Dear boy

 

On the left there, a somewhat poorly-scanned page from Alan Plater’s screenplay of Fortunes of War, based on Olivia Manning’s novels. On the right, a page from my Doctor Who script, Spaceport Fear. I am shocked to realise that 25 years separate the two, but what joins them is who said these first words of the characters. Prince Yakimov on the left and Elder Bones on the right were both played by Ronald Pickup, who died this week.

I’m a bit numb about that. It’s not like I knew him well and considering that he’s had the most astonishingly long and varied career, it’s a bit bad that I inescapably associate him and that fantastic voice of his with these two roles.

But Fortunes of War means the world to me. I can sit here, talking to you, and play pretty much the entire serial in my head, frame by frame. If you don’t know it, I’d say I envy you having it to enjoy, except that it’s quite hard to find now. Search YouTube for Fortunes of War, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. That’ll do you.

And you can always buy Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear to listen to.

Only, if the name Ronald Pickup makes me instantly picture Prince Yakimov saying “dear boy” in that voice, when I close my eyes I’m walking into the Big Finish studio where that Doctor Who is being recorded – and I’m trying to place the voice of whoever is playing Elder Bones.

I don’t remember why I didn’t already know who all the cast were. I certainly knew that Colin Baker was the Doctor and I was excited at the prospect of seeing Bonnie Langford perform my lines as Mel. I suspect that something changed, that I hadn’t been due to go to the studio and suddenly I could. Oftentimes you don’t go because you’re off writing something else, but whatever the reason, whenever the chance, it is gorgeous to hear first-class actors delivering your lines.

So I’m walking into the control room, I’m hearing that voice, and I’m also absorbing the news that Bonnie Langford isn’t there. I didn’t meet her, I’ve still not met her, and on that day her lines were read in by another member of the cast. Read in so well that I doubted the news, I was so sure that this was Mel talking to whichever man had that great voice. (Langford couldn’t make that recording day so she came in a week later, I believe it was, and recorded all her lines in one go then. I thought that must sound awful, but listen to the story: you cannot tell she isn’t reacting to everyone around her. It’s a remarkable job by everybody from Langford herself to director Barnaby Edwards and the whole crew.)

Anyway.

I was obviously late because they were all deep into recording. And the way the studio is laid out, I could see Colin Baker very easily, but some of the others were completely out of view. So I had this glorious voice filling the control room as if coming from nowhere. I know I know it, I know I recognise it, but it was a good twenty minutes before there was a recording break and I got to see that, yes, it really was Ronald Pickup.

In that twenty minutes, I went from wondering who the voice was, to wondering whether that was really Mel talking to him, and through the stages of mentally comparing what they were all saying to what I’d written. And then so very quickly into forgetting it was all my words, all my story, and just completely believing that this was the Doctor and Mel in some serious trouble.

Big Finish always gets superb casts so I freely admit that I’ve been starstruck at regular intervals. But for half an hour or so over lunch that day, I got to natter away about Alan Plater and Fortunes of War with Prince Yakimov.

Dear boy.

 

 

Je ne comprends pas, but…

It’s possible that you’ve noticed this, but the UK — or perhaps more correctly England, yet the whole nation is getting clobbered by it — is going through a protracted period of withdrawing from the world. I don’t think it’s planned, I see it as schoolboys folding their arms and believing everyone will come begging. But whatever is ultimately behind it, the result is that we’re more isolated and more turning our backs on everywhere else — except on television.

This week I saw Call My Agent for the first time and it is a delight, I’m feeling warm just mentioning it to you. I’m a single episode in and yet I’m already intending to eke out the series as the whole run isn’t all that long and I want to relish it.

And at the same time, I am regularly checking online to see when the next episodes of Lupin are available.

These are both French television dramas, both on Netflix. Other foreign language dramas are available and always have been, but not to the extent they are now. I’ve long been a sucker for subtitles: back when you used to flick through channels instead of menus of shows, if I caught something with a subtitle, I was locked in to the end because I had to read what came next. Had to.

But that was always late night on BBC2 or BBC4, and now high-budget, high-profile subtitled or dubbed foreign-language dramas are getting 70 million viewers.

Now, that 70 million is the figure for Lupin. Netflix rarely reveals figures unless they’re particularly good. It’s a curious thing about streaming video: none of the companies are required to publish their ratings, so none of them do until they’ve got a headline-worthy one. Even then, nobody can verify them.

