Saturday, December 29, 2007

Guest Blogger: Steve Fitzpatrick

Just so you know, each year on the podcast UK DVD Review I do a poll whose format is a chart countdown but whose sole purpose is to get you ten great DVD recommendations. I ask for votes and it's all tabulated away merrily in Excel, but I am fully blatant about how I'm more interested in passion for a DVD than I am for just weight of numbers. So each year I ask for a vote - and a reason why you're voting for this or that particular title.

But for the 2007 poll, I got more tremendously considered reasons than ever before. I felt bad that I was going to reduce people's fine work to a two-liner, so I said I'd stop hoarding these great emails. Over the next little while, I'm going to show you what people showed me: the best reasons for loving the best DVDs.

First up, Steve Fitzpatrick. I'd tell you what he voted for but his email was one that worked through his arguments nicely and I'm just going to shut up.



From: Steve Fitzpatrick


Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, sadly in our household, not so much. If a film or programme is branded as worthy it means it is usually beautifully filmed and themes and ideas are fully explored in all their minutiae, characters developed extensively (preferably in flash-back or flash-forward) dialogue is crafted so carefully each word carries a thousand meanings. Usually when you get to the end you discover there has been no plot, and what you have watched has left you mystified and confused as to what has happened. The phrase pretentious billooks (got to be careful of the profanity check) never entered my head.

Steven Poliakoff is usually worthy - yes, I have just watched Capturing Mary - did it show?

That's why with eager anticipation I sat down to watch Die Hard 4.0. and instantly put it to the top of my list of DVD's this year. While it has no plot either it contains the necessary essentials to while away a winters evening. Chases, one liners, explosions, a bit of gun play, more one liners and even more explosions. What more do you need? It even has Bruce looking moody, bruised and torn. No character development, no plot, but at least at the end you know where you have been. I don't think I'll be giving away too much to tell you that the baddy gets it.

An unworthy, shallow, film then; and definitely my DVD of the year.

I haven't had the chance to watch Oceans 13 yet but, fun caper it undoubtedly will be, it doesn't have the Bruce factor.


In a chance conversation I remembered Pierrepoint, recently re released, about the career of Albert Pierrepoint Britain's most "successful" hangman. This is a film I saw at the cinema, it had a limited release and needed extensive research to find where it was playing. It left a huge mark on me, I talked about it endlessly for weeks after and clamoured for its DVD release. It is rare for me to revisit a DVD more than a couple of times, but this was a film I would play to anyone given the merest excuse, and watched over and over. I can't say "enjoyed" it, the subject matter doesn't lend itself to enjoyment, but I was captivated by it. Each viewing giving a different nuance, a different feeling, about the subject matter and still left me tense and shocked by what I saw.

It is, however beautifully acted, and the characters well explored. Timothy Spall is exceptional in the lead role as the film follows Pierepoint's career, from applying for the job of hangman to his resignation, after some 600 executions, in the late 1950's.

It shows a man, dedicated to his work, and applying the job dignity and compassion to the prisoner sentenced to death, yet a man totally dedicated to being the best at his job.

It shows the effect the work had on him. Albert Pierrepoint kept his government job to himself, and no-one knew what he did, not even his wife until the newspapers revealed his identity as a "hero" following the executions of the Nazi hierarchy at Nuremburg to his vilification as the country increasingly turned against capital punishment.

The one thing this film doesn't do is comment. It is neither pro nor anti capital punishment. It does not glorify or vilify. It presents just the facts (taken from Pierrepoint's autobiography) and leaves the viewer to make up their own minds. It does however provoke debate, and I have seen people's attitude to capital punishment both re-inforced or reversed after viewing.

The subject matter does not make for an enjoyable film. It is however compelling and thought provoking. In other words, worthy. And I mean that as the highest compliment.

I wholehearted commend this worthy film as my DVD of the year.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Over-examining one line

It's fashionable for actors to say they chose a role because of the script.  But they only say that in pre-release promo interviews; when it comes to getting an award, they will still thank the director for creating such a great role.

And I can understand that. To be callous, the director is more likely to get the actor work than the writer is. But also the actor and director will have worked together much more closely than writer and actor, writer and director, writer and stationery supplier. 

I'm considerably more troubled when an actor says the script is the thing and then you see it really isn't. It can be that his or her specific role was good, that it was something that truly stretched them, and that it was something that looked great on the showreel. And it can all be bollocks: saying you made your choice because of the script makes you sound good. You've got options, it says. You're a team player because you're thinking of the whole project. You're smart. You didn't just say yes because you needed the money.

Saying that one thing means all these others, and that'd be fine but it can mean it without you actually having to have read the script at all. It's definitely applied now almost regardless of whether the script is good or not, so while there are times I believe it's true, I really think this is a case where specific praise from a star can actually devalue writing. When an ordinary, average script gets Harrison Ford praising it, what does that tell new writers to aim for? And when the script editor knows solely the ten key points from Robert McKee's point of view - and believes there actually are rules to writing - then we are ultimately losing out.

Follow. My mother gets genuinely annoyed when she can't instantly follow something in a drama. Why are they lying? What does he want? Who does she mean? When we first saw Martha Jones in Doctor Who, the Doctor appeared out of nowhere in a plot point neither we nor Martha fully got until the end. My mom would've been spitting for an hour. And I think it's because the majority of her TV drama watching is soap. Nothing wrong with soap but when it's your only diet and when the TV industry believes soap is the exclusive route for new writers, then there's a lot wrong. And a symptom is this inability to lie. Soap characters lie constantly, just not to us: they can smile at their enemy but they must immediately gurn Airplane-like to us so we know.

I prefer it when we don't know. Or at least, I can prefer it. If it's done well, not-knowing something is as good as knowing it. Recently Battlestar Galactica showed us various scenes that we'd previously only ever heard about in reported speech; somehow, contrary to all expectations, the telling proved to have been more powerful than the showing.

And I like it when there's an agreement between the writer and the viewer about what's important. Doctor Who always has this and has it with exuberance - except for a tiny part toward the end of this year's Christmas special:

DOCTOR: They've cut the brake line!

Astrid was driving a forklift truck (which, incidentally, if you don't happen to know already, is really quite difficult to do; difficult enough that you need a special licence to prove you're able to do it). She's aiming to drive Max and his chamber off the edge of the platform. But they're deadlocked and one of Max's robot Hosts frizbees a metal halo at Astrid, pranging it off the truck.

And I keep thinking about Russell T Davies's choices at this point. Logic suggests the Host should've hit Astrid but that would be too violent an end. And it would be the end: the plot would've stopped because she died and Max survived. So he must have the Hosts miss, for both reasons.

DOCTOR: They've cut the brake line!

With those words, the Doctor is back in the game, he's effectively told us what's going to happen, and he's made sure Astrid knows the stakes. Our main character is deep in the action instead of solely being held off to one side. That's got to be good, hasn't it? There are British television series that tell their writers the show is really about the guest characters, not the regulars. (This accounts for why their regulars are so dull. Unfortunately the guests are no more memorable.) But here, the Doctor is key and even as Astrid sacrifices herself to save everything, it's the Doctor we're with. His reactions. So I can't fault that line.

But I do. It tipped me out of the story. I'd accepted the existence of the truck, I'd accepted that Astrid could drive it, I didn't accept that the Hosts had cut the brake line. I've not the remotest idea where such a thing is, but I couldn't take either the coincidence of a lucky shot or the idea that it was a deliberate action. Coincidence is too much, I feel you only ever get away with coincidence at the start of a story or when it is the story. I have a piece that relies upon almost endless coincidence but I believe it works because almost none of it really is coincidence, you just think it is. And you even see coincidences that aren't actually there, so I'm happy with that.  And I'm not happy with the idea of a deliberate choice to cut this bleedin' brake line because that really isn't a sensible alternative to killing Astrid. 

How bad would it have been to drop this line? Pretty bad, actually. Not only would the Doctor's part in it be reduced but Astrid's would've been changed: where she knew what she was doing and what it meant, she would instead have a nasty shock when the brakes failed. So the Doctor would be out of it and she'd be Frank Spencer: I can see why Russell T Davies went the way he did.

Only, I think there was a third way. I can't solve the issue with the Doctor even though I've thought about this a lot. Nonetheless, if you took out that line of dialogue about the brakes, you could've still had Astrid driving up to the edge of the chasm. She's pushing Max, he's pushing her, they're right on that ragged edge, I think you could have Astrid realising what the consequences of an extra shove would be and her deciding to do it anyway.

The trouble is that not only is the Doctor sidelined, he's sidelined for a long time, for the whole end of this sequence. It'd only be seconds, but I think it would feel too long. And I just can't solve that.

