Course language

So there I was, minding my own business in several senses of the phrase, and running a free online writing course. It was about how exactly to make time to write and it was going very well. Except, I think you see where this is going, three weeks into it, we all got handed far more time than we ever wanted.

I actually thought about cancelling this free course. It was all online, all long prepared with videos and lessons and assignments, but the lockdown was so overwhelming me that I couldn’t write and figured I was unlikely to be alone in that.

However, that stasis-like sensation, that paralysis, not only stopped me writing, it stopped me stopping the course. I was that bad for a while, but now I am in all ways relieved that I was. Because people continued doing the course, they worked through its fourth week. And in a sudden spurt of writing, I quite radically changed the final week.

I don’t know why. Week five ended up having exactly the same lessons, so to speak, as it was going to. Of course it did, this was the culmination of a whole course. But I rewrote it and somehow it became much more personal than I’d expected. You know that writing is far from being just about the words on the page, it’s more about the words underneath those, and there is something different in that new final week. Something better.

And then there was this.

There is nothing or at least extremely little that I do to relax. Everything I am interested in, pretty much, I’ve managed to make part of my job so that is fantastic when I’m working and appallingly bad when I’m not.

Except when I was in that course’s final week, when I was in writing, I felt better. Writing that, then yesterday finally finishing the first draft of an extraordinarily difficult script, and right now today writing to you, I don’t feel locked down, I don’t feel self-isolated. I’m a little hungry, since we’re sharing quite so much detail, but writing turns out to be where I go when I need to be somewhere else.

We finished that free course a couple of weeks ago and the students on it have been wonderful. I’ve got to share this one with you, I’ve got to:

This course has honestly changed my life. In five weeks, my novel has grown from 15,000 words to 60,000. If that isn’t a huge success, I don’t know what is.

I know what that is. It is bloody joyous. Thank you, Leanne.

The way that made me feel and the way that writing now makes me feel –– well, it must always have been like this but I’m feeling the haven more these days –– means I’ve got to do it again. The plan was to launch many, many paid courses later in the year, but now I’ve created an entirely new one solely for us, solely for now.

Using This Time to Write” is about exactly how to get yourself writing during all of this. I will say this forever: nobody has to write anything. But you’re a writer, you can write, and I think now you’re ready for it.

Plus, more than anything else, I now think that writing will help you. Let’s you and I get you started, going, and writing forever – even or especially after all of this is behind us.

So “Using This Time to Write” has been a bit of a mad-dash adventure, creating three nights of mostly video lessons plus lots of written details, assignments, everything. I hope you find it as much fun to do as I did to create it, and I hope you don’t find it quite as exhausting.

This course will never run again. I will also never again shoot so much video while needing a haircut. And while you can sign up for the course now as I write this, you have to do so by the end of next Monday, May the 4th. I can’t get any more people on after that date.

So do please go take a look at it and see what you think. Actually, let me show you a short video I made about it too. That’s below. With the hair.

One last thing. “Using This Time to Write” is a paid course but there’s a special lower price for previous students. That’s what it says on the site, but I want you and I to read “previous students” as “plus friends”, okay? You’re a pal, I owe you, click that special lower rate and if anyone asks, tell them I sent you.

So anyway

There’s a writer whose work I rate, the scriptwriter and blogger Ken Armstrong. I want to say that from time to time he has begun a blog admitting that he doesn’t know where it’s going to go and then just sees where it leads. I want to say that because I think that’s what I want to do today.

I could check, I could read through his blog again, but that could lead to some problems. For one thing, I may have completely misremembered this and what he actually said some time was that he loathes when people start off a blog post not knowing where it’s going.

Or then of course if I am right and I do read one and it is very good, I’ll stumble.

So.

Some things are on my mind. Some things are on your mind, and it’s possible that they’re the same. Such as the common cold, the odd upset stomach or an itch. These are all things that the entire world should be given a pass on for the moment.

Victoria Derbyshire presenting BBC News while she’s got a domestic abuse helpline number written on her hand. Fantastic.

I saw a jet plane in the sky yesterday and it felt impossible. Reminded me of the months after 9/11 when seeing any aircraft near any buildings was a jolt.

There was a woman behind me as I went for a walk yesterday. Fifties, I think, and with the most pronounced difficulty in walking. She walked like Bambi on ice, and yet she was still so fast that I had to cross the road before she caught up with me.

Then there was a fella coming the other way and I had to cross back. Then Bambi paused to examine a van – if I were writing a story this would make sense but it’s real life – so I crossed once more.

