Tender is the Night Manager

So by chance, this week I’ve been reading the scripts to The Night Manager, David Farr’s dramatisation of John Le Carré’s thriller. And I’ve been watching Normal People, Sally Rooney and Alice Birch’s dramatisation of Romney’s novel about a teenage romance.

I’m late to both of these, I know, but what strikes me most is that they’re pretty much equally tense. If anything, Normal People has me stressed out more and yet close to nothing happens.

In the first episode of that, we meet a schoolgirl and a schoolboy, and by the end they are secretly a couple. In the first episode of The Night Manager, there is murder, there are explosions, there is a really frightening villain.

I am deeply enjoying The Night Manager but I’m going to call it for Normal People as Most Tense of The Two.

And in this second, as I write to you, I remember something Alan Plater said about TV drama. He preferred it to be about people being, rather than something happening to people. Drama about people living, rather than drama about there’s-a-serial-killer-coming.

Mind you, I also think Normal People is more tense because it’s a romance. There’s an element of romance in the start of The Night Manager but, despite all that script’s other strengths, it feels like the pretty standard thing of a quick love affair before she gets murdered and he wants revenge. I am being so unfair to this show, but.

I used to think that my true definition of drama was two people arguing in a room and they’re both right. I still think that’s a peak, but maybe the true pinnacle is two people standing in a room and they both want each other yet the risk of saying it is so great.

It always is. I don’t know why this never stops being so tense when every romance has the same moment. Comedy romance turns on the first encounter, that’s so crucial that it’s even got a name, but drama has more than the meet-cute. It’s got the moment when one person tells the other.

There is no circumstance, no combination of desires or rejections, that can possibly mean anything, anything at all can stay remotely the same after that moment. If the other person is equally interested, that’s one thing and it’s great. But if they’re not, it’s over. You cannot go back to the friends you were one sentence ago. There will hopefully come a time when it’s not as painful for either of you any more, but until then you cannot have one sentence that isn’t awkward.

Listen, I was going to announce to you this week that I am becoming evil. I had decided it is the only way. In the US, there are people backing sedition and in the UK we have Brexit destroying the fishing industry while the government’s Jacob Rees-Mogg claims fish are happy now because they’re British. Clearly, self-interest to the point of blindness is what gets you anywhere in the world today.

Except now we’ve talked, I want to go write some romances. I’ll put evil on hold for a bit. Thanks.

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.

Fade Up

I am not thinking about the US presidential election in five days, I am not. It is not occupying me, it is not pervading every other thought. Okay, it is distracting me from UK politics.

And I will say this. I think it’s frightening how “truth, justice and the American way” is now multiple choice.

Stop. Think of something totally different. Think of something silly.

Here you go. Back in the day, when politics was boring –– concentrate, William, push it away –– say around the 1980s, American network television used to have more adverts per hour than we did in the UK. I can’t remember, I think we got two ad breaks during an hour drama, but I know America had four.

Since American writers knew this too, naturally every hour drama had four acts. They’d build to big enough point in the story to hopefully make sure you’d come back after the ad break. Fine.

It’s interesting now when so many old network shows are being streamed on pay platforms without any ads. There are streaming platforms like BritBox and ITV Hub where it offends me how poorly the shows are broken up. Watch any of the hundreds of Doctor Who episodes on BritBox, for example, and every single one begins with the first half-note of the Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainger’s theme, then stops to play out a BritBox sting, then carries on with the episode.

And ITV Hub, surely no human editor is choosing when the ad breaks go. Rather than fitting in around the breaks that were already there from when the shows first aired, it feels like there’s a timer and at some interval we just get a break. Forget the fact that it is invariably at a poor point in the episode, every time the ad break is over and we return to the show, we see half a second of the previous scene.

Anyway.

Back in the day, when a US one-hour show would air on UK commercial television, we got one or two fewer ad breaks. What this meant, though, was that in every hour drama we would reach a key dramatic point, then the screen would fade to black.

It would then immediately, instantly, fade up again and we’d usually be right back where we were.

Not knowing that it was because of a missing ad break, I remember coming to think that this was a dramatic, artistic choice. That it was in some way emphasising these key scenes, that television drama had invented its very own dramatic punctuation.

I came to think that the story blinked.

I’d like to think that next Tuesday night I’ll blink and it’ll be over. In 2016, I stayed up late to watch the US election results, sitting on the same couch I am on now as you and I talk, and all night turning steadily to stone. I don’t know if I can go through that this time but then I’m not thinking about it, clearly.

