Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Contains emotional intense scenes

On the Mac in my office, there's a half-written review of my 2008. I made some notes on my iPhone too. But here, sitting in front of my PowerBook, I realise one thing: I have too many computers.

And I'll delete all of it because I also realise that there really is only one thing to say: Angela's breast cancer has been treated and, so far as you can ever get anything like an all-clear, the treatment has done its job.

So, see you in 2009?

Okay, well. This time last year I wrote a huge amount about quite a little; it was all success, success and three times success but primarily so that I could then slap you with the news of Angela's diagnosis. I like a punchline. When I thought about the year ahead, rather than just day-to-day and appointment-to-appointment, it was to mentally write the whole of 2008 off. But it's been a stubborn bugger of a year and a great deal of it seems to have been rather successful again, almost as if it's in spite of me.

Well, I say that and I don't believe it: this year I have obviously looked after Angela before anything else yet still I've had three stage play productions, worked on two new magazines, become a finalist in one contest. Plus the annual dance around BBC Radio 4 just seemed to be more fun this time. I won a spot on an invitation-only BBC Writers' Room course.  I did a Doctor Who blog that became the most popular read on the RadioTimes.com website. I shot short films for Radio Times, worked on commercial DVDs, I've had an overwhelming worldwide reaction to a casual aside I made that I might give up doing the UK DVD Review podcast.

And it's all come from pitching every day. Every working day for the year.

It might not have been much: I counted meetings, phone calls, emails, script submissions, contest entries, all sorts of things as being the pitch for the day but I did it. Well, I have one more to do but I suspect I'll manage.

If I'm to be 100% honest, I should tell you that I have also managed to lose a lot of work this year: quite a bit of Radio Times magazine work went away - all for quite fine reasons, all very amicable and fine, but still I do miss some of it. But then you compare the loss of On This Day to the time I had to hold Angela upright in the chair at the GP surgery. How she had a bad allergic reaction to one of the chemotherapy drugs and because I raised the alarm, the entire medical staff ran to her with a crash-cart. You can live without On This Day.

Still, it's been tremendous having readers complain to RT. One woman from Sussex, I think, phoned the reader services department to say she'd seen I wasn't writing the feature and wanted to ask if I were okay.

I used to think that work was everything and, well, I still do. But we're writers, we can handle contradictions: I simultaneously think that people are everything. I said I pitched every day; sometimes I'd forget that was what I was doing. The people on Doctor Who Adventures magazine, for instance, are just so nice I amble over to see them when I can and probably I ought to be bringing ideas, I ought to have had a Pitch In Mind. Often enough I have, I suppose, but usually it's an amble. Similarly with Radio 4, I think: there are producers in R4 whose work is fantastic and I just enjoy talking with them. Radio's a funny world: I did have a proper pitch meeting with a radio producer and it looks like I will get the work I was after, but the best bit was nattering about radio in general. For a couple of hours.

Which is what I'll end up doing with you if I don't shut up. I did just write you a few hundred more words about all the great things that have happened with my work this year, but let me skip: in so many ways, and for so many obvious reasons, I'm ready to move on from 2008.

But some years won't let you go easily. Like 1983. Follow: I went to the Longleat Doctor Who thing in 1983 and this week I learn from a DVD feature about it that there were 70,000 people over the two days of the event. If you don't know about this event, Who writer Paul Cornell described it only mildly-jokingly as Doctor Who's Woodstock.

Now of those 35,000 each day, I'm on the 25th Anniversary DVD of Doctor Who: The Five Doctors. Imagine my jaw flapping about as I watched this DVD a few days ago. Have a look:

I have rarely had so much hair. Or a duffel coat.

Normally, I've got to tell you, I don't like photographs from that long ago. I'm not keen on one taken 20 minutes back. But seeing myself at Longleat like that, so unexpectedly, I don't know: I'm just sure that the me back then would be pleased at the me I am now.

Though if we could've just had a natter, I'd have told me to tell me to hurry up. And to get Angela's breast examined earlier.

That's the reason I'm glad to be done with 2008. But I'm also looking forward to 2009 for all the work that's ahead of me - and because I'm going back to New York City in May.

Have a good new year,

PS I figured out Blogger's location-aware bits. And how to make it lie.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Location aware

I'm in a cottage that would suit Wuthering Heights - well, bar the wireless broadband, the Sky Freesat and a kitchen to dine for - but otherwise, Bronte territory. Well, I say her territory, it's actually the Lake District.

Okay, I'm in a place called Stone Cottage but whirling around outside is a storm the like of which Cathy would feel at home. The view out of the window is the same as the view inside: the night is so dark the windows are like mirrors. And they got that dark around 4pm this afternoon.

It's only December 15 but since I'm on a holiday that has been planned all year, that is something Angela has been looking forward to all year, and since it's been a chemotherapy-laden year, I'm now so relaxed that I feel 2008 is over. It helps that I just did an end-of-year edition of UK DVD Review.

For which I've got to thank all the listeners who came on: I've thanked them personally but they're so good on the show, they should be shouted about here. Have a listen to them all in the best edition I've done all year.

What's great for me is that while you only hear a minute or two of each person, I got to have a great blather with them all. In each case I could've played out twice as much as I did, it was difficult to slice in and out to keep the show flying.

In one such conversation, Richard Smith brought up the topic of how I apparently sound as if I'm talking just to you, not to some large group. I think that's the greatest compliment I can remember: it's how I believe radio should be done, it's how I think it's best and why radio is so great, and it's of course what I always aim for.

