The UK mobile phone operator 3 phoned me last week and asked what I do for a living. “I’m a writer,” I said automatically. And as it turns out, that was a dangerous answer because it triggered a whole new script from them: did I mean journalist?
I said no then, but more calculatingly than automatically. I’ve known this before: if you’re a journalist, you are excluded from most marketing surveys and the like. I know it because I’ve been glad and after I’ve mentioned this to other people, they’ve pretended to be journalists for the same reason. This time I knew where it was going and I said no mostly because I wanted what they were offering: I’m about to beta test their 4G service. Now, in case you get a job with 3 and have a conscience, and/or they have a Google Alert on their name – and employ myriad minimum-wage people to read every website that ever includes the number 3 – then I want to tell you that I wasn’t lying.
On the strict, literal, in that moment, defense-in-court kinda way, I wasn’t lying because that day I wasn’t doing any journalism at all. In a feels-better-in-your-heart way, I wasn’t lying because I’m a writer. I even told them that I used to do journalism. “But you’re cured, right?” they didn’t say.
It’s the word automatically that I want to talk to you about. I think you missed that: back there in mid-rant I said that I’d automatically answered that I’m a writer. You know the difference but maybe you don’t think it’s a very big one. Apparently 3 does. But you’re not convinced.
I left computers and got into journalism writing because I wasn’t technical enough and I certainly wasn’t interested enough in the latest metal box and the newest drama about a poorly-written Windows DLL executable. What I didn’t realise for a long time that it was really that I was more into actual drama. Genuine drama. Television and radio and stage and prose drama. I wrote about computers, then I moved into media writing.
But for all the fun I had and all I learnt and all the people I got to meet –
– wait, quick aside?
When I was writing for BBC Ceefax at BBC Television Centre, the Corporation’s drama department was based over the road at Centre House. Julie Gardner was there. Google her now and you’ll get a tonne of results about how she brought back Doctor Who with Russell T Davies and that is true, that is something superb, that is something to be proud of and it’s right that there should be all those web pages. But she did much more and you have to Google deeper to see what a force she was in drama at BBC Wales. And then you can Google as deep as you like, you won’t find that she encouraged me.
To be utterly honest, I can barely remember the details. This is maybe 15 years ago now and more that specifics of script writing advice and comments, what I remember and in fact what I carry with me is that I have yet to come within a pixel of achieving what her other writers have. It is a smouldering, burning, igniting ambition of mine to write something that impresses her. If I did, I doubt she’d even know about it because she’s long left the UK: she’s now being a force in American television. If I did write something that well, there’s no reason to think she’d connect it with the journalist she met half a dozen times in 1999.
Yet that’s my ambition because even in those few meetings and despite how I wasn’t that keen on the shows she was working on at the time, I admired her then for what she said. And of course now I admire her for what she did.
– that wasn’t a very quick aside, but it is relevant, I promise.
I was saying that I had all this fun, I met all these fascinating people, I learnt so very much and in all of it, there’s only probably an hour I’d ever change. But I had one thing that I now understand prevented me ever becoming a hard news journo.
I want you to lie to me.
Okay, I did this one phoner interview with a guy I can’t name. Let’s call him Trev or even Bert. Bert was the toughest interviewee I ever did because he could be and though I felt then that he was excruciatingly shy and struggling, I’ve been told myriad times since that no, he’s just excruciating. Because I have this pretty detailed knowledge of American television drama, I may be the only journalist he spoke to who knew about a particular series he went there to do. He lied to me about it. I could accept a boast about it being more successful than I knew it was, but he casually lied about facts and figures. He must’ve known I knew. So I didn’t like that lie.
But that was only a small part of a foul interview, I can’t take it as an exception. In general, I want you to lie to me and I want you to lie good.
At least, I do in drama. And while it’s become a universal rule for me, it started with Doctor Who.
For I can see me now, driving down to London around 6am one morning and hearing on the radio that Christopher Eccleston was leaving the show. Remember this: Doctor Who had just come back and it was immediately the most enormous hit. It was a surprise hit and that just made its success feel all the greater. It was also the most vibrant show with enough energy and verve to make other dramas feel unfinished. So the news that he was walking away from this massive, massive success was a shock.
No question: it was news.
But imagine how much more of a shock, how much more of a news story it would have been if we’d got to his last episode and didn’t know? We’d have had the usual building tension about whether the Doctor will survive and of course we’d have the usual naturally-he-will-or-the-show-is-over tap that keeps us from quite believing it. Then it would have got much further along this tension than usual and we’d start thinking well, it’s the end of the season, this is building to a really big cliffhanger. And then Eccleston’s Doctor would’ve died and who the hell is this new guy standing there?