And I’m not thinking clearly about it.

Not when we’ve got 1,280 days until the next UK general election.

The same but different

The streaming service Britbox just added a shovelful of more British TV dramas to its service and one of them is Cracker by Jimmy McGovern. I saw that when it originally aired on September 27, 1993 and now I saw it again on Wednesday. That’s 26 years, 10 months and 30 days, but throughout that time I have remembered and admired one scene in precise detail.

Admire is a funny word. Feels a bit clinical. As if I were saying I could appreciate its technical merits, or something, but otherwise it left me cold. No. Cracker is a crime series with the ability to make me frightened for the victims in it. No high body count, no meaningless deaths – at least not in the sense of just being done for a plot twist; plenty of times the deaths are as meaningless as ones in real life.

And actually I do feel as if I’m going to reduce the show by focusing on what I want to talk to you about. It is the smallest moment in an exceptionally well written, commanding, engrossing, provoking drama.

The lead character, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane), sees a news report on the TV. That’s it.

Swap this show for any other police series, even ones I like, and there is a fair to total chance that this scene would play out in exactly the same way. The hero catches a news bulletin just as it happens to mention what he, she or we need to know for the drama. There’ll be a helpful photograph, some exposition that would never really be said that way by any journalist, and the hero would then unerringly know the precise moment to switch off the TV.

In the first episode of Cracker, The Mad Woman in the Attic Part 1, McGovern does have a news bulletin like this. It has a photograph of a woman who’s been murdered, it has a news presenter presenting news. What it doesn’t have, what Fitz doesn’t have, is the remote control for the TV set.

So we see him noticing the photo on the TV news, then scrabbling to find the remote to turn the sound up, and finally crossing to the set to find the controls there. And he succeeds, he gets to turn up the volume, but he’s too late.

He’s too late to find out anything and it is perfect. I’ve remembered that moment for three decades.

It’s perfect in part because we already know she’s been killed, we know a huge amount. We don’t yet know what his connection is, but there is no information that news bulletin could possibly give us that we either didn’t already have or couldn’t see from his frantic searching.

It’s also perfect because it’s new. That may sound strange to say when it is 9,830 days old, but it was new then and it is new now. A very familiar situation is completely reversed and providing the same information in a totally new way.

In a somewhat smaller way, I’m minded of when I worked on the Radio Times website. Back then there were sub editors, subs who checked facts, smoothed out grammar issues and really a dozen or more different things that meant articles were as good as they possibly could be.

Except sometimes I’d find a sentence I’d really carefully fashioned would come out as a cliché. I did ask, I did protest, but I was told that it was necessary because people like clichés. You can tell me that until the cows come home in freezer bags, I told them, it isn’t true.

Look what I did there with the freezer bags. I’m not saying it was great writing or even noticeable, but you understood it as completely as if it were the original cliché, and it wasn’t. It was the same thing but different and maybe this is just me, but that’s worth the world.

No, wait, it can’t just be me because you’re nodding and, besides, there is even a term for it. When you write a sentence that is a cliché or, more commonly is just a familiar phrase, you can recast the sentence. Audition different words and hire them if they’re right for the job. I’ll never turn to a thesaurus, but I will spend as long as it takes to find a different way of saying something.

I just realised this week that maybe it comes from that Cracker scene. Seeing how you can deliver the same information in even a slightly different way, it’s stuck with me.

I, Muppet

There’s a new Muppets show launching on Disney+ and I don’t think it’s going to be very good. I’m sure you’re bothered what I think, but the thought set off a little squall in my head about criticising shows before you’ve even seen them. Quite clearly, this is completely and totally unfair.

Tough. There is so much television –– and so much is so very good –– that you can’t watch everything. I am judging Muppets Now before seeing it, I am criticising it, but ultimately I think what I’m really doing is triage.

You do this all the time. Someone could tell me very convincingly that, say, a given football game is the epitome of human drama and the best they’ll get out of me is a uh-huh. On the other hand, I’m obsessed with time so if your story mucks about with that, I’m in. At least for the start. I’ll at least watch the first episode, or really at least mean to watch the first episode.

This is something outside of a show’s control. You can do a time travel series that I walk away from and there is one single sports series I like. (Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. Remember its strap line was: “It’s about sports. The way Charlie’s Angels is about law enforcement.”)

