I am not thinking about the US presidential election in five days, I am not. It is not occupying me, it is not pervading every other thought. Okay, it is distracting me from UK politics.
And I will say this. I think it’s frightening how “truth, justice and the American way” is now multiple choice.
Stop. Think of something totally different. Think of something silly.
Here you go. Back in the day, when politics was boring –– concentrate, William, push it away –– say around the 1980s, American network television used to have more adverts per hour than we did in the UK. I can’t remember, I think we got two ad breaks during an hour drama, but I know America had four.
Since American writers knew this too, naturally every hour drama had four acts. They’d build to big enough point in the story to hopefully make sure you’d come back after the ad break. Fine.
It’s interesting now when so many old network shows are being streamed on pay platforms without any ads. There are streaming platforms like BritBox and ITV Hub where it offends me how poorly the shows are broken up. Watch any of the hundreds of Doctor Who episodes on BritBox, for example, and every single one begins with the first half-note of the Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainger’s theme, then stops to play out a BritBox sting, then carries on with the episode.
And ITV Hub, surely no human editor is choosing when the ad breaks go. Rather than fitting in around the breaks that were already there from when the shows first aired, it feels like there’s a timer and at some interval we just get a break. Forget the fact that it is invariably at a poor point in the episode, every time the ad break is over and we return to the show, we see half a second of the previous scene.
Back in the day, when a US one-hour show would air on UK commercial television, we got one or two fewer ad breaks. What this meant, though, was that in every hour drama we would reach a key dramatic point, then the screen would fade to black.
It would then immediately, instantly, fade up again and we’d usually be right back where we were.
Not knowing that it was because of a missing ad break, I remember coming to think that this was a dramatic, artistic choice. That it was in some way emphasising these key scenes, that television drama had invented its very own dramatic punctuation.
I came to think that the story blinked.
I’d like to think that next Tuesday night I’ll blink and it’ll be over. In 2016, I stayed up late to watch the US election results, sitting on the same couch I am on now as you and I talk, and all night turning steadily to stone. I don’t know if I can go through that this time but then I’m not thinking about it, clearly.
And I’m not thinking clearly about it.
Not when we’ve got 1,280 days until the next UK general election.
I know I stole this thought from somewhere, but for the longest time I’ve felt I sit right on the edge between arts and technology. That’s nice for me. And actually, yes, it is. I get to write scripts and drama, I get to use tools that help and excite me, I also get to write about those. Typically where these two spheres meet, I get to have a very good time. But not always.
This week, I got an email on my iPhone from a company championing music technology over the arts. Not with the arts, not for, but above it. Use their music system and you will know –– this was the selling point, you would actually know –– that your song is going to be a hit. Or not. And if it isn’t, you therefore know to throw it away and do something else until you get it right.
I think this is obviously wrong all round. I’m minded of David Cameron, who apparently once told British filmmakers that they should only make successful films. I remember going a little pale. I don’t know anything about, say, the UK’s legal agreements with the EU, but I’d ask before I decided I knew best and broke them.
At the time, it was a sobering and slightly scary thought that someone running the country could be that, well, let’s cut to it, stupid. Now it would be a bit of a surprise if they weren’t.
There was a little more, though. Cameron specifically referenced The King’s Speech, the tremendous film written by David Seidler. This is a film that was a worldwide success, absolutely, and a deserved one. However, it was also a historical movie about a rich man most of the world hasn’t heard of, working his way up to making one speech. Of all the people needed to make that film happen, you can be certain that every one of them did so because the script was great, not because they really thought it was going to be a blockbuster success. “Hold off on that Batman project, we’ve got this now.”
If Cameron thought at all – and he appeared to spend more than a chance second on it so again how stupid was he? – then what he thought was that it was possible to know what would be a success. You know what films have been a hit before, make films like that. I truly, truly cannot fathom a mind that would think that, then point to The King’s Speech, and say ta-daa, that was a hit because all obscure historical movies with no action always have been.
This is all crossing my mind as I’m in my kitchen, reading this email from a firm that wants me to write about how musicians can emulate previous hits and never have to create anything new at all. That’s a firm who knows what listeners want. And why musicians write.
I am far from being against mixing technology with music. If I were a musician, you bet I’d be hands on with Logic Pro to master my album. And just now, just before you and I started nattering, I was listening to Francisca Valenzuela’s fantastically powerful Flotando. I was listening over AirPods and it was as if the room were full of this wonderful, enveloping Chilean music.
I offer, though, that while I listened over technology, and it was a free track of hers on iTunes ten years ago that got me to try her music, there’s nothing else. Nothing in my listening history should trigger any algorithm to think oh, yes, let’s play him Chilean pop music he won’t understand and is by an artist who has never charted in his country.
