Surprise and Demand

Last night I was laughing at the script to an episode of The Detectorists. Really shaking, weeping, guffawing. This kind of couch behaviour gets noticed when someone else is trying to watch The Doctor Blake Mysteries. But then it leads to information in the many ad breaks on the Alibi channel.

Toby Jones co-stars in The Detectorists and my wife Angela Gallagher, who has the most amazing knowledge of casts, told me that he’s just become patron of Claybody Theatre, the tremendous company founded by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson.

So far this is all current, topical, present-day stuff but then she tells me that Toby Jones is the son of Freddie Jones and I am instantly right back to the mid-1970s when I was a child watching him in The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter.

You’ve had this, you’ve been thrown back to something and doubtlessly someone watching Motley Hall at the time was drawn to remember seeing Freddie Jones in 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Only, that 1970s viewer being reminded of a 1960s film could do nothing more than be reminded of it. Whereas no sooner than Doctor Blake had saved the day than we were actually watching the first episode of The Ghosts of Motley Hall.

It’s far from true that any film or show you can think of is available for you to watch immediately, but it feels as if it is. Last week I bought the first seasons of St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Earlier this week, a friend was looking for recommendations for something to watch before her Amazon Prime trial ran out and I spent an hour trying to find the name of something I’d relished on it.

An hour.

It took forty seconds to go from Doctor Blake to a 1976 episode of Motley Hall but an hour to get a film –– solely because I couldn’t remember its name. Even when I did find it and I did recommend it to my friend, I knew I’d forget the title again so I just bought it on iTunes.

That was Your Sister’s Sister by writer/director Lynn Shelton and it is more than worth the hour I spent looking. Not only because I relish that film and have just watched it again, but also because my prodding searches online for what detail I could recall of this film also turned up a movie called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Now, I know that movie under another title, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, and it’s one I delight in that’s written and directed by Eric Rohmer.

We are at the stage where a stray recollection is instantly satisfied. Where a small whim is filled in a thrice. And where to find something to watch, you no longer use Radio Times, you use Google.

It makes my mind split in two different directions. One is to think that who has time for broadcast telly any more? Television is like a delivery mechanism now, it’s a way of getting Fleabag ready for us. Television and film have become the libraries we dip into instead of the live, shared experience it was.

I can’t help but lament how everyone, simply everyone, watched when André Previn was on The Morecambe and Wise Show. Yet I can’t help but adore the fact that everyone, simply everyone, can watch that segment right now.

Well, that link is to a site called Dailymotion which currently thinks that after watching a 1971 Morecambe and Wise sketch I will want to see Miley Cyrus topless. The internet, eh?

And, well, there isn’t half an issue about the rights to this and all these creators not being paid while sites are getting ad revenue from showing them. That’s enormous. I bought My Sister’s Sister, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere but if Motley Hall is available to buy, I don’t know because I just saw it on YouTube.

The other direction my mind goes in, though, is this. Motley Hall was 43 years ago. When Peter Tork died recently, I watched the first episode of The Monkees and that was 53 years ago.

Imagine being back then in 1966 and able to watch anything you liked from 1913. Or living in 1913 and being able to watch something from 1860.

We have an unprecedented, unimaginable, incomprehensible ability to instantly taste our own culture as it was during the last half a century. Well, okay, we’re all chiefly locked to our own nation’s culture: it presumably is possible to do the same and watch any film from, say, India’s last five decades but I don’t know how to do it and those movies would be a sea to me without any markers or references or memories.

And of course this ability is locked to films and television, occasionally some radio. It only shows you what was being shown, it doesn’t really take you back in time. Except that of course it does: The Ghosts of Motley Hall has an innocence I can miss and a slow pace we lack today too.

Equally, On the Buses is about to be released on DVD for its fiftieth anniversary. The only thing more certain that this show captured its time is that I ain’t going to watch it.

We all make things for now, I don’t think anyone makes drama or comedy with much of an eye to the future beyond possible sales to different broadcasters and platforms. Yet this is mass of visual work is making me conscious both of how anything I make must be unconsciously imbued with the time that I make it –– and of how we must surely run out of room some day.

