My hardest writing job

I do want to tell you about the single hardest thing I’ve done, and as soon as I type that to you I think of a few other things that would be a contender. But really I want to talk with you about how astonishing it is that something which was a stone in my stomach six days out of seven every week for 18 months could be so completely forgotten.

I mean, it was writing and it was in Radio Times every week back in 2005/6 when that magazine’s sales figures were just over one million and the estimated readership was three million. So it’s not impossible that you saw it. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. If you did read every week of it, though, you’d still have completely forgotten about it because it was the smallest slice of nothing.

No exaggeration. It was perhaps 100 words in each issue and lived on a corner of the letters page.

What astonishes me is that I’d forgotten it entirely too.

Yesterday, I was on the Dot Davies show on BBC Radio Wales as an author and TV historian. It was in response to the news that some 7,000 people in the UK have a black and white TV licence. A bell rang. I think now that it was a Cloister Bell warning of dire trouble because for the first time in 12 years I remembered Radio Times and the TV Stats column. I remembered covering this topic in there.

Only a week ago, I was talking with someone about RT and told them that I’d written the On This Day in TV History piece for it. I can’t remember how long I did that but it was at least four years and every issue had a little nugget by me on each of the day’s listings page. I remember that, I’m proud of that, but I’d clearly suppressed TV Stats.

But I had a couple of hours between BBC Radio Wales asking me and my being on the Dot Davies show. So I searched. I’ve got RT on PDF up to the late 2000s so it didn’t take as long to search as this will sound, but I did go through 60 editions before I found it.

I can’t show you any. Each week was this 100 words or so but it would always be accompanied by a cartoon illustration and I didn’t do those. I said that six days out of seven I was in pain about this: you’ve guessed that the seventh day was when I delivered the copy and the strain was off until tomorrow. But there was also the pleasure of seeing what cartoonist Robert Thompson had come up with.

I’d get that pleasure twice, actually. I’d usually be shown his roughly-sketched proposal and then every week I’d open the issue to see the final illustration. I can’t imagine how hard a job it was to illustrate this stuff in an amusing cartoon fashion.

At the time, though, I was too full of how hard it was to write. The job was to think of a topic to do with television and then research or calculate some statistics to go with it. Find an interesting topic, figure out the details and then hope the result was worth publishing because otherwise it was scrapped and you started again. And of course still facing that same deadline.

Oddly enough, I have an idea that this one about how many people in the UK still had black and white TV licences was among the easiest. I can’t recall now whether I was specifically asked to find out or whether it was my idea, but I’m pretty sure that I just phoned the TV Licensing people and asked them.

The answer, by the way, was 58,000 people and I either calculated or was told that at that time in 2005 this was 0.2% of the licence-owning population. At this distance of 13 years, I can feel an echo of the relief that week.

When you’re writing something like this you can’t get too far ahead because there’s supposed to be at least some element of topicality. But also you should try to have a few ideas banked up and ready. Sod that. The joy of having filed that copy and not absolutely having to think of the next one for a couple of days was fantastic.

I do say days. Because I truly had bad nights because of TV Stats.

This all sounds overblown, I know, and especially so because I’ve had many columns and myriad deadlines. Yet this one is giving me the sweats again today, over a decade since it finished.

Precisely how many films were shown on terrestrial TV in 2005? How many shopping channels are there? What proportion of digital channel profits come from advertising and from our subscriptions? Just how many characters in EastEnders are self-employed compared to real life? Exactly what percentage of characters in Albert Square have owned the Queen Vic?

You’re curious about that last one, aren’t you? In 2005, the answer was that 6.5% of all major characters in EastEnders had owned that pub.

You see the job. Try to find something interesting, try to put a figure on things we’d all noticed like that turnover of Queen Vic owners. Oh! I remember proving that the murder rate in Morse was actually pretty much the same as the real-life number of murders in the Oxford area. That was because Morse ran in very short series each year where actual murderers tended not to take such long breaks.

Anyway.

