Thursday, December 29, 2011

So where was I?


Something that just tickles me, that I look forward to and gleefully enjoy, is reading friends' blogs where they're saying what work they've got coming out next. Usually I do already know, I mean, they're friends, but I also know that things have been a long time coming. So when Jason Arnopp's film gets its US premiere, when Piers Beckley's theatre company announces its Christmas programme, when Laura Cousins unveils an event, when John Dorney writes a new Doctor Who or is in a new play, when Ken Armstrong has a play on or a film released online, when Angela Gallagher releases new jewellery, when Gigi Blum Peterkin is hosting panels at SXSW then it is a delight because I also know how long they've waited.
(There is a similar yet slightly different thing with Andrea Mann: there you don't have to wait long at all for her to say something so funny you'll go telling everyone you know.)
It's like a triple delight: there's the news itself, that something great is happening, that there's been ages when they were contractually not able to say anything publicly and invariably there's also been a long stretch when they knew it might not happen. Alan Plater used to say to me that he didn't believe any commission until the cameras were actually rolling on set.
I have a couple of these things myself now. And from this end, it's slightly confusing. What's new is old and what's old is going to be new.
Follow.
This time last year, I was dreading 2011. It looked like it was going to be a tough one and I suppose it was: I picked up a couple of scars and a blister along the way. But nothing I would change now. And instead the year overall was transformative.
That's the word. Transformative. Creatively, professionally, personally, and even financially, I'm not the guy I was a year ago. A lot of that is down to my wife, Angela Gallagher. 
But the greatest things I can actually tell you about that happened for me this year won't come out until next.
I did have my first Doctor Who out this year: it was actually released late December 2010 but all the reviews I read were 2011. (I was compared to Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies. "He's not as good as Steven Moffatt and Russell T Davies.") So 2011 started with my finding that my Who was a hit and I do remember listening to the final cut very late one winter's night. Peter Davison as the Doctor, reading my dialogue. Sarah Sutton reading my lines as Nyssa and after the recording, thanking me for the script.
But I also remember walking through Euston station reading an email from Alan Barnes - the best editor I've never met - about whether I might be up for another one. I have no idea how we got from that to what I can now tell you is called Wirrn Isle.
Except March 2011 was the coldest place on Earth for me, and me alone, sitting in my office writing this four-part Colin Baker tale set on an ice-covered Loch Lomond. Fiction is the hardest thing for me, and consequently the richest, most satisfying. I can't wait for you to hear the end result.
I got to hear it being recorded in June 2011. Even by then, though, the script had felt a long time in the past. Now both script and recording day feel dim-and-distant yet when people ask me if I've got any more Doctor Who coming, I have to tell them the truth: I do, Wirrn Isle. It's out in March 2012. Take a look at the pre-order page: I'm not trying to twist your arm, I just want you to see artist Simon Holub's cover with my byline on it. I think he's done a simply beautiful job. There's a larger, clean copy on his Flickr page.
Nicholas Briggs directed Wirrn Isle and alongside Colin Baker, producer David Richardson assembled a marvellous cast: Lisa Greenwood as Flip, Tim Bentinck - yep, the one with that great voice in The Archers – Jenny Funnell, Tessa Nicholson, Rikki Lawton, Dan Starkey, Helen Goldwyn and Glynn Sweet. I just looked them all up to make sure I was spelling them correctly and, do you know, it made me beam: seeing their real names next to my character names.
That is out in the first half of 2012, then, and for me the writing and making of it occupied the first half of 2011.
The second half of 2011 was devoted to my first book. The British Film Institute and Palgrave Macmillan will publish "BFI Television Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair" some time in 2012.
When you and I are done here, I'm off to continue scanning in Beiderbecke cuttings and photographs that Barbara Flynn loaned me. I took all the ones I needed for the book but she's trusted me with this great collection and I promised to not only return it but make her digital copies of everything too.
Barbara Flynn
Barbara Flynn is simply great joyous fun to talk to. She made me laugh aloud at stories from the filming of this tremendous TV drama by Alan Plater, even though so very often she would immediately follow a tale with "But of course you can't say that in the book". Come round for a mug of tea, I'll tell you her tales off the record.
If you know Beiderbecke, you know it starred Flynn with James Bolam. Just between us, I've had a lot of praise for getting him to talk because he is famously reticent to be interviewed. (An aside. I got angry looks at Birmingham Central Library one day for laughing at a TV Times interview from 1987. The piece had begun with a comment about how Bolam does not talk to the press but this time he had. Then it went into many paragraphs of quotes from him, except I knew they were copied verbatim from the previous interview TV Times did with him in 1985.)
He really did speak to me, we really did sit for a natter in BBC Television Centre. But he didn't do it for me. He was particularly keen that I note that he was breaking this rule against talking to journalists specifically because this was about The Beiderbecke Affair and he wanted to do it for Alan Plater and Alan's wife, Shirley Rubinstein.
Since Alan died, Shirley and I have talked often but usually not about him. But we spoke at length for the book and I think we both had a great time. If you listen to the recordings of that interview, you hear me being hesitant and confused a lot: I wasn't sure how either of us would take to talking about him and she was also my first interviewee for the book so I wasn't yet sure what I was after from her. 
If you listen to the tape of me with James Bolam, you hear me much more certain of what I'm after yet also a bit more wary: I'd been warned he could be prickly. He was charming with me and I had a ball talking not just about Beiderbecke but other shows of his that are favourites of mine, like When the Boat Comes in. And we talked so much about the state of BBC and television drama in general that you often hear both of us audibly remembering that we should get back on topic.
Wait. I'm starting to go through the entire Beiderbecke research process with you. There won't be anything left for the book. I'll shut up. 
Except if you do know The Beiderbecke Affair, you know its music. And I've got to tell you that Frank Ricotti is a funny and fascinating guy, hell bent on insisting that he did nothing "but write down the notes" and that it was the boys in the band who did the work.
And if you remember the famous title sequence from the show, you will also understand why I sat upright in shock when the phone rang and an unfamiliar voice said she was Diana Dunn. Diana created that sequence and was on my list to interview when complicated circumstances meant she ended up phoning me about someone else I'd been trying to reach. I am sure she didn't expect me to know who she was, the daft eejit. I wonder now if I shouted when she rang. I should ask her.
And the someone else I'd been trying to reach was David Cunliffe. I knew his name from years of Yorkshire TV dramas and you'll read more about him in the book. But he and Diana took me to lunch at the Garrick Club where they say no, no, you don't look overawed, William, not at all.
Blimey. That's all come back to me now, telling you. Thanks: I had a brilliant year and I nearly didn't say so, I nearly let it all go by without note. I haven't even mentioned signing autographs at the Big Finish day. That was tremendous. 
And as I glow about 2011, I can of course now look forward to a 2012 which will see the release of my Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle and my Beiderbecke Affair book – er, I hope I actually get to write something too. Have you got anything you need writing in 2012? I do books, plays and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Exit BBC, stage left

It's 18:00 on October 31, 2011 and as of this moment, I no longer work at all for the BBC. Slightly strangely, I haven’t left the Corporation – the BBC has left me.



