I, Muppet

There’s a new Muppets show launching on Disney+ and I don’t think it’s going to be very good. I’m sure you’re bothered what I think, but the thought set off a little squall in my head about criticising shows before you’ve even seen them. Quite clearly, this is completely and totally unfair.

Tough. There is so much television –– and so much is so very good –– that you can’t watch everything. I am judging Muppets Now before seeing it, I am criticising it, but ultimately I think what I’m really doing is triage.

You do this all the time. Someone could tell me very convincingly that, say, a given football game is the epitome of human drama and the best they’ll get out of me is a uh-huh. On the other hand, I’m obsessed with time so if your story mucks about with that, I’m in. At least for the start. I’ll at least watch the first episode, or really at least mean to watch the first episode.

This is something outside of a show’s control. You can do a time travel series that I walk away from and there is one single sports series I like. (Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. Remember its strap line was: “It’s about sports. The way Charlie’s Angels is about law enforcement.”)

Since a show can’t know what happens to be a trigger for me, or the reverse, and since there is such a volume of television to watch, it has to present something. There has to be a hook, really, something I can be told about the show that could make me want to watch. The whole reason Hollywood pays its stars millions is that it used to be having a star name means your film opens, it gets a great audience for its first weekend. If it’s rubbish, it dies immediately afterwards, but it opens on that person’s name.

I have never chosen to see a film or a show because of the actors in it. Nor the director. Except the poster line “From the brother of the director of Ghost” was enough to make me watch The Naked Gun 33 1/3. And for a long time I did make the annual pilgrimage to watch Woody Allen’s latest films, but that was back when we thought of him as a writer.

Here’s what Muppets Now has.

The Muppets.

I’ve seen the trailer, I’ve read the blurb, and it was the fact that it was the Muppets that got me to do that much. It has a history, I’ve liked it before, I could be in, I was in enough to watch the trailer. Here’s what the blurb and the trailer has, other than the Muppets.

It’s unscripted.

I’m not knocking improv. You say the word improv and I think first of Tina Fey, who is unquestionably a finer writer than I will ever be. If I hated improv and she said to give it another go, I’d tune in.

But “unscripted” is all I’m offered here. There is something boastful about it, there is something about how brilliant it is that there’s no script. I do see this a lot, as if the idea that there’s a script is somehow bad. I do see that somehow it plays into the notion that for some reason audiences want to think the actors made it all up.

I’m a writer, I love scripts, I would be biased here anyway, but I am more than biased against unscripted shows, I am wary. Because it’s an empty boast. It’s a trigger line that means nothing. Telling me a show is unscripted feels like telling me it’s in colour. It’s doubtlessly factual, but it is of no use to me whatsoever.

I’ve worked on plenty of live shows in theatre and radio, I’ve worked on a few unscripted ones, and it is fantastic. Utterly fantastic, by far the greatest rush and thrill I have ever had. But that’s when you work on it. When you’re making a live show, I don’t think there is anything that comes close to how it feels.

That’s nice for you.

I’m minded of Janet Street Porter’s whole pitch for why people would rush to watch Live TV. She said it’s live. I remember waiting for the second sentence, but that was it. Let’s be kind and assume that the TV interview cut away before she could say anything useful, but the impression I was left with was that she believed live equals compelling.

Live TV launched in 1995 and closed again in 1999. More than twenty years later, Muppets Now still believes that the fact it’s unscripted is enough to make us watch.

Tell me that it’s an unscripted show in which the Muppets do/try/are/will X and I’ll forget the unscripted word and may be interested enough to watch.

Spend an entire trailer telling me solely that it’s unscripted, and I’m bored already. But then I’m a muppet, aren’t I?

Bestowing titles

I am struggling to think of a title for our natter today. Which is possibly ironic, as it’s titles that are on my mind. There are times when I think I am really good at them, then many more times like today when I realise I’m not. And occasionally there are other times when I get a title I like so much that I head off into a script or an article or even a book just so I can use it.

That’s definitely how I ended up sending out a script that was definitely something to do with Time, definitely also something to do with accidents or medicine or something. Look, it was years ago, okay? But I did write a script called – oh, right, yes, it was definitely about time and consequences, because I had the title “Causality”.

