Finding Fame

So there’s this thing about Thomas the Tank Engine. It doesn’t especially matter whether it’s a good or a poor TV show, what tends to happen regardless is that people love it when they’re very young. Then they go to school and wouldn’t be seen dead with a Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. Next, they get through the embarrassment and forget about the show but then many years later, they’re buying the DVDs in a nostalgia bin or joining the online Thomas forums.

Hopefully the quality of the show played in to one’s enjoying it when very young, but now that certainly has nothing to do with it: you’re watching that DVD and you aren’t seeing Thomas the Tank Engine, you are seeing yourself.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a complete episode.

But I appear to have gone through this cycle with Fame.

That’s Fame the TV show, not the film. It has always and forever been okay to like the film written by Christopher Gore and directed by Alan Parker. It seems to me that the film is much more about failure than it is about fame and that miserable bleakness plus some great music makes it pretty timeless.

Whereas my main memory of the TV series is that it was extremely bright and colourful and jazz-hands happy. These are all things that lend themselves to embarrassment so the show was always at risk of this but it did also come in 1982 when US television was mostly light, easy-watching fare. My beloved Lou Grant was cancelled the year before and while it was replaced on the schedule by Cagney and Lacey, while Family Ties started then too, while St Elsewhere began as well, most of the year was pretty bad. TJ Hooker started. The Happy Days spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi began its brief run. Bring ‘Em Back Alive. Remington Steele started in 1982 and much as I enjoy it, it was froth. And then there was Knight Rider.

But it’s funny how many of those titles you recognise. Three decades on and the only one you’re not sure of is Joanie Loves Chachi. Then, too, there is little question but that you know this line:

You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying … in sweat.

I should write a line that gets remembered and quoted in 32 years time.

You’re expecting me to re-evaluate Fame and say that at least that it doesn’t deserve its cheesy reputation or perhaps that it actually deserves to be a classic. I don’t know. I am Thomas the Tank Engine-style blinded to it. But I re-found it by an odd route and it’s proved to be a route that has made me re-evaluate the series as a production. Maybe it’s because I’ve been involved in shows now, maybe because I’ve had to produce the odd thing, but I have a new and very great respect for how this TV series was made. How they physically made 136 episodes.

Every US TV show, especially of that time, was making up to 24 episodes per year but this series was making 24 musicals. A new musical every week. The ones I’ve been watching this week tended to have three musical numbers each: typically a solo song over some montage or other, plus some kind of dance-room-related tune and then usually a big, full production number with the large cast of regular dancers. If you only count the professional routines and not all the pro/celebrity dances, that’s more than we see each week on Strictly Come Dancing or its US equivalent Dancing with the Stars.

Doing that on a drama budget, doing that on a drama schedule, it makes me go pale. The writer in me is also immediately conscious of the impact that makes on your script. You have to stand up three musical numbers, you have to find a story that allows for these to happen naturally during your episode. It’s bloody hard and not every writer, not every episode, succeeds: even in the first few of the series that I’ve just watched, there are one that feel contrived. Nice tunes, but fudged into the story.

Then equally, there’s a writing issue of how long those songs or dances take. Three minutes each? Two? Call it two minutes apiece on average and you are still handing over six minutes of your fifty-minute running time to a musical interlude. Your story has to fit fifty minutes, has to deliver a big moment ahead of each of three commercial breaks and then resolve itself. Oh, and let’s have another one next week. And the week after.

I don’t think I was aware of all this in 1982, though I was already seeing television as something that is crafted rather than just a thing you half-watch in the evening. But I am aware of it now and that made the route I came back to Fame all the more interesting. Because I found it again through the scripts.

I have no clue, not one single clue, what I was looking for online last weekend but in that rabbit-hole kind of way, I found myself coming across Fame and specifically across The Kids from Fame Media Blog. It looks like it was designed in the 1980s and it’s tricky to find your way around. So tricky that while that’s the site’s front door, it’s just taken me a time to find the scripts I first stumbled across. But they’re here: the complete shooting scripts for Fame, beginning with the first season.

I read a lot of scripts, I enjoy reading scripts, I’m particularly interested in this set for how they approach the musical numbers. Some just have scene headings and a few lines of description like

91. BRIDGET’S AUDITION – PRODUCTION NUMBER

starts simply and builds as the corps of dancers from Lydia’s class move onto stage to back and accentuate Bridget’s routine. Leroy is her male ‘support’ dancer, helping her in lifts and turns, etc. The moves are intricate, always keeping Bridget in the forefront of the audience’s focus, leading to a final portion in which all the dancers fall away, leaving the performing arena to Bridget, allowing her to carve graceful shapes from thin air, in concert with Bruno’s music…

Let us all take a moment to imagine being Debbie Allen, not only having to learn her lines from the script as she starred as dance teacher Lydia Grant but also having to go uh-uh, graceful lines, right honey, and choreograph that number.

One script included all the lyrics to the various songs. It was really confusing: the lyrics were written out in all capital letters, very hard to read, and the way they were positioned in the script meant they were followed by dialogue that was clearly meant to precede them. But they did also include very familiar – to me from my radio work – cues and timings for how long the music would take.

And then another script just gives up and says, in total:

MUSIC #1 – TO BE ANNOUNCED

It’s funny how clearly you can see a show finding its feet through its scripts and just how they are written, what they tell the production. I’ve read entire series of scripts before to see how a show develops from start to end and it’s terribly instructive as well as interesting.

So as a writer, I recommend taking a look at the scripts. If you tell anyone we talked about this, tell ’em that I was very serious about production issues and script writing and the history of television, okay? Maybe you can tell them I admitted I’ve enjoyed watching the episodes and that I like the music.

But if you ever tell anyone that I had a gigantic crush on one of the Fame dancers, you’re off my Christmas card list and no mistake.