Any sane algorithm, any informed analysis of my musical tastes would do the opposite, it would skip Francisca Valenzuela entirely. And I would therefore be missing out on a decade of music I relish, plus right now a song that –– it’s true –– I don’t understand, but which fills my chest as much as my ears.
Then there is this. This isn’t the music technology’s fault, they couldn’t know that I’d be reading their email on an iPhone. They might have guessed, mind, since the iPhone is –– literally –– the best-selling product of any kind in the world, ever. And if you don’t have an iPhone, you have an Android phone.
So take a look.
That’s a court image from a legal case between Apple and Samsung, but it’s broadly illustrative. What I’d suggest is that it would be much the same if you changed it from just these two companies and into a larger chart with every phone from every firm.
It’s night and day.
Nothing looked like an iPhone before the iPhone. Everything looked like the iPhone afterwards.
The phone in your pocket, the phone you use a hundred times a day and now feels part of your life –– whether it’s iPhone or Android –– is the way it is, is the use it is, because of that 2007 iPhone launch and its success.
In 2007, though, and also 2008, 2009… Apple was mocked for the iPhone. They were mocked for every part that was different to previous phones, such as how they don’t have physical keyboards. Literally laughed at. Everyone was focused on what had been a success in mobile phones and everything Apple did that was different, was therefore wrong.
I’m suddenly minded of something totally different. I remember a series of columns in Radio Times where the writer, a key figure on that magazine, regularly moaned how every TV drama was exactly the same. She had a point, she made good points, then she blew it. Because one week there was a drama that was different and she criticised it for not being the same.
Not every new idea is going to work. Not every new idea is good. This week the short-form video service Quibi shut down and I don’t miss it in the slightest, I didn’t like what they did, but they tried something new and they didn’t try it based on what everyone watched yesterday.
I love technology but I also have exactly no interest in technology. What I love is what it enables. You and I get to talk like this because of technology. I deeply love that having now made fifty YouTube videos, I can see how much tighter my scriptwriting is. I profoundly love hearing someone laugh and knowing it was because of how precisely I positioned a shot in the video, I mean how I put it at the one moment, the one frame, where it would be funny.
No question, whatever my comic timing is, it’s informed by everything I’ve watched and read and heard before.
But I am never trying to be like anything I’ve seen before. I think the real problem this music technology firm has is just that it’s completely wrong. The aim of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, is not to produce something that makes cash. We want that, we need that to survive, but if your sole purpose is to make cash, there are a lot easier ways than writing.
I write to find something new. Everything you create, you do to find something new. Now if only we could get Hollywood to work the same way.
A quarter of a dozen things happened this week – wait, nobody ever says that. It’s always a dozen or half a dozen. Look at you and me: we’ve been talking for five seconds and we’re breaking new linguistic ground.
Anyway, a quarter of a dozen things happened this week that in retrospect feel like they were all part of the same thing, the same issue. And it’s an issue that I think matters in general, but it definitely matters to me. I can’t tell you all of the details –– I think you just looked at your watch anyway, wondering how long each of the three would take –– and I will tell you now that the last one is really good. It’s a video, in fact, that I’d like you to see when you’ve got a minute.
Well, when you’ve got 42 minutes, anyway. Let me build to that.
The other two things were first, a rejection and, second, a project that had a hiccup. I get a lot of rejections and while I can think of ones that were like a knife to my neck, they hurt so much, the infinite majority are a shrug. I get acceptances too, let me quickly say that and there was a nice one this week, but as rejections go, the one I got on Monday or Tuesday, whenever it was, was a shrug.
Truly: I had to think before I could remember what I’d submitted to it. That’s how unimportant it was.
Not that it wasn’t important, you can just have things that are important and unimportant at the same time. It was a writing competition and I practically never bother with those, but this is a prestigious one and whenever I entered it, I’d just finished a short story that I thought happened to fit the frame. I’d finished a couple of short stories, that’s why I wasn’t clear for a second which one it was, but again, this is all a shrug.
I know it sounds as if it isn’t, I know it sounds as if I’m either being terribly brave or that actually I’m folding my arms like a little boy and really saying that this is rotten contest, I didn’t want to win anyway.
No. I wanted to win or I wouldn’t have entered, but the rejection so does not matter that not only wouldn’t I be mentioning it to you, I wouldn’t remember it enough to mention it to you. Except for the rejection email.
