It’s called children’s theatre, yet…

I want you to flashback with me to when I was at a famous Birmingham Rep schools’ Christmas play. It’s a very long way: I want you to flashback three whole days.

I don’t remember whether my own school took us to plays when I was there but then I didn’t like my school and my school didn’t like me so we just made a pact not to bother each other much. Whereas I think from the uniform colours that on Wednesday the majority of two primary schools were taken to the Rep.

Angela and I inadvertently went with them all to see The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, adapted from Dodie Smith’s novel by Debbie Isitt and directed by Tessa Walker. We went because we wanted to see it, we went on Wednesday afternoon because we wanted to see it on Angela’s birthday and there was no evening performance that day.

One school took up all the seats toward the front of the auditorium and the other took all of them toward the back. The Rep put us in the single line between the schools, like it was a neutral zone.

Look, the short version of this is that I urge you to go see this play and the only ever so slightly longer version is that I demand you see it with several hundred schoolchildren. Plus a dozen or so battle-worn schoolteachers.

I did feel for those. Outside the theatre, those hundreds of individual kids were one single, continuous roar. It was spooky: any one child you looked at was probably not saying anything but the noise was one single unbroken wall of sound.

Until the play started. The One Hundred and One Dalmatians runs for something like two hours with an interval and the show had those kids from the very start to the very end. Total command of their attention.

I’ve worked with kids of this age and I know that getting their attention and keeping it is damn hard. So I was admiring the play for that until I forgot because it totally commanded my attention too.

I’ve often seen theatre that’s meant for children, sometimes for work, sometimes just because it was the Christmas show, and every time I’ve thought the same thing. I have thought how glorious it must be to be a child experiencing this. Theatre is genuinely magical when you are exactly the right age to be swept away and to have these moments that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

It just turns out that the exact right age is 52.

 

The play has the Birmingham Rep’s typically brilliant set but it also bursts out with characters appearing way up in the auditorium. And I tell you, when Cruella De Ville appeared at the end of our row, I was actually scared.

Isn’t this just fantastic? Hang on, let me check something. Right, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians is on at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday 13 January. Go book at least one performance right now.

Fighting for the Corrs

I’ve been planning out a workshop I’m due to run in February about software for writers. Easy, I thought: Scrivener, OmniOutliner, Evernote, Drafts – oh. Slight problem. Most of the people coming are PC users so that’s Drafts and OmniOutliner out. And they’ve just had a workshop specifically about Scrivener.

I’ve got about six weeks to come up with this workshop and I’ve already changed it a dozen times in my head but right now what I’m thinking is this. I’ll take these people through the typical stages of writing anything, from first scratches of an idea, through research if any, through false starts if many, and on to the rest. Writing, editing, revising, rewriting and what you need to do when getting that text to publishers or editors or whatever.

And along the way, I’ll show them how there are types of software that can help. So for instance, toward the start I’ll cover mind mapping tools that help some people capture chaotic ideas. I’ll find them a couple of Windows mind mapping tools but I don’t see any problem with demonstrating the idea using a Mac and iPad one that I genuinely use often. (That’s called MindNode and I just this week wrote a review of the latest version for AppleInsider.)

I think this will work and I think it could even be very good, which is nice for me and unlikely to be nice for you as you’re not invited. Sorry about that. But in noodling through this all week, I’ve realised that I will definitely also include ways of capturing those fleeting ideas you know have potential but you can’t use them in whatever you’re writing now.

You’ve got your own system for doing this and I bet you forget things just as much as I do. But in my case I’m going to use the fact that apps work well in combination. So, for instance, there’s a great iPhone and iPad tool called Drafts. It’s a bare-bone app for writing in but what it does that’s so good is that it is ready immediately. Tap the app, start writing: no having to choose New Document or pick a template, just open and write.

When you put the phone down and immediately think of something else, pick it up again and start writing again. Drafts gives you a blank new page every time, right away.

But it also lets you take action on things and the one thing I do is this. When I’ve written something in the dead of night that I foolishly think will be both useful and coherent tomorrow, I tap a button in Drafts that I’ve called Story Ideas. Then before my head has fallen back onto the pillow, Drafts has taken that new text and appended it to the end of a very, very, very long Evernote entry where I collect all of these things.

The point is to be fast at writing them down before they’re gone and the point is to then always know exactly where to go to read these ideas again.

That’s where I fall down: I never remember to look at the Story Ideas note.

Or I didn’t.

