TV got better when I stopped reviewing it

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Once I left BBC Ceefax and when my Radio Times work became more news and less reviews, I felt that television drama and comedy took a lurch upwards.

Just saying this to you now makes me think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where if you measure something’s location, you affect its speed and vice versa.

But really all that happened, all that changed was that I no longer had to watch to the end of rubbish shows. So now I was only seeing series that I enjoyed.

Still, there is a thing about being required to watch TV and specifically to be required to watch to the end. Usually it’s a good thing, too, although again as my fingers type this to you my head has just flashed back to Harbour Lights. That was a 1999/2000 BBC drama by many good writers but you didn’t watch it. You can now: it’s on YouTube.

I watched it back before YouTube was imaginable. I remember this night so particularly clearly because I was trying to get ahead one week and this was the big launch, this was the big new show, clearly it was going to be the one reviewed and I had the tape right there. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened next but some other show get that night’s review slot and you are now reading the first words I’ve ever written about Harbour Lights.

But then there are the shows I probably wouldn’t have watched, might not have got around to watching, or wouldn’t have caught until years later.

I’m thinking of three of them.

Some time around 2003, I think it was, two DVDs with the Battlestar Galactica mini series came in to the Radio Times office. This is a TV show but it was funded by Sky and that broadcaster decided to put it out first on its movie channels. So RT wasn’t going to review it as television and the film team had already written a dismissive 50-word description broadly saying how rubbish television is compared to movies.

Then for some other reason I never knew, Sky delayed airing the movie. So those disks lay there on a desk for a week or more until one night when I was coming home to Birmingham by coach and had nothing to watch. You’re thinking I took those disks and loved them, but you’d be wrong.

I took one of the disks and was furious at myself because it was going to be a week before I could get the second.

Then let me take you back again to VHS tapes. I used to get piles of VHS tapes from the broadcasters and I particularly enjoyed going to collect them from the BBC Previews Department. Great people, I liked them tremendously, and on the supremely circuitous route you had to walk from Ceefax to their office, you went through the scenery bay where they kept the TARDIS.

This was long before Doctor Who came back and the new show built its own police box so this old one was just left there from affection. Plus you could store so much inside it.

I definitely got the Harbour Lights tape from them and just looking up air dates now, I think it’s possible that in the same week Channel 4 sent me Queer as Folk.

I don’t remember if I watched them on the same night. I do remember staying over in London in some B&B that had a TV set and a video. I remember being dog-tired. I remember being rather hungry. And I can see something like six VHS tapes in a pile that felt like the most enormous slog to get through.

Until I popped Queer as Folk in.

There’s a story that the first scene of Queer as Folk was coming across as a bit serious, that its tone was setting up the show to not feel the way it should. So an extra scene was written, shot and inserted at the start of the episode. It’s Craig Kelly as Vince talking to camera about one night out on Manchester’s gay scene and concludes with a description of a man who “has every episode of Juliet Bravo on tape”.

It’s fast and funny and booms you into the series – and I didn’t need a word of it because I was already grabbed. I tell you, I can vividly recall sitting up as the title sequence started. I just watched it again now and there is a verve, a call to action, a delighted energy in the music and that was it. A dog-tired, hungry slog of an evening was now great.

The music was by Murray Gold, the series was written by Russell T Davies, produced by Nicola Schindler and the first episode directed by Charles McDougall.

Can I tell you one more? Because it’s the reason I’m remembering all of these shows this week. For twenty years ago on 6 June 1998, Sex and the City began.

That’s the original US air date and apparently Channel 4 first aired it here in 1999. I know it’s not from the same night’s reviewing as Harbour Lights and Queer as Folk because I can remember the different hotel room.

And I can remember having only it to watch. If I hadn’t, if I’d got other shows to get through, I’d have got through them. Because I didn’t think episode 1 of Sex and the City was good at all.

Whereas episode 2, Models and Mortals, was great. Both the first two were written by series creator Darren Star but I thought then that pilot was heavy handed and this next one flew. There’s got to be an issue of how I knew the characters going in to episode 2 but still, pilots are hugely difficult and I don’t think this one worked.

So there’s a lesson for us both. Watch every episode of everything because it might turn out to be brilliant. There you go.

Bookshelf with script books

Reading scripture

My overcrowded office shelves include one bookcase full of screenplay books and another couple of shelves of A4-printed ones. I used to collect them because I used to read them. A lot. I would read a script and make a note of whether I liked it: just a simple note to come back to reread this one some time or to avoid that writer forever. I remember that I read over a thousand before I stopped bothering to make those notes but of course I carried on reading.

Only, what used to be a habitual purchase has become a rare one because there are dramatically fewer scripts and screenplays published any more. That’s entirely because so very many more are released online. Not only is that cheaper and easier than buying bookcases full of the things, it also has unmatched advantage that the scripts look the way they should.

Books always alter them. At best it’s in order to cram more words on the page and therefore have fewer pages. At worst it’s not the script, it’s a transcript. Admittedly that one is a problem online too: there are people who will write down every word said in a film and call it the script. I can’t knock anyone being dedicated to words but some will do it as an unbroken stream of dialogue without any regard to even which character is saying which sentence. Madness.

