Four out of Tenet

I don’t want to review Tenet, I want to say that it is the most difficult film to understand that I can remember -– just not in the way I believe writer/director Christopher Nolan would presumably want. Tenet is not the mind-bending, brain-swelling complex tale of time travel that its trailer would have you believe, it’s just bloody loud.

That’s what I want to talk to you about. And yes, I did go through a spell of thinking I’m simply getting old and deaf, but that’s not it. As I realised, when I gave up on the film about two thirds of the way through and instead read the screenplay.

Read that script and you will find the sound and fury cover up a lot of nothing. The dialogue that you didn’t quite catch turns out to be mostly pretty pedestrian exposition. Then the lead character’s name is actually “Protagonist”, which seems like it explains why you don’t especially care whether he lives or dies, since clearly Nolan didn’t either.

The time travel stuff does look fantastic on the screen but turns out to be just as irritatingly simplistic on the page as you had begun to suspect. Some people from the future are waging war on us, the people in their past. It makes for some marvellous visuals as certain characters are moving forward in time while their enemies are moving backwards through it.

Of course, if people in the future kill everybody in their past, they’re fucked. Tenet admits this and gives us a wee lecture on the Grandfather Paradox, but then shrugs it off completely. A character with an actual name says that, well, yes, no, that’s a bit of an enormous plot hole, you’re right, but it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s just a movie, don’t worry about it. Or he effectively says that, having actually shrugged it off in a way that says we’re stupid for spotting it, move on.

That’s one of a handful of incidents that emphasise the fact that this is a film, moments which jump you out of the story and into being aware of the artifice. Yet according to Nolan, who always sounds so bemused that anyone could want to hear his films, this is part of the experience. Simplistic plots dressed up as complex ones, dialogue you cannot hear, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all an Experience.

I actually like dialogue that you can’t hear. There’s a gorgeous scene in the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk with Me, where we cannot make out what people are saying in a nightclub. All these years later I can’t really remember just how it felt in the cinema, but I think I recall straining to hear while finding it arresting, compelling, even scary. Plus I remember it then being funny when the DVD came out and people discovered that there were optional subtitles for every word.

That scene was deliberately impossible to hear, and equally, Christopher Nolan deliberately chose to have the Tenet audio be so poor.

He’s done more than that, he’s also chosen to criticise people for saying they can’t hear a thing. He’s said that he consciously decided that he would have the audio mix be right for only the very finest cinemas — and he’s then also complained about cinemas getting it wrong.

I don’t believe that anyone can complain about a writer’s artistic intention. Choices made, decisions taken, it’s up to the writer/director what they do. It’s just not up to them whether we like it or not, whether we’re happy at the money it cost to buy the film, or the taste of the aspirin afterwards.

Nolan’s dismissal of this particular criticism is irritating, and it does contribute to how right now I think I’ve had enough. I have never chosen to see a film because of who directed it, or who stars in it, and only occasionally because of who wrote it. Always and forever, it is the story that does or doesn’t attract me, so I’m sure there will be a future Christopher Nolan film where I do want to watch.

When I know he wrote and made it, though, that will stop me rushing.

And I see little chance that I’ll ever watch the final third or so of Tenet.

I do believe that writing is for the audience, not for the writer, but I’m also aware that there are many different audiences. Just because I don’t like something, it obviously doesn’t mean you won’t, and I would argue that Nolan has to have the right to make the films he wants. Considering that he gets to make films when others don’t, he should surely be making the films he wants. It’s a bit of a waste if he’s getting the commissions instead of other writers and then he’s just knocking out something without care or choice or decisions.

Except.

There is still a line somewhere. There is a line between hoping to connect with audience and instead, choosing to irritate them seemingly solely because you can. Antagonise me, upset me, challenge me, but don’t piss me off and make think I should’ve bought Wonder Woman 1984 instead.

But, hey, Christopher Nolan is pretty much infinitely more successful than I am so I’m going to take a telling and apply the same thinking to my work.

Yes.

My next play will be staged in a locked, sound-proofed room with no windows, and I will charge you to stand outside it for two and a half hours.

Don’t look at me like that. I suddenly want to tall it The Tenet of Wildfell Hall. But whatever it’s name and however little you can see of it, I know it will be an Experience.