And of course the 70 million for Lupin is a worldwide figure. Netflix hasn’t mentioned that the show apparently isn’t as popular in France as it is everywhere else, and Netflix certainly hasn’t said how many viewers were in the UK.

I think that’s actually part of how we’re seeing global dramas now. Netflix would presumably like a lot of viewers in the UK, but it doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK used to be hugely important because it was a big importer of English-language television. The UK is the reason Australia’s Neighbours soap kept going for decades. It’s one of the reasons that America’s 1980s Fame lasted four more years in syndication after NBC cancelled its network television run.

I think that the just as network television is vanishing, so the idea of different territories for selling TV shows to is being erased. It’s not there yet, we still have BBC making daytime dramas that are really produced to be shown in primetime in other countries, specifically ones where rosy cosy images of England sell well.

But overall, television drama is on its way to becoming global and instead of that meaning everything becoming a bit more bland, a bit more safe, a bit more homogeneous, we’re somehow getting to see tremendous dramas we never used to. I can’t think of a time in British television history where we had French and Spanish dramas available on demand, where there actually is demand for them, or where foreign-language shows are being talked about as much as these are.

So as Britain tries to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist and anyway will can’t survive without us, we in the UK are getting to see more of the globe through the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV+.

Except.

While I utterly love this, while I think it is fantastic that a great series can now punch far higher and wider than ever before, it’s not an accident. There is an element of how streaming services need libraries of material and here’s some material, let’s add that to the pile.

But it’s really because there is a quota.

I wrote an article about this in 2019 which reported that by the end of 2020, all streaming services would be required to have 30% of their libraries made locally. So if you’re an American service, as they all are, but you want to operate in France, you have to have 30% of your archive be made in that country.

Now, there are ways to fiddle this. Co-productions, co-financing, it all makes the country of origin be a little debatable. But back in 2019, the article I was commissioned to write was focusing on how, at the time, none of the services met the quota.

Netflix and Amazon Prime were close so I imagine they’ve made it. At the time, the then-new Apple TV+ looked like only about 6-7% of its small library was European. And Disney+ was believed to have 4.7%. I don’t know if they caught up and I can’t seem to find out, but it must’ve been a struggle.

Although I did think of a solution for them. Since the required quota was a percentage of their library, you can see how they could each fiddle the figures. Just remove a hell of a lot of shows from the European versions of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and so on. There are already extensive differences between the libraries available in any given country, because of rights and contractual issues. So I’m honestly surprised they don’t appear to have done that because it’s a lot easier to take a show off your list than it is to make or buy more series.

Instead, while I don’t have figures for this part, it does seem as if the services have bought, made, or co-produced more series to meet this quota.

And it definitely seems that this has worked for them in more than just box-ticking legal-form quota requirements. Now that we are seeing foreign-language series and these streaming services are seeing that we’re seeing them, we’re going to get more. We’ll get more because these shows are popular, not because they fit a criteria.

That’s the bit I love. Show people new drama and it works. We are now seeing more global hits that are a success not because their good bits are ironed out to make them palatable globally or because they’re the TV equivalent of Easy Listening. We’re seeing them because they are fresh and great and they are showing us parts of the world we perhaps didn’t see, even when we were part of the EU.

I love, I deeply love how I’ve ended up in massive conversations about Il Ministero Del Tempo, a Spanish time-travel series. It makes me so happy that the conversations were never about the fact that it’s in Spanish, they were always about how such a great show shot itself in the foot so badly with one episode that we all stopped watching the series.

Drama is bringing us together even as other factors are keeping us apart. Writing is bringing us together and it is reaching out across nations and languages. It is so great.

Except.

I said there was a quota. It’s a European Union quota.

We in the UK are benefiting from an EU quota not because we’re part of the European Union, not because we have any say anymore, but because as far as all streaming services are concerned, we just don’t matter. Nobody’s going to go whoo-hoo, we can have less than 30% locally-produced shows in the UK, they’re just going to lump us in with the rest of the continent.

The world is global regardless of what the UK, or perhaps most specifically England, seems to think.

I can get a bit miserable about the state of the nation and the state of politics, but if the UK is sidelining itself, at least I’ve got 23 more episodes of Call My Agent and another half a season of Lupin to relish.