Strictly speaking I am a freelance writer but it’s complicated. Perhaps ten years ago, the BBC was my biggest, most regular client and I'd have continued like that but for how they told me one day that there was no more freelance budget. But if I wanted to go on staff, they said, that would be good. I’m wondering now if this was my first real experience of the logic of BBC budgeting but all I thought at the time was that the fee worked out to be the same, so what did I care?
Later I’d care a lot or at least I’d care roughly annually because it doesn’t half make your tax complicated. I’d be on salary for a couple of days a week, then freelance - and oftentimes the freelance work would be for another end of the same company.
But on the other hand, by this time I’d already had the Freelance Coronary: the moment when everything, every client, every job, just collapses. I wasn’t working for the BBC on that day and the worst I’ve had with the Corporation since is the odd Freelance Chest Pain. You don’t forget it, though, so I took that staff post. I’m glad I did, too, because later the recession coincided with one of the BBC’s cost-cutting drives. That wasn’t a remarkable coincidence: the BBC is always cutting something.
For instance, I know it was cutting something when I first joined but I’ve no idea what because I can’t remember when that was. I do remember an earlier approach, I remember being a schoolboy and going to BBC Pebble Mill to just ask for work. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassing. I should stop doing that. 
Sometimes it works, though.
I remember vividly how exciting it was when I got work experience at BBC Radio WM. Don’t ask me, I don’t know when it was. I’m surprised at all this: I suspect my subconscious is preventing me remembering so that I can’t tell you and therefore you can’t figure out how many thousands of years ago it was. Might’ve been 1990s. I think it was. 
I did do a spot of work on Micro Live, a BBC TV show in the 1980s - and met the great, delightful Terry Marsh. If she’s ever googling herself and finds this amidst all the stories about boxers, do please picture me waving. 
Somewhere around this time I think I started pitching to BBC Radio 4. Aghast to think I still am, still unsuccessfully. Though these days it’s drama and then it was documentary: I don’t think I was really suited to docs. Used to find these great ideas and have little interest in actually making the programmes.
BBC Radio WM was much more successful for me. It was definitely my first exposure to BBC politics. It's where I learnt to not to say that in a blog. So moving on... I remember the breakfast show producer Kathryn being tremendous and someone I instantly liked, instantly liked a lot. She was succeeded by someone else I didn’t rate and who definitely didn’t rate me but I am completely blank about her name. I’m okay with that.
At that time, I used to get up around 4am to go to work on the WM breakfast show; then the show ended at 9am but I had a deal whereby I’d leave at 8:30am. That was so I could get over to a technical writing job outside the BBC, an office job that ran 9am-5pm. Then the evenings would either be working at BHBN Hospital Radio or at Focus Newspapers. 
Sudden memory: leaving that office job one day when it was belting down with rain. I ran out of there with a friend who mentioned it the next day, mentioned how overwhelming that rain had been. It took me half a minute to understand what she meant: to her the rain was last night, to me it was two shifts ago.
Oh! Another sudden memory from the same place. That technical writing thing was a very long-term job; you’d have an urgent meeting there that would be about whether you could finish a particular job within the next eight months. At BBC local radio, we might have deadlines no longer than the time it takes to open a fader and take a mic live.
I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I am saying that the perspective I got from having both changed how I saw each.  I don’t know now what I thought I’d get from the BBC but this is one of the things I did and that shaped me. I’m still very good at handling deadlines, I’m still a little scared of running out of time. If I’m due to phone you at 3pm, I’ll phone at 3pm. If it’s now 2:59pm, I know I can write an email in that minute and I will. 
When I’m hanging on the phone listening to muzak and the tune comes to an end, I still sit up a bit, expecting the person I’m calling to wait until the right point in the fade and come in with a back anno about the piece and then into what I want.
Maybe the BBC gets into you, maybe you’re already a bit BBC and that’s why you’re drawn there. Definitely radio gets into your soul.
If you don’t like the BBC and especially if you’ve not felt the tug toward it that so many of us do, let me give you an example of how it can matter to people. Once when I was actually working for BBC WM, when I’d moved on from unpaid work experience, I wrote a letter to someone on BBC stationery. Just another letter, just another day. I suddenly recall noticing the tiniest of black dots on the page: I tried to brush it off before seeing that it was printed on. Right there beneath the BBC logo there was a little dot and it was there because you were supposed to begin all typed letters at that point on the page.
Grief. Typing. Typewriters.
I don’t remember what the letter was now, but it happened to be to someone I knew a little and later I found that she’d kept it. Treasured it. Obviously not because it came from me, I’m pretty certain not because of the content, but because it was BBC. Even though I was the same as her, even as I would’ve felt the same, it was a little Damascus moment because I saw something could be both important and trivial. That things I felt were daunting from one perspective were almost certainly not from another.
I’ll bet you anything that this fed in to my decision to go freelance. That was a gigantic move for me, a huge mountain that I put off for a years. And yet the instant it was done, I was only surprised it had taken me so long. I said earlier that it was 1996 when I jumped out of salaried employment; I now don’t actually remember that date, I remember 2006. By chance, someone asked me about it in 2006 and I realised it was my tenth anniversary. That’s what sticks with me, the actual event seeming so simple and obvious and unmemorable next to the happenstance of spotting the anniversary.
Whatever seems impossibly huge is, well, not. That doesn’t mean it’s achievable. Definitely doesn’t mean it’s easy. Might not mean it’s worth it. Does not mean it isn’t exquisite and delicious and vital.
But it does mean you should bloody well get on with it.
While there’s time.
Hang on, this hasn’t half gone off the point. The straight, simple fact is that as of 6pm tonight, I ceased to be employed by BBC Magazines, a division of BBC Worldwide. This is because BBC Magazines is no longer part of Worldwide, is no longer anything. Radio Times magazine and website are now part of Immediate Media, or at least they will be as of tomorrow and so will I.
Today the RT website team went to Television Centre for one last lunch at the BBC Club.

It was closed.

Tomorrow I’m still working for Radio Times. On Wednesday, I’m still working for them. This Thursday I’ll back to freelancing with big photography collation project for my book; Friday  I have a pitch to make and a script to progress. Saturday and Sunday, more drama work. Then Monday back to Radio Times.
There’s a line - isn’t there? -  that goes something like “a difference that makes no difference is no difference”.
I can readily see the similarities between today and tomorrow, between the work I did and I will do, definitely see that I’ll still be working precisely as closely with precise the same excellent Radio Times people. For at least a while, when I go to London I will go to the same desk in the same BBC building. 
But it will be different.
It’s certainly 15 years since I started doing anything with the BBC, might even be twenty. I cannot tell you the number of times the Corporation has made me livid. Won’t tell you the number of times I’ve made a prat of myself within a BBC building.
(Hint: it's approximately the same number of times I’ve done it outside.)
But I’m happy I worked at the BBC, I think I did some good if ephemeral things there, I know the BBC is part of who I am. It’s not all of me, but it’s a part and it’s a part that I’m glad I have.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jobs in computing

There’s this guy. He thinks I’m a computer geek and I can’t change his mind about it. Normally you’d give up trying, you’d soon shrug but it did start to matter a little bit when he kept consulting me on anti-virus software he was thinking of buying.