And then as she walked on, this woman collapsed in the road. I started running toward her, but she was back up on her feet like she was in a baby bouncer. (I just checked Amazon to see if there were such a thing as a baby bouncer. This is going to get me some strange recommendations.)

Another woman, closer to Bambi than I was, appeared from nowhere and if I couldn’t hear the exchange, I could see the body language both sides and this other woman went back to nowhere.

I am thinking about my instant running toward her. I’m also thinking about my nearly instant stopping.

But what’s been keeping this in my head for a day now is what happened next. Bambi carried on walking and now a car came around a corner, slammed to a halt, and two people got out. A woman in her thirties, wearing some kind of faded black dress, and a man in his forties, wearing very little. Shorts and shoes. Big man, tanned, and now acting like a hostage negotiator.

He stood in front of Bambi with his hands out in a look-no-weapons kind of way. And the three of them got into a standoff.

They didn’t look like family, and yet they did look like they knew each other. The two in the car cannot have seen Bambi fall, so it wasn’t that they were more responsible and caring than I was. They looked like they had been searching for her.

And I don’t know what happened next. I couldn’t stare, couldn’t stay. But there is something in how Bambi was dressed, how the three of them were. The shorts man had been in a garden, no question. The black dress woman had thrown that on because she knew she wasn’t going out anywhere. And here they were, out. Bambi could conceivably have been at church, there was something about her clothes that said a little formal, but not evening wear. A little neat, but not expensive.

I’m trying to find a situation where they were together and then this happened. I’m certain of the search, there was an urgency to Shorts’ driving and the nobody-will-see black dress. You’re imagining they had a row, and I think you’re right.

You’re also imagining family tensions and that’s something else we should all have a pass on.

Rose and fall

This is a mess. I’m going to sound like I’m drawing parallels and that I’m making connections, but it’s not that, it’s just a mess in my head. Last night two very good things happened, two completely different things that could not possibly, could not conceivably, fail to lift your heart.

One was the 20:00 applause for the NHS. We stood out on the stoop outside our house and applauded along with so many neighbours. Admittedly including one man who’d missed the news and was wondering what we were all doing while he was putting the bins out. But my street stood together, and we haven’t always done that. There are Leave voters further up the street to my right, a possibly ironic direction I’ve just realised. And I don’t know the political leanings of the street directly opposite me, but I do know that’s where all the local murders take place.

That happened and this other thing happened. I am not comparing them. They are just in my head and I don’t know where my head is.

Lies. I know where my head is, it’s that I don’t like where it is or where it has been, or where it goes.

I’ll just tell you. At 19:00, there was a mass watching of Rose, the first episode of Doctor Who’s wonderful revival. Doctor Who Magazine’s Emily Cook organised it, writer Russell T Davies tweeted throughout it, and I was split down the middle, finding this whole thing simultaneously and precisely equally joyous and miserable.

The precision of that 50/50 split was new. Maybe because for the first time I was happy to read Twitter while watching a show, maybe because that was splitting my attention, but joy/unhappiness was precisely split. It didn’t feel like it was 50/50, it felt like it was 100/100. Every minute.

And it was the split that was new, not the feeling.

Even when this first aired, back in 2005, I remember being incredibly lifted by the episode. Not particularly because it was Doctor Who, but because it was right –– and it was alive. I adore television drama and in fact I truly am a writer at all because of the show Lou Grant, but so much of it then seemed like it was written by people sitting down. Rose was on its feet, moving, carrying me along, it had breath and heart and vigour.

It was truly joyous and for the length of that episode, just watching it made me taller.

And then the credits ran. It’s not as if I have anything against the credits or anyone in them, I’ve come to know a few of the people over the years, but 15 years later I remember my total certainty that I would never be able to write something that good. I don’t want to copy it, I have no interest in mimicking Russell T Davies, although if you had to mimic a writer, he would be a fine target.

But that life, that ecstatic energy, I wanted that. I think I’ve got it, I actually think I’ve written scripts that at their best have this electricity in it. Television drama is what made me become a writer, and yet in what I must call a successful writing career, I’ve only ever written about half an hour of TV that got made.

When Rose aired in 2005, I was still working for Radio Times and I loved it there. I was surrounded by people who knew television better than I did, who loved television even more than I did, and yet who appeared in every other way to be perfectly normal. For the very longest time, Radio Times felt like home to me. There are extremely few moments in my dozen or so years with them that I would rather hadn’t happened. Even though I’ve been freelance since 1995, when I eventually lost that RT gig in 2012, it was a knife in me.

