Count on it

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

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

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

And then there is this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t stop ‘til you get enough

I like stories where I start off looking pretty good and I’m okay with how they then often take a turn and I don’t appear quite so great. If I could just stop myself telling you the third part where I am invariably exposed as an utter idiot, that would be okay with me.

This isn’t that type of story, not quite yet. Give me a minute. First I have to tell you a very quick thing because I want to tell myself too and I have no earthly clue where else I can. It’s this. In a hundred years, when all of the analysis of the Trump Administration is finally over but researchers can’t shake the habit, some one sole person with half an hour to spare and a sandwich to chew, will open the 2020 US House of Representatives report into technology.

And as they skim it, wondering where they left their coffee, their eyes will completely miss the fact that I am cited in there.

What value this citation has, I don’t know. But now when relatives give me the line about how the lockdown must’ve been great for me since I say I’m a “writer”, and when these relatives go on to the inevitable “so what did you do with your time?”, I have an answer. “Wrote a play, wrote a book, influenced the course of American political history for the next century. What about you? Did you get that shed painted?”

Oh, come on, you’ve got identical relatives, let me have this.

And what I really want to talk to you about was hidden in there. The “wrote a book” part. It’s not as much of an exaggeration as the US politics part, but unfortunately it is an exaggeration and I want to be open about this.

I count things. This may be very male of me, but I like that later today I’ll read my 458th script of the year, and that a few minutes ago I did my daily French lesson in Duolingo for the 508th consecutive day. Counting like this is useful, I promise you, but only when the numbers start to look decent. I remember back on January 1st when I made a note that I’d read one entire script so far this year, it didn’t feel that hot.

‘Course, there have been bigger things to worry about this year. Pandemics: 1. So small numbers can still be huge.

But counting like this does a lot of things for me, most of them to do with how they somehow keep me going on to the next bit. I’ve done 508 days, you know I’ll do 509. Just as an aside, by the way, every time Duolingo says I’ve hit whatever the day count is, I am back on day 1, which was late night in a hotel in Hull, during the most intense research job I’ve ever had. It’s a nice memory to have every day.

That research became a play that I am still supremely proud of, 105 days since I delivered it. But here’s the thing I seem to be trying to simultaneously tell you and avoid telling you.

The reason I know I delivered that script 105 days ago is that right after I emailed it over, I vowed to spend one hour every day writing a novel. And I managed it for 89 days. Call it 90: I allowed myself a holiday of a few days since I’d reached 97,000 words, and I came back to do one more day after that.

But 90 is a little less than 105. This is the quality of information you get from me. Except, no, it turns out that 90 is the most enormously less than 105 than it is possible to get. The gap between 89 and 105 is exactly the same. The gap between, say, 21 days and 105 is precisely, to the minute, as much of a chasm. It is harder to go back to an hour every day after you’ve stopped for 15 days than it ever was to do each day one after the other.

Except.

The reason I am telling you this now is that I think saying it to you, specifically you and specifically now, will make me get back on the wagon. And then there is also this.

Last night, still feeling wiped out from having been sick last weekend, I read script number 457 –– Jack Rosenthal’s “Well, Thank You, Thursday” –– and went to a Suzanne Vega concert. In my living room. It was streamed and the proceeds are going to all of the venues across the US and Europe that she would have played in during a tour that the pandemic has cancelled.

I was streaming it from my iPhone to my TV set, and either from a need to just be in the moment or because I knew I’d knock the streaming off if I fiddled with the phone, I didn’t check any messages for about the concert’s about 70 minutes. No alerts, no notifications, no emails, and I didn’t even know the time until afterwards. I got to be in a New York night club for a small little concert and just be there.

Yet I thought of something for the book.

During “Ludlow Street”, if we’re really counting. One of my favourites: it’s a track from Suzanne Vega’s Beauty & Crime album.

Anyway, faintly peculiarly, what I thought of was something that I realise is already in the novel. Two of my characters have grown to have these different perspectives on the same thing and what I realised last night is why. It’s the smallest insight, it is what I have already written, and yet it’s so important that if the US House of Representatives asks me about it, I will claim that it was the entire reason for the novel.

You’ll know different, but you’re you, I can tell you this. And I want to tell you because it’s you, but also because I need your help to get me back on this hour-every-day lark –– and I hope that your helping me will help you start, continue or finish whatever you’re working on. Just doing a bit every day gets you there.

Count on it.

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.

No idea

Oh, go on, let me do this. I had a Serious Writing Topic that I wanted to discuss with you, but it is you, it’s just me and you, let me tell you something else that I think you’ll recognise. It’s the way that you get an idea you think is good but actually you have no idea how much work it is going to take you.

I have a YouTube series called 58keys, it’s about 30+ videos so far and all for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads. Fine: I like doing it very much, I’m getting gorgeous reactions, all is ace. Except a week or two ago, I had an episode ready to go and decided to pull it.