Maybe we’ll have to move to Mars just because there’s no more space to store all the episodes of NCIS.

Or videos of Miley Cyrus.

Star Julianna Margolies holding a script for The Good Wife

Since records began

I’m running a workshop for children at the Bournville BookFest tomorrow and it will be my 510th public speaking gig since records began in late 2012.

I think a lot about that phrase, “since records began”. Usually it’s used to describe something incredibly serious like climate change or utterly trivial like, er, how Mars Bars have been shrinking since records began.

Was there one day when everybody thought we should be making records? Or did they start with the big stuff and add in the trivial to seem busy and keep their jobs?

I’d say that my 510 is pretty trivial, if not to me, except I can beat it with something else I appear to be counting which even I find daft. I’ve read thousands of scripts since records began but late last year I read a blog on Script Angel that recommended reading one a day. And I was persuaded.

Like most new year’s resolutions, though, I did fall off the wagon. Just not in the usual direction. If I’d stuck to reading one script per day then right now I should be on my 75th.

After we’ve spoken today, I’m going to get a mug of tea and read my 203rd.

I would like to share with you some lessons I’ve learned from 509 performances (remember, tomorrow’s is the 510th) and 202 scripts (remember, today’s is the 203rd).

But the only thing pressing on my mind is this small piece of advice. If you start watching a drama series on Netflix, finish it.

I got deeply into The Good Wife on Netflix about two years ago but for some reason stopped. Something came up. Work. I went away. I don’t know. But for some reason I didn’t rush back to the next episode and now I’m a little unclear how far through I got. I’m pretty sure I had this break in the show’s second season but it might be the third.

Either way, in my 202 scripts so far this year, 7 of them were from this show. To be specific, I’ve read the first 7 episodes of the series and each one has been superb. I’ll carry on reading – the entire first season’s scripts are online – but I really wanted to watch the filmed and broadcast version of one of them.

And I can’t.

Netflix UK has taken the whole show off.

We live in a time when we have myriad choices of dramas to watch and it feels like everything that has ever existed is available on demand or even just on a whim, but it isn’t. And you know that Netflix’s decision is to do with rights, is to do with their license to broadcast it, but nobody outside those deals can predict what will be added and when it will be taken away.

At least, nobody’s figured out how to predict it. Since records began, anyway.

I never said I was quick to apologise

Listen, I have yet again lost the remote to my Apple TV and found it only when I gave up, sat down on the couch and Netflix started playing. I sat up and Netflix stopped. Sat down, started. This went on for longer than you’d imagine before I found the remote under the cushions.

But it’s what I’m watching on Netflix that I want to talk to you about. Also, I think I’ve been a right man: I have owed an apology and it has taken me 23 years, 9 months and 26 days to admit it.

That’s how long ago wolframalpha.com says April 15, 1993 was. And counting.

It was the date that I had a feature in The Independent newspaper about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Specifically it was about the then-new show and how it was being pirated months before its UK debut. It was tape piracy: VHS tape copying piracy. We were so young.

Partly for the article, mostly for myself, I watched the pilot to Deep Space Nine at the house of a guy who was doing a lot of this tape copying piracy. He’s never spoken to me since. And I remember writing the piece avoiding his name but the Independent editor required one at the last moment so I made up something.

I can’t tell you what it was or what the guy’s real name is but if ever I have had a failure of imagination, it was 23 years, 9 months and maybe 30 days ago. The leap from the fake name to his real name was so small that if you blinked while reading it, you would’ve accidentally read the truth.

So I do definitely owe him an apology. I don’t know how you’ll ever come across this, but if you do, please know that I am sorry about it.

What’s prompted this today, though, is that I think I also owe an apology to the show. I think so. I’m not sure.

Remember that I was writing about the fans and the piracy more than I was reviewing the series, but I did write this:

It’s set on an abandoned space station, the Deep Space Nine of the title. No one boldly goes anywhere as they did in Captain Kirk’s command, and while some of the characters are recognisable from Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, DS9 has a new cast and crew. Stardates, uniforms, bad guys and bad lines, however, will be recognised by Trek fans young and old.

