You couldn’t make it up

Long ago when I worked at BBC Radio WM in Pebble Mill, the sports department had a shelf of highlights on. Large spools of reel to reel tape with the recordings of famous local sporting events.

Only, I can picture that shelf now and I can remember being in that newsroom, looking at the reels and thinking well, er, no. These are not recordings of sports events.

They were recordings of radio presenters commentating on these events instead.

I’m not knocking the commentators, I’m in no way knocking the reasons for keeping the archive. It’s just that although it’s a slight difference, the tapes were regarded as the events themselves, not as the radio station’s commentary.

There’s something in that disconnection that I’ve been reminded of by all the writing about Donald Trump and Brexit. I keep hearing the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” and actually, yeah, you could. I think by now your audience would be a bit bored. They’d want some new characters, they’d be thinking we’ve got antagonists up our armpits, we need someone to be the hero. Anyone. Please.

I think the thing is that you wouldn’t make it up this badly. No matter whether you were commentating on events or especially if you are the poor sod who’s going to make a TV drama about all this one day, your very medium imposes certain things.

Commentators expect to be able to draw on previous statistics. TV drama writers inescapably want light and shade, they want pacing, they want to build to a conclusion.

None of that is available to us. It’s all dark, it’s all unrelenting and statistics are now alternative facts.

Hopefully this is just me but I can’t dramatise what’s going on. It makes me want to go write something else, to write about something or to create something that I can fashion, that I can explore, that I can convey something through.

We have the most visibly, publicly, proudly illiterate people in power that we may ever have had. Yet they are defying writers to comprehend them, they are controlling the disarray we’re in.

Maybe it will ultimately be good. Maybe this will shake us out of habits and patterns that we are used to, maybe it will make us – okay, me – writer better and deeper.

I don’t know about me and what I can do. But I do see journalism trying to fight back and I do see the writers of Saturday Night Live being on their best form in two decades because of it.

Maybe what I’ve been doing is trying to use writing to help me understand. Maybe I’ve been focused on the commentator’s tapes and really what I should do is go to the event.

I never said I was quick to apologise

Listen, I have yet again lost the remote to my Apple TV and found it only when I gave up, sat down on the couch and Netflix started playing. I sat up and Netflix stopped. Sat down, started. This went on for longer than you’d imagine before I found the remote under the cushions.

But it’s what I’m watching on Netflix that I want to talk to you about. Also, I think I’ve been a right man: I have owed an apology and it has taken me 23 years, 9 months and 26 days to admit it.

That’s how long ago wolframalpha.com says April 15, 1993 was. And counting.

It was the date that I had a feature in The Independent newspaper about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Specifically it was about the then-new show and how it was being pirated months before its UK debut. It was tape piracy: VHS tape copying piracy. We were so young.

Partly for the article, mostly for myself, I watched the pilot to Deep Space Nine at the house of a guy who was doing a lot of this tape copying piracy. He’s never spoken to me since. And I remember writing the piece avoiding his name but the Independent editor required one at the last moment so I made up something.

I can’t tell you what it was or what the guy’s real name is but if ever I have had a failure of imagination, it was 23 years, 9 months and maybe 30 days ago. The leap from the fake name to his real name was so small that if you blinked while reading it, you would’ve accidentally read the truth.

So I do definitely owe him an apology. I don’t know how you’ll ever come across this, but if you do, please know that I am sorry about it.

What’s prompted this today, though, is that I think I also owe an apology to the show. I think so. I’m not sure.

Remember that I was writing about the fans and the piracy more than I was reviewing the series, but I did write this:

It’s set on an abandoned space station, the Deep Space Nine of the title. No one boldly goes anywhere as they did in Captain Kirk’s command, and while some of the characters are recognisable from Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, DS9 has a new cast and crew. Stardates, uniforms, bad guys and bad lines, however, will be recognised by Trek fans young and old.

The reverential silence is rudely broken. Colm Meany (formerly the transporter chief of The Next Generation, here promoted to the show’s chief attraction) is required to move DS9 towards a wormhole. ‘We have six thrusters, it’s a two million kilometre journey, it’ll take six months at least,’ he announces. ‘We must be there tomorrow,’ comes the po-faced reply, to hoots of derision from the audience. However, it takes more than naff dialogue to lose a Trekkie… even through the obligatory mystical experience in the middle…

Desperadoes on the Starboard Side: Star Trek fans break the law to beam up Deep Space Nine by William Gallagher, The Independent (April 15, 1993)

I’ve corrected a typo and I am reasonably sure that I didn’t make the factual error about Colm Meany: I would’ve written that he was promoted to the new show’s “chief operations officer”.