But given the choices, given how the dialogue took me out at a crucial moment, I think on balance I'd have cut the brake line.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Joking Apart

Finally, I can tell you this: I've written a companion booklet for the Joking Apart series 2 DVD.

The DVD is being released on March 17 next year but as of today you can preorder it from official website.

The main feature of the booklet is about both series, it's the whole story of how Steven Moffat's comedy came to be. It's really about how the show went right and then went so wrong: how something so great simply wasn't seen by many people. And how the sitcom's vibrant mix of sex and verve, sheer farce and stunning rage, is now so obviously where Moffat's hit Coupling started.

But there's also a piece in the booklet by DVD producer Craig Robins on how the second series was remastered from the 1990s original master tapes and why they had to be painstakingly worked on, how the show looks better now than it did on transmission. It's an informative story and Craig is adding to it on his revamped Replay DVD website. Starting today and over the next couple of months until the DVD is out, he's recounting some of the behind the scenes stories. He thought it was just a DVD project, but your hand will be in your mouth when you hear what it took to get this made.

In case you don't already know, Craig Robins wasn't a DVD producer until he found out the BBC was never going to release Joking Apart. Never. He checked. It was official. So he put up ouchfuls of his own money, negotiated and bought the rights to release the first series it himself.

Plainly it's worked out well because now he's back with the second.

Fantastic, isn't it?


Friday, December 14, 2007

Call sheet: Ashes to Ashes

You know how things come along at once? I'd never seen a call sheet until last week and now I've had two. Last Monday I was filming behind the scenes at a Radio Times photo shoot for the new BBC1 period drama, Lark Rise to Candleford. Julia Sawalha, Dawn French and Olivia Hallinan were photographed in period costume - by a photographer in tails and with a truly Jules Verne-like wooden and brass camera.

Also a top-of-the-range modern digital tethered to a MacBook, but.

And it must've gone well because this Monday, I've just been booked on the RT shoot for Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars. Presumably I can't tell you anything about the shoot but there is word that a car will be there.

Looking forward to this,

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Your UK DVD Review poll of the year

You voted, I counted, we talked: have a listen to this week's UK DVD Review show, a half-hour special podcast counting down your top ten DVDs of 2007.

I promised on that edition that in exchange for my not taking ten of the thirty minutes to read out the prices, I'd do it here. So, ta-daa: here's your countdown - and I've done it as a series of links to Amazon so you can just zoom through.

The whole point of the countdown was not to have a countdown; as fun as it was to see what made number 1, the whole list, the whole ten were ones you picked because you loved them so much, you couldn't stop talking about them. And shortly I'll be putting up some of your best emails about why you picked what you did; they'll be guest blogs over the next few days.

Last, I've also appended my own top ten from the week before's UK DVD Review.

Thanks for voting. The show will return on 6 January 2008. See you then.


Your Top Ten DVDs of 2007

1. Doctor Who: The Complete Third Season

2. Veronica Mars: Season 3 (US import)

3. The Bourne Ultimatum

4. Heroes

5. Stranger Than Fiction

6. The Prisoner

7. Pan's Labyrinth

8. Pierrepoint

9. My So-Called Life (US import)

10. Mad About You (US import)

And now My Top Ten DVDs of 2007

I should explain that it's a revised list, ever since listener Ian Smith told me about the DVD that really should come top for me.

0. Battlestar Galactica (HD season 1, US import)

1. Doctor Who: The Complete Third Season

2. Veronica Mars: Season 3 (US import)

3. The Bourne Ultimatum

4. Stranger Than Fiction

5. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

6. My So-Called Life (US import)

7. The Prestige

8. Casino Royale

9. Dar Williams: Live at the Bearsville Theatre (US import)- but buy Dar's albums first

10. Alias Smith and Jones

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

When Leopards go "Boo!"

I am supposed to be busy, but...

Couldn't resist. I just recorded some dialogue here in my office, popped it over to the PowerBook in the living room and hit play on it from here.

True, I couldn't hear the playback, but I heard the bump as my sister-in-law jumped through the roof.

Ah, technology.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

When Leopards Go Bad

I should've seen this coming, shouldn't I?

I've got a Mac and a PowerBook; since the Leopard release of OS X I've been using a feature called Back to My Mac: I sit in the living room and, whenever I fancy, I can look at the screen of the Mac in my office. You're thinking this is stupid and I can't 100% disagree with you, but the PowerBook's a writing machine that I've reluctantly stripped down to prevent me piddling about in Photoshop when I should be working. And the office Mac is the big bugger; if anything's going to take some heavy lifting, I leave my Mac doing it.

And then check its screen from down here.

Only... I had to go do it in reverse, didn't I? Very fine, very useful, but can you see where this is going? By accident and thickness, I used my PowerBook to show me the screen of my office Mac... which was showing me the screen of my PowerBook.

This is what happens.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I'm working on it, honest

This week's UK DVD Review has nearly 100 clips in it: rather than then take an hour reading the prices out, let me give you the list of clips I used here. Shortly I'll be adding links out from this to Amazon, so as to more formally fulfill my contractual needs to plug the prices.

If you don't listen to the show regularly, have a look at it now.

And if you do listen, please also vote: email me at before December 1, telling me your one pick of the year - and why you like it so.

Here's that list, just a reminder of some of the DVDs we've seen this year.

Deep breath,

1. Doctor Who Blink
2. Ace of Wands
3. Zoo Gang
4. Camberwick Green
5. Life on Mars
6. Arrested Development
7. The Rockford Files
8. Mad About You
9. The Rockford Files
10. Wild Hogs

11. Die Hard 4
12. WKRP in Cincinatti
13. Alias Smith and Jones
14. Airwolf
15. M*A*S*H
16. Green Wing
17. Alias Smith and Jones
18. Torchwood
19. Mr Bean's Holiday
20. Desperate Housewives

21. Jekyll
22. Little Miss Sunshine
23. Hoodwinked
24. Flushed Away
25. Veronica Mars
26. Atonement
26. Sandbaggers
28. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
29. Children of Men
30. Northern Exposure

31. Father Ted Speed 3
32. In the Night Garden
33. Becoming Jane
34. Babylon 5 captain's log
35. Cardiac Arrest
36. Follyfoot
37. Dirty Dancing
38. The Prisoner
39. Battlestar Galactica
40. For Your Consideration

41. Stranger Than Fiction
42. Notes on a Scandal
43. Ocean's Thirteen
44. Doctor Who Arc of Infinity
45. Ugly Betty
46. The Holiday
47. Frasier
48. Night at the Museum
49. Nancy Drew open
50 Doctor Who Blink

51. Fracture
52. Last King
53. Columbo
54. Casino Royale
55. The Prestige
56. Friends and Crocodiles
57. Peep Show
58. My So-Called Life
59. Hot Fuzz
60. Music and Lyrics

61. Heroes
62 The Queen
63. World of Pub
64. This is England
65. Blades of Glory
66. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
67. Happy Feet
68. Rolling Stones
69. Shooter
70. Forbidden Planet

71. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
72. Zombie Diaries
73. 28 Weeks Later
74. Pursuit
75. Perfect Stranger
76. Arthur
77. Thank You for Smoking
78. The Libertine
79. Zodiac
80. Fantasic Four

81. Amazing Grace
82. Premonition
83. Inland Empire
84. Sunshine
85. Miss Potter
86. The Illusionist
87. Snakes on a Plane
88. World Trade Center
89. Perfume
90. Primeval

91. Serenity
92. Cheers
93. Because I Said So
94. Open Season
95. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
96. The Bourne Ultimatum


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Graphite by example

Presumably you're on the side of the writers in the US strike: if not, hello, it's funny you should stop by here just when I'm talking about you and the other five people backing the producers.

But if you are one of those, do please look away now and don't spoil the surprise: I've just sent you a gift. Like socks at Christmas, it's a nice gift that you're going to get sick of.

Writers across the world are being asked to show support for the US strike by sending a box of pencils to the heads of the studios holding out. Being writers, these pencils are imbued with symbolism and you want to chip in, don't you? It'll cost a dollar: click here to do the deed.

Ta to Piers for blogging about it even as he should be giving me notes on a script.


Friday, November 09, 2007

All is well

There are birds in the trees. I'm writing again. My Oscar is in the post. I don't want to make too big a deal out of this, but on my way over here, I healed some people.

Yes, I have an iPhone.



Some writing competitions require you to enter entirely under a pseudonym. So the other day Maxine Desk, who inexplicably lives at my address yet doesn't contribute a penny to the food bill, got a letter from a theatre company saying how sorry they were she'd been rejected, how they knew this was a blow.

