Travelling in a fighter convoy

Since the 1980s, that’s what I have thought the opening line of Men at Work’s Down Under is: “travelling in a fighter convoy…” and not “travelling in a fried-out combie.”

Now, in my defence, I haven’t actually thought about the song in decades. And back when I did give it a bit of a ponder, I was more gingerly curious about what a vegemite sandwich might be.

Writer and lead singer Colin Hay now performs the song acoustically and you know how this goes, the song is revealed to be somewhat deeper than that original appeared. I do think that’s a measure of some superb writing, when radically changing the delivery of a piece works, when the material can be delivered in gigantically different ways.

But we’ve seen that.

Most recently there was Aha’s reworking of Take On Me which, slowed down, also clarified some previously mysterious lyrics. What was originally energetic and catchy proves to be arresting and even mesmerising in its new form.

Most famously, it’s the same with Mad World, originally a Tears for Fears track sung at lighspeed but then redone by Gary Jules.

Only, there’s something different about Down Under. I saw a live acoustic video of it a week or so ago and it’s stayed with me. More, yesterday Apple Music happened to throw the original at me while I was working.

And here’s the thing. That original has changed.

That didn’t happen with Take On Me, although I do now hear the lyric I kept missing in the original. I know to listen out for it but that’s not the same as changing that original, altering the sound of it.

Nor does Mad World’s slow remake alter how the Tears for Fears one sounds, except I do more appreciate the writing in it.

No, Men at Work’s Down Under was this jaunty 80s track with the daft video and now the same piece in the same way is somehow more serious. I can’t help it: I listen to that original and it’s like I finally get it.

Without distorting the original or loading it down with a weight it can’t bear, the acoustic one is just a plain rendition that reveals it was always serious and I can’t help but hear that now.

I should say I recently caught a snippet of an interview with someone, I imagine Hay but I wasn’t watching, where it was mentioned that no one notices the coffin being carried in that video. I think they said it was symbolising the death of Australian culture and I want to say I thought that was interesting but really I didn’t think at all.

Then I don’t want to say that Down Under was actually a Dylaneseque howling protest song yet I am sobered by it. Specifically by how I only saw the surface jauntiness and that this is like what happened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. That’s another 1980s song and to this day there are people who think it’s pro-American.

It’s really a miserable track and the lyrics are as clear about that as can be. I’ve secretly liked how I got it and people including President Ronald Reagan didn’t. He used it as a campaign song, can you imagine that? Walking out to make a speech as a song about rancid poverty in America and the toll of the Vietnam conflict booms out of speakers.

Imagine a US President being dumb.

Well.

Down Under is not so stridently anti-American or rather anti-Australian but still I missed what strength it has. Again, don’t let me overplay this, I’m not dumping huge political import onto the shoulders of a pop song.

But have a listen. It’s a good song but it’s richer now.

Kirsten Bell in Veronica Mars

Now I wish I were writing Veronica Mars

There is no chance I’ll get to write Veronica Mars but what makes me ecstatic is that today there is slightly less of no chance. Because the show is coming back.

So, true, it’s already written and presumably by series creator Rob Thomas. And true, I have absolutely zero chance of making my television drama writing debut – I don’t count Crossroads – on this show.

But there is a series. It was over, then it was a movie, then that was over, now it’s back. Stuff writing, I’m getting popcorn, I’m ready.

I don’t actually know when it’s coming and I do actually know that this news is old. It’s been a month or even two since the return of Veronica Mars was announced but I wouldn’t believe it at first. I needed an awful lot of evidence and here’s one of the last little bits: series star Kristen Bell talking about it:

I’m a writer but I’m also a journalist and normally if you give me two credible sources plus some documentary evidence, I’ll believe something is true. Unless you’re in government. This time I didn’t because it was just too important to me.

Five years ago I wrote a piece called I wish I’d written Veronica Mars and the title says it all. Except while I could’ve written that at any time during or since the show’s initial 2004-2007 run, I was writing it then because we’d had multiple sources and documentary evidence that a film version was coming.

I wrote that piece partly because I couldn’t contain myself and partly because I was hoping aloud that around a year later I would be seeing this film and wishing I’d written it. Sure enough, four years ago, I wrote I still wish I’d written Veronica Mars.