But I definitely wrote that about “bad lines”.

I think I was wrong.

I think.

I watched the pilot that day and didn’t tune in to any further episodes for a long time. In fact it would’ve been somewhere after the show had finished in the States that I got all the scripts. This is Star Trek, not a pixel goes by that isn’t published and eventually the barrel is scraped far enough down that they release scripts. All of the Next Generation ones were put on CD-ROM, all of Deep Space Nine’s were too.

I’m minded of how I was at a very specific age when Star Wars came out. When I saw the first film, I was old enough to think Luke and Leia should get together. By the time the sequel was in cinemas, I knew Luke was wet and that Han Solo was more interesting.

Similarly, I enjoyed the Next Generation when it aired but when I then read the scripts I was profoundly bored. I did specifically want to see how scripts developed over a long series but, come on, there are something like 178 of them and I read the lot.

Tell me why I then read roughly the same number of Deep Space Nine scripts. If I’d had such a bad time with The Next Generation.

Except to me TNG scripts are more puzzles than stories and once you know the outcome, there just isn’t enough to keep me interested. Whereas DS9 scripts feel like they are each part of one long novel.

I deeply enjoyed those scripts and I tuned in to the UK broadcasts of the final season. In 1999, I would take a break from a shift at BBC News Online and watch them on a newsroom monitor on BBC2 at 18:00 on whichever night it was. I want to say Wednesdays.

The look and feel of that last season was subtly different to the pilot. It felt richer, it felt confident. And instead of just seeming like parts of a novel, the run ends with something approaching ten episodes that genuinely are one story. Star Trek doesn’t do that. Star Trek Deep Space Nine did.

About a year later, I was writing a DVD column for BBC Ceefax – do you even remember shiny discs now? – and I made Deep Space Nine the release of the year. It wasn’t half an expensive DVD release: I bought each separate season box set and I think it added up to around £300.

I watched the lot, I got my £300 out of it at least, but just now when I was sitting on the TV remote, it was that pilot episode that kept starting and stopping on Netflix. The whole series is there and last year I watched a couple of the more famous episodes. Today I remembered my Independent piece and I started watching the pilot.

This is the pilot that I said had bad lines and got hoots of derision.

It’s got bad lines and I don’t tend to hoot, I’m not the hooting type, but there are wincing moments. Actors making odd choices, placing odd emphasis on lines, and I still think the setup to that bit about moving the station is standard-issue Star Trek technobabble.

It also makes sense, though. The science is fantastical yet it makes sense.

I just also got a lot more into it this time. Maybe it’s because I know what a strong show it became that I can now see the start of all that.

Maybe I’m going to watch the lot again.

But if so, then it isn’t that I sat on my TV remote and it switched to Netflix, scrolled a list, chose DS9 and selected the pilot. I did all that and I did it because this morning there’s been an announcement of a Deep Space Nine documentary.

It’s raising funds on Indiegogo with the aim of producing a documentary about this show for release next year. It’s the first such thing I’ve backed since Veronica Mars in 2013 but I backed it.

So I’m apologising and I’m putting my own money into it. I am such a man.

Timeless appeal

Of all the current TV shows about time travel, the last one I imagined would be in trouble is Timeless. But apparently while it’s doing fine in streaming video, iTunes, downloads, catch up and every other way you can watch television now, it’s struggling to find viewers who tune in to NBC on Monday nights.

I can’t watch NBC, I’m in the UK. It’s airing here on E4 but even if it got record-breaking ratings everywhere else in the world, NBC would at the very most say that’s nice before they cancelled it. What counts for them and therefore for the show is eyeballs on NBC. So if you’re in the States and especially if you happen to be one of the households that the Nielsen ratings counts, do take a look at it.

It’s just good. I’ve been a professional TV critic and that’s all I can usefully say. I’ve also been obsessed with time all my writing life and Timeless is the time travel show that isn’t about time travel. I’m not interested in time machines, I’m obsessed with regret and with experiencing events from different angles. Timeless has plenty of regret but it’s also a deep-dive into an adventure series which specifically avoids Doctor Who-style timey-wimey stories.

