it, to see how it grabs me on second, third or fourth listen. It’s all 2012, but some are older than others. You should see the size of my Luddite’s iPod, by the way.

I’m back on 6 Music for four consecutive Saturdays, starting tomorrow. I am very pleased about this. In the first show, 10am-1pm, we’re going to “love” 1979. Get in touch via @BBC6Music if you want to play.

Stop press: just had my latest insane Tween follower on Twitter. I won’t give his name, although he’s from Australia, so that’s a nice twist, and, according to his illiterate bio, “Flirting is my game Folllow me and ill follow back”. (Imagine having so much youthful energy you don’t have the time to even read your own bio back!) Here’s his most recent Tweet: “aiming for 1.000 followers please everyone HELP ME!” I have not corrected his grammar. Maybe he really does just want 1.000 follower? It won’t be me. Have we uncovered the new, cool, 21st century kids’ version of trainspotting? Just collecting meaningless “follows” from people who have no interest in who you are or what you do? I respect trainspotters, that’s the only difference. HELP HIM!

Writer’s blog: Thursday

Day four

I forgot to publish my commuting soundtrack yesterday. It actually accounts for the commute in and out:

50 CENT In Da Club
WILSON SIMONAL Não Vem Que Não Tem (Nem Vem Que Não) [not 100% sure of the details but it’s from the City Of God Remixed album]
SONIC YOUTH Catholic Block
SPARKS No.1 Song In Heaven
THE VERVE Love Is Noise
YEASAYER Ambling Alp
SPEAR OF DESTINY Never Take Me Alive
POP WILL EAT ITSELF Get The Girl! Kill The Baddies!
PLAN B No Good
YOUNG DISCIPLES Apparently Nothin’
WU-TANG CLAN Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab/Chamber Music)
SONIC YOUTH Against Fascism
TALKING HEADS This Must Be The Place
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES Red Light [lots of Siouxsie yesterday)
TALKING HEADS Born Under Punches

Phew. Made two hot, crowded Tube journeys in inappropriate long trousers a whole lot easier.

Incidentally, I was wearing long trousers on a short trousers day because I had a meeting in the middle of the day yesterday at the Groucho Club. As usual, I am unwilling to reveal which media luminary I was meeting there, as it was the first time we’d met and it may one day evolve into a “project”, which I must not jinx; suffice to say, I very rarely cross the threshold of this or any other private members-only Soho media watering hole, and such, it’s always a tiny thrill.

I have never been a member of any club that charges a large amount of money for me to be a member of it, even if the club would have me as a member. (The gym is the closest I’ve ever come, and I haven’t been a member of one of them for four years.) I’ve been in the Groucho as a guest on a number of occasions down the years, and had some media fun in there, but I once met a powerful media figure there while I was off the booze and the media figure was so disgusted that I wouldn’t take an alcoholic drink I genuinely fear the evening cut off a whole avenue of work for me in the future. It appears to be a social club, but it is in fact a series of meetings, even after hours. I spent a happy evening watching a World Cup game in the upstairs bar with genial Inbetweeners co-creator/writer Iain Morris in 2010. And after a big 6 Music/Radio 2 Christmas bash when such things were allowed, Rowland Rivron got about 20 of us in as his guests and would not let anybody pay for anything. That felt like a definitive Groucho Club experience, with the definitive Groucho Club host.

Anyway, I had two coffees and it was a very promising meeting indeed. You wouldn’t want to go in there in shorts, even on a hot day, although I expect Keith Allen has been in there with his top off during his pomp.

Now, I deleted my mentions of Tom Daley’s Twitter troll from Twitter yesterday, as by even mentioning this damaged individual on his favourite forum risks glorifying his actions further. As you can see, I even smudged out his @Twittername in the grab I made. (Anyone who has cared to follow this obnoxious story will know that he’s @Rileyy_69 – which seems safe to mention within the unsearchable sancity of this blog entry – but I sincerely urge you not to visit his feed.) He seems to have been released by Dorset police after his malicious Tweets to Daley, although I understand a whole litany of previously offensive Tweets, some of them overtly racist, are still to be investigated. But if he’s under caution at all, he really ought not to be broadcasting on Twitter. And yet, he is, and full of himself. He’s obviously proud of being “famous” and “a legend”, and of putting on over 30,000 new followers since he entered Daley’s radar, and he’s in fact back to insulting Daley, albeit not using the diver’s @Twittername this time. So he has learned something.

I know I appear morbidly fascinated by the story, but it’s not about him as an individual – he’s only 17, lives alone in a bedsit, and was said in a Daily Mail report (which contained an interview with his despairing, hand-washing dad) to have a form of ADHD that he is not being medicated for. (The Mail piece also had an erection about the fact that he’s “on benefits”, but that’s irrelevant.) I’m not sure why Twitter haven’t suspended his account – all of his original offending Tweets are still up, and the racist ones before those. They were quick to suspend the account of Guy Adams of the Independent. Maybe if Rileyy-69 had insulted a corporation he’d have been in more trouble.