The standard wasn’t so high, the decision wasn’t so difficult

Whether it’s when an awards ceremony announces its nominees or when the judges email to say you haven’t been selected, it is seemingly a contractual obligation that they open with “the standard of entries was so high”. On pain of death, they will then also say that the judges “had to make a very difficult decision”.

It just isn’t always true.

Sometimes it’s not even close.

I can’t count now the number of times I’ve either been a judge or in some way involved in an awards ceremony, and thankfully there are times when all of this was thoroughly accurate and true. That just occasionally took some work.

The single most useful thing I’ve ever done in any award judging was fiddle a category. I remember a book award jury where we were all a bit deflated because the one that was going to win in a particularly prestigious category was fine. It was okay. We’d all said sure, it gets through to the next stage. But it was sitting there on the table, at the top of the pile in this category, up there less from merit and more from attrition, and you just could not see yourself proclaiming that it was the greatest book in the year.

As it happened, though, a completely separate category had a couple of titles where you would’ve been happy to proclaim that. And I was the one who spotted that the very best of those was only in its category because that’s what its publisher had entered it for. It could equally have been entered into this other prestigious category so I proposed we move it.

And we did. That book moved from one category to another and, totally deservedly, won that more prestigious prize. I still wonder if the publisher spent any time wondering whether he or she had made a mistake on the entry form. But it was such a good book that I wish I could tell you its name.

On the other hand, I’ve been in awards where there was no such option and while the winner was certainly the best, that wasn’t saying much at all. I remember one theatre awards in particular where all ten judges, or however many it was, agreed instantly that there was only a single possible contender for either of the two awards on offer. We were off in this side room, meeting to discuss all of the short plays we’d just seen, and before the biscuits even arrived, we knew the winner.

We just didn’t like it.

The play that won both awards that night was utterly superb, so very much better than anything else in the night — until its last two minutes. Those last two minutes destroyed the play. And yet it had to win, there was nothing else close.

So that writer had a brilliant night, collecting two awards for her play. But both she and at least some of the audience went away thinking right, I need to write great dramas with exceptionally crap endings.

I tell you now, I’m ahead of the game here. I write plays that are crap from start to finish.

Let me tell you a happier tale. No, two happier tales: I was at the Writers’ Guild Awards in January 2020 when I saw the writers of Danger Mouse arrive. I can see me there on the steps, coming within one pixel of greeting them with congratulations because I already knew they’d won. Again, it was a deserved win, too, they had written a gem of an episode that is making me smile just telling you about it.

It’s a little unusual to know the winner, though, even when you’ve been involved. I knew with that book because I was at the final meeting, and I knew about Danger Mouse because I was presenting something else and had been there for the run through.

But even when you’re a judge, you often don’t know the final outcome. If you don’t happen to know how judging works, what always happens is that it starts with the writer or producer or someone submits their work. That gets studied and reviewed and poked at, and then if it’s good enough it becomes an official nomination. Then in various different ways it will be sent to multiple judges who’ll typically come back with their list of favourites, why they liked it so much, and so on. Then there’ll be another round or two whittling it down, arguing, debating and so on, until ultimately there is a winner.

Quite often, unless you’re involved in that very last stage, you can know full well what you voted for but not know who actually won.

Which is why at a previous Writers’ Guild award, I can remember crossing my fingers during the theatre category. And when Frances Poet won for her play Gut, I punched the air and called out “Yes!” sufficiently loudly to be a little embarrassed.

But come on, seeing tremendous work honoured, seeing utterly superb drama writing held up to the light for more people to see, it is fantastic.

It’s just rarely all that difficult a decision.

It has got so that when I hear “the standard was so high”, I think yeah, right, sure. And when I hear “the judges made the difficult decision” I’ve actually felt a bit patronised. It doesn’t matter what the awards are, whether I’m involved, the standard lines just always sound flat. Maybe we should have a Best Awards Award to make up for it.

If we did, I’d be nominating any ceremony hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Fey is a writing hero to me anyway, but just go on YouTube and watch those two hosting over the years.