“Have you read the back of the box?” I asked him. “Then you know more than I do.”

It seems he thought I was being nice and encouraging, that I was praising his expertise. I know that he actually doesn’t comprehend that I can have not the faintest idea about computer viruses. This is not a conceivable thing for him and he chuckles sometimes like he knows I’m trying to make a joke and he wants to be polite.

I used to work in computing, did I tell you that? Studied the things for a bit, managed to get out and onto computer magazines. I was always a magazine man more than a computer one, more of a drama nut than anything else. More into people than wires.

But you do learn a thing or two and it is surprising what still lurks in the back of my head so when he told me his several new computers were having trouble connecting to the internet and asked me to take a look, I did. How long could it take?

Five hours.

And I failed.

I don’t feel very awful about failing to get these PCs online because Dell didn’t manage it either. Some support expert from across the world dialled into the PCs and couldn’t fix them. (How? How can you dial in, connect remotely, but not have fixed the internet? Mysteries. Alchemy.)

What I most remember about that day, though, was sitting there in front of each PC in turn, entirely failing to get them to recognise that there is such a thing as wifi - while I looked up technical advice online through my MacBook. Plopped myself down by the PC, opened the MacBook, told it which wifi network I wanted, was online before I’d really finished opening the lid.

Those PCs never worked reliably with the internet, not over wifi.

And as time ticked by, this guy replaced them all.

Now, on the one hand, I’m still using my Mac from a couple of years before he bought these PCs, but I think the issue is not how fast PCs wear out but how this fella bought three more PCs of the same type.

I did mention Macs.

Quite a bit.

He argues, though, that Macs are expensive and they don’t do anything you can’t do with PCs.

His new PCs had the same problem.

I’m missing an episode now because at some point something did happen to get them online eventually. But the next time I am involved, it’s to set up a couple of laptops.

Two identical Windows laptops, bought from the same shop, bought in the same week.

One of them couldn’t play the sound off DVDs.

The speakers are fine, it could play anything else. But not DVDs.

I downloaded drivers, I changed settings, to be frank I was stabbing wildly at any option presented to me and nodding sagely whenever asked “Is it done yet?”. Eventually, I found a really clever workaround. I can’t remember what it was now, but I was actually proud of myself: I’d thought my way around and over a problem. Immensely satisfying.

For about a minute.

This is what computing is to this guy. A pain. A pain where two identical Windows computers don’t work the same and in fact don’t work.

He doesn’t think I’m a geek because I once studied computers, he thinks it because I spend all day at one and in the evening turn to another. Choosing to put yourself through that, to voluntarily keep going back to a computer, that equals geek.

The difference is that I use Macs. You know this already, you know this is where I’m going with all this. And you know why I’m saying it today. But actually, I want to argue that the difference is that I don’t use computers.

I don’t get up in the morning and think ooh, I can boot up my computer now. I don’t think I’ve got five minutes, I can spend more time at my computer.

Instead, what I’m doing is turning to the book I’m writing. I’m turning to the film I started watching on the train yesterday. I’m reading the news. I’m editing video, cutting audio, photo editing, laying out pages, I’m interviewing people, I’m transcribing audio, I’m listening to the radio, I’m watching TV. I’m doing a lot of work here in the UK and I’m doing some in the States, from that same Mac.

It all goes through my Mac, yes. But it also all goes through my MacBook, my iPad, my iPhone.

It goes through me.

I reach for the work and for the fun, I don’t reach for a computer to geek out over and I never have to.

I have had people ask me to recommend a phone and when I’ve said iPhone, they’ve tutted. Typical, they say. It would be Apple. Nobody needs that stuff and I bet they never use any of that fancy stuff, they can’t, they can’t understand it, it’s rubbish. You’re an Apple fanboy: it’s all style, you’re buying into the Apple hype when I’m being real, you’re a fashion victim and I know the truth that this ten quid Nokia phone and twenty quid PC are far, far better.

“So why’d you want me to recommend a new phone then?” I asked.

I know that I’m not won over by hype. Microsoft hypes a lot more but I don’t get interested in their stuff, probably because they’re better at the hype than at delivering the product. Microsoft hypes away about what they’re releasing next year. Apple hypes away about what they’re bringing out today.

But I did wonder about me when I found I was waiting to hear Apple’s news this week about the next iPhone. So, for pure curiosity, I kept an eye on how often I used my iPhone.

You know it’s going to be a big figure. I knew it would be. Several dozen times, easy.

It was 230.

Exactly 230 times in one normal day, including six phone calls but not including how ever often it was that I used to look at it to see the time.

Apple kit is woven into my life. Maybe it is in yours, maybe it isn’t, I’m not here to tell you anything but how I roll.

Apple is more than one man. But Steve Jobs made a dramatic difference in how I live and we have lost someone remarkable today.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Strictly between you and me

I know I can't have always wanted to visit the Strictly Come Dancing set because the show's only been running for a few years. But it feels like I have because I've wanted it that much.

I came close once: Angela got to go to a live show and I drove her and Lesley, a friend, to London, spent the evening kicking my heels, giving a lift to some tourists who'd come to the wrong hotel, crashed my car, wrote it off, got a hire car and drove Angela and Lesley home again.

Angela and I have different emotions about that night.

But today, it was going to happen. I was booked to go to Studio 1, BBC Television Centre for the first of two days filming the Radio Times photo shoot with all the dancers and their celebrity partners.

You'll see who got who on Saturday night when the launch show is aired but it was recorded yesterday evening. (And you're wondering, or at least I've always wondered, but no, nobody knows who they're getting before the launch show.)

Last night, Studio 1 had the full ballroom set. Tess's area. The judges' table. The band pit.

This morning, nothing remained. Not a sequin, not a speck of glitter.

Instead, this huge studio was divided into four or five areas. I don't know what each one was but Radio Times had one and there was a big green-screen portion where the title sequence was being filmed. That sequence we get very familiar with each year that shows the contestants and their professional partner swirling amid glitterballtastic sparkles.

I watched Rory Bremner and [redacted] film theirs. Was tickled by Anton's stream of beaming good humour with [redacted].

And Strictly is all about fantasy, isn't it? You think about what it would be like to take part. Allow me one little fantasy. Which goes thisaway:

I watched Katya and [redacted] filming their spot and she kept watching me. I'd pass her in the studio and she'd look me over. I know it was suspicion and that anyway I had a chocolate biscuit stain on my shirt, but you could believe that she fancied me.

Okay, you couldn't. But I could.

Okay, I can't either.

I'm using the new Google Blogger app on my iPhone: this button here is either Delete And Don't Make a Fool of Yourself William or it's Publish.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small moves, Ellie

May there be a God and when he's done sorting everything else out, may this God take a minute to forgive me: I'm being organised and it's working. I want to tell you about it and I'm not sure whether it's to get it off my chest, whether it's ask you to glare at me until I stop being lazy, or whether I'm hoping to groom you into joining this Organisation.

I honestly hate this in me. I used to enjoy writing in the middle of the night, writing an inch before the deadline, writing 50 pages in day when absolutely necessary. I used to just enjoy the night: going to bed before 1am feels sinfully wrong. It's a good way to work, it conjures up the kind of sound and furious action that I so relished in newsroom writing.