Anyway, to happier matters. I was so taken with the new Radio Times office – much more agreeably air-conditioned than the shed in White City, and laid out with geometric efficiency unlike the old jumble, such that it might be mistaken for the Washington Post – that I chose to come back here today, rather than trek to the Library. I still have vouchers for the coffee bar, too, which clinched it.

Maybe the stars are aligned for me today: just saw a Tweet from the British Library saying that it’s closed due to a fire alarm. Thank you, random swirl of the universe.

Oh no! Came home early (in order to make a soup with the chicken stock I made yesterday, of which more presently) and found the new New Yorker on the mat. Disaster! I’m still two whole issues in the red. These two, if you’re following the saga:

The new one looks terrific, with a piece on the Olympics so far (Medals and Marketing by Ben McGrath) which promises to be wise and analytical; a profile of Imran Khan (Sporting Chance by Steve Coll, a man you can trust on geopolitics); and a piece by lively TV critic Emily Nussbaum (who seems to have replaced lively TV critic Nancy Franklin) on Big Brother‘s 14th “season” on CBS. I’ve already read David Denby on The Bourne Legacy, as I always read The Current Cinema first, because it’s only ever two digestible pages long. It’s my treat. How I’m going to resist tearing into the meat and potatoes of this new issue before I’ve finished the previous two, I do not know. “First World Problems”, eh?

I hate the Twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. It’s intended as a knowing admission of bourgeois hand-wringing for those with missionary guilt and is applied to the end of a mundane gripe. Fine. If you must. What it isn’t for is to apply to someone else’s Tweet, as a touché. Someone, now blocked, did this to me when I Tweeted about not being able to decide which biscotti recipe to try off the internet. I’ll be the judge of whether this is a #FirstWorldProblem, thanks. And I judge that it is not, as I do not recognise the First, Second and Third World rubric. It’s an outdated Cold War precept, and for me, has the nasty tang of colonialism, to designate an implicitly noble and authentic part of the world as “third”, where problems are more, like, real, man. We all understand the disparity between rich and poor nations, fully industrialised and rural economies and all points in between, but it’s not as simple as a league table. To even point out a #FirstWorldProblem is a #FirstWorldLuxury, so stop it. Good, glad to get that off my chest.

The soup, since you ask, is another jazz recipe which I made up as I went along: the gorgeous chicken stock (made from a carcass and some onion and celery) was added to a pan in which some spring onion, more celery, courgette and previously blanched green cabbage had already been softened in oil. I ground up some cumin and coriander seeds, too, and threw in one and a half chillies, as is my wont. It smells bloody lovely, simmering away there on a hot evening, while a Perroni speed-chills in the freezer. For me, this soup is all about stretching a chicken that has already provided two meals into at least two more, and uses up some of the less glamorous vegetables before they pass their peak. Clearly, it would work with vegetable stock.

Someone suggested on Twitter than I start a food blog. Would that I had the time. I don’t even have time to do this. I started it to help with my writer’s block and I’ll see it through to tomorrow, Friday, but it was intended to help me write this – pardon my language – fucking script, and not replace it! (The fucking script is moving in the right direction, which is: three steps forward and two steps back. That’s winning.)

I predict an evening of eating, drinking and watching either another foreign film on DVD in the kitchen, or some token Olympic action when the famous person Usain Bolt runs in something important.

Writer’s blog: Tuesday

Day Two

Seemed to hit a stampede of Olympics people on my Tube journey up to King’s Cross this morning, but I think there may be some kind of road race on in Central London, so it’s to be expected. Frankly, if you commute in London, inhuman mobile squalor is the norm.

Soundtrack to my commute:
THE ORB Toxygene (7″ Edit)
KASABIAN Where Did All The Love Go?
TOM WAITS Swordfishtrombones
BATTLE Tendency
ADELE Hometown Glory
FOALS Spanish Sahara
KAREN O & THE KIDS Igloo [partial, as I arrived at the British Library here]

Because the Library’s opening hours have changed during the Games, I accidentally arrived half an hour early this morning and was forced – forced, I tell you – to have a coffee. I knew the Costa in St Pancras Station would be rammed, and the Starbucks (my least favourite of the chains) over the road from the Library has recently been cleverly redesigned so that there’s almost nowhere to sit (good work, everyone), and in any case, the queue was literally out of the door. My only hope without a long walk was the Costa that’s nestled beneath the Premier Inn. I used to frequent this one before I had a Costa loyalty swipe-card and didn’t care that, as a franchise, it didn’t have the technology to top up or take points as payment. So I stopped using it. Funnily enough, they now accept the cards, so I’m 10p closer to a free coffee which I will probably never achieve as Costa don’t have wi-fi, and for a professional writer without an office, this is no good to me. Bet you’re glad I decided to write a daily diary this week.

Here’s news: I watched the whole of the 400m final on the Olympics last night, including the preamble/build-up, and a bit of the debrief, during which John Inverdale almost generalised about black people being better at running, and Michael Johnson took serious-faced issue. (He’s always got a serious face, though, hasn’t he?) It’s a minefield. Ironically, the runners in the 400m final included two very white Belgians, so it was not the time or the place for that dangerous argument. In a Season One episode of Friday Night Lights, the assistant coach made a flippant remark to the press about his black players being natural running backs, implying that they are really good at running fast, like “junkyard dogs”, I think he said. The black players walked out. He was almost sacked. As I say, minefield. Especially when Team GB is so thrillingly mixed up, ethnically: whatever anthropological/geographical point you wish to make, the modern world makes it futile to generalise. It’s like saying men are better at reading maps. It simply can’t be true.