I couldn't even remember entering the contest, I don't know what I sent, I don't know who these people are. If there's a real Maxine Desk out there waiting for news on her script, let me know. No need to hurry.

This utter blankness over a contest I've entered is unusual, yes. But I'm minded of it because the reverse has happened today: a contest I've said before would be the best TV writing competition in the world, ever, if they had only thought to beef up the prize. Really, they were so close: a guaranteed TV commission, a guaranteed TV agent, some cash and the opportunity to work with Tony Jordan plus a good stab at getting your winning script filmed. Would it have hurt them to add a bacon sandwich and an iPhone?

I haven't made the cut.

This time, though, even more than remembering who I emailed my entry to, I also know the names of the judging panel and they are all people I rate very highly: Stephen Fry, Julie Gardner, it goes on, you count them, I can't face it. So instead of a faceless producer, there's a panel of people whose writing I admire and who do not admire my writing. To be practical here, they might have loved and cherished every syllable, but I didn't make the cut and a miss is as good as a mile.

There won't be feedback on this one (Red Planet's judges must've read at least 20,000 pages of script, they'd never be able to comment usefully on my 10) which usually means you have to shrug and move on. The scale and weight of this one means that's harder to do, and it's much easier to re-examine the material and try to guess where I got it wrong. So I'll obviously be doing a bit of that.

But otherwise, you know what needs to be done next, don't you? Every sane person in this world would tell you that that thing to do is to keep writing and, if you were even halfway clever you would already have other things out there. I have other things out there.

But still, I'm tired of being a rebel. I am stopping writing now, it's all over. I've been eating my own bacon sandwich while I've talked to you and soon I'm going out to buy my own iPhone.


PS. Rackfay is pig latin, if you hadn't guessed.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Okay, I'll play

Take three blog entries into the shower?

Not sure if this is a busy day or not, but it's definitely not my usual Tuesday news shift at so I admit it, I am intrigued: Piers Beckley just tagged me to copy what he's done and list five things about myself that "other people might think lame, but which make me who I am". He's preceded in this by Helen Smith. (Hello, Helen Smith.) Who's next depends on you.

But in no especial order, here you go: me in five lame point.

1) Just so stories
When a piece of writing is just so, just exactly right, it can and regularly does move me to real tears. Can't define what's right but I know it when I get that tingle. Dar Williams's songwriting does it to me repeatedly; Christina Rosetti; Alan Plater plays. It's almost endless.

2) I'm scared of paper
Strange, but true: I have papyrophobia which is strictly speaking a fear of paper. I know you think I'm joking, being a writer and all, but while I think fear is a strong word, it's about right. Small pieces of paper, especially, can make me shake. Consequently the BBC's habit of using post-it notes a lot does give me problems, most particularly because I regularly hotdesk there and can be using other people's computers instead of my own paper-free one.

3) I'm a nut for cartography
'Course, I gave that away about an hour ago, but still. Mapping, GIS, all this stuff, arrests me. I am in no small way excited by the Maps application on iPhones.

4) Pilgrimage
When I went to Los Angeles, I made a pilgrimage to Pershing Square where the exterior of the Los Angeles Tribune newspaper offices were in Lou Grant.

5) I like typing
More than writing, sometimes. The feel of the keys under your fingers; I'm a self-taught touch-typist, once clocked at around 120 wpm, and writing is a tactile thing for me; I like the sense of kneading words together with my fingers. I think a lot about how we can think of keyboards in different ways; right now, for instance, I'm not looking at mine and all it means to me is the next letter, the next word, yet in a word processor I can in the very next second be using those same keys to save, to print, to email. I also think a great deal about word processors; I used to write about them. A friend recently complained that it was ridiculous that Microsoft charges hundreds of pounds for Word, "it's only a word processor", and by God she regretted it - or she would have done if she hadn't glazed over a few seconds into my "Ah, but you say that..." speech.

Am I allowed a sixth? You're the only person I can think of to send this to and suggest you do one yourself. No telling me that you have already. This is primarily because every bleedin' writer on the planet has already done this business. I am late to the table, again.


Unnamed lands

No reason you should know this, but I'm a nut for cartography. If you have a look at the About me page on my website, you'll see me with my nose in a book: it's a beautiful volume called Mapping Boston.

But being a writer, a particular fascination for me about mapping is the naming of places and features. If you don't already know this, you may be startled by just how much rage is stirred up by toponyms: there are several places in America called "Squaw Tits", for example, and somewhere in the States there's a "Nigger Point". My first reaction is to change them, but if you erase them, aren't you sanitising history? And if you don't, aren't you perpetuating the offense? That's my ideal drama: two opposing sides, both deeply felt and both rousing anger, but both sides right and both wrong.

I've learnt today about an almost opposite thing: a place that has no name. It doesn't sound possible, does it? You think of the world as having been thoroughly and completely explored, named, practically settled. (Incidentally, the UK is the most-mapped region of the globe, seriously. And of course it was started for military reasons; why don't we twig the reason it's called Ordnance Survey?).

But imagine a place with no name. You'd want to name it, wouldn't you? And pretty quick. So, yep, one of the current issues being debated by the US Board on Geographic Names is what to call a stream in Washington state. I'd tell you where it is but I can't find it, it doesn't have a name.

It will. I just can't decide whether this is good silly or bad silly: it's likely to be called Lambee Creek - "in honour of a nearby resident's 12-year-old cat, Lambee".

Quote from USA Today.


Here's that cover

Previously on this blog... I told you I'd seen a draft of a Radio Times cover that I wanted to tell you all about - and realised halfway through the sentence that I was simply not allowed to. If you don't already know, covers are extraordinarily important. When I was on PC Direct magazine we'd have covers meetings and you'd see that, all else being equal, the cover affected sales by 10 per cent or more.

Anyway, now read on. Or rather look on. The issue is on sale as of this morning and the cover has been released: Outpost Gallifrey has the largest image of it I could see and that's here.

I told you I'd watched the image be really painstakingly arranged on the page (Peter Davison and David Tennant were shot in front of a green screen; the TARDIS behind them is a separate image). This isn't the cover I saw, it's a different shot of the men, but it still makes me think what I did at the time. That it's weird.

Good weird, but still. Much as I liked Peter Davison's Doctor at the time, he looks so jarring now. Hard to believe this is the same show that it was, don't you think?


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A period film, full stop

Christine Patton, whose blog I would link to if link-based technology were working, has written about how she's completed her period film script, the latest in a series of scriptwriting challenges that I'm also part of. (Hang on, would you put up with an old-fashioned, crude and frankly passe URL? She's on

Stuart Perry ( was also doing said period challenge but has only gone and got himself a proper script writing job. (How do I do green text?)

The period idea was mine, and I thought of it partly because I like certain period films but also because it seemed difficult to do. The primary reason for the challenges is to make you get down on your arse and write, rather than think, but it's good to have a goal that's going to be tough beyond just having to reach a certain page count. So I suggested period films and Piers Beckley ( who has run these things ever since I said "'ere, what if we did challenges?" determined that the definition of a period film was anything prior to 1989.

I could've objected. And I did. But I could've objected more, I could've pointed out that he wasn't even doing this one. But instead, like the Englishman I am, I nodded politely and mentioned later that I was ignoring him.

My period film is set in 2010.

Also 2000.

And 1991.




I was a heartbeat away from saying to you that this makes it a periods film when I realised that sounded medical.

I had a point when I started telling you this but I've lost it now. What was I getting at? That I feel good another script is written? That's happy for me.

Trust you're well,

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

For your consideration

Universal has just released six screenplays online right here. They're the ones the studio is hoping will get a Oscar nominations - well, presumably they're hoping for an Oscar win but steady on - so they're arguably the pick of the bunch.

They're all the shooting scripts so none of the rubbishy tarted-up transcripts you so often see published and they're all in PDF format. A personal favourite is there, The Bourne Ultimatum, which I'm planning to read as soon as I've stopped talking to you. But there's also American Gangster, Breach, Elizabeth - The Golden Age, The Kingdom and Knocked Up.

I didn't know this but Paramount Vantage, kind of the arthouse end of Paramount if there is such a thing, has already done much the same. If you haven't seen it, here's Paramount Vantage's collection of scripts.

You will notice that Jason Arnopp's screenplay, Look at Me, is not yet available online anywhere but this will surely be remedied soon.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Alan Coren

There are certain books I read when I'm bored. Not because that's the only time I can face 'em, or because I've been keeping them ready for boredom-emergencies, but because there's something about them that bears re-reading and they've somehow become handy.

It's not always obvious why: when I was a boy it was the Piccolo Book of Codes and Ciphers. What I don't know about wrapping a strip of paper around a stick before you write a very short message on it is simply not worth knowing. I can say that with authority because nothing about wrapping a strip of paper around a stick is worth knowing.