And consequently had a producer rejecting it with the kind note that I might like to check out BBC1 on Saturday evenings when there is a hospital TV series of that name. And consequently I had to send him a polite, possibly timid, note right back saying oh, no, there isn’t.

Flash forward more years than I am going to admit, and I can tell you where I was standing when I thought of the title for a play I’ve just finished. It was last year – I could look up the date but you’re in a hurry – and I was running a day-long workshop on writing for business. It was for the Federation of Entertainment Unions and I had something like 25 people, all professional, full-time creative freelancers across writing, acting, journalism and music. And we were working on how you write a blurb to describe your current project.

They all had their heads down writing for ten minutes, I was taking this moment to think that as much as I relish the FEU work, what I love is that I’ll do that one day and the next I’ll be on a script. And then I sank a bit as I thought about this particular script which, for about half a dozen reasons, was ridiculously complicated. So much so that I was half spending my time embedded in research and half spending my time pretending I needed more research because otherwise I’d have to actually write.

Sod it, I thought. These people are all struggling to write a description of their current project, this is mine, I’m going to write a description. There can’t have been more than three minutes left on the exercise so I couldn’t overthink it, I just wrote a description –– and a title.

It is not that the title was random. I can’t tell you what it is yet but even if I could, it wouldn’t blow you away with its brilliance, you’d just see that it was the right title for this. But that was the thing: it was the right title and that apparently thoughtless decision in that room has stayed. About a year on, that is still the title of the play.

And it would be. Because it is the right title. What’s more, what’s so very much more, is that having made that call and decided on that title, it was as if all the Tetris blocks that were making this story hard to tell had now lined up. They snapped into place. Writing it was a bit damn harder than that sounds, but having plucked the title out of the mass and the mess of details, I had the entire route from the start to the end of the play.

That’s not happened to me before. A good title has sold a piece, I know that. A good title has given me the launch I needed for an article.

But this is the first time that the right title has enabled the entire play.

Bet you it has to change.

The one take away from lockdown

I didn’t used to care about weekends and now I regularly work through them as if they were weekdays, but I look forward to writing to you on a Friday.

And I’ve realised that the lockdown has increased how much I rely on regular things. Such as one particular habit, routline, schedule – no, tradition, that’s the word I was looking for. We have grown a tradition during lockdown.

Every Friday evening now, I order a takeaway. The plan was to do it to help out, if only in a small way, local restaurants. The plan was to buy from a different one each week and in that little way, try to contribute.

Unfortunately, the very first one we tried was a curry house we’d not heard of before – and it was so good that we’ve ordered every Friday since.

So much for spreading the joy. But this meal has become a highlight and it will be especially so tonight.

Because tonight is the premiere of a much-awaited musical, streaming on Disney+. In the middle of all this, it is still art that gives people something to look forward to, something to enjoy, something to take them away from the lockdown.

There is the small problem that my wife Angela believes this musical is going to be Hamilton and I know it’s going to be Frozen II.

But we’ll work it out.

Times and Spaces

I have a ridiculously good memory for places. I can boast about this to you because it is of no earthly value. Well, recently it helped me remember where a specific shot was in some video footage that I needed, so that’s nice. But for you, useless. I can’t direct you to a place, I can just know what it looked like.

It’s how I can close my eyes and take a walk around BBC Television Centre, or BBC Pebble Mill, or BBC Woodlands. Now I think of it, nearly every BBC building I’ve ever worked in has been demolished.

Well.

Okay, an equally useless example for you, but one that made me happy. The other night, I was watching a 1973 episode of Columbo called A Stitch in Crime by Shirl Hendryx. And I recognised a place. More than a place, I recognised a specific camera shot of the place. Recognised it and knew where I knew it from.

Columbo
Six Million Dollar Man

On the top, Columbo in 1973. On the bottom, a still from the title sequence of 1976’s The Six Million Dollar Man. Tell me you’re not impressed. Don’t tell me that this is pointless and useless, tell me you’re not impressed.

But this ability to precisely recall shots and angles and places is frustrating me this week. I do this quite often, but for many reasons I have this week been trying to remember exactly where there is not a coffee shop in Birmingham New Street Station. Not a coffee shop.

