Now and Then

I’d like to know when things stop. The moment when something is done. I’m struggling to explain this but it’s on my mind a lot and I want to try. Let me have a go with an example.

If you write a book then at some point the manuscript is with the publisher and you’re done. You don’t know which point that is, though, or at least you don’t at the time because there’s always a chance you’ll have to do something more to it before it finally comes out.

Maybe publication is the moment. I’ve commissioned writers who wouldn’t respond to any request after they’d been paid and it happened enough that now I tell each new editor who hires me that I ain’t done until the piece is online or on the newsstand. Don’t wait to pay me, but I’m not leaving until we both know you don’t need me any more.

Except a piece of mine was published this week and I think it’s a good sample for another thing I’m pitching for. So as soon as it was out, I was pointing people to my new article.

Perhaps what I’m wondering is when new becomes old.

For instance, someone like Dar Williams releases a new album and at some point it stops being the new one. Long before her next is announced, you stop saying Emerald is new, you start calling it her latest. Then some day, somehow, you and I imagine she just thinks of it as one of her many releases.

It’s still a superb album but the heat of creation is over for her and the energy of discovering each track is over for me. I’m picking on her album because I like it so, because I’m listening to it again but also because I just went to check and it came out in 2015. What have I done since 2015?

Whether it’s an album or it’s the book she’s written since, there is still this furnace when everything is being made and anything can change and every pixel of it all is in your head. And then all of it is encased in the plastic of a shiny disc or the digits of a digital download, and it’s over. Except the singing of your song or the reading of your book until then that’s over too.

There must be a day, there must be a moment, when this happens.

In thinking about saying all this to you, wondering what you thought, I had the flippant idea that maybe the only absolute definite end to anything is death. But no, apparently not.

As ever, I don’t expect you or anyone to remember me past the end of this sentence but even when I die, my books will survive. I remember thinking this of the very first one, how BFI Television Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair will outlive me. At the very least, if some other author ever wants to write about Beiderbecke, their first job is prove to a publisher why their book is needed when someone has already covered the topic.

My name will at most live on in a muttered curse by that future author but the book itself will persist. Who knows, one day it might even start earning back the advance I got.

I framed the cover of that book and it’s on my wall with the date racing further into the past every second. It was published in 2012 and I think my second book would’ve been 2013 so clearly by then, Beiderbecke was no longer either new or my latest. But there is a day, an hour, an instant when it ceased to be either and I wish I knew when.

I wish I could work it out but I also wish I could’ve been conscious of the moment as it happened.

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

3330__hannah_and_her_sisters_(1986)movie_

That film poster was on my bedroom wall throughout the time I was a student. Where my friends and housemates had thrash metal posters, I had Hannah and Her Sisters but it was for a very sensible reason: it was my favourite film. Today I don’t have one. Not just one. It seems a weird notion to have only one. But back then – er, when in the hell would it have been? I’m lost – I believed the best film ever made was Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Now, I don’t mean I believed that in some combative, argumentative way: I didn’t evangelise the film, I wasn’t shocked if you said you preferred Howard the Duck. It was just for me, just fact, just Hannah.

Yet this week it never entered my head when asked what 15 films have most stayed with me.

Well, clearly it did enter my head or I wouldn’t be talking to you about it. But I was tagged in this Facebook meme – if you haven’t been tagged yet, hello, you are now – and I rattled off this lot in a thrice:

Grosse Pointe Blank
Trainspotting
Bourne films 1-3
Boyfriends and Girlfriends
Mission: Impossible 1
The Cider House Rules
Three Colours Blue
Leon (aka The Professional)
Heaven Can Wait
The Shawshank Redemption
Capricorn One
Deathtrap
The Sting
Amelie
The Empire Strikes Back

Okay. The list is true enough, though Empire was a push to get it to 15, but nothing that I’d especially be wanting to tell you about. You know what happened next, though. Other people wrote their 15 and I kept seeing ones that I should surely have had. I think the biggest shock for me was that I’d missed off Twelve Angry Men. (Not ten days ago, I watched the Tony Hancock version on YouTube. It’s the one where he says “Magna Carter – did she die in vain?”.)

Nobody picked Hannah. So I have no idea why I finally remembered, but it was a memory with a punch. A flood. Can you have a flood of punches? Central Park in the autumn. The most gorgeous New York City bookshop – now long gone, I’m afraid, even before I managed to get to it, which just makes seeing it more precious. Woody Allen’s character is a producer on a TV show that is really Saturday Night Live and has a corner office with windows looking out across the city. Carrie Fisher looking amazing. Barbara Hershey melting my heart. The music. Oh, but the music. I have the soundtrack album on vinyl somewhere and haven’t played it in a decade but the very opening notes of this trailer are bliss to me.

At the time of release and the time of having that poster on my wall, I didn’t like Michael Caine in this film. There’s something just off, to me, something just a little forced. Now I think he’s okay but I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve mellowed or because these days it’s Woody Allen who makes me uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, the film sticks with me and I can see how it has influenced my writing. (My version of the Wirrn in Doctor Who is clearly a homage.) Its poetry sticks with me too. I mean that literally, there is “the poem on page 112”. Actually, quick aside, it’s also because of Woody Allen that I came to adore Emily Dickinson’s poetry: he has a collection of short prose called Without Feathers and I learnt that this was a reference to Dickinson’s line “Hope is the thing with feathers”.

That one line buckles me.

But here’s the e e cummings poem on page 112, with that beautiful music, with the bookshop, with rundown New York still looking great, with Barbara Hershey and, okay, with Michael Caine and some subtitles.

Woody Allen regularly does that trick of dividing up the frame into slices by apparent chance of doorways and walls and shelves. It’s very intimate, somehow, it takes you into the characters when they’re isolated or here where Eliot is yearning for Lee.

I’m aware that I don’t appreciate film directors enough. It’s a kind of solidarity-based revenge for all the times directors ignore writers. And maybe you shouldn’t notice directors, maybe if you notice them then they have taken you out of the story. But there was one scene where I was so alert to the writing, the directing, the acting and the cinematography that I can still remember the pressure on my chest from the first time I saw it. It sounds tricksy: Hannah and her sisters are at a restaurant table and the camera must be on a circular dolly track very close by because it just orbits them.

All three women – Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest – are talking. Naturally all have different issues and pressures, naturally they are all going to collide here. But the orbiting camera shows us one woman’s face in closeup and is then blocked by the back of another woman’s head. Then another face is revealed, another is hidden, over and over. And the effect is mesmerising. It’s these women hiding the truth and somehow losing that for moments, regaining composure for a moment, losing it again. You feel it building and building and yes, it’s all there on the page, it’s all in the script, but the combination of talents from writer through actor to cinematographer and director makes this infinitely stronger than any one of those could have done.

And thanks to YouTube, here it is.

And with half the film sliced up into clips there, I think I’m going to go watch it properly.

After all, it is my favourite film.

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.