Tinker, Spy, Soldier, Tailor

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.

Times and Spaces

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

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

Well.

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

Columbo
Six Million Dollar Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue the conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On That Day

From November 12, 2005 to October 12, 2008, I used to write an On This Day piece for Radio Times. It was officially about television history, it was really about the history of how Radio Times covered television history, and it was a little column that appeared on every day’s listing’s page.

Well, depending on where you lived, that it is. The true reason for the piece was to fill a hole. Different regions of the UK got different editions of Radio Times and some of them needed a quite large section showing regional television variations. If you lived in an area where you could pick up two or more ITV stations, for instance, then RT listed them.

If you didn’t, your morning TV listings page had a hole in it.

Hello. I got to fill that space with about 90 words to do with something Radio Times had said about some television or radio show on that day. It obviously had to be true, but it also had to be interesting and preferably relevant somehow, plus naturally I had to write it so that you would hopefully enjoy reading it.

In the end, I wrote some 1,415 entries. I’d deliver them a week at a time –– except around Christmas where typically I’d have to write five weeks or 35 entries together to meet deadlines –– and every week I’d study the RT archive.

I can still picture certain weeks. Such as the time I was reading the RT archive in what was then the Central Library in Birmingham and there was a whole team of people doing the same thing as me. They weren’t half organised, too. I can picture four of them with laptops, pounding through issue after issue and noting down even more detail than I was.

That was the first time I met the Kaleidoscope group, an astonishing organisation that maintains a TV Brain database and finds lost television. If you’ve heard of a long-lost show being recovered, the odds are high that Kaleidoscope did it and through-the-roof high that Kaleidoscope was involved at some point.

And I also remember where I sat when I was, for once, working to a brief, and researching January 21. I’ve long told people that I had been supposed to write about The Glittering Prizes, a rightly famous BBC drama, and instead had gasped when I found that the children’s show Kizzy started on the same day. I used to tell people that I’d looked around the library, as if afraid someone would stop me, and instead of Prizes, I wrote about Kizzy.

Apparently it’s not true. I did sit there in the library, transported back to 1976 and seeing that show air, but I didn’t write about it for January 21. According to my research database, I instead pegged it to the show’s sixth and final episode on February 25, 1976. I wimped out.

I should say that the reason I stopped doing On This Day for Radio Times is that they had a redesign of the pages and no longer had a gap to fill. However, all these years later, they still know a good idea when they see one because RT’s Mark Braxton regularly does the same thing –– but he does it on Twitter.

This is all on my mind now because I came across the fact that on this day in 1987, The Tracey Ullman Show debuted in America. You know Tracey Ullman, but still you’re looking blank. This means that it was 32 years ago today that The Simpsons first appeared on TV. They were then a short insert into Ullman’s show and they’re now a mildly amusing sitcom. But in between those two, they were fantastic.

I hope I knew that before and that the only reason I didn’t cover it in RT was that this debut was in America. I’ve checked and I did cover when BBC1 first started airing The Simpsons proper – it was November 23, 1996.

But then while poking around this old research and enjoying myself, I found something else.


April 5, 1966. The Money Programme. As you can imagine, I made more notes than I ultimately used, so here’s a fuller quote from that original issue of RT.

“Britain is like the son of a rich man who has inherited the family fortune and is spending the lot,” said a Belgian banker who has extensive dealings in the City. With the recurrent tale of lost export orders, balance of payments trouble and pressure on the pound, people aboard now speak of “the English sickness” which has dogged us since the war, rather than any spectacular business achievements. They must wonder what happened to the British flair for business.

This year is bound to see dramatic developments. With a debt of £899 million round our necks to be repaid in four years, and a current balance of payments deficit, we cannot escape the pressure to improve our efficiency. Even without the pressure of our economic difficulties, the impact of automation, and the computer (felt increasingly in America) is bound to raise many painful issues for management, labour, and Government, in this country. We must prepare for a second industrial revolution.”

That’s 53 years ago and today everything is so different.

My hardest writing job

I do want to tell you about the single hardest thing I’ve done, and as soon as I type that to you I think of a few other things that would be a contender. But really I want to talk with you about how astonishing it is that something which was a stone in my stomach six days out of seven every week for 18 months could be so completely forgotten.

