Death by “As You Know”

No doubt, the real reason I don’t happen to watch the hit sports comedy “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ is that it’s about sports. I did love Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” but then that’s the show that famously said:

“It’s about sports. The way ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is about law enforcement.”

Doubtlessly, “Ted Lasso” is about more than its football subject, but unfortunately another reason I don’t watch is that I did read the pilot script. And in scene 2, somewhere in the first half-dozen lines of dialogue, there was this:

HIGGINS: Mrs. Mannion– Excuse me – Miss Welton – George is here… The manager?

Higgins did not say “as you know, George is the manager,” but that’s really what the line is. It’s an “as you know” moment, with one character telling another something they cannot possibly fail to already know –– but we, of course, don’t yet. If there is one thing worse than an “as you know” line, well, it’s the type of line that immediately followed it in “Ted Lasso”:

REBECCA: Yes I know who George is, Higgins.

You can write that line as sarcasm, you can play it as anything you like from that through to impatient annoyance, and none of it matters. Where the “as you know” line is the writer giving notes to the audience, so the response is not a character actually speaking, it is the writer excusing the “as you know” part.

They needn’t bother trying because the excuse is just a megaphone for anyone who missed the clunking “as you know”.

That exchange threw me out of the “Ted Lasso” pilot script and I don’t think I really got back into it again. Certainly I didn’t feel compelled to go watch the show. I am told, quite repeatedly, that the show is better than the scripts –– just typing that has made me twitch –– and that the performances are everything.

I agree that performance is everything. I just also know that directing is everything. That producing is everything. And that writing is everything.

The greatest performance in the world can make a piece better, but performance is interpretation. You are taking something and interpreting it, you are taking something and performing it. If the it doesn’t work, there’s only so far you can possibly make it watchable.

I suggest, then, that this particular “as you know” moment is probably a rarity in the series. I suggest, then, that if people say this is a great and funny comedy, that the scripts have to be great and funny.

But “as you know” shot me out of the story and it always does. You put it in, or networks demand that you put it in, because there’s a terror that the audience won’t immediately understand and so they will immediately stop watching. This manager guy –– who, as you know, is called George –– comes in to see Rebecca and she fires him. Making him an ex-manager is enough, that’s all we need to grasp that he was the manager and now isn’t. Since this appears to be a character we will never speak of again, I’m really not sure it was worth spending an “as you know” on him and the job he hasn’t got anymore.

Actually, reading on a little, I think that whole section clunks, but I was already in a bad mood because of the “as you know” syndrome.

So you throw in an “as you know” to please the network and retain the audience, but the result is – always – that you annoy the audience. There must be some proportion of viewers who miss that moment because they’re on Twitter, although the fact that they can miss it and survive not knowing George’s old job is another clue that the line wasn’t necessary.

And there have to be a larger proportion of viewers who don’t care. You can’t please everyone and it would be a pretty anodyne show if you could. But you don’t have to tell the audience they’re stupid and you cannot, cannot excuse doing that by having another character confirm that they know what we know they must already know.

You also can’t dismiss a hit that’s been picked up for three seasons, you can’t ignore the whole thing because of two lines of dialogue in the pilot script. But it’s not my job to watch any particular show, it isn’t my job to keep reading scripts from any particular series. If you lose me, you lose me and I’m not saying I’m a loss, I’m saying it’s unnecessary.

Take “State of the Union” by Nick Hornby, for instance. It’s a series of ten episodes, each ten minutes long and each set in the moments before a couple go into their weekly marriage counselling session. Part one ends with the man bolting, running up the street before the session door is opened. So in part two, you are dying to know if he came back and joined the appointment.

LOUISE: How are you feeling about this week?
TOM: As you know, I missed the start ––

No, no, okay, this is how that scene really goes:

LOUISE: How are you feeling about this week?
TOM: Well, pretty sure I’ll be there from the beginning.

In terms of straight plot information conveyed, we’ve got what we needed to know. And we got it without an “as you know”. I offer that we really get much more, it’s part of an exchange that says little but speaks volumes about the characters.

“State of the Union” is replete with dialogue that’s heightened but feels natural, feels just how these two characters would really talk. Over and over, it’s about them, and yet constantly it is also filling us in on the plot. Since every episode is set in the ten minutes before their appointment, we of course get the tension building up to what’s going to happen, but we never see it. We have to wait for the next episode and then we get filled in on how that previous session turned out.

