Sidekick phenomena

I’ve been working with two writers recently and something came up with both of them. One has a character in her script who was meant to be a small part but is steadily becoming more important with each draft. And the other has just swapped two characters around in her novel.

They’re both right, I think they’ve found what their pieces needed, but I’m so interested in how changing a role can be liberating.

I like to imagine that all characters are created equal: that, sure, we’re only seeing someone when they’re delivering a parcel but actually they have a whole life too.

But they aren’t.

This is too crude a sketch of what’s happened but the novelist, for instance, is finding that she can do more with a character now that he’s not the romantic lead. She can do more with him and it’s like he can do more too: he’s got licence to be more lively, to actually be more interesting.

And equally, the other character is now more constrained.

It was ever thus. I think stories are more nuanced now, I think drama is richer, but the lead carries responsibilities because he or she is carrying the whole story.

Previously leading characters, the heroes of pieces, had to be stand-up heroes with square jaws – whether they were men or women – and to always do the right thing. No question, this is where the notion that actors prefer playing the baddie comes from because who wouldn’t?

We don’t need pure heroism any more and we don’t need perfect heroes.

But still, when the story is about you, then you are the story and like it or not, there’s going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Whatever you do is ultimately driving the story forward and that’s why we still have this constraint on the major characters.

The minor ones can go cause havoc if they like, they ultimately don’t influence the story very much.

They can have fun, the writer can have fun, the audience or readers can have all this too, so everybody wins and it costs us nothing.

Except there are people who don’t see this difference. Audiences often don’t and I see no reason they should: I see much more reason that they should be enjoying the tale instead of analysing the character structure.

So when the audience talks a lot about how brilliant a certain side character is and how they deserve their own show, I just think the current show did a good job.

It’s when commissioners think it too that I’m more concerned. My go-to example for this will probably always be Ballykissangel. It was a hugely successful BBC drama with probably dozen lovable characters but really just two central ones. Who then left.

The show ended when they left, except it didn’t. I don’t remember how much longer it went on afterwards but really it was over because these other characters couldn’t carry it. They weren’t leads, they were sidekicks and it showed.

Minor characters are minor characters, they will never be major ones and I am a writing god for deigning to explain this to you when naturally you’d never have thought it without me.

Except I can see you there, thinking about characters like Frasier Crane, Lou Grant and Sergeant Lewis.

These three were supporting characters of various importance in their original shows – Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Inspector Morse – who went on to have their own gigantically successful series.

Only, I offer that they didn’t.

I suggest that what really happened is that the character name went on to a new show and that’s pretty much all.

For the Frasier who headlined 11 seasons of his own sitcom is not the same Frasier who propped up the bar at Cheers. Sergeant Lewis is a new and richer character in his own show, even if I still can’t remember the character’s first name and I even met the actor once.

It’s not that these characters were so good as minor ones that they deserved their own shows. It is definitely the case that they were popular enough that studios knew people who at least give them a chance.

What’s really the case is that the writers conned us brilliantly. They managed the change, they managed substituting a leading character for a minor one and we bought it.

I think the actors were key: I don’t understand acting but I see that it takes certain talent and skills to shoulder a whole show instead of solely being the comic turn every other week.

I’ve always thought that this was a kind of applied writing, that the writers knew they needed to make minor characters into major ones and so set about doing it. But talking with these two writers this week, I think there’s also an element of characters moving where they want to. I mean the characters want to move, not that the writer necessarily plans it.

I also like to think that the writer is in control but there are times when it feels like we’re just scribbling down what our characters tell us.

Bad writing habits

Apart from my typing, with I swear is very good, a thing I like about my writing is something I also dislike – but I doubt I’ll ever stop.

Here it is. In the script I’m writing at the moment, I have a tiny moment when a drunk woman by Birmingham’s Broad Street nightclubs walks through our hero like he’s a glass door. It’s pretty good, I think: late night outside busy clubs so lots of dark and light plus she’s very drunk so you accept she doesn’t see him and you get that she doesn’t care.

This is my character’s most vulnerable point in the story so the symbolism of him finding himself accidentally in a ferociously busy place where he’s invisible and unwanted is, I believe, nicely striking.