I mean, it was writing and it was in Radio Times every week back in 2005/6 when that magazine’s sales figures were just over one million and the estimated readership was three million. So it’s not impossible that you saw it. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. If you did read every week of it, though, you’d still have completely forgotten about it because it was the smallest slice of nothing.

No exaggeration. It was perhaps 100 words in each issue and lived on a corner of the letters page.

What astonishes me is that I’d forgotten it entirely too.

Yesterday, I was on the Dot Davies show on BBC Radio Wales as an author and TV historian. It was in response to the news that some 7,000 people in the UK have a black and white TV licence. A bell rang. I think now that it was a Cloister Bell warning of dire trouble because for the first time in 12 years I remembered Radio Times and the TV Stats column. I remembered covering this topic in there.

Only a week ago, I was talking with someone about RT and told them that I’d written the On This Day in TV History piece for it. I can’t remember how long I did that but it was at least four years and every issue had a little nugget by me on each of the day’s listings page. I remember that, I’m proud of that, but I’d clearly suppressed TV Stats.

But I had a couple of hours between BBC Radio Wales asking me and my being on the Dot Davies show. So I searched. I’ve got RT on PDF up to the late 2000s so it didn’t take as long to search as this will sound, but I did go through 60 editions before I found it.

I can’t show you any. Each week was this 100 words or so but it would always be accompanied by a cartoon illustration and I didn’t do those. I said that six days out of seven I was in pain about this: you’ve guessed that the seventh day was when I delivered the copy and the strain was off until tomorrow. But there was also the pleasure of seeing what cartoonist Robert Thompson had come up with.

I’d get that pleasure twice, actually. I’d usually be shown his roughly-sketched proposal and then every week I’d open the issue to see the final illustration. I can’t imagine how hard a job it was to illustrate this stuff in an amusing cartoon fashion.

At the time, though, I was too full of how hard it was to write. The job was to think of a topic to do with television and then research or calculate some statistics to go with it. Find an interesting topic, figure out the details and then hope the result was worth publishing because otherwise it was scrapped and you started again. And of course still facing that same deadline.

Oddly enough, I have an idea that this one about how many people in the UK still had black and white TV licences was among the easiest. I can’t recall now whether I was specifically asked to find out or whether it was my idea, but I’m pretty sure that I just phoned the TV Licensing people and asked them.

The answer, by the way, was 58,000 people and I either calculated or was told that at that time in 2005 this was 0.2% of the licence-owning population. At this distance of 13 years, I can feel an echo of the relief that week.

When you’re writing something like this you can’t get too far ahead because there’s supposed to be at least some element of topicality. But also you should try to have a few ideas banked up and ready. Sod that. The joy of having filed that copy and not absolutely having to think of the next one for a couple of days was fantastic.

I do say days. Because I truly had bad nights because of TV Stats.

This all sounds overblown, I know, and especially so because I’ve had many columns and myriad deadlines. Yet this one is giving me the sweats again today, over a decade since it finished.

Precisely how many films were shown on terrestrial TV in 2005? How many shopping channels are there? What proportion of digital channel profits come from advertising and from our subscriptions? Just how many characters in EastEnders are self-employed compared to real life? Exactly what percentage of characters in Albert Square have owned the Queen Vic?

You’re curious about that last one, aren’t you? In 2005, the answer was that 6.5% of all major characters in EastEnders had owned that pub.

You see the job. Try to find something interesting, try to put a figure on things we’d all noticed like that turnover of Queen Vic owners. Oh! I remember proving that the murder rate in Morse was actually pretty much the same as the real-life number of murders in the Oxford area. That was because Morse ran in very short series each year where actual murderers tended not to take such long breaks.

Anyway.

Week after week. I should be able to rattle off the statistics of how many I did but I’m rebelling. It was something like 18 months and I won’t research any closer than that.

I’d rather tell you instead of one moment of relieved pride. I got the commission over email, I think, but there was to be a big meeting to decide how all this would be done. Here’s how much TV Stats buried into me: I can still picture that meeting. Where it was – BBC Woodlands in London, the second of three BBC buildings I worked in that was demolished – and also exactly who was there.