Since a show can’t know what happens to be a trigger for me, or the reverse, and since there is such a volume of television to watch, it has to present something. There has to be a hook, really, something I can be told about the show that could make me want to watch. The whole reason Hollywood pays its stars millions is that it used to be having a star name means your film opens, it gets a great audience for its first weekend. If it’s rubbish, it dies immediately afterwards, but it opens on that person’s name.

I have never chosen to see a film or a show because of the actors in it. Nor the director. Except the poster line “From the brother of the director of Ghost” was enough to make me watch The Naked Gun 33 1/3. And for a long time I did make the annual pilgrimage to watch Woody Allen’s latest films, but that was back when we thought of him as a writer.

Here’s what Muppets Now has.

The Muppets.

I’ve seen the trailer, I’ve read the blurb, and it was the fact that it was the Muppets that got me to do that much. It has a history, I’ve liked it before, I could be in, I was in enough to watch the trailer. Here’s what the blurb and the trailer has, other than the Muppets.

It’s unscripted.

I’m not knocking improv. You say the word improv and I think first of Tina Fey, who is unquestionably a finer writer than I will ever be. If I hated improv and she said to give it another go, I’d tune in.

But “unscripted” is all I’m offered here. There is something boastful about it, there is something about how brilliant it is that there’s no script. I do see this a lot, as if the idea that there’s a script is somehow bad. I do see that somehow it plays into the notion that for some reason audiences want to think the actors made it all up.

I’m a writer, I love scripts, I would be biased here anyway, but I am more than biased against unscripted shows, I am wary. Because it’s an empty boast. It’s a trigger line that means nothing. Telling me a show is unscripted feels like telling me it’s in colour. It’s doubtlessly factual, but it is of no use to me whatsoever.

I’ve worked on plenty of live shows in theatre and radio, I’ve worked on a few unscripted ones, and it is fantastic. Utterly fantastic, by far the greatest rush and thrill I have ever had. But that’s when you work on it. When you’re making a live show, I don’t think there is anything that comes close to how it feels.

That’s nice for you.

I’m minded of Janet Street Porter’s whole pitch for why people would rush to watch Live TV. She said it’s live. I remember waiting for the second sentence, but that was it. Let’s be kind and assume that the TV interview cut away before she could say anything useful, but the impression I was left with was that she believed live equals compelling.

Live TV launched in 1995 and closed again in 1999. More than twenty years later, Muppets Now still believes that the fact it’s unscripted is enough to make us watch.

Tell me that it’s an unscripted show in which the Muppets do/try/are/will X and I’ll forget the unscripted word and may be interested enough to watch.

Spend an entire trailer telling me solely that it’s unscripted, and I’m bored already. But then I’m a muppet, aren’t I?

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.

On That Day

From November 12, 2005 to October 12, 2008, I used to write an On This Day piece for Radio Times. It was officially about television history, it was really about the history of how Radio Times covered television history, and it was a little column that appeared on every day’s listing’s page.

Well, depending on where you lived, that it is. The true reason for the piece was to fill a hole. Different regions of the UK got different editions of Radio Times and some of them needed a quite large section showing regional television variations. If you lived in an area where you could pick up two or more ITV stations, for instance, then RT listed them.

If you didn’t, your morning TV listings page had a hole in it.

Hello. I got to fill that space with about 90 words to do with something Radio Times had said about some television or radio show on that day. It obviously had to be true, but it also had to be interesting and preferably relevant somehow, plus naturally I had to write it so that you would hopefully enjoy reading it.

In the end, I wrote some 1,415 entries. I’d deliver them a week at a time –– except around Christmas where typically I’d have to write five weeks or 35 entries together to meet deadlines –– and every week I’d study the RT archive.

I can still picture certain weeks. Such as the time I was reading the RT archive in what was then the Central Library in Birmingham and there was a whole team of people doing the same thing as me. They weren’t half organised, too. I can picture four of them with laptops, pounding through issue after issue and noting down even more detail than I was.

That was the first time I met the Kaleidoscope group, an astonishing organisation that maintains a TV Brain database and finds lost television. If you’ve heard of a long-lost show being recovered, the odds are high that Kaleidoscope did it and through-the-roof high that Kaleidoscope was involved at some point.