This time I’m just going to take it for granted that I’ll like the new show this much. It stands a bit of a chance.

And that’s it, that’s all I wanted to exclaim about to you today. Except writing this, I’m conscious that I haven’t even said what Veronica Mars is. That’s not uncommon: if you try to describe the show it generally sounds so poor that you wonder how Rob Thomas managed to sell it. Veronica was a teenage detective and I want to write “but…” here, yet anything you say after that sounds like an apology or an excuse.

No excuses. No apologies. Veronica Mars is great.

Years ago, I remember someone insisting very seriously that The Bill was the greatest crime series ever made. And I remember telling her she should stay in more.

At the time I would’ve been thinking of Homicide: Life on the Street, Hill Street Blues, Between the Lines, I’d have run out of fingers and borrowed yours to continue listing more forever. Today I’d just show her Veronica Mars.

Time contracts

Okay, now, as soon as I actually type the words ‘time contracts’ I realise that, yes, I am currently negotiating a contract to do with a Time project. But what’s on my mind is how time itself contracts – as opposed to expands.

Take any one thing I’ve done this week. Publisher meeting, writing for AppleInsider, running an evening writing group named after a pub that doesn’t exist, constantly writing on trains, working for and with the Writers’ Guild, bits with Cucumber Writers, discussing the difference between fire eating and fire breathing with a performer on a day-long workshop I ran, and writing a fake online poetry workshop called How to Poet as a test for another project.

Any one of those sounds good and I relished every pixel – but not enough. There was no time to enjoy it enough

For it’s been one of those cases where you are deep into something and then absolutely have to wrench yourself out in order to then be exactly as deeply into the next one.

See me in any of these events or actually doing any of these things and you are seeing me at my happiest. It’s just the bits in between.

Typing on trains because it was the only time to get something finished. Relying on the brilliant thing that I regularly remote-control my Mac from anywhere – and then discovering that this week it decided not to work. Technology. It’s alchemy and such unfair alchemy too.

I’m not going to say that we should a moment to enjoy things when we’re busy. I’m not going to Ferris Bueller this.

And, yes, true, I am thinking it’s great to be busy and that is all very nice for me. But what’s on my mind is what you’ve had too: a week that simultaneously seems like a month and an hour.

And you’ve also had this: you’ve let things slip between the cracks. I need to go write some apologetic emails.

Unfortunately, I’ve first got to go on a speed awareness course. But I didn’t tell you that.

Brean there, done that

Ah, that’s better. Last week when my website was broken and I couldn’t talk to you, I went away in a huff and instead wrote a treatment for a series I’ve been putting off. Consequently I was annoyed but also productive. So, bah.

Naturally there was something I’d wanted to discuss with you last time and of course I’ve forgotten it now. I do remember thinking that I could tell you about when I worked for a firm that absolutely required me to drive a company car. No choice. It was a Fiat Accompli.

All week I’ve been waiting to say that.

This time, though, I’d like to tell you a slightly sad story from when I was child and then how pretty much the same thing happened again this week – but was fantastic.

Do you know Brean? It’s on the coast near Weston-super-Mare and when I was a child, my family must’ve gone on holiday there three or four times. What I remember most clearly, apart from buying Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama in the newsagent, is how the beach so abruptly changes to grassland.

Or I suppose it’s the other way around. Depends. As you head to the sea, you’re going across reasonably dense grass and some kind of bracken-like things, then you’re on the sand. There’s a divisor line between the two and your bare feet feel it in the heat of the sand.

It’s also a tiny bit hilly, though, and there was this one peculiar spot where the land rose up so that the sand formed a little hollow, like someone had dug a pit and then somehow hoisted it up to ground level. And this grass or bracken thing, these twigs and undergrowth, didn’t notice the hollow. They kept on going as if it weren’t there. So you had this recessed area in the ground and a roof of grass and twigs.

That was my den one year. I owned that place. It was secret and it was mine.

For one year, for one holiday.

I loved that spot so much that the next year when we came back, I ran to it.

I knew the hard-to-spot entrance and I ran through it.

And then I ran straight through the hollow and I ran immediately out the other side. Didn’t pause for one instant. And never went back, never looked back, could not then and still cannot now even find roughly where this place was.

