The standard wasn’t so high, the decision wasn’t so difficult

Whether it’s when an awards ceremony announces its nominees or when the judges email to say you haven’t been selected, it is seemingly a contractual obligation that they open with “the standard of entries was so high”. On pain of death, they will then also say that the judges “had to make a very difficult decision”.

It just isn’t always true.

Sometimes it’s not even close.

I can’t count now the number of times I’ve either been a judge or in some way involved in an awards ceremony, and thankfully there are times when all of this was thoroughly accurate and true. That just occasionally took some work.

The single most useful thing I’ve ever done in any award judging was fiddle a category. I remember a book award jury where we were all a bit deflated because the one that was going to win in a particularly prestigious category was fine. It was okay. We’d all said sure, it gets through to the next stage. But it was sitting there on the table, at the top of the pile in this category, up there less from merit and more from attrition, and you just could not see yourself proclaiming that it was the greatest book in the year.

As it happened, though, a completely separate category had a couple of titles where you would’ve been happy to proclaim that. And I was the one who spotted that the very best of those was only in its category because that’s what its publisher had entered it for. It could equally have been entered into this other prestigious category so I proposed we move it.

And we did. That book moved from one category to another and, totally deservedly, won that more prestigious prize. I still wonder if the publisher spent any time wondering whether he or she had made a mistake on the entry form. But it was such a good book that I wish I could tell you its name.

On the other hand, I’ve been in awards where there was no such option and while the winner was certainly the best, that wasn’t saying much at all. I remember one theatre awards in particular where all ten judges, or however many it was, agreed instantly that there was only a single possible contender for either of the two awards on offer. We were off in this side room, meeting to discuss all of the short plays we’d just seen, and before the biscuits even arrived, we knew the winner.

We just didn’t like it.

The play that won both awards that night was utterly superb, so very much better than anything else in the night — until its last two minutes. Those last two minutes destroyed the play. And yet it had to win, there was nothing else close.

So that writer had a brilliant night, collecting two awards for her play. But both she and at least some of the audience went away thinking right, I need to write great dramas with exceptionally crap endings.

I tell you now, I’m ahead of the game here. I write plays that are crap from start to finish.

Let me tell you a happier tale. No, two happier tales: I was at the Writers’ Guild Awards in January 2020 when I saw the writers of Danger Mouse arrive. I can see me there on the steps, coming within one pixel of greeting them with congratulations because I already knew they’d won. Again, it was a deserved win, too, they had written a gem of an episode that is making me smile just telling you about it.

It’s a little unusual to know the winner, though, even when you’ve been involved. I knew with that book because I was at the final meeting, and I knew about Danger Mouse because I was presenting something else and had been there for the run through.

But even when you’re a judge, you often don’t know the final outcome. If you don’t happen to know how judging works, what always happens is that it starts with the writer or producer or someone submits their work. That gets studied and reviewed and poked at, and then if it’s good enough it becomes an official nomination. Then in various different ways it will be sent to multiple judges who’ll typically come back with their list of favourites, why they liked it so much, and so on. Then there’ll be another round or two whittling it down, arguing, debating and so on, until ultimately there is a winner.

Quite often, unless you’re involved in that very last stage, you can know full well what you voted for but not know who actually won.

Which is why at a previous Writers’ Guild award, I can remember crossing my fingers during the theatre category. And when Frances Poet won for her play Gut, I punched the air and called out “Yes!” sufficiently loudly to be a little embarrassed.

But come on, seeing tremendous work honoured, seeing utterly superb drama writing held up to the light for more people to see, it is fantastic.

It’s just rarely all that difficult a decision.

It has got so that when I hear “the standard was so high”, I think yeah, right, sure. And when I hear “the judges made the difficult decision” I’ve actually felt a bit patronised. It doesn’t matter what the awards are, whether I’m involved, the standard lines just always sound flat. Maybe we should have a Best Awards Award to make up for it.

If we did, I’d be nominating any ceremony hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Fey is a writing hero to me anyway, but just go on YouTube and watch those two hosting over the years.

Funny I should say that now, though. Because I wanted to talk to you about all of this, it was all on my mind, specifically because of the next awards ceremony that, as it happens, they are going to host. They’ll front the Golden Globes again this year and, no doubt, will be superb.

I just don’t think the awards themselves can be.

Look, there were somewhere between 400 and 500 new television dramas or comedies last year, I can’t expect my favourites to all be nominated. And I’m fine with Emily in Paris getting a nomination even though I preferred reading the script, I enjoyed it more on the page than on the screen.

But shows like I May Destroy You are not nominated. That show belongs in a new category of dramas I’m daunted to watch. It’s a Sin is in there too.