Funny I should say that now, though. Because I wanted to talk to you about all of this, it was all on my mind, specifically because of the next awards ceremony that, as it happens, they are going to host. They’ll front the Golden Globes again this year and, no doubt, will be superb.

I just don’t think the awards themselves can be.

Look, there were somewhere between 400 and 500 new television dramas or comedies last year, I can’t expect my favourites to all be nominated. And I’m fine with Emily in Paris getting a nomination even though I preferred reading the script, I enjoyed it more on the page than on the screen.

But shows like I May Destroy You are not nominated. That show belongs in a new category of dramas I’m daunted to watch. It’s a Sin is in there too.

Yet its exclusion from the Golden Globes, the US equivalent of the UK’s television BAFTAs, seems peculiar. It seems like the Mona Lisa failing to get a nomination in the award for Best Mona Lisa.

Alan Plater, who won so many awards that I remember this whole cabinet he had of them, said to me once that you can’t take awards too seriously, though.

“Don’t let the BAFTAs grind you down,” he said.

Tinker, Spy, Soldier, Tailor

I’d like to use something very specific so we can talk about something very broad. Right now, BritBox has the 1979 Arthur Hopcraft version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the BBC iPlayer has the 2011 film version by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. And of course John le Carré’s original novel is available everywhere. Plus the script is online.

I’ve read that novel years ago, re-read it now, watched both the BBC and film versions, read the 2011 script, and there is a single scene in the movie that I’ve been fixating on for about a week.

In all the versions, here’s the thing. A British intelligence agent, Peter Guillam, is infiltrating his own agency to steal some files. (This is in the 1970s, files meant big paper and cardboard folders, not a USB stick or three.) It’s every bit as tense as you can imagine with Guillam diverting attention, distracting people and then of course he’s stopped just before he can get away.

He’s doing all this to investigate various senior intelligence officers and he’s stopped by one of them. Before you can wonder if he’ll find a way around this one man, he’s being escorted to all of them.

So now he’s in a closed room meeting with all the people he and we suspect, and if it’s been tense before, we are now certain the game is up.

Except, very nicely, if the game is up then it’s actually a slightly different game. Guillam is threatened, bullied, shouted at, and it’s all over the fact that, as we know, he has been speaking with a particular other agent named Ricki Tarr.

To mix spy genres for a second, Ricki Tarr has been disavowed. Meeting with him is treason, literally. So Guillam has a choice and he makes it. He claims he’s not seen Tarr and he keeps that up throughout – until he is eventually believed.

Fine. More than fine. It is a successfully tense and compelling couple of scenes and so well done that you can feel in your stomach the moment Guillam commits to his lie about not seeing this man.

In the novel.

And in the 1979 BBC version.

These same couple of scenes are in the 2011 movie, but they’re dramatically different, in every sense, because in the movie Guillam has not been speaking with Tarr. He hasn’t seen him.

In the film version, he first meets up Tarr right after these scenes and there’s a bit of action as he takes out his fear – amongst other things – on the man. But here’s the specific general point: his fear is minuscule.

He hasn’t seen Tarr so he wasn’t lying in that scene, in the film. He wasn’t lying so he can’t be caught out. In the BBC version there is every chance that the people accusing him of meeting Tarr have actually seen him do it. In the novel, he’s reasonably confident that he wasn’t under surveillance at the time. He doesn’t know, he can’t be sure, so while it’s weaker in the novel than in the BBC series, the tension is still there.

It isn’t in the film.

I liked the film when I saw it around 2011 and I liked it now, except the BBC one was so fresh in my mind that it was hard to separate them. I think that was probably why I noticed this because I do remember thinking the film was taut and tense the first time I saw it.

I keep thinking and thinking about this. About how a change in the sequence of a story can destroy tension that had otherwise been very carefully engineered.

It’s like the opposite of the Hitchcock theory that a long and boring dinner between two characters can be made riveting if they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table –– and the audience does.

I suspect that the film did the story in this sequence for one of two reasons. It could be collateral damage from decisions about other sequences, when to tell which other bits of the tale. Or it’s possible that it was done to serve Peter Guillam’a character. In the other versions, Guillam gets no big release from surviving this interrogation, no particular action.