The standard wasn’t so high, the decision wasn’t so difficult

Whether it’s when an awards ceremony announces its nominees or when the judges email to say you haven’t been selected, it is seemingly a contractual obligation that they open with “the standard of entries was so high”. On pain of death, they will then also say that the judges “had to make a very difficult decision”.

It just isn’t always true.

Sometimes it’s not even close.

I can’t count now the number of times I’ve either been a judge or in some way involved in an awards ceremony, and thankfully there are times when all of this was thoroughly accurate and true. That just occasionally took some work.

The single most useful thing I’ve ever done in any award judging was fiddle a category. I remember a book award jury where we were all a bit deflated because the one that was going to win in a particularly prestigious category was fine. It was okay. We’d all said sure, it gets through to the next stage. But it was sitting there on the table, at the top of the pile in this category, up there less from merit and more from attrition, and you just could not see yourself proclaiming that it was the greatest book in the year.

As it happened, though, a completely separate category had a couple of titles where you would’ve been happy to proclaim that. And I was the one who spotted that the very best of those was only in its category because that’s what its publisher had entered it for. It could equally have been entered into this other prestigious category so I proposed we move it.

And we did. That book moved from one category to another and, totally deservedly, won that more prestigious prize. I still wonder if the publisher spent any time wondering whether he or she had made a mistake on the entry form. But it was such a good book that I wish I could tell you its name.

On the other hand, I’ve been in awards where there was no such option and while the winner was certainly the best, that wasn’t saying much at all. I remember one theatre awards in particular where all ten judges, or however many it was, agreed instantly that there was only a single possible contender for either of the two awards on offer. We were off in this side room, meeting to discuss all of the short plays we’d just seen, and before the biscuits even arrived, we knew the winner.

We just didn’t like it.

The play that won both awards that night was utterly superb, so very much better than anything else in the night — until its last two minutes. Those last two minutes destroyed the play. And yet it had to win, there was nothing else close.

So that writer had a brilliant night, collecting two awards for her play. But both she and at least some of the audience went away thinking right, I need to write great dramas with exceptionally crap endings.

I tell you now, I’m ahead of the game here. I write plays that are crap from start to finish.

Let me tell you a happier tale. No, two happier tales: I was at the Writers’ Guild Awards in January 2020 when I saw the writers of Danger Mouse arrive. I can see me there on the steps, coming within one pixel of greeting them with congratulations because I already knew they’d won. Again, it was a deserved win, too, they had written a gem of an episode that is making me smile just telling you about it.

It’s a little unusual to know the winner, though, even when you’ve been involved. I knew with that book because I was at the final meeting, and I knew about Danger Mouse because I was presenting something else and had been there for the run through.

But even when you’re a judge, you often don’t know the final outcome. If you don’t happen to know how judging works, what always happens is that it starts with the writer or producer or someone submits their work. That gets studied and reviewed and poked at, and then if it’s good enough it becomes an official nomination. Then in various different ways it will be sent to multiple judges who’ll typically come back with their list of favourites, why they liked it so much, and so on. Then there’ll be another round or two whittling it down, arguing, debating and so on, until ultimately there is a winner.

Quite often, unless you’re involved in that very last stage, you can know full well what you voted for but not know who actually won.

Which is why at a previous Writers’ Guild award, I can remember crossing my fingers during the theatre category. And when Frances Poet won for her play Gut, I punched the air and called out “Yes!” sufficiently loudly to be a little embarrassed.

But come on, seeing tremendous work honoured, seeing utterly superb drama writing held up to the light for more people to see, it is fantastic.

It’s just rarely all that difficult a decision.

It has got so that when I hear “the standard was so high”, I think yeah, right, sure. And when I hear “the judges made the difficult decision” I’ve actually felt a bit patronised. It doesn’t matter what the awards are, whether I’m involved, the standard lines just always sound flat. Maybe we should have a Best Awards Award to make up for it.

If we did, I’d be nominating any ceremony hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Fey is a writing hero to me anyway, but just go on YouTube and watch those two hosting over the years.

Funny I should say that now, though. Because I wanted to talk to you about all of this, it was all on my mind, specifically because of the next awards ceremony that, as it happens, they are going to host. They’ll front the Golden Globes again this year and, no doubt, will be superb.

