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 Look to your right and you see an entire, huge section of office building has been replaced by an identically-sized stretch of apartments.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.

It’s bigger than it seems on the outside

Look, I’d want to talk with you about this anyway, simply because it makes me so happy. You’ve seen the video on YouTube and television news of a young child who explodes with excitement that: “The new Doctor Who is a girl!”

The only difference between me and that child is that I said “Doctor”, not “Doctor Who”. And “woman”, not “girl”.

The thing is, I hadn’t realised just how very much I wanted the next Doctor to be a woman until BBC aired that utterly gorgeous one-minute video revealing Jodie Whittaker. And thinking about it a lot since then, I realise that the really key single reason for how much I wanted it was that it was now or never.

Of course it matters that we get a superb actor, as we have with Jodie Whittaker, and of course that should be all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters and I also realised that I would’ve been disappointed with any man. Apparently there are people who are disappointed that it was any woman, but there’s no accounting for folk.

Only, yes, I am a feminist and I do think it is ferociously wrong how few women are in drama – but I’ve always felt that more about the writing than the acting. Yes, no question: I write strong roles for women in my scripts both because it’s right and because so few people do that you are guaranteed to get truly brilliant actors.

Doctor Who, the series, has been just plain wrong in the ridiculously tiny number of women writers it’s had. I do think the show is amongst the very hardest to write so naturally I think the pot of people who can do it will be smaller than for other shows, but there’s no conceivable reason that the proportion of women in that could be as teeny as it has been.

I have not thought it wrong that the Doctor hasn’t been a woman before.

Follow. Alongside the praise the show has got for doing this, it has also got criticism for not doing it before – and that’s the bit I disagree with.

I think people tend to consciously or unconsciously see the Doctor as being a role in the same way that James Bond, Miss Marple, Hamlet and others are. It’s a role that many or even any actor can take on.

No.

This isn’t about the quality of the actor and it isn’t even really about their gender, it’s about the character. The Doctor is not 14 different actors – don’t ask why Whittaker is called the 13th – who happen to be playing the same role. The Doctor is one character.

Think about soaps and the way they will re-cast a role and pretend nothing’s happened. Michelle coming back to EastEnders decades after she left. I’m struggling for another example but there was one in Corrie where a young man has been played by three or four young men. It’s that kind of thing. You are supposed to accept the new face and believe that it’s the same character.

It is the same with the Doctor, except that no new actor tries to completely mimic their predecessor. And then, worryingly, they change into clothes that they’re going to wear for the next several years.

But Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the same character who used to wear that long scarf. He is the same character who first tried to stop Ian and Barbara from entering what looked like a police box in the 1960s. Actually, Peter Capaldi referred to this in a sweet chat with young fans that I can’t find on YouTube again. He spoke of his predecessors and said with total sincerity that if you look in his own face, you can see the Doctor’s previous selves.

And then in Jodie Whittaker’s announcement press release she said that one thing about taking on the role is that: “It means remembering everyone I used to be”.

So the Doctor is the Doctor is the Doctor. That doesn’t explain why she wasn’t a woman before. But go back to that soaps analogy. Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow is getting on a bit, if they wanted his character to continue they could perhaps recast the part. They would recast it as a man again because it’s the same character, but imagine that they didn’t. Imagine they cast a woman.

A woman taking over Ken Barlow’s role could be done – I don’t think it’s an acting problem at all – but it would have to be done with the most enormous storyline. Barlow would be transgender, it would run for months or more, it would be a gigantic deal within the storyline of the series.

In comparison, all that’s going to happen in Doctor Who is that Peter Capaldi will glow and out of the flame will step Jodie Whittaker. That’s it. On with the show, on with the character.

I think that’s fantastic. The Doctor is a woman, so what? Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me squeeze my cinema seat’s arm rest constantly because it has a lead woman who isn’t allowed to lead for one minute without a male character telling us it’s fine. The film expects us to be amazed alongside the male characters that this Rey is a pilot, for instance. It’s insulting to women, it’s insulting to everyone. I take it personally: it was insulting to me.

Doctor Who won’t do that, you can be sure, and Doctor Who can go straight into new stories without fuss because actually it has spent around five years setting this up.