Week after week. I should be able to rattle off the statistics of how many I did but I’m rebelling. It was something like 18 months and I won’t research any closer than that.

I’d rather tell you instead of one moment of relieved pride. I got the commission over email, I think, but there was to be a big meeting to decide how all this would be done. Here’s how much TV Stats buried into me: I can still picture that meeting. Where it was – BBC Woodlands in London, the second of three BBC buildings I worked in that was demolished – and also exactly who was there.

I can remember where I sat and who I faced. How’s this for research? I can show you that spot.

Radio Times office 2008

That shot is from 2008 and this was just before the place was demolished. So, first in one morning, I took a photo tour of the whole place. See that second chair from the left? I don’t remember whose that usually was but for this meeting, that’s where I remember sitting.

I can also remember that I’d misunderstood the brief and the example I’d brought had the text right but I’d illustrated it myself. I’m not then and never will be a cartoonist but I’d done some Photoshop work that was a graphical illustration of whatever statistic I’d found. I remember the art editor saying he didn’t know how to do what I’d done.

That was the moment of pride. And being gently told they had their own illustrators was the relief.

Oddly, I’ve no memory at all of TV Stats ending. I know it began because of a redesign on the magazine that saw the letters page bumped to the back of the issue. I imagine it ended because of the next redesign, but I don’t know.

TV Stats was one fraction of one job I had as a writer and yet it punched high above its weight because of how difficult it was to think of the bloody things. I did learn to write better because of it: I learned how to make the very most out of a sometimes flimsy statistic to produce an interesting read because there was usually no alternative and often no time.

And apparently it is all still lodged in my brain as it was waiting to pour out of me yesterday. I did get to bring up that 58,000 figure on BBC Radio Wales but I don’t think it particularly contributed to the piece.

There’s a bit of me that quite likes that.

Oh! One more memory? I spent at least seven hours one week calculating how much you would have to spend on Amazon to buy all the spin-off merchandise from children’s TV shows. You know it’s a lot but, sorry, I can’t either remember or find the figure.

But I can tell you that to this day Amazon notifies me each time there’s a new product to do with Dora the Explorer.

Revealing writing and reading

You realise that I am, of course, an incredible human being. And that’s despite being reduced to complete fanboy behaviour when meeting the writers of Lou Grant the other day.

(They were too polite to notice and anyway, I’m not likely to be within 100 yards of Santa Monica again any time soon, so it’s all a fuss about nothing.)

Anyway. I do genuinely think there is one thing where the nature of what I do gives me an unusual perspective. Writing always gives you perspective and I find that fascinating: the more you look within yourself, the more you reach other people.

But in this specific case, the perspective I get is because I’m writing a lot of journalism while also doing books and scripts. I like writing about writing, I adore exploring tools that make giant differences to my writing life and it’s great to get to write about those and share them.

I like and I have always cherished being both a writer and a journalist. I can’t actually speak to how good I am but I can know that having the two sides makes me better.

This week it also made me angry.

Last Tuesday, Apple launched many new products and did so with one of the firm’s typical big events. That’s all good: they do it well and they had plenty to say this time.

But.

You know Apple is this huge company and that it earns an incredible amount of money. The head of Apple’s entire retail arm, the part that includes 505 Apple Stores and the website store, came on to make a speech.

I’ve actually written a profile of her: she’s Angela Ahrendts and has an interesting background as well as a fascinating job. But you’ll notice I said ‘her’.

The second she stepped on stage I read some comment somewhere in the torrent of people following this event where they called her Miss Apple Stores or something like that. It wasn’t in the sense of a beauty pageant but it was meant to demean: she ‘just’ runs the shop.

Then I kept reading reports of the event which named her as Ms Ahrendts or wrote about what “the lady” said.

Nobody called Apple CEO Tim Cook “Master Apple”. Nobody called him “the gentleman”. No one says he ‘just’ runs a trillion-dollar company.

I’m glad to say that none of this was on display at AppleInsider.com where I was writing. But it was so prevalent across journalism and across twitter.