Can't bear the zoo format where a presenter has a posse and we're blessed to be listening in. Even when there is a pair of presenters, it's rarely good for me. In the eighties there was suddenly a fashion for TV shows to be fronted by two hosts who, basically, told each other what was going on. I could never watch that without thinking the other fella should've paid more attention in rehearsals.

Anyway, I slugged this entry Location Aware. Do you know the term? Obviously you understand it but it happens to be what iPhone applications are called when they do something that requires them to know where you are. The great Vicinity, for instance, uses GPS to check where you are and then offers you lists of the nearest banks, restaurants, hotels, endless other things.

And now Blogger is location aware. Hang on, I have to press a button.

Oh. I pressed it. Has anything happened? I'm in Patterdale, Cumbria, and you may or may not see a map of this. I'm not excited yet.

This relaxing lark is so complicated.


Friday, December 05, 2008

"Mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane"

That's a quote and a half of full cream milk, isn't it? You'd put it on a sweatshirt if it didn't need XXL to get all the words on. That may not remain a problem for me for as long as I'd hope.

And there's a way to find the words "vast inane" a little insulting. There's a way to find "dangerous heights" a little cocky. But right now, as I'm working on end of year stuff and so getting all reflective, it's hard not to think of 2008 as having seen some serious career climbing progression. Normally, I would be shrugging at you about now: my own mother does not maintain a chart of my progress, why would I imagine you'd be interested? It'd be nice if she did. Anyway.

Part of it does involve getting into the finals of the Red Planet contest. And there won't be news on that until next year so there's plenty of exciting pratfall potential in any boasting I might do about getting this far. That's one thing.

And there's that quote, "mounting to dangerous heights and travelling into the vast inane", which is an old favourite and which you are a wee bit intrigued about. I like the unintended sense of it that achievement is ridiculous, that perhaps we choose what we call achievement and that this, the choosing, is part of our great inanity.

It doesn't actually mean any of that. Talk about reading things into something.

The quote is really from Pao Phu Tao by Ko Hung - I can hear you go "Ah!" - and it is believed to be the earliest reference to helicopters, to rotary flight. It was written sometime in the fourth century AD and t'was but a short step from there to Airwolf.

My Red Planet submission is called Wasps and it's set, primarily, in the air with said helicopters and the police people who fly a lot of them. And I didn't realise it until the day I got the email about being in the finals that my very first script, the first screenplay I completed, was also about helicopters. In fact, if Wasps ever went to series, the things that have to happen in episode 2 happened in The Strawberry Thief some years ago.

I need you to know that no piece I've written in between these two has featured helicopters at all. I'm not, well, strange about them. I have flown them, but rotor time is so expensive I can't claim the lessons I had amounted to much at all. Still, watching the whole world tilt under your feet, and knowing it's your cack-handed use of the controls, that's the most exciting way I've ever had to make myself feel sick. And there was metaphor even in lesson 1: my instructor told me I was a natural at hovering.

Anyway. Red Planet means a huge amount to me because it's precisely, I mean to the nickel, about the type of writing I want to do. I've said it before, if the prize also included a bacon sandwich and an iPhone, I'd be convinced the whole thing was invented for me.

So to get some affirmation, even just this amount, that I can do the thing I want to do, is of course a dangerous height. To have it over a piece whose roots go back that far and which effectively charts my progression as a writer more than my mother does, that's got to have a little bit of a deliciously vast inane.

Funny thing: Wasps is the most commercial thing I've ever written, but it's simultaneously the least. I mean I hope it's high drama but I think it's more low cunning, and if I have better characters and dialogue than any helicopter TV show since Whirlybirds, that's not a bleedin' difficult thing to do. But just putting a helicopter in is expensive. Doing the things I need them to do, priceless.

And the week my best action thriller script ever got this little spot of recognition happened to be the week I wrote my most acutely personal, non-commercial, bitterly felt stage writing. I wrote a piece that was frightening. Not the subject matter or how I was doing it, really, but having this piece inside me and having to get it out, having to. But simultaneously being honestly scared of it. The phone would ring and I'd grab it, glad to escape the writing. And then if the call went on too long, I was frightened that I'd lose the moment and be unable to carry on writing.

I was honestly feeling pale from the writing. And it's funny that I should keep using the word "honestly" because I think that was the thing. It's the most honest, truthful, unpleasantly raw piece I've done. All writing is a peek into someone's soul, or at least into their view of the world, and it's a good thing if the reader catches you bleeding. What I didn't really feel until this piece was that you can do this, I can seemingly do this, I can make a piece so raw it is painful and yet it's fiction. An utter lie.

How can truthful writing be all lies? Ask me last month and I couldn't have told you. Ask me now and I still can't, but I can write it.

So this is why I'm unexpectedly seeing 2008 as a year of dangerous heights. I fully accept that as heights go, it's not that dangerous, that it's less mountaineering and more an exercise step class, but I'm hoping that means 2009 will entail more climbing.

I'd mentally written 2008 off, right back in 2007: I knew the year would be taken up with Angela's chemotherapy. And it's bizarrely great to tell you that now, this moment, she's in the kitchen sorting out a delivery of fish. I loathe fish, I especially hate cooking the stuff, touching it, smelling it, but I did it often enough during the year. What I mean is that she's well enough to stand, that she's doing what she wants to do instead of at times being unable to move. And though there's a way to go, when I think of what some of the chemo drugs could've done, it makes dangerous heights and vast inanes feel smaller. (A single example: one drug she had to take has been known, commonly, to remove all feeling from your finger tips for a decade.)