I think it’s about five years. I’m trying to remember what there was in the fiftieth anniversary special around four years ago but there was something. I definitely remember another Steven Moffat episode where some random Time Lord regenerated into a woman. And of course for a couple of years we’ve had Michelle Gomez as Missy, a truly glorious incarnation of the Master. Funny and likeable and frightening.

Without her, then, and without the small touches through the last few years and, okay, without some pretty heavy-handed hinting in the last series, the change of gender has been made an organic part of the series.

If all of this had not been done, if the show had just decided on a whim to cast a woman, well, I’d probably still be pleased but then it would’ve felt like a gimmick. The show has been accused of doing this because it’s politically the right moment, because the BBC is under pressure about diversity, and if it were just a single casting decision, maybe that would’ve been true or at least partly true.

Instead, this has been worked on for perhaps five years. It has been created in the writing for perhaps half a decade.

That effort, that continued writing effort and talent, seems to me to be being ignored and it seems to me to be worthy of huge praise.

It was now or never and I am ecstatic that it was now. I don’t fully understand why I’m exactly this excited because I don’t know how the Doctor being a woman is going to change the show since this is literally the same character it always was. Each new actor brings something else and the tone of the show changes each time yet somehow this one being a woman makes the show tingle with new energy.

One more thing, just since it’s you. I was trying to explain to a guy why I was so pleased and I ended up focusing on a little half-smile, half-grin that Whittaker gives just after she’s been revealed. It’s when the Doctor sees her TARDIS and somehow it just promises adventure to me.

That’s true, but what I’ll tell you that I didn’t tell the guy is that I also got a ridiculous amount of pleasure writing the words “her TARDIS”.

Travelling Desperately, again

Shush, we’re in archive. It’s the Hull History Centre and six years ago I was here researching my very first book. That was – take a breath, this is a long title – BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair, from the British Film Institute. The Beiderbecke Affair is a 1980s television drama by the late Alan Plater and this place has his papers.

It’s weird being in an archive that’s got a friend’s papers. I’d sit here reading something in the Beiderbecke collection and remember Alan or his wife Shirley Rubinstein telling me about it. But anyway, as much as I adore The Beiderbecke Affair and as important as my book was to me, there was also something else all those years ago.

I worked like fury to collate and copy every pixel of detail about the Beiderbecke Affair and then also Alan’s dramatisation of Fortunes of War because I had a canny eye to what the next book would be. That hasn’t happened yet, but give it time. Only, I did all that at extra-fast speed solely in order to leave the last two hours free.

Because there is this other Alan Plater work that is especially dear to me: Misterioso.

It’s a novel that’s out of print (but you can find it changing hands for a lot of money on eBay and Amazon) and a TV drama that has never been released commercially. It’s really just one small part of his work but I am shocked how deep it cuts into me. This is not a high-profile piece, not elaborate or overt, not famous or lauded, yet there are issues that I believe in and concerns that I share that I can easily trace back to the novel Misterioso in 1987 and the TV version in 1991.

Title card from the TV drama Misterioso

For a simple example, it’s why I’ve always loved the name Rachel. For a somewhat more complex one, it’s why I cherish the thought that, as the show describes, “it’s better to travel desperately than to arrive”. It’s why when I’ve done a lot I know that even as an atheist, I need time for my soul to catch up.

So knowing from the Hull History Centre’s catalogue that they had one entire box of papers about Misterioso, I was having that. Nobody was paying me, I wasn’t writing a book about it, but I was going to read that box for myself.

Only, the collection was still quite new then and things were still being sorted out. They told me they couldn’t find the Misterioso box.

Deeply unhappy, I vowed to return.

Yes. Six years later. I’m back and it’s still only for me, but this time I have a day and a half here entirely devoted to Misterioso. And that’s good because they’ve found the box. I call it a box, often these things are more like folders. But okay, I was ready to read one folder, then, and instead they’ve now got ten.

One more thing. The title Misterioso comes from a jazz piece which features as prominently as you might expect in an Alan Plater drama. I like jazz when I hear it live, I adore jazz anecdotes, but I’ve not been a fan and I have not collected any albums.

Only, the very last shot of Misterioso on television is of Rachel driving off down a motorway as the music plays. Yesterday as I drove down a motorway toward Hull, I lifted my Watch to my lips and said “Hey, Siri, play me Misterioso by Thelonius Monk“. And my car and my head were filled with this tune that seems so simple yet somehow means so much to me.

