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.

Je ne comprends pas, but…

It’s possible that you’ve noticed this, but the UK — or perhaps more correctly England, yet the whole nation is getting clobbered by it — is going through a protracted period of withdrawing from the world. I don’t think it’s planned, I see it as schoolboys folding their arms and believing everyone will come begging. But whatever is ultimately behind it, the result is that we’re more isolated and more turning our backs on everywhere else — except on television.

This week I saw Call My Agent for the first time and it is a delight, I’m feeling warm just mentioning it to you. I’m a single episode in and yet I’m already intending to eke out the series as the whole run isn’t all that long and I want to relish it.

And at the same time, I am regularly checking online to see when the next episodes of Lupin are available.

These are both French television dramas, both on Netflix. Other foreign language dramas are available and always have been, but not to the extent they are now. I’ve long been a sucker for subtitles: back when you used to flick through channels instead of menus of shows, if I caught something with a subtitle, I was locked in to the end because I had to read what came next. Had to.

But that was always late night on BBC2 or BBC4, and now high-budget, high-profile subtitled or dubbed foreign-language dramas are getting 70 million viewers.

Now, that 70 million is the figure for Lupin. Netflix rarely reveals figures unless they’re particularly good. It’s a curious thing about streaming video: none of the companies are required to publish their ratings, so none of them do until they’ve got a headline-worthy one. Even then, nobody can verify them.

And of course the 70 million for Lupin is a worldwide figure. Netflix hasn’t mentioned that the show apparently isn’t as popular in France as it is everywhere else, and Netflix certainly hasn’t said how many viewers were in the UK.

I think that’s actually part of how we’re seeing global dramas now. Netflix would presumably like a lot of viewers in the UK, but it doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK used to be hugely important because it was a big importer of English-language television. The UK is the reason Australia’s Neighbours soap kept going for decades. It’s one of the reasons that America’s 1980s Fame lasted four more years in syndication after NBC cancelled its network television run.

I think that the just as network television is vanishing, so the idea of different territories for selling TV shows to is being erased. It’s not there yet, we still have BBC making daytime dramas that are really produced to be shown in primetime in other countries, specifically ones where rosy cosy images of England sell well.

But overall, television drama is on its way to becoming global and instead of that meaning everything becoming a bit more bland, a bit more safe, a bit more homogeneous, we’re somehow getting to see tremendous dramas we never used to. I can’t think of a time in British television history where we had French and Spanish dramas available on demand, where there actually is demand for them, or where foreign-language shows are being talked about as much as these are.

So as Britain tries to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist and anyway will can’t survive without us, we in the UK are getting to see more of the globe through the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV+.

Except.

While I utterly love this, while I think it is fantastic that a great series can now punch far higher and wider than ever before, it’s not an accident. There is an element of how streaming services need libraries of material and here’s some material, let’s add that to the pile.

But it’s really because there is a quota.

I wrote an article about this in 2019 which reported that by the end of 2020, all streaming services would be required to have 30% of their libraries made locally. So if you’re an American service, as they all are, but you want to operate in France, you have to have 30% of your archive be made in that country.

Now, there are ways to fiddle this. Co-productions, co-financing, it all makes the country of origin be a little debatable. But back in 2019, the article I was commissioned to write was focusing on how, at the time, none of the services met the quota.

Netflix and Amazon Prime were close so I imagine they’ve made it. At the time, the then-new Apple TV+ looked like only about 6-7% of its small library was European. And Disney+ was believed to have 4.7%. I don’t know if they caught up and I can’t seem to find out, but it must’ve been a struggle.

Although I did think of a solution for them. Since the required quota was a percentage of their library, you can see how they could each fiddle the figures. Just remove a hell of a lot of shows from the European versions of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and so on. There are already extensive differences between the libraries available in any given country, because of rights and contractual issues. So I’m honestly surprised they don’t appear to have done that because it’s a lot easier to take a show off your list than it is to make or buy more series.

Instead, while I don’t have figures for this part, it does seem as if the services have bought, made, or co-produced more series to meet this quota.

And it definitely seems that this has worked for them in more than just box-ticking legal-form quota requirements. Now that we are seeing foreign-language series and these streaming services are seeing that we’re seeing them, we’re going to get more. We’ll get more because these shows are popular, not because they fit a criteria.

That’s the bit I love. Show people new drama and it works. We are now seeing more global hits that are a success not because their good bits are ironed out to make them palatable globally or because they’re the TV equivalent of Easy Listening. We’re seeing them because they are fresh and great and they are showing us parts of the world we perhaps didn’t see, even when we were part of the EU.