I could make a crack about how the place is now wall to wall coffee establishments, and of course just like you I could make a comment about long it has been since any of us have been out for coffee.

But the thing with this particular precise and impossible memory is that the coffee shop I’m thinking of used to be there. It was there before New Street was so radically transformed that the very bones of its geography seem different. I can see every step of what was its nearest entrance, I can see the shop – it was a freestanding stall with seats, really – and I can actually see a lot more.

I can see the specific seat and table I sat at. I can see the man I sat with and even the case by his left foot.

But while I do regularly try, I can’t map that precise memory onto where it would have been in the new Birmingham New Street.

And I really do try. Because for all the BBC places, all the magazines and all the websites, and the fact that at the time I was doing Doctor Who radio dramas and my first book was an inch away from coming out, a conversation I had there in 2012 is the most important one in my writing career.

It was a horrible time, actually. While I’ve been a full time freelance writer since the mid-1990s, from about 1999 to 2012, I’d been increasingly working for different parts of the BBC. It was always different parts, different departments across BBC News, the Corporation in general and BBC Worldwide, the commercial side of the BBC. Even within these, there would be variation. So I wrote a lot for Radio Times magazine, but I separately wrote a lot for the Radio Times website.

And in one of the BBC’s many times when it has to be seen to be saving money, I lost that freelance Radio Times website work but you couldn’t tell because they put me on staff instead. Only for one, two, four days a week at different times, but officially I was staff for that site. And still freelancing for the Radio Times magazine, BBC News, all of that.

In my head, I was still a freelancer. So when I tell you that I’ve spent thirty years doing this, I am not lying, but my accountant would wiggle his hand a little about the patch from 1999 to 2012. And unfortunately, even as my head tells me I was freelance, my head apparently forgot.

I forgot to be always looking for the next gig. I forgot that freelance work, no matter what way they choose to spell the word freelance, is always going to vanish.

So in 2012 when the BBC had another time that it had to be seen to save money and for once actually did, I lost all that Radio Times work completely. All of it. In one go. The BBC News work had dribbled away, too, and I hadn’t minded because at RT I was usually doing the equivalent of eight days work a week.

I think it was May 2012, I’m pleased to say that I’m no longer sure what month it was. But I lost it all very quickly and it was frightening.

Cue the conversation.

I wish I could remember how I found Writing West Midlands, I cannot pin down the route from living in Birmingham and finding them. Not in this way, not for this. I was aware of them from the Birmingham Literature Festival that they run. But in some way, I made contact, not even really sure why I was asking and what I was asking.

Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands told me. He told me at that coffee stall in New Street Station extremely early one morning in 2012. Sized me up, asked me questions, made some suggestions, made some recommendations. The one I remember most distinctly was that he decided I’d be good at going into schools. “I’d like that,” I lied. Visiting a school seemed up there with weekly fitness classes at my dentist, but I wasn’t going to admit that.

I’ve just checked. Since that conversation, I’ve done 70 sessions in schools across the UK. I blame him.

That’s one of the many concrete suggestions he had, but I remember all of this because it was the start of rebuilding my confidence as a writer. I mean, I’m a writer, we don’t know from confidence, but I also hadn’t realised just how stripped back mine had become because of losing the BBC work. I thought I was low, I think now that I was much lower.

So usually I remember this because of how much better things are for me now as a writer. It’s still not a wine and roses kind of job, but I’m writing full time even during the lockdown and – I think – I’m writing the best I ever have.

The reasons that I’m particularly thinking of this today, though, are, well, many. Last night I finished writing a play that Jonathan has been encouraging me to do for more than a year. And also last night a friend told me he’d just had a meeting with him and that something in the meeting had reminded Jonathan of his one with mine all those years ago.

And I’m thinking of it because Jonathan Davidson will always get you writing, forever help you out with practical advice, and never mention that he writes too.

Well, bollocks to that. The man has a new book coming out and he’s promoting it with some deeply absorbing blog posts on his website. Here’s the site, here’s the new book. Go step inside the head of a man I owe.