Yet you learn to avoid those and you learn where there are real scripts. Only, maybe because it’s now easy and maybe because there are so many available to choose from, I realised that I stopped reading scripts.

Not entirely. I can think of 300 or 400 TV episodes I’ve read. And it’s always faster to read a screenplay than to see a film so when I was curious about Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs movie but not quite curious enough to see it, I read that. Then for instance I liked the sound of (500) Days of Summer by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber so I read that.

Curiously, I later enjoyed the film (500) Days of Summer more than most people I know who didn’t read the script. And I enjoyed Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay more than the film when it finally turned up on Netflix the other day.

Still, overall, the trend was against me reading scripts – though I ran to get the screenplay to Arrival by Eric Heisserer as soon as I left the cinema – and as someone who counts himself as a scriptwriter, this isn’t brilliant.

So when Hayley McKenzie’s Script Angel firm ran a guest blog recommending we read one script a day, I was ready to hear that suggestion.

I read that blog on 22 December and from 23 December, I’ve read a script every day. The blog is right. I’m thinking in script form again. But I’m also just enjoying it. Because I’ve made it a daily task – it is actually there on my OmniFocus app To Do list every day – then I tell myself it’s work and for the short time it takes me to read a script, I seem to allow myself to be fully into it. Concentrating and yet also relaxing.

Today’s was Give Me a Ring Sometime, the pilot to Cheers by Glen and Les Charles. I tell you, television pilots are surely the hardest scripts to write and I knew that Cheers had one of the absolute best. I’ve seen that pilot episode many times but I haven’t read it before. And just like its spinoff Frasier, arguably the finest pilot script there is, seeing it on the page makes you appreciate it more.

It also makes you appreciate editing. I know Frasier was cut down to fit its ridiculously short on-air time and I’ve always seen that the pilot script was actually improved by the cutting. Now I know that Cheers, such a familiar piece of television to me, was also cut down. One entire character dropped completely and I think rightly.

Excuse me while I go watch the episode to see if there’s any sign of her. Yep. Once you know this woman had a significant role you can’t miss her. But that entire role is gone and I’m off pondering how her absence alters the tone, the pace, the humour. I’m also pondering how that actor felt, but that’s less because I’m a writer, more because I’m human.

Anyway, I’ll be back reading scripts tomorrow. If you’re into film scripts, by the way, bookmark the Daily Script and Simply Scripts. Neither is the best-designed site and in the latter you have to hunt to avoid unproduced scripts by fans.

If you’re into TV, you can get many scripts on both of those sites but by far the best resource is one called just TV Writing. I adore that one.

Write Justified

Poster for FX TV show Justified

Usually you and I talk wherever we happen to be and if there’s a mug of tea, so much the better. Today, though, I’m in my office and so I can tell you with a single glance that there are 178 books on the shelf behind me. With a second single glance I can tell you that together they contain 1,127 scripts.

Okay, it took a little more than a glance and I’m partly telling you so that the two hours I spent counting them for a Writers’ Guild column don’t feel wasted. They weren’t really wasted but they also weren’t two hours: I ended up re-reading so many of these favourites.

You can’t be a writer without being a reader, it’s like breathing in and out. And if you’re writing a script without having ever seen one, I know already that your script is crap. Not because there’s some great rule you don’t know but because you’re plainly not interested in your medium.

But here’s the thing. I recommend all 178 books and I recommend all 1,127 scripts, even the bad ones, except I don’t. I’d have to count them all again to be sure and you wouldn’t ask me to do that, please, but I expect that perhaps only 40% of these scripts are really scripts.

The rest are at best reformatted. Real scripts look great to me: the layout, the form, it’s all as correct and pleasing as a haiku but I do see a problem for book publishers. There’s an awful lot of whitespace on the page. A TV hour could be 50-70 pages, a film is typically around 120 pages. In a book, if you stuff the formatting, you can get that lot into 30 pages and make off with all the printing money you just saved. Layout matters, it’s all done the way it is for a reason, but I’m mostly okay with that so long as the text is what was written.

For the very longest of times I thought the problem was that the text so often isn’t what was written. Actually, I still think that to an extent. Instead of the script as delivered by the writer, you might get the equivalent of what the BBC calls a Programme As Broadcast form: a verbatim transcript of the final result. Faber and Faber did this with Woody Allen films and I only found out after I’d bought the book.

Transcripts are worthless. You get fan websites where some astonishing sod has counted every word and written them all out. If you want to do that, there’s a part of me that applauds your effort and industry plus there’s a part of me that sees you’re honouring writers. But don’t pass this junk off as a script.

For real scripts are the true blueprint of a drama: they show you the scaffolding. The dialogue as written plus the stage directions plus the very style it’s all written in are to do with the setting the tone and telling the story. The actors don’t make up the words but a script is not just the words they say.

So when the internet turned up and had all these scripts on it, when I learned to spot a transcript at a million paces and thereby always recognise a real script when I see it, I stopped buying the books. Mostly. I still do. But not in the volume I did. And if you asked me, I’d recommend you do the same because the online copies are the best, most accurate representation of the job. It is the sole reason for recommending the BBC Writersroom, for instance: forget everything else they say they do, they have a genuinely excellent online script library.