A bit of scandal erupted just before I went to bed (well, it probably erupted way earlier than that, but I was nowhere near a computer): Morrissey had posted an on-tour blog entry on the True To You website, the offending passage of which can – and should – be read in full here. (When I say “should”, you could just ignore him. He is, after all, an attention-seeker with an innate ability to push the right buttons in order be noticed; I am merely adding to his desired chatter by furthering the story’s lifespan.) This time, he’s reacted negatively to British Olympic fervour, wilfully misinterpreted “patriotism” as “jingoism”, and likened the flag-waving quasi-nationalist mood to that of “the spirit of 1939 Germany”. He does not use the N-word, by the way, although it is implied by the year.

I Tweeted before bed that people should read the statement in full before they start calling Morrissey names, rather than pick up soundbites through inevitably skewed news media coverage. Some aimed flack at me as if I were defending him. I wasn’t. I agree with some of what he says, disagree with the way he said some of it, but defend to the death his right to be a dick in public. Events in 1939 in Germany did happen, and we should not be afraid of mentioning that, or the name of the party that Hitler led. But it’s always risky business to compare anything less ethno-genocidal to that infamous period. I doubt that the current “jingoism” going on at Olympic Park and in living rooms up and down the land will result in David Cameron annexing any countries or rounding up any ethnic groups (as much as, in his dreams, he might like to – well, round up the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed, at the very least). Mind you, nor does Moz think that.

I caught up with the reaction this morning, and much of it was antagonistic. It seemed important to some detractors to object not only to what he said, but to how good or not he is at singing. (Typical of this: “Morrissey remains a pillock who hasn’t been musically relevant since The Smiths split.”) It’s a pity he feels the need to dress up what might be taken as valid points – such as the one about the way a population is controlled by promotion of brands, including the Royals and the Beckhams – with bald shock tactics, but hey, who’d notice otherwise? (Having, in the past, written things that have enraged, I know how bruising it is to mess with a consensus, but I operate on a very modest scale to Morrissey and his thousands of devoted disciples, and I seriously do not set out to shock.)

Incidentally, I don’t think the news media is that bothered about the story. It was on Sky News, and their website (note: helpful use of word “Nazi” – in quote marks – in the headline), but it’s nowhere to be seen on the BBC News site, nor in my morning paper. Maybe it will stay that way.

Had a massive rethink about the script that I wrote yesterday, and I’m about to tear it up and start again. Wish me luck.

So, many hours have passed since the last paragraph. I really did it. I really did tear up much of what I wrote yesterday. This is partly because I’d written 15 pages and hadn’t got anywhere near the halfway point in the story. So major surgery was required. I hacked it back to the first scene, and went off in a different direction. It really helped to clear my block. Again, I have no idea if it’s “any good”, what I’ve been writing since about 11am (four hours with a couple of screen-breaks to read the new Sight & Sound), but I’m certainly getting on top of the story beats this time. I realise all of this would be a lot more interesting if you knew what I was writing, and for which channel, but you know the rules. I think I wrote a good joke about a font, and it’s not every day you can do that.

Packed lunch: same chilli as yesterday. No complaints from me. I brought two of the homemade almond/dried fruit/espresso biscotti I made on Sunday, which have come out rather well, but they are exclusively for dunking in a coffee, and I am denying money to the Peyton & Byrne cafe in the Library at this particular junction by drinking their free tapwater. The biscotti can, in this instance, come home with me and be dunked in a non-machine-made coffee in front of the telly. I made 28 individual biscuits, and intend to eat no more than two a day. I’m disciplined like that. I would have made a good monk.

Talking of which, I realised today that I am too much of an idealist. I’m afraid I found myself genuinely shocked by reports that the Church of England is selling its £1.9m stake in News Corp, as a protest against its lack of contrition over phone-hacking. The Church? Shares? In News Corp? A helpful man on Twitter called Paul Harrison furnished me with the info that the Church of England costs £1bn per annum to run, of which three quarters is covered by fundraising and donations, with the shortfall plugged by the stock market. This still shocks me a bit. I must have really thought that churches were funded via the collection plate. What a quaint, unspoiled, John Major-like picture of England I must cling to!

That’s a little picture to remind me of Edinburgh. I always miss the Edinburgh Fringe when I’m not there, and I’m not there, while a large percentage of the people I follow on Twitter are. I’m happy to say that I shall be working at the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival – or MGEITF as all the cool delegates are calling it – which happens between August 23-25. This coincides with the Fringe, so even though I will be hosting screenings and Q&As during the day (with the stellar likes of Charlie Brooker, Steven Moffat, Victoria Wood, Frank Spotnitz, Simon Bird and Robert Popper), I should be able to see at least a handful of shows in the evenings. I expect these will be shows by my friends, as I won’t have time to experiment. I am sad that I’ll be working when Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Podcast show is on, as I’m sure he’d be enthusiastic about having me on as a special guest!