Doing that ten times, or whatever, would make me murderous if each one had an “as you know, in the previous session we…” conversation, but there isn’t a single one. Not a single moment in ten episodes where it’s solely the writer filling in the audience. It’s always these two characters talking naturally and it’s a tremendous piece of writing. And of acting, and of directing. Also, actually, of photography: “State of the Union” is a web series but it looks like feature film.

It’s also always doing more than one thing in its dialogue, more than ticking a box to tell us who George is. Maybe that’s what I’m unhappy about, maybe that’s what I’m objecting to. Dialogue that only does one job at a time. “As you know” is annoying, but when there’s nothing else there, nothing telling me more about character, its annoyance is magnified. For me, anyway.

I watched the whole “State of the Union” ten episodes in one day. I will give “Ted Lasso” a go. But it is about sports and I struggle to summon any interest in that.

As you know.

You must write what you want

Poster for Modern Love on Amazon

Poster for Modern Love on Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except they are. And anthologies are.

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

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

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

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

No idea

Oh, go on, let me do this. I had a Serious Writing Topic that I wanted to discuss with you, but it is you, it’s just me and you, let me tell you something else that I think you’ll recognise. It’s the way that you get an idea you think is good but actually you have no idea how much work it is going to take you.

I have a YouTube series called 58keys, it’s about 30+ videos so far and all for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads. Fine: I like doing it very much, I’m getting gorgeous reactions, all is ace. Except a week or two ago, I had an episode ready to go and decided to pull it.

There was nothing wrong with the episode but I’d made it especially to be relevant to people who listen to a podcast called The Omni Show. That’s a surprisingly happy little show about the company that makes various particularly great software tools that I rely on daily. Hourly. They invited me on and after the recording, I made this 58keys episode about the especially particularly great To Do app OmniFocus.

Only, their interview with me didn’t air when I expected. It has now aired and you can hear it and it was a lot of fun, but it didn’t come out on the day I thought it might. So I decided to hold off on the relevant 58keys episode. You’d have done the same, I know you’d have done it and found that so obvious that you might even have bothered to complete the thought, you’d just do it.

But this meant I had no 58keys episode.

With 90 minutes –– honestly, I think it came in at 89 minutes –– I had thought of a new episode, written it, filmed it, edited it and uploaded it to YouTube ready to go. That was a nice feeling, that rush of creativity, and that episode did very well for me.

But no good idea goes unpunished. I ran that episode, then the next week when The Omni Show was out, I ran my OmniFocus episode –– and realised that I really, really had to have a second one about that software. It’s that useful, there is that much to say. And this is where I got the idea that I have since spent thirty hours on. That’s thirty hours. Twenty times longer than the previous one took.

I don’t think you do or should care how long I spend on anything, just as I don’t think either of us should especially care how long any piece of work too, how much effort it did or didn’t take. The end result is all that matters and actually I am now very pleased with it.

This 58keys about a software app that you may not be using, may never have heard of since the last time we had coffee and you foolishly asked me what I was up to, certainly had the potential to be dull. It also needed to be quite long in order to cover everything. Long and dull. For some reason I didn’t fancy long and dull.

So I did what any drama fan would. I turned it into a fight.

If you watch, you’ll see a four-way Zoom conversation with three of me visibly not liking each other, and a bear just staring at all of us. This might be something I should say to a therapist before I admit it to you, but I appear to really, really like arguing with myself like this, I deeply like disliking myself. Plus I got to do it in a form that was half Zoom, half more like a certain TV thriller.

There you go. Instead of long and dull, I made a thriller. Or at least I tried to: you’ll have to judge it.

I hope you enjoy it, I know you would’ve done it differently and that this could very well have meant you did it better, but you also recognise this part. Once I had the idea, I was committed. Ten hours in, twenty, I might dislike the idea and I might have gone off the jokes that I’d now heard six times, but I was committed. When I realised I’d made a small mistake and needed to entirely reshoot a whole segment, I could’ve held back a little tear, but I could not stop myself getting out the camera and the tripod again.

There are parts of this video that are literally four or five pixels big and you cannot, just cannot see why I needed to do them. But I needed to do them.

Because we do. I was working with 20 or so writers, musicians, journalists and actors earlier this week and we might have all wished for the regular salary of a regular job, but we all knew exactly like you do that it takes unreasonable, unjustifiable, uneconomic effort to pull off an idea.