Less justified

I’ll tell you now, I don’t come out of this well. Perhaps we could skip chatting this week, what do you think?

A year or 18 months ago, I can’t remember, the local radio station BBC CWR booked me to do an interview about something or other. It was just a phone interview, live into a show, and I’ve done that twenty times or more for various stations. You don’t get paid and as quick as it is to have the chat, it’s always a lot more work beforehand making sure you know your stuff, but I love and relish doing it. Gives me the same buzz I used to get while working in radio.

And doubtlessly because I’ve worked in radio, I get it. I understand how things work and so on that day when the show ran out of time before it got to my topic, I did not care in any measure. Someone from the station phoned right afterwards and sounded as if they usually get people swearing at them for doing this but I shrugged and I told them I shrugged. It’s the way it is, not one pixel’s worth of concern to me.

Equally, as absolute and resolute as they were when they then said they would definitely have me on the next day, I knew and I told them I knew, that the same thing could well happen again and if it did, so what? Radio is radio, news is news, it’s fine. I truly can’t remember the subject now but there was something about it that meant I needed to do some more work the next morning. I remember figuring out that over these couple of days I’d spent two hours on it. That’s two hours out of a freelancer’s week: you’re not getting paid for this but you’re also turning down work you would get money for so it’s a commitment in every sense.

Fortunately, this time they did get to the item. Unfortunately, they interviewed someone else.

Even that is fine. I’m a producer, I completely recognise that you could get better guests than me and that if you can, you’ve got to take them. Got to. No hesitation: the show comes first. I believe that in my very bones.

Only, I found out they got someone better by listening to the show: it was solely when this other guy appeared on air that I discovered I’d been ditched. They could’ve called me with seconds to go and I’d have understood. But they didn’t call before and they didn’t call after, either.

Now, I still kind of get it.

But they phoned this week asking if I could come on the same show and I said that I could – but I wouldn’t.

I can tell you that time is ferociously more pressing now, that taking time out from my work is far harder than it was a year ago, but the truth is that I’d do it like a shot for any station but BBC CWR. This is moot now because they will never ask me again and if they keep a running list of guests who are too petty to use, I’m on there.

The professional thing would’ve been for me to say yes and to do it. Nobody on that station even remembers screwing up that time and it is true that I’m petty being annoyed. It’s not like I’ve spent the year seething, but this week’s call of course reminded me and I just thought, shrug, fuck it.

Food and whine

I can’t imagine this is still there and I definitely won’t look. But many years ago, I worked on the BBC Good Food website, in fact I worked toward the launch of it, whenever that was. I didn’t do much, don’t get me wrong. All I had to do was perform and record for the site’s audio glossary section: if you wanted to know how to correctly pronounce Chardonnay, you clicked on the name and my voice told you.

It’s likely that I also did food words as, even now, when I walk around a supermarket I will occasionally see something and feel compelled to say its name aloud and then again with each syllable separated out by short pauses. But it’s the wine I remember, though, because it tickled me that I don’t drink and so hadn’t remotely heard of half of the things I was saying.

The glossary was a good idea and it turned out okay: I remember feeling I’d got the content right but the audio wasn’t fantastic. Mind you, I also remember the launch party. It’s weird what sticks in your head but I can picture the entire room, the pillar I was leaning against, the man I was talking with, the woman who told us then that the idiot boyfriend who’d dumped her had just asked to come back. (They then got married, by the way, and I hope that fella now spends his days counting his lucky stars.)

I remember everything in this slice of that evening. Including the editor standing up to make a speech and quite laboriously thanking every individual who’d made even the smallest contribution to launching the site. I remember starting to think she could surely skip some of these people, when she did. She looked at me and she did not say my name. O-kay. Not getting a second commission, am I?

It did hurt, I won’t pretend it didn’t. I had been feeling proud to be part of this site, even in this small way, and then I felt shuttered. It was a lesson, too: thank everybody or thank generally, don’t do exhaustive-minus-one.

But the fact remains that BBC Good Food was an excellent site: I’m not a foodie but I could easily appreciate how well produced both it and the accompanying magazine were. And are: I use a cooking app called Paprika and having a quick scoot through the recipes I’ve collected in it, I can see a fair few came from BBC Good Food.