Because this year my den belonged to a whole set of other boys.

I’m rubbish with ages but I remember seeing that they were younger than me. I knew there was no common ground, even as we stood on common ground, and this is the thing that made me sad. I also knew it was over.

Whatever I was the year before, I wasn’t any more and I never would be again.

Now, I need you to make some leaps here both in time and place because all of this is on my mind again because of what happened this week in a pub.

Some years ago, I devised a social event called Notworking. It’s under the aegis of the Writers’ Guild but it’s for writers, directors, producers and actors. Really anyone who works in our nutty profession. You get together in a bar for absolutely no reason. No speeches, no speakers, no topic. You cannot pitch, if necessary you can bitch.

The idea is that if you’re in this line then few of your friends and absolutely none of your family have the faintest clue what you do – or especially why you do it. But we do. We get it. Come have a drink and relax with your fellow travellers.

I set it all up and I’ve run some, others have run others, this one was a joint collaboration between several Writers’ Guild folk. Each time we tend to get around 20 people and, I’ll be honest with you, it’s usually the same faces. I like those faces.

But this time, I got there early, being the professional organiser as you do, and the bar was mostly empty but for about six people at the back. And they called out to me: “Are you looking for the Notworking evening?”

I did not recognise any of them and they didn’t know me. It was actually slightly awkward:

THEM: So what do you do?
ME: Er, I organise this event.

I think by its peak, this Notworking event had perhaps 25 people and – I’m guessing here – probably 12 or 15 had never met or even heard of me.

But they were there having a great time because, in part, of me. At one point I just looked around at all these happy people and it was wonderful.

It wasn’t the same as Brean where I wasn’t known and so therefore wasn’t welcome, it was more that I wasn’t known and wasn’t needed – because the original Notworking idea in my head has become its own reality. I could’ve walked away and nobody would’ve noticed, nothing would’ve stopped, it wouldn’t have been any quieter.

Actually, I did walk away for a moment: I walked out with someone when they were leaving. They were leaving the event but also leaving Birmingham and I’ll miss them. As we headed out, the heat of the room became the cool of the outside evening, you could feel the difference in your feet.

We said goodbye up some steps toward the Mailbox and when I turned to go back, I could see the light of the bar flickering and the sound of it coming and going on the wind.

Whoever I was when I was a child back in Brean, I’m not anymore. And I prefer this me.

Listen, this is important. I neither want to suggest that this particular event just coalesced by itself or that I was solely responsible for it. My Writers’ Guild colleagues and friends Tim Stimpson and Martin Sketchley worked on it too and we wouldn’t have been at Pennyblacks by the Mailbox without them. I’d not even heard of that place and now I like it hugely.

And I also really like having a website back. Now, next time the site goes down, we must go to Pennyblacks together and talk properly. Okay?

Sidekick phenomena

I’ve been working with two writers recently and something came up with both of them. One has a character in her script who was meant to be a small part but is steadily becoming more important with each draft. And the other has just swapped two characters around in her novel.

They’re both right, I think they’ve found what their pieces needed, but I’m so interested in how changing a role can be liberating.

I like to imagine that all characters are created equal: that, sure, we’re only seeing someone when they’re delivering a parcel but actually they have a whole life too.

But they aren’t.

This is too crude a sketch of what’s happened but the novelist, for instance, is finding that she can do more with a character now that he’s not the romantic lead. She can do more with him and it’s like he can do more too: he’s got licence to be more lively, to actually be more interesting.

And equally, the other character is now more constrained.

It was ever thus. I think stories are more nuanced now, I think drama is richer, but the lead carries responsibilities because he or she is carrying the whole story.

Previously leading characters, the heroes of pieces, had to be stand-up heroes with square jaws – whether they were men or women – and to always do the right thing. No question, this is where the notion that actors prefer playing the baddie comes from because who wouldn’t?

We don’t need pure heroism any more and we don’t need perfect heroes.

But still, when the story is about you, then you are the story and like it or not, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Whatever you do is ultimately driving the story forward and that’s why we still have this constraint on the major characters.

The minor ones can go cause havoc if they like, they ultimately don’t influence the story very much.