I love, I deeply love how I’ve ended up in massive conversations about Il Ministero Del Tempo, a Spanish time-travel series. It makes me so happy that the conversations were never about the fact that it’s in Spanish, they were always about how such a great show shot itself in the foot so badly with one episode that we all stopped watching the series.

Drama is bringing us together even as other factors are keeping us apart. Writing is bringing us together and it is reaching out across nations and languages. It is so great.

Except.

I said there was a quota. It’s a European Union quota.

We in the UK are benefiting from an EU quota not because we’re part of the European Union, not because we have any say anymore, but because as far as all streaming services are concerned, we just don’t matter. Nobody’s going to go whoo-hoo, we can have less than 30% locally-produced shows in the UK, they’re just going to lump us in with the rest of the continent.

The world is global regardless of what the UK, or perhaps most specifically England, seems to think.

I can get a bit miserable about the state of the nation and the state of politics, but if the UK is sidelining itself, at least I’ve got 23 more episodes of Call My Agent and another half a season of Lupin to relish.

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.

Learning a lesson from writing 50 scripts

I think it’s 50. Today is the one year anniversary of my 58keys series on YouTube and it has 57 videos, of which I’m pretty sure the majority were scripted. Call it 50.

While we’re calling it, and as I want to build up some suspense over what this one great lesson is that I believe I’ve learned in the last year, let me call some more numbers. I’ve produced 57 episodes for a total of 13 hours, 1 minute and 54 seconds of video. Some 27,613 people have watched for a total of 2,236 hours and I have 781 subscribers.

Yes, if you look at the first episode and compare it to the most recent ones, you can tell which is better. It’s not as radical an improvement as I’d expected, mind. But I’m choosing to believe that this is because the early ones were fine, not that the later ones aren’t.

There were also something like 7 pilot versions. We will not speak of that again.

Oh, except that there was a lesson I learned from the pilots, which isn’t the Big Overall Writing Lesson I want to tell you about, but I think was still pretty big. I spent ages, like two minutes out of the ten, in the pilots of 58keys explaining who I am and why I believed I could make a useful series for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads.

The lesson I learned from that part was that nobody cares and nor should they. If I talk utter rubbish, then having a track record doesn’t make it right. Concentrate on saying something useful, that’s the job, that was the little big lesson from the pilots.

Whereas the Big Overall Writing Lesson from a year and something like 50 scripts is this.

Get on with it.

Writing half ideas, having stories you never finish, planning to write some day, you know the thing, there’s no point to it. I found a scrap of video I’d shot around ten years ago when I first had the idea to do a series. It’s not great. It’s not bad either. What it is, is a decade old.

Similarly, I like the title sequence in 58keys but I shot that whole thing around August 2019 and didn’t start the series for another five months.

Have an idea, then make it happen. Write the idea now, this minute, and if it’s rubbish, write something else.

Mind you, if it’s brilliant, save it and then still write something else.

Incidentally, the fastest I’ve ever done an episode of 58keys –– I mean from idea to edited video uploading to YouTube –– is 90 minutes. The slowest is four days. And so I did also learn this: if you want to write it, you can find the time.

Speaking of writing

It’s been pointed out to me –– gently but absolutely correctly –– that one can spend so much time talking about writing and trying new writing software that you don’t actually write.

I felt caught out.

Also slightly guilty. But not so guilty that I stopped everything and did some serious writing. Instead, I’ve compromised and asked a whole series of other people to talk about writing instead.

Every day next week, December 22-25, 2020, there is an in-depth interview with a different writer on my YouTube series, 58keys. Normally that show is specifically for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads, since YouTube adores a niche and I’m quite fond of one too, but this time it’s for everyone. Well, for every writer.

The Writers’ Guild’s Martin Sketchley, for instance, does talk about his writing, but he’s got much more to tell you about his new service for Writers. His “Think. Feel. Write.” helps us develop as people as much as writers. Plus he’s an absolute expert on Scrivener.

Speaking of software, Ken Case from the Omni Group agreed to talk about his firm’s major writing app, OmniOutliner. Today is the first day in months I haven’t opened OmniOutliner, but only because it’s early. I know for certain that later today I will be planning out two complicated articles in it, for instance.

Actually, that might be the moment in next week’s more than two hours of interviews that tickled me the most. Ken confessed that he’d prepared for the interview by making some notes in OmniOutliner –– and I had to confess right back that so had I. We both had this app on our screens throughout. Love that software.