I just don’t think the awards themselves can be.

Look, there were somewhere between 400 and 500 new television dramas or comedies last year, I can’t expect my favourites to all be nominated. And I’m fine with Emily in Paris getting a nomination even though I preferred reading the script, I enjoyed it more on the page than on the screen.

But shows like I May Destroy You are not nominated. That show belongs in a new category of dramas I’m daunted to watch. It’s a Sin is in there too.

Yet its exclusion from the Golden Globes, the US equivalent of the UK’s television BAFTAs, seems peculiar. It seems like the Mona Lisa failing to get a nomination in the award for Best Mona Lisa.

Alan Plater, who won so many awards that I remember this whole cabinet he had of them, said to me once that you can’t take awards too seriously, though.

“Don’t let the BAFTAs grind you down,” he said.

Learning a lesson from writing 50 scripts

I think it’s 50. Today is the one year anniversary of my 58keys series on YouTube and it has 57 videos, of which I’m pretty sure the majority were scripted. Call it 50.

While we’re calling it, and as I want to build up some suspense over what this one great lesson is that I believe I’ve learned in the last year, let me call some more numbers. I’ve produced 57 episodes for a total of 13 hours, 1 minute and 54 seconds of video. Some 27,613 people have watched for a total of 2,236 hours and I have 781 subscribers.

Yes, if you look at the first episode and compare it to the most recent ones, you can tell which is better. It’s not as radical an improvement as I’d expected, mind. But I’m choosing to believe that this is because the early ones were fine, not that the later ones aren’t.

There were also something like 7 pilot versions. We will not speak of that again.

Oh, except that there was a lesson I learned from the pilots, which isn’t the Big Overall Writing Lesson I want to tell you about, but I think was still pretty big. I spent ages, like two minutes out of the ten, in the pilots of 58keys explaining who I am and why I believed I could make a useful series for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads.

The lesson I learned from that part was that nobody cares and nor should they. If I talk utter rubbish, then having a track record doesn’t make it right. Concentrate on saying something useful, that’s the job, that was the little big lesson from the pilots.

Whereas the Big Overall Writing Lesson from a year and something like 50 scripts is this.

Get on with it.

Writing half ideas, having stories you never finish, planning to write some day, you know the thing, there’s no point to it. I found a scrap of video I’d shot around ten years ago when I first had the idea to do a series. It’s not great. It’s not bad either. What it is, is a decade old.

Similarly, I like the title sequence in 58keys but I shot that whole thing around August 2019 and didn’t start the series for another five months.

Have an idea, then make it happen. Write the idea now, this minute, and if it’s rubbish, write something else.

Mind you, if it’s brilliant, save it and then still write something else.

Incidentally, the fastest I’ve ever done an episode of 58keys –– I mean from idea to edited video uploading to YouTube –– is 90 minutes. The slowest is four days. And so I did also learn this: if you want to write it, you can find the time.

Tender is the Night Manager

So by chance, this week I’ve been reading the scripts to The Night Manager, David Farr’s dramatisation of John Le Carré’s thriller. And I’ve been watching Normal People, Sally Rooney and Alice Birch’s dramatisation of Romney’s novel about a teenage romance.

I’m late to both of these, I know, but what strikes me most is that they’re pretty much equally tense. If anything, Normal People has me stressed out more and yet close to nothing happens.

In the first episode of that, we meet a schoolgirl and a schoolboy, and by the end they are secretly a couple. In the first episode of The Night Manager, there is murder, there are explosions, there is a really frightening villain.

I am deeply enjoying The Night Manager but I’m going to call it for Normal People as Most Tense of The Two.

And in this second, as I write to you, I remember something Alan Plater said about TV drama. He preferred it to be about people being, rather than something happening to people. Drama about people living, rather than drama about there’s-a-serial-killer-coming.

Mind you, I also think Normal People is more tense because it’s a romance. There’s an element of romance in the start of The Night Manager but, despite all that script’s other strengths, it feels like the pretty standard thing of a quick love affair before she gets murdered and he wants revenge. I am being so unfair to this show, but.

I used to think that my true definition of drama was two people arguing in a room and they’re both right. I still think that’s a peak, but maybe the true pinnacle is two people standing in a room and they both want each other yet the risk of saying it is so great.