And I also remember where I sat when I was, for once, working to a brief, and researching January 21. I’ve long told people that I had been supposed to write about The Glittering Prizes, a rightly famous BBC drama, and instead had gasped when I found that the children’s show Kizzy started on the same day. I used to tell people that I’d looked around the library, as if afraid someone would stop me, and instead of Prizes, I wrote about Kizzy.

Apparently it’s not true. I did sit there in the library, transported back to 1976 and seeing that show air, but I didn’t write about it for January 21. According to my research database, I instead pegged it to the show’s sixth and final episode on February 25, 1976. I wimped out.

I should say that the reason I stopped doing On This Day for Radio Times is that they had a redesign of the pages and no longer had a gap to fill. However, all these years later, they still know a good idea when they see one because RT’s Mark Braxton regularly does the same thing –– but he does it on Twitter.

This is all on my mind now because I came across the fact that on this day in 1987, The Tracey Ullman Show debuted in America. You know Tracey Ullman, but still you’re looking blank. This means that it was 32 years ago today that The Simpsons first appeared on TV. They were then a short insert into Ullman’s show and they’re now a mildly amusing sitcom. But in between those two, they were fantastic.

I hope I knew that before and that the only reason I didn’t cover it in RT was that this debut was in America. I’ve checked and I did cover when BBC1 first started airing The Simpsons proper – it was November 23, 1996.

But then while poking around this old research and enjoying myself, I found something else.


April 5, 1966. The Money Programme. As you can imagine, I made more notes than I ultimately used, so here’s a fuller quote from that original issue of RT.

“Britain is like the son of a rich man who has inherited the family fortune and is spending the lot,” said a Belgian banker who has extensive dealings in the City. With the recurrent tale of lost export orders, balance of payments trouble and pressure on the pound, people aboard now speak of “the English sickness” which has dogged us since the war, rather than any spectacular business achievements. They must wonder what happened to the British flair for business.

This year is bound to see dramatic developments. With a debt of £899 million round our necks to be repaid in four years, and a current balance of payments deficit, we cannot escape the pressure to improve our efficiency. Even without the pressure of our economic difficulties, the impact of automation, and the computer (felt increasingly in America) is bound to raise many painful issues for management, labour, and Government, in this country. We must prepare for a second industrial revolution.”

That’s 53 years ago and today everything is so different.

I was wrong

Last year, I made a big deal of the fact that I read 640 or so scripts. I generously offered you ten lessons that I’d learned and, while I didn’t say this at the time, it was difficult enough to come up with ten that I figured I had found them all. I had learned all there was to learn.

Give me this: when I’m wrong, I’m thorough about it.

For now that I don’t have this resolution, now that 2018 is over and I am no longer reading a script a day, I’ve relaxed and only read some 41 more of them so far this month. And number 38 went against at least many of my ten lessons.

I won’t tell you what the script was because I want to work on the series some day. But I will tell you this: the reason I read numbers 39, 40 and 41 right after it was because 38 had put me into a foul mood and I wanted to clear my head.

Didn’t work. Let me tell you as an aside, to make up for not naming this script and to hopefully be of some use instead of just grumbling at you, that number 39 was an episode of I’m Alan Partridge (book). Then 40 and 41 were a two-part Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story. (The Search part 1 and part 2.)

All three are good. Still didn’t help. I went to bed annoyed and I’m ratty again today.

Chiefly because this script is for a show I saw early last year and had enjoyed on screen. On the page, it was irritating. I’ve said that actors, directors and producers can make a poor script seem okay but they will never make it great. That was one of my ten lessons and yet now there’s this. Maybe the show made from this script wasn’t exactly fantastic, but it was very, very good.

Good enough that I was excited when a friend sent me the script.

On the page, all I can see is how hard the cast had to work to make this dialogue sound natural. When I remembered how the actors delivered a line, I could see how they got there but otherwise it just wasn’t on the page. Good dialogue doesn’t make sense and isn’t grammatically correct yet there’s a way to write it so that when you read it on the page, you hear how it should be spoken and you believe it. You believe this is what a real person would say.

In this script, there was none of this. Dialogue was just a mash of words that you had to unpick.

All of the ideas that I’d so liked in the finished show are right here in the script yet somehow they’re carelessly half-hidden.

I think this is what has left me in a bad mood. This felt careless. It really isn’t, it really cannot be, yet that’s how it reads. I think what I’m struggling to reach is a thought that this script was written by someone who doesn’t care about scriptwriting. I’m certain they care about television drama and I will always agree with them that a script is just a blueprint for a show.

