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?

Change the rules

If you want something and the other person, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to give it to you, change the rules. Don’t try to fix the system from the inside: pull the argument on to your turf. Stand where you are strongest and argue from there.

It’s taken me so long to see that this is necessary and that any system’s rules are designed to protect the system and fight change. And this week 76 writers demonstrated it.

Actually, it’s 76 women writers and not only would it be irrelevant that they’re women, I’m not entirely sure I’d have noticed they were as I read their names. There are some I’ve not heard of, there are some whose writing I don’t like and there are some who I aspire to be as good as. But it’s their writing I’m interested in and gender wouldn’t cross my mind.

Except that the 76 names are signatures on a letter that made news around the world this week. These writers are protesting against the fact that UK television drama series use startlingly, ridiculously few women. Or to put it another way, it’s always the same bleedin’ men who write these shows. Or put it a third way: it’s the same type of people who write most of them.

I want to see drama from everyone and about everything. Right now the system is boringly out of whack and if I’ll be happiest when drama better reflects our country’s brilliant and vibrant culture, we can start by hiring more women. And I can point you at 76 women writers.

There are more than 76: that’s how many publicly signed the letter but there are untold more who support it yet fear putting their current work at risk by signing. I readily get that: I think I might well have been one of them if I were one of the writers doing this.

So I understand the ones who can’t sign and of course I applaud those who did.

But read their letter.

It’s strong and forceful but it’s layered, it’s funny, it’s involving. This letter is not a placard demanding what we want and how we want it now, it is engaging in every sense. If there is no mistaking its point or the strength of its argument, it is equally clear that this is a conversation. Like the very best writing, this is not a transmission of arguments from the writers to television commissioners, the text speaks in such a way that the reader is as involved as the writers.

If you forget everything else about what it’s trying to achieve, this letter is an example of smart, classy, vivid writing.

You can’t forget what it’s trying to achieve though, specifically because it won’t let you.

I imagine that there must’ve been hundreds of meetings where women writers somehow didn’t quite get the commissions their writing warrants. I imagine thousands of emails where projects somehow didn’t get to where they should.

And so rather than continue working in that system, these 76 writers yanked the argument over to where they visibly and vividly rule: these writers wrote.

I can only hope that it helps but I tell you, I wish I’d written that letter.

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.

Appy anniversary

This week is the sixth anniversary of the original App Store: the iPhone app store that is now responsible for how I spend a significant portion of every working day. Before then, apps were known as applications and not really that well known at all, not per se. Your mother didn’t ask you what an application was. Mine has asked me what an app is.

Mind you, before then, phones were known for being phones. And for being hard to use. I remember trying to read the manual in a theatre: I had a small production on and guests were coming, I needed to have the phone on but muted. Never worked it out.

Now it’s preposterously easy to do with an iPhone but actually calls must be the least thing I use it for. Because I run my life through the apps on it. The iPhone came with apps – the Phone is an app, but there was also an email one, music, calendar – and there are ones from that set that I have used every day since 2007 when I got my first iPhone. Right this minute my phone’s front screen has 20 very, very well-worn apps of which 10 are Apple’s.

That’s more than I expected. Look at the other 10, though:

OmniFocus – my beloved To Do manager
Fantastical 2 – my newly beloved calendar
Pocket – for reading saved articles from the web
Drafts – for jotting down text and then deciding what to do with it, whether to send a text or save to Evernote
Evernote – speak of the devil
Reeder 2 – for reading a lot, I mean a lot, of news every day
Wordpress – for doing some twiddles with this site
HulloMail – a replacement for iPhone voicemail since I’m on 3 that doesn’t support this naturally
LocalScope – for finding restaurants, companies, ATMs, bookshops, anything nearby
1Password – all my passwords and logins at a tap
AwesomeClock – my bedside clock
Concise Oxford English Dictionary (with audio) – what the words mean and how to pronounce them

There probably hasn’t been an hour of daylight in six years that I haven’t used one or more of those.

But.

Six years.

It’s a long time.

I wanted to know what the first was.

The first app I ever bought.

If you want to do this, the quickest way is to open iTunes on your Mac or PC, go to the App Store and check Purchased. You can’t tell a date from that, unfortunately, but the apps are stored in order. If you have more patience and a steady hand, you can get approximately the right date by going through your Accounts section and slogging, slogging, slogging back through the listings there. Very slow, very long. And the date is the invoice date, not the download one. So it can be the same day, it can be the day after. But as near as you will ever be able to determine, that’s when you got each app. Including your first.

My first ever app was… actually, it was two, I bought two at the same time and can’t tell which was first. But the two were NYTimes – Breaking National & World News and Yulan Mahjong Solitaire. I bough them on 11 July 2008, so that’s six years ago today, and together they cost me £2.99. I’ve just checked and the New York Times one is free, Yulan Mahjong is now £1.19.

They’re both fine but neither lasted on my home screen and I know this for certain because of this. This is what my iPhone home screen has looked like for the last six years.

The music there is “Last Week” from Green Wing’s soundtrack by Trellis.

There is one advantage to slogging, slogging, slogging through your iTunes Store account: you get to find out when you bought everything.

So I can tell you that the first book I ever bought through Apple’s iBooks Store was a free copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The first one I paid for appears to be some psychology thing called 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. I bought those both on 28 May 2010 and have only read the Austen. The first paid-for iBook I bought and read – and loved, incidentally – is Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant, bought on 29 May 2010.

The first TV episode was the free pilot to Damages: never watched it. The first paid one was The Mighty Boosh’s The Nightmare of Milky Joe, which I’d stumbled across on TV and it silenced the room, we all got so engrossed. I bought that on 2 March 2008 and I must go watch it again.

Films came to the iTunes Store before TV but my first wasn’t until 7 June 2008 and The Paper Chase. It cost me £6.99 and I’ve not watched it. I’m feeling bad about all this now. But the second film, the first paid for and also watched, was Searching for Bobby Fischer, aka Innocent Moves aka the subject of this blog by Ken Armstrong.

And all this buying from the iTunes stores started with music. On 15 June 2004, I spent £3.16 buying In Between Days by The Cure, Always the Last to Know and Be My Downfall by Del Amitri, and Jokerman by Bob Dylan. The first album, two days later, was Greatest Radio Hits by Bruce Hornsby.

None of which has had the impact that the apps I’ve bought this way did, but all part of this peculiar sea change that saw me move away from CDs, move to phones that work, move to actually the life and the career that I have right now. I like telling you that my working life would not be recognisable to me if all this hadn’t happened but I don’t like wondering what I’d have ended up doing.