They can have fun, the writer can have fun, the audience or readers can have all this too, so everybody wins and it costs us nothing.

Except there are people who don’t see this difference. Audiences often don’t and I see no reason they should: I see much more reason that they should be enjoying the tale instead of analysing the character structure.

So when the audience talks a lot about how brilliant a certain side character is and how they deserve their own show, I just think the current show did a good job.

It’s when commissioners think it too that I’m more concerned. My go-to example for this will probably always be Ballykissangel. It was a hugely successful BBC drama with probably dozen lovable characters but really just two central ones. Who then left.

The show ended when they left, except it didn’t. I don’t remember how much longer it went on afterwards but really it was over because these other characters couldn’t carry it. They weren’t leads, they were sidekicks and it showed.

Minor characters are minor characters, they will never be major ones and I am a writing god for deigning to explain this to you when naturally you’d never have thought it without me.

Except I can see you there, thinking about characters like Frasier Crane, Lou Grant and Sergeant Lewis.

These three were supporting characters of various importance in their original shows – Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Inspector Morse – who went on to have their own gigantically successful series.

Only, I offer that they didn’t.

I suggest that what really happened is that the character name went on to a new show and that’s pretty much all.

For the Frasier who headlined 11 seasons of his own sitcom is not the same Frasier who propped up the bar at Cheers. Sergeant Lewis is a new and richer character in his own show, even if I still can’t remember the character’s first name and I even met the actor once.

It’s not that these characters were so good as minor ones that they deserved their own shows. It is definitely the case that they were popular enough that studios knew people who at least give them a chance.

What’s really the case is that the writers conned us brilliantly. They managed the change, they managed substituting a leading character for a minor one and we bought it.

I think the actors were key: I don’t understand acting but I see that it takes certain talent and skills to shoulder a whole show instead of solely being the comic turn every other week.

I’ve always thought that this was a kind of applied writing, that the writers knew they needed to make minor characters into major ones and so set about doing it. But talking with these two writers this week, I think there’s also an element of characters moving where they want to. I mean the characters want to move, not that the writer necessarily plans it.

I also like to think that the writer is in control but there are times when it feels like we’re just scribbling down what our characters tell us.

Bad writing habits

Apart from my typing, with I swear is very good, a thing I like about my writing is something I also dislike – but I doubt I’ll ever stop.

Here it is. In the script I’m writing at the moment, I have a tiny moment when a drunk woman by Birmingham’s Broad Street nightclubs walks through our hero like he’s a glass door. It’s pretty good, I think: late night outside busy clubs so lots of dark and light plus she’s very drunk so you accept she doesn’t see him and you get that she doesn’t care.

This is my character’s most vulnerable point in the story so the symbolism of him finding himself accidentally in a ferociously busy place where he’s invisible and unwanted is, I believe, nicely striking.

Only, the drunk woman bothered me.

She does exactly what I need but the moment I say that to you, I realise she was a device rather than a character. Ultimately everyone in a script is a construct but you want them all to have life.

So actually I suddenly feel a tiny better about what I did. No, I like what I did, I just feel better that it’s something I keep doing.

Let me explain slightly quicker.

There’s a scene shortly afterwards where we’re back in Broad Street but it’s early the next morning. I think – no, I know – I am channelling the final scene in Before Sunrise where the film touches on locations we’ve seen, just now empty and in daylight instead dark and alive with that film’s Celine and Jesse.

Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s script for that scene says:

“…a series of shots of many of the locations CELINE and JESSE inhabited the night before. In the early-morning light those places are now somehow different. Even though there is little human presence at this time of the morning, the transformation has begun.”

In my case, my guy Richard has come under even more pressure overnight but it’s familiar pressure, it’s the kind of problem that he’s good at, so in an odd way he begins to climb back up.

New day, new world, I’m not saying this is the most original part of my script. I need it, I want it, I’ve made it this way but the uncontrollable itch is in this scene:

EXT. BIRMINGHAM – MORNING

Establishing. The outside of the Really Cheap B&B. Hagley Road. Broad Street’s cheap hotel. Jury’s Inn. The same DRUNK WOMAN asleep inside a curry house, face against the window.