Those knife to the neck rejections. The one I’m thinking of most when I say that was a two-line email I got on my iPhone as I stood in line at a coffee shop. Years later, I can feel that wound, I can still rage at the decision given a head start and an extra strong coffee, but what I cannot do is fault that it was two lines long. I didn’t get the gig. What else is there to say? I think the producer gave me a little reason, but the rejection was nope, not going to happen, what’s next?
Whereas this week’s rejection email was a therapy session.
“You should probably sit down,” it didn’t say but might as well have. “Can I get you a tea? You’re looking pale. I’ve got biscuits.”
I can’t find the email now to count the words but it was about two screenfuls of my iPhone and most of that was a reassuring kind of tract about how gosh hard it is being a writer, before finally saying what had really been obvious for the previous 300 words or whatever it was. I didn’t get the gig.
It was insulting.
In their eyes, it seemed to say very loudly, I am a child who didn’t get the HomePod mini he wanted for Christmas –– okay, that’s a bit specific and revealing, but you have the idea. It simultaneously diminished me and tried to elevate them. This was a world-class writing contest, it thought, and I was a child without batteries. This is the gateway to writing success, it thought, and I should now go dream of one day being good enough to join them.
I fear that people involved in writing –– including writers, unfortunately –– can get into these bubbles where what’s being measured and what’s being a success are actually a bit out of kilter with reality. Winning this contest is not the goal. Using a win like this to help get my novel some attention, that’s the reason for entering.
Writing contests are not the end result. Writing is not about a pat on the back. Writing is not actually about writers.
Writing is about the reader, the audience. If it takes you a thousand years to write a short story and then you are lauded by every writing contest going, but a reader gets bored a quarter of a dozen words into it, there’s no point.
You have to be focused on writing in order to write, but you have to be focused on the audience for that writing to be of any worth. Dig deep inside yourself, most definitely, but if it’s to be anything more than well-typed naval gazing, it has to reach other people. Only connect.
I write for a lot of reasons, partly because it is my job and possibly mostly because it’s an illness that I cannot cure, but one definite reason is that I write to be read. I mean, there are so many reasons, but even writing this to you, I am writing it to you, I’m not trying to see how many words I know.
Whether it’s something like this where it’s just you and me, or it’s something like the projects where I’ve had three million readers, all of the steps between my text and an audience matter to me. I think about them all and I think about every person, every thing that is involved in the process. When you don’t do this, when I suspect you actually see writing as something more abstract and not actually a process for reaching people, you don’t see when you cause problems.
That’s the hiccup. A perfectly reasonable writing issue came up in a project this week, but it came up after the project was finished. If it had been thought of earlier, it would’ve been a trivial fix. As it was, things had to be pulled and redone. I think three people including me had to be involved in the fix and it took an extremely long time. You would not have liked me on Tuesday. You would’ve been glad that I also had a bad reaction to some medication and was being violently sick all day as I tried to get this sorted while doing everything else I was due to do that day.
I have no religion. But I have three beliefs. I believe the show comes first, I believe that it’s better to be crew than passenger, and I believe that we work best when we work together. Even though I’m on my own writing my novel, for example, my agent will be working with me soon enough and hopefully a publisher will at some point and so on.
Let me give you the good example of this, the one I said I wanted to build to. This week the Royal Television Society in the UK’s Midlands ran a media careers fair and, in conjunction with the Writers’ Guild, it featured writer Jed Mercurio talking about TV drama. I interviewed him and he was fascinating –– including about how as a writer who is deeply involved in production, he gets more of a say in how his scripts are filmed.
Television drama is collaboration and as free and as wild as writers need to be, the work is better when directors, producers, cast and everyone are working together. Here’s Jed Mercurio’s video interview.
I like stories where I start off looking pretty good and I’m okay with how they then often take a turn and I don’t appear quite so great. If I could just stop myself telling you the third part where I am invariably exposed as an utter idiot, that would be okay with me.
This isn’t that type of story, not quite yet. Give me a minute. First I have to tell you a very quick thing because I want to tell myself too and I have no earthly clue where else I can. It’s this. In a hundred years, when all of the analysis of the Trump Administration is finally over but researchers can’t shake the habit, some one sole person with half an hour to spare and a sandwich to chew, will open the 2020 US House of Representatives report into technology.
And as they skim it, wondering where they left their coffee, their eyes will completely miss the fact that I am cited in there.
What value this citation has, I don’t know. But now when relatives give me the line about how the lockdown must’ve been great for me since I say I’m a “writer”, and when these relatives go on to the inevitable “so what did you do with your time?”, I have an answer. “Wrote a play, wrote a book, influenced the course of American political history for the next century. What about you? Did you get that shed painted?”
Oh, come on, you’ve got identical relatives, let me have this.