I can remember where I sat and who I faced. How’s this for research? I can show you that spot.

Radio Times office 2008

That shot is from 2008 and this was just before the place was demolished. So, first in one morning, I took a photo tour of the whole place. See that second chair from the left? I don’t remember whose that usually was but for this meeting, that’s where I remember sitting.

I can also remember that I’d misunderstood the brief and the example I’d brought had the text right but I’d illustrated it myself. I’m not then and never will be a cartoonist but I’d done some Photoshop work that was a graphical illustration of whatever statistic I’d found. I remember the art editor saying he didn’t know how to do what I’d done.

That was the moment of pride. And being gently told they had their own illustrators was the relief.

Oddly, I’ve no memory at all of TV Stats ending. I know it began because of a redesign on the magazine that saw the letters page bumped to the back of the issue. I imagine it ended because of the next redesign, but I don’t know.

TV Stats was one fraction of one job I had as a writer and yet it punched high above its weight because of how difficult it was to think of the bloody things. I did learn to write better because of it: I learned how to make the very most out of a sometimes flimsy statistic to produce an interesting read because there was usually no alternative and often no time.

And apparently it is all still lodged in my brain as it was waiting to pour out of me yesterday. I did get to bring up that 58,000 figure on BBC Radio Wales but I don’t think it particularly contributed to the piece.

There’s a bit of me that quite likes that.

Oh! One more memory? I spent at least seven hours one week calculating how much you would have to spend on Amazon to buy all the spin-off merchandise from children’s TV shows. You know it’s a lot but, sorry, I can’t either remember or find the figure.

But I can tell you that to this day Amazon notifies me each time there’s a new product to do with Dora the Explorer.

Anytime you’re ready, I’ll sparkle

Angela says it was in the Lake District. Neither of us can remember the year. But I have a vivid, visual memory of standing in a secondhand bookshop with my hands shaking.

For there on a shelf that I could so easily have missed was Talking to a Stranger by John Hopkins. This is one of Britain’s most significant television dramas and here were the published scripts. I had no idea there was a book and for all I knew of the show, I hadn’t seen it.

It’s a series of four plays, also known as the Hopkins’ Quartet, and it’s the story of one weekend with a family. You can read or presumably watch any of the four and they are separate, they stand on their own, and they are exceptional.

But as well as my hands shaking when I found this, I also remember something else. This memory isn’t visual, it’s not as specific, it’s really more of a feeling. Yet it has the same punch to me because it was the moment in reading the fourth script that I understood.

Each play is set on this same weekend and is told from a different character’s perspective.

These days that’s known as the Rashomon format. There’s this film I’ve still never seen called Rashomon which tells the same story over and over from different views.

There are also a couple of rather joyous episodes of Leverage which do it. Most notably, there’s one written by John Rogers where all five of the regulars take turns to tell their version of the same crime. The episode is even called The Rashomon Job.

I relish that episode for its wit and chutzpah but its greatest moments are all when it shows us how each character sees the other four.

It’s funny, clever and satisfying but it is also a construct. You know the plot came first or at least it wasn’t initially about the characters, it was about the form.

Whereas this moment, this memory I have is how I felt reading the last Talking to a Stranger script and realising. Suddenly seeing why these four plays are being told this way. Seeing that the entire quartet was always building to the same thing. Realising whose story this really is. No trick, no gimmick, just the way this story had to be told.

I was telling someone about this today and found myself saying that this moment changed me.

It definitely contributed to my obsession with time in drama but I swear I was a different man after I read this.

I’ve had people change my mind – I do enjoy that – and I’ve had experiences that shaped how I see the world. But here were words on a page, words first broadcast when I was one year old, that affected who I am.

You’ll notice I said broadcast. I was going to say written but actually that’s part of why these plays are famous. For all their modern pace and the vivid characters, the production of Talking to a Stranger belongs to another time.

The four plays are different lengths, for instance. No fitting it to two hours with ad breaks. And while Hopkins famously wrote Z Cars episodes over weekends going from no idea to filmable script before Monday morning, he didn’t do that here. Instead, he was late.