Now I wish that they’d had those budget cuts years earlier. I wish I could’ve done everything I did there, but a lot faster. It’s now eight years since I left and I can point to books I’ve written, plus genuinely a couple of million words of online articles. I can point to radio drama I’ve written –– including Doctor Who dramas for Big Finish –– and because for some reason I count these things, I can even point to 719 workshops or public speaking events I’ve done.

Beyond those, I can point to theatre events I’ve produced, and I wish I’d thought to count those too because thinking of an event and then making it happen turns out to be the only thing remotely as satisfying as writing. I’m Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and if that is a daily surprise to me, by far the most deeply rewarding part was when I was involved in bringing the Guild’s AGM to Birmingham.

But then I watched Rose last night. I’m not saying that my mind doesn’t often go to where it went then, but this show, at this time, in this world, it brought back the utter joy and the chasm of depression, all at once, just as it did then.

Except not quite as it did then, because now it’s 15 years later and I am still not writing television drama.

There is one thing. I do not know and I cannot tell if I’m actually any good a writer, but I do know and I will tell you that I am infinitely better than I was 15 years ago. That is something to hang on to, and the hope that the curve continues upwards is something to work for.

Whereas the overall sense of maudlin self-pity I appear to be showing you now is something to say sorry for and to get rid of this moment.

You know that in any drama you put a character into difficulty, but to my mind there is no difficulty, no jeopardy, no drama even, like having it all be that character’s fault. Something bad happening to a character is one thing, them causing it happen is geometrically more arresting for me.

And in this case, I can say that it’s Rose that makes me think this, but the truth is that it’s me. I’m the one who needs to fix this joyous misery, and the way I have to do is to pull my fucking finger out and write.

Blink of an eye

Ten years ago, I was in a Broadcasting House studio with Steven Moffat, the cast of his comedy Joking Apart and also DVD producer Craig Robins. Craig is remarkable: he became a DVD producer, he formed a company and he bought the rights to this sitcom all out of his own pocket and all because he so loves the show.

So there’s Craig, literally invested in his project, and there’s Moffat plus actors Fiona Gillies, Robert Bathurst, Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield and TV producer Andre Ptaszynski.

And me. At this distance I’ve not a clue why I was there: I wrote a booklet for the second season DVD and I think I must surely have been there to interview people for it. But all I remember is being a spare pair of hands: it was I who brought people up from BH reception to the studio, for instance.

I should also say that I remember having a very good time: the commentaries are funny and informative. But of course as with any recording of anything, there is a lot of hanging about. Not just for me doing nothing much, but for the commenters.

Which is why I’m telling you this now.

I can remember word for word a thing Steven Moffat said in that studio. I can’t quote him for you because while there isn’t a single syllable that I imagine he’d have a problem with, he didn’t say it to me. I wasn’t even in the room: he was in the studio and at that moment I was in the gallery so I just caught it over an open mic.

Plus, my head must surely have been focused on interviewing about Joking Apart because this was a Doctor Who comment of no use to me.

Except it’s a Doctor Who comment that has really stuck with me and which definitely did so because of what happened slightly later. Ten years ago to the month – 9 June 2007 – the Doctor Who episode Blink aired. It’s a one-hour drama that jumps out of the screen and through sheer force of vitality and energy grabs you by the neck. There’s a repeated line in the episode about how you shouldn’t blink, “don’t even blink, blink and you’re dead” and there is not one single pixel of a chance that you ever could because it’s such a compelling tale.

If you know the series, you know this episode and there’s a decent chance you think it’s at or near the best thing Doctor Who ever did. If you don’t know the series then no, sorry, you do: this is the story that introduced the Weeping Angels.

They are genuinely frightening monsters in a series that seems to have to have a new alien baddie every week. Perhaps that constant introduction of new monsters is why I’m usually disinterested in them, including when I write Doctor Who radio dramas for BBC/Big Finish. But I think I’m just automatically more interested in people than, say, tentacles.

Yet Blink is equally exquisite with its characters. Carey Mulligan stars as Sally Sparrow and she really stars in every sense: for once the guest actor outshines the Doctor. That’s no criticism of the then-Doctor, David Tennant, but rather to how he isn’t in the episode much.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but ten years ago each season of Doctor Who had to have one episode in which the Doctor doesn’t appear very much at all. It’s specifically so that the actor can be off filming a different Doctor Who episode. As I understand it, this was the sole way to get each season’s 13 episodes made in time.