Oh, I was quoted on Channel 4 News about the Morrissey sedition. Not the programme, the website, but it was an honour anyway, as they are the best news programme. You can read the report here. (Thanks to Anna for asking and catching me at a good moment.) Incidentally, I was asked to be on the Today programme this morning, but I had to say no, as my head’s mashed enough as it is with this script without having to get up early and think hard enough about war films to sound erudite and informed on a programme as important as Today. (I turn down a lot of chances to be on things, you know. I’m not quite the egomaniac you think I am.)

I packed up at 5.30 at the Library, happy with my progress, in that I’m at about the same point in word-length as I was yesterday, but much closer to where I need to be with the story.

My Olympics displacement this evening came courtesy of a very early screening for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a lowish-budget American directorial debut set on the coast of Louisiana that’s best described as a lyrical subsistence fable from the edge of urban living, starring two non-actors, one of them six, the other a baker from New Orleans. My interest was piqued by David Denby’s rave review in the New Yorker. You can read it in full, if you wish, but personally I’m going to hold back. Why would you want to read a review of a film that’s not out until October? I will say this though: it’s utterly unique, magical, surprising and captivating. I’m saying this now, too: it’s surely an Oscar contender for 2013.

More golds won while I was looking the other way (although Twitter is like a constant commentary, so I don’t feel too out of the loop). If we’re not careful, we’re going to get used to all this winning. We may have to buy back some of our playing fields in order to let future Team GB Olympians play sport on them. You know, the ones both Tory and Labour governments sold off. Bloody disgrace.

Writer’s blog: Monday

This seems like the only way to get me scriptwriting: prosewriting. Or diarywriting. The last time I wrote a daily blog, or diary, was for five consecutive weekdays in March 2011. It was a social experiment, really, as I have neither the time nor the inclination to write at a prescribed frequency – in any case, that would take the fun out of it. I blog when time and inclination align, which is not every day, and is sometimes only once a week.

I’m giving it another crack this week because I’m hoping it will get my scriptwriting juices flowing. I can’t reveal anything about either script I am currently writing, as I fear the jinx, and anyway, it would be unprofessional.

Day One

Last week I believed the hype and stayed away from London, even though I live in London. This was Boris Johnson’s doing. He personally ordered all Londoners to avoid London during the Olympics, and at the nadir of this Soviet-style propaganda campaign, his comedic voice could actually be heard coming out of the public address system of stations on the London underground and overground networks, warning us not to travel during the Games.

So, for the whole of last week, I worked from coffee establishments near to my home. And went home for my lunch. It was OK. I got a lot of writing done for future editions of Radio Times, which was more urgent than either script, so that was fine. The Guardian decided to wait until Wednesday before informing me that they were giving me two weeks off Telly Addict, by which time I’d already spent a couple of hours selecting clips for what would have been Friday’s. Luckily, I hadn’t started the script. If I’m honest, it’s a relief to get two weeks off, having done Telly Addict every week of my life, except one, since April 2011. (Usual self-employed turbine: don’t work, don’t get paid, don’t eat.)

I kept reading in the papers that Central London had in fact become a “ghost town”. So, having failed to write anything meaningful on Thursday or Friday, I decided to get back to normal, brave public transport, and do a week at my “office”, the British Library, which is where I am now. (The Library Tweeted last week that it was awfully quiet here. And it is quieter than usual. But not empty. And anyway, it’s a library, it’s supposed to be quiet, even when it’s full to the seams.) I’m glad to be here.

For the record, these are the songs that soundtracked my commute in.

LL COOL J Pink Cookies
BINARY The Prisoner
THE BEASTIE BOYS Rhyme The Rhyme Well
BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB Shuffle (partial: arrived at Library mid-song)

Not sure how interesting that is, but Samuel Pepys only wrote about going out for dinner and then going to bed and he’s the most famous diarist in the world.

Anyway, boring day ahead – for you – as I will be sat here, in reading room Humanities 1, with a break for my packed lunch, all day. Will check back in later. And you’re not allowed to take photos in the reading rooms of the British Library so I used one of me sitting in another building that’s strip-lit.

Progress report: some words written. In an attempt to psychologically kickstart my script, I decided to scrap what I’d written so far, even though I liked it, and even though I’ve been honing the first scene, because I suspect that “honing” has been a displacement activity, which was preventing me from “writing the next scene” (apologies for the writer’s jargon). Anyway, since starting again, I have reached scene three. This can’t be interesting, but there it is. I’m way too close to it to know whether the new scenes are funny enough in terms of comedy or efficient enough in terms of story yet. That’s why I’m having a break to eat my packed lunch in the cafeteria, where, unlike the vast reading rooms, there is noise, even during the so-called “quiet” fortnight of the Olympics. (One thing I love about the British Library, which I also love about London generally, is that you are always in the middle of a maelstrom of different accents and languages. I would miss this if I lived in the middle of nowhere, as I am sometimes romantically drawn to dreaming about.)