For many years, though, my grab book has been an anthology of Alan Coren's writing. You certainly know him from television and radio, you probably know he's Victoria Coren's dad, and you've probably heard that his death was announced today. I can't find the book. I could quote you whole chapters, though I wouldn't do them justice. But I can't find it to read again.

I wasn't always 100% sure I agreed with his perspectives but the sixty-odd pieces in that book, all two- and three-pagers, made me shake so I couldn't hold the page still. I'd fight the page to keep it steady and let me read, and I'd lose. You can't go back, nothing can ever be as funny the second time, but the more I'd read it, the more the writer in me would kick in and I'd appreciate the casually artful construction, the very offhand punch he had.

There's an obit on BBC News Online.


Thursday, October 11, 2007


You know I want to tell you. You know.

But I can't.

I saw a draft cover of a future Radio Times issue this afternoon - and maybe I'm extremely warmly-dressed but covers are fascinating to me, both from how important they are and from seeing them made with care. The thing I can't tell you is what's actually on the cover but standing in a conversation, I couldn't stop watching RT's art editor Paul Smith making the tiniest, tiniest adjustments. Nudging elements of the cover a pixel here or there.

I've seen this before, the time and the talent spent getting an image just right, but I'll tell you that this cover was surprising.

When's Comic Relief? At the moment, this particular image is planned for the RT issue of that week and if I did tell you what was on, you might shrug and say everybody knows about this particular thing. I think I did, I think I did. But seeing the image in the flesh, so to speak, is different and I'd like to talk to you about that.

But of course I can't, so I'll shut up. And apologise for being mean. Let me tell you what I meant - when the cover's on sale.


Monday, October 08, 2007

The myth of mythology

I need a hand, are you up for this? I want to know what I've got against mythology.

Let me say, first of all, that this is a very specific thing I'm talking about here: I mean mythology in a script, a drama. There's this fella - I'd call him Piers but then he'd know I think about what he says and I'm just after pretending I don't - who plainly loves mythology. I'm still not clear, am I? Maybe this is why I'm confused. In a nutshell, think about something like Babylon 5: it's got mythology up the wazoo. In smaller scale dramas you'd call it the backstory, in epics and most especially science fiction ones, it's the mythology.

I loathe it.

Let's say I've got two people in a room and they are verbally clawing at each other: does it matter that his ancestors run the bar on Altair IV and were there during Copyright Clearance Riots? Or that her ancestry goes back to the Knights Templar? It might - but I'd better bloody care about the people right in front of me first.

It'd be easy to say Babylon 5 is unbearable for this very reason. So let's. Babylon 5 is unbearable for this very reason. I'm not being fair, I realise that, and I'm not really trying to deny that the characters are appalling, the dialogue reeks and the stories don't exactly raise the bar. But people who love the show tell me they love the rich tapestry of its tales, the very mythology of what's going on in it. 

Only... I caught some of Deep Space Nine on the telly tonight. (Incidentally, did you notice that every single Star Trek series, bar the animated one, is currently airing in the UK? Paramount's doing well for itself.)  It happens that I'm watching the seventh DS9 season on DVD but what I caught on the TV was an early first-season one, Babel by Michael McGreevey and Naren Shankar, an episode I'm pretty sure I watched in the 1990s. And it was better than I remembered.

But you tell me, is that because the episode itself is stronger than I thought, is it that I'm going soft on the early seasons, or it is that I cannot watch it now without knowing everything that is to come? I know the mythology of the show and I can't undo that knowledge.  In much the same way, when I saw Atonement the other night I couldn't undo the novel in my head and as good as the film is there was a part of me waiting and wondering how it would pull off the novel's big punch at the end. I think it did it very well, as it happens; I left the cinema thinking I could never write a screenplay as well as Christopher Hampton. Mark you, there were several trailers before the film for movies like Lions for Lambs and I could've written that. You could've written it in the time it's taken you to read this far.

Am I benefitting, is the series benefitting in my eyes because of this known and shared mythology? That Piers bloke once told me to watch three specific episodes of Babylon 5 and I'd be a convert, so can you actually come to like any show? In a way, is there no such thing as quality and instead only longevity and familiarity?


I watched those B5 episodes, I moved on. Though I recently watched all of Brothers & Sisters and Dirt for work and if you ask me if they're any good, I'll say no but if you ask me if I like them, I'll say yes.

Unless you can straighten this out for me, I'm going to go with that bit about caring for the people in front of you first. And I want to give you an example. It's Deep Space Nine again, which is fitting and yet also probably the tipping point after which you'll forever just label me as a Trekkie. I said I've been watching the seventh season; the episode I've seen most recently is It's Only a Paper Moon by Ronald D Moore. It was arresting, absorbing, quite uplifting and at times upsetting but above all else it had me in the story throughout. That is all I want from life.

And here's the thing. This episode may be just one of 176 Deep Space Nines so of course I still know the settings, the characters -  but it's about two recurring characters. They're not the regulars, they're effectively one up from guest stars. The regulars in this one only make token appearances.

Now, this is Bad Writing(TM). A series is about your regular characters, which we could argue about another time but you know I'm right and it's basically because I'm right. Even the actors playing these guest parts agree with me. Aron Eisenberg says in an interview I've read that he was terribly excited to get this unexpected chance and his co-star, a very laid-back James Darren, just laughed and told the producers they were very brave to do it.

I'm pretty sure you'd never see this on Spooks.  I like Spooks, but it wouldn't. Hotel Babylon has guests staying and they ignite the story, but it's really always about our main characters. I like that, I agree with it.

But it worked here marvellously and I don't know: is that a validation of the storytelling about people in front of me or is it that the mythology of DS9 is so complete that minor characters can legitimately carry a whole episode?

What I do know is that the producers didn't plan to do this. They had other stories going on, the one with these two fellas was just meant to be a linking spine, almost an excuse or a framework for all the others. But in the end it was this one that mattered, so that's the only one they told. And I admire them for it enormously.

And they had about seven years' worth of Deep Space Nine mythology plus, er, what, thirty years and 600 episodes of Star Trek lore to lean on, and they didn't. Didn't do it, didn't need it. That's Tremendous Writing(TM).


Monday, October 01, 2007

Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges

One of the main acquisitions for Virgin 1, the new TV channel starting tonight, is Star Trek. Virgin's press office says they've bought it all, every last drop, and other people are noting that the original Trek is still running merrily on Sci-Fi. But whether or not they've got everything, they've got most of it and Virgin 1 has decided to start the lot off with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

You'd think they'd do The Next Generation, because that was the most successful, or Voyager because nobody watched that and so it still feels new.

But they've gone for DS9 and while you can bet it's a dollars-and-cents decision, somehow, it'd be nice to think that it's an editorial one. Because Deep Space Nine is the finest of the Trek outings and I have not always thought so.

Flashback: 1993. DS9 is about to start on UK television and I write about the pilot episode for The Independent newspaper. I actually slag it off a bit, saying the acting is poor and some of the dialogue creaky. And I say it because I mean it, and because I mean it, I don't continue with the show. Must've caught the odd episode, but nothing consistent.

Until about 1999 or 2000 when I pick up a cheap copy of both The Next Generation and DS9 Companion CD-ROMS: two discs full of who cares? But alongside that, almost like padding, each CD contained every script for its series. Every TNG, every DS9 script. I'm a script writer, there's nothing like reading scripts to learn, and if you're arguing that Trek isn't The West Wing, well, yes, but the ability to see an entire show's writing from pilot to finale was irresistible.

I tell you now, in case you ever decide to do this too, the scripts to The Next Generation are a chore to read. I don't know why. But somehow they don't feel like stories, they're more like puzzles and the solutions are usually to do with realigning the EM transmitters or something. I read them all, 178 of them, and learnt nothing very much.

You're ahead of me again, aren't you? Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's scripts, all 176 of them, are vastly better. Some are dreadful, some are brilliant, but the whole seven years read like a novel, I was utterly absorbed in them, couldn't put them down. I became a fan because of the scripts. And because I watch in the UK, even though the show was finished in the States and this complete colllection really did have all the scripts, by the time I happened to read them, BBC2 still had about ten episodes to go.

I held off reading those scripts and instead DS9 became my evening break at BBC Ceefax: Wednesday nights, around 6:00pm, often just me in the ents newsroom, it was great.

So great that I bought the DVDs. All of them.

And gingerly started playing that pilot episode, that film I'd called creaky and with bad acting.

And guess what?

It was rubbish. The acting was extremely poor, the situations and some of the dialogue banal and strangely up itself. If I watched it tomorrow on Virgin 1, I would not go buy the scripts or the DVDs. But I would be missing out.

