You wait forty years…

I did not set out to do this but when I realised what I was up to, I did it anyway. I had a play staged last week – unusually, I also acted in it – and pretty much the entire idea flew out of my typing fingers once I’d stolen the first line.

Now, to be fair here, the play performed is something like the sixth draft and I think now that at least two of those were entire blank-page rewrites. But from draft 2 onwards, I knew what I wanted and it is at least in gigantic part because I could hear the characters and I knew what the first line would be.

The only trouble is that I appear to have waited four decades to use that first line. Here’s a ten-second clip that I present to you as evidence.

 

The first segment is from forty years ago: Lou Grant, episode 1, Cophouse by Leon Tokatyan which aired in America on 20 September 1977. I don’t know when I saw it here in the UK but probably 1978. Still, 40 years or 39, that line has stuck in my head for no apparent reason. I mean, Lou Grant was and is special, there are issues it raised and characters it had that I can trace my current opinions and beliefs to. But “Excuse me, that’s my desk, okay?” can’t be one of them.

The second segment is from last Saturday. In Time by me.

For completeness, let me say that the first segment of that clip shows Ed Asner, sitting, as Lou Grant, and Robert Walden as Joe Rossi wanting his desk back. The second shows Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, sitting, as Jemima and William Gallagher as David, wanting his desk back.

That’s me. Forty years on, I am a writer. And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s taken a fair bit of effort and work, but I’m also an actor. Maybe only this once. But I have acted alongside a real actor, I’ve acted alongside Nadi Kemp-Sayfi.

I don’t want to examine or think about how that happened because I’m afraid if I do, it won’t have done. Or that it somehow won’t have been the startling success it was.

But I tell you, it’s a Dear Diary moment. Thank you to Cucumber Writers for inviting me to join them for this one production.

Love is all around

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

No.

I got nothin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except I can in one way.

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

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

And then there is Lou Grant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Tinker, the writers’ producer

Grant Tinker died this week aged 90. I’ve been thinking that it’s curious being in the UK because he wasn’t well known here – except he probably wasn’t that generally known in his home USA either. But if you had heard of him, what you heard was brilliant. And if you hadn’t, you still saw him through his incredible work that brought us Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, my own favourite Lou Grant and just an impossibly long list of more.

He didn’t create any of those shows. He didn’t write any of them. He wasn’t a producer or a director or an actor.

He was what’s still sometimes called a suit. He was a network executive and if any other exec has ever had an obituary then it was on the back pages of Variety or Broadcast. Google Grant Tinker’s name and you’ll see a flood of tributes, every one of which says something along the lines that obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.

Listen, obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.

I never met him and he never once heard of me. But I hoped to engineer a way to get to interview him. Back in 2004 I went to Los Angeles specifically to work in UCLA reading the Lou Grant papers in the Gene Reynolds collection. I’ve still yet to get a publisher to commission a book about the show but my interview wishlist here has Grant Tinker on it. Had Grant Tinker.

Here’s an example of why. I can’t remember which show this happened in and in the flood of tributes to the man Google isn’t helping me find it, but it’s a writers’ story so of course I love it.

I think the show may even have been The Mary Tyler Moore Show: little known here and now very dated in the States but in its time important, groundbreaking and funny.

Two writers are in a meeting with some higher up network TV executives. The show hasn’t started yet, they’re still developing it and this was an important meeting. Important enough that Tinker was there too.

The writers have this meeting and leave, very pleased with how it went.

As soon as they are out of the door, though, the execs order Grant Tinker to fire them.

Not only did he not do it, he never told the writers and it was years before they found out. They’d gone off happily and created a smash-hit series.

That’s typical of the reasons I so very much admired this man. He would hire writers and other creative people, then let them get on with it and protect them. Compare this to today when a US drama can’t cast the very smallest of walk-on, one-line parts without the network approving their choice.

It’s a coarse summary to say that US network television is now run by companies more experienced in accounting and finance than drama. It’s even coarser to say that the less they know about television, the more they interfere. But it’s entirely accurate to say that US network TV is in a bad state, even as cable television companies like HBO are making this a golden age of American drama.

Grant Tinker’s approach turned around the fortunes of NBC in the 1970s and 80s. It went from third and last position to first because of the shows he choose and nurtured. His reputation meant that NBC became the network that the best creative people wanted to work for, wanted to pitch to.

It’s commonplace and easy to conclude an obit by saying that we won’t see the likes of this man again. But we haven’t yet and my favourite dramatic medium needs more Grant Tinkers.

Not what I was expecting to talk to you about

Grief, I need tea. Would you like one? I think there’s two teabags left, though oddly they’re called “tagged teabags”. I don’t know if that means they bleep when you steal them from the hotel or whether they’re just really well catalogued, but let’s have them anyway.