And what I really want to talk to you about was hidden in there. The “wrote a book” part. It’s not as much of an exaggeration as the US politics part, but unfortunately it is an exaggeration and I want to be open about this.
I count things. This may be very male of me, but I like that later today I’ll read my 458th script of the year, and that a few minutes ago I did my daily French lesson in Duolingo for the 508th consecutive day. Counting like this is useful, I promise you, but only when the numbers start to look decent. I remember back on January 1st when I made a note that I’d read one entire script so far this year, it didn’t feel that hot.
‘Course, there have been bigger things to worry about this year. Pandemics: 1. So small numbers can still be huge.
But counting like this does a lot of things for me, most of them to do with how they somehow keep me going on to the next bit. I’ve done 508 days, you know I’ll do 509. Just as an aside, by the way, every time Duolingo says I’ve hit whatever the day count is, I am back on day 1, which was late night in a hotel in Hull, during the most intense research job I’ve ever had. It’s a nice memory to have every day.
That research became a play that I am still supremely proud of, 105 days since I delivered it. But here’s the thing I seem to be trying to simultaneously tell you and avoid telling you.
The reason I know I delivered that script 105 days ago is that right after I emailed it over, I vowed to spend one hour every day writing a novel. And I managed it for 89 days. Call it 90: I allowed myself a holiday of a few days since I’d reached 97,000 words, and I came back to do one more day after that.
But 90 is a little less than 105. This is the quality of information you get from me. Except, no, it turns out that 90 is the most enormously less than 105 than it is possible to get. The gap between 89 and 105 is exactly the same. The gap between, say, 21 days and 105 is precisely, to the minute, as much of a chasm. It is harder to go back to an hour every day after you’ve stopped for 15 days than it ever was to do each day one after the other.
The reason I am telling you this now is that I think saying it to you, specifically you and specifically now, will make me get back on the wagon. And then there is also this.
Last night, still feeling wiped out from having been sick last weekend, I read script number 457 –– Jack Rosenthal’s “Well, Thank You, Thursday” –– and went to a Suzanne Vega concert. In my living room. It was streamed and the proceeds are going to all of the venues across the US and Europe that she would have played in during a tour that the pandemic has cancelled.
I was streaming it from my iPhone to my TV set, and either from a need to just be in the moment or because I knew I’d knock the streaming off if I fiddled with the phone, I didn’t check any messages for about the concert’s about 70 minutes. No alerts, no notifications, no emails, and I didn’t even know the time until afterwards. I got to be in a New York night club for a small little concert and just be there.
Yet I thought of something for the book.
During “Ludlow Street”, if we’re really counting. One of my favourites: it’s a track from Suzanne Vega’s Beauty & Crime album.
Anyway, faintly peculiarly, what I thought of was something that I realise is already in the novel. Two of my characters have grown to have these different perspectives on the same thing and what I realised last night is why. It’s the smallest insight, it is what I have already written, and yet it’s so important that if the US House of Representatives asks me about it, I will claim that it was the entire reason for the novel.
You’ll know different, but you’re you, I can tell you this. And I want to tell you because it’s you, but also because I need your help to get me back on this hour-every-day lark –– and I hope that your helping me will help you start, continue or finish whatever you’re working on. Just doing a bit every day gets you there.
So I read a poem yesterday. I mean, I read it aloud, you can hear me on the Birmingham Literature Festival’s Staying Human series of poetry. The thing is, I read the text when it was sent to me and I rather liked it, but it was when I was saying it aloud that it affected me. Smiles by Mimi Khalvati. I didn’t know her work, I’m no kind of poet, but this stabbed me.
Words. It’s not as if I can be surprised that words have this strength, I write for a living. But lately I’ve been circling back around a thought that spoken and written words are not the same thing. I love, I so deeply love, that friends have told me that they knew I’d written something because they could hear my voice in it. I adore that, I relish it, I’m proud of it.
And the other day I was listening to a podcast where the host was adamant we have to use emoji because text can’t convey emotion. If you just wrote down everything I said, this fella insisted, you couldn’t get the tone, the meaning, the subtext, the flavour.
I was wearing AirPods and walking upstairs to my office when I heard this and so my wife Angela Gallagher heard me saying to thin air, “be a better fucking writer then”.
She didn’t think it strange.
She’s heard me say it about myself often enough.
But the poem, that podcast nonsense, it’s been a bit Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon for me. Speaking of things I love, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon can very well be an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Isn’t that wonderful? You know this, even if you don’t necessarily know the term: it’s when you hear something for the very first time but then seem to hear it everywhere. I don’t mean in the way I’ve said it three times now, I mean you will hear it again today or this week or surely at most this month. You’ll notice it now, you’re aware of it, so you seem to notice it more often.