That’s it. She’s back. Doesn’t do anything, doesn’t appear again and even in this moment Richard doesn’t notice her – but isn’t that right? Doesn’t that feel right to you?

I like the mirroring. I especially like that I got it organically, that I didn’t think What Will Mirror Last Night’s Scene.

I also just find it really, truly satisfying when moments connect together. When things aren’t just a good idea thrown in but they become part of the weave.

The trouble is that I cannot stop doing this. If something happens in a script of mine or if you meet a character, it is almost totally rock-solid certain that you’re going to see them again or it’s going to have an impact again.

I was asked about my bad writing habits the other day and this is one. I can definitely see that it’s because I also produce things: I want to make maximum use of every character, every extra, every location. And I do see that this is also actually quite limited of me.

But the satisfaction when this particular script knew I needed something and tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that I had this drunk character I could come back to, that is and was gold.

The Silence of Silents

Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.

She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.

Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.

There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.

I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.

I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.

Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.

Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.

Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.

It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.

The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.

That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.

That’s using silence for drama.

Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.

That book is The Prisoner: The Original Scripts – Volume 1 and Many Happy Returns is on Blu ray shiny disc.

Shut up

It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.

And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.

I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:

Choose life, eh?

Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.

The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.

It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.

I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.

Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.

Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.

I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.

Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.

I’ll shut up now. And get on with some writing.

Anytime you’re ready, I’ll sparkle

Angela says it was in the Lake District. Neither of us can remember the year. But I have a vivid, visual memory of standing in a secondhand bookshop with my hands shaking.

For there on a shelf that I could so easily have missed was Talking to a Stranger by John Hopkins. This is one of Britain’s most significant television dramas and here were the published scripts. I had no idea there was a book and for all I knew of the show, I hadn’t seen it.

It’s a series of four plays, also known as the Hopkins’ Quartet, and it’s the story of one weekend with a family. You can read or presumably watch any of the four and they are separate, they stand on their own, and they are exceptional.

But as well as my hands shaking when I found this, I also remember something else. This memory isn’t visual, it’s not as specific, it’s really more of a feeling. Yet it has the same punch to me because it was the moment in reading the fourth script that I understood.

Each play is set on this same weekend and is told from a different character’s perspective.

These days that’s known as the Rashomon format. There’s this film I’ve still never seen called Rashomon which tells the same story over and over from different views.

There are also a couple of rather joyous episodes of Leverage which do it. Most notably, there’s one written by John Rogers where all five of the regulars take turns to tell their version of the same crime. The episode is even called The Rashomon Job.

I relish that episode for its wit and chutzpah but its greatest moments are all when it shows us how each character sees the other four.

It’s funny, clever and satisfying but it is also a construct. You know the plot came first or at least it wasn’t initially about the characters, it was about the form.

Whereas this moment, this memory I have is how I felt reading the last Talking to a Stranger script and realising. Suddenly seeing why these four plays are being told this way. Seeing that the entire quartet was always building to the same thing. Realising whose story this really is. No trick, no gimmick, just the way this story had to be told.

I was telling someone about this today and found myself saying that this moment changed me.

It definitely contributed to my obsession with time in drama but I swear I was a different man after I read this.

I’ve had people change my mind – I do enjoy that – and I’ve had experiences that shaped how I see the world. But here were words on a page, words first broadcast when I was one year old, that affected who I am.

You’ll notice I said broadcast. I was going to say written but actually that’s part of why these plays are famous. For all their modern pace and the vivid characters, the production of Talking to a Stranger belongs to another time.

The four plays are different lengths, for instance. No fitting it to two hours with ad breaks. And while Hopkins famously wrote Z Cars episodes over weekends going from no idea to filmable script before Monday morning, he didn’t do that here. Instead, he was late.

I mean, really, really late.

I want to say that he delivered the scripts to the BBC a year after he was due to. That may be an exaggeration. What I’m sure of is that it was long enough that they were into the next year.

And apparently the BBC barely chased him. What I’ve heard is that they may have rung him up and asked how it’s going, old chap, but that was it.

I twitch at the idea of missing a deadline by months. I un-twitch at the notion of the scripts then being complete. No emails back and forth asking for a tenth rewrite to pass the time.

I’m also frightened to watch Talking with a Stranger.