Then on another day, I want you to meet Debbie McAndrew. To me she will always be this superb theatre writer: never flashy, never over the top, always true and moving and funny. I relish her writing but she is also an actor and in our chat she brings up fascinating details about being on Coronation Street during one of the show’s golden ages for writing.

There is just something about combining things that interests me. Debbie has this enviably useful twin perspective on her writing, reaching deep into herself as a writer yet knowing so very well what will help an actor bring that work to audiences. Ken Case is a software developer who makes this tool for writers and Martin Sketchley has this split career of writing and helping other writers through his service and through being West Midlands regional representative of the Writers’ Guild.

Only, if I think doing these five interviews means I’ve really appreciated my interest in multiple perspectives, multiple different writing muscles, I must’ve known I was into this from the start because of who else I interviewed.

April Smith splits her time between television and novels. That would be enough to make me interested, but then within novels she can be doing crime thrillers or deeply absorbing historical fiction. And in, to me, the ultimate in developing and applying a writer’s skill, in television she’s both a writer and a producer.

You’ve just seen her latest work: April was a consulting producer on the tremendous Mrs America. And you’ve long heard of the first show she produced, that little thing called Cagney and Lacey.

To me, though, she’s one of the writers of Lou Grant. It may never stop startling me that I get to talk with one of the writers whose work is responsible for my wanting to be a writer. If you’d like now to blame her, she’s on Tuesday.

In fact, let me tell you what I haven’t told anyone else yet. All five of the episodes are on my 58keys YouTube site daily from Monday to Friday next week –– that’s Monday to Christmas Day, it’s unbelievable that we’re at Christmas Day already –– and the schedule runs thisaway:

Monday: Ken Case
Tuesday: April Smith
Wednesday: Martin Sketchley
Thursday Christmas Eve: Debbie McAndrew

Every episode goes live at 07:00 GMT and will obviously stick around for you to dig into later. All five will then also go in my first-ever 58keys playlist, too.

Wait, hang on, that’s four. Ken, April, Martin and Debbie. There are definitely five interviews, I know there are, I was there, I saw them happen. Now I’m wondering which writer I can possibly have got to come out to play on Christmas Day.

It’s definitely a writer who has that very special feature of being available.

Come to think of it, I’m sure that’s how I get most of my work.

It’s just a number

Listen, it’s my birthday so surely I am allowed to do anything I like –– and I’m 55, by which time I should surely be expected to do anything I like. I have no problems with the concept of birthdays, I’ve nothing against being an adult and making my own choices. I just have the single most enormous difficulty knowing what it is I like to do.

I mean, hello. I’ve been looking forward to nattering with you so that’s a huge tick in the Like column. Other than that… I’m about to have croissants and pain au chocolat in a late breakfast with Angela. That’s rather good, each word of that is pretty excellent. But it does remind me that I haven’t done today’s French lesson in Duolingo.

What do you do to relax?

I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve managed to make everything I’ve ever been interested in become part of my job, at least partly, at least tangentially, at least sometimes. But when I finished working last night, I shut down my Mac and stared at the screen for a bit, wondering what to do next.

Speaking of the Mac, I should say, a thing I definitely like doing has reached a little milestone of its own. I have this YouTube series called 58keys, which is for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads – ah, you know how YouTube loves a niche – and it recently crossed 500 subscribers. There’s a competition in this week’s edition which has now seen it cross 570 subscribers, so that’s also pretty enjoyable.

The competition, by the way, is to win a year’s subscription to Setapp. That’s a kind of Mac app equivalent of Netflix: you pay one monthly fee and get full use of 200 or more apps. I’ve written about it a lot, recommended it often, and the company agreed to let me give away two of their subscriptions. That’s been fun.

I know we’re friends but you are still allowed to enter because the two winners will be chosen randomly through some software thing. If you read this before midnight on Friday 27 November, 2020, off you pop and have a look.

Oh, grief. I just went to search for that link and one of the results that came back was “William Gallagher obituary”. Well.

Anyway.

So, that’s a YouTube link that I Googled and it’s about Mac apps. Even stepping away from the keys, this appears to be something I like. And I do: I cannot explain why, but I do find it engrossing and satisfying to use great software tools to make something. I think it’s the making, I find if I’m required to learn some app then it’s an impossible slog until I actually need it to make something and then I’m off, I’m flying.

It has been pointed out to me, gently but firmly, that I can spend more time fiddling with writing software than I do actually writing. Can’t argue with that. But I offer that writers are the people who do anything they can to avoid writing.

