Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

A Wendy Napkins Mystery

I really do have a character named Wendy Napkins and she really does get embroiled in Mystery. So far just four script pages of Mystery, but still. There’s Adventure, too: I’m not messing around here.

Don’t ask me when I wrote those four pages but I reread them yesterday and – truly surprising for me – I like them. I like her. There’s a reason she gets called this, it makes sense, but never mind that, she appears to be in the kind of detective story where you have to have an unbelievable name.

She isn’t really. I think I initially planned this as a pastiche and then came to like PC Wendy Naplinsky and her part-time hours working at a nursery too much. I’m not sure. I know that having read the four pages, I want to take her on into a full mystery and that it will tread a line between parody and seriousness so thin as to be invisible.

I want serious mystery but small scale. Who stole the crayons? Is that blood on little Nevada’s father? I’m already ramping it up. Let’s stick to The Case of the Missing Crisps. I think I can do it, I think it can sustain a series if I write the script well enough, but I’ve also been quite startlingly reminded of how collaborative drama has to be. And that’s making me wonder.

I’ve always known drama needs many people and I have usually always believed it to be a great thing. Writer, actors, director and producer working together at the top of their game and with the utmost of their effort, it’s fantastic.

I did once have a director whose sole vision, as much as I could tell, was to have the actors speak faster in order to bring the curtain down before his last bus.

But apart from him, whether it’s in anything of mine or just anything I know about, I have been agog at how it’s really the combination of these people that makes a drama fly.

And then there’s this. The reason I reread my old Wendy Napkins scene is that I watched an Aurora Teagarden Mystery on Netflix. I say Netflix: if you know your television at all well, then ten seconds in you knew it might be airing on Netflix but it was made for America’s cloying Hallmark Channel.

I’m not here to knock it. This is definitely not my kind of drama but it’s a long-running series of TV movies, it’s based on a longer-running series of novels. And it did make me want to see the resolution of the mystery.

What I keep thinking about, though, is the acting. There were some actors in it that I’ve seen before, some I rate, and others I hadn’t heard of but apparently all have great long track records.

It’s not that any of them were awful, it was that every single one of them – to my mind, to my taste – was bad in precisely the same way. And to precisely the same degree.

Every one of the large cast did wide-eyed acting. They’d have this giant pupil in a massive white eye reaction to everything. From “You mean he wasn’t the last person to see her alive?” to “You want milk with your coffee?”

To be fair, coffee should be black. And to be fairer, those are not real lines from the show. But they could have been: that was the standard of dialogue and that was the style of delivery.

It was funny. Perhaps most so when a character would go wide-eyed at themselves as they casually throw in helpful lines such as “well, I could ask my colleagues in the CIA which I haven’t mentioned I work for.” But then it was also fun watching an actor in this company visibly chewing over the impossible moral dilemma about milk or no milk.

It was funny but it’s about invisible lines again. This could have been pastiche but it was too serious. This could have been the cast and crew being a bit meta about the tropes of cloying cosy mysteries. But if the cast and crew were in on it, you got the sense that they didn’t think the audience was. They all acted as if they knew this wasn’t very good, but the tone of the show was that it was pandering to a very specific audience who they assumed would love it.

Tone. That’s the word. I heard once that ahead of every Doctor Who episode there is a tone meeting. All department heads from writing to, I don’t know, visual effects, meet to discuss the script and decide on its overall tone. To decide whether they were all going to make this one be the silly episode or the scary one and to what degree.

Tone is that important and it must be so with the Aurora Teagarden TV movies because their tone is unwaveringly precise from the barely noticeable teaser to the aw-shucks epilogue.

I may not want that Teagarden tone for my Wendy Napkins, but I do know I want a tone and I think I know what it must be.

What I don’t know is how in the world to write that tone into the script such that every actor performs precisely the way I want. I’m not at all sure I would want to make actors perform precisely as I saw my characters.

But if I don’t get that into the script, still it seems that someone can impose it enough to seem less Teagarden and more Stepford.

Bugger, though. I only made up that title “The Case of the Missing Crisps” for you and now I’ve got to write the script. Got to.

The importance of being Brian

Here’s a thing. I never use your name. We natter away here and I never use your name. You don’t use mine, either, and that’s right. We know each other so unless, I don’t know, you spot me across a room, you’re not all that likely to say “Hello, William Gallagher”. Unless I’m introducing you to someone, I don’t use your name because I know it and what I want is to get straight to asking how you are.

