Writing by numbers

I know I stole this thought from somewhere, but for the longest time I’ve felt I sit right on the edge between arts and technology. That’s nice for me. And actually, yes, it is. I get to write scripts and drama, I get to use tools that help and excite me, I also get to write about those. Typically where these two spheres meet, I get to have a very good time. But not always.

This week, I got an email on my iPhone from a company championing music technology over the arts. Not with the arts, not for, but above it. Use their music system and you will know –– this was the selling point, you would actually know –– that your song is going to be a hit. Or not. And if it isn’t, you therefore know to throw it away and do something else until you get it right.

I think this is obviously wrong all round. I’m minded of David Cameron, who apparently once told British filmmakers that they should only make successful films. I remember going a little pale. I don’t know anything about, say, the UK’s legal agreements with the EU, but I’d ask before I decided I knew best and broke them.

At the time, it was a sobering and slightly scary thought that someone running the country could be that, well, let’s cut to it, stupid. Now it would be a bit of a surprise if they weren’t.

There was a little more, though. Cameron specifically referenced The King’s Speech, the tremendous film written by David Seidler. This is a film that was a worldwide success, absolutely, and a deserved one. However, it was also a historical movie about a rich man most of the world hasn’t heard of, working his way up to making one speech. Of all the people needed to make that film happen, you can be certain that every one of them did so because the script was great, not because they really thought it was going to be a blockbuster success. “Hold off on that Batman project, we’ve got this now.”

If Cameron thought at all – and he appeared to spend more than a chance second on it so again how stupid was he? – then what he thought was that it was possible to know what would be a success. You know what films have been a hit before, make films like that. I truly, truly cannot fathom a mind that would think that, then point to The King’s Speech, and say ta-daa, that was a hit because all obscure historical movies with no action always have been.

This is all crossing my mind as I’m in my kitchen, reading this email from a firm that wants me to write about how musicians can emulate previous hits and never have to create anything new at all. That’s a firm who knows what listeners want. And why musicians write.

I am far from being against mixing technology with music. If I were a musician, you bet I’d be hands on with Logic Pro to master my album. And just now, just before you and I started nattering, I was listening to Francisca Valenzuela’s fantastically powerful Flotando. I was listening over AirPods and it was as if the room were full of this wonderful, enveloping Chilean music.

I offer, though, that while I listened over technology, and it was a free track of hers on iTunes ten years ago that got me to try her music, there’s nothing else. Nothing in my listening history should trigger any algorithm to think oh, yes, let’s play him Chilean pop music he won’t understand and is by an artist who has never charted in his country.

Any sane algorithm, any informed analysis of my musical tastes would do the opposite, it would skip Francisca Valenzuela entirely. And I would therefore be missing out on a decade of music I relish, plus right now a song that –– it’s true –– I don’t understand, but which fills my chest as much as my ears.

Then there is this. This isn’t the music technology’s fault, they couldn’t know that I’d be reading their email on an iPhone. They might have guessed, mind, since the iPhone is –– literally –– the best-selling product of any kind in the world, ever. And if you don’t have an iPhone, you have an Android phone.

So take a look.

Apple vs Samsung count image

That’s a court image from a legal case between Apple and Samsung, but it’s broadly illustrative. What I’d suggest is that it would be much the same if you changed it from just these two companies and into a larger chart with every phone from every firm.

It’s night and day.

Nothing looked like an iPhone before the iPhone. Everything looked like the iPhone afterwards.

The phone in your pocket, the phone you use a hundred times a day and now feels part of your life –– whether it’s iPhone or Android –– is the way it is, is the use it is, because of that 2007 iPhone launch and its success.

In 2007, though, and also 2008, 2009… Apple was mocked for the iPhone. They were mocked for every part that was different to previous phones, such as how they don’t have physical keyboards. Literally laughed at. Everyone was focused on what had been a success in mobile phones and everything Apple did that was different, was therefore wrong.