But it was always reacting to something, some deadline set by someone else. Things were getting done but not enough and not well enough and I would always be having ideas for projects I just couldn't find the time to do. I would forever be busy and I mean forever: there was never, not ever a point when I'd be able to say I was done for the day. I enjoyed that, I still enjoy it now, but sheer harsh, cold self-examination is never kind. Last year was very successful for me but it is easy to see that it should've been much more so: perhaps not in terms of what writing I got produced, perhaps not financially, but in terms of me and what I was able to create.

So.

January the 1st was 196 days ago.

I know this because for every one of those 196 days I've written for at least an hour. If the day was spent writing on Radio Times or Doctor Who, for example, I still wrote something else for an hour afterwards.

That's all. Not a big deal, not really worth shouting about, but...

Because of this unbroken pattern, since the start of the year I have - wait, I haven't worked this out yet and it may depress me; grief, I hope it's a lot of work... okay... well... it's not bad. Since 1 January I've written a four-part Doctor Who audio (recorded the other week, due out some time next year), half a new stage play that I abandoned on account of it being rubbish, a half-hour film, a one-hour film, a 15-minute sitcom, a one-hour telly spec. I also wrote 90,000 words of a novel but threw away 40,000 before sending it to Paul the Agent Guy.

Plus I'm only about 2,000 words into my book but I'm running the research for it in a rinkydinky FileMaker Pro database of mine and currently I figure I must've written about 10,000 of the words in that. I suppose I also wrote and shot a couple of How To videos for friends - I'm easier to bear when you can pause or fastwind me - and probably made about eight or ten pitches to people.

I can't work out how many pages or words I've revised on top of this but I know, for instance, that I began the year with a substantial rewrite of a stage play which is now with a producer who's raising cash to stage it. At a rough guess, I've at least revised 300 pages of my own scripts. And if you tell me that I've read fewer than 2,000 pages of other people's scripts, I'll believe you but want to see your working out.

I don't know.

Doesn't matter, really. A lot or a little, worthwhile or rubbish, all that's important is that it is geometrically more than I wrote last year or the year before. And more of it is out there getting produced or commissioned than before, too.

If I decide that this is a lot of writing, then it sounds like I'm saying quantity is key.

I think I'm saying quantity is key.

Since I cannot dare speak to the quality, I can at least look at how there's that abandoned stage play, for instance: last year I might've had the idea but not got around to it. Now I've tried it, I know it doesn't work, it's gone.

And this one-hour-per-day minimum is brilliant and exciting and satisfying when you're in the middle of a script and you know you can't wait for the next unbroken hour on that project. It's still pretty brilliant when you know what bit you have to do in that hour and you're afraid of it. It's hard when it's already 1am and you have't started.

But it's only actually awful when you're between projects and have not the faintest idea what to do but you won't cheat.

I call those Forced Hours. An hour where at the start you have zero in your head but you're going to bloody well sit there and work until you've got something. I've had about four of these in the 196 days so far and each time I've ended up with a new idea. Last year I had the problem that I never got around to ideas, now I'm trying to get through them quickly so that I can get to the next ones I've now got waiting. I have a queue. Can't believe it. A queue.

I can cope with this level of organisation. There's a line in Carl Sagan's Contact that Angela and I often quote to one another: "Small moves, Ellie". Doing a little bit often appears to work for me and I'm okay with that. I can feel a drama precedent in it, so long as I don't examine it too closely. So long as I don't, for instance, blog about it.

Anyway, there's a problem. By May I was aware that I hadn't yet skipped a day and it didn't look like I was going to. So I added to it. Can't tell you what, but as well as this hour writing I added a mandatory daily half-hour on this other thing. Then in June I was commissioned to write a book and it was one that would take a lot of research work, so I added again: half an hour every day on the book too.

These two half hours are not enough for their particular jobs but guaranteeing to do them means I start them and almost always burst the measure, spend longer than the thirty minutes. Same with the hour's writing.

But setting a limit and being able to see that it is working over time, it means there have been five nights this year when I honestly felt I was done for the evening and could relax.

That was horrible.

So that's a problem I haven't solved yet.

Also, I used to live in my Todo list, constantly chewing over deadlines and pitches, yet I'd only glance at my calendar when my days at Radio Times changed around. Now for some reason the work I'm doing takes a lot longer and means me blocking out times to do this, periods to be here, days I must be elsewhere. I spend ages dragging appointment blocks around my week's calendar like I'm playing Slow Tetris.

Suddenly I'm really good at estimating how long a job will take. I can tell you what time I'll finish today. I can clear a hole in the week and know by when I'll have made up that time or that work.

Except the hour per day. That's inviolate. Sacrosanct.

And of course I recommend it or I wouldn't be bending your ear about this madness. Only, if you do this, if you do find that it works for you, promise me you won't start your day's two hours at 1am. I have fallen asleep while writing my hour that late at night; you look again in the morning and your very nightmares are on the page. You've written whole scenes, huge arguments, between characters you've never heard of about topics you don't understand. It's borderline psychotic and if it's funny sometimes, there are other moments when it is profoundly, frighteningly disturbing.

So, you know, there are some wrinkles in this plan.

But I'll work them out.

Probably an hour at a time.

William

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sign here. And here.

Listen, I've no clue how to start this but I'm burning to tell you so can you just grab a biscuit and we'll crack on? Last Saturday I was at the Big Finish Day in Barking and I was signing autographs.

Maybe you should get two biscuits.

Plainly, I was not alone on that day and I'm far from the first person to squiggle on papers and if you know Big Finish, you know this was Doctor Who. And you certainly know just as well as I do that Doctor Who somehow comes with a magnifying glass: I was included there because of the way the lens of Doctor Who burns into so many of us.

There were some 60 people signing and I don't know how many guests: a few hundred through the day? I'm rubbish at estimating anything. But I did have a quick gander through the guest list and without question I had done the least of them all: so far I've only had one 25-minute Doctor Who audio episode made. It turned out to be popular, but it's still only a one-off 25-minuter. I've got a four-parter coming out next year so hopefully if I get to go to the next one I'll feel less of a fraud.

But as frauds go, I am struggling to remember a day when I had more fun. It is a hell of a boost having people asking you autograph your writing, it's even more of one when they've come seeking you out. I was happy just being one more person on a table that people worked their way along. To be asked if I'm the William Gallagher they're looking for and having to answer that no, I'm not the man who wrote Lark Rise to Candleford or used to play in Oasis, is a treat.

More than that, it's a delight and I won't pretend it isn't.

But if you knew me in my podcast, you'll know what I really liked, what made this a stand-out day for me: I got to natter to people. Oodles of people. Every body up and interesting and enjoying themselves. I was going to say that equally included fans as well as other writers, but there's not a lot of difference: in breaks I'd nip into other autograph sessions and be a fan myself.

So many struggles in my head, though: from why would anyone want my autograph - I'm not kidding, I don't understand autographs at all, let alone mine - to why I might think you'd want to know about it. I don't. But I'm having such a bubbly time I had to tell you.