You can like Apple or dislike them, that’s up to you, but its audience craves new technology, new ideas. It craves new. And yet some of it sounds like it’s in the past.

Writing reaches into other people but what you write also shows them you.

Some 529 Not Out

Look at me there: I could not, just could not write a title that begins with a number. I had to contort that word ‘Some’ into it and I think that changes the meaning. If I were sure what it changed the meaning to, I might worry but if you don’t mind, I’d like to put all of this behind us and discuss 529 other topics.

As I write to you, it’s half midnight on Thursday 25 October 2018 and it’s not as if I’ve finished work, it’s more that I have to stop. I’m running a day-long workshop tomorrow for actors, musicians and journalists, and I’d like to be a teeny bit further along with the planning. Each time I do one of these, I rewrite the whole thing just to really get it all into my head and to freshen it up.

Tonight I want to add in a photo but considering the mistakes I’ve been making for the last hour, I’d probably end up photographing my thumb.

So the sensible thing is to stop, get some sleep and pick it up in the morning. There’s time, it’s sensible and practical.

Only, there’s also that 539 business.


I decided to read a script a day for 2018 and it’s fair to say that I’ve failed because so far I’ve read 539.

I haven’t read one tonight. Er, Thursday, I haven’t read one. I have a pain in my side from writing at this table for the last five hours, there is a bed calling to me from less than a metre away – this isn’t the most luxurious of hotels – and, oh, stop looking at me like that.

Okay, fine. Okay. I’ll read number 540. Because of that face of yours.

I’ve no idea what it will be as I’ve exhausted the short Danger Mouse ones.

But I do know this. I am writing a lot better this year. And there may have been some truly dreadful scripts. Yet I’ve been engrossed and exhilarated and sometimes upset to the point of tears too. And just occasionally, I’ve been a bit proud.

Such as now. I’ve read 530. I picked a short film script of my own because it was here and because I couldn’t remember anything about it. Also, it was short and you were looking a bit mad at me.

It’s not great. But the idea is and the script feels alive. I finished it wondering who I could pitch it to.

So on the one hand I do credit reading a lot of scripts but I also blame you for being so disciplined with my time. Can I go to sleep now?

Santa Monica

Zoning out

This is the earliest I have ever written to you on a Friday morning and it is also the latest. I’m writing at about 6am but I’m in Los Angeles and now realise that it’s about 2pm where I usually am in the UK.

Only, I thought I was extremely conscious of time zones because around half of the people I most work with are on the East Coast. Usually I can therefore deliver work to them early and to UK places right on time. Easy.

Except the UK being eight hours ahead and the East coast five hours, now I’m behind everybody and everything.

I’m shocked at how instantly I became adjusted to LA time. But I’ve done this before, you’ve done it before, I don’t know why this trip is different.

It is, though. This won’t sound like a good thing but it feels great: I feel like I’m in a bubble beneath everything. That’s definitely the word, beneath: the rest of the world seems to be going on above me as well as many hours ahead.

I should find that abhorrent and even writing it to you feels wrong, feels a betrayal of my usual self. And it’s not as if I’m on holiday: I am working as much as ever, just in Santa Monica. Whenever I’m not in meetings, I’m watching the clock trying to figure out how to fit the next thing.

So there I am, clock watching – in the best way, I’m not wishing this time away – and still I forget time zones.

I’d like to tell you something else I’ve forgotten, too, and I think it might be related. For just these few days I’m here, I’ve stopped worrying about Brexit. I’m working with someone who is just genuinely optimistic about life and as he stands there in Santa Monica sunshine, it’s impossible to not be lifted.

Mind you, I’m in the kind of gorgeous hotel you’d reject in order to have enough money to eat. For the first time in my life, I got on the plane in London and turned left. Later today, unless this time zone failure of mine reoccurs, I’m meeting some of my heroes.

And all of this is happening because I write. The things I think, the words in my head, are the direct and specific reason that I’m here. I’ve even been told that it was a Self Distract blog post that sealed the deal.

