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.

Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

A Wendy Napkins Mystery

I really do have a character named Wendy Napkins and she really does get embroiled in Mystery. So far just four script pages of Mystery, but still. There’s Adventure, too: I’m not messing around here.

Don’t ask me when I wrote those four pages but I reread them yesterday and – truly surprising for me – I like them. I like her. There’s a reason she gets called this, it makes sense, but never mind that, she appears to be in the kind of detective story where you have to have an unbelievable name.

She isn’t really. I think I initially planned this as a pastiche and then came to like PC Wendy Naplinsky and her part-time hours working at a nursery too much. I’m not sure. I know that having read the four pages, I want to take her on into a full mystery and that it will tread a line between parody and seriousness so thin as to be invisible.

I want serious mystery but small scale. Who stole the crayons? Is that blood on little Nevada’s father? I’m already ramping it up. Let’s stick to The Case of the Missing Crisps. I think I can do it, I think it can sustain a series if I write the script well enough, but I’ve also been quite startlingly reminded of how collaborative drama has to be. And that’s making me wonder.

I’ve always known drama needs many people and I have usually always believed it to be a great thing. Writer, actors, director and producer working together at the top of their game and with the utmost of their effort, it’s fantastic.

I did once have a director whose sole vision, as much as I could tell, was to have the actors speak faster in order to bring the curtain down before his last bus.

But apart from him, whether it’s in anything of mine or just anything I know about, I have been agog at how it’s really the combination of these people that makes a drama fly.

And then there’s this. The reason I reread my old Wendy Napkins scene is that I watched an Aurora Teagarden Mystery on Netflix. I say Netflix: if you know your television at all well, then ten seconds in you knew it might be airing on Netflix but it was made for America’s cloying Hallmark Channel.

I’m not here to knock it. This is definitely not my kind of drama but it’s a long-running series of TV movies, it’s based on a longer-running series of novels. And it did make me want to see the resolution of the mystery.

What I keep thinking about, though, is the acting. There were some actors in it that I’ve seen before, some I rate, and others I hadn’t heard of but apparently all have great long track records.

It’s not that any of them were awful, it was that every single one of them – to my mind, to my taste – was bad in precisely the same way. And to precisely the same degree.

Every one of the large cast did wide-eyed acting. They’d have this giant pupil in a massive white eye reaction to everything. From “You mean he wasn’t the last person to see her alive?” to “You want milk with your coffee?”

To be fair, coffee should be black. And to be fairer, those are not real lines from the show. But they could have been: that was the standard of dialogue and that was the style of delivery.

It was funny. Perhaps most so when a character would go wide-eyed at themselves as they casually throw in helpful lines such as “well, I could ask my colleagues in the CIA which I haven’t mentioned I work for.” But then it was also fun watching an actor in this company visibly chewing over the impossible moral dilemma about milk or no milk.

It was funny but it’s about invisible lines again. This could have been pastiche but it was too serious. This could have been the cast and crew being a bit meta about the tropes of cloying cosy mysteries. But if the cast and crew were in on it, you got the sense that they didn’t think the audience was. They all acted as if they knew this wasn’t very good, but the tone of the show was that it was pandering to a very specific audience who they assumed would love it.

Tone. That’s the word. I heard once that ahead of every Doctor Who episode there is a tone meeting. All department heads from writing to, I don’t know, visual effects, meet to discuss the script and decide on its overall tone. To decide whether they were all going to make this one be the silly episode or the scary one and to what degree.

Tone is that important and it must be so with the Aurora Teagarden TV movies because their tone is unwaveringly precise from the barely noticeable teaser to the aw-shucks epilogue.

I may not want that Teagarden tone for my Wendy Napkins, but I do know I want a tone and I think I know what it must be.

What I don’t know is how in the world to write that tone into the script such that every actor performs precisely the way I want. I’m not at all sure I would want to make actors perform precisely as I saw my characters.