Yet its exclusion from the Golden Globes, the US equivalent of the UK’s television BAFTAs, seems peculiar. It seems like the Mona Lisa failing to get a nomination in the award for Best Mona Lisa.

Alan Plater, who won so many awards that I remember this whole cabinet he had of them, said to me once that you can’t take awards too seriously, though.

“Don’t let the BAFTAs grind you down,” he said.

Learning a lesson from writing 50 scripts

I think it’s 50. Today is the one year anniversary of my 58keys series on YouTube and it has 57 videos, of which I’m pretty sure the majority were scripted. Call it 50.

While we’re calling it, and as I want to build up some suspense over what this one great lesson is that I believe I’ve learned in the last year, let me call some more numbers. I’ve produced 57 episodes for a total of 13 hours, 1 minute and 54 seconds of video. Some 27,613 people have watched for a total of 2,236 hours and I have 781 subscribers.

Yes, if you look at the first episode and compare it to the most recent ones, you can tell which is better. It’s not as radical an improvement as I’d expected, mind. But I’m choosing to believe that this is because the early ones were fine, not that the later ones aren’t.

There were also something like 7 pilot versions. We will not speak of that again.

Oh, except that there was a lesson I learned from the pilots, which isn’t the Big Overall Writing Lesson I want to tell you about, but I think was still pretty big. I spent ages, like two minutes out of the ten, in the pilots of 58keys explaining who I am and why I believed I could make a useful series for writers who use Macs, iPhones and iPads.

The lesson I learned from that part was that nobody cares and nor should they. If I talk utter rubbish, then having a track record doesn’t make it right. Concentrate on saying something useful, that’s the job, that was the little big lesson from the pilots.

Whereas the Big Overall Writing Lesson from a year and something like 50 scripts is this.

Get on with it.

Writing half ideas, having stories you never finish, planning to write some day, you know the thing, there’s no point to it. I found a scrap of video I’d shot around ten years ago when I first had the idea to do a series. It’s not great. It’s not bad either. What it is, is a decade old.

Similarly, I like the title sequence in 58keys but I shot that whole thing around August 2019 and didn’t start the series for another five months.

Have an idea, then make it happen. Write the idea now, this minute, and if it’s rubbish, write something else.

Mind you, if it’s brilliant, save it and then still write something else.

Incidentally, the fastest I’ve ever done an episode of 58keys –– I mean from idea to edited video uploading to YouTube –– is 90 minutes. The slowest is four days. And so I did also learn this: if you want to write it, you can find the time.

Write away

One night next week I’m running a course on productivity for writers. I think it’s billed as being encouraging people to find time to write, but I do versions of this course a lot and really they boil down to showing various ways you can pull your finger out. I know there is actually helpful, useful stuff in there, but if you can give a writer their own “get on with it” attitude, you’re set.

Except if I were running it today, right now, this minute, I have an awful feeling I’d tell people to make some tea and put their feet up instead.

Friends who aren’t writers have said to me that this must be a fantastic time for us. We get all this free time in lockdown, plus there’s so much to write about with the coronavirus and the US attempted coup.

Leaving aside the free time aspect, and just casually ignoring the loss of income, there are writers I know who do agree. Who are inspired by everything.

I don’t want to even read another syllable about coronavirus, I can’t see that I’ll ever want to write about it. If you’re the opposite, if you disagree with me, good luck to you. I just heard a BBC Radio 4 play set in these times –– Personal Shopper by Hugh Costello — which worked very well.

And I might be reading the news a bit too avidly in search of the 45th facing the 25th, but I long for when this chapter of US politics is a chapter in a history book that I don’t have to read.

So here I am, saying good luck to you if you’re writing a coronavirus drama and extremely good luck to you if you’re attempting to write a history book that has all of this make sense.

Except.

The point of that course next week is to get people writing for publication. I don’t mean there’s a book deal at the end of it, I mean that so many writers see writing as this hobby and they’re frustrated that they don’t have enough time to do it. And if they instead would take it seriously, if they’d see it as part of their working life instead of a stamp-collecting afterthought, they actually would get more done.

This course is not for people who just write for themselves. None of my courses ever are, they are usually about reaching deeper inside yourself as a writer, but they are always also about the practical business of getting writing done and read.

I’ve actually ignored people who write just for themselves and while I’ve claimed I understand why they do it, I think really I haven’t. I think I’ve been a bit dismissive of scribbling.

And yet here I am, feeling better about the world because I’ve scribbled to you. Focusing on writing has today meant focusing on how dizzying everything is and that’s made it just a significant little bit less dizzying.

So good luck to you with the play, very good luck with the history book and plenty of good luck if you’re going to spend today writing for yourself, writing to a friend like this, or putting your feet up and finally finishing watching Tenet.

I keep getting interrupted by phone calls. I’m currently on about Sixet.

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.