I’m guessing now, but a typical television series script will only be actually read by perhaps a hundred people. Maybe two hundred at the absolute outside. What’s more, every one of those readers is a professional who has worked on drama before. This script had all the information each one of them needed to do their jobs. And the end result worked very well on screen so the only sane conclusion is that I’m an idiot.

Only, this is writing. By a writer. You may well not like what I write but it isn’t casually thrown off, it isn’t careless. I’ll never know if I’m any good but I do know that there is a certain standard that I can’t slip below. If I write crap, it isn’t the writing that’s so bad, it isn’t the technique or the skill or the care.

I think the conclusion you’re helping me reach is that the writer of this script is not a good writer – and yet he does make a good television drama.

I didn’t think that was possible. I’ve said it isn’t possible. And even now, right this moment, right here talking to you, I still believe that it isn’t conceivably possible. But seemingly it is.

I don’t especially mind being wrong. What I mind is that I’d say this script was bad and yet the show was good.

This kept me awake.

Thanks for being my therapist today, I owe you. Now, I’m off to read another script and to write one too.

All artifice just script away

Last week I was asked why I read other people’s scripts. For one brief, rather happy moment I thought the fella might be asking because I am such a fantastic writer that I have no need of learning from other people.

No, he said, I mean why read the scripts when you can just see the bloody film?

He had a point. Crushingly cruel as he was.

I do know many writers who will avoid the actual script if the film or the programme or the show has been made. The script is, as I completely understand, the detailed blueprint. It’s not the final show any more than a house is the sum of its elevation drawings or isometric projections.

And I’ve just now finished being one of the many judges on the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s radio awards. I can’t tell you which entries were my favourites and apparently I can’t even know myself which one has actually won. But I can tell you that some of us simply read all the scripts while others listened to all of the finished shows instead.

I can make you a strong argument for both. If you needed this for some test, I could stock you up with reasons to read the script and reasons not to.

You can imagine all of them except, I find myself hoping, one that matters rather a lot.

It’s quicker to read the script.

There. I’ve said it. I can read an hour-long script in about twenty minutes. A full-length feature film, say 120 pages, is maybe fifty minutes reading time at most.

I do read quickly but I never speed-read and I don’t skip anything, it’s just that I’m fast and scripts have very few words on the page anyway.

There is also this. I know in the first few seconds on page one whether I’m going to think it’s a good script. Recently I read a set where it took a page to get going and if we were in production I’d just kill those pages. But even then, they didn’t get going good enough: my first reaction was maybe harsh but definitely fair.

One interesting thing about reading other people’s scripts is that you come back to your own with a different perspective. Hopefully a better perspective but unquestionably different.

The trick is to read the ones by the fantastic writers.

My hardest writing job

I do want to tell you about the single hardest thing I’ve done, and as soon as I type that to you I think of a few other things that would be a contender. But really I want to talk with you about how astonishing it is that something which was a stone in my stomach six days out of seven every week for 18 months could be so completely forgotten.

I mean, it was writing and it was in Radio Times every week back in 2005/6 when that magazine’s sales figures were just over one million and the estimated readership was three million. So it’s not impossible that you saw it. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. If you did read every week of it, though, you’d still have completely forgotten about it because it was the smallest slice of nothing.

No exaggeration. It was perhaps 100 words in each issue and lived on a corner of the letters page.

What astonishes me is that I’d forgotten it entirely too.

Yesterday, I was on the Dot Davies show on BBC Radio Wales as an author and TV historian. It was in response to the news that some 7,000 people in the UK have a black and white TV licence. A bell rang. I think now that it was a Cloister Bell warning of dire trouble because for the first time in 12 years I remembered Radio Times and the TV Stats column. I remembered covering this topic in there.

Only a week ago, I was talking with someone about RT and told them that I’d written the On This Day in TV History piece for it. I can’t remember how long I did that but it was at least four years and every issue had a little nugget by me on each of the day’s listings page. I remember that, I’m proud of that, but I’d clearly suppressed TV Stats.

But I had a couple of hours between BBC Radio Wales asking me and my being on the Dot Davies show. So I searched. I’ve got RT on PDF up to the late 2000s so it didn’t take as long to search as this will sound, but I did go through 60 editions before I found it.