Only, the drunk woman bothered me.

She does exactly what I need but the moment I say that to you, I realise she was a device rather than a character. Ultimately everyone in a script is a construct but you want them all to have life.

So actually I suddenly feel a tiny better about what I did. No, I like what I did, I just feel better that it’s something I keep doing.

Let me explain slightly quicker.

There’s a scene shortly afterwards where we’re back in Broad Street but it’s early the next morning. I think – no, I know – I am channelling the final scene in Before Sunrise where the film touches on locations we’ve seen, just now empty and in daylight instead dark and alive with that film’s Celine and Jesse.

Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s script for that scene says:

“…a series of shots of many of the locations CELINE and JESSE inhabited the night before. In the early-morning light those places are now somehow different. Even though there is little human presence at this time of the morning, the transformation has begun.”

In my case, my guy Richard has come under even more pressure overnight but it’s familiar pressure, it’s the kind of problem that he’s good at, so in an odd way he begins to climb back up.

New day, new world, I’m not saying this is the most original part of my script. I need it, I want it, I’ve made it this way but the uncontrollable itch is in this scene:

EXT. BIRMINGHAM – MORNING

Establishing. The outside of the Really Cheap B&B. Hagley Road. Broad Street’s cheap hotel. Jury’s Inn. The same DRUNK WOMAN asleep inside a curry house, face against the window.

That’s it. She’s back. Doesn’t do anything, doesn’t appear again and even in this moment Richard doesn’t notice her – but isn’t that right? Doesn’t that feel right to you?

I like the mirroring. I especially like that I got it organically, that I didn’t think What Will Mirror Last Night’s Scene.

I also just find it really, truly satisfying when moments connect together. When things aren’t just a good idea thrown in but they become part of the weave.

The trouble is that I cannot stop doing this. If something happens in a script of mine or if you meet a character, it is almost totally rock-solid certain that you’re going to see them again or it’s going to have an impact again.

I was asked about my bad writing habits the other day and this is one. I can definitely see that it’s because I also produce things: I want to make maximum use of every character, every extra, every location. And I do see that this is also actually quite limited of me.

But the satisfaction when this particular script knew I needed something and tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that I had this drunk character I could come back to, that is and was gold.

The Silence of Silents

Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.

She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.

Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.

There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.

I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.

I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.

Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.

Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.

Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.

It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.

The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.

That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.

That’s using silence for drama.

Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.

That book is The Prisoner: The Original Scripts – Volume 1 and Many Happy Returns is on Blu ray shiny disc.

Shut up

It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.

And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.

I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:

Choose life, eh?

Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.

The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.

It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.

I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.

Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.

Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.

I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.

Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.

I’ll shut up now. And get on with some writing.

Anytime you’re ready, I’ll sparkle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, really, really late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Women and losing

Give me a situation where one man and one woman are competing to write a particular piece of drama and I will ask why you bothered telling me their gender. It’s the piece I’m interested in, it’s their writing. I can’t conceive of a single possible reason that my knowing the sex of the writer would make any more difference than knowing their height.

Only, give me a situation where 86 percent of primetime television is written by men and now gender matters, now sex is telling me something is seriously wrong here.

Writing is not fair but then it shouldn’t be. Writers don’t get work just because it’s their turn. Not everybody should get to have a go. Because as much as I am a writer, as much as I care about writers, I’m a viewer first. I don’t tune in to satisfy a need in me for statistical balance. I tune in to watch and to be transported by writing that takes me places I don’t know with characters I’ve never met.

I want new.

And I ain’t getting it when 86 percent of television drama is written by men.

It’s not as if you suspect these men are the most diverse group, either, and that’s something the Writers’ Guild is looking at with Equality Writes. That’s a campaign launched this week that wants to fix film and television by making the industry recognise what’s actually happening. Get programme makers talking about it, get audiences talking about it, and maybe we can finally do something about it too.

Equality Writes starts with men and women because there are figures you can get for that imbalance. That’s why I know the 86 percent figure: it was uncovered during the research for an exhaustive and exhausting report that the Writers’ Guild commissioned. I nearly didn’t read that because I thought I already knew it was ridiculous how few women get to write for the screen. But then I’d see the report’s figures and then I’d see the report’s graphics about all this.

