Smash cut to main titles

You could say that radio brought us pop songs. Theatre brought us the printed programme. Film brought us the trailer. But it’s really television that brought us the title sequence. Movies often have them but the true main titles belong to TV. They are the clarion call that draws you to the television set and if you’re already watching then they draw you in. They embody and they embue the tone and flavour and verve of the show that follows them.

Or they did. For some years we’ve seen the decline of the title sequence and television drama is the weaker for it. Compare The West Wing with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Both Aaron Sorkin series could have an utterly exquisite pre-titles scene but The West Wing would then smash cut to main titles and that soaring theme, those stirring images. It was strong and bold and confident and fantastic.

In comparison Studio 60 would smash cut to a title card: literally the show’s name and a moment’s motion the way a Ken Burns documentary zooms in closer on a photograph. As much as I admire the beauty of a well-made film trailer, it is the TV main title sequence that gladdens my heart.

So I love that one project I’m doing requires me to think up a title sequence. I have been failing at this for several hours now but along the way have the most brilliant time remembering and occasionally re-enacting famous sequences.

Part of the appeal is the memory: a sequence will run at the start of so many weeks that they get burned into us. It’s probably impossible, then to coldly and objectively analyse a sequence but bollocks to cold and objective. The best title sequences deserve more than cold objectivity, they earn more. And that’s how you’ve already got several in your mind.

Yep. So do I.

Sometimes the sequence is better than the show but also, for me, sometimes a sequence only means so much because the series did. This is a title sequence that breaks me: my age is split in half, I can feel the very start of my career being sparked anew, these are characters who stand beside me today.

They stick in your head to the extent that when I thought of quietly telling you what my project is, I really did then think: “I sure wish the Governor had let a few more people in on our secret.”

None of this is helping me think up a sequence for my project but I’ve had a lovely time talking with you. Thanks for the distraction.


So you got me on to titles. 

But look, this post is called Untitled deliberately. Deliberately. I haven’t just spent six hours trying to come up with a title for a blog about titles. I have not.

It was five hours.

And 59 minutes.

Pound for pound, word for word, I have always spent far longer on titles for things than I have on things. And I was fine with that. I was fine because titles are that important and, oh, the pleasure one gets from reading a good ‘un is nothing compared to how fantastic you feel when you’ve written it. There were BBC Ceefax headline titles I was so pleased with that I remember them now, ten years or more later. That I was so pleased with that I’d tell you them now, except I’d have to show you the whole piece and I’d also have to explain all the topical references. But, still.

Six minutes ago, CD copies of Doctor Who: Scavenger arrived in the post. I wrote that two-hour drama about a year ago, it was formally released a couple of weeks back and I’ve had the download version, but here in my hand is the CD and that title, Scavenger. I am very pleased with it and I am enormously chuffed with the response it’s had, I’m beside myself with how great Big Finish made it sound.

But Scavenger was meant to be a temporary title. The script even says “Scavenger (working title)”.

I like it now and I think it works but maybe I and we just got used to it during the production. That happens: apparently nobody liked the title Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but nobody came up with a better one in time. Some people did like Scavenger, right from the start, so it’s not quite the same but I tried to find something else. The story involves all the junk and broken satellites in Earth orbit plus the story runs at a hell of a pace: it’s near-as-dammit realtime for the whole two hours. So junk plus speed, I have a draft of the script that I called Debris Encounter.

Literally nobody likes that. I did then, but now am wincing. So it’s 100% dislike for Debris Encounter.

My previous Doctor Who was called Spaceport Fear and was named by my wife, Angela Gallagher. One before that, still my favourite for how fantastic its sound design is, was going to be called The Prodigal Wirrn. The Wirrn are a famous Doctor Who monster so everybody buying the release would know what half of the title meant and they’d probably take five minutes to figure out how the rest worked and what that meant the story would become. Together director Nicholas Briggs and I renamed it Wirrn Isle. Which I like enormously.

But – have I told you all this before? I’m ringing bells here but I think about this stuff so much I lose track of what I blurt out to you and what I noodle about when people think I’m working for them. My least-favourite Doctor Who of mine has my absolute favourite title: it’s the prison drama called Doing Time. Jason Arnopp gave me that title.

I know I’m right that one gets used to titles. I remember being at a lightbox meeting at Radio Times when commissioning editor Anne Jowett was going through a list of dramas in production and for the first time I heard the title Life on Mars. There was something about that title that was just right. You get used to it, you get to say it without thinking, but in that opening moment, it was right and it was good and it got your attention. Titles are advertising and they are then encapsulating. They catch your eye but then they are summing up the entire thing.

I’ve had many projects that lurched forward with difficulty until I found the perfect title for them and then, wham, everything flies. The right title attracts the audience’s attention and makes them want to watch or listen or read, but the right title also sets the writer off on a roll.