So. Spill. What's happening with you? I want details.

William

Friday, June 10, 2011

Last one down the pub buys the drinks

Wait, that doesn't work, does it? What's everybody else supposed to do while I hold them up?

I feel like I'm the last one to the party here but also a wee bit chastened: I've been so busy - heavy, dramatic sigh, bring on the gypsy violinist - that I've not caught up with Danny Stack's Liquid Lunch series. I look back at what I've been so heavily, dramatically, sighingly, violinistly busy on and can't quite see anything. And in the meantime, he's got three episodes out along with backstage videos and the scripts.

Consequently all I'm really doing here is getting in your way when you want to go watch Liquid Lunch. Tell you what, you head for the site that is Liquid Lunch and I'll get the drinks in.

What're you having?
William

Signing autographs on Saturday

I mean, yes, the actual news is that there's a Doctor Who event in London this weekend. And of course big news is that Big FInish is announcing the new companion for the Colin Baker Doctor Who stories.

Then the kicker, the real detail alongside the news, is that this all takes place during a gigantic sale of Big Finish audios that is going to entirely consume what they paid me to write for them.

But that's what I'm focusing on. Only with you, okay? Only because you understand. Forget news, forget Colin Baker, forget new companion, forget bargains: I am signing autographs at this event.

In theory, anyway. It rather depends on anyone wanting my autograph. So you may find I go very quiet about it on here afterwards.

If you're going anyway, if you're now tempted by the news and the bargains, it would be a treat to see you there. I'll even sign anything you like, bar cheques.

Full and proper details of everything are on the organisers' official site.

William

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Writing Does Not Get Harder Than This - Live

“My name’s William Gallagher, I’m a dynamic young force in writing. Don’t tell me I can’t write something, just tell me where the paper is and watch me fly.” Gallagher flicks his hair and smiles that rogueish smile we’ve come to know from the opening title sequence. “Don’t tell me Shakespeare’s better, I don’t know from any Shakespeare. I just know he didn’t give writing 110 percent like I do, nor maths neither.

“Words are my life: I was born with a crayon that I still use for cheques. When I go to the beach I wear a diphthong, and if you can’t correctly use the word myriad in my company, stand aside for a man who can - every time.”

It’s been a tough journey for Gallagher but if he thought mastering the keyboard’s shift key would be enough to see him through, now he’s really got to face the challenge of his entire writing life.

Our top-class judges - Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, the Estate of Enid Blyton and Cheryl Cole - mean business. Gallagher must complete this blog: it must reach all the way to the end. The slightest hitch and he’s out of here in the car we call the dreaded write-off.


Coming up: will first-day nerves destroy his chances? And there’s a calamity over the cap of a biro. I’m Vacuous Poorly-Paid, don’t go away.

Welcome back. We’re following William Gallagher as he attempts to beat first-day nerves and hopes against hope that he can get the cap off his biro. But what colour pen will it be? Join Claudia to find out later in Writing Blog Challenge 2011: The Extra Sentence on ITV7.


But here, right here, right now, our would-be writer’s journey is just beginning.

“I know I’ve got it in me to reach the end of this blog,” says Gallagher. “I’ve beaten scores of people to get even this far. Emily Dickinson, for instance, I really rated her chances, I thought she was the one to beat, but she fell at the first hurdle because she couldn’t even write the correct website address of the blog. Kept saying it couldn’t be three ws and nobody writes ‘forward slash’.

“Then Carrie Fisher wrote cleverly and wittily but it turns out the one thing she just can’t write is the correct account username. Aaron Sorkin, Alan Bleasdale and the men and women who wrote The Simpsons back when it was good, none of them could go that extra step and pull off entering my correct password.

“I did have a sleepless night when I learnt Paul Auster guessed that I was one of the many who always use the password ‘myriad’. But he just threw his shot away by turning in a draft blog about a character called Paul Auster guessing a password to let him write a draft blog to turn in to a writing contest. It was embarrassing. I didn’t know where to look, to be honest.

“So now it’s down to me. The blog is mine to lose but I’ve practiced, I’ve worked hard, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’ve prayed and now I know I can achieve this. It’s inside me, it is. And I also know that the judges are 109 percent behind me.”

Archer looked up from his Blackberry. “Never heard of him,” he said. “And I’m billing you for these 12 words.”

“I’m dead anyway,” said the Estate of Enid Blyton. “What I really miss is ginger beer.”

Dan Brown said: “William is going to look at the blank screen and I just know he’ll be reminded of the Knights Templar, The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Latin: Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici), commonly known as the Knights Templar, the Order of the Temple (French: Ordre du Temple or Templiers) or simply as Templars, who were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders.[3] The organization existed for approximately two centuries in the Middle Ages and what they didn’t know about blogging then, nobody did.”

“You’re so right, Dan,” said Cheryl Cole. “That’s like exactly what I was going to say.”


Coming up: Gallagher has to take the plunge and switch on his computer. Will the epic journey of waiting for Word to load take its toll? Will the computer even get that far without every writer’s most-feared demon, the blue screen of death?

Welcome back. The epic Word journey has begun and -



“I’m on a Mac, it started ages ago while you you were off on the commercial break,” claims Gallagher. “I’ve written half the blog already.”

Brave words from the man who only dates women with names like Polly Syllable or Paige Turner and who so far never date him back. He’s got to be hoping being crowned Yet Another Blogger will change his fortunes.

But in the meantime, behind the outward signs masking the inner hidden turmoil of the apparently calm but really invisibly visibly quaking man, things have actually got off to a very bad start.

Gallagher, taking what was surely the deepest breath of his life and giving us the most up ever of thumbs-up signs, crosses to the writing desk -

- but there's a chair already there.

“I tell you, I wasn’t expecting that, I haven't practiced for there being a chair, it just wasn’t in the plan,” he says. “There’s no indication I can see of how to use it or whether it’s even meant to be used. I have to be think that someone could be simply storing it here and there is no way to tell. This is huge. This could wreck everything for me.”

With time ticking away, Gallagher has to make a decision. But he knows only too well that if he gets it wrong even a little bit, he’s going to have backache for the rest of the day.

He’s taken the plunge! He’s gone to sit on the chair -

and he’s missed!

This is terrible!

“A chair is a stable, raised surface used to sit on, commonly for use by one person,” explained head judge Dan Brown. “In ancient Egypt chairs appear to have been of great richness and splendor [citation needed]. Fashioned of ebony and ivory, or of carved and gilded wood, they were covered with costly materials, magnificent patterns and supported upon representations of the legs of beasts or the figures of captives. During Tang dynasty (618 - 907 AD), a higher seat first started to appear amongst the Chinese elite and their usage soon spread to all levels of society. By the 12th century seating on the floor was rare in China, unlike in other Asian countries where the custom continued, and the chair, or more commonly the stool, was used in the vast majority of houses throughout the country.”

“Golly,” said the Estate of Enid Blyton. “Really, just a little ginger beer, it’s not that much to ask.”

“Now you owe me for 21 words,” said Archer. “Plus VAT.”


Coming up: can William Gallagher recover from this disaster? Will a set-back mean a set-to with the judges? Will there be a stand-off over the standfirst?