So. I'm surprised that 2008 went as well for my writing as it has - previously on 2008: Red Planet you know about, this personal honest writing lark too, but also two produced stage plays and one big fat not, also getting new journalism work including on Doctor Who Adventures magazine, which may be my favourite thing of the year.

Now 2009 feels wide open, unbound, unconstrained. If Red Planet would like to hire me on January 1 that would be okay. And, hey, I have the story for episode 2 ready to go.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Now entering Damascus: Please Drive Carefully

You like ebooks, you're an eejit. You think novels on dinky screens are great, you're mad. And now, as of midafternoon today, I am amazed and a little apologetic to say I stand beside you.

I've been reading Pride & Prejudice on my iPhone.

Look, it's not like I haven't had a go before. The idea of thousands of books where you had one before is simultaneously great and awful: I rather love having thousands of books. And no ebook reader has ever made me forget what a bleedin' tedious phrase "ebook reader" is. Just let me have the damn book, okay?

And Amazon's Kindle. Whose fault is that? I hear the screen is good, but it takes an age to turn a page and I read really, really and I'm going to say it a third time because at my reading speed this sentence is nowhere near long enough, really fast. Seriously: I never speed read, I do no trickery, I just happen to read at 600 words per minute. Back in the day, I used to type at 120wpm. You can imagine how handy this is in my game.

But this just means I am not even all that happy with turning real pages in real books; until I'm into it, that's another interruption, another distraction. With the Kindle, apparently you touch a corner of page and it gets around to it in its own time.

But then, the Kindle may be the ugliest device I've ever seen. You cannot, cannot hold even the display models I have and not put them right back on the shelf, thanks, goodbye, is that the time really?

Mind you, is 1970s crap the new black? I watch those TV ads for the DS Lite and I'm embarrassed: the graphics are right up there with BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum ones at best. Celebrities play with these pieces of plastic and try not to look ashamed. Go ahead, look ashamed: there are some feelings one has to be true to and playing with plastic that Mattell would've rejected in 1944 is one of them.


I read a lot on my iPhone. I mean, a lot. An awful lot. At the least I read several hundred news stories a day via the news reader Manifesto. (Link opens up the App Store in iTunes.) And as dispiriting as it is to to see 1,780 or more unread artlcles sometimes, it's a bit more dispiriting to read 0. I get itchy. I'm on a train, I've read everything I have to read and there's either not enough battery power left in my iPhone to watch a movie or there are plenty enough people looking like they'd take the phone off my hands, no questions answered, I get itchy.

And Stanza is free from the App Store.

In the space of an afternoon, I'm converted. You don't expect me to say it's better than reading a book, but I didn't expect to be saying that it's good. I was lost in Pride & Prejudice the story, it was invisible to me that I was holding an iPhone and tapping for the next page. No scrolling, just a light tap and you move on. And it moves so fast that it doesn't delay me and my freakish reading speed.

This reminds me of when online bookstores were just coming along. The big argument was that they could never replace real bookshops and as we've seen the answer is that nope, they didn't. They didn't need to, either: you could now have a really good time browsing the world for books online, you could have a really good time in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop too. It became two lots of really good, and I like really good.

I expect you're partial to a bit of really good, too.

So there you go. This morning, never! This evening, ooh, what would Jane Austen say about this then?

Fortunately, we know the answer. From Austen's own private correspondence we can hear the woman herself speaking across all these years to ask about battery life on the iPhone and doesn't the Kindle look so very 16th Century?


Monday, December 01, 2008

The Simpsons get an Apple Store

What do you mean, I've had my head down writing, everybody's already seen this? It is spreading like bejaysis, but only because it's very good: Springfield Mall gets an Apple Store.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Seeing Red

In the new tradition of short gurgling entries, as championed by Jason Arnopp, I'm a finalist in this year's Red Planet Pictures screenwriting contest.

I've said it before and I won't half say it again now, but this is the best television writing competition I've ever seen.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Two minutes back

Laurence Timms and I have been blathering about Sports Night in the chain of comments to my last entry, Special powers and this is not uncommon. I'm a blatherer. And this was about Sports Night. I occasionally pause to wonder at how deeply I can adore that series when I simultaneously have zero interest in sports. Any sports. All sports.

Does that tell you how good the show must be? I hope so. But one thing it tells me, and one thing Laurence and I have been discussing, is how remarkably well it conjures up the feeling of making a live broadcast. (It's a comedy by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin about the people who make a late night sports TV show.)

It'd be easy to say the show conjures up the excitement, and I think actually I have said that, but it's much richer than excitement. Pilots have told me they see the world very differently since they first started flying, that it's the same world but more 3D somehow. And I used to live in a Birmingham village where there were many roads leading to a central island and I knew every one of them intensely, except one. I don't know why I didn't know that one, but if I ever did come down it, I would be caught by how the familiar island looked so different.

Sports Night captures that with how the characters react to time. It's like every studio I've ever been in, the way that time becomes a commodity and also loses and gains its duration.

I was in a radio studio on Friday, just visiting a lecturer and her students with a very nice radio facility. Ninety seconds before the 10am news bulletin, nobody was in the studio. And that was right, that felt right. Ninety seconds is an age and every one of those ninety was used in rewriting the news, updating it.

But then after the five-minute bulletin, it was hard to give up the time for a post-mortem because you were focused on the 11am one instead. Ninety seconds is an age, 55 minutes is nowhere near long enough.