It always is. I don’t know why this never stops being so tense when every romance has the same moment. Comedy romance turns on the first encounter, that’s so crucial that it’s even got a name, but drama has more than the meet-cute. It’s got the moment when one person tells the other.

There is no circumstance, no combination of desires or rejections, that can possibly mean anything, anything at all can stay remotely the same after that moment. If the other person is equally interested, that’s one thing and it’s great. But if they’re not, it’s over. You cannot go back to the friends you were one sentence ago. There will hopefully come a time when it’s not as painful for either of you any more, but until then you cannot have one sentence that isn’t awkward.

Listen, I was going to announce to you this week that I am becoming evil. I had decided it is the only way. In the US, there are people backing sedition and in the UK we have Brexit destroying the fishing industry while the government’s Jacob Rees-Mogg claims fish are happy now because they’re British. Clearly, self-interest to the point of blindness is what gets you anywhere in the world today.

Except now we’ve talked, I want to go write some romances. I’ll put evil on hold for a bit. Thanks.

Write away

One night next week I’m running a course on productivity for writers. I think it’s billed as being encouraging people to find time to write, but I do versions of this course a lot and really they boil down to showing various ways you can pull your finger out. I know there is actually helpful, useful stuff in there, but if you can give a writer their own “get on with it” attitude, you’re set.

Except if I were running it today, right now, this minute, I have an awful feeling I’d tell people to make some tea and put their feet up instead.

Friends who aren’t writers have said to me that this must be a fantastic time for us. We get all this free time in lockdown, plus there’s so much to write about with the coronavirus and the US attempted coup.

Leaving aside the free time aspect, and just casually ignoring the loss of income, there are writers I know who do agree. Who are inspired by everything.

I don’t want to even read another syllable about coronavirus, I can’t see that I’ll ever want to write about it. If you’re the opposite, if you disagree with me, good luck to you. I just heard a BBC Radio 4 play set in these times –– Personal Shopper by Hugh Costello — which worked very well.

And I might be reading the news a bit too avidly in search of the 45th facing the 25th, but I long for when this chapter of US politics is a chapter in a history book that I don’t have to read.

So here I am, saying good luck to you if you’re writing a coronavirus drama and extremely good luck to you if you’re attempting to write a history book that has all of this make sense.

Except.

The point of that course next week is to get people writing for publication. I don’t mean there’s a book deal at the end of it, I mean that so many writers see writing as this hobby and they’re frustrated that they don’t have enough time to do it. And if they instead would take it seriously, if they’d see it as part of their working life instead of a stamp-collecting afterthought, they actually would get more done.

This course is not for people who just write for themselves. None of my courses ever are, they are usually about reaching deeper inside yourself as a writer, but they are always also about the practical business of getting writing done and read.

I’ve actually ignored people who write just for themselves and while I’ve claimed I understand why they do it, I think really I haven’t. I think I’ve been a bit dismissive of scribbling.

And yet here I am, feeling better about the world because I’ve scribbled to you. Focusing on writing has today meant focusing on how dizzying everything is and that’s made it just a significant little bit less dizzying.

So good luck to you with the play, very good luck with the history book and plenty of good luck if you’re going to spend today writing for yourself, writing to a friend like this, or putting your feet up and finally finishing watching Tenet.

I keep getting interrupted by phone calls. I’m currently on about Sixet.

The new Christmas Eve lagrange point

I know I definitely want to wish you a happy Christmas and I worry that I may still owe you an email. But once you and I are done talking today, I’m switching off every screen –– Mac, iPhone, iPad –– and turning on the TV.

It’s strange to not be going anywhere this Christmas and yet for all that I miss meeting up with you, I’m really glad of a quiet space for a while.

Usually, I get a very particular two-hour-long quiet space on Christmas Eve, which is actually when I’m writing this. Usually I have what I think of as a lagrange point.

Those are actually the points in space between, say, the Earth and the moon where all the raging gravitational forces are precisely balanced out and all is calm. On Christmas Eve, the phone has stopped, there’s no one to answer an email or to ask for anything.

Usually my wife Angela Gallagher goes out to church with her sister and I have somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours alone. Usually, I spend that time watching a film I’ve been saving up and usually that film takes me away from everything.