I did hang on for a while to the hope that things are getting better. Plus it’s a report about the industry today, maybe we’re just in a peculiar slump.

No and nope.

That’s the real jolt of this report and this campaign to me: the percentage of women writing television and film has stayed consistent for the last decade.

For ‘consistent’ read ‘low’ and for ‘low’ read ‘crap’. It is just crap how women aren’t getting to write and it makes me blood-angry that something is stopping me getting to see the writing of half our species.

I would like that to change now, please. And I work for the Writers’ Guild, it makes me proud that they’re doing something about it. Do join them, do join me in putting your name to the campaign too.

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.

Simply the best, ish, sort of, a bit

There is something wrong with us. All of us. Even you. Don’t look at me like that. The internet has enabled people to mistype vitriol over what they don’t like and while you’re not like that, there is something of the opposite in you: if you like something, I think you can be loudly enthusiastic about it.

That’s surely no bad thing, except there is something in all of us that makes it easy to go too far. You can see it the most clearly with haters who will declare something on television to be the Worst. Episode. Ever.

There are people who stopped watching certain shows and regularly and proudly remind the world of this fact. The world could give a damn.

The world doesn’t give much of one when we like something either but I, for instance, cannot stop myself running up to you like an excited puppy when I see or read or hear something I think is wonderful.

I just think that there is a tendency for people who like things to need to further. It’s not enough that they enjoyed it, it has to be the Best Thing Ever. And there is a problem with that. It can affect the very thing you like.

I’m thinking of what happened after the original Star Trek series was cancelled in the 1960s. There was a lot to like about that show, there was enough to dislike, but really it was a lively action/adventure one-hour television drama. It engendered fans, though, and perhaps was the first example of really passionate and large-scale fandom, for most of whom it wasn’t enough to just enjoy the show.

I’m all for engagement and apparently there are scientists who went into their careers specifically because of Star Trek and I can’t comprehend how wonderful that is.

But the short version is that fans regarded Trek as important and by the time the first film based on the show was made, this attitude had infested the crew. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is pompous. Self-important. Boring. It’s also visually exquisite at times but there’s only so long you can stare at a painting.

Trek may be vulnerable to being pompous, though. I just read the screenplays for the first six of the movies and the worst of them, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, has a note on the title page. It’s a little lecture about the cosmos and how “the incredible beauty of this latest Star Trek voyage” is based in scientific reality. There should be an afterword explaining what the dialogue is based in.

Still, watch the last episode of the original TV show and then the first movie. I think the incredible difference is down to years of fans talking up the importance of Trek and its makers coming to believe them.

That’s one thing, but here’s another. The film flopped but it was so earthshakingly expensive that Paramount gambled on earning back some of the money by getting their TV division to make a sequel for six bucks.

They did and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is cheaper. (Based on the official budgets, this was made for a third of the price of the first one. ) Grab a Trek fan, ask him or her, and there’s a fair chance they’ll still say Star Trek II is the best of the films. There is definitely a vocal contingent that would say Best Film Ever.

Compared to the first movie, it is very good. It has life and action and smaller-scale yet higher stakes. And it has Ricardo Montalban.

But it’s a cartoon. The makers swung far the other way, doing everything to make a crowd-pleaser instead of an important statement about the future of humanity. And because it was a such a success, every Star Trek film until the 2009 JJ Abrams-led ones has had a certain similar tone. A bit flat. A bit empty.

I know I’m reducing the creative contribution of hundreds and maybe thousands of people down to generalities but, still, fans talked up Trek into a pompous misfire and then the course-correction resulted in a whole series of films that are popcorn.

I like popcorn. I’m just never going to say to you that it or anything else is the greatest thing ever.

Although I admit this all popped into my head because I’ve also just read Rose, the new Doctor Who novel by Russell T Davies and it is tremendous. Just the Best Thing Ever.

Tom’s Midnight Garden title card from BBC 1974

Time No Longer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s mine.

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

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