Diagnosis: Muddled

This is about writing, it just might take a while to seem like it. But if you bear with me through a tale about the usefulness of writing villains – and getting other people to write about them too – then I can offer you a reward that’s apparently worth millions. Please pass this on to any UK government people you know, because I’m going to give you the COVID-19 contact tracing app that they can’t.

I’m not joking.

Here’s the story that the UK government has written and is getting some newspapers to copy. The brave UK with its world-beating boffins tried to make the greatest coronavirus exposure notification app there possibly could be, but nasty Apple stopped them.

It’s actually Apple and Google who wouldn’t play ball with the UK’s demands, but never mind that, we need one villain so we pick Apple. The Times newspaper reports that MPs in Parliament are “angry” at Apple and these are the men and women ruining – sorry, running – the country so they wouldn’t be annoyed if it weren’t true. If Apple weren’t a moustache-riddled bad guy who strokes a white cat and eats our children, our politicians would be getting on with fighting the coronavirus for us.

The thing with creating a villain is that you are automatically the good guy. It’s good versus bad, and if you can paint the other fella as the bad one, you’re in.

I don’t believe that the UK ever wanted an app that would actually help with the coronavirus. And I am sick to my liver that it seems in the midst of a pandemic that is killing us, the government saw an opportunity for money. There is the unnecessary commissioning of a technology that we all knew wouldn’t work, but it seems to me that this app of theirs was concerned about gathering sellable data rather than doing anything for our health.

It seems to me. I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I can know this. I can know a lot of things. Such as how a few weeks ago the government was saying that it would be the duty of every UK citizen to download this app, when it was available, and now, not so much. Truly. Even after changing to the Apple/Google system, the UK is now shrugging, saying they might get something done by winter. I’m serious: that’s the official position. The app that will now work and protect our privacy is no longer a priority.

I know that what the UK was asking Apple to do was impossible. To make an app that can nick our personal data and get it ready to sell to people later, the UK needed Apple to switch off its security features that are intended to prevent anyone nicking our data and selling it to people. This is the same thing that Apple – an American company – refused to do for the FBI.

I have to say that I don’t and I cannot know that the UK’s interest was really in the opportunity for cash-gathering invasion of its citizens’ privacy.

But consider this.

If the UK actually wanted an app that would help with the coronavirus, it could have one.

I do mean that it could’ve adopted the Apple/Google system as other countries and US states have, yes. But also now, today, right this minute. The UK is not going to release a coronavirus app in the winter, it’s just not going to bother, and it isn’t because it’s difficult or because Apple has meant they’re months behind where they should be.

Let me prove to you that what the UK is putting its efforts into is writing villains instead of trying to help us. And I won’t even charge you a fraction of the millions the UK is believed to have given to app development companies owned by its friends.

Are you ready? Have a coronavirus contact tracing app on me. Here. I’m not joking. That’s the complete source code for Germany’s app. Complete. Ready. Right here – built using Apple/Google’s system, and currently being downloaded by millions of Germans.

Now tell me again how the big bad Apple is stopping the brave UK from making an app to help save lives.

The story the UK is writing – which is remarkably similar to the story it tells about the big bad European Union – is shockingly powerful, frighteningly successful. As a political tool, it angers and scares me. But as a piece of writing, it’s curious how strong it can be because it lacks something writers are forever told is essential.

Stories need a great villain, but they also need a great hero. When the two are equally strong, equally compelling, that’s drama. When one side or the other is trivial, there’s no story.

Right now, the UK has no hero.

Sentence stricture

I have a thought that I want to try on you. It’s like I haven’t finished thinking it and I need some help to get to the end. But it’s to do with writing, so obviously I thought of you.

A friend was telling me this week that her great problem with writing, with actually getting the stuff written, is that she worries over each sentence. She worries at each sentence too, working it, kneading it, changing it and probably quite often leaving it to go away from the desk and do something easier.

She sees nothing wrong with that. Clearly she doesn’t like it or she wouldn’t have mentioned it as the reason her book is taking a long time. And I didn’t see anything wrong with it either, not when it came up. Every word in a story or a script has to earn its place there. That’s what I think, it’s what she thinks, so it’s just unfortunate that each sentence is practically impossible to crank out free of, well, agony, really.