Writing is a scary career and no one can ever recommend it, but if you happen to know any of the teachers at my secondary school who laughed at me, do please give them a funny look from me.

To have and of not

It’s just you and me here so I’m going to confess something and you are not going to tell, okay? I used to have a profoundly deep crush on Darcey Bussell. Then during an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, she told some dancer that they “should of” done something.

I didn’t hear what they should’ve done because I was twitching too much. I don’t remember the dancer or the dance or even when this was. Yet that phrase switched my crush off like a light switch.

And yet this month when the Doctor said it in Doctor Who, well, I still twitched. But I didn’t switch off, I didn’t think much more than a pixel less of actor Jodie Whittaker and a fathom less of writer Chris Chibnall.

Maybe I’ve become inured to it. Maybe I accept that we’re on our inevitable way to having this nonsensical pair of words become a legitimate part of the language.

Or maybe I’m just not letting it switch off Doctor Who for me. It’s possible that I’m maturing, though I see no other evidence of this.

Also, it has been on my mind for six days straight and I needed you to help get it out.

But you have done and I thank you.

Just don’t tell Darcey. You pinky-promised.

Travelling in a fighter convoy

Since the 1980s, that’s what I have thought the opening line of Men at Work’s Down Under is: “travelling in a fighter convoy…” and not “travelling in a fried-out combie.”

Now, in my defence, I haven’t actually thought about the song in decades. And back when I did give it a bit of a ponder, I was more gingerly curious about what a vegemite sandwich might be.

Writer and lead singer Colin Hay now performs the song acoustically and you know how this goes, the song is revealed to be somewhat deeper than that original appeared. I do think that’s a measure of some superb writing, when radically changing the delivery of a piece works, when the material can be delivered in gigantically different ways.

But we’ve seen that.

Most recently there was Aha’s reworking of Take On Me which, slowed down, also clarified some previously mysterious lyrics. What was originally energetic and catchy proves to be arresting and even mesmerising in its new form.

Most famously, it’s the same with Mad World, originally a Tears for Fears track sung at lighspeed but then redone by Gary Jules.

Only, there’s something different about Down Under. I saw a live acoustic video of it a week or so ago and it’s stayed with me. More, yesterday Apple Music happened to throw the original at me while I was working.

And here’s the thing. That original has changed.

That didn’t happen with Take On Me, although I do now hear the lyric I kept missing in the original. I know to listen out for it but that’s not the same as changing that original, altering the sound of it.

Nor does Mad World’s slow remake alter how the Tears for Fears one sounds, except I do more appreciate the writing in it.

No, Men at Work’s Down Under was this jaunty 80s track with the daft video and now the same piece in the same way is somehow more serious. I can’t help it: I listen to that original and it’s like I finally get it.

Without distorting the original or loading it down with a weight it can’t bear, the acoustic one is just a plain rendition that reveals it was always serious and I can’t help but hear that now.

I should say I recently caught a snippet of an interview with someone, I imagine Hay but I wasn’t watching, where it was mentioned that no one notices the coffin being carried in that video. I think they said it was symbolising the death of Australian culture and I want to say I thought that was interesting but really I didn’t think at all.

Then I don’t want to say that Down Under was actually a Dylaneseque howling protest song yet I am sobered by it. Specifically by how I only saw the surface jauntiness and that this is like what happened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. That’s another 1980s song and to this day there are people who think it’s pro-American.

It’s really a miserable track and the lyrics are as clear about that as can be. I’ve secretly liked how I got it and people including President Ronald Reagan didn’t. He used it as a campaign song, can you imagine that? Walking out to make a speech as a song about rancid poverty in America and the toll of the Vietnam conflict booms out of speakers.

Imagine a US President being dumb.

Well.

Down Under is not so stridently anti-American or rather anti-Australian but still I missed what strength it has. Again, don’t let me overplay this, I’m not dumping huge political import onto the shoulders of a pop song.

But have a listen. It’s a good song but it’s richer now.