And if it’s not a phrase that I’m hearing again and again, if it’s actually a thought that keeps coming back, it’s tied to the very name Baader-Meinhof. That was and I suppose still is another name for The Red Army Faction, so it starts out as a name, it’s one particular group’s title, and then it becomes this term for something that is completely unrelated to them.
We choose what words mean. Collectively, we choose what we want words to mean. I think it’s atrocious that, for instance, there this is this unfathomable power in the universe but we’ve pretty much ignored it since we’ve all decided to give it the name “magnetism” and be done with it.
Whereas I think it’s tremendous that the word “nice” used to be such a repulsively damning word, then we made it so sweetly praising that we got repulsed by it all over again in a different direction. It’s as if the extremes of revulsion made the word into a pendulum and right now “nice” is stuck in the middle of the arc, neither good nor bad. But still faintly repulsive. It holds an echo of a previous distaste.
We decide these things. Except I think we also decide it as individuals. Or at least I hope we do, to be specific I hope that you do because otherwise you’re going to look at me very strangely now.
Okay, I walked into that one. You’re right, you’re going to look at me exactly as strangely as usual.
So I’m just going to tell you. When I hear something described as being “bucolic”, I think that means it’s horrible. It cannot mean pleasant, it must mean a rotting disease. Bucolic. You will never convince me I’m wrong.
However, this week – told you this keeps coming back – a friend described herself as being nonplussed and from the context, I knew she couldn’t mean that she was shrugging, that she didn’t particularly care one way or another. That time I actually looked up nonplussed but would you believe that every dictionary has got it wrong? I know. Inconceivable.
Whereas I accept that this is me, all me. When I was very young and just learning to read, I saw a film set in a creepy old house and there was a sign outside it that warned people “trespassing is prohibited”. I asked my sister what that pro- prohib – pribited? word was. “Forbidden,” she said.
For at least the next year I would pronounce the word “prohibited” as “forbidden”, like it had a silent f, o, r…
I’ve been looking at you for ten minutes, easily ten, with my head going in two directions. Part of me wants to enthuse at you about a table reading I attended over Zoom last night, but I’m not sure I can. I can definitely tell you that scripts I’d read and very much enjoyed seemed even better performed by however many people in Celebrity Squares-style video boxes.
But I think what I really want is to talk about the Writers’ Guild. This week I was re-elected as co-Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and I may never get used to that. Except this is my last year – the Guild is a trade union and it of course has rules, which of course include term limits.
I promise to hand over power peacefully.
It’ll be reluctantly, but it will be peaceable. And that’s not for a year yet, so in the meantime I plan to be as bleedin’ useful as I can. The Writers’ Guild raises the tide for all writers, which I think is amazing, and actually it does so whether you’re in the Guild or not, which I think is astounding. Pay rates, conditions, the Guild is constantly –– and I really mean constantly –– negotiating, pressing, arranging every possible aspect of professional writing life and doing so in our favour.
Writing is an isolating kind of job which might suit you and it might not, but it makes us vulnerable. I think it’s telling that during this hard time, Guild membership is going up. The more of us there are, the stronger the Writers’ Guild is, the better we all fare.
I’d like to use something very specific so we can talk about something very broad. Right now, BritBox has the 1979 Arthur Hopcraft version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the BBC iPlayer has the 2011 film version by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. And of course John le Carré’s original novel is available everywhere. Plus the script is online.
I’ve read that novel years ago, re-read it now, watched both the BBC and film versions, read the 2011 script, and there is a single scene in the movie that I’ve been fixating on for about a week.
In all the versions, here’s the thing. A British intelligence agent, Peter Guillam, is infiltrating his own agency to steal some files. (This is in the 1970s, files meant big paper and cardboard folders, not a USB stick or three.) It’s every bit as tense as you can imagine with Guillam diverting attention, distracting people and then of course he’s stopped just before he can get away.
He’s doing all this to investigate various senior intelligence officers and he’s stopped by one of them. Before you can wonder if he’ll find a way around this one man, he’s being escorted to all of them.
So now he’s in a closed room meeting with all the people he and we suspect, and if it’s been tense before, we are now certain the game is up.
Except, very nicely, if the game is up then it’s actually a slightly different game. Guillam is threatened, bullied, shouted at, and it’s all over the fact that, as we know, he has been speaking with a particular other agent named Ricki Tarr.
To mix spy genres for a second, Ricki Tarr has been disavowed. Meeting with him is treason, literally. So Guillam has a choice and he makes it. He claims he’s not seen Tarr and he keeps that up throughout – until he is eventually believed.