Plus I mentioned that this was my birthday and that I’d crossed 500 subscribers to that 58keys series. What I didn’t say is that this week’s special is the 58th I’ve made. It’s not the 58th you can watch, there were a good seven at the start that no one will ever be shown ever again, plus I’ve some Christmas ones ready to go. But on my 55th birthday, the 58th edition of 58keys crossed 500 subscribers.

It’s like I planned it. What I didn’t plan was that, I promise you, my writing has improved. I find I can write my own dialogue, I can write my voice, and I learned it from filming myself and wincing a lot.

I’m going back to work, aren’t I?

That’s what I’m going to do with my birthday. I’m going to work. But I will enjoy it, so. Let’s you and me have a tea and a croissant together first though, okay?

Count on it

I’ve been asked to do a talk on plotting next week –– you know, around the time we may finally know the who’s the leader of the free world and who’s Trump — and you also know, I hope, that it’s not going to be me who does the talking. I have to tell this group something, I suppose, but really they’re going to talk, I’m going to listen, and we’ll probably discuss, well, I don’t know the name for it. See what you think of this, please, and tell me if you can think of a word to describe it all.

Last time I did anything like this, I wrote out what I called the Ten Rules of Plotting. Of course they’re not rules, of course there were Twelve of them. But I thought it was a useful kind of –– guide? list? brochure? — or something. Chiefly because I thought it included some things — nuggets? pearls? a third thing? — that could help you avoid the kind of plot choices that make your audience switch to Netflix or your reader turn to looking up the US electoral college count. Again.

It also had –– suggestions? tips? advice? –– on how to make your plot last longer, which is immensely useful for scriptwriters becoming novelists.

And then there is this.

The quickest way to create a plot, I believe, is to think of a character and then ask yourself what the worst thing that can happen to them is.

There is more, as in you really shouldn’t take your first thought. Especially since that first thought is probably that they die. Look for what’s worse and especially what is the worst thing for them, not just for anyone, specifically for them. My usual quick example is when your character is a surgeon and I offer that the worst thing that can happen for her is that she catches her hand in a car door.

That’s career-pausing, could be career-killing, but I think it’s more than that because in my mind this character is an egotist and she’s just had everything that she thinks makes her special deleted from her.

I love putting characters into situations they cannot live with –– and then seeing how they live with it.

To my mind, that’s really character and that’s what’s really interesting and the car door is just a prop. Plots are a prop for characters. But you can find plots by testing your characters.

Which is all well and good, except I have never been more politically aware and we are at a time when it feels as if politics moves on by choosing what the worst thing to happen is.

I love putting characters into situations. I’ve had enough of this happening to us all in real life. And I do know a word for that.

Writing by numbers

I know I stole this thought from somewhere, but for the longest time I’ve felt I sit right on the edge between arts and technology. That’s nice for me. And actually, yes, it is. I get to write scripts and drama, I get to use tools that help and excite me, I also get to write about those. Typically where these two spheres meet, I get to have a very good time. But not always.

This week, I got an email on my iPhone from a company championing music technology over the arts. Not with the arts, not for, but above it. Use their music system and you will know –– this was the selling point, you would actually know –– that your song is going to be a hit. Or not. And if it isn’t, you therefore know to throw it away and do something else until you get it right.

I think this is obviously wrong all round. I’m minded of David Cameron, who apparently once told British filmmakers that they should only make successful films. I remember going a little pale. I don’t know anything about, say, the UK’s legal agreements with the EU, but I’d ask before I decided I knew best and broke them.

At the time, it was a sobering and slightly scary thought that someone running the country could be that, well, let’s cut to it, stupid. Now it would be a bit of a surprise if they weren’t.

There was a little more, though. Cameron specifically referenced The King’s Speech, the tremendous film written by David Seidler. This is a film that was a worldwide success, absolutely, and a deserved one. However, it was also a historical movie about a rich man most of the world hasn’t heard of, working his way up to making one speech. Of all the people needed to make that film happen, you can be certain that every one of them did so because the script was great, not because they really thought it was going to be a blockbuster success. “Hold off on that Batman project, we’ve got this now.”

If Cameron thought at all – and he appeared to spend more than a chance second on it so again how stupid was he? – then what he thought was that it was possible to know what would be a success. You know what films have been a hit before, make films like that. I truly, truly cannot fathom a mind that would think that, then point to The King’s Speech, and say ta-daa, that was a hit because all obscure historical movies with no action always have been.

This is all crossing my mind as I’m in my kitchen, reading this email from a firm that wants me to write about how musicians can emulate previous hits and never have to create anything new at all. That’s a firm who knows what listeners want. And why musicians write.