There was still the fact, though, that this was BBC Good Food and there is a completely separate site called BBC Food. Similarly, there is BBC Top Gear and there is TopGear.com. That latter and Good Food are actually the official websites of the magazines which are the official magazines of the TV shows which have their own websites. Of course they do.

It wasn’t confusing when you worked on them –– I actually did do a day or possibly just an afternoon on TopGear.com; I think my car reviews were light on engine performance detail, heavy on the sound quality from the radios –– but you knew. You knew this was a stupid idea and that it was going to confuse readers. But as long as all of these sites were really well done and were successful, that’s the way it was going to be.

It still is. Except for one thing.

BBC Good Food, which I’ve just decided I’m going call my old site – I did work on it, dammit – remains exactly as it was yesterday. BBC Food does not. At some point very soon, BBC Food is going to destroy 11,000 of the recipes on it. I should say delete but no, it’s destroy: that immense archive is going to be deliberately lost forever.

It’s part of the BBC’s response to the Government’s demands that it be more distinctive and save money. The usual bollocks, then. But this time the Corporation is being more distinctive by taking away a recipe archive that no other website will or perhaps could do. Not even BBC Good Food can touch this for the sheer volume of material and how it’s also tied to various cooking TV shows, how it’s a bit of a cultural history archive of what we ate.

There are whole swathes of BBC websites that are not updated and which tell you so: you’ll occasionally follow a Google search down into a site which has a nice note from the BBC saying that it hasn’t been updated since 1997 but is being left here as a record.

And this time the Corporation is saving money by destroying 11,000 pages of a website. These would be pages that had already been written and published. I suspect they do get updated: if you’re reading a Hairy Bikers recipe from five years ago, there’s a good argument that you could put a link to this year’s new series on there. You don’t have to and I don’t know that they did, but you could and so maybe the pages were updated.

But that isn’t necessary. So the only money that closing this site and this archive can achieve is by getting rid of the people who update it with the new recipes. Only, they’re still going to update it with new recipes. (The difference is that they’ll put on the latest BBC TV cooking show recipes today and then delete them in 30 days time.)

So no money is being saved and existing distinctiveness is being thrown away. The Government’s insistence on improvements at the BBC is, as ever, bluster from people trying to sound like they matter. And the BBC’s response is straight out of Yes, Minister: when Sir Humphrey is asked to do something about the high figures of civil servants, he does something. About the figures.

I think that makes both sides in this BBC vs Government issue seem like schoolboys who think we’ll believe their red-faced claims of the other boy did it or the dog ate the homework according to a particular recipe. Neither side would thank me for saying this, but then I’m used to that.

I have no stories about Prince

Well, apart from Kunmi making a group of us go see Purple Rain in the cinema and it being the first and last film I saw with an intermission. The confusion when something purple turned into an ad for a ice lolly, the relief when this meant a break from the film, the sinking feeling that maybe we were only half way through it.

Not that it would be very long before I liked the music from the film but that evening in Derby, that was a long time all by itself.

Whereas I do have a short story of the time I may possibly have slightly annoyed Victoria Wood. Last week I was talking to you about the times I interviewed Gareth Thomas for no purpose – there was a bit more to it than that but it’s a fair summary – and now there’s that time I crossed Victoria Wood for no reason.

Listen, I feel I’m trivialising the news of her death and Gareth Thomas’s, maybe also of Prince’s. Trivialising it down into anecdotes from what I appear now to think is my great celebrity-mingling career. Reducing a life when the most I would want to do is reduce a death: I want to reduce these down into them not happening, please.

Gareth Thomas would not recognise me on the street. I am connected to Prince only via seven billion degrees of separation and I could name more of them than he ever would. And for one half of one moment, there’s Victoria Wood frowning at me. I’m thinking I’ve annoyed her, she’s probably thinking “Did he say something?”

It was at a BBC event and I remember Lee Evans making me convulse, I remember someone very senior agreeing to my interviewing him or her but then spending the ten minutes either looking over my left shoulder to find someone more interesting or talking over my right to somebody across the room. I remember all this and I can picture it, I can picture the table Wood was at when I sat down next to her, I just cannot recall what the event was or when.

Good grief. The handy thing about that Very Senior person is that I can carbon date the event because of her or him. I just looked up him or her and can see from a Wikipedia timeline that the event had to be between 2000 and 2005. I would’ve sworn to you it was the 1990s.