There was nothing wrong with the episode but I’d made it especially to be relevant to people who listen to a podcast called The Omni Show. That’s a surprisingly happy little show about the company that makes various particularly great software tools that I rely on daily. Hourly. They invited me on and after the recording, I made this 58keys episode about the especially particularly great To Do app OmniFocus.

Only, their interview with me didn’t air when I expected. It has now aired and you can hear it and it was a lot of fun, but it didn’t come out on the day I thought it might. So I decided to hold off on the relevant 58keys episode. You’d have done the same, I know you’d have done it and found that so obvious that you might even have bothered to complete the thought, you’d just do it.

But this meant I had no 58keys episode.

With 90 minutes –– honestly, I think it came in at 89 minutes –– I had thought of a new episode, written it, filmed it, edited it and uploaded it to YouTube ready to go. That was a nice feeling, that rush of creativity, and that episode did very well for me.

But no good idea goes unpunished. I ran that episode, then the next week when The Omni Show was out, I ran my OmniFocus episode –– and realised that I really, really had to have a second one about that software. It’s that useful, there is that much to say. And this is where I got the idea that I have since spent thirty hours on. That’s thirty hours. Twenty times longer than the previous one took.

I don’t think you do or should care how long I spend on anything, just as I don’t think either of us should especially care how long any piece of work too, how much effort it did or didn’t take. The end result is all that matters and actually I am now very pleased with it.

This 58keys about a software app that you may not be using, may never have heard of since the last time we had coffee and you foolishly asked me what I was up to, certainly had the potential to be dull. It also needed to be quite long in order to cover everything. Long and dull. For some reason I didn’t fancy long and dull.

So I did what any drama fan would. I turned it into a fight.

If you watch, you’ll see a four-way Zoom conversation with three of me visibly not liking each other, and a bear just staring at all of us. This might be something I should say to a therapist before I admit it to you, but I appear to really, really like arguing with myself like this, I deeply like disliking myself. Plus I got to do it in a form that was half Zoom, half more like a certain TV thriller.

There you go. Instead of long and dull, I made a thriller. Or at least I tried to: you’ll have to judge it.

I hope you enjoy it, I know you would’ve done it differently and that this could very well have meant you did it better, but you also recognise this part. Once I had the idea, I was committed. Ten hours in, twenty, I might dislike the idea and I might have gone off the jokes that I’d now heard six times, but I was committed. When I realised I’d made a small mistake and needed to entirely reshoot a whole segment, I could’ve held back a little tear, but I could not stop myself getting out the camera and the tripod again.

There are parts of this video that are literally four or five pixels big and you cannot, just cannot see why I needed to do them. But I needed to do them.

Because we do. I was working with 20 or so writers, musicians, journalists and actors earlier this week and we might have all wished for the regular salary of a regular job, but we all knew exactly like you do that it takes unreasonable, unjustifiable, uneconomic effort to pull off an idea.

And you also know how I’m feeling right now. I’m a bit conscious of some other pixels I would like to change now that I’ve seen it all on my living room TV set, but I’m also deeply glad that I did it. Deeply glad that I got a laugh from Angela at just the right place.

And somewhat less glad that I now have to think of something to film for next week’s episode.

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.

You wouldn’t make it up

It’s hard to remain confident that everyone was brought up to believe in right and wrong. But I think we were less overtly, yet more effectively, brought up to believe in how stories work. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, for instance.

You can point to the beginning of Brexit very easily. Right now you can point to the start of Trump’s presidency and hopefully you’ll soon be able to point to its end, too.

In general, though, the world does feel like it’s in a very long, very bad middle act and that the conclusion is going to be pretty short and unpleasant.

I can handle that.

I can even cope with how there are no heroes. There are hopeful signs like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but if she is demonstrable proof that intelligent life exists in other political systems, she’s still in another political system. She’s not going to be any help to us in the UK, she’s never going to be anything in UK politics.

Not unless she happens to be a friend of Boris Johnson and needs some quick cash. That’s now the approved route to positions in the cabinet, places on the honours list and jobs of no value but high prices.

What gets me in the drama of all this is that the baddies are so crap.

If I’m going to have evil malevolence and the destruction of everything that is right and good in the world, I at least want a decent crazed villain with brilliant plans. Even if those brilliant plans can’t be thwarted at the last second, at least give us a show.

Were this all a drama, with the only escalation being in the level at which politicians think they can do what they like, I’d have walked out by now.

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.

I’ve been mansplained

Let me tell you that last weekend I wrote a tweet and it was immediately commented on with a patronising explanation that completely missed my gag. Just from that, you now know several things, starting with how I got mansplained.

And ending with that I’m a man.

Because I doubt any woman would bother to write about this. One man’s unique experience is every woman’s commonplace occurrence.

I would’ve told you that I get that, I understand it. My closest friends are women and I’ve heard the tales. I promise you I’ve never seen it in real life or I’d have a story to tell about stepping in. But I don’t think you can use social media without knowing it happens.

Wait, I want to tell you what I tweeted. It’s an old joke, but it’s my old joke and as small and slight as it is, I’m proud of it as an idea and one day it’ll find a place in a script. Until then, I left it to rest on Twitter.