The reverential silence is rudely broken. Colm Meany (formerly the transporter chief of The Next Generation, here promoted to the show’s chief attraction) is required to move DS9 towards a wormhole. ‘We have six thrusters, it’s a two million kilometre journey, it’ll take six months at least,’ he announces. ‘We must be there tomorrow,’ comes the po-faced reply, to hoots of derision from the audience. However, it takes more than naff dialogue to lose a Trekkie… even through the obligatory mystical experience in the middle…

Desperadoes on the Starboard Side: Star Trek fans break the law to beam up Deep Space Nine by William Gallagher, The Independent (April 15, 1993)

I’ve corrected a typo and I am reasonably sure that I didn’t make the factual error about Colm Meany: I would’ve written that he was promoted to the new show’s “chief operations officer”.

But I definitely wrote that about “bad lines”.

I think I was wrong.

I think.

I watched the pilot that day and didn’t tune in to any further episodes for a long time. In fact it would’ve been somewhere after the show had finished in the States that I got all the scripts. This is Star Trek, not a pixel goes by that isn’t published and eventually the barrel is scraped far enough down that they release scripts. All of the Next Generation ones were put on CD-ROM, all of Deep Space Nine’s were too.

I’m minded of how I was at a very specific age when Star Wars came out. When I saw the first film, I was old enough to think Luke and Leia should get together. By the time the sequel was in cinemas, I knew Luke was wet and that Han Solo was more interesting.

Similarly, I enjoyed the Next Generation when it aired but when I then read the scripts I was profoundly bored. I did specifically want to see how scripts developed over a long series but, come on, there are something like 178 of them and I read the lot.

Tell me why I then read roughly the same number of Deep Space Nine scripts. If I’d had such a bad time with The Next Generation.

Except to me TNG scripts are more puzzles than stories and once you know the outcome, there just isn’t enough to keep me interested. Whereas DS9 scripts feel like they are each part of one long novel.

I deeply enjoyed those scripts and I tuned in to the UK broadcasts of the final season. In 1999, I would take a break from a shift at BBC News Online and watch them on a newsroom monitor on BBC2 at 18:00 on whichever night it was. I want to say Wednesdays.

The look and feel of that last season was subtly different to the pilot. It felt richer, it felt confident. And instead of just seeming like parts of a novel, the run ends with something approaching ten episodes that genuinely are one story. Star Trek doesn’t do that. Star Trek Deep Space Nine did.

About a year later, I was writing a DVD column for BBC Ceefax – do you even remember shiny discs now? – and I made Deep Space Nine the release of the year. It wasn’t half an expensive DVD release: I bought each separate season box set and I think it added up to around £300.

I watched the lot, I got my £300 out of it at least, but just now when I was sitting on the TV remote, it was that pilot episode that kept starting and stopping on Netflix. The whole series is there and last year I watched a couple of the more famous episodes. Today I remembered my Independent piece and I started watching the pilot.

This is the pilot that I said had bad lines and got hoots of derision.

It’s got bad lines and I don’t tend to hoot, I’m not the hooting type, but there are wincing moments. Actors making odd choices, placing odd emphasis on lines, and I still think the setup to that bit about moving the station is standard-issue Star Trek technobabble.

It also makes sense, though. The science is fantastical yet it makes sense.

I just also got a lot more into it this time. Maybe it’s because I know what a strong show it became that I can now see the start of all that.

Maybe I’m going to watch the lot again.

But if so, then it isn’t that I sat on my TV remote and it switched to Netflix, scrolled a list, chose DS9 and selected the pilot. I did all that and I did it because this morning there’s been an announcement of a Deep Space Nine documentary.

It’s raising funds on Indiegogo with the aim of producing a documentary about this show for release next year. It’s the first such thing I’ve backed since Veronica Mars in 2013 but I backed it.

So I’m apologising and I’m putting my own money into it. I am such a man.