You can have bad titles. You can have good titles that are bad for some people. Sports Night, for instance: I’d have bet money I would never notice a show called Sports Night let alone watch it. I have zero interest in sport, zero, so that title tells me unequivocally that this show is not for me. More than that, the title puts it outside my mind’s reach. I could read that somewhere and it would not register, I would not process the thought that it’s about sports, it would just be gone. You could argue that this is an efficient title, it communicates a lot to me. But as it happens, Sports Night is a treasure. It’s a comedy by Aaron Sorkin that’s done like The West Wing but in half the time and with twice the energy.

One advertising strapline for the show says: “Sports Night. It’s about sports. The same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.”

I do love that line and I do relish a great strapline. (I once watched a whole documentary about the people trying to write a strapline for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I think it took six months and they came up with “Prepare to be shell-shocked”. Absolutely worth the whole time. Reminds me of The Lego Movie’s “The excitement is building.” But back to titles.)

I quoted David Lodge last week about names and his The Art of Fiction book has plenty to say about titles too, including this:

The title of a novel is part of the text – the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter – and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention. The titles of the earliest English novels were invariably the names of the central characters, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Clarissa. Fiction was modelling itself on, and sometimes disguising itself as, biography and autobiography. Later novelists realized that titles could indicate a theme (Sense and Sensibility), suggest an intriguing mystery (The Woman in White),or promise a certain kind of setting and atmosphere (Wuthering Heights). At some point in the nineteenth century they began to hitch their stories to resonant literary quotations (Far From the Madding Crowd), a practice that persists throughout the twentieth (Where Angels Fear To Tread, A Handful of Dust, For Whom the Bell Tolls), though it is now perhaps regarded as a little corny.

There’s a wit to the best titles, I think. The sitcom Friends famously eschewed ‘proper’ titles and instead tried to name episodes the way that a viewer would, hence: “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”. Veronica Mars stole a title I have been longing to use since the first day I heard of the computer game Resident Evil: I wanted to and the show Mars did have a story called President Evil.

Veronica Mars had gorgeous episode titles like The Quick and the Wed or Hi, Infidelity that work before you know the story and even if you don’t know the series. But then it also had titles that earned attention. The second-season finale is called Not Pictured and it’s when you know why that it becomes this huge thing. That’s an earned title rather than a great pun, it’s a encapsulation of the story instead of an advertising line. I love that title.

But I do also love witty ones. I am a sucker for a great title and I wanted to bring you my favourite. I’m afraid I rejected all Shakespeare – though he did invent the numbered sequel, give him that – and I ran through all my favourite novelists, all my favourite writers of all descriptions. Found a million titles.

And I think this is the best. There was a 1970s detective series called Banacek – it was a locked-room kind of mystery, very much Jonathan Creek but years earlier and without the wit – and in one episode there a famous crucifix was stolen from a church under the most mysterious circumstances. It was stolen right in front of people who did not see it go and who could not find it afterwards.

The episode was called:

No Sign of the Cross.



Naming names

I read the starts of two friends’ novels this week.


That sounds like I chucked them aside, couldn’t be bothered to finish them. So far both friends only have the starts of their novels. Normally I wouldn’t read anything until it was complete but there were special circumstances. One was being readied for an agent who has a publisher waiting to see it – and his publisher is in for a treat, I can now tell you – and the other was at a much earlier stage but I’m working with the writer generally and we’d talked about it, I wanted to see it. If she’d had the rest of the novel, I’d be reading that now and pointing you at Amazon for it.

But while we wait for both of these books to be finished, I want to figure out something that happens to be in both of them. It’s actually in every novel: it’s about the names we give characters. It was just noticeable in these two because hers had a character I am sure is named after two famous ones and I’m dying for her to reveal I’m right. And his unfortunately had a name that might be a problem.

I can’t tell you the name but, to give you an idea of the issue, it was like a more sensible version of Cormoran Strike. Cormoran is the lead character in JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (a rather excellent crime novel she’s written under the name of Robert Galbraith. Don’t get me started on pseudonyms. I was once paid extra by a newspaper to make up a couple of bylines so that it didn’t look like I was the sole writer on a supplement project. One of the ones I picked was Dennis Price. That’s the ‘real’ name of the photographer character in Lou Grant, the guy usually called Animal. Nobody would get that. Except Dennis Price, an uncle of my wife Angela’s. I’ve never told him the truth.)


This guy’s novel features a character who has a much more real-world and believable name than Cormoran Strike. You read his and accept it unthinkingly whereas with Cormoran you go through the stages The Simpsons described for The Beatles’ name.

PRINCIPLE SKINNER: We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.

