We had a time

I had forgotten this. When it was announced that I was leaving Radio Times, like thousands and thousands of years ago, I sent out an email to everyone on staff. I’d been in a rare position of working with most of the departments across the separate editorial teams on magazine and the website, so it wasn’t as if I were a stranger to all 120 people, or however many it was.

But I was stranger to enough of them that I apologised for the mass email and asked those who’d never heard of me to turn to their left and say “Who?” to whoever was there.

I also pointed out that this place had been my home, that these people were my closest friends and that they meant a lot to me. I did acknowledge that a ridiculous number of them had commissioned me for work over the years, and so concluded that “this means they’re dear to me and I’m expensive to them.”

Since it’s you, I’ll tell you that I was proud of that line then and, mumbling quietly, still am.

However, also since it’s you, I’ll tell you that email included one last line that nobody knew then, nobody recognised, and which wasn’t original to me. I signed off by saying “We had a time”. That line was written by Winnie Holzman and it is the final one in the pilot episode of “My So-Called Life”.

I’ve been trying to work out the maths of when I must’ve seen that show and how old I may have been, but I can’t. It was made in 1994 and I definitely didn’t see it then, but I imagine it was close. Call it 1995. In which case I would’ve been a British, 30-year old man writer but for 17 episodes of 50 minutes apiece, I knew what it was to be an American, 15-year-old school girl.

I can’t think of a single actual point of reference in the show –– and last night I watched that pilot again so I checked –– no single thing that I could identify with between me and Angela Chase (Claire Danes), the lead character, nor with Rayanne (AJ Langer). Not one. With either of them. And yet every point hit home then and hit home again last night. Some of it is that I do think the acting is extraordinary with moments of silence so painful that they draw blood.

But I’ve been re-reading the available scripts this week, too, and it is all there on the page.

I’m now somewhat older, possibly somewhat more male, more British, but the razors in the dialogue that bounce between perfectly inarticulate and shockingly profound, they’re still there and they still work and I still wish to god I was even a fraction as good as that. I’d take being pixel as good. Half a pixel. And you could name your limb.

This is all on my mind again after not having thought of this show for a long, long time. But a month or two ago now, I worked with journalist Genevieve Hassan and she has a new podcast called Celebrity Catch-Up which is a particularly well-done series of interviews. Well, I say interviews because that’s what they are, especially in how good Hassan is at drawing her interviewees out. But what they really feel like is you getting to have a proper natter with two friends.

So naturally I subscribed, but that meant when the latest episode came out, I got a notification. I picked up my iPhone to call someone and there on screen with this line about an interview with AJ Langer. Hand on heart, I have no idea who I had been supposed to phone. If it were you, I am so sorry. But come on, this is My So-Called Life.

It’s also an actor so aside from bizarre missteps like Lawrence Fox’s Question Time appearance, you know an actor is going to perform and perform well. Wait, there was also Meg Ryan on Parkinson. And most of Bruce Willis’s film promo chats. But otherwise, you interview an – no, I interviewed Trevor Eve once and loathed him. Okay, so it’s not a universal rule, but in general you can expect an actor to be good value in an interview, you can expect them to fun.

What you unfortunately can’t expect its that they will give any credit to the writer –– but Langer did. Repeatedly.

Yesterday I was in a long workshop session and the topic of scriptwriting came up. I found myself saying, completely truthfully, that seeing an actor inhabit my lines is ceaselessly wonderful to me. Sometimes I don’t think writers appreciate actors, but far more often you know actors don’t appreciate writers.

This one did and the whole podcast is a treat. I had a time.

As yet untitled, damnit

I was a judge at a Royal Television Society school day contest earlier this week and one team called their proposed TV show “Help! I’ve Lost My Dignity”. They nearly won on the title alone. Earlier this autumn, I was struggling with a title for a collection of stories. Earlier this year I was arguing over the title for another project. Instantly, after three prods, a week, two months and half a year, I immediately realised that I wanted to talk to you about titles. I just didn’t and don’t know what to call this.