Fine, only from a writing and acting perspective, this puts an enormous load on whoever is doing the Doctor-less or Doctor-lite episode. And that’s what Moffat mentioned in the studio.

He’d delivered the script to Blink and I don’t believe the episode had been filmed yet or at the very least he hadn’t seen it. So there we are, some short while before the episode airs, and I’m hearing Moffat talking about how he’d tried his best with it. The sense was that he thought it would be okay, that the show would make it well, but that it wasn’t going to be great.

That’s why the comment has stuck with me. Here’s one of the most successful and doubtlessly one of the busiest writers in British television. Here’s someone who I think has found compelling depths to the Doctor and whose writing can be magical. I don’t know how many episodes he’s written of Doctor Who, I couldn’t begin to add up those plus Joking Apart, Coupling and the rest. But by any measure, Blink is one of his finest moments.

I saw an interview recently in which he expressed mild bafflement at the praise this episode gets and I don’t know if he was being modest. Equally, when he told the Joking Apart studio that this forthcoming Blink episode wasn’t brilliant, he could’ve been just saying it.

I believed him at the time, though, and I still do. I’m just not sure why I find that lifting. I think this was a writer doing something great and not fully realising it so if someone that good writing something this delicious can’t see that, well, it’s confirmed that all writers are screaming crazy eejits and we’re in good company.

Not what I was expecting to talk to you about

Grief, I need tea. Would you like one? I think there’s two teabags left, though oddly they’re called “tagged teabags”. I don’t know if that means they bleep when you steal them from the hotel or whether they’re just really well catalogued, but let’s have them anyway.

Slightly dizzy. I’m in a Manchester hotel and there was a fire alarm: did you hear it? So loud. Made louder by it being at 06:25. Made louder still by the klaxon being joined by an automated voice shouting that we had to evacuate the building, this is no drill, warp core breach in thirty seconds. I may be exaggerating.

Actually, that’s a horrible thought. I grabbed yesterday’s clothes and joined the crowd going down the stairs. Before I’d finished dressing, though, another – er, tenant? Member of the public? Civilian? I’m not sure what to call her. Another hotel guest, thank you. Another hotel guest was coming back up the stairs and calling out that it’s okay, apparently this was all a mistake. What if she were the one exaggerating? What if she was out and out lying – and we should all have continued to go out?

Why didn’t she tell me this four floors earlier?

I want you to know that I was very good and I left all my luggage in the room as you should. (What if she were working with a team of hotel thieves?) I don’t want you to know that my first thought was that I could be outside for hours and would be writing to you on my Apple Watch. No, actually, do think that, do know that: my potential last thoughts were of you.

And of the workshop I’m doing at 10am.

I did one here yesterday for the Federation of Entertainment Unions: about twenty people from Equity, the NUJ, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild. I’m doing another one on a different topic today, different set of people, also for the FEU. I think yesterday’s went well, certainly I had a great time, but I know it went easier than ever. The venue, Band on the Wall, has the regular projector and screen I need for presenting but they also have an Apple TV.

Now, that’s two references to Apple in one go, so I’m improving. Yesterday was only the second time I’ve presented via one of these boxes – and the first time was the evening before. That was a practice run in the hotel room: I brought our own Apple TV, meaning Angela couldn’t watch Netflix at home, sorry, and tried it out on the hotel TV set.

If you’re interested in this stuff then I’ll tell you this is my new ideal and I will always bring an Apple TV with me: it beats having to hope you’ve brought the right cables for a projector you’ve not seen before. It also means I could roam the room with that iPad. All really useful stuff for me, so useful that I love it. That the venue had its own, just icing.

Only, the hotel TV set. I am a TV drama nut and yet this is the first hotel I’ve stayed in for about the last three years that I’ve even switched the telly on. The last time was also in Manchester, I was appearing on BBC Breakfast and switched it on so I could watch the start of the show in my room and get even more scared.

It’s even longer since I used the phone in a hotel room. That used to be the thing, didn’t it? Get into a new hotel room, phone home or phone wherever you’re going next, then one of you checks out the bathroom and the other tries the TV. Face it, when you’re in Stereotype City, it’s the man who switches on the telly and the woman who checks out the bathroom. Both use the phone.

Or did. Now look at us, at all of us. We bring our own phones with us. We don’t bring our own TV sets, except we do. When I’d finished rewriting the first of these two presentations on my iPad, I kicked back and relaxed – by watching the same iPad.