I am far from being against mixing technology with music. If I were a musician, you bet I’d be hands on with Logic Pro to master my album. And just now, just before you and I started nattering, I was listening to Francisca Valenzuela’s fantastically powerful Flotando. I was listening over AirPods and it was as if the room were full of this wonderful, enveloping Chilean music.

I offer, though, that while I listened over technology, and it was a free track of hers on iTunes ten years ago that got me to try her music, there’s nothing else. Nothing in my listening history should trigger any algorithm to think oh, yes, let’s play him Chilean pop music he won’t understand and is by an artist who has never charted in his country.

Any sane algorithm, any informed analysis of my musical tastes would do the opposite, it would skip Francisca Valenzuela entirely. And I would therefore be missing out on a decade of music I relish, plus right now a song that –– it’s true –– I don’t understand, but which fills my chest as much as my ears.

Then there is this. This isn’t the music technology’s fault, they couldn’t know that I’d be reading their email on an iPhone. They might have guessed, mind, since the iPhone is –– literally –– the best-selling product of any kind in the world, ever. And if you don’t have an iPhone, you have an Android phone.

So take a look.

Apple vs Samsung count image

That’s a court image from a legal case between Apple and Samsung, but it’s broadly illustrative. What I’d suggest is that it would be much the same if you changed it from just these two companies and into a larger chart with every phone from every firm.

It’s night and day.

Nothing looked like an iPhone before the iPhone. Everything looked like the iPhone afterwards.

The phone in your pocket, the phone you use a hundred times a day and now feels part of your life –– whether it’s iPhone or Android –– is the way it is, is the use it is, because of that 2007 iPhone launch and its success.

In 2007, though, and also 2008, 2009… Apple was mocked for the iPhone. They were mocked for every part that was different to previous phones, such as how they don’t have physical keyboards. Literally laughed at. Everyone was focused on what had been a success in mobile phones and everything Apple did that was different, was therefore wrong.

I’m suddenly minded of something totally different. I remember a series of columns in Radio Times where the writer, a key figure on that magazine, regularly moaned how every TV drama was exactly the same. She had a point, she made good points, then she blew it. Because one week there was a drama that was different and she criticised it for not being the same.

Not every new idea is going to work. Not every new idea is good. This week the short-form video service Quibi shut down and I don’t miss it in the slightest, I didn’t like what they did, but they tried something new and they didn’t try it based on what everyone watched yesterday.

I love technology but I also have exactly no interest in technology. What I love is what it enables. You and I get to talk like this because of technology. I deeply love that having now made fifty YouTube videos, I can see how much tighter my scriptwriting is. I profoundly love hearing someone laugh and knowing it was because of how precisely I positioned a shot in the video, I mean how I put it at the one moment, the one frame, where it would be funny.

No question, whatever my comic timing is, it’s informed by everything I’ve watched and read and heard before.

But I am never trying to be like anything I’ve seen before. I think the real problem this music technology firm has is just that it’s completely wrong. The aim of a musician, of a writer, of an artist, is not to produce something that makes cash. We want that, we need that to survive, but if your sole purpose is to make cash, there are a lot easier ways than writing.

I write to find something new. Everything you create, you do to find something new. Now if only we could get Hollywood to work the same way.

Guild edged

I’ve been looking at you for ten minutes, easily ten, with my head going in two directions. Part of me wants to enthuse at you about a table reading I attended over Zoom last night, but I’m not sure I can. I can definitely tell you that scripts I’d read and very much enjoyed seemed even better performed by however many people in Celebrity Squares-style video boxes.

But I think what I really want is to talk about the Writers’ Guild. This week I was re-elected as co-Deputy Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and I may never get used to that. Except this is my last year – the Guild is a trade union and it of course has rules, which of course include term limits.

I promise to hand over power peacefully.

It’ll be reluctantly, but it will be peaceable. And that’s not for a year yet, so in the meantime I plan to be as bleedin’ useful as I can. The Writers’ Guild raises the tide for all writers, which I think is amazing, and actually it does so whether you’re in the Guild or not, which I think is astounding. Pay rates, conditions, the Guild is constantly –– and I really mean constantly –– negotiating, pressing, arranging every possible aspect of professional writing life and doing so in our favour.

Writing is an isolating kind of job which might suit you and it might not, but it makes us vulnerable. I think it’s telling that during this hard time, Guild membership is going up. The more of us there are, the stronger the Writers’ Guild is, the better we all fare.

Take a look at joining and what membership brings you.

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.