And you also know how I’m feeling right now. I’m a bit conscious of some other pixels I would like to change now that I’ve seen it all on my living room TV set, but I’m also deeply glad that I did it. Deeply glad that I got a laugh from Angela at just the right place.

And somewhat less glad that I now have to think of something to film for next week’s episode.

Wait and Wait for It

I want us to fix a problem I missed back in 2007. I was going to say that it’s a drama problem, and I still think it is, but it’s to do with an episode of the comedy How I Met Your Mother, a series I think should be legen –

hang on, no, let me get specific. I’m talking about season 3, episode 1, Wait for It, by series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, which first aired on 24 September 2007, and which I just watched again – after seeing the preceding 44 episodes over the past few weeks.

I bought the whole series on iTunes and then discovered that it’s also on Netflix. Anyway.

When you binge-watch something, it changes. I think overall comedies, at least the best ones, tend to blur into dramas because after a few episodes back to back, you’re not as receptive to surprise as you are when watching it weekly. How I Met Your Mother, I think, certainly works as drama, and actually after a few years into its run, that was chiefly why I continued watching.

It would still always be sporadically funny, but I was just into the characters. And watching the first few seasons again now, it is a joy to find how continually very funny it originally was.

HIMYM features some really smart writing: there are episodes where I’m totally into the story and yet the writer in me pops up to applaud something particularly well done.

I should say that it never occurred to me that the show would ever actually reveal the mother of the title. I simply unconsciously thought that it was a great title, a smart framing device for the stories with a father narrating tales to his bored kids, and not at all that it was a deliberate plan they hoped to play out over nine years.

I should’ve realised, not only because when they finally did the reveal at the end of the eighth season, they did it superbly. I should also have realised because How I Met Your Mother is one of those extraordinarily rare series, a successful romantic comedy.

And, grief, it was fantastic on romance.

There was a particular recurring motif that they played for every ounce of romance, and that was a yellow umbrella. When you heard that mentioned by a character or you just glimpsed it in the back of a scene, it was electric.

And the problem is that I now think it was set up very poorly.

Maybe I didn’t follow every episode on its first run, certainly there were things I just assumed I’d missed, but now I’ve been watching the whole run again in rapid sequence, I’ve seen one key point about the yellow umbrella that I failed to spot before.

“Kids,” begins the narrator at the start of Wait for It. “There’s more than one story of how I met your mother. You know the short version, the thing with your mom’s yellow umbrella.”

WE DO NOT.

Maybe as written that line could be meant to say that the children have previously been told about the umbrella, maybe it’s meant to be that since they are the kids of this mother and father, they know the story as family lore.

But it sounds, it plays, as if we viewers have heard about this and we haven’t. This is the first mention of something crucial to the run of the series and, trust me, it ain’t mentioned once before this 45th episode.

Now, it’s easy to criticise an episode 12 years after it was made, especially a US TV sitcom episode where they were making 20 episodes one after the other, bang, bang, bang.

And clearly there were plans for this umbrella, plans that became scenes and whole episodes that I think are both marvellous and far better than I could ever write.

But.

Given that I’ve had either a dozen years or about a week, depending on how you count, I do have a way they could’ve launched the whole yellow umbrella story without clunking into it like this.

Within this one episode, the yellow umbrella makes two appearances. Once is during that wobbly start as the kids are reminded that they know about it. The other, gorgeously effective, catch-in-your-throat great, is the penultimate scene, really the last before an unrelated tag. The narrator is talking about everything is leading inexorably to how he met the mother, and how close that was.

And during those words, we see someone holding the yellow umbrella as she walks by McLaren’s Bar, the show’s regular pub setting.

It is that proximity that gives the episode a last little spark before the end titles. I just think now that it doesn’t need the opening reference. It’s tempting to set up something you’re going to pay off, it’s even automatic, but in this case, less is more.

All week I’ve been thinking that this is a dialogue problem. That rather than the narrator telling us about the yellow umbrella at the start, he could tell us at the end. Tell us about it over that last shot of one yellow umbrella in the crowd.

But talking to you about it, replaying the episode in my head, I think I’m wrong.

It’s a yellow umbrella. It stands out. And just as you always know who is the important character in a story without being actually told, so this time you would get that the yellow umbrella was important.

I offer that you would inescapably know that it was the mother who was carrying it.

Part of the satisfaction of writing, to me anyway, is in taking an audience to a certain point. Knowing where you’re going to take them, and then getting them there. How I Met Your Mother was first class at bringing you to a point –– and then throwing you with the smallest extra instant.

