The standard wasn’t so high, the decision wasn’t so difficult

Whether it’s when an awards ceremony announces its nominees or when the judges email to say you haven’t been selected, it is seemingly a contractual obligation that they open with “the standard of entries was so high”. On pain of death, they will then also say that the judges “had to make a very difficult decision”.

It just isn’t always true.

Sometimes it’s not even close.

I can’t count now the number of times I’ve either been a judge or in some way involved in an awards ceremony, and thankfully there are times when all of this was thoroughly accurate and true. That just occasionally took some work.

The single most useful thing I’ve ever done in any award judging was fiddle a category. I remember a book award jury where we were all a bit deflated because the one that was going to win in a particularly prestigious category was fine. It was okay. We’d all said sure, it gets through to the next stage. But it was sitting there on the table, at the top of the pile in this category, up there less from merit and more from attrition, and you just could not see yourself proclaiming that it was the greatest book in the year.

As it happened, though, a completely separate category had a couple of titles where you would’ve been happy to proclaim that. And I was the one who spotted that the very best of those was only in its category because that’s what its publisher had entered it for. It could equally have been entered into this other prestigious category so I proposed we move it.

And we did. That book moved from one category to another and, totally deservedly, won that more prestigious prize. I still wonder if the publisher spent any time wondering whether he or she had made a mistake on the entry form. But it was such a good book that I wish I could tell you its name.

On the other hand, I’ve been in awards where there was no such option and while the winner was certainly the best, that wasn’t saying much at all. I remember one theatre awards in particular where all ten judges, or however many it was, agreed instantly that there was only a single possible contender for either of the two awards on offer. We were off in this side room, meeting to discuss all of the short plays we’d just seen, and before the biscuits even arrived, we knew the winner.

We just didn’t like it.

The play that won both awards that night was utterly superb, so very much better than anything else in the night — until its last two minutes. Those last two minutes destroyed the play. And yet it had to win, there was nothing else close.

So that writer had a brilliant night, collecting two awards for her play. But both she and at least some of the audience went away thinking right, I need to write great dramas with exceptionally crap endings.

I tell you now, I’m ahead of the game here. I write plays that are crap from start to finish.

Let me tell you a happier tale. No, two happier tales: I was at the Writers’ Guild Awards in January 2020 when I saw the writers of Danger Mouse arrive. I can see me there on the steps, coming within one pixel of greeting them with congratulations because I already knew they’d won. Again, it was a deserved win, too, they had written a gem of an episode that is making me smile just telling you about it.

It’s a little unusual to know the winner, though, even when you’ve been involved. I knew with that book because I was at the final meeting, and I knew about Danger Mouse because I was presenting something else and had been there for the run through.

But even when you’re a judge, you often don’t know the final outcome. If you don’t happen to know how judging works, what always happens is that it starts with the writer or producer or someone submits their work. That gets studied and reviewed and poked at, and then if it’s good enough it becomes an official nomination. Then in various different ways it will be sent to multiple judges who’ll typically come back with their list of favourites, why they liked it so much, and so on. Then there’ll be another round or two whittling it down, arguing, debating and so on, until ultimately there is a winner.

Quite often, unless you’re involved in that very last stage, you can know full well what you voted for but not know who actually won.

Which is why at a previous Writers’ Guild award, I can remember crossing my fingers during the theatre category. And when Frances Poet won for her play Gut, I punched the air and called out “Yes!” sufficiently loudly to be a little embarrassed.

But come on, seeing tremendous work honoured, seeing utterly superb drama writing held up to the light for more people to see, it is fantastic.

It’s just rarely all that difficult a decision.

It has got so that when I hear “the standard was so high”, I think yeah, right, sure. And when I hear “the judges made the difficult decision” I’ve actually felt a bit patronised. It doesn’t matter what the awards are, whether I’m involved, the standard lines just always sound flat. Maybe we should have a Best Awards Award to make up for it.

If we did, I’d be nominating any ceremony hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Fey is a writing hero to me anyway, but just go on YouTube and watch those two hosting over the years.

Funny I should say that now, though. Because I wanted to talk to you about all of this, it was all on my mind, specifically because of the next awards ceremony that, as it happens, they are going to host. They’ll front the Golden Globes again this year and, no doubt, will be superb.

I just don’t think the awards themselves can be.

Look, there were somewhere between 400 and 500 new television dramas or comedies last year, I can’t expect my favourites to all be nominated. And I’m fine with Emily in Paris getting a nomination even though I preferred reading the script, I enjoyed it more on the page than on the screen.

