Hawaiian topping

Earlier this week, scriptwriter Phill Barron wrote online about what he called ‘the Magnum voice’ and how it was a tool he uses in writing. He explains why it’s needed but the short version of what it does is keep him conscious of what his characters are feeling when he may have written the previous scene a month ago.

He names his internal writer’s monologue after a technique I’d forgotten was used on screen in the 1980s US detective drama Magnum, pi. Nobody remembers the ‘pi’ bit of the title, incidentally, just as no one remembers the ‘medical examiner’ bit of the title Quincy, m.e.

Er, except apparently me. But even remembering title minutiae, I’d forgotten that after every ad break in Magnum, pi, the title character would give us a quick voice-over narration to remind us what was going on.

I think I’d forgotten that because I loathe narration. At least, I loathe narration that is there solely because otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on. Narration that does other jobs, most especially voice overs by unreliable narrators who are lying to us, I love those.

Thomas Magnum wasn’t lying in this show’s narration so I think I erased it from my mind.

But I’m disappointed that I’d forgotten the show because what looked like a glossy American drama from the roughly same era as Miami Vice was and is a rather remarkable piece of writing.

One reason that as much as I love novelist Jeanette Winterson’s writing but don’t really warm to her personally is that she once claimed to have invented what she called the spiral narrative. It’s when you leave one character to follow someone else for a bit and when you come back, the story of that first character has moved on. I read her saying this somewhere and before the end of the sentence I was thinking ‘but I saw that on Magnum years ago’.

In case I’m misrepresenting her, let’s call it the Magnum narrative instead. For it’s what was at the heart of this show and it’s why I think this detective series still stands up some preposterous 37 years after it first aired.

Let me say first that everything you might think Magnum, pi is, it was. Originally. Glen A Larson created a series, wrote a pilot episode and it was never filmed. Don Bellisario is brought in, keeps the name Magnum, the Hawaii setting and the two dogs, Zeus and Apollo, from that first script and starts again.

Incidentally, Hawaii was the one bit he would never have been allowed to change. The whole reason Larson got to pitch a detective show was that Hawaii 5-O had been cancelled and there were all these film crews and production facilities about to go out of business.

Maybe it was the setting that prompted Larson but his take on the show was seemingly more of a standard 1980s macho gloss kind of series. Then Bellisario turned it into a character piece. There’s still plenty of action but riddled through the entire 162 episodes are two rules.

One was that every third episode or so must be about the Vietnam background of the main characters. Lou Grant beat them to interesting explorations of that conflict, but Magnum made it part of the format.

More interesting to me and more why it’s worth still catching is the other rule. As far as possible, all of the plot of an episode must take place wherever Thomas Magnum isn’t.

So if he’s racing across Hawaii to find a suspect, he’ll get a flat tyre on the way and we’ll stay with him.

It did make for a lot of tension. I remember how it was deliciously frustrating but in retrospect, as a writer now, I get it.

When you focus on the character more than the plot of the week, that character has to be worth focusing on. He or she has to be interesting enough to keep us watching.

Character comes first. That’s why Magnum, pi, stands up, it’s why Columbo does, why The Rockford Files does. And it’s why Miami Vice doesn’t.

Top Ten Numbers of All Time

This week we’re counting down the top ten best numbers ever. We’ve excluded numbers such as music tracks or dress outfits and are concentrating instead on actual digits that changed the world or in any other way briefly obsessed me this week.

3.1415927. We’ve got a long and bumpy road ahead of us so we’d best start with the one number you can eat. And which never runs out.

8. The number 8 is the subject of the only clean maths joke I know. What did the 0 say to the 8? “Nice belt”.

#8 (joint)
4 and 2. The two numbers most responsible for the decline of the English language and the reason literacy is going to hell. Sorry, that’s 2 hell 4 you.

Million million and thousand million. The most amazing maths fact ever: one million million equals one thousand million. During the EU referendum debacle, Nigel Farage was asked which definition of billion he was using and allegedly said it was a trivial difference. That’s a man you want running your economy. Sorry, autocorrect: I meant ruining.

The answer, since you ask, is that he didn’t have a damn clue and cared even less about it. But any time you hear the word billion, it means one thousand million. Official. It’s called the Short System and while we think of it as American, the UK government adopted it in 1974.

Unofficially it’s called the stupid system and the one where somebody wanted to be called a billionaire when they still had quite some way to go.

23. I’m not making this stuff up, I’m just enjoying how the number 5 number isn’t number 5. Instead, there is a thing called the 23 Enigma that claims the number is profoundly significant. No, profoundly. As in being somehow inherently bound into the universe. People really believe this – Google it – but what I like is that this in itself is an example of confirmation bias. You think 23 is significant, so you see 23 in significant places. You see what you want to see, in other words.

2. When you switch your computer on and off again, you’re not fixing something, you’re making a small sacrifice to the god of two, the god of binary. Everything computers do for us is based on what bits are on and what are off.

K. Binary is base 2 and where we think of everything in base 10 because that’s how many fingers we’ve got, these two bases do blur together at one point. At K. In binary when you say 1K you mean 1,024 somethings. This computer term has been borrowed by business but business said bollocks to that 24 bit, 1K equals 1,000.

So if you earned an average of 40k or £40,000/year for forty years, you’ve just been screwed out of £38,400. That’s like working for nothing for pretty much a year. You know, the same way women are paid.

Hex. Base 16. It would been a bit of a stretch to say that the fact we shorten hexadecimal to hex is because it is the cursed base. But I did play hexadecimal Sudoku just once and still wake up clutching a crucifix.

Before we reveal our all-time #1, here are some honourable mentions. F. That’s another base 16 number but I already told you I only know one clean maths joke. 70. There’s nothing special or wrong about 70, but I only recently learned that the number doesn’t exist in French. You have to say the equivalent of 60 plus 10. Funny old world, isn’t it? Infinity. I could go on about this one.

And now, our number 1:

0. Zero. The last digit to be invented – and it was invented, it had to be thought up. Seriously, human beings survived for eleventy-million years without a zero and if it weren’t for ancient Indian mathematicians, we still wouldn’t have it. How would writers understand how much we were being paid if we didn’t have a word for zero?