Can't tell you when it gets good; I have a great fondness for that pilot now because of all that happens to do with it over the seven years. And it's hugely better than the Next Generation pilot.

So if you haven't seen Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I hope you love it. And if you want those scripts, you'll have to search but it's worth it. Look up "Star Trek Deep Space Nine companion" on Amazon or wherever; there is a book of that title which is exceptional, and the scripts are on the CD-ROM of that name. Amazon insists the CD-ROM is only for Windows but it worked fine on my Macs.


PS. The subject heading of this translates as "In time of war, the law goes silent". It's an episode title, and a theme, from DS9. Can't see Captain Kirk dealing with political shades of grey, can you?

Sunday, September 30, 2007


T'is the last day of September, in a mo it's going to be t'is the last hour of September, and I've just emailed my last pitch of September.

Thanks for your help. After my struggle finding things to pitch and people to pitch to earlier, the end of the month went smoothly thanks to your suggestions.

Last time I did this pitch-a-day I told you at the end how it had gone but that's harder now: September was a quieter month for fast reactions. So the majority of the pitches still have "waiting" listed next to them, but a fair few have "lead" and two have "rejection". They were depressing rejections, but there you go.

The trick now is to have enough of these things out there and pending through October - because there were due to be three Very Big Things in October, three things that I've worked for and am Pinning All Hopes On(TM). I don't mean my hopes are spread equally among the three, I mean each one has the entirety of my hopes and hope-capability exclusively focused on it. We're writers, we can cope with contradictions.

But of course what you do, what you have to do when you've pinned hopes anywhere is to find out when the result will come and make absolutely damn certain that by then you have found something else. Pitching is touch, but when all your pitches fail simultaneously and you have nothing out there at all, it's even harder to pick yourself up and pitch. It's like trying to write when you're unemployed, the pressure for this script to be the one that turns your life around is unbearable. There's a thirtysomething episode about exactly this, Michael Writes a Story (by Joseph Doughtery, 1989) and while, like all episodes of that show, it's really about so many different things, I find it unbearable. But since I strive to write unbearable things, I'm conflicted. More4 occasionally shows thirtysomething so you may catch it if you haven't already. And Dougherty writes about it in "thirtysomething Stories" (which always sounds to me like a very tall building), the published collection of scripts. (It was published in 1991, I just looked and Amazon has five copies in its marketplace.)

So will my outstanding September pitches suffice or do you think I need to find some things that are even more outstandng?

If it helps, the three things I was pinning all my hopes on in October did include a sneaky one that decided to go belly up a week early just to throw me. And it was crushing, but hey, I've got these two things in October that I'm pinning all my hopes on.

Who'd be a writer, eh? Why do we do this?

Thanks again for your help,

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Okay, so

I typed your name in to Google and you came out top.

Show off.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fickle finger of fate

A friend rang me up today to tell me two things, the first of which is that if you type "William Gallagher" into Google then I am something like four of the first ten results you get back.

This is suspiciously remarkable: I'm certain you've never stopped to count William Gallaghers in your life but I have and I've directly known or at least known-through-work, known-through-friends, six of us.

Some years ago I had a fair explosion of spam and in tracking down why I had that when everyone around me had nothing, I found my name and unfortunately email address on a Doctor Who user group. Some fella with absolutely no sense of humour was urging Who fans to flood my inbox with complaints over a crack I'd made. The fella's fellow Who fans seemingly are humour-aware so not one single one of them ever did email me. Actually, he never emailed me either, which you'd think might be a first step.

But since finding myself like that, I'm going to admit to you that I've kept an eye out. Plainly not so obsessively that I'd noticed my Google ranking, but enough that over the years I've read about a dozen more William Gallaghers ranging from firemen and congressmen to photographers and somebody who appears to have been extraordinarily cruel to either his ex-girlfriends or his pet cats. That was not the clearest website I've ever read. But I've informed the authorities just in case.

So really while the odds of anyone finding themselves on the first page of results from Google is reasonably small, I'd have bet money on mine being significantly less.

I am, therefore, preening. I accept it doesn't mean anything, I accept it's an accident of Google's search algorithms, but old friends have found me this way so it's a good and practical thing and, anyway, come on, I have a blog so you know I have an ego.

Oh, and the other thing my friend phoned to say was that it didn't matter where I appeared on Google, the link to my blog is completely empty.

Somehow I feel my faith in the general right order of things is restored.

Tomorrow, I'm going to type your name in and see what happens.


Monday, September 17, 2007

September is the hardest month

I'm secretly doing another pitch-per-day for September.


It's not so secret now.

But I have been secretly doing another pitch-per-day wherein, I think you can work this out but still, I pitch to someone or some thing every day in the month. What you might not twig is that I do mean every day, weekends and all. What I might not be clear about is the word pitch: it does include sitting in front of someone talking up an idea, but it's also an email approach to a producer, a script submitted, a lead followed, a competition entered and so on. The secondary purpose is to keep working at getting my material out; the primary purpose is to keep getting material so that I have something to pitch.

This aspect is working well.

But September is proving to be much, much harder than anticipated. For instance, I've only the vaguest idea who I'll approach today, no idea at all for tomorrow. And looking at the list so far I can see I've earned three leads out of 16 pitches and no rejections at all so far.

Only, I haven't entered any competitions whatsoever. Haven't found any. When I did this for the first time back in March I had entered four by this stage. I'd also approached five agents. (I have a literary agent but not a script one.)

Know any good competitions?

But I truly recommend trying this month-long kind of thing. Just probably not in September.

Yet when the clock's ticking toward midnight and you haven't pitched yet, you do get amazingly creative and find people to email that you might not have done in other situations. I've often heard that you should annoy people by pitching a lot, but I'm terribly British so there are many people I've assumed I've burnt my bridges with. One fella I rate highly never replies but I passed him once in Television Centre when he was drunk and saying I couldn't be as squeaky-clean as I appeared, so there. I pitched an email to him last night.

But what about today? I need - hang on, it's the 17th; one, two, I need 14 more places/contests/people to hit. Any ideas?


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This just in: how to write a thriller

ITV's just emailed out a press release about The South Bank Show: the edition on Sunday 30 September will be about thriller novelist Ken Follett.

I've not read his books but I'm interested in this both because I am a novelist but also from a production point of view: how will they make typing look visually compelling for an hour?

The text of the release is below. As for about 10 seconds was my to-do list for this morning which I have of course deleted now. Because I haven't done any of it and we're ticking on to noon.


Ken Follett...The Making of a Bestseller is a South Bank Show that has filmed the internationally acclaimed thriller writer Ken Follett for over three years as he worked on his latest title: gaining a unique insight into what it takes to write and sell a bestseller.

The film joins Ken Follett as he goes about researching his sequel to his most successful book ever, Pillars of the Earth, which was about the building of a cathedral in Britain in the Middle Ages. The new book World Without End looks at life in the same town two centuries later when cracks appear in the cathedral and the Black Death arrives to decimate the population.

The South Bank Show follows Ken Follett to York Minster, to the medieval bridge in Exeter, to the monastery of Mont St. Michel, and the site of the battle of Crecy in northern France where the English won a great and unexpected victory over the French.

Over the three years, Ken Follett was filmed as he travels to New York to discuss his work and various drafts, in detail with his agent and adviser Al Zuckerman. He talks to experts in the various fields for his research including York Minster’s historian John David, Black Death Postponed author Samuel Cohn and Battle of Crecy expert Marian Livingstone.

The film reveals inside the world of high stakes publishing, with internal meetings discussing World Without End with Ken Follett’s English and US book editors; and the publicity, marketing and art design teams.

The making of an international bestseller.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


The other week I delivered a short piece to Radio Times about a 1956 production of David Copperfield. It was for my regular On This Day bits and there was no question in my mind that this was a worthy entry because according to the RT of the day, this 13-part serial was the first time the BBC had devoted so much time to one story.

Or something, I can't remember if that was qualified, whether it was the first 13-part classic serial. But it was something, and it was written by Vincent Tilsley, whose name leaps out at me because he wrote for The Prisoner.

Only... tonight a fine, fine woman who is really smart at spotting problems a thousand miles off at Radio Times did some of that there spotting. David Copperfield, by Vincent Tilsley, was not broadcast in September 1956, it was in January 1966.

I am not above making colossal mistakes, of course, and I was pale-faced aware of how calamitously late this spot was, how impossible it would be to fix before that page had to go to press.

I'm the laziest man you'll ever meet but I blurred tonight. And the reason I'm able to talk to you now is solely that I own a copy of the Kaleidoscope Television Drama Research Guides. And it showed me the truth: Vincent Tilsley wrote two David Copperfield serials, one in 1956 and one in 1966.