I’m suddenly minded of something totally different. I remember a series of columns in Radio Times where the writer, a key figure on that magazine, regularly moaned how every TV drama was exactly the same. She had a point, she made good points, then she blew it. Because one week there was a drama that was different and she criticised it for not being the same.

Not every new idea is going to work. Not every new idea is good. This week the short-form video service Quibi shut down and I don’t miss it in the slightest, I didn’t like what they did, but they tried something new and they didn’t try it based on what everyone watched yesterday.

I love technology but I also have exactly no interest in technology. What I love is what it enables. You and I get to talk like this because of technology. I deeply love that having now made fifty YouTube videos, I can see how much tighter my scriptwriting is. I profoundly love hearing someone laugh and knowing it was because of how precisely I positioned a shot in the video, I mean how I put it at the one moment, the one frame, where it would be funny.

No question, whatever my comic timing is, it’s informed by everything I’ve watched and read and heard before.

But I am never trying to be like anything I’ve seen before. I think the real problem this music technology firm has is just that it’s completely wrong. The aim of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, is not to produce something that makes cash. We want that, we need that to survive, but if your sole purpose is to make cash, there are a lot easier ways than writing.

I write to find something new. Everything you create, you do to find something new. Now if only we could get Hollywood to work the same way.

Both kinds of music

I like New Country music from about the middle of 1994 to the end of 1996, so long as it’s sung by women. I feel you may have questions.

The women part is easy. It’s because I got to like this watching CMT, Country Music Television, which means as much through videos as the music itself. And is far as I could see from when I got the channel to when it went off air in the UK, every man on it wore a silly hat.

I’m not saying a 10-gallon hat is daft if you area cowboy out on the range, but you’re not and neither is a single one of these.

Sometimes one gets by me. Junior Brown is a male singer/songwriter, extraordinary guitarist and hat-wearer who’s entirely responsible for my pronouncing the name of law enforcement offers as the po-lice.

Plus he has to win a pass for having one of the greatest titles in music history. I haven’t heard it in twenty years now, but as soon as you and are done yapping, I’m off to Apple Music to find if they’ve got his “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead“. (The lyric is “Because you’re wanted by the po-lice / and my wife thinks you’re dead.”)

Mind you, nothing in this world can top the title “Did I Shave My Legs for This?“. Written by Deana Carter, who performed it, and Rhonda Hart. But two seconds into music and we’re already back to women without hats. And the writing: I think Gretchen Carter is among the finest lyric writers in any genre and her “Independence Day“, sung by Martina McBride, is more a short story than a song. I’d be a fan of Matraca Berg even if she’d solely written the description “a fallen angel on a weekend pass“.

Apple Music is one reason all of this is on my mind at the moment. The latest Favourites Mix that Apple Music picks for me each week has Independence Day on it. Somehow it’s full of new country music from exactly this 1994-1996 period. And this is doubly on my mind because only the night before this playlist updated, I caught a reference to the film Twister on TV. That 1996 movie had one of those not-really-on-the-soundtrack songs, a piece of music wedged in the end credits so that it can get a single off the back of it.

In this case, that single was “No One Needs To Know“, sung by Shania Twain and co-written by her and Robert John “Mutt” Lange. I just like it. But I don’t just like it, I’ve been thinking about it all week.

It runs for three minutes and 16 seconds. At average talking speed – I mostly write scripts so this is how I think about it – that works out to 588 words. I don’t know how many words there are in the song, but you know it’s less.

However many it is, this is what the song is about. A character has met a man she likes and he doesn’t know that yet.

That’s it. Nothing else. Except for a joyous yearning, a delighted fizz of a secret and a giddy dream of possibilities. It is lovely and charming and make-you-smile and incredibly endearing. We know so little about this character and yet we like her enormously, we feel for her.

I think that core idea is exceptional. So obvious in retrospect and definitely so very simple. But I hadn’t heard or thought of it before and a new idea is gold.

If I had thought of it, though, I think I would’ve over-written it.

I’d have had to fight myself not putting in a plot twist, for one thing, even in three minutes or 588 words.