In this show created by Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, our three heroes continue their pursuit of a baddie. Calling them the heroes is reasonable: they are the protagonists and while we’re seeing widening gulfs in whether they’re good or not, they are doing what they do with the best of intentions. Calling their antagonist the baddie is more of a stretch, though, as unusually this fella has good reason for what he does.

So there he is doing something foul yet there’s a part of you that can’t help but at least understand why, maybe even agree.

I’m compelled by that but I’m also just relishing how each week is broadly similar in shape but totally different in tone and location. There was an episode set during the Alamo which really felt like movie. Ian Fleming pops up in a Bond-like adventure fighting the Nazis. The good guys got stranded in the 1700s. The good guys kill people and they don’t exactly shrug about it afterwards.

I also relish how since the show is set in different historical periods, the research is excellent and there’s always something true yet completely unexpected. I heard that some history classes are using the show for that and I don’t know if it’s true, especially so soon into its run, but I can understand it.

Only, as a time obsessive, the thing that feels fresh and fun to me is that the show goes into history and messes it up. It has been such a rule of time travel stories that you do not do this: Back to the Future centres on putting right something that got changed. Even Doctor Who, right back in the William Hartnell days, maintained that “You can’t rewrite history… Not one line!”

So here’s Timeless where – sorry, spoiler – the baddie has gone back to the day the Hindenburg exploded and he saves it. You know from the start that he’s going to do something bad but, grief, hats off to Timeless: the bad thing he does is save it. And then we learn why that’s such a bad thing: it’s fascinating.

It’s also fascinating back in the present day of the show as people who died on the Hindenburg now didn’t so there are ramifications and repercussions. Throughout the series, the baddie and eventually the goodies kill people and it’s necessary, you can see it, you kind of root for them, but there are repercussions.

Well, there are and there aren’t. There’s not yet been a repercussion where the goodies’ time machine wasn’t ever invented, for instance.

What this willingness of the show to let history change gives me is the impact on the characters. They’re not required to be some model citizens protecting the fabric of the spacetime continuum, they are scared people trying everything they can to stop very, very bad things happening.

So Timeless is a show about time travel, sure, but it’s about characters who travel in time and what that is like for them. It’s action adventure, it’s not as astonishingly deep into time as 12 Monkeys is, it’s not using a TARDIS as just a way to drop the Doctor into trouble.

It’s something new and that seems especially gratifying in a season where even I think there are too many time travel dramas.

I’ve forgotten the count now but I remember learning that there would be something more than ten, possible fifteen shows about time during this year and there’s no way they’ll all survive. But the one I’d miss is Timeless.

So if you can watch NBC on Monday nights, please do. And while I’m in the UK where E4 is now screening the show, I’ve got a US iTunes account so I’m watching each week as soon as it’s available.

Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

A Desire for More Cows

Previously on Self Distract… After a month’s enforced absence from you, I ran back last week with a babble about the film Arrival, the idea of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, and right at the last moment squeezed in how I believe that putting yourself in other people’s shoes helps you write better characters. Or write characters better.

This is just you and me talking, isn’t it? You must’ve told some people, though, because I had a lot of response to all this. Most of it stopped just short of using a phrase to describe someone joins metal together under a hot flame. (“Well, duh.”)

I think all of the response said that whatever your route into thinking about other people, other characters, whatever term you want to give it, you are not a writer if you can’t put yourself in other people’s situations.

So I’m not a writer.

That was a hard thing to say to you. It was a harsh thing to say about me, since it’s all I want to do and I’m effectively unemployable in any other capacity. (Look at my hands. Have these hands ever done anything but type?)

I can’t always see other people’s perspective, though. I can do certain things. I can see certain other points of view. For instance, take the countless number of times that I’ve been in a pub with male friend who’s annoyed. He’s doing that thing of recounting something his female partner did and concludes with: “I mean, explain that. It makes no sense, does it?” And I am required by the script, by politeness, pretty much by civilisation’s very rules, to nod encouragingly.

I can’t actually make myself say I agree because usually I completely understand his partner’s point of view.

In fairness, it’s usually a comparatively trivial issue as if it were bigger, they wouldn’t still be together. Maybe I can just do the comparatively trivial, maybe I am limited in just how much I can understand of other people’s perspectives, of their way of thinking.

For take this as another instant. Recently a friend told me she was heading home one night when a man walked by and called her a slut.