In the film, he gets back from the interrogation, sees Tarr and makes a dive for him. It’s one of the few pieces of physical action in the story and it does also let Guillam believe some of the things his interrogators have told him. But he only gets to believe them for a moment, he only gets a brief spot of action.

If it was to give Peter Guillam a character moment, I think it came at the cost of a gigantically bigger one in that interrogation.

So if it were deliberate, I think it was just wrong. If it were a consequence of other issues in the script, other needs, then it’s a shame.

But whichever it is, there is always a reason why a scene is where and when it is in a story.

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.

Bestowing titles

I am struggling to think of a title for our natter today. Which is possibly ironic, as it’s titles that are on my mind. There are times when I think I am really good at them, then many more times like today when I realise I’m not. And occasionally there are other times when I get a title I like so much that I head off into a script or an article or even a book just so I can use it.

That’s definitely how I ended up sending out a script that was definitely something to do with Time, definitely also something to do with accidents or medicine or something. Look, it was years ago, okay? But I did write a script called – oh, right, yes, it was definitely about time and consequences, because I had the title “Causality”.

And consequently had a producer rejecting it with the kind note that I might like to check out BBC1 on Saturday evenings when there is a hospital TV series of that name. And consequently I had to send him a polite, possibly timid, note right back saying oh, no, there isn’t.

Flash forward more years than I am going to admit, and I can tell you where I was standing when I thought of the title for a play I’ve just finished. It was last year – I could look up the date but you’re in a hurry – and I was running a day-long workshop on writing for business. It was for the Federation of Entertainment Unions and I had something like 25 people, all professional, full-time creative freelancers across writing, acting, journalism and music. And we were working on how you write a blurb to describe your current project.

They all had their heads down writing for ten minutes, I was taking this moment to think that as much as I relish the FEU work, what I love is that I’ll do that one day and the next I’ll be on a script. And then I sank a bit as I thought about this particular script which, for about half a dozen reasons, was ridiculously complicated. So much so that I was half spending my time embedded in research and half spending my time pretending I needed more research because otherwise I’d have to actually write.

Sod it, I thought. These people are all struggling to write a description of their current project, this is mine, I’m going to write a description. There can’t have been more than three minutes left on the exercise so I couldn’t overthink it, I just wrote a description –– and a title.

It is not that the title was random. I can’t tell you what it is yet but even if I could, it wouldn’t blow you away with its brilliance, you’d just see that it was the right title for this. But that was the thing: it was the right title and that apparently thoughtless decision in that room has stayed. About a year on, that is still the title of the play.

And it would be. Because it is the right title. What’s more, what’s so very much more, is that having made that call and decided on that title, it was as if all the Tetris blocks that were making this story hard to tell had now lined up. They snapped into place. Writing it was a bit damn harder than that sounds, but having plucked the title out of the mass and the mess of details, I had the entire route from the start to the end of the play.

That’s not happened to me before. A good title has sold a piece, I know that. A good title has given me the launch I needed for an article.

But this is the first time that the right title has enabled the entire play.

Bet you it has to change.

The importance of being Brian

Here’s a thing. I never use your name. We natter away here and I never use your name. You don’t use mine, either, and that’s right. We know each other so unless, I don’t know, you spot me across a room, you’re not all that likely to say “Hello, William Gallagher”. Unless I’m introducing you to someone, I don’t use your name because I know it and what I want is to get straight to asking how you are.

This is how it is, this is how it always is for everyone, unless they’re in a drama.

In film or TV or radio or theatre, we are being introduced to characters who we’re going to know for only quite a short time. I have no problem being told their name, so long as I don’t notice how it’s done. When Lt. Columbo introduces himself to people over and over again, that’s fine, because he’s a police officer, he’s got to tell them, it’s so right and normal that it doesn’t register with me.

But when The X-Files returned and Mulder and Scully referred to each by name eleventy-billion times in the first episode, I noticed. When the makers of Airwolf decided that their hero’s name of Stringfellow Hawke was stupid and somehow concluded that everyone suddenly calling him String instead was much more macho heroic, I noticed. Because in a one-hour show, they called him it either two or three times per minute.

If you notice you’re being told a name, you’re out of the story and I know no greater sin, failing or crime in drama.