Then just who is going to lose their cool over a paper jam - and who will get hot under the collar about the cost of replacement ink cartridges? Don’t go away now.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Watching through my fingers: it's Stormhouse

Finally, a horror trailer I don't have to watch - not because I haven't the nerve or the stomach, though you know that's true but because I've already seen the film. What tattered nerves I had left after hearing about Stormhouse were entirely shattered watching the film at a Bafta screening.

I am now, therefore, totally without nerves. Consequently, I want you to watch this but I plan on washing my hair for the next 54 seconds or so.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bossypants book review: it's alive

I have never reviewed a book here before and I do not do it now because it's seven million years since I last blogged, but rather because I am burning to talk and to try persuading you to buy a book. Specifically, Bossypants, an autobiography by Tina Fey.

Do you want a star rating? Five out of five, ten out of ten, take your pick.

It’s a very funny and warmly clever book: somehow I think you can miss how difficult that is to achieve because you just expect Tina Fey to be funny and clever.

I’m probably not the intended audience for this book - and I don’t say that because I’m a man. There is, though, a nice moment toward the end when Fey wryly acknowledges the sense (in the book? in the promotion? in my ignorant presumption?) that the book is aimed at women. “If you are male,” she writes, about a metaphor she’s just used involving tampon strings, ”I would liken it to touching your own eyeball, and thank you for buying this book.”

Early on she also refers to “us women” but effortlessly makes it both including for women readers (I presume) yet not excluding for men. I can’t explain grammatically or linguistically how she pulls that off but she does. And perhaps with that line, certainly with the book as a whole, she’s become a writer I admire as much as I enjoy.

The reasons I’m really not the intended audience, though, are that I’m in the UK where Saturday Night Live is quite little known, that I’ve only seen perhaps three episodes of 30 Rock and that I didn’t know she famously has a scar. I knew enough to have formed an impression of Fey as being funny and smart, which meant I read an extract of this book online, which then inevitably meant I bought the book.

I think she does a generally excellent job in neither over-explaining her career nor assuming you know anything about her at all. The only time I was confused was over references to “MVP episode 204” or similar. Is that a 30 Rock term? Is it just a general American one I don’t happen to know? I know “Most Valued Person/People/Professional” but I don’t understand the episodes part. If you want to tell me I am stupid and missing the obvious, I will completely believe you.

Looking back over the book, I think Fey is a technically very accomplished and talented writer but, best of all, you don’t stop to think about that as you first read it. She sounds alive on the page with such energy and verve that it’s an exciting and fast read. She’ll do jokes that rewardingly take pages to play out and then have ones that are quick and just deliciously, delightfully silly. I laughed aloud many, many times; I sat shaking, shaking more times and I read most of it beaming like this woman was telling me these stories to my face.

I’m going to say that I hope you don’t see this as a recommendation per se, more an urging you to buy it. I do have criticisms but not of the book or Fey per se, only with the presentation in iBooks.

The first line of every chapter is followed by an ugly linespace gap because there’s a kind-of drop cap at the start. Then Fey uses a lot of footnote gags but for some reason they are all bundled at the end of the book: not as endnotes, they are one-note-per-page footnotes that are clearly meant to be read alongside their main pages but without any clue what those pages are.

That meant I rather glossed over them but they also added significantly to the page count, which meant the book was really finished some 20 pages before the end of the iBook. When you’re trying so hard to make it last, that came as a blow.

I hope Tina Fey writes more books and I’ll be getting the box sets of 30 Rock now.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I've been keeping something from you


To be fair, I've done it very badly. If you've kept up with my occasionally incessant nattering on twitter then you'll almost certainly have seen me posing and sometimes that will have been about this. If you've caught up with my updates on Facebook then you'll have seen me wobbling about it. But, until now, I've not said to you here that I wrote a Doctor Who audio play.

You thought it was going to be something more exciting. But it is for me and since I tell you everything, I actually don't want to focus on that play, I want to examine why I've been so reluctant to talk about it. More than reluctant, I've positively refused to write to you about it. I will tell you right away that this boils down to how I tell you the truth here.

So you know immediately that this is me, it isn't you. People who get Doctor Who, who have it wired into them as I and so many of us have, they've all been very generous. People who don't get Doctor Who but see that I do or see why it's such a hard show to write for, they've been tremendous.

Yet I'm of course fully aware of how small my Who is in comparison to the hundreds of Doctor Who stories out there. Equally, I know it’s tiny next to the, say, twenty-part BBC Radio 4 serials I stuff my ears with. My little Doctor Who is a trifle, but hopefully a nice trifle. To be clear, what I wrote was one single 25-minute audio episode of Doctor Who starring Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton from the TV show. It guest-stars Susan Kyd, who has a particularly fantastic voice, Duncan Wisbey who can and does play just about every character in the piece, and John Dorney, who took my Janson Hart character and forever, for better changed how I’d heard that character on the page.

My tale is called Doing Time and is third of four such one-parters on the release Doctor Who: The Demons of Red Lodge and Other Stories. Those other stories are by Jason Arnopp, Rick Briggs and that same John Dorney who by now is just showing off.

So I find I'm in good company and I think my piece stands comparison. It's as good as it is because of my working with script editor Alan Barnes, director Ken Bentley and Big Finish producer David Richardson. On the recording day, Peter Davison asked some smart questions and we all improved it on the spot. I love that drama is a collaboration yet I also love that when you listen to the four plays on this release, you know it is impossible that any one of us could've written any of the other stories. Doctor Who is freeing and alive and open to myriad ways of telling stories - even as it's, technically, an extraordinarily hard format to write for. Let me buy you a drink and lecture you on how Doctor Who, of all things, is not about time.

That's a slight problem for me because, dramatically, time is my big thing. I don't mean time travel, I mean time: it seems to me that time is a prison and the best any of us can do is bang on the pipes a bit to pass messages on. I'm interested in how we change over time, how our perceptions of events can be utterly reversed just by when we start to observe them. I am particularly drawn to how none of us can ever undo anything we've done. Living with what you've done, living with something you cannot live with.

You can see why I didn't enjoy writing for Crossroads.

And you can see why I'm drawn to the TARDIS. In fact, for as long as I've been writing, I've fantasised about the day I could type the scene heading: INT. TARDIS.

I'm still waiting for that. With Doing Time, I couldn't work the TARDIS into the story and instead I got a true shiver running through me the day I wrote my first line of dialogue for the Doctor. All he said in it is:

DOCTOR: August, I think you’ll find.

Doesn’t sound like a classic right off the page, but I could hear Peter Davison’s Doctor saying it in my head as I typed. And a few months later I heard him outside my head.

I remember working out when I'd had a million words published in magazines or whathaveyou; can't remember now when that was but it was before I went freelancing in 1996. In all those words then and all these words since, I'd not had a shiver, not expected to, not heard of anyone else having them. But there it was.

Only, I still couldn't wedge the TARDIS into the story without some almighty contortion and I so wanted to. I did it, actually, I got it in there in the first draft. I almighty contorted. But the aforementioned Alan Barnes just looked at me. Actually, he looked at me down the phone but I understood. "You've almighty contorted there, haven't you?"