Get inside that man’s head. I am a man, both he and I started off as babies and as little boys, but he went down a line I cannot conceive. Well, I know the same as you do that he got off on saying that. I know that in every sense of the word that he’s a wanker and we both know that he’d have said that to any woman he passed. And possibly did say it to every woman he passed.

You, I and this friend of ours – you’d like her, I must introduce you – also know completely and thoroughly that there was nothing about her that incited or encouraged this stranger.

Yet here’s this smart, vibrant, exciting woman and still when she got home she looked at herself in the mirror and thought about what she was wearing. Some shite of a man affects her enough that she looks in the mirror. I can completely understand her – wait, that’s a bit grandiose, a bit too much, I mean that I believe I can completely understand. I know that I can put myself in her place, I know that I would’ve looked at that mirror too.

I can only hope that I’d do what she did next: she says that she went out the next day wearing pretty much exactly the same thing. She wasn’t saying bollocks to this type of men, but actually she was.

I get that and I’m as proud of her as I am embarrassed by the man. What I can’t get is him. I mean, I’ve said to you that he got off on this and you know he did, but that seems to me like all I can do is label him. I can see what he did and if this were a story I were writing, I could plug him into various situations.

Whereas I can feel for her.

That seems to me to be a huge difference. It seems to me that feeling for her is not a writing exercise, not an attempt to draw a character, it is an involuntary human connection. I do definitely see that I need to make that connection, to have that feeling and empathy instead of a collection of labels if I’m to be a better writer.

And I’m afraid if I’m not just to write about characters who make me feel things, if I am instead to be better able to create characters that make you feel things instead, I have to be braver. For I know that one reason I can’t get inside the head of that man is that I am afraid to.

You have to agree with your characters, even temporarily, even just to an extent. Your characters and that man all think they are right so for them to work, for you to really see them and to see the world as they do, you have to decide that they are right and examine them from there.

I’m never going to call someone a slut but my characters might. And if they do, you have to believe it’s them doing it and not my authorial voice deciding they will because I’ve labelled them as the tosser of the piece. You have to believe these characters are real.

I get very tired of writers being asked where they got their inspiration from as that suggests everything we write is based on something real and so anyone could’ve written it if they just happened to have that same experience. I get very tired of people concluding facts about writers because of what their characters are like. I get deeply annoyed when someone quotes a writer saying something foul when actually it was one of the writer’s characters and the entire book is setup to prove that bastard wrong.

Not everything is based on anything. Not everything is how the writer really feels. But I realise that everything has to be something the writer has felt or made themselves feel. Made themselves examine and explore. No matter how distasteful.

I”m working on it. For neatness and symmetry and structure and all the things that I unconsciously think of when writing to you, I should end now by saying that it’s true, I’m not a writer. I’m not sure I’m brave enough, though. So let me try saying it this way: I’m not a writer yet.

Writers and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis

I don’t think I’ve ever quite said this to you before but I regard it as a treat and a privilege that we get to chat. And I am especially conscious of this now as Self Distract has been dead for a month because of website problems. Oh, my lights, but it’s good to be back.

Now that we’re on speaking terms again – thank you A Small Orange internet service provider for rescuing the blog from the debris – I do of course want to talk to you about writing. It’ll just take a while to get there and I think along the way we’re going to explore something that applies to everything and everyone. Certainly to you and I.

At least certainly if you spend as much time thinking about words as I do. It’s not healthy of us, it really isn’t.

But one word that I particularly like is the German one ‘heimat’. There’s a famous German television drama of the 1980s called that and I never got around to watching it. What I learned about it, though, was that strictly speaking the word heimat means home. And, more importantly, that it really means much more than that – which English doesn’t have an equivalent to.

Then there’s the quote from Cervantes which goes something like this: “Reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry”. Isn’t that wonderful? Such a vivid, instantly clear, instantly obviously right way to explain that you can get the pattern but you cannot see the colour.

Only, this is a favourite quote of mine for one specific reason: Cervantes originally said it in Spanish.

So as much as I believe I understand the thought, as an English-only speaker I am perhaps only looking at the back of it, at the pattern of the meaning instead of its full colour.