I watched Lou Grant on it. This is the journalism drama that made me want to be a writer and I can quote you lines, I accidentally use lines from it, 35 years after it aired. Lou Grant has finally come out on DVD. This was the one show I longed for the most when I was reviewing DVDs, when shiny discs were a thing, and now it’s out as nobody’s buying DVDs anymore. I bought it. Of course I bought it. And I’ll buy season 2 when it comes out in August.

Only, I’m doing that because it’s Lou Grant and it’s special to me and I want it to be a success, I want all five seasons released. When I was doing the disc reviewing lark, I would regularly hear from people who said they refused to buy a TV show until the entire series was released. They didn’t want to spend their money buying season 1 if season 2 were never brought out. People are idiots. You like the show enough to buy it, buy it. You don’t buy it because you hope the studio will release all five seasons first, you’re not really attuned to how this works.

I’m buying the DVDs to do my tiny part in making the sales enough to warrant doing more. This is a genuinely special show, not just to me, for all manner of television history reasons and for how tremendously well done it is.

But it’s special to me. I watch the show now as a writer with, if not experience then at least age behind me, I watch it now having been a professional critic, but I also watch it as the 13-year-old I was then. My job today is standing up in front of established actors, musicians, writers and journalists. I watch Lou Grant in this hotel room and there is an extra commentary track in my head with my 13-year-old self wondering at how I got here.

My 50-year-old self is wondering why it took me so long to get here but that’s another story.

God in heaven.

I’ve just realised, saying this to you I’ve just realised: I am now the age that the character Lou Grant was at the start of this series.

Anyway.

Here’s a thing. Lou Grant is at last out on DVD, right? I’ve already got the first three seasons on iTunes. (They didn’t release the fourth and fifth: I check regularly.) It came out on VHS once: about three episodes and I have two of them. Speaking of VHS, I have a huge filing cabinet draw with about 30, possibly 40 VHS tapes that I recorded off-air or that friends did. It’s missing one episode: Violence, from 1981. That missing one killed me, for years.

It doesn’t kill me now because I’ve got it. I will buy the DVDs as they hopefully continue to come out and I will buy the iTunes versions if they do, but the hunt for this missing episode took me down some interesting alleys. It’s a fourth-season episode so it has not been released officially in any form and consequently I don’t feel 100% bad about this. But that interesting alley has the whole season 4. And 5. And 1, and 2. It only has about half of season 3, but that’s okay, I’ve got all of that one on iTunes.

So I’m in a hotel, drinking tea with you, head still a little fuzzy from the fire alarm, and in a moment I will have to work on my iPad. But at this moment, right here under my fingers, right here in my possession, this one device has all 114 episodes of Lou Grant on it.

Call me ridiculous, because I am, but I left my luggage but I grabbed this iPad.

Lou Grant on iPad

Lies, damned lies and percentages

I’m not saying that people make up percentages, I’m saying if that they were telling the truth they’d give us the figures. I’m going to make up some examples here in part because my point is about the lying rather than these specific lies but also because it seems appropriate. For I’m seeing this particular lying technique used a lot at the moment over whether Britain should stay in Europe or not and if you’ve seen an actual fact for either side, well done.

I’m seeing it most of all in discussions about immigration which is apparently a dreadful problem. Oh, is it bollocks a problem. BBC Breakfast interviewed a woman this week who said, like so many others, that immigration is a very bad thing and it must to be stopped. Only, she’s an ex-pat British woman living in Spain. She’s an immigrant. You can’t buy stupidity like that but you can pander to it.

Consequently you’ve seen people banging their fists on tables about how immigration has – I don’t know, let’s make up some high figures here – doubled. Maybe more. Maybe there are 60% more immigrants.

Since when? Usually people say “since when” in the same tone and with the same meaning as something like “you and whose army?” but I mean it literally. Immigration has doubled since when? Wednesday? The 17th Century?

The 60% or whatever other percentage in whatever argument you like is not a figure, it is a red-alert klaxon saying the speaker wants you to believe something you wouldn’t if you knew the truth. Say it is 60%, say immigration is up 60% and let’s even throw in that it’s up that much since this time last year. We’re throwing in an actual baseline comparison, we’re throwing in a genuine since-when.

Only, say 10 immigrants came to the UK last year and a whole 16 came this time. That’s a 60% increase right there. Gasp. Doubtlessly or at least presumably the actual figure is more than 16 people but I don’t know what it is and people telling you percentages don’t want you to know.