So, no TARDIS and anyway, Doctor Who is not about time. You can think of examples where it is, especially in Steven Moffat's very best stories. But on the whole, the TARDIS is a vehicle to deliver the Doctor to where the trouble is and that's it.

Yet, as I say, it's time and not time travel that I'm interested in. Long, long before I got to pitch to Big Finish, I was thinking about what time means to the Doctor. On the one hand he's very old so his perception is different to ours. (There's a lovely line by Johnny Byrne in Arc of Infinity where Peter Davison's Doctor says: "Oh, you know how it is. You put things off for a day and next thing you know it's a hundred years later.")

The Doctor also darts about a lot. Never stays anywhere for very long. It's a function of the series and its need to get him on to the next story but it seems to me that this is a key part of him. I wanted to know what he would feel if he couldn't leave, if he knew for certain that there was nothing he could do but stay somewhere.

So I put him in prison.

Locked away with the absolute knowledge that he was going to be there for a year.

I think I was originally going to be serious to the point of boredom. You may feel I do this. I think I was very intense about it all when I worked on Doctor Who Adventures magazine and found editor Moray Laing knew his Who a thousand times better than I did. I owe Moray for a great time writing for him, I owe the then-deputy editor Annie Gibson for the same thing, but Moray also led me to Big Finish. Helen Hanff has a nice line about Q, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, where she thanks him in a dedication saying that it is "not to repay a debt, but to acknowledge it."

Moray introduces me to Big Finish and - at least two years later - I'm writing for them and Alan is pointing out that I've started my script by describing the prison doors as being like the ones in Porridge. You don't have to be serious about being serious, we concluded. Then Jason Arnopp gave me the great title Doing Time (I'd been wedded to Folly, the name of the planet it’s set on, and later Cool Hand Doctor) and we were off.

If you write drama then this is all old hat to you but despite everything I've done - a little TV, lots of little theatre, many radio projects that failed at hurdles - this job taught me why drama is the hardest and the most rewarding form of writing I know.

When you do it right, you are telling a story using only what people are not saying.

I'm a dialogue fan and I've had rows where, much later, I've realised my opponent believes dialogue is speeches ("Is this a dagger I see before me and if it is, can I use it to win this argument and save all the yapping?") where I see it as speech ("Yeah, I'm fine").

There are plenty of speeches in Doing Time. Plenty more where I maybe too-literally explain the action in dialogue. Hard to like that. But my favourite thing in the whole story is what happens to Nyssa: while the Doctor is in prison, his companion has got a year out there alone on an alien planet. You hear many scenes with her and I'm proud of them, but the majority of her story takes place inside your head and I'm much more proud of that.

I've said before that I don't believe one can be taught scriptwriting. I think you can have your eyes opened, though, and a thing that did this to me - I may have told you this before, I call it a Damascus moment - came from something Russell T Davies wrote. Before Doctor Who, I was a fan of his for Queer as Folk and its sheer verve. In the liner notes for the DVD release, he talked about the difference between writing for soap and writing drama. He'd had to learn this, he said, and realised that it boiled down to one major thought: in soaps, people say everything they're thinking; in drama they don't even know what they're thinking.

Boom. Seriously. Eye-popping boom. I already knew that in drama we lie, I hadn't thought that we were the mess we are in real life. Scripts I wrote after that day are better than the the ones before and what more could someone give you?

Possibly they could also give you how to wedge a very complicated story into 25 minutes but I accept that is an unreasonable thing to expect from a DVD liner note.

Still, writing Doing Time, I have Nyssa not quite aware how much she's enjoying her time outside prison with a man we never meet. Then I have the Doctor not quite understanding why she seems so happy when he's frustrated at being stuck there. I wanted Nyssa to have a life and, importantly, a job away from the Doctor. I gave her that and I also ended up giving her a flawed romance; I think now that the romance was one beat too far. When you have a woman character, it is cheap and easy to give her a romance storyline and so of course I think I was wrong to do that. If I never do it again, I might let myself off because I did also enjoy the tale and Sarah Sutton played it with the light touch I wanted.

But this comes right back to why I haven't told you any of this before.

Hoping to never do that type of romance story again, to not do it cheaply, means that I've been hoping to write more Doctor Who. Of course I have.

But it's more than that. So long as Doing Time was all I'd done, I found couldn't actually enjoy it. I tried. I know without question how excited I would've been as a boy if you'd told me this is what I'd do. And Big Finish did a tremendous job. But I'm just after telling you how it felt to write what turned out to be a successful Doctor Who story and so far as I was concerned, it wasn't and couldn't be a success until it led to something else. Unless it led to another Doctor Who: if get another one then you really did do your first one right. Or right enough.

I do write to explore these things that obsess me and getting to do that is a privilege. It’s not luck and it’s certainly not chance, but it is a privilege. I obviously write to eat too. But my overriding goal of writing is to keep me writing: I've got to know what happens next, I've got to keep writing and keep writing better, like.

I was commissioned this morning.

I'm writing a four-part Doctor Who drama for Big Finish.

Actually, if you want to be completely accurate about it, I'm not but I should be. I'm commissioned, I have the deadline and when I learnt this earlier today I punched the air. I must've also shouted "Yes!" a lot louder than I thought or perhaps forgot I was at Radio Times because suddenly there were all these people looking at me.

I'll deny this if you tell anyone else but I nipped out to a wide area by the stairs, away from everybody, and I span and span and span.

The deadline is tight enough to cut into that joyous exultant release and actually I've moved on to gulping about telling what's a rather complicated story that still won't feature any scenes in the bloody sodding TARDIS.

Fortunately, I can put that out of my mind because you and are I talking. I thought this would be when I’d gush at you, finally able to enjoy Doing Time, and yet there’s a part of me that is using you to put off writing the next bit. I’m using you. I’m a horrible man but you’re very nice and I thank you.

Listen, the deadline on this script is really tight. But that also means it’ll be over soon and I can get right back to worrying about whether I can get another one. I’ve got to stop worrying like this: you really need to give me a talking to.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The strings take the melody

You're so the only person I can tell this story to that I am convinced I may have tried before. But I have a new ending. Can I have a go at talking about Broadcast News?

You remember the film, of course, it was released in 1987. I really liked it - I'm a journalist, I'm a drama nut and love dialogue so a movie about news written by James L Brooks would have me grabbed whether or not it starred Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks - but I also particularly enjoyed the soundtrack by Bill Conti. At the time I didn't believe an album had been released: I think now that there was one but only in the States and this was pre-internet. This was a disappointment for two reasons: obviously I wanted it, but I also wanted to know what a particular French track is that gets played in it.

Flashforward to the DVD release a few years ago. For some reason I still can't find a listing for a soundtrack album but I've bought the DVD - and I rip the end-credit music.

It's on my iPod now. Lasts about five minutes and of course it has the orchestral music score parts in it, maybe a bit repetitive now, maybe I like it more for having liked it then, but there it is, the main score theme. But it's also got other parts of the music, including not only a long segment of that French track, but also for the second verse, the sound of Albert Brooks singing over it in character, just as he did in the film. And it's even got a version of the bit of the film when people come into the news studio to play their syntho-sequency-type new theme for the bulletin: a cheap synth with them sing-explaining along the way "NEWS! NEWS! The strings take the melody! LAAAA la da daa daaaa - COUNTER MELODY! Da dad daaa daaa dadaa a adaaaaa BIG FINISH - ba badda BA!".