This was one of those. I just think, some 4,322 days after it aired, that this one could’ve punched even better.

What do you mean, I’m currently trying to write a romance and find it damn hard? There’s a word for anyone who can pull that off and it’s the same word for writers who can create a catchphrase I’m still quoting a dozen years later.

It’s dary. Legendary.

Surprise and Demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

An hour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or videos of Miley Cyrus.

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.

Two minutes back

Please stop me. If Angela asks me when dinner will be ready and it’s almost done, I will call out something like “Two minutes back”. It’s a quote. I’m quoting. While I’m cooking.

I say cooking, it’s usually more heating and stirring and microwaving, but that’s not the point. The point is that my everyday conversation is riddled with quotes that nobody knows, at least until Angela happens upon some film or TV show that I got it from.

For it all comes from TV, radio and film. Imagine if I’d read the classics when I was younger. I might’ve become a weather bore every time the wind was in the east but at least that allusion could sometimes make sense. “Two minutes back” never does. Back to what?

It’s from Sports Night. I have no measurable interest, knowledge, experience or even really awareness of sport, but this show that first aired 20 years ago is a favourite. Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing done as a half-hour comedy and set behind the scenes of a TV sports show. This should be easy to imagine because that’s exactly what this is.

Take a look at this example. It’s the opening few minutes of an episode and I guarantee that you’ll wish it were the whole thing.

 

I should say right now that you can see a lot on YouTube but the only place to get the show itself is on DVD. Well, if you’re in the US you can stream it on Netflix or buy it on iTunes.

Or come round to my place.

I do relish its moments when characters will be in a heated argument and then, because the TV show’s cameras are now live, will be smiling, happy hosts until the commercial break and wallop, right back at it. I don’t know why I relish that so much, except that it’s a heightened dramatic situation that’s also real. I’ve done that, to a vastly smaller extent, in radio, and that turn-on-a-second move from personal to professional, that mental juggling of conflicting demands on your head, it’s gorgeous.

It also forces arguments into bite-sized chunks which is fantastic because drama does that anyway and here the need to stop and start is imposed, it’s an external pressure and you can feel the frustration. You can feel how when it’s released, when they’ve gone to commercial and can speak freely, that the next part of the row burns out of them. Plus even as they’ve been professional and talking on air about some sports thing I’ll never comprehend, you know the real drama has been continuing in their heads so when they can speak freely, the argument has moved on.

That’s an amazing thing to me. It means the Sports Night scripts pummel through arguments and issues at an incredibly artificial rate yet specifically because of the context, it feels natural and uncontrived. It feels real.

This is a comedy I’m talking about and I actually hesitated calling it that because for me, it’s drama. There is a very quiet laugh track in the early episodes, the result of the producers not wanting one and the network insisting and presumably some editor accidentally leaning on the volume control to minimise it. And it is also very, very, very funny.

Yet it’s the drama that keeps me coming back to this show – and I do keep coming back. I can visibly see me putting the DVD boxset in my car boot after having had to pay a gigantic import duty to the post office and saying aloud “I hope you’re worth it”. That must’ve been around 2001 or 2002 and it was. It is.

This show about the making of a sports show runs for 45 episodes of around 22 minutes apiece. What’s that? Something like 16 and a half hours of television. I watched the first one that weekend I got the DVD – and then I watched the following 44 before Monday.

I’ve done that binge about four times since.

And I’m in the middle of another one now. It’s been years since my DVD player was even connected to my TV set but I found a way to stream any video from my Mac to my TV set so I was looking through my shiny discs for what I’d want to see. I only meant to watch one episode of Sports Night. That was Tuesday. It’s now Friday and I’ve seen 15 episodes. Again.

This is a series about the making of a show and much of it takes place during the time that fictitious sports programme is on air. It has an awful lot of commercials. And every time this show-within-a-show cuts to a commercial, a character in its gallery will announce how long they’ve got before they come back from commercial.

Ask me how long before I watch the next episode.

Flipping hecklers

It would be really good, I would feel really great, if you just read the next sentence and then looked away.

I’ve now performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Okay.

Not really. I was in the audience for maybe 15 comedy acts or so and twice I was repeatedly called on by the comedian, once I was both called on and called up. I have now stood on a Fringe stage being laughed at. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I felt this was good.

But while I was climbing through an unstrung tennis racket – you had to be there – and later when Tim Vine was asking if my face always looked like this, I was thinking about the workshops I do.