I keep saying the word usually and that doesn’t seem to have quite the meaning it did before. This year’s Christmas Eve lagrange point will be the first where I’ve not been alone. Angela’s joining me and though she doesn’t know it yet, we’re going to watch one of my favourites from previous years.

It’s “Safety Not Guaranteed” and it is a quiet joy.

But speaking of quiet joys, nothing is going to change my other Christmas Eve tradition. For the fifth year in a row, I’m going to be watching Arrival sometime around midnight.

That’s partly because this is now my metric equivalent of midnight mass, partly because the stillness of the time seems right. But also because it’s the anniversary of when I saw the film in a cinema’s midnight screening.

It was actually the second time I’d seen it and I put this tradition down entirely to poet and celebrant Charlie Jordan, who took me to see a film without telling me what it was. I owe her.

That first time seeing it seems so long ago. That first Christmas Eve, driving out at midnight in the cold, that seems like fiction. I don’t want Christmas to be like this, but it has to be –– and I do want Christmas Eve to be precisely like this.

Take care of yourself, okay? Good talking with you. Now bunch up, get the Malteasers, we’ve got two movies to watch.

Speaking of writing

It’s been pointed out to me –– gently but absolutely correctly –– that one can spend so much time talking about writing and trying new writing software that you don’t actually write.

I felt caught out.

Also slightly guilty. But not so guilty that I stopped everything and did some serious writing. Instead, I’ve compromised and asked a whole series of other people to talk about writing instead.

Every day next week, December 22-25, 2020, there is an in-depth interview with a different writer on my YouTube series, 58keys. Normally that show is specifically for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads, since YouTube adores a niche and I’m quite fond of one too, but this time it’s for everyone. Well, for every writer.

The Writers’ Guild’s Martin Sketchley, for instance, does talk about his writing, but he’s got much more to tell you about his new service for Writers. His “Think. Feel. Write.” helps us develop as people as much as writers. Plus he’s an absolute expert on Scrivener.

Speaking of software, Ken Case from the Omni Group agreed to talk about his firm’s major writing app, OmniOutliner. Today is the first day in months I haven’t opened OmniOutliner, but only because it’s early. I know for certain that later today I will be planning out two complicated articles in it, for instance.

Actually, that might be the moment in next week’s more than two hours of interviews that tickled me the most. Ken confessed that he’d prepared for the interview by making some notes in OmniOutliner –– and I had to confess right back that so had I. We both had this app on our screens throughout. Love that software.

Then on another day, I want you to meet Debbie McAndrew. To me she will always be this superb theatre writer: never flashy, never over the top, always true and moving and funny. I relish her writing but she is also an actor and in our chat she brings up fascinating details about being on Coronation Street during one of the show’s golden ages for writing.

There is just something about combining things that interests me. Debbie has this enviably useful twin perspective on her writing, reaching deep into herself as a writer yet knowing so very well what will help an actor bring that work to audiences. Ken Case is a software developer who makes this tool for writers and Martin Sketchley has this split career of writing and helping other writers through his service and through being West Midlands regional representative of the Writers’ Guild.

Only, if I think doing these five interviews means I’ve really appreciated my interest in multiple perspectives, multiple different writing muscles, I must’ve known I was into this from the start because of who else I interviewed.

April Smith splits her time between television and novels. That would be enough to make me interested, but then within novels she can be doing crime thrillers or deeply absorbing historical fiction. And in, to me, the ultimate in developing and applying a writer’s skill, in television she’s both a writer and a producer.

You’ve just seen her latest work: April was a consulting producer on the tremendous Mrs America. And you’ve long heard of the first show she produced, that little thing called Cagney and Lacey.

To me, though, she’s one of the writers of Lou Grant. It may never stop startling me that I get to talk with one of the writers whose work is responsible for my wanting to be a writer. If you’d like now to blame her, she’s on Tuesday.

In fact, let me tell you what I haven’t told anyone else yet. All five of the episodes are on my 58keys YouTube site daily from Monday to Friday next week –– that’s Monday to Christmas Day, it’s unbelievable that we’re at Christmas Day already –– and the schedule runs thisaway:

Monday: Ken Case
Tuesday: April Smith
Wednesday: Martin Sketchley
Thursday Christmas Eve: Debbie McAndrew

Every episode goes live at 07:00 GMT and will obviously stick around for you to dig into later. All five will then also go in my first-ever 58keys playlist, too.