Except this is my thought. Maybe there isn’t anything practically impossible about writing perfect sentences, there is instead a cold, hard, 100% impossibility.

Follow. If you agree with my other friend and I that it’s important each sentence, each word, fits in perfectly and does a job for the whole story, then I want to know what you think about every sentence that follows it.

You’re in the middle of the book, you’re writing a sentence, and it has the weight of all the previous sentences on its shoulders – and equally the weight of every sentence that will follow it.

Since you can’t know yet what any of those sentences are, I don’t think you can possibly know the full load your current sentence has to bear. I don’t think it’s possible that you can craft a perfect sentence that does work with everything before it and will work with everything that ever comes after.

So I offer that perfecting any one sentence by itself, when it first comes up, isn’t even a Sisyphean task, it is completely impossible.

I felt pretty good at all of this, I felt I’d come up with something deep and profound. My pal reckoned I was just telling her to pull her finger out and write more.

I’m saying nothing.

The worst criticism I ever received

I run a writers’ buddying programme for a group and sometimes get paired up with a writer myself. I love this, it’s always interesting and just occasionally you hear some war stories.

Or you tell them.

I was relaxed away in a buddying chat this week when something we talked about reminded me of the absolute worst criticism I have ever had from any writers or about anything I’ve written.

It’s got to be five years ago now and I’m going to change the names to protect the fact that I didn’t register all of them at the time, I’ve forgotten some since, and I’ve completely blanked on the main one.

You’re starting to understand why people criticise me.

But they do all the time, or rather they do my writing and, sure, sometimes it’s painful. Usually it’s neither here nor there and overall it’s great because it’s useful.

The reason I want to tell you about this one is that I mean it was the worst in more than one sense. Yes, no question, everyone in this group I met loathed my writing. “Are you published?” was the first thing I was asked when I arrived and their eye-widened surprise at the answer was the first clue I wasn’t going to enjoy this day-long event.

Except I hadn’t thought I would. I’d thought I might be savaged and – yes, I remember now, the line I was told beforehand was that this group will tear the skin off your arms, they are that vicious with their criticism. I’d spent years in BBC News, this sounded like home to me.

But I’ll tell you now. There were some nasty people in BBC News, just as there are everywhere, but when you got criticised, you’d earned it. The aim was not to destroy, it was to make a better piece of writing.

So for me, vicious criticism can equal valuable lesson.

The reason this was the worst criticism I’ve ever had, though, is that as well as the moderate vehemence it was delivered in, it was utter rubbish.

Stop that. You’re very nice but you have got to be thinking now that I was wrong, that I must really mean that the criticism given strongly was overwhelming and I’m saying it’s rubbish only as some male defence mechanism.

You’ve got to be thinking that, got to, so I’ve got to give you an example. I was told that I should change my novel to magical realism – specifically because the person who told me this happens to like magical realism.

“I like chocolate,” I told her, “but, you know, thanks.”

Someone else, I think it was someone else, had the sole useful comment in the session. My character apparently could not do what my plot required, not in the room she did it in. She would have to go to this other room and do some other thing first.

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I’ll fix that right now.”

I had the writing on my iPad and I changed that scene there in front of them. So I got something valuable and I put it into the book immediately. On-the-spot editing, improving my writing even as I was being told how to improve it. I turned the iPad around to show them and enthused about how much I was grateful and look, you’ve changed the book.

And yet it still took fifteen fucking minutes for them to shut up about how I must make this change. I wafted the iPad around from time to time. I think I read my own book to pass the time.

They also had some rule that the writer wasn’t allowed to defend or explain their writing until it had been thoroughly discussed by everyone else. So I had another zoned-out few minutes as they decided how I should proceed with one particular character in the opening chapter that they were reading. How I should develop her for the rest of the book.

“You mean the one we come to realise died on the second page?” I asked them. The sole thing I can still see from that day is the shock on all their faces.

No skin was removed my arms during this very long session, but I did occasionally lose the will to live. Again, though, you’re nice, so as good as you’re being to me listening to all of this, you are aware that there are at least two sides to everything and that this group would tell a very different story.

They did. They phoned me up the next day.