Only, my newest obsession is an American TV drama called Justified. It ran for six years from 2010 and I’ve seen the pilot a couple of times yet not until recently tried the rest. But for the past week or two, I’ve been eating this show up and I’ve been reading the half-dozen scripts that you can get online. And it is fascinating because the differences between the show and what appear to be the final drafts of the script are far, far greater than I’m used to. They’re peek-inside-the-writers’-mind level of differences.

I can’t count how many scripts I’ve read because it was quicker than watching the film or the show. I read something like 150 scripts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before watching a second episode of it. When it’s well written, that’s fine, it works on the page tremendously and differences in the broadcast version are minor. Read The Good Wife pilot script online, for instance, and it’s a final draft that is near-as-dammit verbatim to the aired show. The only difference I particularly noticed was that one very good scene was taken out of the pilot and popped into episode two. But with Justified, the changes are huge, most especially in the pilot and I think I’m learning a lesson here from both reading the scripts and watching the show.

I think that changes in the pilot are probably only to be expected: this is such an important episode that you can imagine it being reworked and reworked and reworked all the way up to the editing room. Except some of the differences are not tweaks, they are fundamental changes to the very premise of the show.

They’re actually quite small alterations, they’re a few different lines, a couple of different scenes at most, but their impact is seismic. Let me give you the example that made me want to talk to you about this.

Justified is about US Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens who returns to his home state of Kentucky after, well, some problems. It’s based on a character in an Elmore Leonard short story and the pilot is written by the series creator Graham Yost. Here’s the script as written, though with apologies I’ve had to change the layout to get it on here. It’d help to know that Dan is Raylan’s boss.

INT. US MARSHALL’S OFFICE – SOUTHERN DISTRICT – DAY

RAYLAN (CONT’D): You want me to take some time off?

DAN: No. I want you to take a temporary reassignment.

RAYLAN: Where?

DAN: That’s up to you. There are five districts nationwide low on manpower, could use you.

RAYLAN: Is Eastern Kentucky on that list?

DAN: It is.

RAYLAN: I’ll go there.

DAN: You don’t want to think about it?

RAYLAN: That’s where I grew up. And I know the marshal, Art Mullen. He and I taught firearms at Glynco.

DAN: You still got family in Kentucky?

RAYLAN: Ex-wife in Lexington. I believe my father’s still down in Harlan.

DAN: You believe?

RAYLAN: (shrugs, then:) There’s another reason I’d like to go. I was checking out the national suspects list and I saw a name in Eastern Kentucky I recognized: Boyd Crowder. (off Dan’s look) He was a guy I knew growing up. Back when we were 19, we dug coal together.

So Raylan is going home. If that’s not a series start, I don’t know what is. Except possibly this. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but this next is a transcript. Someone has transcribed Justified and if they’ve done it really badly – each word is there but not a clue who is saying which sentence and often no evidence that it’s now a different person – then at least they saved me some typing. I’ve cleaned it up and made it clearer, added the scene heading, but otherwise, here’s the same scene as broadcast and transcribed:

INT. UNDERGROUND CARPARK – DAY

DAN: Let me put it to you this way. The weather forecast is for a shitload of shit raining down on this office from Washington. I’m gonna reassign you.
RAYLAN: Prison Transport?
DAN: No, I’m getting you out of Dodge. They need manpower in the Eastern District of Kentucky. I talked to the chief of the district, Art Mullen, says you guys taught Firearms together at Glynco.
RAYLAN: No, no, Dan. I grew up in Kentucky. I don’t wanna go back there.
DAN: Well, then we have a problem, because you don’t wanna go back to Kentucky, and you cannot, under any circumstances, stay here.

So Raylan is going home and he doesn’t want to. Now that’s a series start. Remember that this is the same writer but every part of it is different right down to how much better, in my opinion, the dialogue is. I think Yost found the right way into the story and as soon as he’d done that, the dialogue flew too.

I don’t know. The other scripts available online are final draft production ones with long lists of revisions – and actually, slightly more than I’m used to seeing. Usually there’s a half a dozen to a dozen rewrites on these things but with the Justified scripts you see them specify that a rewrite was on a particular scene. That tells me the rewrite came very, very late, that production was well underway. I don’t know why that should be on this show more than any other, but I do know that Justified is a superb piece of writing.

I’m just so thoroughly engrossed by how that change about wanting to go makes such a deep-rooted difference to every aspect of the show. From the plot to most definitely the character but also the atmosphere. And the exposition. There is some detail in that drafts script that didn’t make it to that transcript of the broadcast but the few that mattered are delivered in a later scene instead. They work better there, too, but then they would.

You think you can tell any story in any way yet somewhere along the line, there becomes just one single way to tell it well. Find that and suddenly it all works. If only it were as easy as that sounds, if only if I weren’t struggling with the same thing on a script of mine too.

Listen, go watch Justified. And when you get ahead of me – I’m on the last episode of the first season – you cannot, under any circumstances, tell me what’s coming next.