Slightly dizzy. I’m in a Manchester hotel and there was a fire alarm: did you hear it? So loud. Made louder by it being at 06:25. Made louder still by the klaxon being joined by an automated voice shouting that we had to evacuate the building, this is no drill, warp core breach in thirty seconds. I may be exaggerating.

Actually, that’s a horrible thought. I grabbed yesterday’s clothes and joined the crowd going down the stairs. Before I’d finished dressing, though, another – er, tenant? Member of the public? Civilian? I’m not sure what to call her. Another hotel guest, thank you. Another hotel guest was coming back up the stairs and calling out that it’s okay, apparently this was all a mistake. What if she were the one exaggerating? What if she was out and out lying – and we should all have continued to go out?

Why didn’t she tell me this four floors earlier?

I want you to know that I was very good and I left all my luggage in the room as you should. (What if she were working with a team of hotel thieves?) I don’t want you to know that my first thought was that I could be outside for hours and would be writing to you on my Apple Watch. No, actually, do think that, do know that: my potential last thoughts were of you.

And of the workshop I’m doing at 10am.

I did one here yesterday for the Federation of Entertainment Unions: about twenty people from Equity, the NUJ, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild. I’m doing another one on a different topic today, different set of people, also for the FEU. I think yesterday’s went well, certainly I had a great time, but I know it went easier than ever. The venue, Band on the Wall, has the regular projector and screen I need for presenting but they also have an Apple TV.

Now, that’s two references to Apple in one go, so I’m improving. Yesterday was only the second time I’ve presented via one of these boxes – and the first time was the evening before. That was a practice run in the hotel room: I brought our own Apple TV, meaning Angela couldn’t watch Netflix at home, sorry, and tried it out on the hotel TV set.

If you’re interested in this stuff then I’ll tell you this is my new ideal and I will always bring an Apple TV with me: it beats having to hope you’ve brought the right cables for a projector you’ve not seen before. It also means I could roam the room with that iPad. All really useful stuff for me, so useful that I love it. That the venue had its own, just icing.

Only, the hotel TV set. I am a TV drama nut and yet this is the first hotel I’ve stayed in for about the last three years that I’ve even switched the telly on. The last time was also in Manchester, I was appearing on BBC Breakfast and switched it on so I could watch the start of the show in my room and get even more scared.

It’s even longer since I used the phone in a hotel room. That used to be the thing, didn’t it? Get into a new hotel room, phone home or phone wherever you’re going next, then one of you checks out the bathroom and the other tries the TV. Face it, when you’re in Stereotype City, it’s the man who switches on the telly and the woman who checks out the bathroom. Both use the phone.

Or did. Now look at us, at all of us. We bring our own phones with us. We don’t bring our own TV sets, except we do. When I’d finished rewriting the first of these two presentations on my iPad, I kicked back and relaxed – by watching the same iPad.

I watched Lou Grant on it. This is the journalism drama that made me want to be a writer and I can quote you lines, I accidentally use lines from it, 35 years after it aired. Lou Grant has finally come out on DVD. This was the one show I longed for the most when I was reviewing DVDs, when shiny discs were a thing, and now it’s out as nobody’s buying DVDs anymore. I bought it. Of course I bought it. And I’ll buy season 2 when it comes out in August.

Only, I’m doing that because it’s Lou Grant and it’s special to me and I want it to be a success, I want all five seasons released. When I was doing the disc reviewing lark, I would regularly hear from people who said they refused to buy a TV show until the entire series was released. They didn’t want to spend their money buying season 1 if season 2 were never brought out. People are idiots. You like the show enough to buy it, buy it. You don’t buy it because you hope the studio will release all five seasons first, you’re not really attuned to how this works.

I’m buying the DVDs to do my tiny part in making the sales enough to warrant doing more. This is a genuinely special show, not just to me, for all manner of television history reasons and for how tremendously well done it is.

But it’s special to me. I watch the show now as a writer with, if not experience then at least age behind me, I watch it now having been a professional critic, but I also watch it as the 13-year-old I was then. My job today is standing up in front of established actors, musicians, writers and journalists. I watch Lou Grant in this hotel room and there is an extra commentary track in my head with my 13-year-old self wondering at how I got here.

My 50-year-old self is wondering why it took me so long to get here but that’s another story.

God in heaven.

I’ve just realised, saying this to you I’ve just realised: I am now the age that the character Lou Grant was at the start of this series.

Anyway.

Here’s a thing. Lou Grant is at last out on DVD, right? I’ve already got the first three seasons on iTunes. (They didn’t release the fourth and fifth: I check regularly.) It came out on VHS once: about three episodes and I have two of them. Speaking of VHS, I have a huge filing cabinet draw with about 30, possibly 40 VHS tapes that I recorded off-air or that friends did. It’s missing one episode: Violence, from 1981. That missing one killed me, for years.