This is how it is, this is how it always is for everyone, unless they’re in a drama.

In film or TV or radio or theatre, we are being introduced to characters who we’re going to know for only quite a short time. I have no problem being told their name, so long as I don’t notice how it’s done. When Lt. Columbo introduces himself to people over and over again, that’s fine, because he’s a police officer, he’s got to tell them, it’s so right and normal that it doesn’t register with me.

But when The X-Files returned and Mulder and Scully referred to each by name eleventy-billion times in the first episode, I noticed. When the makers of Airwolf decided that their hero’s name of Stringfellow Hawke was stupid and somehow concluded that everyone suddenly calling him String instead was much more macho heroic, I noticed. Because in a one-hour show, they called him it either two or three times per minute.

If you notice you’re being told a name, you’re out of the story and I know no greater sin, failing or crime in drama.

And this is on my mind now because of ITV’s drama serial Quiz, about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing fraud case. It was a remarkable piece of work, pulling off dramatic moments I cannot imagine being capable of. And yet I stopped watching after the first episode because, to me, it was unbearably bad at introducing characters.

I’ve a friend who is an enormously more successful writer than I am and she entirely deserves that because she is also enormously better than I will ever be. And yet when she kissed the air and described the writing of Quiz as perfection, I couldn’t help myself. I asked her about Adrian.

Adrian is the key example for me in Quiz, but actually my stopped-me-watching problem was almost every character’s introduction. This writer pal doesn’t disagree with me, she just doesn’t care. Introducing characters is murder and sometimes, as she well points out, you just have to get on with it.

But in Quiz, each introduction was so poor that with one of them, I wondered if it were a joke.

Adrian was just the worst. Diana Ingram is walking into her house with her husband Charles a step behind her and she says that Adrian is here. He responds something like this:

CHARLES: Adrian? Your brother?

Maybe we’re supposed to think that this is an important character, since we’ve been told his name twice. And we must learn that he’s her brother, this is clearly key.

What I actually thought first was ouch. Then second, I thought this is really crap writing, and then third I realised I was out of the story.

While I was out, I realised that the intention was clearly to establish the name Adrian, the relationship, brother, and also because of how it was delivered and the reactions of all the characters, it was telling me that this man is at the house a lot and Charles doesn’t like it. I think it fails at even that much because you don’t check if someone is somebody’s brother if he’s pissed you off by coming over nightly for a year.

I want to underline that I do not and will never say that I could have written Quiz better than James Graham. But as a viewer, I’m out of the story – and while the show did get me back in after a few moments, it would shove me out again every time a new character was this badly introduced.

If you agree with my writer friend that sometimes you just have to get it done, even if it clunks this badly, let me tell you this. I wrote every word of this today convinced that the character’s name was Brian. That character was introduced to me with hammer-blow subtlety, and it didn’t work.

If you’re watching a show and all you can think of is that there are better ways to convey that information, the show has let you down.

And there were. Here’s one way that the line could’ve gone that would be better.

CHARLES:

Yep. Charles could’ve said nothing. We’d have got the character’s name from Diana, and we’d have figured out he was a brother by how the next scene goes, how the three characters act. I suppose we might mistakenly think this was a ménage a trois, but we’d soon figure it out.

I was going to suggest some other alternatives, such as Charles saying “oh, well, let’s get the whole family around and have a party,” but the silence and figuring-it-out combo works for me. I’m a dialogue fanatic, and I think the best line here would be no line.

Funny that I should be so certain that the character’s name was Brian, though.

I feel silly singling out one solitary line from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, but of her torrent of tremendous writing, one single piece of dialogue that sticks with me is “Where’s Brian?”

If I remember correctly, it’s said by a woman during sex. What I adore is that these two words can be taken in several different ways, and they still convey the same one key dramatic point.

I don’t think we know who Brian is, so he could, for example, be the couple’s child. She could, perhaps, be wondering whether he’s close enough by that he’s going to come in and see them during sex. Equally, Brian could be an adult man and she could be recalling how good he is in bed.

Either way, what “Where’s Brian?” is really telling us is that she’s distracted, it’s telling us that the sex is dreadful.