Tell a lie: it was four prods.

A few days ago the script to the pilot of Timeless leaked online. I really like this show – it’s coming to E4 soonish but I have a US iTunes Store account so I’ve been watching it about a day after it airs in the States – and I envied its title. That would’ve been just right for my collection. The bastards. Only, as well as a very revealing deleted scene, the script also shows that the series was going to be called Time.

That’s it. Just Time. I felt better: they had to go through some trouble to get to a great title and they managed it.

But then that reminded me of how it seems everyone goes through the same hell and they continue to. Jeremy Clarkson and the other two who are late of Top Gear are about to start a car series called The Grand Tour but it was going to be called Gear Knobs.

When that was rejected – I can’t imagine why – they also looked at Speedbird, No Limits, Dip Sticks and The Best Car Show… in The World.

Speaking of words that might not pass muster on a broadcast channel, have a read of Elizabeth Meriwether’s pitch for the US comedy New Girl sometime. It is a gorgeous piece of writing, so alive and full of verve, and it begins with this: “The working title of the show is ‘Chicks and Dicks’. But obviously this isn’t France, so we’ll have to change it.”

New Girl is a bit of a dull title and progressively out of date as the new woman of the name has now been around for something like five seasons. Whereas The Good Wife was a great title for a brilliant series. I just hanker for one of its working titles: among an apparently 75-100 considered names there was The Whole Truth, In The Spotlight and – wait for it – Leave the Bastard.

I also love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt but would’ve been just as happy if it had been called Tooken. That title makes its way into a single sentence of dialogue in one episode. Whereas in the UK Phil Redmond went further when he wanted to call his show Meadowcroft but legal concerns forced him to change it to Brookside. Reportedly in its early years you can see characters in Brookside watching TV – and the show they’re tuned in to is a drama called Meadowcroft.

That’s the subtlest way of airing a working title. Less subtle is actually calling your show by one name and maybe later on fixing it. So Seinfeld aired for a season as The Seinfeld Chronicles. The sitcom Ellen’s famous and excellent coming out two-parter was disguised from the network with the innocuous title The Puppy Episode and in the end aired as that.

Whereas the whole show Ellen aired for one season as These Friends of Mine. It was then reportedly renamed Ellen because of potential confusion with a new hit called Friends. Though speaking of Friends, that was going to be called Six of One or Across the Hall. It was sold to the network without a title but then went a long way with the name Friends Like Us.

Which reminds me: My So-Called Life was originally Someone Like Me. I do love and cherish MSCL from its title to its end credits but Someone Like Me was very clever for a tale of a high school teenager feeling estranged and different to everyone around her.

None of which is helping me find titles for a collection or, since I’ve now decided I loathe some of my story titles, any good story titles. I’ve been around the houses on this subject – oh, EastEnders was going to be called Round the Houses. Also East 8. I’ve got a book somewhere that talks about the terribly problems they had finding a title for them. It seemed to work out.

Everything does when you get a good title. I know that a good title catches the readers’ or the audience’s eye and attention but there’s more to it than that. When I’ve got a good title, my writing flies. Pity I haven’t found a clever title for our chat this week.

Say what?

If you don’t know something, fine. If I don’t know something, fine. We’ll work it out together. Or more likely one of us will look it up and explain it to the other. It’s not like there is a shortage of places to look things up.

But if you’re a writer and your characters don’t know something, that’s gigantic.

relativity 001Follow. Around 1996, I read the pilot script to a US series called Relativity. Written and created by Jason Katims, it was from the makers of thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Plus, it was a romance and I like romances, naturally I read it. And I enjoyed that script a lot. I wish it were still online that I could point you at it.

