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.

Ten Page Rule

This is a claim that going around the internet again and I think that if you and I get together, we can stop it. Are you game?

It’s about writing scripts and an insistence that film and TV companies will judge your screenplay on its first ten pages. More, the claim is that this is wrong, it is unfair and even that it is distorting how people write.

So far as I can tell, only the BBC “No Apostrophes Please, We’re British” Writersroom directly states that its readers will judge on the first ten pages. The BBC Writersroom has a brilliant online collection of scripts, albeit not searchable, but otherwise doesn’t matter.

Still, the claim persists and my problems are with this idea that it’s unfair to judge on the opening ten pages and it’s wrong how this is affecting the way people write.

The argument over the unfairness is always that you can’t tell if a script is good until you’ve read the whole thing.

And actually, yep, you can.

If a writer thinks they’re able to make a script brilliant from page 80 onwards but doesn’t see that the first 79 are crap, they are not able to make any of the pages brilliant at all.

Let me put it this way. I long to live in a beautiful New York apartment building called 56 Leonard and of course if I had $40m I’d spend it on the penthouse. But as utterly wonderful as that apartment is, the penthouse is on the 57th floor and it needs 56 pretty solid floors below it.

Then there’s this bit that sounds more sophisticated: that the demand for a great opening ten pages means writers have to put action and jeopardy and comedy in there. That they can never build up to things, they can never do some kind of pure writing. I’m fuzzy on that last bit.

It is true that I recently changed the opening of a script of mine before sending it to a producer. The script had begun with something mildly gentle as we followed a character going in to work. And what I changed was that I added a new scene before it.

Only, I didn’t do that to hook the producer with a teaser.

The scene I added was, if anything, quieter than the going to work one. And I’ve just checked: it was slightly less than half a page

But it focused on another character. She was always my favourite, she was always the reason for the entire story yet initially I’d held back introducing her. I think I still do, really, but having this tiny scene open on her changes how you read the rest of the script.

What I didn’t do was move up the calamitous situation she gets into or add in an explosion or something.

It did used to be that in television you needed to have something big at the start to stop people switching over. Whereas in film, the idea was that people had paid to sit there in that room and so they’d give you at least a little longer. Film could therefore be a bit more slow and seductive where TV had to be smash/bang/grab.

I think that line has blurred to the point of invisibility: films are seen more on Netflix than in their run in the cinema, for one thing. Television drama has never been better than it is now with its ability to draw you in slowly and deeply and richly.

I get annoyed at the ten pages rule for all sorts of reasons but one of them is that there is no such rule so the whole thing is bollocks. Another is that the same people who trot out a rule about TV needing to grab the audience’s attention are the ones who think it’s unfair to judge a script on the opening. A reader is no more likely to slog to the end than a viewer is to sit there for two hours hoping the ending will be good.

Drama needs something at the start to make you want to watch further. It just doesn’t have to be something big, doesn’t have to be action, doesn’t have to be suspense. It just has to be something that doesn’t stop people reading on. Character, that’s my favourite. Atmosphere, that’s a good one too.

Even in this day of being able to switch to another of the million different dramas available on demand, your audience and the producer reading your script want to like what you’ve done. They want to enjoy this. They come in on your side and you can win them over in the long run but initially your job is to not lose them.

And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take ten pages to lose me. It doesn’t take ten pages for me to know a script is poor.

It takes one. At most.

True, you can’t tell from the first page just how much you’re going to like the script but you can tell if you’re going to dislike it.

I’ve read 180 scripts this year and every time you know right away. You know when you’re in good hands, you know when it’s going to work. You don’t know if it’s going to be to your taste or interest, but you know that the writer is good.

So if you read someone saying the first ten pages are crucial then they’re probably trying to sell you a course. If you read them saying this and also that it’s unfair, they’re rubbish.

If someone tells you that you have to have a murder on the first page, nod politely and walk away.

And maybe there is one rule I can get behind. It’s the rule I’ve just made up where if someone insists their script needs 79 pages to get going, do whatever you like but don’t offer to read it.

Change the rules

If you want something and the other person, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to give it to you, change the rules. Don’t try to fix the system from the inside: pull the argument on to your turf. Stand where you are strongest and argue from there.

It’s taken me so long to see that this is necessary and that any system’s rules are designed to protect the system and fight change. And this week 76 writers demonstrated it.

Actually, it’s 76 women writers and not only would it be irrelevant that they’re women, I’m not entirely sure I’d have noticed they were as I read their names. There are some I’ve not heard of, there are some whose writing I don’t like and there are some who I aspire to be as good as. But it’s their writing I’m interested in and gender wouldn’t cross my mind.