That’s using dialogue to convey the plot point about the sex, but more interestingly the frustration of the character. You could argue that the character could be clearer, but I don’t think you can make a case that she should be. The scene would not be improved by her instead saying “Where’s Brian, my previous lover from last month who is significantly better at sex than this man here has turned out to be?”

It’s easily 20 years since I saw and also read The Vagina Monologues, yet I correctly remember the frustration of the character. It’s a couple of weeks since I gave up watching Quiz, and despite writing to you about this specifically because of one character, I got that character’s name wrong.

This does say something about me. But I think it also says something about that script.

Faster and slower

Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. Scrooge was this right old git, but then he slept on it and bought a turkey. There was a bit of war, but then also a bit of peace.

There you go, you’ve just read three books and doubtlessly got the full value out of them. Mind you, I realise as I say this to you that while I know many people who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, I don’t know anyone who has only read it once. Such a great book.

Here you go: Lizzy didn’t like Mr Darcy at first, but then she did. You’re welcome.

I’m saying this to you because I’m grumbling. There’s this thing in podcasts which some people love so much that I just read a piece where someone was longing for film and television to do exactly the same thing.

Speed up.

Now, you can think of films that dragged a bit, naming no names Sean-Bean’s-death-scene-in-Lord-of-the-Rings, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s not that anyone wants films to get on with it, it’s that some want the footage to run faster, and reportedly many play their podcasts at 1.5 or twice normal speed.

Many podcast apps have a button for this. Some will analyse the podcast episode and also remove silences so that it runs a bit shorter.

I like to get on with things, but if you’re listening to a podcast or one day watching a film that you genuinely believe is improved by running at twice normal speed, I have a different button for you.

It’s the stop button.

Ditch that show and go listen to something better made.

For just as the spaces between words in a book are crucial, so the minuscule silences in speech are, too. I’ve produced a lot of podcasts and there was one where for some reason the recordings had a teeny delay so that it sounded as if my co-host was forever aghast at the stupid thing I’d just said. I did edit that to cut those out, but I left many of them in because quite often he was.

There is a reason scripts have the phrase “beat pause”. There is a rhythm and a pace that is every single bit as much a part of the whole story as the words.

The argument for speeding up what you’re listening to is that you get the information faster and you can enjoy more podcasts or whatever in the same amount of time.

I think the latter point is spurious. You’re not enjoying the podcast, you’ve already decided not to experience it the way it was built and produced.

And I think the first point about getting the information faster is idiotic. Since you’re ignoring the form as it was created and you’re believing that the worth is in the words spoken, read the damn transcript.

There was an acclaimed audio series recently that was on a topic I was deeply interested in, but the presenter’s delivery was so slow that it was as if she were insulting us. It was as if she were talking to a child and it was unbearable even before the show also became repetitive.

I did have a 1.5 button on that app. I did have a twice-normal-speed button.

But instead I used another control entirely. I tapped on Unsubscribe.

An 11th Top Ten Writing Lesson

Back in 2018, I decided to read a script every day for a year and the only failure was that I got a wee bit carried away and ended up reading 624 of them. I counted. But as you can imagine, my first thought on January 1, 2019, was that thank goodness that was done, I had completed the year, I could relax now.

Unfortunately, my second thought was that I really wanted something to read.

So 2019’s pledge was to stop this reading a script a day, but I screwed up nearly completely. When you and I are done talking today, I’m off to read my 596th of the year.

Give me credit, though, that is less than 624. This is the quality of information you get from me: 596 is less than 624. I’m not wrong.

Then true, as I write this it’s December 20 so there are another 11 days, including today, so there’s a fair to decent chance that I’ll end up having read 606. But that’s still less.

Also, on March 24, 2019, I forgot to do it. So that’s failure in every way possible.

Last year I wrote about the ten things I’d learned from reading daily and this year did reinforce every one of them. But I’d like to add one more, an 11th in my top 10.

It’s this:

11) A good bit at the end isn’t enough

I read most of these scripts for the fun of it, but maybe 70 were actually for work. I’m involved in many different projects that required me to read scripts, and one of them was from a soap. I’m not a soap watcher, nobody expected me to be of any particular use on this part of that project, but I started reading it.

And then asked the person who’d hired me whether I really had to finish.

We both knew there was nothing useful I was going to be able to contribute – and there may even have been a dozen other people on the project so I didn’t matter – but she insisted yes, I had to read it, because there’s a really good bit at the end.