I enjoyed it enough that of course I wanted to see the final show and I was enough of a writer to be curious to see how they would stretch this romance out to seven years of 20-odd episodes a year. They didn’t, as it happens. I think they made 17 episodes before being cancelled. I didn’t see any of them. I must’ve seen something, must’ve seen the title sequence or something because I knew what the major characters looked like.

But actual episodes: none.

Last year I got very excited when the pilot episode found its way on to YouTube – except that my face fell when I saw it. Because the YouTube copy was dubbed into German.

Now, though, the whole series is up on Dailymotion. Doubtlessly less than legally but then if the show were ever going to get a commercial release I would’ve bought that a long time ago.

As it is, nineteen years later, I’m finally watching the episodes.

It’s not great. Certainly not on a par with MSCL or thirtysomething. It tries to deal with some serious topics but it doesn’t have the bite of those other shows. And characters I remember liking on the page feel a bit whiny on the screen.


What knaws at me in every single episode is one line from the title sequence.

It’s a smart sequence. If you ever seen a Bedford Falls show like thirtysomething, you’ve got the idea already: a montage of scenes, credits on the bottom of screen, great music by WG Snuffy Walden in his pre-West Wing days. All that.

But as well as the visual montage of scenes, this sequence has an audio one. Clashing, overlapping, audible and barely audible, clear and obscured lines rush by you in a way that seems chaotic. In practice every line is placed pixel perfectly in time and in the stereo image because you never fail to hear the key lines and you always fail to hear the lesser stuff.

It’s the main characters talking about relativity. “Like Einstein… E=mc squared…” They’re explaining what relativity is and quickly pushing the point. One key example is “the things you think you can’t do, you can do” which is just so far away from the definition of relativity that it belongs in a different series.

But then bam. The last line.

It’s said by the series star, Kimberley Williams, in character as Isabel Lukens. This show is primarily a romance but it’s really weighted toward her rather than her guy, Leo Roth (David Conrad). So this is your most important actor in the show’s most important role and she has the most important position in your entire title sequence. And she says:

“I have no idea what relativity means”

Then sodding look it up.

She says it with a laugh, with that kind of gosh, how could anyone be expected to know this stuff type of laugh.

If Isabel Lukens did not know what relativity meant despite having seemingly constant conversations about it, the character would be stupid. Not uninformed, stupid. Worse: passively stupid. She doesn’t know what a word means even though she’s just been discussing it. Couldn’t be bothered to either look the bleedin’ thing up or to listen to the people discussing it with her. Ignorant in every sense.

But Isabel is not speaking for herself. She says this to allow us to not know what relativity means. It’s okay not to know. In fact, gosh, who could know?

That one line is the most outrageously insulting line I can think of in TV title sequences. I don’t mean this because I know what relativity means, I mean because the makers assume we don’t – and the makers assume we need reassurance that this is not a bad thing.

I feel examining one line from a cancelled TV series of 19 years ago might be overkill. But I also feel that there is something in here about all of television and how all of it has gone down the reassuring ignorance route.

Didn’t we used to look up to TV characters? Was I just young? Detectives and heroes and all that, they were smart and they were cool and then something happened. I think it was around the time when computers became commonplace. Suddenly we hit the moment when we, the viewing public, knew more about this stuff than the TV characters did.

We knew and we know more than they are allowed to know.

TV characters are rarely allowed to be clever, certainly they are even more rarely allowed to think. Now thinking is a tough one to show visually – yes, I’m thinking Sherlock too but not every show can do what that does – so you can understand the problem. But if the plot requires a clever character, that character will not be the hero.

More, that character will be mocked for being clever. Just as you can’t be a woman doctor without a white coat, stethoscope and a clipboard, so you cannot be a clever character of either sex unless you wear glasses. And get kidded for being in some way socially awkward. Kidded by the cool-as-all-hell action hero, for preference.

We are expected to feel superior to the clever clogs. The expectation is that we will need to feel superior or we’ll stop watching.

I think I’ll make it to the end of Relativity but just four episodes in, that single line is threatening to stop me watching.