But if I don’t get that into the script, still it seems that someone can impose it enough to seem less Teagarden and more Stepford.

Bugger, though. I only made up that title “The Case of the Missing Crisps” for you and now I’ve got to write the script. Got to.

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.

The new normal

I’ve been working with a lot of writers lately and specifically about how to make more time for your writing. It’s not as if this is something I’ve never done before, but it is unusual how I somehow currently have three totally separate projects with completely separate groups and even in entirely different forms, that are all about this.

Maybe it’s that volume of thinking about this topic, maybe it’s because I’ve learned from these writers, or maybe it’s just age, but I have realised something. I realised it this morning, actually, as I came to talk to you.

If you want to write or to do anything, make it normal. Don’t think of it as new or different, it’s just what you do, so you’re doing it.

It takes time to make something a normal, regular part of your routine, but I would have said it takes five years and now I think it can be weeks.

Don’t let me sound as if I’m talking about making a habit of something. That’s different. What I mean is – well, actually, let’s take you and I for an example.

When Self Distract started, easily ten years ago now, it was a place for me to promote something or other. Something to do with Radio Times, where I was doing most of my writing at the time. But it changed.

It’s now you and me getting to talk. And I don’t know when you read it, but I do know exactly when I write it.

Early every Friday morning, I make us a mug of tea and we start. Like we always do. Like it’s normal. And if it’s taken years for me to see it as being as much a normal part of the week as cooking breakfast is, the last few months have seen a change to that normality.

Lately I’ve been spending so very many hours at my desk most days that to talk to you, I move to the couch in my living room. If you’d asked me about it yesterday, I’m sure I would’ve told you that I do this, but I’d have had to think about it. Whereas this morning, I had the tea, I had the couch, but I’d forgotten my iPad. It’s in my office and surely the sensible thing is just to go there and write, especially since the moment you and I finish nattering, that’s exactly where I’ve got to go.

But it felt wrong. Without my realising that it had happened, the couch had become normal and anything else had not.

I got the iPad. I made more tea.

And if all of this is on my mind today, I think that perhaps it’s because I’ve been looking for it. You know how when you hear some word for the first time, you are somehow guaranteed to keep hearing it over and over again. Not once in your life had you heard it before, now it’s practically daily.

I think that really the reason I’ve been looking at how to make something part of your normal life is that something else has changed for me and it’s probably only taken a month or two.

Twice this week, two entirely separate firms I work with had problems and I offered to produce a video for them. In fact, for one of the firms, I just did it. Wrote, produced, shot, edited and delivered a video that did this thing they needed.

At some point very recently, video production became one of my regular, normal tools. It helps that I write the scripts, and it helps that I do believe video editing uses the same mental muscles as writing, but still something has changed. I’ve edited video for two decades, easily, but never before has it been the obvious solution to a problem.

What’s changed is not that I now edit video, but rather that it is a normal part of my working week.

Once you make something normal, you just do it. And I think you end up doing so much more of it than you had thought. That’s both in terms of how you find more uses for whatever it is, but also you do somehow make more time.

I shot five videos this week and so far have delivered four of them. Whether they’re any good or not is a very different issue, but the five came on top of everything else I was doing this week, which is exactly what I was doing every week two months ago.

I know you get faster at things through practice, but I believe that you can take on something new and that you can find the extra time to do it more when it stops being this scary new thing and instead becomes normal. When your To Do list becomes Write Script, Pitch to X, Interview Y, do Food Shopping – and Shoot Video.

So come on then, it’s just you and me here, let’s figure out what new things we can take on next.

Count on it

Maybe this is just something male. It feels a bit male. But one way I can make myself feel like I’m getting somewhere, is to count.

Actually, no, hang on, practically every novelist I know has their word count figure in their head. Maybe it’s not just me, not for everything.

But I know my absolute limit of how many words I can write a day – it’s 10,000 words or 20 pages of script, and I can keep that up for ten days straight, after which I am dead for a month. And I know too many numbers.