But shows like I May Destroy You are not nominated. That show belongs in a new category of dramas I’m daunted to watch. It’s a Sin is in there too.

Yet its exclusion from the Golden Globes, the US equivalent of the UK’s television BAFTAs, seems peculiar. It seems like the Mona Lisa failing to get a nomination in the award for Best Mona Lisa.

Alan Plater, who won so many awards that I remember this whole cabinet he had of them, said to me once that you can’t take awards too seriously, though.

“Don’t let the BAFTAs grind you down,” he said.

Childhood’s start

I’ve been waiting all week to tell you something but instead a completely different, pretty much entirely forgotten memory has come back. I’d vow to you that it was entirely forgotten, except that obviously I’ve remembered it.

It’s about a friend I had in school. I won’t name him, chiefly because I cannot quite grasp his name across all these years – but we fell out. I’m not sure when it was now. Fourth year of school? Fifth? No idea. Plus I’ve no clue what happened, though I suspect that’s not just because the chasm of time involved. I’ve a sense that didn’t know then, either. I remember it hurt. It was one of those where your friend is suddenly someone else’s friend instead, you know the thing.

But as I close my eyes, really squeeze them tight shut and try to remember his name or even just picture him, what I’m seeing instead is a Doctor Who book. For some reason, and who knows why, the closest thing I’ve got to a concrete memory is of his reading a Who book called Horror of Fang Rock by Terrance Dicks.

I hope he was a Doctor Who fan, that it wasn’t just the book he’d happened to pick up out of the school library. Because he should’ve stuck with me, kid. For this week I’m the one who got to make an obituary speech about Terrance Dicks at the Writers’ Guild Awards.

More than 200 of the UK’s finest writers watched me speak – and so did Terrance Dicks’s family. I’m not sure which made me more nervous, but his family being in the room, these writers, the sheer honour of talking at those awards and the unimaginable privilege of being the one to deliver this writer’s obituary, I was shaking before I started.

I’m relieved to tell you it went fine. Actually, solely since it’s you, I’ll tell you that it could not have gone one pixel better.

But if it was all the thinking about my own reading of Dicks’s novels back in the day that brought this old school friend to mind, this has coincidentally been a bit of a week for nostalgia all round. And not all of it good.

I’ve been watching Alan Plater’s 1990s episodes of Dalziel and Pascoe, remembering the stories he told me about its production, and getting weirdly sentimental about the days when mobile phones were bricks and there were still Dillons bookstores.

I’ve been reading one of Isaac Asimov’s books, The End of Eternity. When I was a schoolboy, I thought it and he were marvellous. It didn’t take much growing up for me to spot that Asimov writes like a schoolboy, but still the ideas in that book are tremendous. Unfortunately, this week I learned that Asimov used to go around snapping at the elastic on women’s bras. And reportedly rather than shaking some woman’s hand once, he shook her breast instead.

Cheers, Isaac. Made me queasy. I read your autobiography, I want to un-read it now.

Fortunately, though, there was one more thing this week. Something much nicer.

This week I can tell you of a 1970s legend whose reputation will never be tainted. He might have a world-size ego, but this time he earned it, he deserves to think this highly of himself.

At the Writers’ Guild Awards this Monday, I met and shook paws with Hartley Hare.

He presented the Best Children’s Television Award with his friends Nigel Plaskitt and Gail Renard. (Danger Mouse won, by the way. I punched the air when I found that out, I was so pleased.)

Anyway, follow me for a second. You know that at an awards show, there is a winner and there are runners-up. The presenter says who has been nominated before they read out the winner’s name, and they also say a little something about each show.

There was nothing different about how it was done at these awards, but it was in every way different for me because I wrote the descriptions of the children’s shows. I wrote the descriptions that Hartley Hare read out.

I have written dialogue for Hartley Hare. And I got to be the one to pay tribute to Terrance Dicks.

Take that, you Horror-of-Fang-Rock-schoolfriend-somebody thingy thing.

I am not a god

Well, that didn’t last. Previously… a week ago I was the hottest and the coolest man around. Okay, so that took some pretty unlikely coincidences and it took your turning a blind eye to some obvious facts, but otherwise it was true and I basked.

This week I was mistaken for Damien Green, the disgraced Tory politician. Wait. I mean a disgraced Tory politician. I’ve lost track of how many of those there are.

Anyway, it was only for a moment but I continue to shudder.