Both were for BBC, both were 13-parts long (though the former was 13x30minutes, the latter 13x25) and there was no other connection between the two. So do you think he just got to dust off his 1956 scripts, crop five pages out and hand it over?

Either way, he wrote considerably more than I did on the topic: my On This Day was about ninety words. Nonetheless, I expect his work then required whisky as much as mine did today.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Shock - I'm in Radio Times

What do you mean, I work for the magazine? And the website? Somehow there's a big difference being in the magazine and being in the magazine: my podcast show is featured on the mag's radio pages.

It's just a short mention in this week's new issue and I wouldn't have expected to be so thrilled but after years of writing for the magazine, including plenty on the radio pages, this is me getting into the mag's radio section for a show I make. Specifically for a show I write: I would hope you can never tell UK DVD Review is scripted but it is and that's one reason I do it. After all, if you want to write scripts, practicing with a 100-odd of them and doing them every week without fail is quite educational.

Before you ask, yes, I knew I had a chance of getting in there. But that podcast page has been in the mag for a year, if this were only because I work for RT wouldn't I have been in before now?

And I didn't know it would be in this week's. Hence a mad dash yesterday morning to create a page for the address they'd given. If you'd like to see what awaits curious Radio Times readers, here's the temporary new podcast page


Friday, August 24, 2007

Picture this

Just came across this, a New York Times blog about photography. Well, it's headlined as a blog but it reads as an essay, what I used to know as a think piece. What's happened to think pieces?

This one fascinates me and the reason I want to point you at it is because of its unstated relevance to journalism and writing. It's a photography essay but it isn't about f-stops and lenses, it's about truth and lies. Not a simple, overly familiar tract for or against Photoshop, it posits that truth exists only outside the picture: it's in the context, not the image.

Blog writer Errol Morris, who's a filmmaker by the way, says it much better than I do.


Who'd want to be a writer?

Have you seen this? Reportedly 10% of Britons dream about being a writer, according to a new YouGov survey. That makes writing the most longed-for job in the UK, but what do you think is the second most popular?

It's "Sports Personality".

Now, I'm wary of reading too much into this because I don't know how the YouGov poll was done: just to make the data manageable, I would expect there was a specified list to choose from rather than it just being open season. (An example aside. Olive magazine ran a poll recently covering twenty-odd topics such as favourite chef, best cookery book, and so on. But because the answers were all free text, I got hired for an entire day to sort out the results. Best chef, for instance, would have several thousand answers and no way to sort out G Ramsay from Gordon from Sweary Bloke from Gardin Romsory other than by eye. I got statistically significant and provable results from about 19 of the 20 questions; one of them was impossible because of how they'd done it like this.)

So maybe it was YouGov that set up tick boxes for Writer, Sports Personality and so on. I hope so. I don't like it if it's true, but the alternative bothers me because of that word personality. Either YouGov or its respondents chose sports personality over, for instance, sportsman or woman. The personality aspect appealed more than the prospect of getting your teeth punched out in rugby. It's almost hard to believe.

That word colours what I think of all the results, which by the way continued with pilot, astronaut, and event organiser in that order.

You're ahead of me, aren't you? This isn't about work, it's about glamour. Writing is a glamorous job and The Guardian's coverage of this poll suggests that JK Rowling's success has a lot to do with that image, especially with women. I understand that yet it almost feels like it's reducing her effort somehow. Her success, if you think of the glamorous side, is being interviewed everywhere, praised through the roof and earning a lot of money. But when I think of her, I think of her work: those years of writing, that sheer bloody hard slog and the way to stay creative and imaginative and fun when dealing with that weight of storytelling. I admire her, I have no idea what she's earned from Harry Potter but I hope it's a lot and I am sure she really did earn it.

It's not as if I'd turn down an interview, it's not as if money wouldn't ease a few problems, but that's not what I think of when I think about writing as a job. And I never think of being a sports personality because that would surely involve some sports. Though I did discover an unexpected knack for pool this week.

Perhaps I'm naive, or perhaps this is all just another way of commenting on the notion that people seem to want fame and don't have any interest in what form it takes. I got really narked the other week, hearing Jade Goody talk about her career: how can she apply that word? What work has she done?

But on occasion I have been told by people that they would love my job. Given that I wouldn't change what I do for the world, I am still invariably surprised that they say this. Perhaps that's all I'm thinking tonight over this poll, why would you want to be a writer?

Here's what I think writing is. Imagine when you were in the kitchen this morning, you heard a joke on the radio so good that it made you choke. And all you could think of was that you've got to tell it to the friends you're meeting tonight in the pub.

And they don't get it. "Right, good one. Great. Really. So who do you think will win Big Brother?"

You've had this, you can feel what it's like. But now imagine the same thing with one difference: you didn't hear the joke on the radio, you made it up. And they didn't like it.

And now one last change. You still made up the joke, you still went to tell these people but they're not friends, they're editors. And this wasn't a spontaneous gag you thought up, it was your job to find something funny and the fact that they don't laugh directly affects whether you can pay the mortgage.

That's what I think writing's like.

Mind you, you do get to work at home a lot.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Holby blues

So I'm thinking that I gave you the impression I'm rubbish at interviews, is that right? Given that you know the truth is always going to be somewhere in between, may I offer some anecdote about when I've been good at the job?

Because I actually am - or at least I am enough times that I can vividly see when I am not. Obviously I'm thinking primarily about work but something I'm also proud of in everyday life is that I am often able to see and to ask that certain right question. The question that nobody else has thought of and yet which the moment I've asked it, becomes the question everybody should've asked. That's an amazing feeling.

I get it a lot with my family, too. It's terribly gratifying to derail an entire conversation with one innocent little question that re-paints the whole topic. As you can imagine, it's only me who finds it fun, but there you go, you have to take what you fun you can.

And there is one situation I want to tell you about where I believe I did this but practically nobody else in the room did.

I say room, it was really a ward: I was at a press event once for the start of Holby City and we were in the fictional hospital's wards. (It's filmed in Elstree in a tower block that still holds EastEnders production offices and once housed the Top of the Pops ones. In fact, I'm almost certain it was the TOTP floor that was given over to Holby City. Gutted out, reworked with hospital gear, it's vastly more substantial than any studio set might be and because it's all around you, you start believing you're in a ward. It's many years since I was there but I was talking to an actor doing a regular guest spot recently and she said it's still precisely as odd when you get in the lift in a BBC reception and get out in hospital.)

So anyway, I think I was there representing BBC News Online, maybe BBC Ceefax, and there may have been a dozen more journalists with me. All or most from newspapers. And after a presentation of an episode or various clips, we got an en masse interview with some of the main cast. They'd sit in front of us, we'd sit in a semi-circle and ask our questions one by one.

George Irving was playing Anton Meyer at the time; he played him well and I have a lot of time for the guy but the quickest way to remind you who the character was is to say he's the typical gruff, unpleasant but brilliant surgeon.

You've heard actors say that interviews are just another performance, I'm sure, but with my position somewhere in the middle of the row of journalists, I had plenty of time to watch him act. And he did. Because he played a surgeon, he was asked if he'd ever wanted to be one. Had he learnt any medicine working on the show. Did he see any real operations. There was doubtlessly one about his love life but I can't even make one of those up.

He answered everything graciously, smoothly, giving every appearance of being full engaged with the journalist. But from where I sat, way over here, I believed I could see he wasn't. Don't misunderstand: he wasn't any inch less than professional, friendly, serious, but these were truly trivial questions that you or I could've made up answers to, let alone an actor who'd already gone through similar press events there earlier that same day.

And then it came to me.

I asked him about the way his character was always the scowling, sullen, brooding type: would it be difficult to keep that rigid persona interesting over a long run?

You can guess the answer and all I can really remember is that he gave a good one but what was great was seeing this man's mind switch back on: he was snapped out of the routine answer and into actually thinking about what I'd asked, it was tremendous. And then snapped back into routine by the fella next to me.

That's it. I just remembered that today and wanted to share. Incidentally, Angela Griffin was interviewed at that time and every question was about some boyfriend or romance or something. I talked to her afterwards and said that I hoped she has a happy lovelife but that I'd manage to make it through another day without knowing anything about it. I remember her nodding vigorously and appearing to look forward to what intelligent questions I would have for her.

I can't win 'em all.


Interviewing Stephen Fry

I should really have written this to you before or at least during BBC4's Stephen Fry Weekend but watching it reminded me. When I interviewed Stephen Fry for Radio Times about two years ago, everybody at the magazine treated me as if it were my very first interview with anyone. And here's the thing: so did I. 