And this is on my mind now because of ITV’s drama serial Quiz, about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? coughing fraud case. It was a remarkable piece of work, pulling off dramatic moments I cannot imagine being capable of. And yet I stopped watching after the first episode because, to me, it was unbearably bad at introducing characters.

I’ve a friend who is an enormously more successful writer than I am and she entirely deserves that because she is also enormously better than I will ever be. And yet when she kissed the air and described the writing of Quiz as perfection, I couldn’t help myself. I asked her about Adrian.

Adrian is the key example for me in Quiz, but actually my stopped-me-watching problem was almost every character’s introduction. This writer pal doesn’t disagree with me, she just doesn’t care. Introducing characters is murder and sometimes, as she well points out, you just have to get on with it.

But in Quiz, each introduction was so poor that with one of them, I wondered if it were a joke.

Adrian was just the worst. Diana Ingram is walking into her house with her husband Charles a step behind her and she says that Adrian is here. He responds something like this:

CHARLES: Adrian? Your brother?

Maybe we’re supposed to think that this is an important character, since we’ve been told his name twice. And we must learn that he’s her brother, this is clearly key.

What I actually thought first was ouch. Then second, I thought this is really crap writing, and then third I realised I was out of the story.

While I was out, I realised that the intention was clearly to establish the name Adrian, the relationship, brother, and also because of how it was delivered and the reactions of all the characters, it was telling me that this man is at the house a lot and Charles doesn’t like it. I think it fails at even that much because you don’t check if someone is somebody’s brother if he’s pissed you off by coming over nightly for a year.

I want to underline that I do not and will never say that I could have written Quiz better than James Graham. But as a viewer, I’m out of the story – and while the show did get me back in after a few moments, it would shove me out again every time a new character was this badly introduced.

If you agree with my writer friend that sometimes you just have to get it done, even if it clunks this badly, let me tell you this. I wrote every word of this today convinced that the character’s name was Brian. That character was introduced to me with hammer-blow subtlety, and it didn’t work.

If you’re watching a show and all you can think of is that there are better ways to convey that information, the show has let you down.

And there were. Here’s one way that the line could’ve gone that would be better.

CHARLES:

Yep. Charles could’ve said nothing. We’d have got the character’s name from Diana, and we’d have figured out he was a brother by how the next scene goes, how the three characters act. I suppose we might mistakenly think this was a ménage a trois, but we’d soon figure it out.

I was going to suggest some other alternatives, such as Charles saying “oh, well, let’s get the whole family around and have a party,” but the silence and figuring-it-out combo works for me. I’m a dialogue fanatic, and I think the best line here would be no line.

Funny that I should be so certain that the character’s name was Brian, though.

I feel silly singling out one solitary line from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, but of her torrent of tremendous writing, one single piece of dialogue that sticks with me is “Where’s Brian?”

If I remember correctly, it’s said by a woman during sex. What I adore is that these two words can be taken in several different ways, and they still convey the same one key dramatic point.

I don’t think we know who Brian is, so he could, for example, be the couple’s child. She could, perhaps, be wondering whether he’s close enough by that he’s going to come in and see them during sex. Equally, Brian could be an adult man and she could be recalling how good he is in bed.

Either way, what “Where’s Brian?” is really telling us is that she’s distracted, it’s telling us that the sex is dreadful.

That’s using dialogue to convey the plot point about the sex, but more interestingly the frustration of the character. You could argue that the character could be clearer, but I don’t think you can make a case that she should be. The scene would not be improved by her instead saying “Where’s Brian, my previous lover from last month who is significantly better at sex than this man here has turned out to be?”

It’s easily 20 years since I saw and also read The Vagina Monologues, yet I correctly remember the frustration of the character. It’s a couple of weeks since I gave up watching Quiz, and despite writing to you about this specifically because of one character, I got that character’s name wrong.

This does say something about me. But I think it also says something about that script.

I pulled my finger out

Last week’s Self Distract was like a whine tasting. I won’t delete it because it is true, it is how I felt about my poor writing then and quite often, but it also ended with a call to action that I actually did. It told me to pull my finger out and do some writing.

I did some writing. About four pages of script. Four pages in a week is not going to impress you, and nor is the fact that I still wasn’t doing it until I got prodded into it by a writing buddy.