I looked this morning, while pondering whether to tell you all this stuff about a workshop you can’t go to, and I am astonished at how many notes and thoughts there are in this Evernote pile. Since 05:50 on 3/11/2013 – Drafts dates each entry – I’ve got 12,842 words of ideas.

I can’t say that they’re good. For instance, I’ve just found from 09:28 on 19/6/2014 the words: “Write about a tree”.

But then there’s this from 18:45:27 on 5/7/14: “Steve hates time travel. He had a bad experience when he was a kid and an old man.” I think that led to a short story two years later. Certainly it was part of the thinking so I like that.

Or I like this more than I should. At 01:53:41 (why are some times to the millisecond and others aren’t?) on 25/9/14 I just wrote: “You don’t know whether you fancy her or want to be her.” And now look at this script extract from two months ago:

INT. LONDON RESTAURANT BAR – EVENING
The group is waiting in a bar. There are large TV screens tuned to sports and news channels.

Susan Hare is in an evening dress and, God, she looks superb. You’re not sure if you fancy her or want to be her. You are sure that this is someone rich, talented and leading a charmed life. You’d be wrong, but you’d be sure.

That’s from a script called Vows which has been doing remarkably well for me this year. Without looking in my Story Ideas notes, without remembering that I’d had this thought before, writing it down in Drafts and sending to Evernote lodged it in my head enough to come out three years later when I needed it.

So somewhere around 2020, then, I expect to be writing a script or an article about how words change and events get forgotten. I expect to be writing a story in which some student in the future pays little attention to a lecture on the Troubles in Northern Ireland and thinks it’s about music from the era.

Thank you for letting me find a place to use one of the more silly ideas I’ve got recorded in this thing.

Ditchwater dull

I don’t know what I want to say. If you don’t mind, I’d like to noodle around a couple of points that have become a thing this week. There’s a connection, I don’t know what it is.

Yesterday I was in a Performing Arts school talking about journalism and at one point we got into a discussion about the dull things journalists have to do. A teacher made the suggestion that the amount of reading you have to do is, well, not dull, but a chore.

I worked it out in front of them: I probably read a couple of hundred headlines a day, maybe a hundred starts or standfirsts to the ones that intrigue me, then maybe just sixty full articles. But I couldn’t tell you which of that is for work and which is for pleasure as they overlap: these are topics I work in but they’re topics I’m interested in.

Then one 11-year-old said that it was the amount of writing. I’ve only this moment, typing that to you, realised that the first dull suggestion was reading and the second one was writing. I suspect I may have found what my point is: these people I spoke to don’t want to be journalists.

Only, there’s one more thing knocking around my head. As well as me, there were two BBC television news people talking to these kids. I’d say I’ve rarely felt so outclassed but actually there are times when I’m that outclassed daily. Really, though, these two had presence and you were just immediately drawn to them.

One told me about having worked in schools and universities plus then seeing how those pupils and students behave when they get jobs in television. She said that it was common to find them refusing to fetch props, get coffees or even to shadow someone doing the job they apparently want so much.

Maybe this really is my point: they don’t want to be what they think they want to be.

Few if any of the 120 or so pupils I saw yesterday will ever choose to become writers. That they’ve seen something about it all and can make that choice knowing gigantically more than I did when I was their age, that’s fantastic. That the school does many of these days giving their pupils access to all manner of careers is perfect. I wish I’d gone to this school or that my school had been anything like it.

But of those people in any school, any education establishment, who want to become writers and journalists, I am suspecting now that many of them actually want to be what they think the job is.

The television newcomers want to direct Panorama in their first week, that kind of thing. Some or maybe many would-be journalists and writers want to be journalists and writers who don’t write or read.

This could all be obvious, you’re nodding at me now, and I think I’m being slow. But these thoughts about yesterday are clicking together with one I’ve seen before. When I meet a new writer and they say something about wanting to be the next JK Rowling with all her millions, I know they never will be. I haven’t even seen a word of their writing and I know they haven’t got it. They don’t get what she did. What she does.

If someone wants to write because they’ll enjoy being a published writer, they won’t make it. I feel I’ve lurched off into some kind of patronising diatribe now and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was trying to figure out with you here.

You have to see the necessity and the pleasure of the dull things. Maybe that’s it. Yet I’m so deep into this and I so love what I do that I am struggling to name a dull bit.

Well, the fact that I’m full of cold again and must now go deal with spreadsheets, that’s getting there.

Reading and righting

When I was at BBC Radio WM an extremely long time ago, I worked a lot on their Sport On Saturday show. What I know about sport is that I don’t know anything about sport. But it was a good radio show, well made, I was stretched and daunted and loving it.