Kirsten Bell in Veronica Mars

Now I wish I were writing Veronica Mars

There is no chance I’ll get to write Veronica Mars but what makes me ecstatic is that today there is slightly less of no chance. Because the show is coming back.

So, true, it’s already written and presumably by series creator Rob Thomas. And true, I have absolutely zero chance of making my television drama writing debut – I don’t count Crossroads – on this show.

But there is a series. It was over, then it was a movie, then that was over, now it’s back. Stuff writing, I’m getting popcorn, I’m ready.

I don’t actually know when it’s coming and I do actually know that this news is old. It’s been a month or even two since the return of Veronica Mars was announced but I wouldn’t believe it at first. I needed an awful lot of evidence and here’s one of the last little bits: series star Kristen Bell talking about it:

I’m a writer but I’m also a journalist and normally if you give me two credible sources plus some documentary evidence, I’ll believe something is true. Unless you’re in government. This time I didn’t because it was just too important to me.

Five years ago I wrote a piece called I wish I’d written Veronica Mars and the title says it all. Except while I could’ve written that at any time during or since the show’s initial 2004-2007 run, I was writing it then because we’d had multiple sources and documentary evidence that a film version was coming.

I wrote that piece partly because I couldn’t contain myself and partly because I was hoping aloud that around a year later I would be seeing this film and wishing I’d written it. Sure enough, four years ago, I wrote I still wish I’d written Veronica Mars.

This time I’m just going to take it for granted that I’ll like the new show this much. It stands a bit of a chance.

And that’s it, that’s all I wanted to exclaim about to you today. Except writing this, I’m conscious that I haven’t even said what Veronica Mars is. That’s not uncommon: if you try to describe the show it generally sounds so poor that you wonder how Rob Thomas managed to sell it. Veronica was a teenage detective and I want to write “but…” here, yet anything you say after that sounds like an apology or an excuse.

No excuses. No apologies. Veronica Mars is great.

Years ago, I remember someone insisting very seriously that The Bill was the greatest crime series ever made. And I remember telling her she should stay in more.

At the time I would’ve been thinking of Homicide: Life on the Street, Hill Street Blues, Between the Lines, I’d have run out of fingers and borrowed yours to continue listing more forever. Today I’d just show her Veronica Mars.

Time contracts

Okay, now, as soon as I actually type the words ‘time contracts’ I realise that, yes, I am currently negotiating a contract to do with a Time project. But what’s on my mind is how time itself contracts – as opposed to expands.

Take any one thing I’ve done this week. Publisher meeting, writing for AppleInsider, running an evening writing group named after a pub that doesn’t exist, constantly writing on trains, working for and with the Writers’ Guild, bits with Cucumber Writers, discussing the difference between fire eating and fire breathing with a performer on a day-long workshop I ran, and writing a fake online poetry workshop called How to Poet as a test for another project.

Any one of those sounds good and I relished every pixel – but not enough. There was no time to enjoy it enough

For it’s been one of those cases where you are deep into something and then absolutely have to wrench yourself out in order to then be exactly as deeply into the next one.

See me in any of these events or actually doing any of these things and you are seeing me at my happiest. It’s just the bits in between.

Typing on trains because it was the only time to get something finished. Relying on the brilliant thing that I regularly remote-control my Mac from anywhere – and then discovering that this week it decided not to work. Technology. It’s alchemy and such unfair alchemy too.

I’m not going to say that we should a moment to enjoy things when we’re busy. I’m not going to Ferris Bueller this.

And, yes, true, I am thinking it’s great to be busy and that is all very nice for me. But what’s on my mind is what you’ve had too: a week that simultaneously seems like a month and an hour.

And you’ve also had this: you’ve let things slip between the cracks. I need to go write some apologetic emails.

Unfortunately, I’ve first got to go on a speed awareness course. But I didn’t tell you that.

Brean there, done that

Ah, that’s better. Last week when my website was broken and I couldn’t talk to you, I went away in a huff and instead wrote a treatment for a series I’ve been putting off. Consequently I was annoyed but also productive. So, bah.