Once a group of us counted how many words we'd actually had published: I can't remember theirs or how exactly we were able to work it out, but mine was closing in on a million and this would've been in the early 1990s. So I'm not inexperienced. And RT knows that well, I've had a lot of praise from editors on that over the years and I have written some good, strong pieces. But I suppose this was Stephen Fry.

And I suppose you don't often get to interview people you admire; I can only think of three people now. Dar Williams was a treat, I liked her even more after interviewing her. Trevor Eve, not so much. Well, actually so much that I'm surprised to say I ever did admire him. Maybe I just admired Shoestring.

And Stephen Fry.

Well, actually, I also interviewed Alan Plater in the mid-1980s and he was and remains a favourite writer but he's also a pal now so I kind of forget I ever did that. And you, plainly, when we've spoken I've been a bit tongue-tied but I've hid it well, I think, and I won't embarrass you by singling you out now.

Lots of people at RT told me I'd be okay, it'd be fine. One man said the trick to interviewing Stephen Fry was to ask a question and hit record on your tape. When the tape runs out, thank him and go. Not to nip ahead too far here, but that was pretty close to what happened: the man can spew. So can I, for that matter, but I don't sound like I had six weeks notice of your question and had researched it: his answers were all very fast but very considered and, to be honest, probably stronger than the questions really warranted.

I was asking him something about smart TV: he'd just been voted the cleverest man on the telly by readers of poll and my questions had to fall into two types: 1) how does that feel? 2) er, what else can I ask about and still stay on the topic?

Oh! I forgot this bit, seriously it's only just come back to me: I specifically was ordered not to ask that first part until the very end. It was thought, it was feared, that he'd be either too modest or just too unhappy with the poll to talk very much. And in the end he was extremely modest, very self-effacing and yet able to convey exactly the but-it's-really-nice that made me feel I was doing good.  But it meant I had to build up to that and I know we talked about what you might call smart TV, and what you'd definitely called dumbed-down TV. 

And I think I might as well have been on my first interview. I swear to you that it was because his answers were so good that I let him talk and talk but when I play back the tape it sounds like I'm simpering. And when I did interrupt him to steer the conversation somewhere else, my memory was that he'd said "Please do" (or something) and that it was the first time this had really become a conversation. But, again, listening back, he says "Please do" and it's more like thank-God-he's-asked-a-question-at-last. There's a chance I'm projecting.

Similarly, there was a point where he was making an analogy between dumbed-down television and health & safety rules. "Got to stop you there," I said. "My wife is a health and safety inspector." (Which she is, except when she's teaching jewellery-making. Have a look at her jewellery site.) And if you'd asked me ten minutes later, I'd have told you I just made Stephen Fry do an about-face on a topic.

Ask me the next morning, again after the tape, and no. He was slightly more complimentary to HSE but basically carried on precisely the same line: that companies use health and safety as an excuse for the most ridiculous things. I can't disagree, I don't want to disagree: remember all that stuff about HSE banning conkers in schools? Utter nonsense: the head of the school did it and blamed HSE. 

He said in one part of this BBC4 weekend that he's at pains to make people like him, that he goes to probably unhealthy and definitely unnecessary lengths to win you over. I was won when we nattered about iPods before starting the interview and much later when we were at his RT photo shoot, he gave me an including kind of look. I can't fault the man, I do like him, I continue to admire his writing just as much as I ever did.

But I can't see him without thinking I did a poor job and being very disappointed in myself. I did a rubbish job with Dar Williams for that matter: I think the interviews with her went well and I really enjoyed them but I never found the spine for the feature that followed so it reads a bit wet.  I've done a phone interview with Hugh Laurie too. He thought I was an idiot but was far too polite to say so.

So, conclusion 1: I should practice my interviewing more. When are you available? And conclusion 2: never listen to the bloody tape afterwards.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Decaf untempered schism

Red ready to read

Right then, that's my Red Planet ten pages written. How're you doing with yours?

I've also just written up my next Radio 4 proposal. Twice a year, by long tradition, I pitch something to Radio 4 and they turn it down. They like to kid. And while I'm not trying to knock my chances, straight statistics are against me and if I didn't love Radio 4 so much I'd look for an easier life.

But there is an unpalatable fact, or at least there has been for me, in these offers rounds. I can't remember how many I've been through, I could tell you a couple of horror stories along the way, but each time you do have to come up with something new. Many, many Radio 4 producers tell me this isn't true: they've often liked an idea of mine enough that they've recommended putting it up the next time. But if you're in this position, don't waste your shot: no matter how much the producers mean that today, when the next round comes by, your once-failed piece will be up against brand-new, exciting offers and there will be an inescapable whiff of staleness about yours.

I'm not saying you should abandon an idea forever; there's one I swear to you is not only good, not only perfect Radio 4, but also impossible to do anywhere in the world except on BBC Radio 4. My producer on that one still speaks fondly of it and has faith it will get somewhere. Sometime.

But actually, none of the ideas I've ever put forward are that bad. Usually I hate something the second I've entered it, and certainly when it's been rejected. And yet unless I'm mentally blocking out the worst ones, which is far from impossible, then a quick mental flick through the back catalogue is quite encouraging. Plenty of things I wouldn't do the same way now, lots of topical stuff that wouldn't fly today at all, but good and smart ideas.

And that's the unpalatable bit. Many times I honestly think R4 should've gone for a piece of mine - I did get a message back from an editor once saying that she regretted not commissioning me - but each time they reject you the pressure mounts to do better next time. And each idea I pitch is genuinely better than the last.

So I've been in a strop the last month or two, prevaricating over Red Planet, fretting over a book, worrying that I can't cap the R4 idea I tried last time.

But I think I have. It's actually far too early to say that, I've just written a one-page pitch and not a single page of script. But I can hear that script in my head and in reaching to do better, stronger, deeper, I have just ended up with a paragraph that chokes me.

Of course you might read it and only be able to smile politely while backing away, but I've never before gone for choking and it feels like when I move up a level in Scrabble on my Mac. Harder to win, yes, but the easier levels have irrevocably lost their appeal.

I cannot decide if this is a good or bad thing.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Yellow pencils

I miss 'em. Yellow chinagraph pencil in your teeth, offcuts of tape round your neck, and the total certainty that there is a wonderful edit in your hands if only you could find it.

Computers have ruined handicrafts, haven't they?

But may I boast at you about something? I can boast because it's not remotely important but I think it works so sweetly. And it's this: at 4'37" into this week's UK DVD Review podcast there's a clip that segues between two totally unrelated films that, for just a moment, you'll think were made for each other.

And, sorry, that link goes to my website's podcast page rather than directly to the audio because I also want you to see the photograph. It has no connection to anything, but I like it. Central Park, New York City, 2005.

Still got Suzanne Vega thumping away in my head,

Friday, July 27, 2007

Beat it

I need your help: I've either discovered a stunning secret to writing or I'm Joe 90.

Any chance you find this yourself? Do you absorb things, do you for instance write better dialogue immediately after watching The West Wing? Or better gags, better pacing rhythm after a Sports Night? And do you growl at people in lazy Klingon after Star Trek?

I'm almost serious. On the one hand I find it very hard to read fiction when I'm writing my own prose yet on the other I really can come away from something fired up. I've been doing the reading-ten-pages business, the suggestion that in preparation for entering the Red Planet contest you read the first ten pages of scripts you like and it happened that the one I looked at earlier tonight was The Bourne Identity by Tony Gilroy. Couldn't help myself, though, I watched the film again.

Had a long day, had a long week, but was sufficiently fired up by it to come back to the keys now.

'Course, the intent of writing up this scene that's been floating around my noggin' for a week has rather fallen by the wayside because I'm talking with you so I'd best go do that. But if I am an empty vessel that absorbs and moulds itself to the shape of anything I've just watched, I should do myself a showreel tape of the best things I can find. And play it a lot.

Just a thought.

Well, not just a thought, also a prevarication. Did I mention that I bought the Suzanne Vega album? Played it through twice without it making a single dent in my head - until a couple of days later when I realised I was humming half the tracks on it. Have since looped it incessantly on my iPod and am adoring it to the point of hating it.

Sometimes I think it's tiresome, even depressing, that the things I do to relax I can never relax to because I'm too aware of just how hard they were to make. But let's just crank up iTunes as high as it'll go, switch to my "Loud" playlist and get back to writing to the beat. Here come the drums, and all that.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

News is news

May I show you something? This came up in a discussion I was having about newspapers: it's a quote from the book Yes, Prime Minister - The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. It'd be quick to say this is the novelisation of the TV series but that hides the fact that that books are excellent political satire all by themselves.