I mean, really, really late.

I want to say that he delivered the scripts to the BBC a year after he was due to. That may be an exaggeration. What I’m sure of is that it was long enough that they were into the next year.

And apparently the BBC barely chased him. What I’ve heard is that they may have rung him up and asked how it’s going, old chap, but that was it.

I twitch at the idea of missing a deadline by months. I un-twitch at the notion of the scripts then being complete. No emails back and forth asking for a tenth rewrite to pass the time.

I’m also frightened to watch Talking with a Stranger.

Very many years ago, I did see the first play and it was everything it was supposed to be, it was everything the script was. Also it had a teenage Judi Dench. I don’t know why that surprises me: she must’ve been a teenager once, but there you go.

I’m telling you all this now because late one night this week, I found Talking to a Stranger on the BBC iPlayer. Some big rights issues must been settled recently because suddenly there is a huge amount of truly superb drama on there but I never imagined this would be.

I think I stared at the listing for a full minute, processing this.

I definitely decided not to watch right then. It was gone midnight, I’d done a 16-hour writing day, I want to be fully conscious to enjoy this.

And I am wondering what it will do to me. It might be easier to just go see the new Mission: Impossible film instead.

My first broadcast writing

I may be overstating this. The first time you could ever have heard something I wrote be broadcast was 14 March 1987 on BBC2. It was in an episode of a show called Micro Live which was part of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project. I am not credited, but as it was live I can also know precisely where I was on that day from 18:25-18:55 or so. BBC Television Centre, which I wouldn’t come to think of as home until just shy of a decade later.

Micro Live that week featured the then-new idea of desktop publishing and at the time I was working for a firm that made one of these DTP systems. You’ve never heard of it. I’ve just sat here for twenty minutes trying to remember it. The world was not shaken by this firm, let’s leave it there.

Whereas it was shaken, according to Micro Live, by Apple. It’s weird now to see that episode and how it would’ve been the first time I’d ever come across a Mac. If one could only realise how integral to your work a box in the corner could become.

As for the other box in the corner, the television, well, I think I’ve left you waiting long enough. I can quote to you my entire contribution to that episode because it is just about exactly half a sentence long. Presenter Ian McNaught-Davis was supposed to say that Apple was the first computer company in publishing and no, excuse me, it wasn’t.

Everything he was going to say about what Apple actually did was true but it was far from accurate to say they were the first.

So now if you should manage to track down an obscure TV show from 31 years ago, you would be able to see and hear McNaught-Davis instead begin his speech with the words: “Of course there were computers in publishing before, but…”

What are the odds that you’d ever be able to check this? Remarkably high, as it happens, because it only requires you to click a couple of times.

For this week the BBC released every episode of Micro Live and all the other shows in the Computer Literacy project online. Every minute of it. Here’s my episode.

Excuse me while I remember being very young and rather nervous but adamant that the script be accurate. Not everything changes, then.

TV got better when I stopped reviewing it

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Once I left BBC Ceefax and when my Radio Times work became more news and less reviews, I felt that television drama and comedy took a lurch upwards.

Just saying this to you now makes me think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where if you measure something’s location, you affect its speed and vice versa.

But really all that happened, all that changed was that I no longer had to watch to the end of rubbish shows. So now I was only seeing series that I enjoyed.

Still, there is a thing about being required to watch TV and specifically to be required to watch to the end. Usually it’s a good thing, too, although again as my fingers type this to you my head has just flashed back to Harbour Lights. That was a 1999/2000 BBC drama by many good writers but you didn’t watch it. You can now: it’s on YouTube.

I watched it back before YouTube was imaginable. I remember this night so particularly clearly because I was trying to get ahead one week and this was the big launch, this was the big new show, clearly it was going to be the one reviewed and I had the tape right there. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened next but some other show get that night’s review slot and you are now reading the first words I’ve ever written about Harbour Lights.

But then there are the shows I probably wouldn’t have watched, might not have got around to watching, or wouldn’t have caught until years later.

I’m thinking of three of them.