The last time I worked in local radio I did it remotely; just recording items from my own office studio where I make the UK DVD Review podcast. And I'd email the audio over to BBC Hereford & Worcester. I enjoyed that, I love the success of my little podcast - especially now, at this time of year when listeners are voting for their favourite release of 2008 - but Friday was fantastic. Being in a studio, just being there, not even doing anything, but standing in the middle of the rush. Wonderful.

Funny thing. I've described this as if it were solely a radio studio but the students' newsroom fed both radio and television. The TV stuff was fine, looked very good, but it was the atomic clocks and the clean feed audio in the radio studios that won me over.

There's a smell to radio studios; all very clean and neat, but there's a smell you can feel. I was back in there for two minutes, a depressing number of years since I used to work in BBC local radio, and I had that sense, that feel, that smell. You're expecting me to say it was as if I'd never been gone and you're right in a way, I do certainly feel that. But if I hadn't loved, if I didn't love everything I went away from radio to do, I'd be saying now that I'd made the wrong decision.

There's nothing like a radio studio, nothing in the world. Not when it's live or preparing to be live. Not when everything's done for the day, either.

If you've never worked in a radio studio, I hope you get to. And if you have or you do, what's your address and how can I come over?


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Special powers

Here's the thing. And it is a thing. I'm in a stealing mood. I don't know why, I think it's maybe because I just had my first experience of hanging with litigators and winning, baby, winning.

Do you notice how I can't say "baby"?

But I was thinking of doing something bad. It was even bad in two parts. I might go so far as to call it Evil. Well, no, that's too harsh. Call it Evil-.

Evil- part 1: Jason Arnopp said this thing the other week about looking at key drama moments in his blog, really exploring what makes us writers want to write. He hasn't done a huge amount of this yet, though there is this about Apparitions. I would like to steal his idea. Don't copy me. If you do this too, it becomes an internet meme and where's the Evil- in that?

But, wait, Evil- part 2: I was actually thinking of popping something up onto YouTube so that I could point you at it and claim, all innocent-like, that it was a wonderful coincidence that some Evil+ person should rip it off and put it up there at that precise same moment.

Only, someone has. Not this very minute, but not an awfully long time ago. Somewhen back in August this year.

So. They've done the ripping off, I've acknowledged that I'm stealing from your man Jason Arnopp, let's play our game.

If you know me at all, you know the joy of drama for me is in people talking. I might have them in helicopters, I'm not immune to some of yer action, but ultimately it's where two people shouting at each other can take us. And you'll not be surprised that my favourite writers are ones who are hot on dialogue and rhythms of speech, language, such as Carrie Fisher. Wait, I need to stop that sentence for a sec: I'll resume the list of favourite linguistic writers after this public service announcement. I just checked Carrie Fisher's website and it's alright, but it hasn't been updated since the dawn of time. However, she has a new book out any second now so it'll probably get some welly into the site. And if it doesn't, you can just buy her book. If I love writers who play with language, I adore good titles even more. Her book's an autobiography called Wishful Drinking.

I was going to rattle off a lot of names but I can see you're in a hurry. Let me cut to one: Aaron Sorkin. You know this fella for his dialogue. Maybe for a lot of other things, but dialogue and in fact dialogue at speed, right? While walking? If you're thinking of The West Wing, ratch it up a notch and you've got Sports Night. The same lightspeed dialogue exchanges but even faster because the show was only half an hour.

If we met in a bar, and had run out of conversation so much and so fast that you were reduced to asking me what car/vegetable/animal I would be, I would steer you to this topic instead. My favourite Sports Night scene. Please remember that this is a fast, fast show, that its verve and wit and ferociously powerful way of grabbing you is famously down to the dialogue. Now have a look at the opening to season 2, episode 1, Special Powers by Aaron Sorkin. Whoever put this on YouTube put the first ten minutes up but I just want you to watch the top 90 seconds.

Have a look right here.

What did you think? Admit it, you know I meant up to "It's been 90 days" but you carried right on watching.

There is something special about the opening moments of a new season. You need to be confident but not cocky, you need to know you're good and be as good as you think you are. And you need to seduce people in. The very first episode of Sports Night did it with a smash-bang start, throwing you right into the action, but this second run took 45 seconds before there was any dialogue at all. Without commercials, the show runs 22 minutes and Aaron Sorkin chose to take 90 seconds before there was any meaningful dialogue. And this in a show where every script typically ran 20 pages longer than standard because of the volume of dialogue.

I think that's quite brave, I think it's quite wonderful. And I'd forgotten that while he subverted expectations of what Sports Night would be like, Sports Night itself was subverting what sitcoms were meant to be like. This is less obvious now because so many shows work the same way but in its day (1999/2000) this was a multi-camera sitcom yet done like no other had been. Sports Night looks like a film, not another variant on the I Love Lucy standard three-wall set and four-camera shoot.

For instance, watch that first shot again of Casey McCall (Peter Krause) throwing paper into a bin: you know, you just know it took a hell of a long time to get that looking so perfect. But now name any other sitcom of the period that would spend the effort.

I'd like to know if you hadn't seen the show before and yet this drew you in: when I saw that clip I'd already seen 20+ episodes so the relationship it was describing was very familiar to me. I think it works regardless, but you can never unwatch something to find out.

The clip also has that music, She Will Have Her Way by Neill Finn. I watched the episode on the new DVD set and then rewound it, pointed my iPhone at the screen and tapped on Shazam to find out what the music was and buy it over iTunes. Normally I don't rate Aaron Sorkin's music choices; they're often superb but equally often just a bit smaltzy for me. But here, I'd never heard the track before and I've heard it an awful lot since.

