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.

408 Not Out

I’ve said this to you before but if you don’t remember, it’s fine: just ask anyone I’ve ever passed on the street because I’ve told them this too. The sole way I have of guessing whether my work is any good is if I’m asked back to do it again.

And I think this might be very male of me but usually I also track the details, the minutiae of what I’m doing. Except for one thing: word counts.

I’m rubbish at this bit, I cannot now remember how I worked this out but I am certain that I’ve had over four million words published. I’m less certain but pretty sure that I’m on the way to five million. Half a billion words published.

Good or bad, that’s a career.

Only, there is a number that I know for absolute, documented fact because I absolutely document it every time it happens. It’s now five years since I was made redundant from Radio Times (I’ve been freelance since 1996 but RT put me on staff for a couple of days a week) and shortly after that, I was asked to speak at a festival. Five years, 1996, two days, these aren’t the numbers I track.

Instead, for some reason – and who knows why – I made a note of that festival and I gave it a number. I mean, I was delighted to be asked and I had a great time, but I don’t know why I gave it the number 1. I mean, Steph Vidal-Hall of PowWow LitFest interviewed me and even in the middle of answering questions I was admiring how deftly she was steering me the way she wanted, but I didn’t expect there to be a number 2.

There was.

From that first public speaking gig, I’ve talked at a lot of festivals, I’ve run very many workshops, I’ve been in schools, universities and prisons. Radio. Television, a bit.

So there was a number 2, there was a number 3 and last week there was number 408.

That’s an average of one and a half speaking gigs per week since I left Radio Times.

I was thinking that I’d tell you something useful I’d learned over those 408. I’m not sure I can say anything you don’t already know, though, so my mind’s gone on to how I’ve now mentioned Radio Times to you three times.

It is true that leaving RT was a blow.

It was worse than it sounds, too, because I didn’t just lose whatever it was, two or three days of staff work, I also lost all my freelancing with them. (Almost all: I still write the odd radio review them, even now. I was asked back once to work on a Radio Times book: that was a blast.)

I think at the time I left I was doing three different things, being on staff for the RT website, freelancing for the magazine and, er, something else. Maybe freelancing for the site. I don’t know. But it was typically the equivalent of eight days work per week, so Radio Times was a big deal.

Plus it’s Radio Times and I have adored that magazine all my life. Seriously, everyone should get chance to dip into their archives: I have had such bliss researching television history in those.

You’re aware that there are only seven days in a week, you’ve spotted that, so you can also see that there was no time for any other work than RT. Somehow that wasn’t true, I wrote my first book while I was still there.

It’s just that since I left, I’ve written or co-written another 17 books. Now I can’t figure out how I fitted RT in.

And yet you know this to be true: clearly I think about Radio Times, clearly I miss it, clearly leaving was such a big deal that it is part of me.

Not so much.

I feel bad saying this now because working on RT did mean the world to me, working with those people was tremendous, but it’s all on my mind now for another reason entirely.

It’s that when I left I popped the date into my calendar and for some reason marked it to repeat annually.

This date popped up on my screen the other day. I batted the notification away and carried on writing the script I was working on, but it obviously went into my head.

So I had wanted to give you some life lesson about presenting 408 times. Then I wanted to give you some kind of life lesson about how gigantic, shocking, startling, disappointing change can be fantastic.

But instead I’m just going to say you shouldn’t be so daft as to put reminders in your calendar for events that happened a lifetime ago.

I have no stories about Prince

Well, apart from Kunmi making a group of us go see Purple Rain in the cinema and it being the first and last film I saw with an intermission. The confusion when something purple turned into an ad for a ice lolly, the relief when this meant a break from the film, the sinking feeling that maybe we were only half way through it.

Not that it would be very long before I liked the music from the film but that evening in Derby, that was a long time all by itself.

Whereas I do have a short story of the time I may possibly have slightly annoyed Victoria Wood. Last week I was talking to you about the times I interviewed Gareth Thomas for no purpose – there was a bit more to it than that but it’s a fair summary – and now there’s that time I crossed Victoria Wood for no reason.

Listen, I feel I’m trivialising the news of her death and Gareth Thomas’s, maybe also of Prince’s. Trivialising it down into anecdotes from what I appear now to think is my great celebrity-mingling career. Reducing a life when the most I would want to do is reduce a death: I want to reduce these down into them not happening, please.

Gareth Thomas would not recognise me on the street. I am connected to Prince only via seven billion degrees of separation and I could name more of them than he ever would. And for one half of one moment, there’s Victoria Wood frowning at me. I’m thinking I’ve annoyed her, she’s probably thinking “Did he say something?”

It was at a BBC event and I remember Lee Evans making me convulse, I remember someone very senior agreeing to my interviewing him or her but then spending the ten minutes either looking over my left shoulder to find someone more interesting or talking over my right to somebody across the room. I remember all this and I can picture it, I can picture the table Wood was at when I sat down next to her, I just cannot recall what the event was or when.

Good grief. The handy thing about that Very Senior person is that I can carbon date the event because of her or him. I just looked up him or her and can see from a Wikipedia timeline that the event had to be between 2000 and 2005. I would’ve sworn to you it was the 1990s.

Whenever it is and whatever I’m there for, it’s work and I’d guess either for BBC Ceefax or Radio Times. I’m definitely there to ask questions and learn things. Only, I remember that at the moment I got to Wood’s table, I was thinking about how she was on tour and that meant doing the same show every night for months. I was thinking about how you imagine a writer writes and their writing is finished whereas you know a singer has to re-perform the material over and over. I was thinking of the repetition and the difficulty of that.

So what I thought I was asking Victoria Wood was about whether it’s hard to go back out on stage repeatedly. I know I actually asked about how presumably there must be some nights when you don’t want to do it.

“Well, I hope I’ve never disappointed anybody,” she said and that was about it. Someone else came along, I picture myself reaching out through the swell of people as I say Nooooo in slow motion and they all block my view of just how much offence I’ve given her.

I did offend her and she did take it as an accusation that there are evenings when she wasn’t performing at her best. That isn’t what I meant but now it’s out there, it must be the case, it must be. Yet you don’t think Victoria Wood ever gave a bad performance and nor do I.

I do think some of her pastiche parodies were thin and stretched but I have her Chunky book and the script to Pat and Margaret on my shelves here and I just won’t ever write as well as she does. Sorry. As she did. This is a hard year.