Some time around 2003, I think it was, two DVDs with the Battlestar Galactica mini series came in to the Radio Times office. This is a TV show but it was funded by Sky and that broadcaster decided to put it out first on its movie channels. So RT wasn’t going to review it as television and the film team had already written a dismissive 50-word description broadly saying how rubbish television is compared to movies.

Then for some other reason I never knew, Sky delayed airing the movie. So those disks lay there on a desk for a week or more until one night when I was coming home to Birmingham by coach and had nothing to watch. You’re thinking I took those disks and loved them, but you’d be wrong.

I took one of the disks and was furious at myself because it was going to be a week before I could get the second.

Then let me take you back again to VHS tapes. I used to get piles of VHS tapes from the broadcasters and I particularly enjoyed going to collect them from the BBC Previews Department. Great people, I liked them tremendously, and on the supremely circuitous route you had to walk from Ceefax to their office, you went through the scenery bay where they kept the TARDIS.

This was long before Doctor Who came back and the new show built its own police box so this old one was just left there from affection. Plus you could store so much inside it.

I definitely got the Harbour Lights tape from them and just looking up air dates now, I think it’s possible that in the same week Channel 4 sent me Queer as Folk.

I don’t remember if I watched them on the same night. I do remember staying over in London in some B&B that had a TV set and a video. I remember being dog-tired. I remember being rather hungry. And I can see something like six VHS tapes in a pile that felt like the most enormous slog to get through.

Until I popped Queer as Folk in.

There’s a story that the first scene of Queer as Folk was coming across as a bit serious, that its tone was setting up the show to not feel the way it should. So an extra scene was written, shot and inserted at the start of the episode. It’s Craig Kelly as Vince talking to camera about one night out on Manchester’s gay scene and concludes with a description of a man who “has every episode of Juliet Bravo on tape”.

It’s fast and funny and booms you into the series – and I didn’t need a word of it because I was already grabbed. I tell you, I can vividly recall sitting up as the title sequence started. I just watched it again now and there is a verve, a call to action, a delighted energy in the music and that was it. A dog-tired, hungry slog of an evening was now great.

The music was by Murray Gold, the series was written by Russell T Davies, produced by Nicola Schindler and the first episode directed by Charles McDougall.

Can I tell you one more? Because it’s the reason I’m remembering all of these shows this week. For twenty years ago on 6 June 1998, Sex and the City began.

That’s the original US air date and apparently Channel 4 first aired it here in 1999. I know it’s not from the same night’s reviewing as Harbour Lights and Queer as Folk because I can remember the different hotel room.

And I can remember having only it to watch. If I hadn’t, if I’d got other shows to get through, I’d have got through them. Because I didn’t think episode 1 of Sex and the City was good at all.

Whereas episode 2, Models and Mortals, was great. Both the first two were written by series creator Darren Star but I thought then that pilot was heavy handed and this next one flew. There’s got to be an issue of how I knew the characters going in to episode 2 but still, pilots are hugely difficult and I don’t think this one worked.

So there’s a lesson for us both. Watch every episode of everything because it might turn out to be brilliant. There you go.

Tom’s Midnight Garden title card from BBC 1974

Time No Longer

Okay, I think this is pretty rare. Not only can I tell you to the year when I decided I wanted to be a writer, but I can tell you to the minute when I got obsessed with the thing that has affected all of my writing ever since. And there’s an irony to that because what I’m obsessed with is time.

The year would’ve been 1978 when ITV started airing Lou Grant. That was this groundbreaking drama about newspapers and I suppose it is responsible for my becoming a journalist but I know it’s the reason I’m a writer. To this day I am still striving to write as well as that show. To do what it did and as well as it did it.

But in its five-year run, I can only think of maybe a single episode that had anything even distantly to do with time and that’s been my obsession since even before that show. I’m working on a collection of short stories on the theme of time right now and part of me thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever written while another part of me hopes this means I’ll finally be done with it.

For time is just riddled through everything I write. I mean, yes, Doctor Who radio dramas, it’d be odd if those didn’t touch on the subject.

But I can see it in plays I write. I got fired off the TV soap Crossroads once, have I mentioned that? In retrospect I can see that one of my gags in the show was about time. (That wasn’t why I was fired. I was ditched because I was rubbish.) One of my rather more successful pieces of writing and actually one of my favourite short stories of mine is Time Gentlemen Please and each time I’ve performed it, someone in the audience has been convinced I’m as ill as the character. Perhaps I am.