It’s thinking about this kind of stuff that means I heard of what’s often called the Sapir Whorf hypothesis a long time ago. If you only recently heard of it, that’s because you’ve just seen the film Arrival. If you’ve never heard of it before right this moment, please go see Arrival. (The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer and based on a short story by Ted Chiang. For once, I urge you to see the film instead of solely reading the screenplay but right now that script is available online. It won’t be there for long: it’s online as part of awards season and will be taken down in a few weeks. If you miss it, tell me: I lunged at the screen to save a copy for myself.)

The film exaggerates or at least takes this hypothesis on further than Edward Sapir or Benjamin Lee Whorf did and apparently many people think their idea is bollocks anyway. I’m fine with a film using a bollocks idea and taking it to somewhere as gorgeous as Arrival does, but I also think the hypothesis is right because of Heimat, because of Cervantes – and actually because of radio.

Writ very short, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is that the language we use affects how we think, how we see the world. In Arrival, this is the start for a simply beautiful story and one so delicately drawn that it made me want to rip up all my own writing and start over.

But in Arrival and in the full Sapir Whorf hypothesis, the point is very specifically about a whole language, an entire language and not just a phrase book. If you speak French then your very thought patterns are subtly different to the way you think if you are a German speaker.

I am sure that’s true but I don’t know because I solely speak English and can’t compare anything. Yet I still think there’s something key about this idea even within my one single language. For instance, I suspect that writers think differently to, I don’t know, chefs. I was talking to someone once, for instance, who visibly could not grasp whatever small-talk subject it was until we found a way to translate it and use an example from his industry. That was an odd and somewhat long hour.

I am also entirely certain that I think the way I do because of radio. Tell me if this is you, too, but I can see that I’m shaped by having worked in radio. Specifically that my sense of time is different. There’s the time passing away for all of us but there’s also the time that you plan out for a show, that you plan out like time is a physical space.

So for instance even though it’s years since I worked in BBC radio, I still think in the terms top and bottom of the hour. I think of the first half of an hour as being an easy, downhill-fast run while the second half is an uphill climb. I can rationalise that by how you’re doing a show because you have something you’re excited to say and so naturally you want to get to it quickly. The start is easy because you want to rush in. The end is tough because you’ve got to pace out the piece, you’ve got to be sure you’ve included everything. But still, sod rationalisation: I think this so deeply that the top of the hour feels fast and easy to me, the bottom of the hour feels hard.

You do this in radio, I do it still in producing events and workshops, but I also just do it all the time. Like, all the time.

I do this and then I also think in terms of hard and soft items.

A hard item, if you’ve not heard it described this way before, is one that’s already prepared and has a fixed duration. Watch The One Show, for instance, and you’ll see a mix of interviews in the studio and little films, sometimes called VTs, sometimes packages. (VT is from videotape, when these things were played in to the show off a prerecorded tape. You’re too young to remember videotape and consequently I hate you.)

These video packages are hard items and the studio guest interviews are soft ones. It’s nothing to do with whether one or the other is hard-hitting, gritty journalism or light, cheery frippery. It’s that the hard one can’t be stopped where the soft one, the interview, can be as long or as short as you like if things have changed. You can wrap up an interview when you’re running out of time where you can’t stop a film package.

Actually, of course you can. I’ve not worked in this type of television but in radio you would distressingly often have to come out of a package early because something happened or you’d mis-timed when you should’ve started playing it in. Stopping a package early while not sounding like you just fell over the fader took skill: you had to listen live and listen for the right instant, the right moment when actually the presenter only paused but it sounded like it could be the end. Then you slam that fader shut and you start talking as if that were the end.

It’s called potting. You pot a package. Language is wonderful. The reason this is potting instead of, say, slamming-fader-ing, is that before radio desks had faders, they had round little knobs. They looked like teeny upside down pots. You can still see a million of them on music studio recording desks.

I think of potting, then, the same way that we talk about taping a TV show when really we mean marking it to record on our Sky or DVR box. We talk about videoing an event when we mean digitally capturing it on our phone.

More than the terms, though, more than the words I think in, knowing what potting is and having done it, I can always hear what I can only describe as a pot point. If I’m watching the news, I know when they could pot the item and move on. Sometimes you wish they would and that’s about time too.

What we do shapes us, that’s certain. What we have to think about shapes us, I’m sure. I’m conscious that I’m now thinking about this in obsessive detail because that’s what writers do, or at least it’s what I do as a writer. But having finally got us back onto the topic of writing, I offer this: Sapir Whorf gives us an insight into characters.