Whenever it is and whatever I’m there for, it’s work and I’d guess either for BBC Ceefax or Radio Times. I’m definitely there to ask questions and learn things. Only, I remember that at the moment I got to Wood’s table, I was thinking about how she was on tour and that meant doing the same show every night for months. I was thinking about how you imagine a writer writes and their writing is finished whereas you know a singer has to re-perform the material over and over. I was thinking of the repetition and the difficulty of that.

So what I thought I was asking Victoria Wood was about whether it’s hard to go back out on stage repeatedly. I know I actually asked about how presumably there must be some nights when you don’t want to do it.

“Well, I hope I’ve never disappointed anybody,” she said and that was about it. Someone else came along, I picture myself reaching out through the swell of people as I say Nooooo in slow motion and they all block my view of just how much offence I’ve given her.

I did offend her and she did take it as an accusation that there are evenings when she wasn’t performing at her best. That isn’t what I meant but now it’s out there, it must be the case, it must be. Yet you don’t think Victoria Wood ever gave a bad performance and nor do I.

I do think some of her pastiche parodies were thin and stretched but I have her Chunky book and the script to Pat and Margaret on my shelves here and I just won’t ever write as well as she does. Sorry. As she did. This is a hard year.

Ginnunga-gap

Finally, I’ve got a name for it. Listen, last night I did my 120th speaking gig of the year and this one had something in common with maybe 10 of  the others. It’s not a good thing, not for me, but normally it only happens in what turn out to be the very best speaking gigs I do. That’s not the case now: last night’s wasn’t my very best. It was a Writers’ Guild event to do with supporting the Birmingham Writer in Residence job at the Birmingham Rep and the BBC. Guests were great, audience was perfect and I honestly don’t think anyone left that room feeling disappointed. Yet I wasn’t good enough. I’m thinking about this.

But quite shortly into it, I hit this thing I have today decided to call the Ginnunga-gap. I just make up syllables, really, and throw in a hyphen. if you don’t know the term – and I had to look it up despite knowing it for centuries – let me tell you in a moment. First, what I mean by it.

Whatever the subject you’re talking about, whatever the audience and whatever the format of the event, you have a certain time to fill and part of the job is filling that well. In these 10 or so cases, there has come a moment when I knew I couldn’t fill the time.

It’s usually about two thirds of the way through and we’ve all been working rather quickly, we’re through or nearly through all my material. The time from when it hits me to the end of the event can be as much as three hours. It is a calamitous, lurching fear that damages your stomach.

Officially, the Ginnunga-gap is a gaping abyss, a yawning void, it is the primordial void in Norse mythology. (Wikipedia spells it as one word, Ginnungagap.) That’s not where I know it from. It’s taken me a long time to remember where and actually to recall exactly the term. I knew it was Something Something Gap. It’s also taken me the last hour of searching through iBooks and Kindle when the book I know it from was right there on the shelf above my Mac. In direct line of sight, in fact.

The book is a collected quartet of novels by James Blish that together are known as Cities in Flight. It’s a remarkable series that uses this Ginnunga-gap term to describe the period between the end of this entire universe and the start of the next. I read it as a teenager, I think, and every many years I happen across it again and end up re-reading it. It’s the novel with my favourite technical term: the spindizzy. Love it. Just the word. I’m not fussed what it means.

I’m less keen on my Ginnunga-gap and while I do recommend the novels, I recommend your being better prepared than I sometimes am. I promise you that I’m prepared, sometimes far too much, and I admit that last night my thumb caused part of the problem. Instead of a nice OmniOutliner document with all my notes for the event, I looked down at my iPad and found I was reading the running order of a radio podcast I’d produced earlier in the week. “Well,” I said to the audience. “Any questions for the panel?”

My abilities and performance aside, last night I’d misjudged the amount of time we’d need for what we were doing and that was partly because I didn’t get exactly the audience I’d anticipated. Everyone who came was serious and there to find out things, but I’d mentally budgeted time for more people and the inevitable number of long-winded questions you get from a proportion of folk. Plus there are various issues around this topic that I’ve been asked about privately and would have to deal with but didn’t come up on the night. So I’m okay with that, that’s a natural development of an event in progress.