But you know the characters from the TV show. So in A Conflict of Interest, Prime Minister Hacker is nervous about how the press will report the latest debacle and Sir Humphrey thinks this is trivial:

"Humphrey knows nothing about newspapers. He's a Civil Servant. I'm a politician, I know all about them. I have to. They can make or break me. I know exactly who reads them. The Times is read by the people who run the country. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country. The Morning Star is read by the people who think the country should be run by another country.

"The Independent is read by people who don't know who runs the country but are sure they're doing it wrong. The Financial Times is read by the people who own the country. The Daily Express is read by the people who think the country ought to be run as it used to be run. The Daily Telegraph is read by people who still think it is their country. And the Sun's readers don't care who runs the country providing she has big tits."


Monday, July 23, 2007

Pitching in

I've had trouble describing this blog to people - and they've had no problem at all describing it back. I suppose I asked for that. But seemingly I crave order in my life so can I explain what this has become so you know what to expect? It was supposed to support my local podcast, UK DVD Review, but that never happens because the show's doing so well without my yapping.

So it has become a mishmash and while I like that I can talk to you about anything, and I say again that you have that kind of face, you just make me open up, I'm firmly setting out my stall now. I do journalism, criticism, photography and radio work for a living; I'm trying to do more of each of these and also very firmly to build on the stage writing success to do more scripting. So this blog is going to be about journalism, criticism, photography, radio, scriptwriting. This doesn't clear much up for you, but I feel I understand me better now.

And so can, hopefully usefully, immediately give you directions to somewhere else. Have a look at this New York Times article, published today, about Fade In magazine's pitching session. Pay your money and you get to pitch to the great and the good, or at least the assistants of the great and the good. NYT paints it as hell on Earth, for both sides, but there's enough positive about it and also the practical sense that you may pitch badly today but this will help you pitch better tomorrow.

It's possible that you may have to register with New York Times to read the piece.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Rock follies

ITV1's forthcoming drama, Rock Rivals, will feature an ending chosen by public vote: it's Strictly Come Drama Idol Academy by Shed Productions, maker of Footballers' Wives and more. There's more about it on BBC News Online where, incidentally, you will see that NOL's picture budget isn't what it was: they have a shot of star Michelle Collins, but it's a library one of her with a Dalek.

Anyway, I'd like now to do the Critic's Trick.

It goes thisaway. I haven't seen a single frame, I haven't read the script, I don't know the story, and still I'm going to say to you that both endings will be poor. Or, put it another way, neither will work.

You can call this harsh and I wouldn't disagree. But don't think it's anything against Shed. As it happens, I don't believe there's been a Shed show that grabbed me but I think that's just chance: I like the firm's chutzpah and the lick it has to its writing. I hope Rock Rivals works. You always want a new drama to work. I just don't think this one will.

And this is why. The two endings.

This is always presented as an exciting new idea, every time it loops around, but it's predicated on the assumption that you can have two endings. That the ending is a module you buy in later. Instead, I'm pretty sure you'll agree, the ending is part of the whole: a story, even the most formulaic and predictable, is an organic piece that is building to its ending. Just look at that word: predictable. Even though you might not want a piece to be predictable, part of the reason that it becomes so is that every inch of the tale is pointing in one way.

When a story has enormous shocks along the way, they are usually very effective but they only stay with you, they only truly work when in retrospect they're no surprise at all. I think of this like rubbing your hand over a piece of wood: go one way, against the grain, and you're getting shards of wood cutting in to you, drawing blood, and yet rub your hand back the other way and it's perfectly smooth. Just blood-stained.

So if you build a piece in order to drop in one of a number of endings, either the story doesn't naturally point to that ending or it does point to the moment before the change. It's common to see the penultimate episode of a series being the very best one, just because endings are so tough, but abdicating the ending feels like giving up before you start.

Or how about an example? There was a recent episode of Lewis where I happen to know the ending was changed very late in they day; ITV wanted another twist before the last commercial break or something. I'm not sure what, really, but I know it was changed and when you watch it I swear you can tell the point when it switches tracks.

Two weeks ago I'd have harrumphed now and gone back to work with a so-there. But while I feel as strongly as I ever did about this insert-ending-here approach, I do now have an example that at least suggests I'm wrong. So I'd best tell you, hadn't I?

What if a show could legitimately build to two endings, simultaneously? Whichever was aired, we'd feel the absence of one of them but at least the one that was shown would work. I'm not convinced it's at all possible, but hold that thought. Now, what if a show's ending changed not only what you thought of its beginning but really changed the beginning? If a late decision coloured the start of a story in a way you didn't expect and the makers didn't intend?

It's happened with Doctor Who. Forgive me if you haven't seen the end of the latest series, and if you need to look away now just promise me you'll agree I've made a great point. Toward the end of the final episode, we learn that Captain Jack Harkness is the Face of Boe.

I found that inexpressibly sad. I don't know why: I liked Boe, I like Jack, I was just deeply saddened. And by chance, I caught an earlier episode on UKTV Gold the other day, the episode in which we first see Boe. He's just a figure in the background, he's really almost a joke: he enters with a parade of other startling aliens.

And all I could think of throughout the episode was how the Face of Boe must feel, seeing the Doctor and Rose.

It really made the episode better, but I know the Boe/Jack idea wasn't in place until a little later.

So maybe you can twist a beginning by changing the end. But I'll still bet money that Rock Rivals won't work.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What is point?

Outlining. What is point?

Okay, one line in and I'm already torn: do you recognise the Down the Line reference or don't you? I'm going to with yes, you do, because otherwise you're now thinking my grammar is shot to pieces and this would be a bad thought to give you when I'm about to talking Writing, with a capital W.

Or at least Outlining, with an O.

Previously on this subject: I don't outline. I know where I'm going with a story or I don't. Usually I'm aiming at a point, very often I end up somewhere else. But it works and the worst thing that has happened so far is that I've had to decide to delete 40,000 words. But they were also rubbish words, so I'm no martyr to my cause.

One reason for doing things this way is that my outlines rob the story of any interest for me. And one excuse for not doing outlines is that I am fast enough that even under pressure I've got time to revise things.

But, truth be told, the primary reason is that I know many, many people who first do an outline and then draw up a chart: scenes 7, 12 and 55 are easy ones, I'll do those today; 19, 1 and 13 are toughies. Then they tick off each one as done. Sure as anything, each of those scenes will be fine but they'll also be discrete and separate. I've never known any outline-kind of person to suddenly find the exit moment of a scene and allow themselves to go off early or bring in an entirely new scene. Or allow the characters to do anything except what they'd slavishly worked out before.

Consequently, each scene is complete in and of itself, it has a beginning, middle and end. Only, that means every scene starts, middles along a bit and ends. Put down one scene and pick up the next. Start. Stop. No flow, no energy carrying from scene to scene so no, in my opinion, compulsion. I see this in a lot of UK TV drama: stories are just a sequence of events, none especially more important than the other, at least not to the viewer, and time just passes along nicely enough.

I don't think stories should be full of crashes and incident, bangs and wallops, but you've only got people for a short time so there needs to be a driving force through it. It can be soft seduction, it can be peril, but it has to be alive. And as much as I believe writing is both a craft and an art, I think a too-mechanical approach to it does rob you of impetus and it can kill the story.

So I've been doing this outline, right?

It's for my Folly. I swear I may even name the script Folly. I mean it in the building sense; the way you have rich geezers paying people to build elaborate and pointless towers on their land. I pass one on the drive to London: totally worthless, but nicely made. That seems to be what I'm doing here. But I'm trying to do it quickly so I can get this story out of my head, like a writing exorcise, and get on to the now famous ten page debacle.

So I thought I'd outline.

But there's also the fact that one thing I am actually good at is building sequences. It comes from my radio training, I think, the ability to fashion a small sequence of scenes or clips that play against each other, that bounce you through, that together tell you more than the individual pieces do. And that just keep your interest. And the thing that is so annoying about this Folly idea, the thing that means I've got to get it out, is that I've seen it all as one gigantic sequence. I knew instantly what the entire shape of the tale was and there were myriad (okay, 30) scenes I immediately knew I'd have to do. It's one of those ideas, you'd think of the same 30 moments too.

So I thought I'd outline. Get them all down before I forget any.

I've now done this. I took advice from outliner types, I wrote it all down.

And here's the thing. The notes I made originally of these 30 scene ideas: no matter how I play with this outline or re-imagine the entire story, each one goes straight into precisely the same spot I first thought of them.

My outline is nothing but a nice list of the same points with a few tabs in.

Have I wasted my time outlining? Will I end up with the same kind of dead flat story I fear - and do so without gaining anything at all?

You'll never know: I'll never show you the final piece. I mean, it's a Folly.

But I'll confess if I think the end result works or not.