You must write what you want

Poster for Modern Love on Amazon

Poster for Modern Love on Amazon

There’s a thing that I’m sure is going to come up in the Tuesday Night Writing Club. Wait, I haven’t said what that is.

Briefly, it’s a new five-week writing workshop I’m running from next week. Each Tuesday evening from 19:00-21:00 (UK time), the first hour is full-on writing exercises and challenges. Then the second hour is us talking through what we’re writing, what we want to write –– and why we’re not writing it.

There are ten of us but I would like a couple more. If you’re reading this in time, take a look at the Eventbrite page.

Anyway, I don’t know what we’ll end up talking about and of course that is one of the reasons I’m so looking forward to it. However, wherever three or more writers shalt meet, so typically there will come up this certain point that’s been on my mind.

Usually it’s a new writer who says this, but it can be an old one who’s just jaded. Whichever it is, they’ve decided that they must now write the next Harry Potter, the next Twilight, the next 50 Shades, the next insert-latest-hit-book-or-show here.

You can see why they’d think this. Plus it doesn’t hurt that people who aren’t writers assume both that this is what we have to do and that it is what we want to do.

Except the answer is no. There’s a term I know from technology but I have a tiny little reason to suspect may possibly have originated in some sport or other. Don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where it is going to be.

If you see that dramas about chess are in, don’t write one. Because by the time you’ve even finished writing, let alone got it through production, dramas about chess are old news. Chess, Westerns, everything changes. Except zombie films. For some reason that genre just will not die.

I think that this is obvious and that even if you were worrying about writing something like, I don’t know, the next Line of Duty, you soon see that it’s obvious. Quite clearly, there is no point emulating anything, you must write something new, something you want to write.

And since the emulation never works, you might as well write something new anyway.

Only, for exactly as long as I’ve been thinking this about topics and genres and characters, I’ve been wrongly rigid about everything else. You may want to write a sprawling 100-hour fantasy, I thought, but you’ll never get it on because there is no slot for 100 hours.

Television drama has to be one hour long, I thought. There are exceptions, like the two-hour crime series that Inspector Morse made popular. And television comedy has to be half an hour.

Hand on heart, I still think that should be true, I just know that it technically doesn’t. Take a look at any one-hour drama on Netflix and you’ll see that the episode length varies enormously. Or I can’t remember which episode it is now, but there was a Doctor Who which came out as over 60 minutes in the edit and BBC Wales had to make a case to BBC1 why it should be allowed. And why it should be allowed to mean the rest of the Saturday night schedule should shuffle along.

Curiously, if Doctor Who had aired on a weeknight then, there wouldn’t have been any discussion. BBC1 has to hit the Ten O’Clock news, not the Five Past Ten one. So there are still technical limits.

I do just also think that there are writing ones. I realise that we’ve all been trained to expect sitcoms to be thirty minutes, but when they’re not, you can usually tell. Amazon Prime UK has extended versions of some Parks and Recreation episodes and I could not tell you which ones are longer because it all works so well.

But then I think it was Arrested Development that let its regular episodes stretch out a bit once it was on a streaming service, and there you knew. There you knew the episodes felt flabby. Time constraints are important for writing.

The reason every bit of this is on my mind now, though, is because another set-in-stone technical issue appears to have vanished. For as long as I can think, television would not do anthology series, just would not do them.

You’re thinking of The Twilight Zone, but remember how long ago that was. For a mixture of practical and marketing reasons, it’s not been viable to make anthologies. The practical being that a season of separate stories –– entirely separate casts, sets and locations –– is gigantically more expensive than one following the same characters.

And then the marketing one is that viewers like to follow the same characters. I do. I like coming back to spend more time with characters I like.

It was so certain that anthologies were a thing of the past that in the 1980s, Don Bellisario devised Quantum Leap as a trick. Its leading man “leaps” into the bodies of different people in every episode because this is really an anthology in disguise.

That was in the days when network television existed and when network television was extremely profitable. Today it isn’t, so naturally more expensive shows just aren’t getting made.

Except they are. And anthologies are.

Amazon Prime commissioned Modern Love in 2019 and I’ve just finished watching the eight episodes because I’ve been savouring each one, letting each one linger. It is the anti-binge show, the one you do want to race through, but you also want to hold on to.

I utterly relish that anthology and it doesn’t hold back on the expense.

I have no idea how we ended up with big bucks network television fading away. Or how we cope now with every new show competing not with whatever else is airing at the same time, but with a hundred thousand other shows and channels and entire streaming platforms.

But if it gets us Modern Love, I’m in. There are plenty of shows I’d like to write for, but I yearn to be good enough to write Modern Love.