But this time I got the Ginnunga-gap about seven minutes into the 90.

Nine out of these last ten events with this stomach-tearing gap worked out brilliantly, in my opinion, and there is definitely something about working under pressure. Also about having a mental grab-bag of tools and topics plus a bucketful of anecdotes. None of that helped last night because my job was not really be there, to not be in the way, to not be the point of the event. Instead my job was to solder the panel and the audience together and make sure the former got to say what they needed and the latter got to hear what they must. I actually think I handled the questions well, choosing the next person, letting others know I’d seen them so they could put their hands down, then correctly going to those people, calling many out by name although most I hadn’t met before. All the usual stuff.

I’ve just realised that this particular usual stuff is when I’m working with the audience or I’m working with the panel. When I’m on my own – let me go from Norse mythology to Strictly Come Dancing – I’m out of hold. And there’s too much gapping.

Next gig: tomorrow.

 

Plot vs story

Pull up a seat. Let me just tap this app and set the wifi iKettle boiling. I wanna tell you a story.

But it’s specifically that, a story. Not a plot. If you’re in a hurry and you don’t mind missing out on the biscuits, there is a short description of the difference which gets quoted a lot by writers and which goes roughly thisaway:

The king died and then the queen died (story).
The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot)

EM Forster said that. Everybody agrees, you miss nothing but ginger nuts if you have to leave.

Except, I don’t agree.

Maybe it’s just semantics but I would take those same two sentences and I would swap the parenthetical descriptions:

The king died and then the queen died (plot)
The king died and then the queen died of grief (story)

Truly, I stand alone here, I know it. But it’s a stance that comes from a lot of years reading a lot of thrillers and writing a few too. The ones that fail, for me, are those that have kings dying, queens dying, everybody dying and it doesn’t matter, I don’t care whether they die because I just do not care at all. That’s a plot. You can make it twisty, you and be brilliantly clever and you can definitely create fantastic moments, but the plot is a sequence of events. A story is where I care. The king dying and then the queen dying is a boring school history lesson. Her dying of grief is a story because now I care. Mind you, our two lead characters have just been bumped off so there’s not a whole lot of story left.

Anyway.

To this day, a key failing in my writing is that I fear you will get bored so I run, run, run through story, I throw things at you and when I reckon you can’t have quite caught it yet, bang, I throw you something else. My latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, is practically real-time not because I wanted the benefits of that but because I would not pause for breath. A theatre producer I admire recently told me to slow my writing down. This week a very witty and hugely entertaining event producer told me she thought I had far too much going on in my The Blank Screen productivity course. They’re both right, I agree completely, I am just struggling to beat this compulsion. I’ll get there.

And I have got to the point where I know the truth about plots. Many years ago, I argued with Alan Plater that plot is crucial. I said that you’ve got to have things happening all the time – no change there, then – and it’s got to be great high stakes, it must be urgently vital. Plot is everything. Why else, how else would you get engrossed in a story? I’m paraphrasing here, but Alan replied with what may be the best advice I’ve had in writing. He said:

No.

I’ve quoted him often.

Many girlfriends have quoted him back to me.

One of the most delicious things in life is when someone changes your mind. I vividly remember at college going to meet an old school friend at her university and disagreeing about something. I also remember having the most gigantic crush on her which is not in any way relevant and I don’t see why you brought it up. Anyway. Whatever this thing was, I said it and she said “But…”. At the start of her sentence, I believed one particular thing to be fully, entirely and irrevocably true. At the end of her short sentence, I knew that was bollocks and that she was fully, entirely and irrevocably right. I think of it and her often, I wonder if she even realised how much I enjoyed that moment.

Alan was equally fully, entirely and irrevocably right. It just took me years and my writing many scripts for him to change my mind.

I’m not going to claim I can tell you exactly what his opinion was: Alan died nearly four years ago now and I will always remain upset. But I can tell you what my opinion has become, and that opinion was shaped by him. My opinion goes thisaway:

Characters come first. Characters come above everything. Because if I don’t find those characters interesting, there is no plot in the world that could make me give a toss about what happens to them.

I would take one small step back from that and say that dialogue is supreme: if I don’t believe what someone is saying – if I don’t believe a real human being would say those words in that way – then I don’t believe the character and I cannot ever get interested in them.