I know that since September 2012 when I was asked to speak at the PowWow LitFest, I’ve since done a further 667 public speaking engagements. It might only be ten minutes Skyped into a venue, or it might be a day-long residential thing, but I count them all.

And I don’t think it’s any surprise that as a freelance writer, I count my invoices. I don’t really, I don’t go over the totals and remember them, but the invoices are numbered so it’s a bit obvious what the count is.

Whereas this isn’t.

I also count the jobs I do.

That’s harder to define, really, as some of it is quite clear such as ‘writing script X’ is quite certainly a job. I just still do not know what do about counting draft 2.

And then a feature article I write is clearly one job, but a site I write for has me do a particular repeating piece of research and, frankly, I count it if I think about counting it, and most of the time, I don’t.

So this is not really a statistically useful count, and whatever you’re doing today, if you counted each separate task as a new job, you’d get bored very easily.

No, wait, that was a poor choice of words. I shouldn’t have said ‘task’ because any one job can have dozens of tasks in it. Just a sec. Okay, a rough and ready export of my OmniFocus database says I currently have 630 tasks across 55 projects to do.

So that’s not 55 jobs, but it’s also far from 630. Somewhere in the middle is what I call a job. And whatever way I have conjured up of defining that, this is approximately how I count it.

And although I see what we’re doing here as you and I getting to chat, it’s still something I set time aside for every week, so it’s a kind of job. It’s one I look forward to, but it’s a specific thing I do at a specific time of the week. We really, really should do this over a drink some time. You just never answer the phone.

But the reason for wibbling on at you about counting is that this chat right here, this natter with you, is my 1,000th job of 2019.
Counting the number of jobs I do
I did have to cheat a little. I was writing a horrible news story that was going to be the 998th and I knew if I didn’t take care, the 1,000th would come up on me before I noticed and it’d be something dull.

Oh. Or it could’ve been a script I’m writing that I have entirely forgotten to count. Bugger. This count is rubbish, isn’t it?

So I added a new job I was going to be doing yesterday evening, called that 999, and then wrote the subject of this Self Distract so that I could call it 1,000. After that, I did another news story, wrote an article and talked on a podcast, so now I’m up to, what, 1,003.

This can’t matter to anyone. But it’s still useful to me. I like that you’re the 1,000th, it makes me beam. And I also like that whatever cockeyed insane Dewey Decimal System I’m using to count all this, 2019 has hit a thousand jobs.

I constantly fear that I’m not getting enough done, that I am letting deeply precious time roar by and achieving nothing, so being able to see a thousand of anything, helps.

Plus, it turns out that in total, 2018 had 823 jobs. In total. Smug.

Grief: 2017 had 326. Then 2016 was 792.

I’m sure I was counting before then, but since 2016 I’ve been using a FileMaker Pro database I call a Job Book, and finding out those figures for you was more clicking a button and less an extremely pointless, daft exercise.

It’s still a bit of an extremely pointless, daft exercise. But if a poorly-counted number in a database can make me feel happy, I’ll take that.

I didn’t plan this

I appear to be changing, please stop me.

Previously on William Gallagher, I was opposed to planning or outlining stories and scripts. It was better to dive in, start writing, see where you got, and accept or even relish how you had to be willing to throw away a lot of writing.

Only this week, I told someone that if I write 100,000 words and 90,000 of them are rubbish, that’s a bargain. I’ve got 10,000 words I like, and all it cost me was a hell of a lot of time.

I said that in a workshop and even as I said it, since this topic has come up before, I felt my polite brain prodding me to say one thing more. Which was was this: “Of course, everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.”

Not only did I also say this, I have also said it before, and not one single time have I convinced anyone that I mean it. I do, but I don’t. Not for me, anyway.

Except.

About 15 years ago now, I was in Hollywood – get me – interviewing a producer for Radio Times. On the wall behind him was a breakdown, a kind of basic outline, for the episode of Battlestar Galactica that he was then working on.