And told me that I’d misunderstood, it wasn’t that I’d been invited to join the group, it was that they had been auditioning me.

I laughed.

Plus they knew it would be a big disappointment, but they’d decided to go with someone else. Good luck with your writing, William.

It didn’t quite end there. I can’t remember now how long afterwards it was, but some weeks or months later, they contacted me again and said I could have another go. Of course I didn’t and of course I never will, but unfortunately in another sense, it did end there.

The real reason this was the worst ever criticism is that I’ve never written one single word more of that story. I’d say it’s a bit melodramatic of me to blame the group for that, except that I’ve also never read a single word of that story

Right now I can’t remember which piece it was and I certainly can’t find it. Maybe if I could and maybe if I read it now I might agree with this group’s dislike.

But criticism that I thought was worthless was still enough to puncture me. I went in eager to be eviscerated if it meant improving my writing yet a group that didn’t do that and which had no value for me still managed to stall a book forever.

I blame me but, still, this is really why it was the worst.

Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

A Wendy Napkins Mystery

I really do have a character named Wendy Napkins and she really does get embroiled in Mystery. So far just four script pages of Mystery, but still. There’s Adventure, too: I’m not messing around here.

Don’t ask me when I wrote those four pages but I reread them yesterday and – truly surprising for me – I like them. I like her. There’s a reason she gets called this, it makes sense, but never mind that, she appears to be in the kind of detective story where you have to have an unbelievable name.

She isn’t really. I think I initially planned this as a pastiche and then came to like PC Wendy Naplinsky and her part-time hours working at a nursery too much. I’m not sure. I know that having read the four pages, I want to take her on into a full mystery and that it will tread a line between parody and seriousness so thin as to be invisible.

I want serious mystery but small scale. Who stole the crayons? Is that blood on little Nevada’s father? I’m already ramping it up. Let’s stick to The Case of the Missing Crisps. I think I can do it, I think it can sustain a series if I write the script well enough, but I’ve also been quite startlingly reminded of how collaborative drama has to be. And that’s making me wonder.

I’ve always known drama needs many people and I have usually always believed it to be a great thing. Writer, actors, director and producer working together at the top of their game and with the utmost of their effort, it’s fantastic.

I did once have a director whose sole vision, as much as I could tell, was to have the actors speak faster in order to bring the curtain down before his last bus.

But apart from him, whether it’s in anything of mine or just anything I know about, I have been agog at how it’s really the combination of these people that makes a drama fly.

And then there’s this. The reason I reread my old Wendy Napkins scene is that I watched an Aurora Teagarden Mystery on Netflix. I say Netflix: if you know your television at all well, then ten seconds in you knew it might be airing on Netflix but it was made for America’s cloying Hallmark Channel.

I’m not here to knock it. This is definitely not my kind of drama but it’s a long-running series of TV movies, it’s based on a longer-running series of novels. And it did make me want to see the resolution of the mystery.

What I keep thinking about, though, is the acting. There were some actors in it that I’ve seen before, some I rate, and others I hadn’t heard of but apparently all have great long track records.

It’s not that any of them were awful, it was that every single one of them – to my mind, to my taste – was bad in precisely the same way. And to precisely the same degree.

Every one of the large cast did wide-eyed acting. They’d have this giant pupil in a massive white eye reaction to everything. From “You mean he wasn’t the last person to see her alive?” to “You want milk with your coffee?”

To be fair, coffee should be black. And to be fairer, those are not real lines from the show. But they could have been: that was the standard of dialogue and that was the style of delivery.

It was funny. Perhaps most so when a character would go wide-eyed at themselves as they casually throw in helpful lines such as “well, I could ask my colleagues in the CIA which I haven’t mentioned I work for.” But then it was also fun watching an actor in this company visibly chewing over the impossible moral dilemma about milk or no milk.

It was funny but it’s about invisible lines again. This could have been pastiche but it was too serious. This could have been the cast and crew being a bit meta about the tropes of cloying cosy mysteries. But if the cast and crew were in on it, you got the sense that they didn’t think the audience was. They all acted as if they knew this wasn’t very good, but the tone of the show was that it was pandering to a very specific audience who they assumed would love it.