It offends me that politicians think immigration is a vote-winning issue and it offends me even more that they’re right. For god’s sake, though, my family is from Ireland: I’m only first-generation British born. I shouldn’t be allowed.

Sequels and lies

The Good Wife ended on American television last Sunday and I promise not to spoil it for you if you promise not to spoil it for me. I’m exactly 127 episodes behind. That’s five years, though at the rate I’m watching now I’ll have finished by next June.

So you gather that I like this show: it’s a US legal drama and I think quite extraordinary but I won’t press you to watch because people have been pressing me to since it began in 2009. Somehow I resisted them. No reason. Possibly stubbornness. I didn’t try an episode until earlier this year and as richly absorbing and engrossing as the show is, I’m not even going to try subliminally suggesting that you join us fans, join us, join us, join us.

I’m also not going to think about a show ending changes it. I find I can’t get into early episodes of How I Met Your Mother now that I know how he met your mother, but it’s not even that, not even a finishing of the story. There is something different. I remember Ronald D Moore saying of his best-known TV series ending and on the day after it finished airing that: “Yesterday Battlestar Galactica is this TV series, today it was.”

I’m paraphrasing but the essence is right, the essence is of how for the maker of a show, the end is the same wrench we all feel when we leave a job or when a relationship ends on us. I get that as a viewer and actually I don’t get it often enough: I’m trying to think of series where I watched up to the end and wished it had continued. I’d wandered away from Battlestar and still haven’t caught up, for instance. Certainly there’s Veronica Mars.

But usually TV shows are like British politicians: they always end in failure. The most successful British politician will eventually lose an election. It’s not like the US where you have a fixed term as President, here you end in defeat. That’s so British.

I am presently wishing for the end for various current politicians but somehow I wish The Good Wife had continued until I’d caught up with it. I can’t account for that, but there is something different now. Something different between a series in progress and a series that has concluded. There is the practical side that the finale was a big deal and it has been hard to avoid finding out what happens. Only last night, there was a trailer for a last-season episode on Channel 4 and both Angela and I actually sang loudly, a kind of broken, staccato La La La as we tried to find which of us had the TV remote.

We never used to have spoilers. I think that word, in this context, must surely be one of the those ones recently added to the dictionary because nobody did or could’ve spoiled something like the answer to who shot JR. I remember seeing on TV news footage of the next episode of Dallas arriving in the UK. It was a film or possibly video canister, I can see it being wheeled across from an aircraft to Heathrow or somewhere.

Obviously I mind spoilers but I don’t mind that they exist. I like very much that drama creates an urge in people to find out more and to rush around telling people. These are made-up stories about made-up people, there is no reason we should be interested and yet we’re avidly interested. In the best television drama, you worry about the characters from week to week: I think that is ridiculous and I think that is fantastic and I think I wish I knew how to write that well.

The downside of this way that drama characters get into us us not that there are spoilers that will ruin your day and could take a shine off the next 127 episodes for me. It’s that we struggle to let characters go and that means we get sequels.

It can work. There’s Frasier, for instance: strictly speaking it’s a spin-off from Cheers but it aired afterwards so call it a sequel. Similarly, there’s Lou Grant. But I think it’s telling that Lou Grant began airing 39 years ago and it is still the only hour-long drama to spin out of a half-hour sitcom. I don’t think anyone else has even tried to do that, it’s such a hard thing, but then also it would never be allowed today.

TV networks don’t really want sequels: they would like the original show to somehow start again and be the hit it was. Forever, please. I think we’re the same: what we really want when we love a drama is to have that same experience again. To be where we were and who we were when we first got hooked by these characters.

It’s not possible so we hanker to stay with the characters in some way and that gets us sequels. I don’t know if there will be a sequel to The Good Wife – I can hardly look it up without spoiling the aforementioned 127 episodes – but I’ll bet money that it has at least been considered. Maybe piloted. A pilot script to a How I Met Your Mother sequel was commissioned and I’ve read it: the list of reasons I’m glad it wasn’t filmed begins with how the only brave creative decision in it was to give it the wrong title. It’s called How I Met Your Dad. So near and yet.

That didn’t fly and maybe we’d be better if sequels never did. We would definitely be better off if we could learn to let go. A thing is a thing, don’t try to draw it out.

But we can talk about that next week.

Gareth Thomas

In the 1970s I was a boy watching Blake’s 7 on the telly and for just a moment yesterday, I was again. How things change, though: I was in a TV studio being filmed when I heard that Gareth Thomas has died.