Knowing this, or at least believing it, has got to help us see into the characters we create and inhabit in our fiction and our drama. See how they think and you’ll know what they’ll do, you’ll feel what they feel.

Amongst everything else about this, I believe that the practice of trying to think how other people do is a good, hopeful and maybe optimistic thing in a time when we need all of that. Whether it’s the Sapir Whorf hypothesis or just my own special kind of bollocks, I think it means that we can change how we think by doing and talking and thinking about something new.

Listen, I’ve been waiting to discuss this with you for a month. Let’s go get a tea and maybe watch Arrival. Waddya say?

Grant Tinker, the writers’ producer

Grant Tinker died this week aged 90. I’ve been thinking that it’s curious being in the UK because he wasn’t well known here – except he probably wasn’t that generally known in his home USA either. But if you had heard of him, what you heard was brilliant. And if you hadn’t, you still saw him through his incredible work that brought us Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, my own favourite Lou Grant and just an impossibly long list of more.

He didn’t create any of those shows. He didn’t write any of them. He wasn’t a producer or a director or an actor.

He was what’s still sometimes called a suit. He was a network executive and if any other exec has ever had an obituary then it was on the back pages of Variety or Broadcast. Google Grant Tinker’s name and you’ll see a flood of tributes, every one of which says something along the lines that obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.

Listen, obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.

I never met him and he never once heard of me. But I hoped to engineer a way to get to interview him. Back in 2004 I went to Los Angeles specifically to work in UCLA reading the Lou Grant papers in the Gene Reynolds collection. I’ve still yet to get a publisher to commission a book about the show but my interview wishlist here has Grant Tinker on it. Had Grant Tinker.

Here’s an example of why. I can’t remember which show this happened in and in the flood of tributes to the man Google isn’t helping me find it, but it’s a writers’ story so of course I love it.

I think the show may even have been The Mary Tyler Moore Show: little known here and now very dated in the States but in its time important, groundbreaking and funny.

Two writers are in a meeting with some higher up network TV executives. The show hasn’t started yet, they’re still developing it and this was an important meeting. Important enough that Tinker was there too.

The writers have this meeting and leave, very pleased with how it went.

As soon as they are out of the door, though, the execs order Grant Tinker to fire them.

Not only did he not do it, he never told the writers and it was years before they found out. They’d gone off happily and created a smash-hit series.

That’s typical of the reasons I so very much admired this man. He would hire writers and other creative people, then let them get on with it and protect them. Compare this to today when a US drama can’t cast the very smallest of walk-on, one-line parts without the network approving their choice.

It’s a coarse summary to say that US network television is now run by companies more experienced in accounting and finance than drama. It’s even coarser to say that the less they know about television, the more they interfere. But it’s entirely accurate to say that US network TV is in a bad state, even as cable television companies like HBO are making this a golden age of American drama.

Grant Tinker’s approach turned around the fortunes of NBC in the 1970s and 80s. It went from third and last position to first because of the shows he choose and nurtured. His reputation meant that NBC became the network that the best creative people wanted to work for, wanted to pitch to.

It’s commonplace and easy to conclude an obit by saying that we won’t see the likes of this man again. But we haven’t yet and my favourite dramatic medium needs more Grant Tinkers.

Perspective

A friend was telling me of someone he knew whose young daughter in America was grabbed between the legs by a young boy in their school. And – I’m afraid you know this is coming – that the boy said it was okay to do this because it’s what the President-elect does.

This is not the first such event and I’m ill that it won’t be the last, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get inured to it. We’re never going to become so used to it happening that it doesn’t feel sickening. I’d like to do more than shake and vomit but most of me doesn’t know what.

There is a part of me that I’m hiding away from that has an idea, though. It is a writing idea, since I am a writer, and while I’m trying not to think about it because it falls into this area of 2016dom, there’s more. I’ve been trying not to think about it because it is too hard.

Follow. Ever since I heard the story of this boy, I’ve been wondering what I would do if he were my son.

I don’t have children. I do have characters. So the next step in this chain I’ve avoided is to wonder what I would do if he were one of my characters.

I want to say I’d delete him and start again.

But he’s a human being and a character of mine who did this would have to be a human character. I mean human as in a full person, not a cipher or someone in the story for plot exposition, someone there to be the easy target of the foul, numb bile I’ve got.

And that’s where it’s hard.

That’s where I fail as a writer.