But, still, I wrote it and it is completely true that there is nothing I like more than being in script, writing in that form, thinking in that form. It’s my favourite form of writing, I like it even when it’s hard, and still I don’t do it enough. I can explain that now, though: I’m a writer, what can you do?

Only, I can’t help thinking about how I did pull my finger out, yet I may also have stuck it in my ear. These are the strangest of days, the unhappiest of days, and yet so far I am in a position where I can choose to worry about whether or not I’m writing something. I don’t, as yet, need to be scared about my income, and I’m a freelancer, so there have been times when I have had to, when I know what that is truly like.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done this before, but I want to send you to another blog, please. While I’ve been mostly in my own head all week, Lisa Holdsworth has been actually making a difference for freelance writers. She’s Chair of the Writers’ Guild –– I’m Deputy Chair and proud to work with her –– and separately runs a blog about writing. It’s now got the most seductively enraged piece which takes you from calm to raging with her about what we need to do.

I’ve long wanted to write like Lisa, sometimes I now just want to be her, too.

Motivation

Clearly, I am the first ever writer to act on stage. I hear rumours of some other person called William who’s done it, but no, it was me. And as such, I have advice that I can now bestow for all writerkind to learn from.

Don’t ignore flashing red lights.

I really did act last night, and it was the first time I’d performed someone else’s script, but I was also producing. And I wrote another of the pieces for the evening, which I performed. Get me. Part of the production job, though, was recording the night.

So I had two locked-off cameras shooting video and audio from left and right of the stage. I had one lapel mic which we used to audio record parts that had a solo performer on stage. And I had two separate audio recorders positioned on the set.

I set all this going just before we opened the doors and I can see me now, asking an actor whether “that red flashing light” is distracting. I’d never seen this particular audio recorder flash red quite so much, but in my defence, it did look like it was flashing in time to the music.

Since I usually use it for interviews and so once it’s running, I’m not looking at it, I figured I’d just not noticed the red flashing before.

And I can see me now, finding something in my gear bag to cover up the red lights.

For this particular audio recorder, you press Record once to, I don’t know, arm it. Then you press Record again to set it actually recording.

And it turns out that until you press it that second time, the whole unit flashes as many red lights at you as it can.

Consequently, while the other cameras and all the other recorders captured about 90 minutes of show, that last audio recorder has about 15 seconds of me swearing.

But I swore very well. I emoted. I conveyed with clarity the depth of my feelings at that moment.

I wasn’t acting.

I’m not certain that I was acting when I performed my own piece. It’s a one-man short play, and the thing of it is that you’re not supposed to quite realise when I go from introducing the piece to actually doing it. You’re not supposed to know that every word from when I get on stage to when I leave is actually the story.

While it’s effective and, most importantly, right for this particular story, it also means that for a lot of the time, I am presenting as if I were doing a workshop. That is a performance, and the fiction of this story requires me to get quite upset, but it’s closer to what I do all the time.

Plus, it was my script, so of course I know it. I’ve acted in my own pieces before – hardly often, but generally very successfully.

What was different for me last night was that I performed someone else’s script.

And that is weird.

For the first time in my life, I have actually said the words “what’s my motivation?” during rehearsals. So much of what we write, or maybe just of what I write, is instinctual, and it’s when you have to see it from another direction that you become conscious of it.

It was all there in script, I just had to find it and in that digging, I was examining all the things about character that I usually just do unconsciously while writing.

Previously I’d have told you that I understand how actors do what they do, I mean I can comprehend the process even if I can’t do it. But now I can tell you that I don’t have a clue why they do it.

But it was pretty great getting to do a curtain call alongside proper actors.

Muse bouche

I’ve got to tell you this today because next week I will ridicule myself for it. Next week I will be telling you that I wrote a script that was dreadful – but today, I’m going to tell you that this script is the best thing I’ve ever written.

We can analyse this predictable forthcoming about-face in some detail at any time or in any psychiatrist’s office of your choosing, but let me instead focus on the one thing that is undeniably good about this script.

It’s done.