Still, if I had a point last week, I thought it was that there is a place for each of us. There in the Canary Islands I meant it physically or geophysically but also very much in writing. I have been in situations where my writing was the worst and others where it was the best. I’m not convinced I’ve got that range so I put it down to the places.

Clearly, then, you need to find the right place for you.

But my brief mistaken identity made me realise that it’s not that simple. For you’d think I should run away from the party where this mistake happened and you’d think I should run back to the Canary Islands.

Only, after I spoke to you last week, I caught a cold in the Canaries – I don’t know why that suddenly sounds rude – and my final memory of the place is of shivering in hot weather next to a pool which in my delirium may or may not have had a fashion show form around me.

And the party where I gasped aloud was superb. It was the Writers’ Guild Awards night and, hand on heart, I haven’t had such a good evening in years. Easily the best awards I’ve been to, absolutely the most interesting room full of happy writers, I had a blast.

And a shudder. But chiefly a blast.

So if I can hang on to any possible semblance of a point, it might be this. Yes, there are places we fit in and they are fantastic. But I urgently need cosmetic surgery.

Reading and righting

When I was at BBC Radio WM an extremely long time ago, I worked a lot on their Sport On Saturday show. What I know about sport is that I don’t know anything about sport. But it was a good radio show, well made, I was stretched and daunted and loving it.

Only, one year the station entered Sport On Saturday for an award. I can’t remember what: probably the Sony Radio Awards as they were called then. I also can’t remember what I had to do with this but there was something. Perhaps I just fetched the tapes I was told to. Nothing more than that but something and I liked being even that tiny bit involved. I liked that the show was being entered for an award.

I do remember that it was a lot of work for everyone else. Selecting clips, getting the tapes, editing a compilation of the best bits together, it took time and work and effort.

Then one morning during all this, I was leaving BBC Pebble Mill to go to a day job writing computer manuals and walked by the WM noticeboard. Pinned to it was the letter from the awards committee saying what the rules were.

Rule number 1 or 2, something near the top, was this: no compilations.

Every pixel of work that everyone was doing to prepare this awards entry was pointless. The judging was to be of one single edition of a programme and if WM put up the compilation it was making, it would not be listened to, it would not be considered.

I’d forgotten all of that until this week when news came of what’s happening with the European Capital of Culture initiative, a programme devised by and run for the member states of the European Union.

Yesterday Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and the partnership between Belfast and Derry twigged that they were ineligible to bid. It’s an EU project and the UK is leaving the EU. You may have missed that.

Apparently Leeds has already spent £1m on their bid. That’s over the last four years so you can’t blame them for investing in it before the Brexit vote happened. But you can blame them for investing afterwards. You can blame all the cities for continuing to invest in this.

There is a key difference between doing something stupid and actually being stupid, though. These cities continuing to invest until now is them doing something stupid. BBC Radio WM thinking it could compile a Best of Sport On Saturday for the awards because it didn’t read the rules was them doing something stupid.

Only now we’ve got the Government saying the Capital of Culture business has “come out of the blue” and we’re into a round of blustering. The EU is being unfair, we’re told. The EU has just decided this thing that’s actually always been bloody obvious and they’re throwing the UK out of the programme that the UK decided to leave.

Most unfair of all is how anyone could’ve expected the UK to realise that they were bidding for City of Culture 2023 and that year comes after 2019 when we leave. So unreasonable.

It’s the blustering that makes the difference between having made a stupid mistake and being stupid. I can kind of understand the bidding cities not realising that they were ineligible the moment we voted to Leave because there is so much else wrong with leaving, there is just so much to understand. Although if I were producing a campaign so deeply involved with the European Union and I learned we were leaving, I might have taken a moment to make the connection with Brexit.

Maybe that’s just because of what happened to me at WM. I did of course tell the station manager that I’d spotted this. He blustered like the Government is doing today. And the show entered the compilation into the award.

Writers are often told that if your audience doesn’t get what you’re saying, it’s your fault. It’s the communicator who is wrong, not the listener. I’ve always felt that there is a certain amount of bollocks in this but I accept that usually the communicator needs to communicate and if the audience isn’t listening, the writer needs to do it better. But still, there’s not a lot you can do for people who want your message, are spending money toward your message, and yet won’t read your message.

I had forgotten all of this but I do now remember becoming unpopular. I’d seen this rule in plenty of time for them to ditch the compilation and enter one whole eligible programme but instead I was disliked – and they entered the compilation.

That wasn’t making a stupid mistake, that was being stupid. And the UK Government’s blustering this week is exactly like that manager and the producers who then waited with pointlessly crossed fingers to see if they won.