There are reasons why Cormoran Strike is called that and I particularly like that Rowling only suggests the reasons quite far into the book. Explaining it directly, explaining it immediately would be like defending it and that would somehow be calling out that it is an author’s contrivance instead of a real character’s – a real person’s – name. My guy doesn’t need to suggest or explain, his character name is just effective and believable. But it’s close enough to Rowling’s that I had to tell him.

It’s touch-and-go. I talked about it with him and though he sees the problem, though he’s looking at changing it, I wouldn’t be overwhelmingly surprised if he decides to stick with his first choice. You’d think that a name is a name, that one is as good as another, that a swift search-and-replace in the word processor makes it easy to change a name. But if you do think that, you also won’t be surprised that I’ve read a lot of manuscripts and scripts where the writer has searched-and-replaced but you can tell. I’ll never tell you who, but one writer obviously changed the name Bill to something else, which gave rise to this at the start of a chapter:

“Dick, please.”

I’ve had to change names for legal reasons or because, like this guy with the Rowling-ish name, I’ve spotted or been told something is too close to something else. It’s so hard to get a reader into a story that you can’t afford to throw them out again and if I had a character named James Bond, it wouldn’t go by unnoticed. But changing names is wrenching and I love that I can show you this quote from David Lodge who wrote in The Art of Fiction that:

The invention of the word processor has made it easy to change the name of a character at a late stage of composition, just by touching a few keys, but I would have a strong resistance to doing that to any but the most minor character in my fiction. One may hesitate and agonize about the choice of a name, but once made, it becomes inseparable from the character, and to question it seems to throw the whole project en abime, as the deconstructionists say.

I read Lodge’s book twenty years ago but mise en abime didn’t make it into my ideolect: if it’s new to you too, it means sent into the abyss. But while I’ve got you with the page open in Lodge’s book, take a squint at this next bit:

I was made acutely aware of this in the process of writing Nice Work.

This novel concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him… it is generally a… straightforwardly realistic novel and in naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.

Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

Wirrn IsleI’ve had the same concerns and the same delays but I’ve never delved so finely. I think I tend toward the more natural names and avoid connotations and allegories and deeper meanings – though listeners to my Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle didn’t like my character names Toasty and Iron, absolutely perfect though they were – but I also find it hard to change names. Even between projects. I must’ve written a good dozen scripts before I started getting anywhere, I could well believe I’d done twenty if you wanted to insist, and a very early one featured a woman called Susan Hare. I liked that name so much that in the next script, stuck for a new name, I borrowed it. And did so again a few years later. And at least once more.

As it happens, poor Susan has never been in a script that got made or I’d have to stop doing this. But it tickled me one day to realise that, with some effort, you could actually link every one of these scripts and have every one of those scripts be about the same woman. Not perfectly, I’m relieved to say her character was different in each, but chronologically. The child Susan Hare could have become that teenage Susan Hare who could have just about become that adult Susan Hare. It got so I spent a ferociously long time thinking about what would make that child turn out that way. I started sketching out other scripts that might fill in the gaps. If I ever do The Susan Hare Chronicles, that’s where it started.

More often, I am vividly clear on the character but I imagine I’m not fussed about the name. I know changing it later will be a wrench, I know that I get very connected with the names, but at the point of creation, I have extremely often just looked up at the bookshelves next to me and combined a couple of different author names. Consequently I’ve had characters named Beiderbecke a bit. Also some Woodwards and Bernsteins. Just between us – please don’t tell anyone else – I am quite a bit chuffed that this looking-up-at-bookshelves now means I often risking naming characters Gallagher.

There’s never a connection between me or those other authors and the characters, I’m never trying to name someone after someone. That Wirrn Isle also featured a woman named Veronica Buchman and she was named after the fictional characters Veronica Mars and Mad About You’s Jamie Buchman. (I do love the name Veronica Mars with its mix of old-fashioned forename and unusual surname. Until a character in that TV show pointed out that Veronica Mars drives a Saturn car and lives in a town called Neptune, I hadn’t even connected Mars with the planet. “Move Uranus,” she tells that character. “Mercury’s rising.”)

I do have an Izzy somewhere, in something, I’ve gone blank now, and she was named after a BBC Radio producer just because I liked her name. I liked her too, but I really liked her name. Otherwise, I can only think of one single time I’ve named a character after someone: there is a Jyoti Cutler in my latest Doctor Who, Scavenger, and she is named after Jyoti Patel. She’s the script editor who took a chance and commissioned me to write for Crossroads. I doubt she even remembers me, but I am grateful and I liked her a lot. But I also just really liked her name or I wouldn’t have used it.

I mean, much as I like you, I’m not going to use your name in a script or a book. Your name is yours: it means you to me. I loathe these contests where the winner gets a character named after them, usually in a crime novel, usually a character who gets murdered early on. Couldn’t do it.

Because names are that important to me. You may have gathered that.

Just don’t get me started on titles.