Aaron Sorkin has got dialogue, yes, but he's got pace and rhythm too. I find it very hard to slow down, it's as if I want to throw things at you until you like one. But I'm consciously taking a breath, looking for the visual way to showcase dialogue, the way to lead you in to a story in as fresh and new a way as I can, looking to steal an approach and an idea I admire greatly.

Listen, whoever did the YouTube thing, you know they put the whole episode up, doncha? Watch it if ye may, but then buy the DVD set, okay? Some 40-odd episodes and it's a gem.

Hang on, I started this hours ago and kept nipping off to check out Carrie Fisher websites for you. (The others I was going to include were Paul Auster, Dar Williams, Suzanne Vega, by the way.)

I think someone's stolen my evening. How did they do that?


Monday, November 10, 2008

There's one born every... what?

Okay, you can tell this isn't going to be my most precise piece of maths since I wrote a feature on how to model the UK economy in Excel*. And perhaps the first clue to how many decimal places of accuracy I'm aiming for will come when you reach the word "Wikipedia".

Wikipedia - that didn't take long; I thought you'd trust me at least a little longer - says the world's population is growing at 75 million people per year. Now, I make that 0.007 people every minute. So that's 1,428.6 minutes per person. Most people will tell you it takes three minutes and nine months to make a person, but you heard the truth here first: it's 23 hours, 48 minutes, 57 seconds.

Now, that leaves you 11 minutes and 3 seconds to relax at the end of the day, but that's not what I'm looking for.

Instead, there's a news report today saying that spam email senders get one response for every 12.5 million emails they send.

And I can't join the dots. I so want to be able to say to you that therefore this means there is one sucker born every 9.7 seconds or something, but I've got one statistic in this hand, the other in that one, and I can't bring the two together. I think that part of it is that I'm missing an episode here, we don't have a comparative time basis for the two: do I need to know how long it takes 'em to send 12.5m emails? I think I do. I think I need to know how many they send per annum to conclusively figure it out.

Unless you know better. And can now take part in this Build a Reasonably Pointless But Faux Informative Punchline contest that I've just decided to come up with.

People, I got CSE grade 1 Maths: I'm far from proud of this, but I'm just saying. Any help welcomed.

*PS I really did do that, model the UK economy in Excel version 5. I think I've told you this before, but the economy's been on my mind a bit recently, I've been carrying some worry about whether my maths in that feature had any impact anywhere.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Play for today

As soon as you've read this, I'm off: first to various family bits but thence to Leeds and a performance of a play of mine.

Also other people's; it's another festival of new writing, as I'm sure I've told you before. So compared to Innocence it's a very small thing, but then compared to Innocence it's been a much easier and slicker process. I go tonight looking forward to it and I'm grateful to the theatre because this rounds out my drama year with a good production.

Bit nervous, actually. I always am, now: I thought it would get easier but this is my fourth production and I'm not going to be relaxed until it's done.

I would say that when you're starting out scriptwriting, you get so many rejections that the process becomes a battleground where you're trying to succeed on the page and your audience is the producer, the director, the script editor, the theatre's literary editor. You start to think of your audience as that one person, not the audience you should be aiming for, and your focus is on that A4 sheet, not the final theatre/film/radio production. So when something goes through and will play out in front of a paying crowd, it's terribly unsettling.

I would say that because I suspect it's true. But I also feel the same unsettled surprise over my journalism, which has been going steadily well for a very long time now. This week a reader phoned Radio Times to complain about my absence in the On This Day column but, I'm told, was too shy to speak to me when the that was offered. I had a tremendously chuffing email from a favourite editor. And I've now had so many emails about how I shouldn't drop the UK DVD Review podcast that I am struggling to reply to them all.

All fantastic. A tough year's getting a lot better.

Bugger, I'm late. Could you read faster in future? Off to Leeds we go.


Monday, October 27, 2008

I'm Not That Keen on Lucy...

But I understand other people love her. And even for me, this is a gem: watch the unaired pilot episode of I Love Lucy.

And since it became one of the most enormously successful sitcoms of all time, you just know it had a rocky start.

Via Metafilter.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Quo Vadimus

Here’s a thing. I do radio podcast show, it's been very successful for me, getting into the iTunes top 20 of all podcasts in all categories, worldwide. Startling success. But it's been going for a while, I've done over 160 editions now and I have been thinking it's in the endgame.

Especially since we're approaching the show's busiest time. It's a DVD review podcast but November is heavy with a poll of the year. I'm proud of this: I do not now or have I ever given a stuff that Indiana Jones gets X votes or sells Y copies, I publicly distort the chart by how passionate voters have been. The math is rubbish, the statistical analysis isn't worth a damn, but we get ten DVDs that are each raved about by listeners. Ten DVDs that are their Sports Nights, their Battlestars.

And we do this list together, it's has the feel of a conspiracy between me and the listener, with the aim that it comes out early, say December 10. It's in time for us all to hear a top ten where every entry is there by passion and it's in time for us to buy them for Christmas. I especially love DVDs that I didn't like yet others adored. And then I get the most effusive, persuasive listener on to the show to make their case.

Couldn't love that episode any more than I do.

But it's also off the charts harder to produce than any other edition, and the ones that set up this voting aren't picnics either. For lots of reasons I have been looking at whether it's time to end the show and it'd make a tough couple of months easier if I dropped it now rather than later.