Except that the 76 names are signatures on a letter that made news around the world this week. These writers are protesting against the fact that UK television drama series use startlingly, ridiculously few women. Or to put it another way, it’s always the same bleedin’ men who write these shows. Or put it a third way: it’s the same type of people who write most of them.

I want to see drama from everyone and about everything. Right now the system is boringly out of whack and if I’ll be happiest when drama better reflects our country’s brilliant and vibrant culture, we can start by hiring more women. And I can point you at 76 women writers.

There are more than 76: that’s how many publicly signed the letter but there are untold more who support it yet fear putting their current work at risk by signing. I readily get that: I think I might well have been one of them if I were one of the writers doing this.

So I understand the ones who can’t sign and of course I applaud those who did.

But read their letter.

It’s strong and forceful but it’s layered, it’s funny, it’s involving. This letter is not a placard demanding what we want and how we want it now, it is engaging in every sense. If there is no mistaking its point or the strength of its argument, it is equally clear that this is a conversation. Like the very best writing, this is not a transmission of arguments from the writers to television commissioners, the text speaks in such a way that the reader is as involved as the writers.

If you forget everything else about what it’s trying to achieve, this letter is an example of smart, classy, vivid writing.

You can’t forget what it’s trying to achieve though, specifically because it won’t let you.

I imagine that there must’ve been hundreds of meetings where women writers somehow didn’t quite get the commissions their writing warrants. I imagine thousands of emails where projects somehow didn’t get to where they should.

And so rather than continue working in that system, these 76 writers yanked the argument over to where they visibly and vividly rule: these writers wrote.

I can only hope that it helps but I tell you, I wish I’d written that letter.

Just one more thing…

There’s good and bad in this. On the one hand, this is the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Columbo and we’re still watching, we’re still talking about it. Isn’t it astonishing that something written half a century ago still thrives? I’d kill to write something you remember for half a minute.

But because it’s the anniversary, people are also tweeting about Columbo and if you don’t happen to have seen the show, this is probably the time you’re going to give it a go.

Only, there’s Columbo and there’s Columbo.

If you pick an episode made in its original run from 1968 to 1978 then you’re fine. There are some episodes that don’t particularly work, there are many that are very good and there are a startling number that are superb.

It’s just that in 1989 the show came back and as it limped on to 2003, there was a contractual requirement that every episode be unutterable crap. Really, there’s one called Columbo Goes to College that seems to be great until a totally dreadful ending. Otherwise, no. Not a one.

Whereas that original run… I think you know the show. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. But you at least have an idea of Lt Columbo as played by Peter Falk and even if you don’t happen to know the term ‘open book mystery’, you know that every episode began with the crime being committed. Columbo was almost never a whodunnit, it was a how’s-he-going-to-catch-the-murderer.

Columbo wasn’t the first to use the open book format but it remains the most famous example and easily the best.

But what makes all this so good, what makes it all so very satisfying is the consequence of our knowing who committed the crime. The average murder mystery keeps us guessing and keeps us watching only because it manages to make us want to know whodunit. When we do, it’s over, we’re gone.

The average murder mystery has no repeat value: when you know the answer to the puzzle, so many crime and mystery shows are empty. So many detectives are walking police procedural plot exposition and so many murders are the biggest name in the cast list and nothing else.

Murder, actually, becomes nothing. Someone is killed and then the killer is caught, somehow all is right with the world. I remember Veronica Mars being very good at how it resisted that, how it conveyed the real impact of death.

Whereas with Columbo, the show has to hold us for at least an hour after we’ve seen whodunit. So you never get a case where the butler did it, you never get anything where it could be one of several suspects. Instead, you get a fantastic villain and a murder that was done for a reason.

We get to see why they’ve done it, we get to understand why they’ve killed. Sometimes we’re even on their side.

Invariably, though, at least in 1968-1978, the richness of that guest character was matched by Columbo himself. Two characters, two actors, toe to toe for a feature-length story. Columbo had tremendous performances and its scripts demanded them.

So go on, watch one. You could get the entire run on DVD, for one thing. Or if you spot an episode coming up on TV, check its title against an episode guide to see whether it’s Good Columbo 1968-1978 or Unbearably Embarrassing Columbo 1989-2003. You won’t thank me if you end up watching, god help us, 1991’s Murder Can be Hazardous to Your Health. But you will if you catch Prescription: Murder, Ransom for a Dead Man, Murder by the Book… wait, I’m just starting to list episodes now.

Oh, one more thing.

No, two. If you recognise “one more thing” then you’re either a Steve Jobs fan or you’ve seen Columbo. In every single episode of the detective show, the Lieutenant will leave a scene and then immediately come back in saying “Oh, just one more thing”. It became something you looked forward to because his one more thing was always a fantastically loaded little question and, what’s more, it was always what he had planned to ask from the start. He did this one-more-thing lark to catch people off guard and there are few more satisfying moments in the show.