Only, one year the station entered Sport On Saturday for an award. I can’t remember what: probably the Sony Radio Awards as they were called then. I also can’t remember what I had to do with this but there was something. Perhaps I just fetched the tapes I was told to. Nothing more than that but something and I liked being even that tiny bit involved. I liked that the show was being entered for an award.

I do remember that it was a lot of work for everyone else. Selecting clips, getting the tapes, editing a compilation of the best bits together, it took time and work and effort.

Then one morning during all this, I was leaving BBC Pebble Mill to go to a day job writing computer manuals and walked by the WM noticeboard. Pinned to it was the letter from the awards committee saying what the rules were.

Rule number 1 or 2, something near the top, was this: no compilations.

Every pixel of work that everyone was doing to prepare this awards entry was pointless. The judging was to be of one single edition of a programme and if WM put up the compilation it was making, it would not be listened to, it would not be considered.

I’d forgotten all of that until this week when news came of what’s happening with the European Capital of Culture initiative, a programme devised by and run for the member states of the European Union.

Yesterday Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and the partnership between Belfast and Derry twigged that they were ineligible to bid. It’s an EU project and the UK is leaving the EU. You may have missed that.

Apparently Leeds has already spent £1m on their bid. That’s over the last four years so you can’t blame them for investing in it before the Brexit vote happened. But you can blame them for investing afterwards. You can blame all the cities for continuing to invest in this.

There is a key difference between doing something stupid and actually being stupid, though. These cities continuing to invest until now is them doing something stupid. BBC Radio WM thinking it could compile a Best of Sport On Saturday for the awards because it didn’t read the rules was them doing something stupid.

Only now we’ve got the Government saying the Capital of Culture business has “come out of the blue” and we’re into a round of blustering. The EU is being unfair, we’re told. The EU has just decided this thing that’s actually always been bloody obvious and they’re throwing the UK out of the programme that the UK decided to leave.

Most unfair of all is how anyone could’ve expected the UK to realise that they were bidding for City of Culture 2023 and that year comes after 2019 when we leave. So unreasonable.

It’s the blustering that makes the difference between having made a stupid mistake and being stupid. I can kind of understand the bidding cities not realising that they were ineligible the moment we voted to Leave because there is so much else wrong with leaving, there is just so much to understand. Although if I were producing a campaign so deeply involved with the European Union and I learned we were leaving, I might have taken a moment to make the connection with Brexit.

Maybe that’s just because of what happened to me at WM. I did of course tell the station manager that I’d spotted this. He blustered like the Government is doing today. And the show entered the compilation into the award.

Writers are often told that if your audience doesn’t get what you’re saying, it’s your fault. It’s the communicator who is wrong, not the listener. I’ve always felt that there is a certain amount of bollocks in this but I accept that usually the communicator needs to communicate and if the audience isn’t listening, the writer needs to do it better. But still, there’s not a lot you can do for people who want your message, are spending money toward your message, and yet won’t read your message.

I had forgotten all of this but I do now remember becoming unpopular. I’d seen this rule in plenty of time for them to ditch the compilation and enter one whole eligible programme but instead I was disliked – and they entered the compilation.

That wasn’t making a stupid mistake, that was being stupid. And the UK Government’s blustering this week is exactly like that manager and the producers who then waited with pointlessly crossed fingers to see if they won.

Voice breaking

I’m never going to claim that I’m a good writer but I have been writing for a long time and there is something I’ve seen. Actually, I see it quite often and in fact this time I saw it seven weeks ago. To the day. I’ve waited this long to talk to you about it so that there’s no chance the person involved can figure out it’s got anything to do with them.

Clearly, I’m chicken.

But also while they are the one who prompted the thought this time, they’re far from the first and this is hardly a new issue. It’s the voice. The writers’ voice.

I think now that if you’re new to writing, you ignore voice because you just don’t get what it is. And that if you’re not new to it, if you have found your writers’ voice, you ignore it because you can’t write any other way and, besides, it’s not something that takes any thought.

What’s new to me is this: I think now that voice is the divider between a writer who is good or experienced, and one who is not. And even more specifically and precisely, I now think you can see the division because the inexperienced writer puts voice in quote marks.

That’s what I saw on Twitter on Friday 29 September. A writer I vaguely know made a sarcastic comment about ‘voice’ and reading it, I knew she didn’t know what it is.

Voice is the undefinable something that makes my writing different to yours.

It’s how I walked into my kitchen while Fi Glover was on the radio and I recognised her immediately because I’d just read one of her books.