“If a tree falls down in a forest, and there’s no one there to hear it,” I wrote, “does it swear?”

That’s it. Told you. Slight. But it’s good. Apparently not good enough for someone who doesn’t use his name. For he gave me a quite admirably concise explanation of the physics of arboreal audio. He even included a dig at the self-centred nature of humanity, which I hadn’t known was under discussion, but there you go.

Here’s the thing. While this has never happened to me before, I thought I knew all about it. Men being toddlers, really, I don’t know how else to say it. My iPhone does know how else to say it: that word just got autocorrected from tossers.

Men do this, they look like fools, we all have a good laugh at their expense – and maybe we sneak a sniff at our armpits to check whether we’ve done the same thing.

What I completely missed was the confusion. I read his reply and now I’m wondering whether he’s really being clever. Never meta-tweet he didn’t like, that kind of thing.

Also, chiefly because of this business that he doesn’t use his name, I’m left wondering if my instant longing to retort sarcastically would be a bad idea. Part of this is that I meet a lot of people in my work so while I don’t remember him, he could be someone I know. Could be someone with problems. Could be both, could be somewhere between the two.

So I don’t know whether I’m missing his point or if my retorting would be damaging either to him or to me.

A friend rescued me. Chris Kent did what hadn’t occurred to me and read back through this fella’s other comments on his twitter timeline. Chris reported that the guy believes the pandemic is a hoax.

INSTANT BLOCK

Man, that was a relief. Woman, I’ve understood mansplaining but in every sense going, I’ve never got it.

I understood the irritation, I got the surprise, I got the despair at how dumb men can be. But I didn’t get the moments after, the moments where you don’t know what to do, when you’re trapped, really. When the best thing you can do, walking away, feels less sensible or noble, and more like allowing this to continue.

The mansplaining itself was a slap, it stung, it made me smart. Thinking about it obsessively made me know I’ve always been dumb.

Both kinds of music

I like New Country music from about the middle of 1994 to the end of 1996, so long as it’s sung by women. I feel you may have questions.

The women part is easy. It’s because I got to like this watching CMT, Country Music Television, which means as much through videos as the music itself. And is far as I could see from when I got the channel to when it went off air in the UK, every man on it wore a silly hat.

I’m not saying a 10-gallon hat is daft if you area cowboy out on the range, but you’re not and neither is a single one of these.

Sometimes one gets by me. Junior Brown is a male singer/songwriter, extraordinary guitarist and hat-wearer who’s entirely responsible for my pronouncing the name of law enforcement offers as the po-lice.

Plus he has to win a pass for having one of the greatest titles in music history. I haven’t heard it in twenty years now, but as soon as you and are done yapping, I’m off to Apple Music to find if they’ve got his “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead“. (The lyric is “Because you’re wanted by the po-lice / and my wife thinks you’re dead.”)

Mind you, nothing in this world can top the title “Did I Shave My Legs for This?“. Written by Deana Carter, who performed it, and Rhonda Hart. But two seconds into music and we’re already back to women without hats. And the writing: I think Gretchen Carter is among the finest lyric writers in any genre and her “Independence Day“, sung by Martina McBride, is more a short story than a song. I’d be a fan of Matraca Berg even if she’d solely written the description “a fallen angel on a weekend pass“.

Apple Music is one reason all of this is on my mind at the moment. The latest Favourites Mix that Apple Music picks for me each week has Independence Day on it. Somehow it’s full of new country music from exactly this 1994-1996 period. And this is doubly on my mind because only the night before this playlist updated, I caught a reference to the film Twister on TV. That 1996 movie had one of those not-really-on-the-soundtrack songs, a piece of music wedged in the end credits so that it can get a single off the back of it.

In this case, that single was “No One Needs To Know“, sung by Shania Twain and co-written by her and Robert John “Mutt” Lange. I just like it. But I don’t just like it, I’ve been thinking about it all week.

It runs for three minutes and 16 seconds. At average talking speed – I mostly write scripts so this is how I think about it – that works out to 588 words. I don’t know how many words there are in the song, but you know it’s less.

However many it is, this is what the song is about. A character has met a man she likes and he doesn’t know that yet.

That’s it. Nothing else. Except for a joyous yearning, a delighted fizz of a secret and a giddy dream of possibilities. It is lovely and charming and make-you-smile and incredibly endearing. We know so little about this character and yet we like her enormously, we feel for her.

I think that core idea is exceptional. So obvious in retrospect and definitely so very simple. But I hadn’t heard or thought of it before and a new idea is gold.

If I had thought of it, though, I think I would’ve over-written it.

I’d have had to fight myself not putting in a plot twist, for one thing, even in three minutes or 588 words.

I think there is an enormous discipline to writing exactly the right amount. To milk the drama but not let that milk boil over. To get the real worth out of an idea and use it to precisely the right degree.

It’s two decades since CMT closed down on UK television and I’m still trying to learn from it.

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?