I can’t show you any. Each week was this 100 words or so but it would always be accompanied by a cartoon illustration and I didn’t do those. I said that six days out of seven I was in pain about this: you’ve guessed that the seventh day was when I delivered the copy and the strain was off until tomorrow. But there was also the pleasure of seeing what cartoonist Robert Thompson had come up with.

I’d get that pleasure twice, actually. I’d usually be shown his roughly-sketched proposal and then every week I’d open the issue to see the final illustration. I can’t imagine how hard a job it was to illustrate this stuff in an amusing cartoon fashion.

At the time, though, I was too full of how hard it was to write. The job was to think of a topic to do with television and then research or calculate some statistics to go with it. Find an interesting topic, figure out the details and then hope the result was worth publishing because otherwise it was scrapped and you started again. And of course still facing that same deadline.

Oddly enough, I have an idea that this one about how many people in the UK still had black and white TV licences was among the easiest. I can’t recall now whether I was specifically asked to find out or whether it was my idea, but I’m pretty sure that I just phoned the TV Licensing people and asked them.

The answer, by the way, was 58,000 people and I either calculated or was told that at that time in 2005 this was 0.2% of the licence-owning population. At this distance of 13 years, I can feel an echo of the relief that week.

When you’re writing something like this you can’t get too far ahead because there’s supposed to be at least some element of topicality. But also you should try to have a few ideas banked up and ready. Sod that. The joy of having filed that copy and not absolutely having to think of the next one for a couple of days was fantastic.

I do say days. Because I truly had bad nights because of TV Stats.

This all sounds overblown, I know, and especially so because I’ve had many columns and myriad deadlines. Yet this one is giving me the sweats again today, over a decade since it finished.

Precisely how many films were shown on terrestrial TV in 2005? How many shopping channels are there? What proportion of digital channel profits come from advertising and from our subscriptions? Just how many characters in EastEnders are self-employed compared to real life? Exactly what percentage of characters in Albert Square have owned the Queen Vic?

You’re curious about that last one, aren’t you? In 2005, the answer was that 6.5% of all major characters in EastEnders had owned that pub.

You see the job. Try to find something interesting, try to put a figure on things we’d all noticed like that turnover of Queen Vic owners. Oh! I remember proving that the murder rate in Morse was actually pretty much the same as the real-life number of murders in the Oxford area. That was because Morse ran in very short series each year where actual murderers tended not to take such long breaks.

Anyway.

Week after week. I should be able to rattle off the statistics of how many I did but I’m rebelling. It was something like 18 months and I won’t research any closer than that.

I’d rather tell you instead of one moment of relieved pride. I got the commission over email, I think, but there was to be a big meeting to decide how all this would be done. Here’s how much TV Stats buried into me: I can still picture that meeting. Where it was – BBC Woodlands in London, the second of three BBC buildings I worked in that was demolished – and also exactly who was there.

I can remember where I sat and who I faced. How’s this for research? I can show you that spot.

Radio Times office 2008

That shot is from 2008 and this was just before the place was demolished. So, first in one morning, I took a photo tour of the whole place. See that second chair from the left? I don’t remember whose that usually was but for this meeting, that’s where I remember sitting.

I can also remember that I’d misunderstood the brief and the example I’d brought had the text right but I’d illustrated it myself. I’m not then and never will be a cartoonist but I’d done some Photoshop work that was a graphical illustration of whatever statistic I’d found. I remember the art editor saying he didn’t know how to do what I’d done.

That was the moment of pride. And being gently told they had their own illustrators was the relief.

Oddly, I’ve no memory at all of TV Stats ending. I know it began because of a redesign on the magazine that saw the letters page bumped to the back of the issue. I imagine it ended because of the next redesign, but I don’t know.

TV Stats was one fraction of one job I had as a writer and yet it punched high above its weight because of how difficult it was to think of the bloody things. I did learn to write better because of it: I learned how to make the very most out of a sometimes flimsy statistic to produce an interesting read because there was usually no alternative and often no time.

And apparently it is all still lodged in my brain as it was waiting to pour out of me yesterday. I did get to bring up that 58,000 figure on BBC Radio Wales but I don’t think it particularly contributed to the piece.

There’s a bit of me that quite likes that.

Oh! One more memory? I spent at least seven hours one week calculating how much you would have to spend on Amazon to buy all the spin-off merchandise from children’s TV shows. You know it’s a lot but, sorry, I can’t either remember or find the figure.

But I can tell you that to this day Amazon notifies me each time there’s a new product to do with Dora the Explorer.