No better time

This is going to sound so optimistic that you’ll think I’m auditioning to write for Hallmark Cards. But I mean it.

I mean this: right now is the best time there has ever been to be a writer.

Okay, just to get Hallmark off my back, I will also say that this is the worst time it has ever been to be a paid writer. Getting money for this is tough. But while I can’t and won’t discount the problems, the opportunities are astonishing.

I was doing a writing masterclass session at Birmingham City University this week where we discussed a couple of students’ work in detail. One of them was a short radio play and I’m blathering on about it when I realise that actually what this writer needs isn’t me.

She needs to make that play.

And she can.

Now, I’ve been in Birmingham City University’s radio studios and they are impressive: I presume she can book space there. And there’s a School of Acting around the place so I imagine casting isn’t going to be a great problem.

But as handy as all that is, the truth is that she’s got a phone. I don’t know what phone and I don’t know what recording apps she may have, but for pennies she can turn that phone into a recording studio.

She can even edit the audio on the phone and I’ll never get used to that. I don’t mean that as in I’ll never cope with doing it on phones, I mean that I edit audio a great deal and it is forever a delight what you can do now. I learned on giant BBC local radio desks and I was taught to edit with razor blades and chinagraph pencils. And, actually, I think sometimes you learn better from doing it physically, from doing edits where you can’t undo them with a tap or a click.

But then that’s really what I think about writing now. You have always been able to write but now you can see and hear how that writing works. Immediately. Pretty much.

I had lots to say to this student about her script and I loved that she and the whole room had lots to tell me that I’d missed in it. But ultimately I mean it: write something, make it, and you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you.

I don’t quite know how this goes for novelists but for scriptwriters, this is the best time there ever was. If only we could lick the money problem.

You need good people

It is shockingly hard to get good people and so when you do, you hang on to them. I was in a phone call just now with a producer who admitted that this is a thing with him, that loyalty is precious. Now, I liked that conversation because I am loyal to this guy and he’s been loyal to me back. But it’s weird that it should’ve come up now because I thought I knew this yet I think I re-learnt it this week.

I’ve been doing a bit of work with the Royal Television Society, popping in to some of their school education days. They’re there to show kids that there are more careers in media than you would imagine, that there are skills you need for media work that help you in every type of job. I go in as a writer, I mock my own old school and praise the one we’re in – as invariably, just invariably, these schools are better than mine was – and I help out during the day’s main exercise.

Oh, you would wish your school had done this exercise. By the end of the day, the kids present a pitch. This time there were 65 kids and they were divided into 10 groups. There have been more, there have been fewer, but that’s the usual group size. All of the kids are typically aged around 14 so they’re just at the point where they’re really looking at their future career prospects.

The pitch is for an eight-minute feature to be made for City8, the forthcoming television station for Birmingham. Des Tong from City8 and Jayne Greene from the RTS brief the kids on the types of ideas needed and how to pitch. Each group of kids has to come up with an idea, then assign roles – writer, producer, designers and so on – then prepare and present a pitch to a little panel of judges. Des is always the head judge, on the days I’ve been there I’m chuffed to say I’ve been a mini-judge too.

But for me the kicker, the thing that makes this not just a fun and good idea but a vividly great one, is that it’s for real.

This is not some paper exercise, it isn’t some classroom contrivance, it’s real.

If your group has a good enough idea, if it’s viable and workable for television and if you present your pitch persuasively enough, City8 will do it. Now, they’re committing to doing one – I think it’s only if there is one that is good enough – and with the RTS they’ve been talking to a lot of schools. Each school’s best idea goes forward to a final next month and after that, City8 will produce and broadcast the feature.

Do this right and you’re on air.

I know adults who’d kill or at least maim for a shot at doing this, so to have it offered to schoolkids along with help to get it right, I’m deeply impressed with the RTS and City8. I’m deeply proud to sometimes be there and I take this seriously. I speak to the kids at the start, I go around every group listening to the ideas and asking questions.

But this time, on the last of these sessions and for the first time, I interfered.

There was this one group that at first were so clearly on the ball that I sat down and practically got right back up again immediately. They hadn’t got an idea yet but they were discussing it like a professional production meeting and I thought the young woman acting as the group’s producer had a real handle on all this.