I have not been able to access Twitter for most of the day, which has been a blessing. And I have not checked any news feeds, so I have no idea if medals have been won or not. I learned before Twitter went down that Louise Mensch has resigned in order to spend more time with her family in New York and that the Americans have put a robot on Mars. (Maybe Twitter didn’t go down*; the British Library wi-fi has been playing me up all day, too, which has at least provided a bit of friction for my creative mind.)

*Twitter clearly didn’t go down. God bless the BL wi-fi. It helped immeasurably.

Packed lunch: homemade chilli, naturally. Pretty good, if I may say so. The addition of garam masala to my trademark coriander seeds/cumin/mustard seeds/fennel seeds mix made it interesting. I shall be eating this again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, so won’t mention it again.

I am avoiding the rush hour on a train. Loads of extra Olympics-looking people, lots of families, which is nice, and people genuinely caped in Union flags, which is astonishing, but not enough of them to prevent me from going about my business. (Enough to prevent me from walking up escalators by standing on the left, but it is ever thus in a city full of visitors.)

I have decided to avoid Olympics coverage for the early part of the evening by going to see a new Hong Kong film called A Simple Life at the cinema. I think the Olympic flame will stay lit without me fanning it. For the record, I was in the next room when Saturday’s historic Team GB victories were achieved, so I heard it, as it happened, and was very pleased for everybody involved and I appreciate what it means for sport and for the national mood, but I am not hooked by the Olympics. I actually find it all a bit overwhelming; so many events, so many heats, so many teams, so many interviews with puffed-out athletes after winning or not winning, so much cheering.

I saw the start of the marathon yesterday morning, and heard a commentator say that perhaps the crowds who’d so valiantly and noisily lined the rain-lashed streets of Central London should hold back on the cheering a bit, as they still had another two and a half hours to go. I Iiked the patrician practicality of his advice, but I suspect they did not heed it. These games started with cheering, and they will end with cheering, and inbetween there will have been cheering. It is impossible to be cynical about it. The sport and the people have roundly beaten the sponsors and the politicians, and that’s a result I can get behind. From the next room.

A Simple Life was a lovely film; moving and very sad. Ready-garlanded with awards – particularly in China and Hong Kong, but also honoured at Venice – I won’t go into too much detail about its plot. Based on the experiences of one of its producers, and directed by Ann Hui (whose past work I do not know), it’s basically about a movie producer (Andy Lau) whose family servant (Deanie Ip) needs looking after in her autumn years, which he selflessly sets out to do. Perhaps too long at two hours, it was nonetheless gentle and occasionally funny amid the sadness, and showed a slice of modern Hong Kong life. And, like so many films from China and Hong Kong, it was full of food and eating.

Archive fun: Bilko

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

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

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

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

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

BILKO by Andrew Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron’s talkin’

I heart Aaron Sorkin. I know he’s had his ups and downs. And some feel he’s consistently failed to beat The West Wing in the years since he left the show that sealed his legend. Certainly, his most celebrated works post-West Wing have been movies: his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network, and his Oscar-nominated decisive final draft of Moneyball. But those who felt that TV had lost him to Hollywood – or lost him back to Hollywood, as that’s where he learned his licks after a foundation in theatre – were wrong, and HBO’s The Newsroom was breathlessly anticipated, not least in my house. Many felt he had something to prove. I didn’t. But they did.

I say: if Sorkin had just written The West Wing – or to be specific, the first four seasons, which is 88 episodes, by the way – he’d have a seat for life at the top table of all great screenwriters for either of the two main types of screen. Some consider its follow-up Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip to have been a “down” for Sorkin, as it was cancelled by NBC and lost a lot of viewers, but for me it had merit. An heroic failure, maybe. Even more critics consider The Newsroom to be a “down”; it’s certainly had a lot of flack in the US.

As a Sorkin groupie, I tried harder than most American critics to love The Newsroom, which was easy enough for the pilot episode, but more difficult for Episode 2. But Episode 3, The 112th Congress, rewarded me for my loyalty and my patience (I’m calling it “the Network episode”), and Episode 4, I’ll Try To Fix You (and yes, it is named after the line in the Coldplay song), which I watched on Thursday night after the Olympics had finished (the Olympics never finishes), took the show up to where I think it belongs. I’m saying nothing about the plot, as many of you won’t be able to watch this legally until it comes out on DVD, or may have taped it, but suffice to say, it built up to an amazing climax, built around Fix You. It danced close to schmaltz, but trod on no toe, and my heart was in my mouth.

What I’m saying is: if you gave The Newsroom a look and bailed before Episode 3, bail back in. Loving Aaron Sorkin has never been a walk in the park. You have to strap in.

Because The Newsroom‘s initial reviews were lukewarm at best, lukecold at worst, HBO has since been accused of “creativity” with the quotes it plastered across print ads for the show. For instance, the critic from Salon, Willa Paskin, was quoted as having hailed The Newsroom as “captivating, riveting, rousing,” when in fact she actually said, “The results are a captivating, riveting, rousing, condescending, smug, infuriating mixture, a potent potion that advertises itself as intelligence-enhancing but is actually just crazy-making.” Naughty.