Fine. More than fine. It is a successfully tense and compelling couple of scenes and so well done that you can feel in your stomach the moment Guillam commits to his lie about not seeing this man.
In the novel.
And in the 1979 BBC version.
These same couple of scenes are in the 2011 movie, but they’re dramatically different, in every sense, because in the movie Guillam has not been speaking with Tarr. He hasn’t seen him.
In the film version, he first meets up Tarr right after these scenes and there’s a bit of action as he takes out his fear – amongst other things – on the man. But here’s the specific general point: his fear is minuscule.
He hasn’t seen Tarr so he wasn’t lying in that scene, in the film. He wasn’t lying so he can’t be caught out. In the BBC version there is every chance that the people accusing him of meeting Tarr have actually seen him do it. In the novel, he’s reasonably confident that he wasn’t under surveillance at the time. He doesn’t know, he can’t be sure, so while it’s weaker in the novel than in the BBC series, the tension is still there.
It isn’t in the film.
I liked the film when I saw it around 2011 and I liked it now, except the BBC one was so fresh in my mind that it was hard to separate them. I think that was probably why I noticed this because I do remember thinking the film was taut and tense the first time I saw it.
I keep thinking and thinking about this. About how a change in the sequence of a story can destroy tension that had otherwise been very carefully engineered.
It’s like the opposite of the Hitchcock theory that a long and boring dinner between two characters can be made riveting if they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table –– and the audience does.
I suspect that the film did the story in this sequence for one of two reasons. It could be collateral damage from decisions about other sequences, when to tell which other bits of the tale. Or it’s possible that it was done to serve Peter Guillam’a character. In the other versions, Guillam gets no big release from surviving this interrogation, no particular action.
In the film, he gets back from the interrogation, sees Tarr and makes a dive for him. It’s one of the few pieces of physical action in the story and it does also let Guillam believe some of the things his interrogators have told him. But he only gets to believe them for a moment, he only gets a brief spot of action.
If it was to give Peter Guillam a character moment, I think it came at the cost of a gigantically bigger one in that interrogation.
So if it were deliberate, I think it was just wrong. If it were a consequence of other issues in the script, other needs, then it’s a shame.
But whichever it is, there is always a reason why a scene is where and when it is in a story.
We genuinely are in a TV golden age right now and we have been for so long that it’s hard to remember there were ever ages at all. But there was. Oh, trust me, there was. I’m suspicious now because I feel that the last un-golden age was while I was reviewing television for BBC Ceefax and BBC News Online, but there were still two things in that period that kept making me wonder why I liked TV drama so much.
Perhaps the most pervasive was that television began looking like cinema. Every series looked wonderful, utterly arrestingly gorgeous. And bugger-all use as a drama. Characters who barely qualified for the name, stories that might or might not have worked but you’d never know because the dialogue would leave you wondering over and over again how adults had stood there saying this crap aloud. But it looked great.
Maybe you feel less harsh, but I remember, for instance, one boring evening in a London hotel with a pile of ho-hum dramas to review on VHS, and then the last one of the night being Queer as Folk. It was instantly wonderful. Watch it now, watch it then, there’s no question but that this show is like being hit by joyous wall. It is alive, that’s what Queer as Folk is, and back in 1999 or 2000, there wasn’t much else that was.
You might not agree with me, you’re looking kinder about TV back then, but there’s this other thing which you’re less likely to know. Unless you got on BBC and ITV’s press list, you won’t have seen how very many times a new drama would be promoted as being “the next Play for Today”.
I was reminded of this watching clips from the Republican National Convention the other week. Just as BBC and ITV knew that Play for Today was high water mark for drama, so the GOP’s speakers all knew what was right, what was proper, what was decent and sane. They don’t do any of it, but as they stood there saying these lies, it felt worse than ever because clearly they know what the truth is. There’s no ideological stance here, no belief that you could disagree with and yet still understand, these are people who know full well what the right thing to do is, and they’re choosing not to do it.
Equally, not one single “next Play for Today” was ever remotely like Play for Today. It did get so that you just wished they’d bloody make more Play for Today, but instead, they did do something better. Eventually.
Eventually, television married the brilliance of how things could look on our ever-larger widescreen TV sets with how much more brilliant they can be when the drama is written and acted and directed well.
I think this time, right now, is the very best that television has ever been. But I know that it’s also the first time we’ve been able to check.
Think of a TV series and you can watch it, pretty much. There’s no sign of The Onedin Line or The Duchess of Duke Street on any streaming service and there so very much should be, but otherwise it appears that every show ever can, well, appear on your screen.