No, strike that: this is one area where I fail. If it were the only one, I’d take that and be happy. Well, reasonably happy. Well, miserable.

As a writer, I need to be able to write a character like this and make him real. I could do a fair job of convincing you I’d pulled it off by having a character do certain things, say certain things, but it would be a front. Ultimately you wouldn’t be convinced. I need to have him say and do things, yes, but the inner workings have to be right before the movement and the dialogue is both real and worth it.

I have to understand the character from the inside. Which means I actually have to find a way to like him. No, truly: we all think we’re right, that boy thinks he’s right, and we all find ways to justify what we do. Everyone else is a bad driver but it’s fine if I drink because I can handle it.

I have always, always had difficulty with the fact that I piddle about with text while in the real world women are being raped. So far I’ve managed to hide back inside that text but that’s just harder and harder now.

Even now, even here, even saying this to you, I’m conscious that this is a form of piddling about with text. I’m effectively saying that to become a better writer, I need to get inside these abhorrent characters. Like it matters to the world whether my writing improves. It matters to me, it matters so much, this talking with you matters so much, yet there must be something we could actually, actively do to counter 2016dom.

Except of course there is. I think there is. And it’s piddling about with text. Understanding abhorrent characters is a writing goal but understanding abhorrent people is maybe the only way we can change things for real.

As yet untitled, damnit

I was a judge at a Royal Television Society school day contest earlier this week and one team called their proposed TV show “Help! I’ve Lost My Dignity”. They nearly won on the title alone. Earlier this autumn, I was struggling with a title for a collection of stories. Earlier this year I was arguing over the title for another project. Instantly, after three prods, a week, two months and half a year, I immediately realised that I wanted to talk to you about titles. I just didn’t and don’t know what to call this.

Tell a lie: it was four prods.

A few days ago the script to the pilot of Timeless leaked online. I really like this show – it’s coming to E4 soonish but I have a US iTunes Store account so I’ve been watching it about a day after it airs in the States – and I envied its title. That would’ve been just right for my collection. The bastards. Only, as well as a very revealing deleted scene, the script also shows that the series was going to be called Time.

That’s it. Just Time. I felt better: they had to go through some trouble to get to a great title and they managed it.

But then that reminded me of how it seems everyone goes through the same hell and they continue to. Jeremy Clarkson and the other two who are late of Top Gear are about to start a car series called The Grand Tour but it was going to be called Gear Knobs.

When that was rejected – I can’t imagine why – they also looked at Speedbird, No Limits, Dip Sticks and The Best Car Show… in The World.

Speaking of words that might not pass muster on a broadcast channel, have a read of Elizabeth Meriwether’s pitch for the US comedy New Girl sometime. It is a gorgeous piece of writing, so alive and full of verve, and it begins with this: “The working title of the show is ‘Chicks and Dicks’. But obviously this isn’t France, so we’ll have to change it.”

New Girl is a bit of a dull title and progressively out of date as the new woman of the name has now been around for something like five seasons. Whereas The Good Wife was a great title for a brilliant series. I just hanker for one of its working titles: among an apparently 75-100 considered names there was The Whole Truth, In The Spotlight and – wait for it – Leave the Bastard.

I also love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt but would’ve been just as happy if it had been called Tooken. That title makes its way into a single sentence of dialogue in one episode. Whereas in the UK Phil Redmond went further when he wanted to call his show Meadowcroft but legal concerns forced him to change it to Brookside. Reportedly in its early years you can see characters in Brookside watching TV – and the show they’re tuned in to is a drama called Meadowcroft.

That’s the subtlest way of airing a working title. Less subtle is actually calling your show by one name and maybe later on fixing it. So Seinfeld aired for a season as The Seinfeld Chronicles. The sitcom Ellen’s famous and excellent coming out two-parter was disguised from the network with the innocuous title The Puppy Episode and in the end aired as that.

Whereas the whole show Ellen aired for one season as These Friends of Mine. It was then reportedly renamed Ellen because of potential confusion with a new hit called Friends. Though speaking of Friends, that was going to be called Six of One or Across the Hall. It was sold to the network without a title but then went a long way with the name Friends Like Us.

Which reminds me: My So-Called Life was originally Someone Like Me. I do love and cherish MSCL from its title to its end credits but Someone Like Me was very clever for a tale of a high school teenager feeling estranged and different to everyone around her.

