Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

It’s my job, it’s what I do

Quick aside? I love the line “It’s my job, it’s what I do” because to me it is the archetypal ridiculous line you used to get from so many cop shows. I say it with earnest dry seriousness and I am of course kidding. Unfortunately, it turns out that not everyone knows that TV cop show trope and one day I found out I had been seriously, seriously, seriously annoying an entire newsroom.

I’d like to say that I stopped using it but there are times when it still springs into my head unbidden. Such as now. I was just thinking about this thing I want to discuss with you and there it was, there was this old line. And I rather mean it this time.

Follow. A friend, Mary Ellen Flynn, said this to me recently after a tearoom natter:

I like your perspective since you are businesslike about writing but you still love it.

My lights, it has actually become true: this is my job, this is what I do.

I’m split now. She meant it as a compliment and I take it as one, but it’s sent me spiralling off into pondering the differences and the similarities and the Venn Diagrams of writing vs business, of art vs work. Then, okay, that’s further sent me off pondering how I have the nerve to call what I do art but fortunately I don’t. One dilemma at a time, please.

I think the reason I’m mithered over this is that her line reminded me of how I’ve previously been accused of being a commercial writer. It was not a compliment. Whoever it was – and I’m genuinely blanking on their name – pointed out that I write Doctor Who radio dramas and that every idea I was telling them was out-and-out commercial. Every idea was a thriller, a romance or both.

Oh, grief. I’ve just had a thought. If it were who I now think it might have been, she was writing literary fiction and it was bad. God in heaven, it was bad. One of the single most creative pieces of writing I’ve ever done is the way I answered her about what I thought of a certain chapter without telling her what I thought of a certain chapter. You’re asked your opinion in order to give your opinion but sometimes, no, the truth is best left out there.

Anyway. I like literary fiction but my best definition of it is a book that doesn’t fit into any other genre. Equally I suppose you can argue that the definition of a commercial text is that it is written to make money. It amuses me that she failed totally at being literary and I’m doing a good job at failing to make money.

Yet for all that I am supposedly commercial and for all that I agree I am businesslike, the fact is that I write romances and thrillers because I love them.

They excite me, they totally compel me and maybe I can’t do them well yet but I’m trying.

There is the part of my brain that recognises the existence of a mortgage and how nice it is to eat around three times a day. There is the part of my brain that knows deadlines and understands a brief and can copywrite and can build a structure, build an event. That’s the businesslike bit that is very easy for me; frankly because anything is easier than writing.

I said that all this pondering and noodling came from that friend’s line about my being businesslike. I was doing a talk last week and trying to convey a point about writing as a career, as a job. You know how you don’t know something until you say it?

This is what I think, this is what I do, this is what I said:

I write for a living – but I really write for a life.