If I knew what made a character interesting, I think I’d be initially elated and then a bit bored: finding them is part of writing and while a checklist of Things To Make Characters Real and Alive would be handy, I’m relieved that there is no such thing.

Alan was spectacularly good at slowing things down, at actually making it look as if there were no plot at all, that nothing was happening. It is a skill and a talent whose result is so quiet and low key that it somehow doesn’t get shouted about. But I said spectacular and I mean it: by the end of a plot-free Alan Plater piece, the most enormous things have happened. I long for you to read his novel Misterioso or for the BBC to finally release the not-as-good-but-still TV version of it on DVD. Because every conventional plot is simply ignored or dispensed with in Misterioso. It’s ostensibly about a woman searching for her real father. That’s the billing you’d see in Radio Times. But she finds him. She finds him really quickly. Because this isn’t a plot about tracking your father down, it is a story about a woman finding herself. Rachel at the end is not the same woman she was and I am actually tearing up a little here thinking of it.

Do you notice what I did there, though? I didn’t tell you what happens to her after finding him, I didn’t tell you what the changes are, didn’t say where this is set, didn’t say very much at all. That’s partly because this is what we remember from stories: we remember what we feel. And we never feel plot.

But I mostly described Misterioso that way because it’s how I work. When I am pitching you a story, I very, very, very quickly tell you this:

What it’s about

And then the instant I can, I get on to and I spend much longer on this:

What it’s really about

Misterioso is really about a woman who is forever changed – in a rather glorious way, incidentally, a way that makes you proud of her and actually changes something inside you too – and I know that is more important than the plot that it’s about looking for her father in London’s jazz joints.

That’s a good setting. You could spice it up by setting it during the Olympics. You could make it that her father isn’t really her father. Gasp. (He is. I’m just saying.) You could have the TARDIS arrive at a key moment. (And Rachel would make a great companion. Hell, I’d vote for her as the Doctor.) There are a hundred plot twists you could throw in to Misterioso and every single one of them would detract from the story.

Plots are easy. Stories are hard.

Plots are nothing. Stories are everything.

Naming names

I read the starts of two friends’ novels this week.

Wait.

That sounds like I chucked them aside, couldn’t be bothered to finish them. So far both friends only have the starts of their novels. Normally I wouldn’t read anything until it was complete but there were special circumstances. One was being readied for an agent who has a publisher waiting to see it – and his publisher is in for a treat, I can now tell you – and the other was at a much earlier stage but I’m working with the writer generally and we’d talked about it, I wanted to see it. If she’d had the rest of the novel, I’d be reading that now and pointing you at Amazon for it.

But while we wait for both of these books to be finished, I want to figure out something that happens to be in both of them. It’s actually in every novel: it’s about the names we give characters. It was just noticeable in these two because hers had a character I am sure is named after two famous ones and I’m dying for her to reveal I’m right. And his unfortunately had a name that might be a problem.

I can’t tell you the name but, to give you an idea of the issue, it was like a more sensible version of Cormoran Strike. Cormoran is the lead character in JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (a rather excellent crime novel she’s written under the name of Robert Galbraith. Don’t get me started on pseudonyms. I was once paid extra by a newspaper to make up a couple of bylines so that it didn’t look like I was the sole writer on a supplement project. One of the ones I picked was Dennis Price. That’s the ‘real’ name of the photographer character in Lou Grant, the guy usually called Animal. Nobody would get that. Except Dennis Price, an uncle of my wife Angela’s. I’ve never told him the truth.)

Anyway.

This guy’s novel features a character who has a much more real-world and believable name than Cormoran Strike. You read his and accept it unthinkingly whereas with Cormoran you go through the stages The Simpsons described for The Beatles’ name.

PRINCIPLE SKINNER: We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.

There are reasons why Cormoran Strike is called that and I particularly like that Rowling only suggests the reasons quite far into the book. Explaining it directly, explaining it immediately would be like defending it and that would somehow be calling out that it is an author’s contrivance instead of a real character’s – a real person’s – name. My guy doesn’t need to suggest or explain, his character name is just effective and believable. But it’s close enough to Rowling’s that I had to tell him.