None of which is helping me find titles for a collection or, since I’ve now decided I loathe some of my story titles, any good story titles. I’ve been around the houses on this subject – oh, EastEnders was going to be called Round the Houses. Also East 8. I’ve got a book somewhere that talks about the terribly problems they had finding a title for them. It seemed to work out.

Everything does when you get a good title. I know that a good title catches the readers’ or the audience’s eye and attention but there’s more to it than that. When I’ve got a good title, my writing flies. Pity I haven’t found a clever title for our chat this week.

Writing to ourselves

This is a tough one because I can’t quite form the thought that’s bubbling but I want to try. It’s clearly about the little local difficulty this week, that tiny of thing of Trump getting elected. And it’s also definitely about the disconnection between most things I read beforehand and what a majority of the US public must’ve read.

But other things keep popping in. Like the photo of a spray-painted sign that went went around social media this week. It’s so peculiarly spaced that you have to think for a moment but what it’s trying to say is “Make America White Again”. Forget that it’s an inexpressibly painful statement and instead if you see the photo, look at the symbol between the words.

Here’s someone doing the America-for-Americans crap but he – it’ll be a he – uses a German Nazi Swastika symbol. That symbol had a life long before the Nazi Party but that’s over, that’s gone, that’s erased: this logo is forever Nazi and German. If the painter knows this, he’s just broken his own ambition of building a wall between the US and ‘foreigners’. If he doesn’t know, then he’s even more ignorant than you already think.

Yet here’s an ignorant prick turning to writing. Writing matters. It reaches people: even his hateful message got widely circulated and I’m part of that. We couldn’t be more different, this man and I, yet he wrote something and I’ve passed it on to you.

Usually, though, it is true that we write and read within our own walled gardens. This has been an issue with the rise of Facebook and Twitter where if you don’t agree with someone, you can just remove them from your social media life. It’s definitely a big issue now as the result of the election was a surprise to pretty much all of the media writers. No question, they believed they were right and no question, each article condemning Trump backed up their view.

Only, I don’t think the walled garden idea is entirely fair. At least part of the problem with media coverage of the election is that people lied to them. People knew that it was bad to say they supported Trump, so they didn’t say it. The more they didn’t say it, the more the accepted view was that you couldn’t support this man so the more they didn’t admit it.

Obviously they knew they were lying, obviously they chose to lie, and it follows that they did so because saying they backed this foul man was socially unacceptable. It isn’t any more. He won. So the haters feel they’ve won too. Even if we didn’t have the evidence from Brexit here and even if we weren’t already seeing it in the States, you could predict that hate crimes would rise, that the darkest sides of people would come out into the light. Because they think they can do it, because they know it is socially acceptable to enough people, because their President is truly theirs.

That makes me shake. That’s a walled garden where the people in it have just discovered each other and are crowing about it.

It’s horrible but it’s not new. Even though Facebook and Twitter have exacerbated the walled garden idea, we have always had this exact same thing. Think back to when newspapers mattered: you didn’t see very many dinner dates between a reader of The Sun and one of The Guardian.

Go back even further, no, further than that, keep going, still more, nearly there, here you are. Pre-industrialised society. Whatever were the generally accepted norms in your village could be very different to what was thought right in the next. Back then the barrier was a physical problem of separation, now it’s more human response.

And I’m afraid it is human. We are born into one tribe and even if we leave, we seek out others. Writing has enabled us to leave sooner and spread further, yet we still and always will gather in similar groups. Aaron Sorkin once had a character say that if you’re dumb, surround yourself with clever people and that if you’re clever, surround yourself with clever people who disagree with you. We won’t.

I don’t write to you because I consciously think you’re in my tribe, I write to you because I like you. My Facebook friends are people I like, or people I’ve worked with, or people I’m pretty sure I know even if I can’t quite place them at the moment. Amongst them, there’s been a lot of talk about blocking and unfriending people who are pro-Trump. It is tempting but I’ve resisted because I do want some gristle, I do want to learn and grow and persuade and be persuaded.

But I accept that in the main, I am in a walled garden and I am writing in one. I also accept that this is bad and that we should do what we can to break those walls down.

Only, there is a part of me that thinks this isn’t the problem. If Trump and Clinton supporters are in walled gardens, if Brexit’s Leave and Remain sides are in walled gardens, we probably can’t change that.

What we need to do is make our walled garden bigger than their walled garden. And we’ll do it with writing. You and I.