I pointed out that every line on the first few pages was a cliche and she argued that this is the trouble with soaps, they have to have realistic dialogue. They can’t do great speeches, they can’t rely on music and sound effects and green screens.

Yes, I said, but they don’t have to talk bollocks.

Soaps do not have realistic dialogue. They have dialogue that sounds like every other soap. What’s that supposed to mean?

I’m being unfair. This year I read a radio script that you could argue is a soap and it was so good it made me cry. In my mind, that makes it drama, but there’s a decent argument that it’s a soap and so clearly I’m wrong with my all-encompassing, all-sweeping description of soap dialogue.

Whether you like soaps or don’t like soaps, though, if you’re not into the first part of any script and/or you can’t bear the dialogue, my 11th Top Ten writing tip is that a good bit at the end is not nearly enough.

This was all very early on in 2019 and, besides, it’s only you and me here, so I’ll tell you. I didn’t read to the end.

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.

You are quite amusing

Okay, that subject heading has nothing to do with what I want to talk to you about. But it’s on my mind. Yesterday I was working in a school, doing the usual thing of coming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again. But at one point, a young girl of either 10 or 11, said to me: “You are quite amusing.”

I took it as a giant compliment, but I was also supremely tickled by the word ‘quite’. You were, too.

Anyway, I was there running a writing session and she wanted to ask me about a story problem she was having with a book she’s working on. We talked during a break, I think her story is delightful and very well worked out, and then I went back to my hotel room and learned what had been going on with Brexit.

I’m not going to talk to you about that. I just can’t. Last night I was able to forget about it quickly because I was working on a thing, writing late into the evening. Yet maybe it’s because this young woman’s story problem was to do with plot and maybe it was because Brexit is insane, but something made me change my mind about drama.

It used to be that, without exception, I knew, I just knew that the very greatest drama comes when you have two strong characters in a room arguing – and both of them are right.

God, but that’s hard to write. Both characters equally smart, intelligent, passionate and equally right about an issue that is complex, challenging and vital.

I’m not sure I’ve ever pulled it off myself, but you know it when you see it. For some reason my mind is leaping to The West Wing and its first seasons with writer Aaron Sorkin.

That’s fair because he and his West Wing writing staff were very good at this, but it’s also appropriate because that was a political show and it is specifically politics that have changed my mind.

I’ll still and forever relish the kind of drama where you have these two characters who are both right.

But now I am forced to wonder if it isn’t more dramatic, much more dramatic, when you have two strong characters arguing passionately – and they’re both wrong.

I think that’s what we’ve got here with Brexit as all these votes, all this posturing, all this bollocks goes on. All we’re missing is strong characters.

But to make up for it, while these arguments are going on, it’s our futures that are going to be affected. That are already affected. Maybe that’s what makes this dramatic, that giant consequences are resting on the shoulders of a government and opposition that prefer to pose instead of look us in the eye.

I said I wasn’t going to talk to you about this and I didn’t intend to. I’ve reached the point where I can’t always actually understand the headlines on BBC News – last night I had to keep re-reading one before I could work out the double negatives about not voting for a no-deal – so I’ve taken to reading the New York Times instead.

That paper is covering this but with the detachment of being based in a different country, even if admittedly a country with its own problems. When the New York Times writes about Brexit, it does tend to be well written and clear, sometimes with helpful diagrams, but it also has this unintentionally bemused tone.

Which can be quite amusing.

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.

Fit and finish

I’m not a planner. Well, I am with projects and I’ll plan writing so that I don’t miss deadlines. Also, when required to, I can outline a story or script. Plus, there have been times when I have had to plan a story just to get it clear in my head or knock it out fast enough for a producer. And I’ve planned hundreds of events, I’m a planner there even if I doubt any of those talks or workshops or sessions has ever stuck very closely to the plan.

But apart from all events and certain stories and every commission and most projects, I’m not a planner.

I prefer to just start writing and see where it takes me. Now, if you do this, if you are stupid enough to do this, you are obligated to know that you’ll be writing rubbish. You have to know that you will – and I have – written a hundred thousand words of which you then throw away ninety thousand.

I think that’s a bargain. You get ten thousand words you’re happy with and all it costs is ninety thousand you’re not. I’ll take those odds and I have, many times.

But I feel as if I’ve talked a lot with you about fairly bleak things lately and I want instead to tell you something about all this that makes me happy. Very happy.