It also looks better than it ever did. I watched Thunderbirds the other night on BritBox simply because I wanted to hear that famous theme and yet the image quality was so vastly greater than I’d ever remembered that I was held for long enough to get into the story. Curiously, the sound wasn’t remotely as great, but before I knew it, I was rooting for Virgil to save the day.
He did. And last night at the end of an episode of Dempsey and Makepeace, Dempsey was in that classic hero position where he could’ve shot the baddie but after a few tense closeups, took the moral high ground. Compare that to the newer and infinitely better Justified where the only thing that saves a baddie from being fatally shot is not the hero’s morality but rather the producer’s deciding he’s too interesting a character to kill off.
You see the nonsense we used to put up with on television, but you also see much more. It fascinates me how you can, reasonably easily, skip around television history and see how norms and conventions and budgets and technology changed. The most striking example for me, though, is how studio-bound British TV was for such a very long time.
Any given episode of a drama would consist of maybe ten minutes shot on location, shot on film, and then the rest would be recorded in the studio. As a nation, it was as if we collectively agreed to ignore the vast difference in picture quality between the two. Then as portable, lightweight OB cameras came in, we moved to all film, all-location, and it is better.
The very last drama to be shot in this part film/mostly studio way was BBC1’s The House of Elliott, which ended in 1994. That’s also not available to stream, but you can now turn left and watch 1993’s Cracker which was made entirely on film. Or you can scoot back a little to 1987 and a series where the constraints of the studio were much more painfully obvious.
This is available on BritBox, as of last month. Star Cops. If there is a contest for the worst-named TV series of all time, Star Cops would be in with a shot at the trophy. I actually remember it getting the front cover of Radio Times and yet, despite the attention and despite it being made by ex-Doctor Who people I rated, I didn’t watch. Not something called Star Cops, I’m not.
I think it was maybe ten years later that I caught an episode and ended up buying the complete series on VHS. And now I’m watching the whole thing on BritBox.
It’s got that same dreadful title, it looks cheaper than even Crossroads ever managed, and yet it is absorbing. I’m not going to say it’s the next Play for Today, but it is fresh and interesting and well written enough that I’m watching even as I keep remembering what happens.
Truly, you could make a better or at least far better-looking Star Cops episode on your iPhone today. But you probably couldn’t match writers like Chris Boucher.
And if old studio dramas do nothing else, they demonstrate the strength that writing –– and acting –– can bring. We don’t need multi-million pound dramas, but they are superb, so long as the writing is there too.
Oh, go on, let me do this. I had a Serious Writing Topic that I wanted to discuss with you, but it is you, it’s just me and you, let me tell you something else that I think you’ll recognise. It’s the way that you get an idea you think is good but actually you have no idea how much work it is going to take you.
I have a YouTube series called 58keys, it’s about 30+ videos so far and all for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads. Fine: I like doing it very much, I’m getting gorgeous reactions, all is ace. Except a week or two ago, I had an episode ready to go and decided to pull it.
There was nothing wrong with the episode but I’d made it especially to be relevant to people who listen to a podcast called The Omni Show. That’s a surprisingly happy little show about the company that makes various particularly great software tools that I rely on daily. Hourly. They invited me on and after the recording, I made this 58keys episode about the especially particularly great To Do app OmniFocus.
Only, their interview with me didn’t air when I expected. It has now aired and you can hear it and it was a lot of fun, but it didn’t come out on the day I thought it might. So I decided to hold off on the relevant 58keys episode. You’d have done the same, I know you’d have done it and found that so obvious that you might even have bothered to complete the thought, you’d just do it.
But this meant I had no 58keys episode.
With 90 minutes –– honestly, I think it came in at 89 minutes –– I had thought of a new episode, written it, filmed it, edited it and uploaded it to YouTube ready to go. That was a nice feeling, that rush of creativity, and that episode did very well for me.
But no good idea goes unpunished. I ran that episode, then the next week when The Omni Show was out, I ran my OmniFocus episode –– and realised that I really, really had to have a second one about that software. It’s that useful, there is that much to say. And this is where I got the idea that I have since spent thirty hours on. That’s thirty hours. Twenty times longer than the previous one took.
I don’t think you do or should care how long I spend on anything, just as I don’t think either of us should especially care how long any piece of work too, how much effort it did or didn’t take. The end result is all that matters and actually I am now very pleased with it.
This 58keys about a software app that you may not be using, may never have heard of since the last time we had coffee and you foolishly asked me what I was up to, certainly had the potential to be dull. It also needed to be quite long in order to cover everything. Long and dull. For some reason I didn’t fancy long and dull.
So I did what any drama fan would. I turned it into a fight.