Even regular conversations turn to this damn topic. Last Saturday I had a workshop that we all paused while we talked about the Grandfather Paradox. (You might not know the name but you definitely know the idea: it’s the thing that says you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you wouldn’t be born and so wouldn’t go back in time to kill him.)

Two days before that I was at an art and poetry event. After the main readings, the artist Sue Challis showed me a painting of hers and poet Nadia Kingsley stood by it giving me personal performance of a poem inspired by that painting. They made me cry. Because to my mind, both poem and painting are about time.

And this is on my mind now, other than because it always is, because I just today learned that this year is the 60th anniversary of Phillipa Pearce’s book, Tom’s Midnight Garden.

That book about time is as dear to me as an old friend. But it’s the BBC dramatisation that ignited a lifelong friendship and this lifelong compulsion.

At 17:15 on Monday 7 January, 1974, BBC1 aired a dramatisation by John Tully and produced by Dorothea Brooking. (Quick story? A friend mentioned in an email that she had some of Brooking’s archive and I wrote back instantaneously saying just DOROTHEA BROOKING? We were working on a project together and stuff that, I wanted to see Brooking’s archive.)Tom’s Midnight Garden billing in Radio Times 1974

You can watch a lot of this version of Tom’s Midnight Garden on YouTube, though unfortunately not all of it. There’s no commercial release. And if Tom’s Midnight Garden were ever to come out on shiny disc or streaming on demand, my 1974 version wouldn’t be it. Because there was a better one in 1989. And my one was a remake of a 1968 one. I’ve never been able to see that and I don’t even know if it still exists, but if you wanted quality you’d release 1989 and if you wanted history, you’d release 1968.

I’m not even going to disagree with that: I think the 1974 version is perfunctory, it’s squeezed down into too few episodes and it is particularly cheaply done.

But it’s mine.

I don’t know that every writer has one strong obsession or actually that they necessarily recognise it in themselves if they do. But surely it’s got to be rare for one to be able to pinpoint to the very minute when it started.

I’m only relieved it didn’t also get me into gardening.

Back to the past

On Monday I went back to what was BBC Television Centre, one of those iconic buildings that you know will last forever – and instead was closed down five years ago. I thought I’d never go back because I thought it would never be there: I believed that it was going to be knocked down and replaced by luxury flats.

It’s been partly knocked down and mostly replaced by these flats. But the facade remains and when it’s fully reopened the statue of Ariel will still be in the centre of what was called the doughnut. That was the famous circular centre with production offices, that was the circular centre I spent months walking around before finding I was going the wrong way.

I am really deeply torn.

You can’t conjure up an atmosphere in a building, you can’t make it famous and important. You can throw all that away and I do think the BBC did: they sold it off, rented it back for a while and then let it go.

Only, now they’re renting a bit of it back.

If you stand in the front of the building and look ahead, you see the old circular doughnut done up with new red cladding. Look to your right and you see an entire, huge section of office building has been replaced by an identically-sized stretch of apartments.

But look to your left and you’ve got the old studios 1, 2 and 3.

The old TC1, TC2 and TC3 are still there. And now they’re being used.

I think Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two goes live to air five days a week from TC2 and I think some music show is shortly to launch in TC1.

But I can tell you that on Monday and for the next couple of months, TC3 is home to Pointless. Because that’s what I went to see.

Okay, no, I went to see Television Centre. But I was expecting to be profoundly unhappy at seeing the shell of this building and I needed something I’d like to see or I wouldn’t have gone. Wouldn’t have been able to face it.

And Pointless is fun: I think it’s startling that I saw the recording of something like episodes 1,221 and 1,222 but I had a good time. A head-jolting time as I recognised one of the production team from when I was back at TVC before.

That was disturbing. That reminded me that I know it’s better to be crew than passenger, that it’s better to be making a show than watching one.

But I also left reasonably contented that for the moment, TVC retains its slightly falling-apart feel. True, it used to be because it was slightly falling apart and now it’s because they haven’t finished rebuilding it.