I am a writer. I started out writing prose journalism. (Actually, I wrote, or co-wrote, two amateur stage plays before I got my first job in journalism.) For the last 15 years I have written scripts. I’m currently writing two scripts, both pilots, in development. The first of the two is not going at all well. The second is going better, but negativity from the first infected the second this week, and I found myself blocked. There are many ways to clear writer’s block. One of them is to watch other scripts that have been made, in order to inspire you. I watched The Newsroom Episode 4 on Thursday, after a very frustrating day’s writing (or not writing), and it did inspire me. Oddly, it also reminded me that I’m never going to write anything as good as The Newsroom Episode 4. (It should be stated that Sorkin wrote the first episodes of the first season by himself. There are other writers on the team – most of whom were let go at the end of the first season in a night of the long typewriter ribbons – but Sorkin still writes alone.)

The scripts I am writing are comedies. They are not The Newsroom. But The Newsroom is comedic. Aaron Sorkin is a writer of drama – talky drama – that finds natural humour in the cadences of speech. Much of his dialogue is banal. And yet, once it’s stacked up into conversations that, for me, recall the best of screwball comedy (a form at which the Americans reign supreme), it flies. It is airborne. There is much to learn from Sorkin, as a comedy writer. In Sorkin, a punchline doesn’t have to be a joke, it just has to be the last line in an exchange.

I also watch Veep, currently, as inspiration for writing my own comedy. Although it also comes from the HBO stable of overt, cocky smartitude, it is British-written – in fact, often by people I know – and it, too, gives confidence, despite being skyscrapingly brilliant. It’s also screwball, without the portent of The Newsroom’s one-hour running time, or the portent of The Newsroom’s brief. It’s good to aspire, I find, no matter how ludicrous that aspiration.

Sorkin does not just use mundane office conversation as a Trojan horse for melodramatic, political or narrative impact. Sometimes, he just writes a Big Speech, and gives it to one of his principal characters. In The West Wing, most of the White House staffers spoke in speeches. Not everybody does in The Newsroom. But Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, once Dumb and Dumber, now Clever and Cleverer) does, all the time. He began the season with a Big Speech. I’d like to reprint it, in full. This kind of TV writing should either inspire you to greatness or retirement. (I’m currently wavering between those two impostors, and treating them just the same.)

McAvoy is on a panel at a university between a left winger and a right winger. He is unengaged by the debate. A student steps up to the mic during the Q&A and asks what makes America the world’s greatest country. The panel moderator keeps needling him for a proper answer to the question, which he is avoiding. Will states, “It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer.” Pushed further, he dismisses the liberal (“Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!”); then he dismisses the conservative: “And with a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America’s so starspangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.” And then hell is unleashed. Ready?

And you – sorority girl – yeah – just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!!!

We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

Actually, the second movement is less important than the first, but I reprint both because I might wish to come back and read that again.

Aaron Sorkin is not everybody’s cup of tea. The Newsroom is clearly not everybody’s cup of tea. Some people don’t like tea. Some people have a far lower threshold for liberal American speechmaking than I. Some people may not like the patter of His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story or Mr Smith Goes To Washington – written, respectively, by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; Donald Ogden Stewart, Waldo Salt and Philip Barry; and Sidney Buchman – while I lap it up, like tea. Some people might prefer their drama to have action in it, rather than conversation. But conversation is action in Aaron Sorkin.

Did I mention that I heart him?

Gates open

People often ask me what it takes to write for TV. I’ll tell you: patience. Actually, patience and perseverance. It was in December 2009 that I was first approached by the exec producer of what would eventually become Gates, a sitcom put into development by Sky. (The series was actually commissioned, if I remember rightly, in April 2011.) Although the kernel of an idea was in place at that stage – a comedy about the comings and goings at the school gates, with particular emphasis on the parents, rather than the kids – the nuts and bolts were yet to be assembled. The producer, Laurence, gathered half a dozen writers from various quarters of the TV firmament and sat them around his kitchen table in February 2010. It’s OK to name us all now, as the show is finally ready to air, next month, on Sky Living – me, Abi Wilson (Jam & Jerusalem), Richard Preddy (Green Wing), Dan Sefton (Holby City) and stand-up Ava Vidal, with Jennifer Saunders at all of the development meetings and acting as script editor on the pilot. Perhaps you’d like to see the very first one-minute trailer? If so, it’s here.

At those early kitchen-table meetings, we grew the entire cast of characters from scratch and created a number of storylines for them. These were then honed into episodes. With the first script written, using a complicated system of farming out various scenes/characters to various writers having all pitched in on the structure in group sessions, we cast for a read-through and the first episode was performed to the bigwigs from Sky. Although very few of the actors survived from that first temporary casting, we were able to forge on with a full series of six once we had the green light, and the final cast were assembled in time for a summer shoot, on location in North London.

Among those cast were Tom Ellis, Joanna Page, Sue Johnston, Will Andrews (seen, incidentally, on Mid Morning Matters on Sky last week on an exercise bike), Nick Mohammed, Catherine Shepherd (seen only the other night on the final Twenty Twelve), Tony Gardner, Ella Kenyon and Adam Deacon. Casting is an inexact science, buffeted by availability and timing, but the cards did seem to fall very well for Gates. I would say that. But there you go.