And he told me the one thing, the first thing, that made me think outlines and plans have a point. He said you can’t have a blank screen on Tuesday night’s TV, or whichever day it was. Writing to see where you go is fine, but it goes wrong and you have no possible way to guarantee that it will work at all, let alone in time. Outlining, planning, story breakdowns, they get you to the goal in the most reliable way.

Curiously, though, that producer/writer was Ronald D Moore and I can’t remember now whether he told me or I just read it somewhere else, but he had done exactly this thing of just writing to see what happened. But it was under one very specific and unusual circumstance.

Battlestar ran as a two-part miniseries in something like 2003 or 2004, I forget which, and it was an enormous success. Deservedly so: that show is remarkable. But even though its ratings success was so good –– uniquely, the second part’s ratings were higher than the first because everyone was talking about how great it was –– the decision to go to series hadn’t happened yet.

It was going to, there was no doubt, but it hadn’t happened yet. So he couldn’t hire staff, he couldn’t set anything up, and there was Christmas in the way.

So over that Christmas, Moore just wrote an episode by himself, start to finish, no outlining. When the show went to series, that script became the first episode. It’s called “33” and I’m sure you can watch it on some streaming service or other, but you can also read the script right here.

It is a superb piece of work. I remember, so vividly clearly, sitting in a corner of the Radio Times office with a VHS tape – VHS? then? – starting the episode on this tiny CRT television –– CRT? no flat screen? then? –– and wondering if it could possibly be any good. The mini-series was two feature-length episodes and it was all so rich and filmic that it was easy to imagine squeezing it down into a 42-minute episode would lose a lot.

Except it didn’t. I wish I’d written “33” and I’ve rewatched it, I’ve re-read it, many times.

You can tell that in my heart, I still believe in the writing to see where it goes. And you can tell that in my brain, I accept that there are circumstances where you can’t do it.

Only, about six weeks ago now, I finally outlined a radio play script that I’ve been piddling about with since at least 2017, and I did so because writer Alex Townley nudged me into it. And four weeks ago now, I finished the whole play. I don’t mean the outline, I mean the play.

And one week ago, I was struggling with a novel that I’ve been working on for at least a year, and this time it was me who said to writer Alex Townley that maybe I should outline it.

I don’t wanna.

But it’s a story that on the one hand is bleedin’ complicated, and which on the other hand needs the most enormous, huge, gigantic finish. Which I didn’t have. I was writing all this ominous stuff with no idea what I could ever do to pay it off. Until I was piddling about with the outline and I realised what this big ending could be.

Everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.

Nope, I’m still not convincing.

Change the word

It’s been Baader Meinhof Effect week. Well, it’s also been the destruction of my beloved captain’s chair, the seat I’ve been in for every book, every script, every article and too many meals. The main metal rod sheared off and sent me tumbling across my office. But while I was lying there with one leg up on my desk and the other in our kitchen, it was the Baader Meinhof Effect that I was thinking about.

The brilliant thing about this is that if you haven’t heard of it before, you will now. That’s what it is. It’s the term for how once you’ve heard of something, you suddenly keep hearing it. I guarantee that you’ll hear it again soon.

What happened is that last week I mentioned typical reactions that writers get. Now, I don’t expect anyone but writers to know or give the slightest damn what writers do or say or experience. But as people stopped me all week to say they’d had exactly those typical reactions, they also told me something that I haven’t been able to stop hearing over and over again.

Writer Jacqui Rowe started it. She told me that she kept hearing of people who dream of being writers, but what they actually dream of is anything but the writing. They dream of the book launches, they dream of celebrity parties, they dream of money.

And as soon as she said that, it seemed as if every time I checked social media, I would see another discussion about writers and our dreams or our motivations.

I get that it would make for a dull dream and a long night if you regularly fantasised about thousands of hours typing. But you’ve got to enjoy those hours because you’re going to have to do them regardless. Maybe enjoy is too simplistic a word because nobody sits here constantly beaming with happiness. But this is what I dreamed of, the writing.