If all of this truly had to happen then I think they’re doing it well. I just miss that place and I miss the me that used to work there so very much.

The moving finger types


I don’t like what I wrote last week. I don’t really like what I wrote yesterday. And I’m coming to regret starting this. It’s just always been a fact of life for me: you do your very best and know that tomorrow you’ll be wincing at how poor a writer you are.

A friend has a regular habit of re-reading his scripts from, say, five or ten years ago, and having a good laugh at himself. I re-read mine and weep.

Only, I was just searching for something on my Mac and I found this.

020502.2235
THE LAST OF THE BLONDE BOMBSHELLS
UK Drama 2100-2235
Impossibly, this is the first repeat for this charming and uplifting Alan Plater drama from two years ago.

It’s long been out on DVD in the US but here, curiously, not so much, so this is a rare and welcome chance to see the reunion of a (nearly) all-girl band.

Judi Dench is a gem as the woman who sets out to find her disreputable pals and maybe recapture their glory days.

Don’t be shocked: they manage it. But the game is in traveling desperately as much as it is in arriving.

If you really know your television drama history then “from two years ago” is enough to pin this text down in time. If you’re not then let me offer you my congratulations and say the clue is in that string of numbers at the top. That’s the instruction to BBC Ceefax’s systems that the text should be removed at that date and time. It should go off air at 22:35 on 02/05/02.

That’s 2002.

I wrote that 15 years ago.

And it’s not bad. You’re too young to remember Ceefax so let me explain that it would’ve been tricky to get one more letter, let alone one more word, into the page that text went on. That was the limit of a TV preview and actually of any writing on Ceefax at all. You could have multiple pages but readers would not necessarily see them in the right order so every page had to stand on its own.

So, given that it’s so very constrained in space, I read that text and think it does the job. Tells you what’s on, tells you some news about it and it gives you the plot as well as clearly being a recommendation.

Plus it’s got a bit of bounce to it.

That’s the element that gives me some pleasure. I also get some from the phrase ‘travelling desperately’ which I think works even if you don’t know it’s a quote from another Alan Plater drama. (Misterioso, if you’re wondering. My favourite.)

So I’m willing to tell you about this because my cold writer/producer’s head sees that it works and is no cause for weeping. But I want to tell you about it because of the way it just popped up while I was hunting for something else. Like a little peek into the past. An unexpected window into what feels now like a very different world and a very different me.

We think of online writing as transient and it’s true that all my Ceefax pages vanished the day after they were aired. Most of my writing is already long gone and usually not remembered but this morning a shard of it came back to poke me in the eye. Only because it was written on computers. I have a shelf of paper notebooks I used to use but I never look at them and I can’t read my own handwriting. Whereas a gallon of Ceefax writing just came back as if I’d typed it today.

I have no idea why I’ve still got this text on my Mac, especially as I didn’t get this machine until ten years after I wrote that. I am coming to see why my hard drive is so full, mind.

I think for once that I’m glad it’s there. I’m glad I can see that I wasn’t dreadful. The fact that I wrote around 16,000 pages of BBC Ceefax has come up quite often for some reason and now I think if they were all like that, I’m okay with it.

The gigantic majority were written in BBC Television Centre, typing directly into the systems there, so I don’t have even a significant fraction of the text on my Mac. But I have some from when I would be working at home and delivering copy: I think I’d send in a week’s worth of previews and reviews at a time. I feel sorry for the poor sod who then had to copy and paste them in, but I suppose I did that for other people too.

Ouch. I’ve just read a piece in the same document, a TV preview of some football thing.

040502.1800
THE FA CUP FINAL
BBC1 1210-1725/Sky Sports 2 1200-1800
Best get your bank holiday trip to the DIY store over with in the morning, then, unless this is a dull match.

What’re the odds? Arsenal meet Chelsea for a quiet, cosy kickabout with several million people roaring them on. That’s all this will be.

To make sure this appeals to everyone, the teams are London ones but filled with players from around the world.

Here’s an idea of how important this is: it starts at 1500. So the build-up is twice the length of the game.

I even made football jokes. Now I’m wondering if someone else wrote all of these. It would explain some things.