Naturally there was something I’d wanted to discuss with you last time and of course I’ve forgotten it now. I do remember thinking that I could tell you about when I worked for a firm that absolutely required me to drive a company car. No choice. It was a Fiat Accompli.

All week I’ve been waiting to say that.

This time, though, I’d like to tell you a slightly sad story from when I was child and then how pretty much the same thing happened again this week – but was fantastic.

Do you know Brean? It’s on the coast near Weston-super-Mare and when I was a child, my family must’ve gone on holiday there three or four times. What I remember most clearly, apart from buying Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama in the newsagent, is how the beach so abruptly changes to grassland.

Or I suppose it’s the other way around. Depends. As you head to the sea, you’re going across reasonably dense grass and some kind of bracken-like things, then you’re on the sand. There’s a divisor line between the two and your bare feet feel it in the heat of the sand.

It’s also a tiny bit hilly, though, and there was this one peculiar spot where the land rose up so that the sand formed a little hollow, like someone had dug a pit and then somehow hoisted it up to ground level. And this grass or bracken thing, these twigs and undergrowth, didn’t notice the hollow. They kept on going as if it weren’t there. So you had this recessed area in the ground and a roof of grass and twigs.

That was my den one year. I owned that place. It was secret and it was mine.

For one year, for one holiday.

I loved that spot so much that the next year when we came back, I ran to it.

I knew the hard-to-spot entrance and I ran through it.

And then I ran straight through the hollow and I ran immediately out the other side. Didn’t pause for one instant. And never went back, never looked back, could not then and still cannot now even find roughly where this place was.

Because this year my den belonged to a whole set of other boys.

I’m rubbish with ages but I remember seeing that they were younger than me. I knew there was no common ground, even as we stood on common ground, and this is the thing that made me sad. I also knew it was over.

Whatever I was the year before, I wasn’t any more and I never would be again.

Now, I need you to make some leaps here both in time and place because all of this is on my mind again because of what happened this week in a pub.

Some years ago, I devised a social event called Notworking. It’s under the aegis of the Writers’ Guild but it’s for writers, directors, producers and actors. Really anyone who works in our nutty profession. You get together in a bar for absolutely no reason. No speeches, no speakers, no topic. You cannot pitch, if necessary you can bitch.

The idea is that if you’re in this line then few of your friends and absolutely none of your family have the faintest clue what you do – or especially why you do it. But we do. We get it. Come have a drink and relax with your fellow travellers.

I set it all up and I’ve run some, others have run others, this one was a joint collaboration between several Writers’ Guild folk. Each time we tend to get around 20 people and, I’ll be honest with you, it’s usually the same faces. I like those faces.

But this time, I got there early, being the professional organiser as you do, and the bar was mostly empty but for about six people at the back. And they called out to me: “Are you looking for the Notworking evening?”

I did not recognise any of them and they didn’t know me. It was actually slightly awkward:

THEM: So what do you do?
ME: Er, I organise this event.

I think by its peak, this Notworking event had perhaps 25 people and – I’m guessing here – probably 12 or 15 had never met or even heard of me.

But they were there having a great time because, in part, of me. At one point I just looked around at all these happy people and it was wonderful.

It wasn’t the same as Brean where I wasn’t known and so therefore wasn’t welcome, it was more that I wasn’t known and wasn’t needed – because the original Notworking idea in my head has become its own reality. I could’ve walked away and nobody would’ve noticed, nothing would’ve stopped, it wouldn’t have been any quieter.

Actually, I did walk away for a moment: I walked out with someone when they were leaving. They were leaving the event but also leaving Birmingham and I’ll miss them. As we headed out, the heat of the room became the cool of the outside evening, you could feel the difference in your feet.

We said goodbye up some steps toward the Mailbox and when I turned to go back, I could see the light of the bar flickering and the sound of it coming and going on the wind.

Whoever I was when I was a child back in Brean, I’m not anymore. And I prefer this me.