Only, this morning I watched the final Sports Night. And watched it again with the commentary, making me very late. And exactly as Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme were ending, I mean on the second of the last word, my iPhone pinged with an email from a listener saying how much they'd enjoyed my most recent edition.

You send these things out into the ether and though you obviously want listeners, it's such a surprise when you learn there are any. I was talking the other night about the abusive emails I've had, we've all had, in journalism and how it feels as if the senders don't realise there's a real person at the other end. (Because oftentimes I've replied and got back nothing short of an embarrassed "um" kind of reply and an about-face on whatever the topic was.) But maybe I'm the same, apparently I'm the same: as much work as you put into something, the conceptual leap that it might actually get the audience you want is beyond me.

It's much easier to end a show if you don't think it's being listened to. Equally, you can't just extend something beyond its natural life because it has an audience. But equally 2, the sequel, you can't go back. There’s a gag on that Sports Night commentary about now doing a movie of it, and for an instant there I wanted that. But I really don't think you can go back: when it’s gone, it’s gone and anything else you try to do has to be its own self, it can’t ever be part of what’s gone.

It’s not like I don’t get quite a bit of email about the podcast. But this one, coming in a precisely that second when I was lamenting how there was no more Sports Night, it gave me a buzz.

So I don't know if I'll wrap up my show but I'm going to think about it more and not so casually throw it away.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Theatre dates

My "Harvest Festival, PI" leads off the final night of the Carriageworks Theatre's new writing festival.

That would be Saturday, November 1, so if you're in Leeds, come wave. They're saying tickets are selling fast, but that could just be to make me feel fantastic.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Obama, McCain... Bartlet? Roslin?

Entertainment Weekly in the States was asking for your vote on who should be the next President of the United States: Jed Bartlet, Laura Roslin, David Palmer or Mackenzie Allen.

I say was because I thought I was pointing this out to you while there was still time to vote: maybe there is but now I go back to their page, I get neither a voting form nor a table of results. Hopefully your mileage will vary.

If not, let me tell you that when I looked earlier today, The West Wing's Jed Bartlet was winning, I think he had 42% of the vote compared to 32% for his nearest rival. Can't remember who that was. But running third at the time was Battlestar Galactica's Laura Roslin and I voted for her.

I'm wondering if I did that because she's a woman. I think it's cringingly embarrassing that America has never had a woman President and that the UK's only had one woman Prime Minister. But then I completely ignored Commander in Chief's Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis). So maybe it's that I never watched C-in-C, that David Palmer was President on 24 so long ago that I couldn't remember his first name without looking him up. And that Roslin hasn't let me down by being written by someone else after four seasons.

But C-in-C was an interesting example of what I think is quite a new phenomenon in US TV drama: the dizzying height and the dizzying fall, all done at speed. You're used to shows dying, even especially being yanked off the air within a few episodes. But Commander in Chief came out like an instant hit - and then by the end of the first season, it was dying. Joan of Arcadia boomed into life and looked set for a long run which maybe it deserved but somehow nobody bothered tuning in for the second season.

I know that's only two examples but I did have a third until this paragraph. Can't fathom where my head was going. But is it too early to ask if long-running series have had their day?


Okay, well, I only asked. You can be quite cutting sometimes.

I think Jed Bartlet is going to win and it was a joy to read Aaron Sorkin's account of a fictitious conversation between Bartlet and Obama. (You're going to have to explain to me why I used the word fictitious there: when only one character in a conversation is real, it's either fictitious or time to phone for help.) If you missed that, it was in The New York Times.

I write to you with a new monitor on my Mac. Just wanted to share that.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Criticism on toast

I just like the term, I want to share it with you and since I thought it up, I want to say it like this: criticism on toast(TM).

You've had praise sandwiches, we all have. If you've just read the worst script imaginable, and you're obligated to comment helpfully, you find a few good things to say at the top, a few good ones to leave to the bottom, and you try to make the filling in between helpful but thin. When the script is so bad that you just have to get out fast, you use a praise sandwich.

I've been sent many a sandwich. It shouldn't work: as soon as you read an opening line that goes "Your typing is immaculate", you know you're in trouble. Perhaps it's just me, and how I'm a sucker for being praised for my typing (oh, if you only knew I was serious there), but I read this opening line of death and I am simultaneously aware I'm in for a beating but also mollified.

Once I read a script so bad I had to go take a two-hour bath to think up something good to say about it for the bread in the praise sandwich. And I still failed. In the end, I made up something: I said the opening was just like XXXXXX and then I went on to praise XXXXXX for a paragraph instead.

But the other day I got my first of a brand new type of script report, a type I am going to call criticism on toast. Because it went straight in on this doesn't work, that doesn't work, what were you thinking here and this is rubbish. Then it ended with comments about great gags, it praised me on the way out. Without the slightest doubt, this praise at the end was as false as the praise I give at the top and bottom when I don't like something. But because it came last, I liked it and let myself believe it.

If I were cleverer, I'd have written this entry criticising you at the top and then building to the praise you so thoroughly deserve at the bottom. But I'm not, so I didn't.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Things Wot Like I've Learnt a Lot

This coming Sunday's UK DVD Review is probably going to be about comparing Grosse Pointe Blank with what's being called its spiritual sequel: War, Inc.

As I understand it, a spiritual sequel is a sequel in all ways bar any financial or legal ones. And yes, if you watch this new DVD you cannot doubt that its DNA is in Grosse Pointe. Unless you haven't seen the earlier film, in which case you can doubt all you like, doubt with gusto. But I do very strongly recommend that you watch Grosse Pointe Blank recommend you watch it; not so much so that we can discuss and debate, but just so that you can have a good time and not spend your money on War, Inc.