It wasn’t the only thing I dreamed of. I also dreamt of seeing a book of mine in my local library. That wasn’t a long or detailed or even recurring dream because I didn’t really think it was possible. (It was. I did it in 2012, a book of mine is in the Library of Birmingham and any day now I think someone may consider being the first to borrow it.)

I want to suggest to you that this dream, the specific dream of being a writer actually writing, is a kind of pure dream. I definitely want to suggest to you that people who just dream of being a writer at a celebrity party are unlikely to manage it.

But I chiefly want to suggest all this because there is also the question of why in God’s name you, I or anyone, anywhere, ever wants to write. And there I am wondering if I just have a failure of imagination.

Baader Meinhof Effect.

Told you.

For in many of these same online discussions during the week, the same question has been asked and the responses were always what I’d call crazy-ass. Some writers said that they wrote to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I may have exaggerated a little there, but that was the core of it. The world needs these writers, said these writers.

And maybe it does. It needs something and what it needs, it ain’t getting it from me.

I do write to pay the mortgage, thought not as cynically as that sounds, or actually as effectively. But it is an issue and it has to be. Beyond that, though, my real reason to write is just that I’ve got to find out what happens next.

Hung, drawn and quota-ed

Yesterday I was speaking at the National Youth Film Academy – a really good, highly practical filmmaking course – and the topic of quotas came up. Was it right, I and colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were asked, that there should be quotas for getting more women writing film and television.

And is it fair, continued the point, for women if they are only there because of a quota?

Writing isn’t fair.

And nor should it be. Not ever, not in any possible way. Film and television and radio and books and stage and games, and anything else you can think of, do not exist for writers. You do not get to write a TV drama because it’s your turn.

Instead, everything is always for the audience. It was ever thus, it will always be thus, and there has never been one moment when it should not be thus.

So of course the idea of a quota, the idea of anything that artificially changes who gets to write things ought to be wrong and we shouldn’t need it.

But we need it.

We truly, truly need quotas.

Not because we’ve got some issue and require certain percentages of shows to be by women, certain percentages by certain ethnic minorities or certain proportions of drama to be about certain issues.

We need something because we already have certain percentages and they are wrong.

Without any quotas, without any effort, we ought to naturally have a situation where everything is achieved through merit. If you’re a good enough writer, you ought to be getting to write.

So explain to me why only 14 percent of primetime UK television is written by women.

That’s the figure right now and we know it because the Writers’ Guild counted. It counted as the start of a campaign called Equality Writes and ultimately it wants to find out exactly how well or poorly represented every facet of UK life is on television and film. The Writers’ Guild started by counting women because it was possible to get that data.

Now it’s researching further, but to be honest, I’m surprised they can face it. As well as that 14 percent for TV, the figure for film is 16 percent.

Here I am stridently saying that writing isn’t fair and shouldn’t be, but tell me that 14 and 16 percent is the result of merit. Tell me that there really is just that proportion of writers who are women. While you’re at it, tell me how exactly that figure has been approximately just as low for every year the Writers’ Guild examined.

There is no possibility, not one single pixel of a possibility, that British television and film writing is by merit.

Instead, the current system is bollocks. And I chose that word carefully.

So some quota system, really some anything system, anything that changes this is necessary. Anything that breaks the system, just give me that.

I was the last of three to speak to this point yesterday and my colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were impassioned and eloquent. Representing the Writers’ Guild but also representing myself, I couldn’t really add any more to the points raised – but I also really could not just nod in agreement.

“I want quotas or anything that changes this,” I said, “because it’s right and because I care about the writers. But also because I am just so tired of seeing film and radio and television and stage all being written by boring, middle-aged white men. And I am a boring, middle-aged white man.”

You’d think in an audience of about 200 filmmakers that one of them could’ve said I was wrong about that last part, but seemingly not.