It is the choice of words, yes. It is the patterns and the rhythms, yes. It’s just somehow more than that. Which is fitting because voice is not something you can define very well and it’s not something you can learn.

I mean, even if you didn’t happen to know what voice was until a minute ago, you get it now yet that’s not the same thing as having your own voice in your own writing. You can be taught what the term means, you can’t be taught how to do it.

You only get there through writing more and more. It’s not as if you get your voice when you’ve passed a thousand or a million words, either. It happens eventually or it doesn’t.

Which is in truth why I was so keen to talk to you about this and why I felt I had to wait seven weeks. To the day. Because the real reason this one tweet stood out to me was that a day or two before, this same writer happened to come up in conversation and I had been saying that there is something missing in her work.

I was in a car driving a colleague who thinks she’s taking a long time to write her novel and who is worrying about it as we all do. I’ve read an early draft of her piece and I was trying to convey why I like it and in fact like it so much more than she does. I like it because it has life and verve, because there is something more behind the choice of words and the choice of rhythm and pace. I think her novel is alive.

Maybe it’s because I was driving, but for some reason it wasn’t until I read the tweet that I made the connection. My car colleague’s unfinished novel has voice. And this tweeter’s published ones don’t.

No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

Lost week on Self Distract…

The last seven days are a hot lemon haze: I had a flu jab last Friday and took to it rather badly. I feel that rather than preventing a flu, I ordered one. But among the seven days of red hot fever alternating with shaking with the cold – wait, I’m going through a manopause – there were moments of clarity.

Such as last night. Sitting in Birmingham’s Town Hall in the interval at a concert. Everyone around me was still buzzing from Clare Grogan’s Altered Images and The Christians. I liked them both but realise I only know one and a half songs from each and this was a night of nostalgic celebration rather than of new music.

“We’re going to play a variety of things,” Midge Ure would say in the second set. “Don’t worry, it’s all old.”

But before that, sitting in the interval, feeling clammy and actually rather old from both internal and external reasons, I checked my email. And find myself saying this aloud, actually this: “Ooooh, great, the beta test of OmniOutliner 3 is here.”

“Well,” said Angela. “So long as you’re enjoying yourself.”

You wait forty years…

I did not set out to do this but when I realised what I was up to, I did it anyway. I had a play staged last week – unusually, I also acted in it – and pretty much the entire idea flew out of my typing fingers once I’d stolen the first line.

Now, to be fair here, the play performed is something like the sixth draft and I think now that at least two of those were entire blank-page rewrites. But from draft 2 onwards, I knew what I wanted and it is at least in gigantic part because I could hear the characters and I knew what the first line would be.

The only trouble is that I appear to have waited four decades to use that first line. Here’s a ten-second clip that I present to you as evidence.

 

The first segment is from forty years ago: Lou Grant, episode 1, Cophouse by Leon Tokatyan which aired in America on 20 September 1977. I don’t know when I saw it here in the UK but probably 1978. Still, 40 years or 39, that line has stuck in my head for no apparent reason. I mean, Lou Grant was and is special, there are issues it raised and characters it had that I can trace my current opinions and beliefs to. But “Excuse me, that’s my desk, okay?” can’t be one of them.

The second segment is from last Saturday. In Time by me.

For completeness, let me say that the first segment of that clip shows Ed Asner, sitting, as Lou Grant, and Robert Walden as Joe Rossi wanting his desk back. The second shows Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, sitting, as Jemima and William Gallagher as David, wanting his desk back.

That’s me. Forty years on, I am a writer. And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s taken a fair bit of effort and work, but I’m also an actor. Maybe only this once. But I have acted alongside a real actor, I’ve acted alongside Nadi Kemp-Sayfi.

I don’t want to examine or think about how that happened because I’m afraid if I do, it won’t have done. Or that it somehow won’t have been the startling success it was.

But I tell you, it’s a Dear Diary moment. Thank you to Cucumber Writers for inviting me to join them for this one production.

And They Are Us

I wanted to talk to you about a play of mine that’s being staged tomorrow night. I really, really wanted to talk to you about how I’ve ended up acting in it. And actually I also wanted to gabble at you about a whole series of workshops I’m running with writer Alex Townley.

But that’ll keep.

And this won’t.

This is too important. I was going to say that it’s too important to me, which it is and always has been, but it’s also just generally too important. I need to talk about the ‘me too’ and the ‘I believe you’ discussions. The journalist in me hesitates because, talking to you now, I feel I’m late to the topic and it’s been covered a lot. But then that’s about the only good thing here, that this has been discussed so much – and I want it to be discussed more.