I think there is an enormous discipline to writing exactly the right amount. To milk the drama but not let that milk boil over. To get the real worth out of an idea and use it to precisely the right degree.

It’s two decades since CMT closed down on UK television and I’m still trying to learn from it.

Stream Misty for Me

Tell me you do this too. There’s a song or come piece of music that you get so obsessed with that you not only could play it on a loop, but you do.

It’s often when I’m writing and I thought both that this was a little peculiar and also nuts to peculiar, I ain’t stopping now. More than fifteen years ago, I created a playlist called Discoveries and only ever added a track to it when it had been one I so obsessed over.

The rule was even more specific than that. It had to be a piece I had been drawn to play so often that I was eventually sick of it. My Discoveries playlist became around 130 songs, all of which I now loathed.

Well, a bit.

Whenever I really needed to concentrate on whatever I was writing, I would pop headphones on and tell iTunes to shuffle Discoveries. I might skip the odd track if it really was so recent that I’d gone off it, but usually I’d let everything play and I’d have a grand time.

There is one more rule and one strong guideline.

The guideline is that I avoid allowing too many tracks by the same artist. With 130 tracks or whatever it became, having the entire discography of Suzanne Vega in Discoveries would just be wrong. Tempting, but wrong.

And the rule is that once it goes into Discoveries, it cannot be taken out. Not ever. Which means that it’s not enough to be a hit I quite like, I have to really, really obsess. If I can’t listen to the one same track a hundred times in a row, it ain’t good enough to be included.

And this cannot be premeditated or even considered. It has to be that I am compelled right now to add it. I’ve been got to the stage recently where I’ve made a Discoveries Contenders playlist.

Here’s how hard it is to get into my playlist. I have only one Suzanne Vega song in it. That surprised me a lot. That surprised me so much that I must surely revisit her albums, I’d have been certain most of her Songs in Red and Gray album would be in here already.

Now that I’m looking, I see that I’ve got two by Regina Spektor. Three by Kate Bush. Four by Tanita Tikaram. Five by Dar Williams. And I didn’t expect this: seven by Bruce Springsteen.

I have also made some choices I regret.

But at some point I read an interview with – I think – Anthony Minghella. I don’t believe he has a Discoveries playlist, but there was some comment about how he would have single songs on endless repeat. I hope it was him, I’d rather be a little bit like Anthony Minghella than a lot like the nutter I thought I was.

And then there’s this. Last night, I was in a supermarket queue and it really, really slowly dawned on me that nobody else was dancing.

I was wearing AirPods, these blissful wireless headphones, and I was shuffling Discoveries. To be specific, I was being incapable of standing still because I had Tómame by Francisca Valenzuela in my ears.

And as I’d left my car, as I entered the supermarket and as I walked down aisle 9, I wasn’t humming the lyrics, I was instead saying “Hey, Siri, play that again”.

Valenzuela is a Chilean singer and I rarely understand a word of her songs – weirdly, I never like her English-language ones as much – and right now she has six tracks in my Discoveries.

And here’s the other thing. It took at least fifteen years to get to somewhere around 130 tracks. But in the last three years I’ve added another 110.

That’s entirely because of streaming. I subscribe to Apple Music and with one single exception, all 110 new additions to Discoveries come from that service. The exception is Kate Bush’s reggae cover of Rocket Man which I had to actually buy. I barely remembered how to do that.

This is on my mind because of the supermarket dance. It’s also on my mind because if it’s streaming music that’s got me several Francisca Valenzuela tracks, it was iTunes that got me my first back around 2007.

I worry about how artists must get lost in the flood of our being able to listen to just about anything at any moment and for practically no cost.

But I’m not kidding about dancing in Asda and I’m really not kidding about my Discoveries playlist. You and I can immediately listen to any of millions of songs yet I will play the same one over and over again as I write.

Imagine writing something that a stranger obsesses over, internalises, and lives for.

While I piddle about making playlists.

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


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
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
The Sting
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


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:


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.