I run day-long things, half days, two hours, one hours, all sorts and in every case the job is showing people something so you’re getting them to do it. It is entirely audience participation, but it doesn’t feel as heightened or as clenching as it does in a comedy because it’s continuous through the day.

Also because I’m the one calling on people, not the one fearing being called. That does make it easier, you’re right.

I was thinking how it’s actually quite hard to contribute to a show if you’re used to running them. I’m really not comparing my workshops to comedy sets, neither in good or bad ways, but it is all performance. So when a comedian asks you to describe something, you want to do it, you want to provide what she needs for her act, you’re more than willing to be laughed at, but you don’t want to actually perform. You don’t want to get in the way.

It’s their show, not yours.

I’m not saying that this is a huge issue or that it’s somehow unique to me as a special little flower but it was one of the two things that kept crossing my mind every time it happened. The other was to wonder why I’d chosen the front row again.

But then I saw Ivo Graham.

He’s a standup comic who does plenty of audience interaction which this time did not include me – and did include hecklers.

I loathe hecklers. If you know someone who heckles at comedy acts, give me their work address: I’ll pop over tomorrow and drunkenly interrupt them at their job.

The best comedians can get a very big laugh out of reacting to a heckle but when they do it that well, as Graham did that night, the stupid hecklers think they’re responsible. That their half-pissed spontaneous call out is what’s funny, not the maybe hundreds of hours of work that the comedian has put in to be able to deal with them.

Ivo Graham was the only one of all the acts I saw that got heckled and it is of course unrelated to the standard of his material. He is very good and he is very funny and he was on Friday evening. There you go. The hecklers were fuelled by alcohol and I imagine Graham had to have a few after the show himself.

You get that I abhor hecklers, you get that I admired Graham’s handling of them. What I liked, though, the only thing I actually liked, was the rest of the audience. Even Graham himself commented in the middle of asking the audience questions that it was great and funny how there’d be a heckle but immediately someone else would call out a serious answer to move it all along.

That was good and that worked. The whole act worked very well, it wasn’t even soured too much by those hecklers. But I did tweet Ivo Graham afterwards to say how deftly I thought he’d handled them. He replied saying it had definitely been an eventful night, hadn’t it?

But.

This is a week ago now and I’m still thinking about it but not for the hecklers and not for how this or any comedian reacts to them. I’m thinking about it because I watched some YouTube videos of Ivo Graham.

Like all the best comics, his act on the night feels fresh and new and like he’s just chatting with you. Of course you know that it’s written and rehearsed but there’s a lightness and a bounce and it’s engagingly new. Watch the same comic on YouTube and, whoever they are, you’ll often see the same act.

Fine, but what fascinates me is when you see something that is an earlier version. The internet and how much gets recorded, how much gets kept forever and made immediately available, it means we can now often see the development of an act. See which lines stay the same, which get tweaked or added or dropped or tuned.

Comedians are like poets, I feel, with every syllable considered, every pause planned and none of that effort meant to be seen. It’s the same swan analogy that you can apply to all writers, all shows, but with much of the development being done in front of audiences.

There is one workshop I do in schools that, just between us, I’ve now done so often that it truly feels like a scripted show. Of course it’s always different, of course each school needs different things. Yet still, there are many times when I feel I’ve slipped into the script and I know when I’m going to get a laugh out of these kids.

I’m a writer so I’m obviously focused on the words but in these cases I am a performer and there is a physicality to it. A pause, a just-remembered, an oops-forgot-to-say kind of stance and gait that I will do that will always get a laugh.

And it does have audience participation. I forgot this. I have a thing, close to a rule, that if you walk into a workshop of mine then you are part of it. And one day in a school I was in mid-flow when a teacher came in to borrow a pen. All he did was come in quietly, get the pen and leave again, not once breaking stride but during that time I had got the kids to cast him as a Doctor Who monster and he had acted the part. Left growling. Did it perfectly.

So naturally the next day when I was in the same school with another class and their head teacher came in to borrow something else, I did the same thing.

And he didn’t.

Just looked at me like I was dirt.

He walked out of the room reeking with disdain.

It was a silent heckle.

And when the door shut behind him, I just jerked my head toward the ceiling – and got a huge laugh from the kids. I was funny and we bonded and it started with that heckle but, you know, it was me, not the heckler.

Love is all around

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

No.

I got nothin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except I can in one way.

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

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

And then there is Lou Grant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.