I never met him but I did interview the guy by phone twice. Once was for Radio Times in some kind of countdown feature about TV shows the magazine’s readers had said they wanted to see come back. It might’ve been 2004, maybe 2006, I don’t know. Still, I can see me at the RT desk on the phone to him, having a very happy conversation and only at the end of the twenty minutes or so asking him where he was.

“Tesco,” he said.

I don’t know why it tickled me that he was standing by the chiller cabinets in aisle 9 while being interviewed for Radio Times, but it did and somehow that all fitted into why I just liked the man.

Which means this next bit makes me wince. I can’t remember where Blake’s 7 came in that top ten, but I do remember that for some utter fluke of a chance, its whole section got missed. That top ten went to press and onto newsstands without number six or whatever it was. We ran an extended version online. It’s not the same.

Then in what now seems oddly related, I interviewed him again in 2013 for a book I was commissioned to write about Blake’s 7. I’m proud of that book and its 170,000 words –– seriously, who knew I could write that much about anything? –– but you can’t read it yet. It’s been rather severely delayed since I delivered the manuscript and I’m sure if I knew all the reasons why, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Obviously I’d rather it was out and obviously I wish you could read it but I think part of yesterday’s surprise at Thomas’s death is that he’s in this book of mine that is still in progress. How can he die before what he said to me is printed? What’s more, he’s now the second interviewee to die: I count myself privileged to have got to spend a whole hour on the phone with writer Tanith Lee shortly before she died too. She sent me a book we’d been talking about and I didn’t get to read it in time, I now cannot ever tell her what I thought.

Tanith Lee and Gareth Thomas: two names I knew from the TV credits when I was growing up. Two names I got to work with, at least in this small and short way. Neither of them would’ve recognised me on the street but it made yesterday’s news seem that much more of a shock. Cumulative shock.

Let me tell you this instead of dwelling on that. Right now I am at the same desk that I was when Gareth Thomas phoned me from backstage at some theatre tour. I can play back the recording: it’s right here on my Mac alongside the finished book. With one tap I can read the result of our chat and I can summon the man’s voice.

I’m not a Blake’s 7 fan, which on the one hand I think made me a good choice for the book but today also makes me regret that everything you’re hearing and reading about this actor concentrates on that one show. I’m doing it too, I’m doing the same thing instead of covering a giant career.

But I’m doing that because I’m going to do this. I’m going to show you a quote from my interview with Gareth Thomas. I’d heard before that he didn’t watch Blake’s 7 and I was curious whether that was because he wasn’t interested in it. At the time, I thought his answer pointed to a man very serious about his work. Today I’m thinking it hints at a man who was always moving forward, always pressing on, always reaching for something. And so what makes his death hurt is not that I remember him as Roj Blake or in that scary Children of the Stones, but rather that all this life and verve has stopped.

“Never seen the show,” he told me. And he didn’t want to. “I’ve never seen anything I’ve done. I’d hate it, I’d want to do it again properly, immediately. You can’t see yourself on stage so why bother on television?”

Mars Bars: a Warning from History

There are no life lessons you can learn from Mars Bars or indeed any chocolate, but that doesn’t mean you should give up looking. I tell you now, chocolate has always been my Kryptonite but just lately it’s been my frustration and not for the weight-related issues you’ve just thought of. Thanks for that.

I am instead a discerning chocolate eater and I have been frustrated by a small thing, just the total betrayal of my entire life by the confectionary industry. That’s all. I want there to be a life lesson here, I want there to be something I can draw on as a writer, and I want that very badly because a) you won’t think I’m such an eejit and 2) it would be solace the next time I put those Mars Bars back.

I do put them back, that’s true. The writing life lesson is more of a stretch, but I do now regularly pick up a pack of Mars Bars in the supermarket and put them back with a howl that would startle a wolf. It would startle anyone, really, but wolves are professional howlers and that’s the level I’m howling at.

For have you seen Mars Bars these days? I’ve been worrying about sounding like a fool or a glutton, I might as well throw in something that makes me just sound old. Mars Bars used to be bigger in my day. Back in the war, when you walked to school over cobbled streets and the only computers were Windows PCs, at least you could count on your friends and on how Mars Bars were a decent size.

There are bigger problems in the world and throughout recorded history, chocolate bars have got smaller as they’ve got more expensive. Only this time the manufacturers have gone too far. Fine, make your bars smaller, see if I care, but this time they’re actively hiding the fact.