I adore this five minute slice of the film.

And a little while ago I realised something. Call me slow.

But this slice has the French track in it.

It has a substantial part of the track.

You know Shazam, right? It's an iPhone app, one of those that just makes you go wow. Hold your iPhone next to a speaker, tap a button and Shazam "listens" to the music. Then it trots off, finds what the track is for you and gives you various options for buying it. Really, very impressive stuff to see in operation.

So I saw it in operation. I played my Broadcast News rip and when it got to the French track, I tapped the button.

The track is "Edition sp├ęciale" by Francis Cabrel and I bought it.

It's in my ears right now. Hear thirty seconds of it yourself on the US iTunes Store or the UK iTunes Store.

It's taken me 24 years to find this song. I am singing along to the same bits Albert Brooks does and this, specifically this, is why you and I should both be glad this is not an Audioboo entry.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wherein I deign to give you writing advice

It does strike me that for a blog about writing, and by a writer, I've not often talked about writing and How To Do It. This is very bad because of course without me, what hope have you got? I know you look to me for leadership and it's a burden, I won't pretend it isn't. So it's time I gave you the Secret.

Perhaps you want to be a Hollywood A-list writer, perhaps you want to be the next Shakespeare. As someone who is neither, I am willing to share the secret at no cost. I feel a need to break the sarcasm for just a second and mention that if nothing else I do write for a living and have done so for most of my career. And now you, too, can benefit from my brilliance. Please, hold your applause.

I ask only that in return for the Secret, I be allowed to ask you to do something and that I then get to wibble on about My Most Unexpected Influence. Do we have a deal?

I'm going to pretend we do or this is a short blog.

The thing I would ask is that, if you're a scriptwriter, write dialogue. If you don't write dialogue or if you think dialogue doesn't matter, there are many career opportunities open to you in retail.

So, now, the Secret.

Park your bum on the seat and write.

That's it. I accept PayPal.

What I'm saying is that I don't think you can be taught to write. I think you can learn to shed certain things, I think you can be exposed to influences that shape and improve you. I've been on courses where types of writing, such as thrillers, have been analysed in such a way that they made me think, that made explore ideas. But then I've been on courses where I've been told exactly how to write soap. I've sat in talks where an expert has given us all the precise steps on how to get into TV and I've known, actually known, it was bollocks. Demonstrable bollocks.

Alan Plater used to teach at Arden and that's a course I wish I'd gone on. But - have I told you this already? Stop me if you know it. He told me that the best thing he did was to enable a writer, to let someone write. There was a particular guy who just wanted, just needed, to be left alone in a corner to write. Alan talked to him every now and again but otherwise, that was it. You could argue that he should've been able to sit at home and do it rather than pay whatever Arden charges for courses, but it took the course, it took Alan, it took being allowed to write.

I should do research before I talk to you: I've forgotten again who the guy was. But later on he thanked Alan the night he won his first Bafta.

So I'm saying you don't need the course parts of a course, you need the time and the focus. When you've parked your bum on the seat, you can get this at home too.

Follow. Earlier today, I was faffing about doing no work at all and half feeling guilty, half-enjoying. I channel-flicked on the TV and came across an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It's not Alan Plater, but I'd forgotten that I do regard that show as the best course in TV writing I ever took.

I'm not saying it's the best TV show ever. One of my first newspaper articles was a feature about DS9 and I gave the pilot a fairly bad review: primarily because I found the acting in it to be so very poor. But you know Star Trek is a big, big business: I read years ago that it had earned Paramount over a billion dollars and a lot of that came from the merchandise. If it could conceivably become a shrinkwrapped product, it was and as the barrel was scraped, eventually there came the last thing possible. With barrel tar in its fingernails, Paramount sold the scripts.

They released two CD-ROMs (do you even remember CD-ROMs?) containing all the scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That's 354 one-hour screenplays, all wedged into some annoying faux Starfleet screen designed to fight you reading a line. But you could easily prang the scripts over into Microsoft Word instead and read them there.

So I did.

All of them.

Now, I've seen most of The Next Generation and enjoyed it well enough, but the scripts were a chore. Really a struggle. I would not have realised it until I read the scripts but The Next Generation wasn't made of what I'd call stories, it was made of puzzles. What is causing this technobabble problem? How will the Enterprise escape? Once you knew the answer, because you'd seen the show, the scripts had nothing else. No meat, no real characters. If you're a fan, you're disagreeing with me and I'd be on your side if I hadn't read the scripts and found this.

Can't remember how long it took me to work through the Star Trek: The Next Generation scripts but it was a long time. Possibly years.

I'm surprised that I made it, and more surprised that I then turned to the Deep Space Nine ones: I'd had a bad experience with TNG and I hardly knew DS9 beyond giving it a bad review in The Independent. But this was a chance to read seven seasons of scripts, to see how a successful show starts, finds its feet, moves on and progresses and concludes.

Besides, two scripts in to Deep Space Nine, I was enjoying them. Real characters bitching at each other, enormous political and religious pressures, a lot more wit than TNG and good people doing bad things, I flew through the scripts in a couple of months. They read like a novel.

I liked them so much I began watching the series and I began really gingerly with that pilot. By now I knew the characters extremely well, I knew where the show was going, I was going to like the pilot more. Yes. But only a bit. The acting is still startlingly poor. I watched it again tonight (I bought all seven seasons on DVD) and it looks like every scene was shot at 2am and odd line readings are left in because they had no more time.

I know that a lot really were shot at that time, too, because if DS9 was a great TV course, there's a book that I am equally a fan of: the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion by Terry J. Erdmann and Paula M. Block. Can't remember what it retailed for when I bought it but I just looked for you on Amazon and it's changing hands for £95. Well worth it. It's billed as being about the backstage stories of the show and it is, but it's really about the writing: every one of its 176 episodes is detailed with interviews with the writers and producers. What the original idea was, why it changed if it did, how it worked, why it was successful and - this is really key - why it wasn't. The episodes the writers wish they'd never done. That makes it more believable when they speak of episodes they are proud of: this isn't a promo piece, it's you sitting down with these writers.

I went back to the start. I'd read the script, I'd watch the episode, then I'd read the Companion's notes. What did I agree with, what worked for me, what I didn't and didn't.

I wish there'd be something like this for Lou Grant or Tutti Frutti. The Beiderbecke Affair. The Sandbaggers. But I have a lot of respect for Deep Space Nine and right now, I'm really tempted to read it all again.

I can't promise it'd be any use or interest to you, we all have to find what works for us, but maybe we have to be willing to look in unexpected places. And reading scripts, reading scripts, reading scripts. That's also part of the Secret. So:

Park your bum on the seat and write.
When you're not writing, read scripts.

'Ere, let me give you a head start: those 176 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine scripts are now all online.

Shush now. I'm off to read episode 1, Emissary, by Michael Piller.

And then sit down to do some work.