The cast and crew attended a screening of the first couple of episodes at the end of last year, and then the waiting game began. We learned, to our initial chagrin, that Gates was being held back until the autumn and this felt like an eternity away at the time. But the wait is over. Sky Living is a more “female-friendly” version of Sky One, if I may roll out the virtual flipchart for a moment. As such, I can see why Gates has been chosen to premiere there, as it has a strong female voice, with a female producer (Izzy), female writers and a female script editor for the first episode. (It was commissioned by a female, too!) I’m happy to have played a male part in it. It was like a family. No, really. A family under siege, obviously.

I’m really looking forward to Gates entering the public domain. We all put a lot of work into it, and to have been involved at the ground floor gives an enormous sense of satisfaction. Equally, it’s good for the ego to have worked in a team. No single episode belongs to a single writer – we all worked on all of them, to varying degrees. A lot of what I did was essentially editing, but that’s fine by me. It couldn’t be more different from working solo on Mr Blue Sky. It’s far easier to skulk individually away from a collaborative effort if people don’t like it, or it fails. I don’t anticipate this happening with Gates. As soon as I have the exact TX date, I’ll Tweet the arse out of it.

This is the blog entry I wrote during the shoot last summer, when we all believed that Gates would air in the New Year. There are some nice, esoteric location pics, and a bit more detail about the production, should you be on a course, or something. (I didn’t realised I’d used the same punning title.)

This just in: Episode 1 airs at 8.30 on Tuesday August 14.

2011: the year of our lord

Right, this promises to be solipsistic. I’m gearing up to compiling and publishing my lists of the year. I have already calculated my films of 2011 for the Radio Times website and you can read it here, although I may tweak it before re-publishing in this parish. (Also, I was duty bound to explain what all of my choices were, as it’s Radio Times, whereas here I will assume foreknowledge in a cavalier manner.) It might be time to assess my working year, however, which can’t be chopped up into a list. I fully realise the year is not strictly over yet, but having been involved in the production of the Christmas double issue of Radio Times, we’re working on the first issue of 2012 already, so it is all over in our office.

For the past few weeks I have been marvelling at the writing in Rev on BBC2, which is now most of the way through its second series. I’ve already made clear my adoration of Fresh Meat, created by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, which returns for its second series next year, but I sort of expected it to be good, due to their pedigree. (I’ll be honest, I’ve always had trouble connecting with Peep Show, their key work, but I admire it and appreciate it, and enjoy the performances – I just find the P.O.V. device distancing, that’s all. But everybody involved with The Thick Of It and In The Loop must be feared for their talent, and what’s more, I’ve seen Bain and Armstrong interviewed and they talk a good fight too. And they worked on the mighty Four Lions.) I have never met them, but I love them.

But James Wood, who co-created Rev with Tom Hollander, and has written every episode so far apart from two, has less overt pedigree. I remember seeing one episode of Freezing, but I never saw Down To Earth, on which he was one of many writers, and this means, for me, he comes out of nowhere. With Rev. I mean, really! I am so enchanted by it. Clearly, the cast are out of this world, from Hollander, who always strikes me a very humble performer, which suits a vicar, and the already-anointed Olivia Colman, through Miles Jupp and Simon McBurney, to the great Steve Evets, but a great cast do not a great sitcom make. It’s also directed by Peter Cattaneo, who made The Full Monty and Lucky Break so he knows what he’s doing, but again, you can’t brilliantly direct an average script. With comedy, it really is all in the writing. And Wood writes like a dream. It’s funny, of course, and the plots sit together, as they should, but it strikes me that this is a writer who enjoys the art of conversation. He must be a good listener. Having set up the congregation of characters in series one, in two, he seems to have earned the right to just sit back and let them live.

I write. Clearly I’m going to focus on the writing when I’m enjoying fiction on television, or at the cinema, in the same way that, as a drummer, I hear the drumming on a record I like. It’s instinctive. I know when I like the sound of a guitar, but I wouldn’t even be able to attempt to reproduce it, so I take it at face value. But I’m interested in the drumming on a technical level. Because I can type words in order, I feel I have an understanding of how James Wood might have written an episode of Rev. We might even use the same software. In this, we are in the same business. And yet, I’m pretty sure I’m not in the same league.

I’ve spent another year in which writing and broadcasting have wrestled for my very soul. There have been weeks, especially in the summer, where I’ve done more talking than writing; in other words, when someone has been ill or pregnant or on holiday from 6 Music. I was asked on Friday morning, by text, if I could fill in for Steve Lamacq that afternoon. I could not, and had to say no. It’s rare that I say no. I am like the emergency plumber of 6 Music. This is fine. It keeps things varied and unpredictable. I’m not going to get into a mind-numbing routine there, am I? Even my shows on Saturday morning, which began with Richard Herring in January, then stopped, and then restarted with Josie Long in December, before they stop again in two weeks’ time, have been built on balsa wood foundations. I have learned not to get too comfortable.

