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.

Back podcasting at last

Ten years ago I started a weekly podcast called UK DVD Review and for a while it was in the top ten of all podcasts of all types across the world. Chiefly, I think, because there were only nine podcasts at the time. For five years that became an important show for me in how it seemed to validate certain things I believe about radio: for instance the fact that you may be broadcasting but you’re only ever speaking to one person.

It was a factual series yet I also got to dabble in drama. I remember some Top Gear DVD coming out the same week as a Knight Rider one so I had an episode that purported to be coming live from a race track somewhere. Top Gear’s the Stig in a race against Knight Rider’s KITT. The joke of it being that the two cars zoomed off leaving me behind and I spent the rest of the episode getting back to my home studio.

Or there’s an okay film called The Prestige which is based on a deeply wonderful novel by Christopher Priest and I reckoned there was a bit of The Princess Bride effect about it: if you saw the film first, you preferred it to the book and vice versa. (The Princess Bride film is not one pixel as good as the book.) So I staged an argument with one person as a fan of the film and the other as a fan of the book instead. Only, I was both of them. I argued with myself and it was all about writing dialogue that had pace and vigour but also difference. I did muck around with the stereo image so that one of me was on the left of your speakers, one on the right, and I did do a spot of acting to just make the tiniest change in my voices.

But it was the writing that did it. The real reason for doing UK DVD Review, before it became an important part of my life just for itself, was that I am a scriptwriter and I wanted to practice writing dialogue. It was my own dialogue, I scripted every word but the secondmost thing I’m proud of in the whole thing is that you couldn’t know that. I promise you couldn’t and that mattered to me a lot.

The firstmost thing I’m proud of, by the way, is that to this day I have friends I made because of that show. I used to do this thing where I’d end the year with a poll and have people voting on the best DVD releases. For the very last episode I’d get them on and we’d have a blather. Loved it.

That was the best part of the year but it was also why I stopped. In 2010, I ended the podcast because I simply could not give it enough time to do that end of the year show well enough. I often wonder whether I should’ve found a way and it touches my very soul how often I get asked to bring it back.

I haven’t brought it back. This time last week, I had no thought of doing a podcast of any description. I have been contributing to one by MacNN.com, the Macintosh News Network site that I write a bit for, but that’s just being an occasional guest. Plus I got to do an episode of Gigi Peterkin’s The Successful Failure and I remember telling her how good it was to have a little taste of radio again. I’ve done a fair bit of being interviewed on BBC local radio too and it’s all been reminding me how much I love this stuff.

Then I did some work with Birmingham City University that included a minute or three just walking through their seven radio studios. There is something inexpressibly great about a radio studio but I’m going to try expressing it. I think it’s the potency, the pregnant feel that this still, quiet, empty space can and will become alive and vibrant and an entire new world.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m back doing a podcast but I hadn’t thought of it until a casual chat last Monday. MacNN staffers were discussing how well the podcast is going and somehow the idea of an extra weekly episode was floated. By Wednesday night, I’d produced the first episode of what’s called MacNN: One More Thing and it’s available on iTunes and Soundcloud right now. It’s a separate series, though you get it in the same iTunes feed as the main show, and I co-present it with MacNN news writer Malcolm Owen.

So it’s not the same as UK DVD Review in that I don’t have to find ways to carry each episode by myself and it’s more about technology than arts but I’m producing and co-presenting. This is week 1 and actually I don’t know how long this will go on for. The ratings are already good but One More Thing is here in part because there’s a lot of Apple news going on at the moment and that will ebb and flow. One More Thing may need to run in seasons. We’ll see.

But, oh, to be producing again, even if it were just for one episode. I cannot explain the sheer joy of crafting radio: hearing your own voice as just one more asset to be edited and used. Shaping a programme, driving it forward, applying all my news skills to making a topical, timely, interesting episode. Applying all my writing and editing skills to fashioning a complete, coherent edition. One More Thing isn’t supposed to be edited much but of course it is and the old satisfaction of an edit done well came back in shovels.

I have an advantage that I’m encouraged to make this podcast different from MacNN’s other one and that’s a blessing. MacNN’s main podcast is produced and presented by editor Charles Martin and I could not match him if I tried. So I’ve devised a different format, a different tone and it runs for 30 minutes which is quite short for an Apple-related podcast but just seems right for a midweek extra series. In my head I’m doing the It Takes Two spinoff from Strictly Come Dancing or the Extra Slice for The Great British Bakeoff.

I’ve now daunted myself and I’ve got to go produce episode 2. Thanks.

But it’s good to be back and it’s far more good than I imagined. Write yourself a radio show, would you? It’s the best thingm especially for writers.

Fail wail

Now this is a distinction. I am proud of this, though even typing those words to you I just paused to scratch my head. I am proud, it’s just possible that I shouldn’t be.

For it turns out that I am so good at failing, at completely screwing everything up and at being rejected and fired that I’ve just been interviewed about it.

The American podcast series The Successful Failure podcast has a new 45-minute episode devoted to just how badly I do things. Me. The whole show.

Okay, also to how I cope, when I do, and what coping mechanisms I have, when I have any.

The Successful Failure is really about taking bad things in one’s career and learning from them. Before I went on it, I listened to the previous episodes and the recurring theme is about specific failures that have then directly led to specific successes. Maybe I’m lacking in specific successes but where do you want to start with the failures?

I’ve known the producer/presenter Gigi Peterkin for years so she knew to steer me away from topics like my dress sense and hair style which will come back in to fashion, they will. Instead she focused on a few key writing failures and I will tell you she got more out of me than I’d intended to reveal.

I won’t tell you what. And you know how usually when someone writes to you like this, you know they’re going to end with a link and they’re trying to get you to listen?

Not this time.

I will include the link because I get twitchy if I don’t link you out to somewhere more interesting and The Successful Failure podcast is more interesting.

But I am truly fine if you never listen to the episode about me. Seriously, I’m good with that. Forget I ever mentioned it.

The Successful Failure podcast is on iTunes and also at its official site. One thing I can tell you from having done the show is that I’ve been told who else is lined up for an appearance. The show’s got some truly interesting people in the next few weeks.