That’s why I have this cycle of picking them up and putting them back: try it yourself and see. Any pack of Mars Bars or of any chocolate bars at all will now be dramatically larger than the contents. Somehow the pack is padded, actually padded. You can feel it when you pick the thing up but you can’t see it until then: we are being lied to.

Well, I’m being lied to. You wouldn’t have that trim and toned body of yours if you were facing chocolate lies as often as I am. Thinking about it, I may have just gone off you.

I keep saying that this is happening now, that this conspiracy of confectioners is new, but it’s been happening for a long time, I’ve been noticing it for a long time. I think the reason it’s on my mind today may be because we’ve just had Easter, the great religious chocolate festival, but also because actually, yes, maybe, there is a writing life lesson here.

I’m part of a project called Prompted Tales wherein a group of us are tasked with writing a short story each month. The aim is get us focused, challenged and with a deadline as we all seem to respond to deadlines. The result so far is that we all have three short stories now that we didn’t before the start of the year. I’ve been thinking that’s rather good, I’ve been pretty happy with myself.

But as March’s Prompted Tales go live on the website throughout today, I’m reading them and I’m thinking that mine are lies.

I’m not wrong to have been happy with my January, February and March tales: I think they have something, I think they’re a good read, but I wonder today whether they just look like they’re stories. I don’t want to do myself down, especially not when I really enjoyed writing Departure Time, the story that will be published on the Prompted Tales website at 10:30 today.

But I look at the others being released and if they’re not wider or longer than mine, they have more in them. More depth, more chocolate, less packaging padding and it’s a sobering thing to see. It’s hopefully also an energising one as I’m currently clueless about what I’ll write for the April Prompted Tales but I know I’ll do something and I hope it will be the better for reading everyone else’s March stories.

Not easily, though. It won’t be easy. I think I need tea. And chocolate.

Don’t answer

I’ve been talking my mouth off about writing all week. There is something funny about talking about writing and there’s something not at all funny about a writer not getting to write much. But in the course of yapping away, I rediscovered something so persnickety and detailed, an opinion of mine so exclusive to writing that normal people would think I’m barmy to care and writers would again recognise me as barmy but also as one of their own.

Naturally, then, I’ve got to tell you. For once, it won’t take long, either, as it’s so precise and so vehement as to be less an expression of opinion and more a banging my hand on the table for emphasis.

Do not ever write anything where your character answers a question.

Not.

Ever.

Let me give you the example that keeps popping into my head. Here’s Burt asking Susan a question. (I have no idea who Burt and Susan are.)

BURT: What were you doing in aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Buying bacon.

Susan answers the question and in just two words I’m bored with her, that dialogue is dead air and it achieves nothing beyond the obvious. Now, if you had to have Burt ask this question, it would be because you needed your audience to know this fact that Susan had been at Asda in aisle 9 this morning. But you never need them to know that same fact twice.

The sole thing that “buying bacon” does is tell us that yes, she was in Asda’s aisle 9 this morning and presumably that’s where the bacon is stored. Unless we deeply care about bacon, this is worthless dialogue. Whereas this isn’t:

BURT: What were you doing in Aisle 9 of Asda this morning?
SUSAN: Were you following me?

Look what that just did. In both examples, Susan is actually saying yes, she was there. So that’s your plot exposition done. She isn’t wasting air with a pointless detail about bacon and pointless is always boring. If that were all, I’d at least be happier than when she just said “buying bacon”.

But it isn’t all. Without the rest of the scene we can’t tell what attitude she’s got – is she afraid? is she annoyed? is she flirting? is she a vegetarian who’s just been caught out? – but we do know that she has got some attitude. She’s on her feet, she’s pushing back, this may be very mild conflict but it is conflict. She’s pushing back and Burt is now on the defensive; she may have just changed the power in this conversation.

That’s drama. And I’l tell you this: you now want to know what Burt is going to say next. When it was about bacon, I doubt you were excited waiting to see if he’d enquire about smoked or unsmoked, back or streaky. Maybe you and I would both gasp if we learned she’d bought turkey bacon – there’s such a thing as turkey bacon? – but neither of us would be giving a very great deal of a damn.

You can think of situations where actually “buying bacon” is the right response, it’s the response that would bring up the end-of-episode drums of EastEnders. So when I say never do it, you know that I mean never do it but okay, if you must.

It’s as I’ve said to you before: there are no rules in writing, but if you break them…