It doesn’t kill me now because I’ve got it. I will buy the DVDs as they hopefully continue to come out and I will buy the iTunes versions if they do, but the hunt for this missing episode took me down some interesting alleys. It’s a fourth-season episode so it has not been released officially in any form and consequently I don’t feel 100% bad about this. But that interesting alley has the whole season 4. And 5. And 1, and 2. It only has about half of season 3, but that’s okay, I’ve got all of that one on iTunes.

So I’m in a hotel, drinking tea with you, head still a little fuzzy from the fire alarm, and in a moment I will have to work on my iPad. But at this moment, right here under my fingers, right here in my possession, this one device has all 114 episodes of Lou Grant on it.

Call me ridiculous, because I am, but I left my luggage but I grabbed this iPad.

Lou Grant on iPad

Sequels and lies

The Good Wife ended on American television last Sunday and I promise not to spoil it for you if you promise not to spoil it for me. I’m exactly 127 episodes behind. That’s five years, though at the rate I’m watching now I’ll have finished by next June.

So you gather that I like this show: it’s a US legal drama and I think quite extraordinary but I won’t press you to watch because people have been pressing me to since it began in 2009. Somehow I resisted them. No reason. Possibly stubbornness. I didn’t try an episode until earlier this year and as richly absorbing and engrossing as the show is, I’m not even going to try subliminally suggesting that you join us fans, join us, join us, join us.

I’m also not going to think about a show ending changes it. I find I can’t get into early episodes of How I Met Your Mother now that I know how he met your mother, but it’s not even that, not even a finishing of the story. There is something different. I remember Ronald D Moore saying of his best-known TV series ending and on the day after it finished airing that: “Yesterday Battlestar Galactica is this TV series, today it was.”

I’m paraphrasing but the essence is right, the essence is of how for the maker of a show, the end is the same wrench we all feel when we leave a job or when a relationship ends on us. I get that as a viewer and actually I don’t get it often enough: I’m trying to think of series where I watched up to the end and wished it had continued. I’d wandered away from Battlestar and still haven’t caught up, for instance. Certainly there’s Veronica Mars.

But usually TV shows are like British politicians: they always end in failure. The most successful British politician will eventually lose an election. It’s not like the US where you have a fixed term as President, here you end in defeat. That’s so British.

I am presently wishing for the end for various current politicians but somehow I wish The Good Wife had continued until I’d caught up with it. I can’t account for that, but there is something different now. Something different between a series in progress and a series that has concluded. There is the practical side that the finale was a big deal and it has been hard to avoid finding out what happens. Only last night, there was a trailer for a last-season episode on Channel 4 and both Angela and I actually sang loudly, a kind of broken, staccato La La La as we tried to find which of us had the TV remote.

We never used to have spoilers. I think that word, in this context, must surely be one of the those ones recently added to the dictionary because nobody did or could’ve spoiled something like the answer to who shot JR. I remember seeing on TV news footage of the next episode of Dallas arriving in the UK. It was a film or possibly video canister, I can see it being wheeled across from an aircraft to Heathrow or somewhere.

Obviously I mind spoilers but I don’t mind that they exist. I like very much that drama creates an urge in people to find out more and to rush around telling people. These are made-up stories about made-up people, there is no reason we should be interested and yet we’re avidly interested. In the best television drama, you worry about the characters from week to week: I think that is ridiculous and I think that is fantastic and I think I wish I knew how to write that well.

The downside of this way that drama characters get into us us not that there are spoilers that will ruin your day and could take a shine off the next 127 episodes for me. It’s that we struggle to let characters go and that means we get sequels.

It can work. There’s Frasier, for instance: strictly speaking it’s a spin-off from Cheers but it aired afterwards so call it a sequel. Similarly, there’s Lou Grant. But I think it’s telling that Lou Grant began airing 39 years ago and it is still the only hour-long drama to spin out of a half-hour sitcom. I don’t think anyone else has even tried to do that, it’s such a hard thing, but then also it would never be allowed today.

TV networks don’t really want sequels: they would like the original show to somehow start again and be the hit it was. Forever, please. I think we’re the same: what we really want when we love a drama is to have that same experience again. To be where we were and who we were when we first got hooked by these characters.

It’s not possible so we hanker to stay with the characters in some way and that gets us sequels. I don’t know if there will be a sequel to The Good Wife – I can hardly look it up without spoiling the aforementioned 127 episodes – but I’ll bet money that it has at least been considered. Maybe piloted. A pilot script to a How I Met Your Mother sequel was commissioned and I’ve read it: the list of reasons I’m glad it wasn’t filmed begins with how the only brave creative decision in it was to give it the wrong title. It’s called How I Met Your Dad. So near and yet.

That didn’t fly and maybe we’d be better if sequels never did. We would definitely be better off if we could learn to let go. A thing is a thing, don’t try to draw it out.

But we can talk about that next week.