It’s touch-and-go. I talked about it with him and though he sees the problem, though he’s looking at changing it, I wouldn’t be overwhelmingly surprised if he decides to stick with his first choice. You’d think that a name is a name, that one is as good as another, that a swift search-and-replace in the word processor makes it easy to change a name. But if you do think that, you also won’t be surprised that I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and scripts where the writer has searched-and-replaced but you can tell. I’ll never tell you who, but one writer obviously changed the name Bill to something else, which gave rise to this at the start of a chapter:

“Dick, please.”

I’ve had to change names for legal reasons or because, like this guy with the Rowling-ish name, I’ve spotted or been told something is too close to something else. It’s so hard to get a reader into a story that you can’t afford to throw them out again and if I had a character named James Bond, it wouldn’t go by unnoticed. But changing names is wrenching and I love that I can show you this quote from David Lodge who wrote in The Art of Fiction that:

The invention of the word processor has made it easy to change the name of a character at a late stage of composition, just by touching a few keys, but I would have a strong resistance to doing that to any but the most minor character in my fiction. One may hesitate and agonize about the choice of a name, but once made, it becomes inseparable from the character, and to question it seems to throw the whole project en abime, as the deconstructionists say.

I read Lodge’s book twenty years ago but mise en abime didn’t make it into my ideolect: if it’s new to you too, it means sent into the abyss. But while I’ve got you with the page open in Lodge’s book, take a squint at this next bit:

I was made acutely aware of this in the process of writing Nice Work.

This novel concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him… it is generally a… straightforwardly realistic novel and in naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.

Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

Wirrn IsleI’ve had the same concerns and the same delays but I’ve never delved so finely. I think I tend toward the more natural names and avoid connotations and allegories and deeper meanings – though listeners to my Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle didn’t like my character names Toasty and Iron, absolutely perfect though they were – but I also find it hard to change names. Even between projects. I must’ve written a good dozen scripts before I started getting anywhere, I could well believe I’d done twenty if you wanted to insist, and a very early one featured a woman called Susan Hare. I liked that name so much that in the next script, stuck for a new name, I borrowed it. And did so again a few years later. And at least once more.

As it happens, poor Susan has never been in a script that got made or I’d have to stop doing this. But it tickled me one day to realise that, with some effort, you could actually link every one of these scripts and have every one of those scripts be about the same woman. Not perfectly, I’m relieved to say her character was different in each, but chronologically. The child Susan Hare could have become that teenage Susan Hare who could have just about become that adult Susan Hare. It got so I spent a ferociously long time thinking about what would make that child turn out that way. I started sketching out other scripts that might fill in the gaps. If I ever do The Susan Hare Chronicles, that’s where it started.

More often, I am vividly clear on the character but I imagine I’m not fussed about the name. I know changing it later will be a wrench, I know that I get very connected with the names, but at the point of creation, I have extremely often just looked up at the bookshelves next to me and combined a couple of different author names. Consequently I’ve had characters named Beiderbecke a bit. Also some Woodwards and Bernsteins. Just between us – please don’t tell anyone else – I am quite a bit chuffed that this looking-up-at-bookshelves now means I often risking naming characters Gallagher.

There’s never a connection between me or those other authors and the characters, I’m never trying to name someone after someone. That Wirrn Isle also featured a woman named Veronica Buchman and she was named after the fictional characters Veronica Mars and Mad About You’s Jamie Buchman. (I do love the name Veronica Mars with its mix of old-fashioned forename and unusual surname. Until a character in that TV show pointed out that Veronica Mars drives a Saturn car and lives in a town called Neptune, I hadn’t even connected Mars with the planet. “Move Uranus,” she tells that character. “Mercury’s rising.”)

I do have an Izzy somewhere, in something, I’ve gone blank now, and she was named after a BBC Radio producer just because I liked her name. I liked her too, but I really liked her name. Otherwise, I can only think of one single time I’ve named a character after someone: there is a Jyoti Cutler in my latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, and she is named after Jyoti Patel. She’s the script editor who took a chance and commissioned me to write for Crossroads. I doubt she even remembers me, but I am grateful and I liked her a lot. But I also just really liked her name or I wouldn’t have used it.

I mean, much as I like you, I’m not going to use your name in a script or a book. Your name is yours: it means you to me. I loathe these contests where the winner gets a character named after them, usually in a crime novel, usually a character who gets murdered early on. Couldn’t do it.

Because names are that important to me. You may have gathered that.

Just don’t get me started on titles.