There were ten groups today so it took me a time to get around all of them but on my way looping back, I stopped by that first table and things were very different. On the good side, they now had an idea but on the bad, it wasn’t going to happen. They were not going to win this because they were not going to be ready to pitch.

I need to be a little circumspect here because this was a school and I don’t want to identify anyone. But what had gone wrong was this particular group. There was a small set of kids who didn’t want to do anything at all, there was a small set who wanted to work but refused to pitch. It was nerves and shyness and you see this, you understand it, you try to help these kids along. Sometimes – fortunately rarely – you recognise that there is nothing you can do in the time, so you just have to leave them to get on with it or not. There are groups you can help, who will take the help. Naturally, then, you help them.

But this time was different because the young woman producing was doing so well. That’s an odd thing to say when she’d lost control of her team but the unfairness of that rankled with me. The school picked the groups and there was a specific plan to break up friends and thereby get everyone working with new people. That’s more than fine, that’s a good idea but in this case, it just seemed strongly clear to me that she was saddled with a tough group. I could see the frustration in her and it was just wrong.

So I took her to one side for a chat and we discussed what she was doing so well, we talked about the problem with the team.

As she gets older and if she wants to do this more, she will need to learn how to control a group better. But for now, I split her group up into two. Her one had all the kids who were willing to work and I created a second set for all those kids who didn’t. That splinter group didn’t get to pitch an idea, I have no clue what they did for the rest of the session and actually I didn’t even think about that until right now. Talking to you, I wonder what they did. But at the time, they were out of my head because they were out of the game.

That’s what happens outside school, that’s what happens when you are pitching for real. You can cut yourself off from consideration, you can waste opportunities.

It’d be great to tell you now that this young woman’s team won but they didn’t. It’d be great to tell you that she has a career waiting for her in the BBC if she wants it – and she does. Except she doesn’t want it. She’s set on a completely different career and I know she’ll get it.

The group that did win deserved to. I voted for them and it was right that they came out top. They had a good idea and I’ve seen before how that can carry you over many a bumpy hurdle, but they also just worked together very well. They rehearsed well, too: got the idea on its feet and used the time they had, used the space they were given to perform in.

You can’t be sure what teams will and won’t work well together but you can be sure what a difference it makes when they do.

Lots of people are involved in this Royal Television Society work but for the days I’ve contributed, it has felt as if I were part of a good team myself. You often don’t get that as a writer, you often don’t get that feeling because you can be finished with your work before anyone else starts, because you can hand over a script and be on to the next project. So I’ve enjoyed this a lot and it’s mattered to me. I hope I get to do it again next year.

Finding Fame

So there’s this thing about Thomas the Tank Engine. It doesn’t especially matter whether it’s a good or a poor TV show, what tends to happen regardless is that people love it when they’re very young. Then they go to school and wouldn’t be seen dead with a Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. Next, they get through the embarrassment and forget about the show but then many years later, they’re buying the DVDs in a nostalgia bin or joining the online Thomas forums.

Hopefully the quality of the show played in to one’s enjoying it when very young, but now that certainly has nothing to do with it: you’re watching that DVD and you aren’t seeing Thomas the Tank Engine, you are seeing yourself.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a complete episode.

But I appear to have gone through this cycle with Fame.

That’s Fame the TV show, not the film. It has always and forever been okay to like the film written by Christopher Gore and directed by Alan Parker. It seems to me that the film is much more about failure than it is about fame and that miserable bleakness plus some great music makes it pretty timeless.

Whereas my main memory of the TV series is that it was extremely bright and colourful and jazz-hands happy. These are all things that lend themselves to embarrassment so the show was always at risk of this but it did also come in 1982 when US television was mostly light, easy-watching fare. My beloved Lou Grant was cancelled the year before and while it was replaced on the schedule by Cagney and Lacey, while Family Ties started then too, while St Elsewhere began as well, most of the year was pretty bad. TJ Hooker started. The Happy Days spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi began its brief run. Bring ‘Em Back Alive. Remington Steele started in 1982 and much as I enjoy it, it was froth. And then there was Knight Rider.

But it’s funny how many of those titles you recognise. Three decades on and the only one you’re not sure of is Joanie Loves Chachi. Then, too, there is little question but that you know this line:

You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying … in sweat.