Wait, hang on, that’s four. Ken, April, Martin and Debbie. There are definitely five interviews, I know there are, I was there, I saw them happen. Now I’m wondering which writer I can possibly have got to come out to play on Christmas Day.

It’s definitely a writer who has that very special feature of being available.

Come to think of it, I’m sure that’s how I get most of my work.

More lessons from reading scripts

I read at least one script every day and, yes, I do it to learn from them. Really I do it because I enjoy it gigantically, but there is an element of education there. And so as we near the end of the year, I’d like to offer you my top five scripts –– and what I’ve learned from them.

Let me be as clear as I can given that this is a bit muddy. These are my top five favourite scripts of 2020, but they aren’t of 2020. They range across decades and I just happen to have read them this year.

Speaking of this year, I didn’t do any script reading for awards judging panels. Chiefly because there were no awards. I’m surprised to say that’s knocked about 100 off the typical number I read in a year.

Also, it means that the scripts I read were entirely selected by me. It was what was available times what I fancied. No plan, no direction, just interest and hopefully then enjoyment.

I wanted to do some maths here and break down the totals but I’ve got stuck on a detail. So instead let me tell you that it is gold when you hit on a whole series of TV, radio or film scripts and completely fascinating when you can read how a show developed over several years.

But it can also be disappointing. I found a collection of James Bond movie scripts and thought that was me set for a week or two’s reading. I only made it through the whole of Dr No by promising myself chocolate at the end and I gave up a few pages into a couple of others. I don’t remember which because I didn’t finish them, so they don’t count.

Whereas I do remember that The Simpsons episode called You Only Move Twice was very good. And the Only Fools and Horses episode called Diamonds are For Heather, well, it had a great title. (If you click the link for that Only Fools scripts, be careful: the site has all the show’s scripts but it is riddled with popups and links that misdirect you into adverts. Exasperating.)

In all then, I have so far read 523 scripts this year. Which means the following top five marks 0.956% of them. Told you I tried to do some maths. Here’s the one statistic I can be confident of: all five are TV scripts. I’ve apparently read around 30 film scripts, 50 radio ones and 30 stage ones, but by chance it’s five TV scripts that cut the deepest into me.

Here’s my top five in reverse order for no reason other than to try to build some tension.

5. Mrs America: Gloria by Dahvi Waller
I am singling out this one script from the whole of the Mrs America series, but solely because it’s the only script from that show that you can get. The series is about the efforts in the 1970s to pass America’s Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, and the efforts to stop it, too.

I just relished the show for its tension and how well it explored the arguments for and against. It was also deeply uncomfortable in its depictions of 1970s male attitudes.

But it also made me think a lot about creating likeable, admirable characters –– who you completely disagree with. It made me think about people with opposing views to yours can be great people. So Mrs America is ostensibly about the 1970s, but it felt very modern, too.

4. My So-Called Life: Father Figures by Winnie Holzman
I re-read all the MSCL scripts you can find online because a friend, Genevieve Hassan, interviewed one of its stars, AJ Langer, on her Celebrity Catch-Up podcast.

If you don’t know My So-Called Life, I profoundly envy you having it still to watch. It’s the story of American teenagers in the 1990s and I’ve just made it sound somewhere between Beverley Hills 90210 and even more boring. But I promise you this: you’ll have a time.

As a script, I think what I learned or at least am still trying to learn is how quietly you can shout. On the one hand, this is a low-key series with no great twists, but on the other hand every moment is compelling and makes you feel small surprises as giant shocks because you get what they mean to these characters.

3. Motherland by Holly Walsh, Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan and Helen Linehan
Specifically the pilot episode, though again mostly because that’s the only script you can get. I relished the series as a whole and it’s the one show I’m looking forward to seeing in this Christmas’s TV lineup.

Motherland is about being a working parent, I think that’s about all you need to know and I think that is just the smallest sliver of what it’s really about.

A producer I like mentioned to me that she’d found the series weaker than the pilot. At the time, I hadn’t even known there was a pilot so I’d come to it a bit backwards. Somehow that’s meant I can’t assess the differences because to me the pilot was a treat of an extra episode after the rest.

There is one thing I have definitely learned that I want to hold back from you for a second because I learned it too from the scripts that follow. But specifically and only from Motherland, I think I learned about writing crushing pressures on characters and how those pressures can be both forcefully real and very funny.

2. Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
It seems like eleventy-billion years ago now, but last Christmas I was given the book of these scripts. So it was the first I read this year and it was the first complete series I got to read. Do go get the book. But you can also read two episodes online via the tremendous TV Writing website.

This had that thing I’m holding off saying, but it’s also a two-series-long adaptation of Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag stage show and it’s the conversion that I think I learned from the most. Don’t get me even slightly wrong, I know I learned from all of it and this is a series of scripts that upset me as much as they made me laugh.

But it’s also a series of scripts that do not include one key moment from the stage show. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that didn’t transfer, what difference it means to the characters. A year on, a COVID year on, I’m still thinking about it.

1. In My Skin by Kayleigh Llewellyn
Scripts for the whole five-episode series are available online. It’s about a teenage schoolgirl in Wales.

And let me stop there. For this is what I learned from In My Skin, Motherland, Fleabag and I now realise actually also from My So-Called Life and Mrs America.

I am not, never have been and never can be a teenage schoolgirl in Wales but the right script can make me feel as if I am. All of these scripts took me places I don’t know and into characters I cannot be, and they made me feel.

I wish to God I was as good a writer as any of those in this rundown. Don’t count me out yet, though, I’m working on it.

Imposter sin

I promise you this is about writing, but it won’t seem it for a while. Here’s the thing: Britain is the first country in the world to have a coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine is great news that’s come a lot sooner than could’ve been hoped, and it’s like the first light after a worldwide pandemic.

Worldwide. I can’t think of anything that’s hit the entire world and put us all on pause like this. So the world has been hit, but a pan-European effort involving a US company has got the first vaccine.

There cannot be even a scintilla of this that is in any way bad.

So the British government invented one. This week Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, took this unequivocally good news and lied about it.

The vaccine is a win, it is a brilliant achievement, and he lied.

This isn’t a matter of opinion, it is not a difference in interpretation. He says –– and continues to say –– that Britain developed the vaccine because of Brexit. If we hadn’t left Europe, we’d have been held up by pesky red tape.

He might call it red tape, I might call it safety standards that mean fewer of us die, but, you know, that bit is splitting hairs.

What isn’t is that in this case Britain is still bound by exactly the rules and standards it was. Not for much longer, we’ve got that chlorinated chicken coming, but right now, this moment, we are. The vaccine was developed under these European rules, it was developed by people across Europe, it is a great thing.

And yet I’m embarrassed by it. Because of how Rees-Mogg told the story.

When I say this vaccine was developed across Europe, I do include Britain. My own country played a part here and that’s something to be proud of, but instead Britain is diminished by its own choice.

And there’s the writing part of this.

You have a story, the creation of the vaccine, but it’s your choice of how you tell it that decides whether you make people proud or embarrassed. It is literally writing this time, as Rees-Mogg tweeted that bullshit, but the fashioning of the story, the telling of it, that’s writing whether it goes into text or not.

It used to be that you knew politicians lied, but at least they made some effort and at least they knew it was bad. I mean, Richard Nixon resigned. Nobody does now. Nobody resigns because of something they’ve done, nobody gets fired, or at least not in politics.

There is something worse than lying these days. There used to be a disconnect between what politicians said and what they do, now there is a chasm between what they do and the truth.

The nearest similar chasm I can think of is going to sound trivial because it doesn’t end up killing lots of people. It severely damages one person, though. And it’s the imposter syndrome chasm. I know this as being something writers feel, that they’re not really writers and will be caught out soon, but actually I suspect it applies to everyone. Except current politicians, obviously.

I’ve been talking about imposter syndrome with a friend this week and somehow all the old jokes didn’t seem right. The key old joke is that actually I have solved imposter syndrome: I no longer suspect I’m a rubbish writer, I looked into it and proved that yes, I’m crap. All doubt removed.

This time I keep thinking of that chasm between our perception of ourselves as writers, and whatever the reality is. I keep thinking that there is no truth any more, you can and maybe must just choose what you want to believe. Make a choice to believe you’re good, regardless of the facts, and then at least you can remove the constant, time-consuming doubt and get on with actually writing something.

So.

I hereby declare these three things to be true and self-evident. I am a brilliant writer, I am roguishly handsome and I invented chocolate.