Most of the time I’m a rather practical, even pragmatic, writer, in that if I have an idea then I also know that I will finish it. There aren’t a lot of opening scenes or chapters here. I’ll abandon, certainly, but usually the thing I like as much about getting an idea is seeing it through to the end. That applies as much to events as it does writing, but invariably it’s applied to everything I write.

Except I need a word that’s somewhere between invariably and variably.

Because every now and again, there is something that I think is good, that I think I may even be able to do well, but I keep not doing it.

Recently I’ve been talking with a writer who keeps not writing her book, and the discussion becomes one about the business of writing as much as the art. She needs to be in the right place, so to speak, to write this novel, and I absolutely see that – but not if it means it never gets done.

I didn’t believe in the muse and if I now wonder about it, I don’t think muses are on our side.

But there are people who are. I hope that in talking with me, this friend will write more of her novel, not least because I want to read it.

And in talking with people in a particular writer development programme I’ve been on – Room 204 from Writing West Midlands – I’ve written more of this script. So much more that yesterday on a train, I finished it.

I can see me there, stopped at Northampton again, looking at the screen and thinking, really? It’s called Sequences Shortened and the idea came from another friend, radio presenter and poet Charlie Jordan, who mentioned something about her work to me around 2017. It happens to be something I used to do too, back when I was working for the BBC, and it is the tiniest thing, yet it started something that finished yesterday.

You can’t wait for the muse. I don’t know what in the world you can wait for, I just know that on occasion, there are projects that take a long time. Projects that are sweet stones in your stomach, pressing away at you, somehow keeping you in them and yet away from the keyboard.

Writing that scares you, really. And for all that this is a job, I make my living entirely through writing, there have to be things you write that scare you.

I think this one has worked out. If only there wasn’t a book that I was afraid to finish too.

You are quite amusing

Okay, that subject heading has nothing to do with what I want to talk to you about. But it’s on my mind. Yesterday I was working in a school, doing the usual thing of coming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again. But at one point, a young girl of either 10 or 11, said to me: “You are quite amusing.”

I took it as a giant compliment, but I was also supremely tickled by the word ‘quite’. You were, too.

Anyway, I was there running a writing session and she wanted to ask me about a story problem she was having with a book she’s working on. We talked during a break, I think her story is delightful and very well worked out, and then I went back to my hotel room and learned what had been going on with Brexit.

I’m not going to talk to you about that. I just can’t. Last night I was able to forget about it quickly because I was working on a thing, writing late into the evening. Yet maybe it’s because this young woman’s story problem was to do with plot and maybe it was because Brexit is insane, but something made me change my mind about drama.

It used to be that, without exception, I knew, I just knew that the very greatest drama comes when you have two strong characters in a room arguing – and both of them are right.

God, but that’s hard to write. Both characters equally smart, intelligent, passionate and equally right about an issue that is complex, challenging and vital.

I’m not sure I’ve ever pulled it off myself, but you know it when you see it. For some reason my mind is leaping to The West Wing and its first seasons with writer Aaron Sorkin.

That’s fair because he and his West Wing writing staff were very good at this, but it’s also appropriate because that was a political show and it is specifically politics that have changed my mind.

I’ll still and forever relish the kind of drama where you have these two characters who are both right.

But now I am forced to wonder if it isn’t more dramatic, much more dramatic, when you have two strong characters arguing passionately – and they’re both wrong.

I think that’s what we’ve got here with Brexit as all these votes, all this posturing, all this bollocks goes on. All we’re missing is strong characters.

But to make up for it, while these arguments are going on, it’s our futures that are going to be affected. That are already affected. Maybe that’s what makes this dramatic, that giant consequences are resting on the shoulders of a government and opposition that prefer to pose instead of look us in the eye.

I said I wasn’t going to talk to you about this and I didn’t intend to. I’ve reached the point where I can’t always actually understand the headlines on BBC News – last night I had to keep re-reading one before I could work out the double negatives about not voting for a no-deal – so I’ve taken to reading the New York Times instead.

That paper is covering this but with the detachment of being based in a different country, even if admittedly a country with its own problems. When the New York Times writes about Brexit, it does tend to be well written and clear, sometimes with helpful diagrams, but it also has this unintentionally bemused tone.

Which can be quite amusing.