I thought I knew, that I grasped how women are treated and I thought I was already appalled to the point of shaking at the way I don’t have a clue how to stop it. But the utter, ceaseless, overwhelming tsunami of ‘me too’ posts on Twitter and Facebook has turned my shake into paralysis.

The ‘I believe you’ ones gave me pause in a different way. Where the volume of ‘me too’ posts was deeply shocking, I’m ashamed to say that they weren’t surprising. The call for ‘I believe you’ was more startling to me because I can’t grasp how anyone wouldn’t believe.

Yet then if everyone both knew and believed all this, surely it would stop. So I posted ‘I believe you’ even though I still feel it is the most obvious thing I’ve ever written. Actually, I posted it on Facebook where they have those buttons for making things big and red. I’ve never before bothered to see how you do that but it felt right for this. I don’t think I’ll do it again because I don’t think I’ll write anything that important.

But then listen to me: I’m a saint. Except I’m not. If ‘I believe you’ is the most important thing I’ve written, this is the hardest: I can instantly think of incidents where I’ve made women uncomfortable.

I can tell you that I’ve never set out to do it and if it’s happened recently then I am scarily unaware of it. And I can also most definitely tell you that I have never, not once, ignored it when I’ve seen other men do it.

Except I must be wrong there. Must be. The sheer number, the wave after wave of ‘me too’ posts from people I believe I’m close to, it has got to mean that I have been blind to things happening.

Now, being blind to something is not the same as condoning it – except that of course it is.

I’ve failed my friends here. And there must be women who are wary of me because of it. Therefore there must be women who put me on the same side as men who do press and harass and attack. God, that’s not a side I want to be on.

There’s an interesting point being raised about how the language being used is creating its own issues and silos. It’s true that one hears about “violence against women” and don’t hear the phrase “violence committed by men”. I think it’s peculiar but true then that this is seen as a problem for women rather than a problem caused by men.

The fact that this is being pointed out now might even be the one shining outcome of the whole discussion if it makes men aware of it. But for God’s sake, it’s not like there’s been some secrecy about it: men can’t pretend that this is news to us.

I don’t know what to do and that makes me shake again. But I do know that thinking and talking about it is essential, even or especially when it’s difficult. And I also know that this is something men need to fix.

It’s men’s problem and it’s men’s fault and I am a man and I need to fix it.

When I think about us men ignoring the situation or particularly about somehow thinking it’s something women need to fix, I keep coming back to an ancient military phrase.

We have met the enemy and they are us.

Back to the past

On Monday I went back to what was BBC Television Centre, one of those iconic buildings that you know will last forever – and instead was closed down five years ago. I thought I’d never go back because I thought it would never be there: I believed that it was going to be knocked down and replaced by luxury flats.

It’s been partly knocked down and mostly replaced by these flats. But the facade remains and when it’s fully reopened the statue of Ariel will still be in the centre of what was called the doughnut. That was the famous circular centre with production offices, that was the circular centre I spent months walking around before finding I was going the wrong way.

I am really deeply torn.

You can’t conjure up an atmosphere in a building, you can’t make it famous and important. You can throw all that away and I do think the BBC did: they sold it off, rented it back for a while and then let it go.

Only, now they’re renting a bit of it back.

If you stand in the front of the building and look ahead, you see the old circular doughnut done up with new red cladding. Look to your right and you see an entire, huge section of office building has been replaced by an identically-sized stretch of apartments.

But look to your left and you’ve got the old studios 1, 2 and 3.

The old TC1, TC2 and TC3 are still there. And now they’re being used.

I think Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two goes live to air five days a week from TC2 and I think some music show is shortly to launch in TC1.

But I can tell you that on Monday and for the next couple of months, TC3 is home to Pointless. Because that’s what I went to see.

Okay, no, I went to see Television Centre. But I was expecting to be profoundly unhappy at seeing the shell of this building and I needed something I’d like to see or I wouldn’t have gone. Wouldn’t have been able to face it.

And Pointless is fun: I think it’s startling that I saw the recording of something like episodes 1,221 and 1,222 but I had a good time. A head-jolting time as I recognised one of the production team from when I was back at TVC before.

That was disturbing. That reminded me that I know it’s better to be crew than passenger, that it’s better to be making a show than watching one.

But I also left reasonably contented that for the moment, TVC retains its slightly falling-apart feel. True, it used to be because it was slightly falling apart and now it’s because they haven’t finished rebuilding it.

If all of this truly had to happen then I think they’re doing it well. I just miss that place and I miss the me that used to work there so very much.