I should write a line that gets remembered and quoted in 32 years time.

You’re expecting me to re-evaluate Fame and say that at least that it doesn’t deserve its cheesy reputation or perhaps that it actually deserves to be a classic. I don’t know. I am Thomas the Tank Engine-style blinded to it. But I re-found it by an odd route and it’s proved to be a route that has made me re-evaluate the series as a production. Maybe it’s because I’ve been involved in shows now, maybe because I’ve had to produce the odd thing, but I have a new and very great respect for how this TV series was made. How they physically made 136 episodes.

Every US TV show, especially of that time, was making up to 24 episodes per year but this series was making 24 musicals. A new musical every week. The ones I’ve been watching this week tended to have three musical numbers each: typically a solo song over some montage or other, plus some kind of dance-room-related tune and then usually a big, full production number with the large cast of regular dancers. If you only count the professional routines and not all the pro/celebrity dances, that’s more than we see each week on Strictly Come Dancing or its US equivalent Dancing with the Stars.

Doing that on a drama budget, doing that on a drama schedule, it makes me go pale. The writer in me is also immediately conscious of the impact that makes on your script. You have to stand up three musical numbers, you have to find a story that allows for these to happen naturally during your episode. It’s bloody hard and not every writer, not every episode, succeeds: even in the first few of the series that I’ve just watched, there are one that feel contrived. Nice tunes, but fudged into the story.

Then equally, there’s a writing issue of how long those songs or dances take. Three minutes each? Two? Call it two minutes apiece on average and you are still handing over six minutes of your fifty-minute running time to a musical interlude. Your story has to fit fifty minutes, has to deliver a big moment ahead of each of three commercial breaks and then resolve itself. Oh, and let’s have another one next week. And the week after.

I don’t think I was aware of all this in 1982, though I was already seeing television as something that is crafted rather than just a thing you half-watch in the evening. But I am aware of it now and that made the route I came back to Fame all the more interesting. Because I found it again through the scripts.

I have no clue, not one single clue, what I was looking for online last weekend but in that rabbit-hole kind of way, I found myself coming across Fame and specifically across The Kids from Fame Media Blog. It looks like it was designed in the 1980s and it’s tricky to find your way around. So tricky that while that’s the site’s front door, it’s just taken me a time to find the scripts I first stumbled across. But they’re here: the complete shooting scripts for Fame, beginning with the first season.

I read a lot of scripts, I enjoy reading scripts, I’m particularly interested in this set for how they approach the musical numbers. Some just have scene headings and a few lines of description like

91. BRIDGET’S AUDITION – PRODUCTION NUMBER

starts simply and builds as the corps of dancers from Lydia’s class move onto stage to back and accentuate Bridget’s routine. Leroy is her male ‘support’ dancer, helping her in lifts and turns, etc. The moves are intricate, always keeping Bridget in the forefront of the audience’s focus, leading to a final portion in which all the dancers fall away, leaving the performing arena to Bridget, allowing her to carve graceful shapes from thin air, in concert with Bruno’s music…

Let us all take a moment to imagine being Debbie Allen, not only having to learn her lines from the script as she starred as dance teacher Lydia Grant but also having to go uh-uh, graceful lines, right honey, and choreograph that number.

One script included all the lyrics to the various songs. It was really confusing: the lyrics were written out in all capital letters, very hard to read, and the way they were positioned in the script meant they were followed by dialogue that was clearly meant to precede them. But they did also include very familiar – to me from my radio work – cues and timings for how long the music would take.

And then another script just gives up and says, in total:

MUSIC #1 – TO BE ANNOUNCED

It’s funny how clearly you can see a show finding its feet through its scripts and just how they are written, what they tell the production. I’ve read entire series of scripts before to see how a show develops from start to end and it’s terribly instructive as well as interesting.

So as a writer, I recommend taking a look at the scripts. If you tell anyone we talked about this, tell ’em that I was very serious about production issues and script writing and the history of television, okay? Maybe you can tell them I admitted I’ve enjoyed watching the episodes and that I like the music.

But if you ever tell anyone that I had a gigantic crush on one of the Fame dancers, you’re off my Christmas card list and no mistake.