Je ne comprends pas, but…

It’s possible that you’ve noticed this, but the UK — or perhaps more correctly England, yet the whole nation is getting clobbered by it — is going through a protracted period of withdrawing from the world. I don’t think it’s planned, I see it as schoolboys folding their arms and believing everyone will come begging. But whatever is ultimately behind it, the result is that we’re more isolated and more turning our backs on everywhere else — except on television.

This week I saw Call My Agent for the first time and it is a delight, I’m feeling warm just mentioning it to you. I’m a single episode in and yet I’m already intending to eke out the series as the whole run isn’t all that long and I want to relish it.

And at the same time, I am regularly checking online to see when the next episodes of Lupin are available.

These are both French television dramas, both on Netflix. Other foreign language dramas are available and always have been, but not to the extent they are now. I’ve long been a sucker for subtitles: back when you used to flick through channels instead of menus of shows, if I caught something with a subtitle, I was locked in to the end because I had to read what came next. Had to.

But that was always late night on BBC2 or BBC4, and now high-budget, high-profile subtitled or dubbed foreign-language dramas are getting 70 million viewers.

Now, that 70 million is the figure for Lupin. Netflix rarely reveals figures unless they’re particularly good. It’s a curious thing about streaming video: none of the companies are required to publish their ratings, so none of them do until they’ve got a headline-worthy one. Even then, nobody can verify them.

And of course the 70 million for Lupin is a worldwide figure. Netflix hasn’t mentioned that the show apparently isn’t as popular in France as it is everywhere else, and Netflix certainly hasn’t said how many viewers were in the UK.

I think that’s actually part of how we’re seeing global dramas now. Netflix would presumably like a lot of viewers in the UK, but it doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK used to be hugely important because it was a big importer of English-language television. The UK is the reason Australia’s Neighbours soap kept going for decades. It’s one of the reasons that America’s 1980s Fame lasted four more years in syndication after NBC cancelled its network television run.

I think that the just as network television is vanishing, so the idea of different territories for selling TV shows to is being erased. It’s not there yet, we still have BBC making daytime dramas that are really produced to be shown in primetime in other countries, specifically ones where rosy cosy images of England sell well.

But overall, television drama is on its way to becoming global and instead of that meaning everything becoming a bit more bland, a bit more safe, a bit more homogeneous, we’re somehow getting to see tremendous dramas we never used to. I can’t think of a time in British television history where we had French and Spanish dramas available on demand, where there actually is demand for them, or where foreign-language shows are being talked about as much as these are.

So as Britain tries to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist and anyway will can’t survive without us, we in the UK are getting to see more of the globe through the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV+.


While I utterly love this, while I think it is fantastic that a great series can now punch far higher and wider than ever before, it’s not an accident. There is an element of how streaming services need libraries of material and here’s some material, let’s add that to the pile.

But it’s really because there is a quota.

I wrote an article about this in 2019 which reported that by the end of 2020, all streaming services would be required to have 30% of their libraries made locally. So if you’re an American service, as they all are, but you want to operate in France, you have to have 30% of your archive be made in that country.

Now, there are ways to fiddle this. Co-productions, co-financing, it all makes the country of origin be a little debatable. But back in 2019, the article I was commissioned to write was focusing on how, at the time, none of the services met the quota.

Netflix and Amazon Prime were close so I imagine they’ve made it. At the time, the then-new Apple TV+ looked like only about 6-7% of its small library was European. And Disney+ was believed to have 4.7%. I don’t know if they caught up and I can’t seem to find out, but it must’ve been a struggle.

Although I did think of a solution for them. Since the required quota was a percentage of their library, you can see how they could each fiddle the figures. Just remove a hell of a lot of shows from the European versions of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and so on. There are already extensive differences between the libraries available in any given country, because of rights and contractual issues. So I’m honestly surprised they don’t appear to have done that because it’s a lot easier to take a show off your list than it is to make or buy more series.

Instead, while I don’t have figures for this part, it does seem as if the services have bought, made, or co-produced more series to meet this quota.

And it definitely seems that this has worked for them in more than just box-ticking legal-form quota requirements. Now that we are seeing foreign-language series and these streaming services are seeing that we’re seeing them, we’re going to get more. We’ll get more because these shows are popular, not because they fit a criteria.

That’s the bit I love. Show people new drama and it works. We are now seeing more global hits that are a success not because their good bits are ironed out to make them palatable globally or because they’re the TV equivalent of Easy Listening. We’re seeing them because they are fresh and great and they are showing us parts of the world we perhaps didn’t see, even when we were part of the EU.

I love, I deeply love how I’ve ended up in massive conversations about Il Ministero Del Tempo, a Spanish time-travel series. It makes me so happy that the conversations were never about the fact that it’s in Spanish, they were always about how such a great show shot itself in the foot so badly with one episode that we all stopped watching the series.

Drama is bringing us together even as other factors are keeping us apart. Writing is bringing us together and it is reaching out across nations and languages. It is so great.


I said there was a quota. It’s a European Union quota.