This will take a sec.

Often – maybe always – you’re reaching the end of a script, a story or even an article and you know you need something. I think you know what I mean and I’m certain that I can’t define it any better than this. There is just something more you need. A moment, a character, a thought. Even a plot point. It’s something that, if you get it right, is the final part that turns a piece from a string of words into a story.

And the thing I so adore is that sometimes – just sometimes – you realise you’ve already got it.

Something you wrote earlier in the piece was clearly there solely so that you could call it back, so you could pick it up, so you could build on it, so it could create some kind of harmonic. You didn’t do it deliberately and you haven’t been working to make it fit the end but it’s so right that it is as if you did and you always knew it was the finish.

It’s crucial to me both that it can perfectly do this thing for the end but also that I set it up so thoroughly and completely unconsciously.

As I say, it only happens sometimes but it is inexpressibly wonderful when it does. I feel clever, I feel daft, I feel satisfied.

And the reason I’m telling you now is that I’ve had the biggest, greatest, most unexpected one of these.

I shouldn’t say it, really, since I haven’t yet written the end that so gave me this feeling. But I will. Because I can’t fail to tell you everything and because I have a collection of short stories coming out and I was looking at a tiny moment in one of the tales.

It’s really small. It is completely unimportant and it only keeps its place in the story because it’s what this particular character would say at that particular time.

I’ve easily re-read this part a hundred times during the preparation of the manuscript, quite likely more.

And yet this time when I read it, I knew.

He says this thing because it is also part of another story.

There wasn’t going to be another story, there are already ten in the set and they are long done but now there has to be another one. It is complete, or it will be, and it is of itself, you will not have to have read the first take.

But if you have, I think this incredibly small moment will make the book complete.

You will not be able to guess which story came first and you will not know that I didn’t do it deliberately. Plus I didn’t know this but the book would not have been complete with this tale which I am compelled to write, which demands to be in the collection.

‘Course, it could turn out rubbish and I could end up dropping it from the book.

I don’t plan these things.

Not the most right I’ve ever been

I’ve been in a lot of discussions lately about how we all, but especially writers, talk very loudly about anything you could possibly call a success and stay silent about everything else. It’s not as if everyone else is rooting for you to fail, but it is that the curated good news boast has consequences. There is the ever-present risk of being boring, which is not to be ignored, but also most of us are not succeeding most of the time.

So when you’re exposed to constant hurrahs and your own writing isn’t going anywhere, you get split between pleased for whoever it is and, well, not pleased for yourself. Then five minutes later, the successful person suddenly isn’t successful at the moment and they go through the same range of feelings as you just did.

I know this, I knew this, but I did not appreciate how much it can affect people. I knew how it affected me but we all think something is just us and we don’t appreciate the scale of it. We especially don’t appreciate how amplified all this is on social media, or at least I didn’t.

A conclusion that every one of these recent discussions has come up with is that we should talk about our failures as well as our successes. How we should be more honest.

I’m going to be more honest with you. It appears that I can’t quite make it all the way to total, bare honesty, so instead of flat-out admitting I was wrong and that something has failed, I’ve had to first try setting the scene like this. Don’t think of me as a complete failure, think of me as a hero for revealing those failings.

If you would like to stop reading now, I would appreciate it if you took away with you the belief that I am a mensch.

If you’re not coming back and you also promise never to check, you could take away the belief that I am roguishly handsome, too.

My name is William and I haven’t written scripts for thirty minutes every day this year.

That was my big drive for 2019 and it follows last year’s push to read more scripts. Curiously enough, now that script reading vow is over, I’ve accidentally carried that one on and actually have read a script every day anyway. If I do it again today, after we’ve talked here, then my total for the year will be 133 scripts read.

But only 26 days of scriptwriting every day.

I could make excuses and I don’t really see any way either of us can stop me. So there was a kind of holiday day or three, which was complicated. There were some days when I was working to midnight and then up for the next thing at 4am, which was exhausting. And there was a friend dying, which was shit.

Right now I’m five days behind on this vow. There’s a bit of me that thinks I can make up that time in the sense of doing, say, an hour a day for a while. And there’s a bit of me that thinks I can make up that time in the sense of just pretending to you that I’ve done it.

But I think the thing to do here and probably every time either of us fail to do something, is to forget the past, forget thinking about what we haven’t done, and instead go do something now.