Ooops, given away a bit of the review there.

But for reasons I may jabber on about in the show, I've spent a lot of time analysing and comparing the two films. And I don't want to share any of that with you.

Except this. Because this is about the writing of the earlier, better film. It's something that won't come up in the podcast, but it's something that I've often kept in mind when writing. First, let me explain that this is the story of a hitman going home for his ten year high school reunion and that the film came out in 1997, now let me quote you from the revised first draft of the screenplay, by Tom Jankiewicz, DV deVincentis & SK Boatman & John Cusack:


Martin and Debi enter and pause to take in the entire scene... Alumni are dancing.

ARLENE: Welcome back! I'm Arlene Oslott-Joseph.
MARTIN: I'm Martin Blank.
DEBI: Debi Newberry.

Debi heads off into the gym, smiling back as she strands Martin. Arlene rises. They have little to say. Martin wasn't part of her crowd.

ARLENE: Marty, you haven't changed a bit!
MARTIN: Don't say that.

Arlene gives him a NAMETAG. As a special torture, the tags have YEARBOOK PHOTOS. Martin looks at the name tag uncomfortably.

ARLENE: We had pictures put on, that way everybody knows who everybody was!

I don't like this segment. Part of it is unquestionably because it's not what's in the film and, by whatever mysterious process it is, things that were not in the final cut always read poorer than things that were. Mind you, oftentimes that's why they were cut.

I don't have a later draft of the script so I can't compare the stage directions but if you'll allow me, I'll write my own sufficient that you can see what's going on. Here's how that same scene played out in the final film.


Enter Martin and Debi.

ARLENE: Welcome back Pointers! It's Arlene Oslott-Joseph!
MARTIN: How are you?
ARLENE: I'm good...

Awkward pause: she doesn't recognise them.

MARTIN: Martin. Blank.
ARLENE: Oh, Martin Blank, yes. [PICKS UP HIS PICTURE NAMETAG] My, you haven't changed a bit.
MARTIN: Don't say that!

Awkward pause: she does recognise Debi.

ARLENE: Hi, Debi, just love your show.
DEBI: Oh, thanks, well, you're our demographic.
MARTIN: You got married, Arlene.
ARLENE: Yes I did, and three children. It's really neat.
ARLENE: I had the yearbook pictures put on so everybody knows who everybody was!
MARTIN: Special torture!

Lots going on there that wasn't before, some of which you're not going to get from reading a segment, but what was a flat scene has some life and blood in it.

And most important of all, it takes that "special torture" line and puts it where we can see it.

The very first script I wrote got this comment from Alan Plater (hey, if you're going to ask advice, start from the top): he said that he had laughed aloud at the stage directions but the audience never sees those. When I managed to move the gags into dialogue, he called it a great step for writerkind.

Some day I should get a copy of War, Inc and see if they ignored his advice as much as it seems.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pepperoni on wry

Earlier this week I recorded my first narration for a DVD documentary. Can't tell you what it is yet because I don't think the DVD has been officially announced; as soon as it is, I'll get you a link because hopefully you'll want to buy it. And if you do, of course it's going to be because of me, not the title itself.

I can tell you, quite seriously, that the documentary is first class. I had a really good time playing back an almost-final assembly of the thing and then I had to go ruin it by talking all the way through. Don't you hate people like me?

But if I shouldn't tell you what it is (and I'm going to be honest here and say there is a Very Easy Way to find out and it involves a judicious use of the @ symbol), I can tell you that it's even harder to narrate than I had expected - and I'd expected it to be hard. By the end of the recording, my teeth felt looser, vibrated out of kilter. And I can tell you that of course it's immense fun: could you imagine my finding it dull?

I especially like how I didn't write the script, there was no writing involved at all, my only contribution was my voice. So the other day I get a little success from my photography, then I got news of another play being put on, then I'm a voice guy, and in a kind of mix of prose and picture research, I was today commissioned for a Doctor Who Adventures feature. Am I multimedia or what?

But you're wondering about the subject of this blog. And it's just this. Despite this being a vocal gig, despite all this other non-writing work, a great joy was found in coining a new phrase. I was asked to be more peppy but not hammy so I did it pepperonily.

Feel free to use this term wherever you may.

I'm in a blathery mood this week, aren't I?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Harvest Festival, PI

Call him Harve.

A new short play of mine is being staged at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds in a festival of new writing on the theme of harvest festival. Two nights: 31 October and 1 November.

This is the theatre that did Manhattanhenge for me earlier in the year and I was invited to contribute another piece. It's a smaller event than Innocence but good to have another piece in production - and where the last one had audiences choking a little, this one's (so far) making people laugh.

And though I'm not billed on it - none of the writers in the festival are - I get a poster!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sports Night scripts online

They were going to be online here but now, not so much. I first got into Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night because I'd got into his The West Wing but I did also read some scripts that were unofficially released online. That's happy for me. And every once in a while when I'm back in a Sports Night mood, I'll rewatch the episodes and invariably head for the Sports Night script site.

Until the new DVD came out. Well, no, I headed for the site alright but the site was gone. For weeks now, it's been gone. But today, right now, this second in fact, and of course after I'd found a cunning way to salvage most of the scripts off there, that site is back.

The scripts on it range from early to late or shooting drafts and, especially if you know the series, it's fascinating to see the progress of the stories and the characters. And from a production perspective, to see how huge chunks of story moved around the series before ending up in the episodes they did. The clearest example, and done for the most obvious reason, is the second half of How are Things in Glocca Morra? This is the first-season episode that was being filmed when Robert Guillaume had a stroke in real life. The entire final half of the script moved to a second-season episode instead.