But the one more thing I want to tell you is that it’s a lie that Columbo is 50 years old.

It was 20 February 1968 when a one-off TV movie called Prescription: Murder aired and it’s true that this was the first proper Columbo on television. But it was based on a stage play that had successfully toured for some time from 1962 with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo.

Only, one more one more thing. The stage play Prescription: Murder was developed from a 1960 play called Enough Rope which aired as an episode of the TV series The Chevy Mystery Show and featured Bert Freed as Columbo.

If that show still exists then it isn’t available anywhere but you can watch Columbo co-creator and co-writer William Link on how fortunate they were to eventually get Peter Falk.

So it’s 50 years since Falk first played Columbo and it’s almost 60 since the character was invented. Six decades and still going. I tell you, I’m not kidding: I’d love you to remember something I’ve written 60 seconds after you read it.

Hand-written "£10 ono"

On the money

Take a look at this, please, and spot the one ridiculous part of it:

I’ve been flown out to St Tropez by a swimwear fashion company that is desperate for me to model their Summer collection. We’ve taken test shots with me pointing at things out of frame. Some of us have taken coke, some of us have taken Pepsi. And now it’s down to the real business: I ask what they’re willing to pay me.

The fashion CEO takes out a pen and a piece of paper. She writes a figure down and slides the paper across the table to me. As I read it, my eyes widen and I try to look calm.

Sometimes you’re rotten to me. The thing you were supposed to think ridiculous is that stuff with the paper and the note about the money.

At no point in the history of any negotiation with anyone about anything has a single soul written a sum of money down on paper and slid it across any surface to anybody ever.

Yet we see it in TV and film drama around once a month.

I think the shows might have a mind to the drama’s prospects for being repeated on ITV4 for the next several decades. The Six Million Dollar Man, for instance, could now just be somebody working at the top of the BBC pay scale, at least so long as it is a man.

Or maybe the makers are thinking of international sales and how never actually saying or showing the figure in Sterling or dollars or whatever it is might be a distraction.

There is one last possibility I can think of and it’s that the writer has not had the same level of experience in fashion modelling that I have and so doesn’t have a clue what an impressive figure would be. In either sense.

I have a solution. Say the figure aloud. We’re already supposed to get that it’s a big number because of the recipient’s reaction, we’ll still get that it seems a big number to him or her in exactly the same way.

Whereas when it’s this note slid across a table, I’m out of the story. I’m seeing a constructed piece of artifice, I’m not seeing characters I’m engaged with.

No strings attached

There’s a line in the new Star Wars film about something or other being at the end of a piece of string. I’m not being vague because I’ve already forgotten what it was, I’m trying to avoid spoiling a single thing. Mind you, the string line isn’t a single thing: they say it twice like it’s a bit cleverer than it actually is.

If I were going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi then I’d be talking about what the characters say. For instance, it’s got a lot of wisecracks that need you to be in love with the characters or to be living in the 1970s on a diet of bad US television to enjoy. But since this isn’t a review, let me say that the film is a fun ride and immeasurably better than The Force Awakens.

I just keep coming back to that line about string.

As much as I did enjoy the film, it feels a mess and I think it lacks a piece of string pulling us through. It’s event after event and that isn’t enough for me.

I am certain that I’m saying something you already know because I’m certain I already knew it too. Yet seeing its absence is making me think and talk about it anew.

I was recently asked something like ‘what do you admire in art’ and I replied about writing where the piece sets out to do something and does it. I replied talking about the end of a piece where you have been taken somewhere you didn’t expect and didn’t predict yet in that final moment know is where the writer was always taking you. When that’s done right, the sheer perfection of it genuinely makes me cry.

Whether a story is explosive action or seductive calm, it should be constantly surprising but every single beat must also be taking you to where the writer intended. If you’ve got a great gag and it doesn’t move you in that direction, kill it. Each moment has to be the very best it can be – and it also has to be invisibly or visibly moving you to where the story is going.

Bugger. I’m thinking about this because of that line about string and I’ve now realised that it’s a rubbish analogy. I thought it was about being pulled through to somewhere or maybe that the string is a guideline of some kind.

But actually the best analogy I can think of is one I’ve thought of before so often that I may have bored you with it in a pub.

Stories are like pieces of wood that you rub your hand over. When you go in one direction, following the story for the first time, you’re rubbing your hand against the grain. So it’s bumpy, there are shards that cut into you, there are tiny slivers of wood that get into your skin.

And then when you rub the other way, from the end of the story backwards, you’re rubbing with the grain and now the wood feels perfectly smooth.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bumpy both ways. It’s got great moments and actually I think the ending works best of it all, but the film lacks something huge. I think it lacks this sense of a storyteller pulling you through.