How do you get 17 People into a bottle?

If a particular friend of mine is writing a script where it becomes vital that the protagonist knows the right time, she will introduce a blind watchmaker and his seven sons, sure an’ they’ll all have a tale to tell, in order to get someone to tell him or her it’s eight o’clock. Myself, I’ll write in a watch.

There’s really no way to say which of is right in our approaches, except that obviously I am, because where I could muster arguments on practicality, your basic storytelling, and simple budget, she could argue that I have TV mentality. She’s writing for a bigger canvas. I’m not saying that’s what she argues, but she could and the next time we argue about this I’ve just given her some armament.

Besides, if you take my reluctance to introduce what I’d call superfluous characters to extreme, you know that any character you do see in my material is important. It’s like when there’s a gun to your head so you’re watching Poirot: there is a limit to how many people can be the murderer because there’s a finite group and the fine line between the importance of the roles is erased by looking at the cast list.

But I love, absolutely cherish working to very finite constraints. Each On This Day entry for Radio Times is between 89 and 94 words long, I wrote some 16,000 Ceefax pages that were extraordinarily constrained, Crossroads was so many minutes and so many cast, it goes on. And I also cherish it when someone else works to extreme constraints and does it well.

Hence 17 People. That’s the title of a West Wing episode I’m particularly fond of. I re-read the script today while I was waiting for something and tonight I just re-watched the episode. I honestly don’t think I realised this back in 2001 when it aired here, but it’s what American TV calls a bottle show. I don’t know what UK TV calls them. Probably “cheap”. And in the intro to his published script, Aaron Sorkin says it was mandated: make this one cheap. No guest stars, no location filming, no new sets. “In other words, I got to write a play,” he said.

If you know the series at all, this was the episode when Toby was told of the President’s MS, but that doesn’t matter. Well, not now, and not so much to me anymore: knowing what the story was and where it was going to go, this is still a glorious episode and the type of drama that makes me a drama nut. Usually I’ve said that drama is two people talking, but here it’s two, three, seven people talking. Same principle, though: I read scripts about the end of the universe and I could care less, if I tried very hard. I read the script to 17 People and every scene is two or more people talking and I am transfixed.

By contrast, I switched on what I think I’ll just call a Popular UK Drama the other night and it was exactly this, it was a scene with two people just talking. But every line was clichéd, it was quite remarkable how nobody need any new lines even to bridge between a couple of clichés. I was transfixed again, watching for their resolve to break and a fresh thought to come through but if they managed it, it wasn’t before I’d switched to the news.

So maybe I’m just saying is that it’s fine to have constraints, it doesn’t mean you mustn’t do anything with them.

And hiring Richard Schiff doesn’t hurt.


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