Listen, this is important. I neither want to suggest that this particular event just coalesced by itself or that I was solely responsible for it. My Writers’ Guild colleagues and friends Tim Stimpson and Martin Sketchley worked on it too and we wouldn’t have been at Pennyblacks by the Mailbox without them. I’d not even heard of that place and now I like it hugely.

And I also really like having a website back. Now, next time the site goes down, we must go to Pennyblacks together and talk properly. Okay?

Sidekick phenomena

I’ve been working with two writers recently and something came up with both of them. One has a character in her script who was meant to be a small part but is steadily becoming more important with each draft. And the other has just swapped two characters around in her novel.

They’re both right, I think they’ve found what their pieces needed, but I’m so interested in how changing a role can be liberating.

I like to imagine that all characters are created equal: that, sure, we’re only seeing someone when they’re delivering a parcel but actually they have a whole life too.

But they aren’t.

This is too crude a sketch of what’s happened but the novelist, for instance, is finding that she can do more with a character now that he’s not the romantic lead. She can do more with him and it’s like he can do more too: he’s got licence to be more lively, to actually be more interesting.

And equally, the other character is now more constrained.

It was ever thus. I think stories are more nuanced now, I think drama is richer, but the lead carries responsibilities because he or she is carrying the whole story.

Previously leading characters, the heroes of pieces, had to be stand-up heroes with square jaws – whether they were men or women – and to always do the right thing. No question, this is where the notion that actors prefer playing the baddie comes from because who wouldn’t?

We don’t need pure heroism any more and we don’t need perfect heroes.

But still, when the story is about you, then you are the story and like it or not, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Whatever you do is ultimately driving the story forward and that’s why we still have this constraint on the major characters.

The minor ones can go cause havoc if they like, they ultimately don’t influence the story very much.

They can have fun, the writer can have fun, the audience or readers can have all this too, so everybody wins and it costs us nothing.

Except there are people who don’t see this difference. Audiences often don’t and I see no reason they should: I see much more reason that they should be enjoying the tale instead of analysing the character structure.

So when the audience talks a lot about how brilliant a certain side character is and how they deserve their own show, I just think the current show did a good job.

It’s when commissioners think it too that I’m more concerned. My go-to example for this will probably always be Ballykissangel. It was a hugely successful BBC drama with probably dozen lovable characters but really just two central ones. Who then left.

The show ended when they left, except it didn’t. I don’t remember how much longer it went on afterwards but really it was over because these other characters couldn’t carry it. They weren’t leads, they were sidekicks and it showed.

Minor characters are minor characters, they will never be major ones and I am a writing god for deigning to explain this to you when naturally you’d never have thought it without me.

Except I can see you there, thinking about characters like Frasier Crane, Lou Grant and Sergeant Lewis.

These three were supporting characters of various importance in their original shows – Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Inspector Morse – who went on to have their own gigantically successful series.

Only, I offer that they didn’t.

I suggest that what really happened is that the character name went on to a new show and that’s pretty much all.

For the Frasier who headlined 11 seasons of his own sitcom is not the same Frasier who propped up the bar at Cheers. Sergeant Lewis is a new and richer character in his own show, even if I still can’t remember the character’s first name and I even met the actor once.

It’s not that these characters were so good as minor ones that they deserved their own shows. It is definitely the case that they were popular enough that studios knew people who at least give them a chance.

What’s really the case is that the writers conned us brilliantly. They managed the change, they managed substituting a leading character for a minor one and we bought it.

I think the actors were key: I don’t understand acting but I see that it takes certain talent and skills to shoulder a whole show instead of solely being the comic turn every other week.

I’ve always thought that this was a kind of applied writing, that the writers knew they needed to make minor characters into major ones and so set about doing it. But talking with these two writers this week, I think there’s also an element of characters moving where they want to. I mean the characters want to move, not that the writer necessarily plans it.

I also like to think that the writer is in control but there are times when it feels like we’re just scribbling down what our characters tell us.