If you watch, you’ll see a four-way Zoom conversation with three of me visibly not liking each other, and a bear just staring at all of us. This might be something I should say to a therapist before I admit it to you, but I appear to really, really like arguing with myself like this, I deeply like disliking myself. Plus I got to do it in a form that was half Zoom, half more like a certain TV thriller.
There you go. Instead of long and dull, I made a thriller. Or at least I tried to: you’ll have to judge it.
I hope you enjoy it, I know you would’ve done it differently and that this could very well have meant you did it better, but you also recognise this part. Once I had the idea, I was committed. Ten hours in, twenty, I might dislike the idea and I might have gone off the jokes that I’d now heard six times, but I was committed. When I realised I’d made a small mistake and needed to entirely reshoot a whole segment, I could’ve held back a little tear, but I could not stop myself getting out the camera and the tripod again.
There are parts of this video that are literally four or five pixels big and you cannot, just cannot see why I needed to do them. But I needed to do them.
Because we do. I was working with 20 or so writers, musicians, journalists and actors earlier this week and we might have all wished for the regular salary of a regular job, but we all knew exactly like you do that it takes unreasonable, unjustifiable, uneconomic effort to pull off an idea.
And you also know how I’m feeling right now. I’m a bit conscious of some other pixels I would like to change now that I’ve seen it all on my living room TV set, but I’m also deeply glad that I did it. Deeply glad that I got a laugh from Angela at just the right place.
And somewhat less glad that I now have to think of something to film for next week’s episode.
The streaming service Britbox just added a shovelful of more British TV dramas to its service and one of them is Cracker by Jimmy McGovern. I saw that when it originally aired on September 27, 1993 and now I saw it again on Wednesday. That’s 26 years, 10 months and 30 days, but throughout that time I have remembered and admired one scene in precise detail.
Admire is a funny word. Feels a bit clinical. As if I were saying I could appreciate its technical merits, or something, but otherwise it left me cold. No. Cracker is a crime series with the ability to make me frightened for the victims in it. No high body count, no meaningless deaths – at least not in the sense of just being done for a plot twist; plenty of times the deaths are as meaningless as ones in real life.
And actually I do feel as if I’m going to reduce the show by focusing on what I want to talk to you about. It is the smallest moment in an exceptionally well written, commanding, engrossing, provoking drama.
The lead character, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane), sees a news report on the TV. That’s it.
Swap this show for any other police series, even ones I like, and there is a fair to total chance that this scene would play out in exactly the same way. The hero catches a news bulletin just as it happens to mention what he, she or we need to know for the drama. There’ll be a helpful photograph, some exposition that would never really be said that way by any journalist, and the hero would then unerringly know the precise moment to switch off the TV.
In the first episode of Cracker, The Mad Woman in the Attic Part 1, McGovern does have a news bulletin like this. It has a photograph of a woman who’s been murdered, it has a news presenter presenting news. What it doesn’t have, what Fitz doesn’t have, is the remote control for the TV set.
So we see him noticing the photo on the TV news, then scrabbling to find the remote to turn the sound up, and finally crossing to the set to find the controls there. And he succeeds, he gets to turn up the volume, but he’s too late.
He’s too late to find out anything and it is perfect. I’ve remembered that moment for three decades.
It’s perfect in part because we already know she’s been killed, we know a huge amount. We don’t yet know what his connection is, but there is no information that news bulletin could possibly give us that we either didn’t already have or couldn’t see from his frantic searching.
It’s also perfect because it’s new. That may sound strange to say when it is 9,830 days old, but it was new then and it is new now. A very familiar situation is completely reversed and providing the same information in a totally new way.
In a somewhat smaller way, I’m minded of when I worked on the Radio Times website. Back then there were sub editors, subs who checked facts, smoothed out grammar issues and really a dozen or more different things that meant articles were as good as they possibly could be.
Except sometimes I’d find a sentence I’d really carefully fashioned would come out as a cliché. I did ask, I did protest, but I was told that it was necessary because people like clichés. You can tell me that until the cows come home in freezer bags, I told them, it isn’t true.
Look what I did there with the freezer bags. I’m not saying it was great writing or even noticeable, but you understood it as completely as if it were the original cliché, and it wasn’t. It was the same thing but different and maybe this is just me, but that’s worth the world.
No, wait, it can’t just be me because you’re nodding and, besides, there is even a term for it. When you write a sentence that is a cliché or, more commonly is just a familiar phrase, you can recast the sentence. Audition different words and hire them if they’re right for the job. I’ll never turn to a thesaurus, but I will spend as long as it takes to find a different way of saying something.
I just realised this week that maybe it comes from that Cracker scene. Seeing how you can deliver the same information in even a slightly different way, it’s stuck with me.