David Tennant’s first lines as the Doctor include a reference to teeth. He could’ve been talking about every one of us because our mouths would’ve been open and our jaws bouncing on the floor.
And we were denied this because the news leaked.
Russell T Davies, speaking in the rather nightmarishly mesmerising book The Writer’s Tale (with Benjamin Cook) said the news was leaked by the BBC’s Peter Fincham, Controller of BBC1 and Head of Drama Jane Tranter. He doesn’t blame them, but:
The BBC is powerless with the press. No one can control the papers, they’ll print what they want, and we need them, so threatening to withhold or punish simply doesn’t work. We’ll just go crawling back, cap in hand. But the central problem is that the BBC is a public service broadcaster, funded by the public so we are Not Allowed To Lie – and we end up craven and apologetic. That’s why the leak about Christopher Eccleston leaving could not be plugged. Once asked by The Mirror, Jane Tranter could not deny it. Even though it ruined the surprise cliffhanger to Series One. How incredible would it have been to keep the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration a surprise? But we had to be scrupulously honest. It’s all the consequences of the Hutton Inquiry. But Doctor Who is hardly Hutton! This is fiction! I don’t give a damn, I’ll lie all I like if safeguards the stories that we’re telling. They can’t stop me. But there’s little point when Peter Fincham has to tell the truth. Madness.
I don’t know that it’s the Hutton report, though. I think there is an element that is down to the soaps. There’s certainly pressure from fans – of anything, not just Doctor Who – to be told everything now, now, now. That gets fed a lot by producers aware of the interest and wanting to keep it, wanting to stoke it, and doubtlessly also wanting to talk with people who care so much about their work. But without exception, whenever anything at all is revealed about anything at all, someone loves it and someone hates it. Loudly. Then whether anything revealed is true or not, it is treated as truth and we end up with the weird situation where people are disappointed that something that wasn’t going to happen doesn’t happen.
Next time Apple is about to announce something, take a peek at the storm of analysts saying it will definitely be an Apple TV set or it will be an iWatch, no question, we’ve got proof, and then when it isn’t, shield yourself from the storm of “Apple fails!” stories. I switch off my RSS news feed around these times.
But with soaps, I can’t. It’s not that I plug soap news into my RSS feed but I do tend to shop in supermarkets and there is not one day I do that there isn’t a shelf of magazines with soap headlines on them. This character is about to die, this one is about to kill, that one is pregnant. Most of them are extremely over-hyped but some would genuinely be big moments in their series, except we know about them already.
It’s not a mistake. I don’t think it’s right, but I know it isn’t an accident. The job of big moments in soaps is not to tell a story, not to completely arrest the viewers. The job of big moments is to advertise that you should watch the series. This is when soaps are not drama. Coronation Street had a gigantically successful storyline a few years ago with a long, long, long-running tale that ended up with a court case and a major character in danger of being falsely imprisoned. Even I watched some of this and I don’t happen to follow Corrie. But then the producers had one last big thing to leak that would get them some headlines: they said that they would never let a character be falsely imprisoned.
I never watched another second.
That’s soap: build it up in the press, let it fizzle away on the screen. All I ever want, all I have ever wanted from a story is to be in it. Absorbed. Carried away by its characters and its tale. And this will not happen with soaps because I can’t even pretend to myself that anyone is in any jeopardy and there will never be any true surprises, true dramatic delights because every key moment is on my supermarket shelf as an advert.
Of all the dramas on TV, I’d take a guess that Doctor Who gets the most coverage after the soaps. At the moment, at least. Actually, since its return in 2005. It’s been a remarkable run. And to this day, to this minute, every possible scintilla of news about what’s happening in the show gets picked up and examined.
So I was delighted to read this recent comment by Steven Moffat:
I’ll be honest with you: what you know is entirely conditioned by which bits we had to shoot outside. So then we say ‘we’ve decided to tell you…’. We just tell you what we have no choice about. If I could make this on the dark side of the moon and tell you nothing at all, I’d do it. I’d also lie to you prodigiously and regularly if I thought it would help keep a secret. Watch me!
Keep it up.
Do you know yet why I’m saying this to you today? If you don’t, I don’t want you to. I want you to find out for yourself. It’s fifty/fifty whether you’d shrug or you’d be delighted, but I watched something yesterday without knowing anything about it and this little show was a truly delicious, surprising delight.
So delicious that I wanted to keep eating it, somehow, and as ever with these things, I had a poke about online. And the very first thing I found that was talking about it had the show’s biggest surprise slapped right there in the headline. Followed by the tiny word ‘Spoilers’.
Don’t tell me these things. Don’t tell me anything.
And if you must, then lie to me. Please.