We in the UK are benefiting from an EU quota not because we’re part of the European Union, not because we have any say anymore, but because as far as all streaming services are concerned, we just don’t matter. Nobody’s going to go whoo-hoo, we can have less than 30% locally-produced shows in the UK, they’re just going to lump us in with the rest of the continent.

The world is global regardless of what the UK, or perhaps most specifically England, seems to think.

I can get a bit miserable about the state of the nation and the state of politics, but if the UK is sidelining itself, at least I’ve got 23 more episodes of Call My Agent and another half a season of Lupin to relish.

Surprise and Demand

Last night I was laughing at the script to an episode of The Detectorists. Really shaking, weeping, guffawing. This kind of couch behaviour gets noticed when someone else is trying to watch The Doctor Blake Mysteries. But then it leads to information in the many ad breaks on the Alibi channel.

Toby Jones co-stars in The Detectorists and my wife Angela Gallagher, who has the most amazing knowledge of casts, told me that he’s just become patron of Claybody Theatre, the tremendous company founded by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson.

So far this is all current, topical, present-day stuff but then she tells me that Toby Jones is the son of Freddie Jones and I am instantly right back to the mid-1970s when I was a child watching him in The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter.

You’ve had this, you’ve been thrown back to something and doubtlessly someone watching Motley Hall at the time was drawn to remember seeing Freddie Jones in 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Only, that 1970s viewer being reminded of a 1960s film could do nothing more than be reminded of it. Whereas no sooner than Doctor Blake had saved the day than we were actually watching the first episode of The Ghosts of Motley Hall.

It’s far from true that any film or show you can think of is available for you to watch immediately, but it feels as if it is. Last week I bought the first seasons of St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Earlier this week, a friend was looking for recommendations for something to watch before her Amazon Prime trial ran out and I spent an hour trying to find the name of something I’d relished on it.

An hour.

It took forty seconds to go from Doctor Blake to a 1976 episode of Motley Hall but an hour to get a film –– solely because I couldn’t remember its name. Even when I did find it and I did recommend it to my friend, I knew I’d forget the title again so I just bought it on iTunes.

That was Your Sister’s Sister by writer/director Lynn Shelton and it is more than worth the hour I spent looking. Not only because I relish that film and have just watched it again, but also because my prodding searches online for what detail I could recall of this film also turned up a movie called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Now, I know that movie under another title, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, and it’s one I delight in that’s written and directed by Eric Rohmer.

We are at the stage where a stray recollection is instantly satisfied. Where a small whim is filled in a thrice. And where to find something to watch, you no longer use Radio Times, you use Google.

It makes my mind split in two different directions. One is to think that who has time for broadcast telly any more? Television is like a delivery mechanism now, it’s a way of getting Fleabag ready for us. Television and film have become the libraries we dip into instead of the live, shared experience it was.

I can’t help but lament how everyone, simply everyone, watched when André Previn was on The Morecambe and Wise Show. Yet I can’t help but adore the fact that everyone, simply everyone, can watch that segment right now.

Well, that link is to a site called Dailymotion which currently thinks that after watching a 1971 Morecambe and Wise sketch I will want to see Miley Cyrus topless. The internet, eh?

And, well, there isn’t half an issue about the rights to this and all these creators not being paid while sites are getting ad revenue from showing them. That’s enormous. I bought My Sister’s Sister, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere but if Motley Hall is available to buy, I don’t know because I just saw it on YouTube.

The other direction my mind goes in, though, is this. Motley Hall was 43 years ago. When Peter Tork died recently, I watched the first episode of The Monkees and that was 53 years ago.

Imagine being back then in 1966 and able to watch anything you liked from 1913. Or living in 1913 and being able to watch something from 1860.

We have an unprecedented, unimaginable, incomprehensible ability to instantly taste our own culture as it was during the last half a century. Well, okay, we’re all chiefly locked to our own nation’s culture: it presumably is possible to do the same and watch any film from, say, India’s last five decades but I don’t know how to do it and those movies would be a sea to me without any markers or references or memories.

And of course this ability is locked to films and television, occasionally some radio. It only shows you what was being shown, it doesn’t really take you back in time. Except that of course it does: The Ghosts of Motley Hall has an innocence I can miss and a slow pace we lack today too.

Equally, On the Buses is about to be released on DVD for its fiftieth anniversary. The only thing more certain that this show captured its time is that I ain’t going to watch it.

We all make things for now, I don’t think anyone makes drama or comedy with much of an eye to the future beyond possible sales to different broadcasters and platforms. Yet this is mass of visual work is making me conscious both of how anything I make must be unconsciously imbued with the time that I make it –– and of how we must surely run out of room some day.

Maybe we’ll have to move to Mars just because there’s no more space to store all the episodes of NCIS.

Or videos of Miley Cyrus.