My biggest professional thrill of 2011 was radio-related, but did not involve me talking in between records. It was Mr Blue Sky on Radio 4, commissioned in July last year, made in March this year, and broadcast in May. After years of collaborating, usually with comedians, it was a joy to be able to put my name to something that I could call my own. Not since EastEnders have I had sole writing credit on anything. That’s a long time in showbiz. In the interim, I had it on every episode of Grass under Simon Day’s, and on 13 episodes of Not Going Out over four series under Lee Mack’s, and I realise I’m lucky to have had both. (I wrote one episode of Mumbai Calling, but I seem to recall it had a lot of other writers’ names on it, too.)

We assembled an impeccable cast for Mr Blue Sky, but at the end of the day, once again, it would live or die on the writing. That we had some nice reviews, supportive Tweets and were commissioned for a second series is all the affirmation I need that I didn’t do a bad job. It’s slow going when you’re trying to get something commissioned by television; radio is a much quicker process, and you get paid much, much less, but that doesn’t lessen the gratitude you feel, I can promise you. I’m hoping Radio 4 will repeat the first series before airing the second in 2012, as they only left episodes up for seven days on iPlayer, which was pretty mean, as it made it impossible to pick up if you missed the beginning.

I am currently writing series two – six episodes this time – and it’s a joy. No easier, but a very lucky thing to be allowed to do: take the characters established in series one and run with them. The prospect of being back in that studio with Mark Benton, Rebecca Front, Justin Edwards, Michael Legge, Joe Tracini and the rest of the gang is a mouth-watering one for the new year. (I’ve enjoyed seeing Javone Prince in the second series of PhoneShop, although he will forever be, to me, Kill-R in Mr Blue Sky.)

The BBC has long been my major employer, ever since my first tentative steps into broadcasting and writing on Radio 5 in the early 90s. But this year, the landscape changed. I spent a large part of 2011 writing Gates, a group-written, group-created sitcom for Sky 1, which airs early in the new year. Not a great year for Rupert Murdoch, but if you write and produce comedy you’d be mad not to look to Sky, as they are investing a lot of money in brand new, original, British-made programming. This won’t help you when Gates is on if you either refuse to, or can’t afford to, subscribe to Sky. But this as-yet unseen programme, set around the school gates of a junior school and starring the likes of Joanna Page, Sue Johnston, Tom Ellis and Tony Gardner, has taken up a fair chunk of my year.

It was interesting to be involved in group writing, although once the core four of us had spent many intensive days sat round the producer’s kitchen table, bashing out characters and storylines, we actually wrote alone, and I was asked to script-edit scripts right up to the wire. It involved a lot of work, and a lot of meetings, both at the production company’s offices in Shepherd’s Bush, and at Sky’s eerie campus in Isleworth, and, having just seen a couple of finished episodes, I think it will be worth it.

I can’t shed any more light on it at this stage, but I’ve also been in development with a comedy at another broadcaster, and have been commissioned to write the first script. This needs doing before Christmas, which is why I’ve been blogging less of late. I am under the cosh, with two commissions colliding, and although this is stressful, and not how one man’s workload would be sensibly planned out, I’m hardly going to complain.

My working life, as I’ve stated before, is essentially a series of meetings. The holy grail is a commission, whether it’s a pilot script, or a broadcast script, but there’s a sort of silver grail along the way, which is development money. I was paid by BBC Comedy to develop Mr Blue Sky for TV, and in the end they passed on it. So we took it to radio. I am currently being paid by another broadcaster to develop the other project which I can’t talk about. (All will be revealed if it comes off – this time last year, Gates was a project I couldn’t talk about.)

I get such a kick from actually sitting down and starting a page of script, as terrifying as that can be, and the really big news of 2011 was me actaully forking out and buying the software Final Draft. I used to have it when I wrote for EastEnders, as it is pretty much the industry standard format and they gave a copy to all their writers. However, I lost it when my laptop drowned in 2007 and was no longer an EastEnders writer by then. I have managed to survive writing a BBC1 sitcom, an episode of an ITV sitcom, a Sky 1 sitcom and script-editing a one-off comedy short for Sky (Shappi Khorsandi’s episode of this Christmas’s Little Crackers series, on over the festive period) using Word. I promised myself that if the secret sitcom went to script, I would stop fannying around like an amateur and pay the £140. This, I have now done. I feel like a grown-up again.

So, let’s hope, as we always do, that 2012 will be filled with scriptwriting. I will continue to aspire to be as good as Bain, Armstrong and Wood in comedy terms, but I continue to hold up serious drama as the biggest prize in sport. I started out writing drama, after, and EastEnders is the notch on my CV that got me my first gigs in comedy scriptwriting. The best comedy writing is, after all, drama with jokes. That’s certainly true of Rev, which is where we came in.

So, 2011 may well be the year in which I discovered my services would not be required on series five of Not Going Out, which airs in the new year, but that body blow was countered by better news with Gates and Mr Blue Sky – and the other thing. I shall be watching the new series for the first time as a viewer. It will be interesting. I remain bitter about it, but I promise not to let that cloud my judgment. There is enough bad feeling in the world, without adding to it.

I’d be interested to hear from you which writers you admire, in comedy or drama. In many ways, the best writing often goes unnoticed. Sometimes, clever writing can jar. (Not everybody liked Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, which was in places quite obviously “written”, but I thought it was just about the best thing on TV. My Top 10 TV Shows is coming soon, though. Just have to do a bit of work first.) Let me know.