Tone. That’s the word. I heard once that ahead of every Doctor Who episode there is a tone meeting. All department heads from writing to, I don’t know, visual effects, meet to discuss the script and decide on its overall tone. To decide whether they were all going to make this one be the silly episode or the scary one and to what degree.

Tone is that important and it must be so with the Aurora Teagarden TV movies because their tone is unwaveringly precise from the barely noticeable teaser to the aw-shucks epilogue.

I may not want that Teagarden tone for my Wendy Napkins, but I do know I want a tone and I think I know what it must be.

What I don’t know is how in the world to write that tone into the script such that every actor performs precisely the way I want. I’m not at all sure I would want to make actors perform precisely as I saw my characters.

But if I don’t get that into the script, still it seems that someone can impose it enough to seem less Teagarden and more Stepford.

Bugger, though. I only made up that title “The Case of the Missing Crisps” for you and now I’ve got to write the script. Got to.

Occam’s writing course

I want to say that I was in a Twitter discussion this week, except I wasn’t. I was an observer, wanting to contribute, wanting to ask, wanting to be in there. And I could have been, one of the people who was deep in it messaged me, but I could not vocalise what I was thinking.

Some days later, I’m with you and perhaps you could please picture me lying on your couch. Because, as so often before, I want to see if my telling you what I think will help me think it.

Apparently, by the way, this is called the Rubber Duck process. I do not know why. I also don’t know how widespread that term is: I heard it from a programmer on her podcast. But whyever it’s called what it’s called, the idea is that the action of your explaining something to someone else helps you understand it better yourself.

So. The big headline part of this Twitter discussion, the part I fell across first for some reason, was an idea that male writers should not be allowed to teach female writers.

I teach many, many female writers and I don’t think about their gender, I only think about their writing. That’s not completely correct: I have noticed in schools that it’s true how girls mature faster than boys so their writing is more interesting. But it is the writing I’m interested in.

Sudden flashback to a particular school where I’d just asked a question. I can see this little girl – I am appalling with ages, mostly because I don’t care – suggesting that the answer to something was “because we’re children”.

“Not to be rude, but what do I care how old you all are?” I asked her.

“Okay,” she offered, “is it because I’m a girl?”

I wish I could remember what I’d been asking them. But I do remember, as clearly as if she were in front of me now, that my response to that was to give her a funny look –– and make the question the harder.

Anyway. Sorry. How long until your next patient?

Of course I don’t think men shouldn’t be allowed to teach women, but this was one of those statements where without knowing any of the context, you still know the context. Actually, I still don’t know what sparked it off exactly, or even who most of the people involved are, but I know what you already know too.

Some male writer had been teaching a session and put down a female writer. You also know that it wasn’t to do with her writing, you know too that he did it unpleasantly, that he made it personal.

Maybe the question is not whether men should be allowed to teach women. Maybe it should be that since you already know all of this, since it’s common enough that you can picture the entire exchange, then maybe men should not be allowed to teach women.

It’s the unsurprising nature of this discussion and the event that sparked it. It’s the fact that I do not actually know the event that sparked it, nor the people, yet I know the event and I can see the man.

Something that was offered during the discussion was that there is an argument that women write differently to men, that the structures of drama that we’re all familiar with are quite male. I’ve separately heard the same thing said about different cultures, about how all our writing is shaped by all the writing that went before us wherever we are.

I don’t know. I shift about a bit on the couch as I say that to you because, to me, the individual and what she or he writes is more interesting than whether they use a three-act structure or not.

And as I was reading all of this, I was also listening to music. Francisca Valenzuela in my AirPods. She’s an American-born singer/songwriter who lives in Chile and writes and sings in Chilean. I have little idea what her lyrics mean, but this person who is not my gender or age, who sings in a language I do not understand, is born in one culture that’s different to mine and now lives in yet another culture that’s different to mine, I connect with her. Because she makes me connect with her.

If there’s a man who thinks he can’t learn writing from Valenzuela, he is insane.

Maybe that’s the key here. It’s not that men as half of the species are all bad at teaching, it’s that some –– okay, a mortifying number –– are just insane.

But insane people turn out to be very good at puncturing writers.

I think our time is up. See you next week.