Very many years ago, I did see the first play and it was everything it was supposed to be, it was everything the script was. Also it had a teenage Judi Dench. I don’t know why that surprises me: she must’ve been a teenager once, but there you go.

I’m telling you all this now because late one night this week, I found Talking to a Stranger on the BBC iPlayer. Some big rights issues must been settled recently because suddenly there is a huge amount of truly superb drama on there but I never imagined this would be.

I think I stared at the listing for a full minute, processing this.

I definitely decided not to watch right then. It was gone midnight, I’d done a 16-hour writing day, I want to be fully conscious to enjoy this.

And I am wondering what it will do to me. It might be easier to just go see the new Mission: Impossible film instead.

Maybe nothing is any good

I’m serious: maybe no writing or drama or art is actually any good. Maybe it’s just that some of it is more shiny, some of it is somehow more reflective and it catches the eye for a brief while.

The one book I simply will never dare re-read, for example, is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Because I read it when I was exactly at the right point in my teens to find it a tumultuous bellow of a book and some of the bruises it gave me have yet to disappear. Now that I’ve read it once and moreover am somewhat older than I was, though, I fear that it may be feel blunted if I read it again. I want to keep these bruises.

Not long ago I did re-read Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity and, god in heaven, he’s a schoolboy. Yet so was I when I first read it and perhaps consequently I did not notice characters, attitudes, situations and writing that now makes me wonder if the book is a joke. All I saw back then was the plot which, to be fair, still seems replete with deeply imaginative ideas.

So I definitely had to be a schoolboy in order to think Asimov is good. I think I might have to be a teenager to truly appreciate Plath again. In which case, I and who I am, how old I am, perhaps even where I am, makes the difference to me between a book being good or bad. Your mileage will vary but the same factors apply: I don’t think you can enjoy a Young Adult novel as much as if you were a Young Adult, for instance.

This week, a colleague told me that she doesn’t like Doctor Who. She wanted me, I think, to make a pitch for why I think it’s good but instead I just told her that it isn’t compulsory.

I gave her this example. Mindful of how there’s just been some football tournament thing, I said to her that she or anyone might well be able to tell me that this game or that is good. You can argue about the beauty of the beautiful game, you can tell me how you’ve held your breath in moments of action that are greater than any theatre could ever hope to achieve.

And so what? I’ll never know because I’ll never watch because it’s football.

I have a few mantras in life. One is that it’s better to be crew than passenger. Another is that the show comes first. But the third is my unstoppable certainty that everything, absolutely everything is interesting. Except football.

Yet if you do that telling me it’s a pinnacle of drama, I might want to take you out to the theatre a bit more but it won’t occur to me to doubt you.

So that means that the quality of football doesn’t matter. It can be wonderful or it can be dreadful, it’s all still rubbish to me.

If you’re thinking that says more about me than it does football, I completely agree and I think that’s actually the point.

For if the quality or not of a sport has no bearing on whether I’ll like it, so surely the reverse is true. Things I do think are good really just happen to be things I like.

As writers and creators, maybe we shouldn’t bother striving to be good, then. We should just write things that include things people like. A bit with a dog, for instance.

Except, as a writer, I long to say to you that all of this is utter bollocks. I yearn to say definitively that if you do good work it will reach people. Whether or not they happen to be the right age or in the right demographic, good work will reach them.

And I think I can make that argument.

That mention of a bit with a dog – I realise only after having typed it – is a quote from the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. And thinking of Shakey makes me think of this. That fella wrote Hamlet four hundred years ago and I’ll bet it was a hit with the teenagers of the day but it has lasted.It can’t connect with anything I do. It doesn’t depend on my being a Danish prince. Nothing Shakespeare could’ve put in as a crowd pleaser can work with me four centuries later.

Yet Hammy is one of my favourite plays.

Then the same should be true with Jane Austen. She wrote 200 years ago in a society I can’t imagine, in a world I cannot recognise. But her writing in the 18th and 19th Centuries has made me laugh aloud here in the 21st.

She’s also made me wince at her sometimes deft cruelty in describing characters such that one sentence brings them to vivid life.

That’s what I think works and lasts and connects. The ability of truly fine writers to see beyond the present-day trappings and dive so deeply into people that they also dive into us.