If you're less familiar with the show, I obviously think the scripts stand up as stories on their own but I do recognise that they're harder to read than the average. In every episode there are scenes where two characters, Dan and Casey, are presenting a TV show and are in front of cameras while up to eight other speaking parts are in the control room and any or all can be going between the two. Plus anything the control room people say can be heard by the Dan and Casey if a mic is switched on; anything Dan and Casey ever say can always be heard in the control room. So conversations roam across the two rooms, some dialogue is for broadcast, some is not, it flows gloriously on screen.

And the way Aaron Sorkin and his many co-writers get this on the page is... by ignoring it. You'll see long unbroken scenes where who is talking to whom and who can or can't hear is only rarely covered.

It doesn't help that this script site's formatting of the screenplays is confusing when you're used to real ones. So, what the hell? I managed to get one of the scripts, I spent some time making the formatting readable, lemme show you one anyway.

This is from the second season of Sports Night, it's The Cut Man Cometh by Bill Wrubel and Aaron Sorkin. There are hardly any differences between this draft and the aired version but who cares? It's one of the funniest and also one where I felt the most because it took me right back to disastrous nights in radio.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

New book

This month there were 800 new book titles published. One of them was Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook: it's a truly beautiful edition, a world class idea and a superb read but I choose to leave everyone else to rave about it because I'm not in it.

Whereas I am going to be in Metal Clay Beads: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration.

You're going to have to look quite closely because the truth is that I will get one teeny byline. But it's a photography byline. And this is a US book so I am again published internationally and for my photography.

You don't get to do this kind of thing without help. In front of every great jewellery photographer there is a great piece of jewellery. And I feel like walk-on extra telling you The Crucible is about the guy who brings in a glass of water for the judge because of course this isn't about me, it's about Angela Gallagher. The book is by Barbara Becker Simon but it contains a gallery of the finest jewellery (and photography, come on, throw me a bone here) and Angela's Heath Robinson piece is included.

Fancy a peek? This is how good you have to be to get international recognition in jewellery-making.

Click for a larger image. And to keep you going before the book's published early next year, you could, go on then, do no better in all this land than buy Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale.


House of the Future

You've missed this now but Grand Designs Live was at the NEC. And Sony had a presentation there on The House of the Future: all of the exciting technologies we can all look forward to. Obviously all Sony-based. And presumably all after the credit crunch.

For example, in the bright Sony world, you can have all your music in one place. Never dig out a CD again, just scroll through the cover artwork on a screen and choose what you want. When you put in a CD to copy it into this wonder system, said system will look out across the internet, will cast its eye far and retrieve for you all the track names and details.

If you don't already do this routinely, you're at least expecting me to say that I do. Yes, of course. For years now. And it's because I've got a Mac. Got to tell you, my two-year-old Mac does this stuff vastly more smoothly, easily and without as much bloody fuss than this peek into the distant future of Sony.

I've always recognised that it's very hard, perhaps impossible really, to write about the future. Sony's solved this by being years behind and looking from there, which you have to agree is a cute way around the issue if ultimately unlikely to convince me to buy anything. But otherwise, nothing is ever what you expect in the future, you can't predict successfully, so give up now. This might be a problem for science fiction writers, of which I'm just not one, but I don't think so: SF is only costume drama that's (typically) in the future. Just as Jane Austen isn't dependent on crinoline for drama, Zonk Conquers The Galaxy is so much more than tin foil.

But somewhere along the way, television drama has screwed up the present too.

It used to be that characters on TV were glamorous, that they were in some or many ways aspirational idols. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart seemed so fabulously wealthy in the 1970s. The men and women from UNCLE were chic and sleek, they had their pen-based communicators. The Tomorrow People had their lava lamps.

Then we got computers.

TV characters, and really their writers, were faced with our knowing more than they did, of having more experience with this technology than they did. Drama is drama, I don't care whether Ena Sharples has an iPhone or a BlackBerry, but power changed, attitudes changed. And we began getting these slick characters still acting slick, still now seeming to act superior - possibly not Ena - yet they were using ZX81s to take over the world. It became embarrassing. Countless 1980s and 90s dramas had hacker characters visibly pretending to type, just banging keys at random or sometimes not even actually hitting the keys, while impossible data magically appeared on screen. My beloved Sports Night, as late as 1998, mentioned a website address that couldn't possibly work.

Old Doctor Who rested a plot turn on bubble memory: fine, I suppose, for about an hour in 1981 but there was a smugness that this was cutting-edge, that this was the latest thing. The Doctor even recognising what bubble memory was? I seem to remember knowing what it was at the time but I couldn't recognise it now, let alone see how to use it to save the universe. And there was a 1986 Doctor Who episode where Mel (Bonnie Langford) gasped at the dangerous weapon, a "megabyte modem".

I don't see how you can write that and still be employed.

It's not arrogant when it's true, when you do know something the rest of us don't. When the pilot of The West Wing introduced us to the term Potus, that felt genuinely new. Aaron Sorkin wrote somewhere about being worried about it, whether it was just a new term to him, and that he was talking a chance using it the way he did. (LAURIE: "Tell your friend Potus he has a stupid name." SAM: "I would but he isn't my friend, he's my boss. And it isn't his name, it's his title. President of the United States." Smash into the first episode's titles.)

Knowing something we don't and bringing to us, that's fabulous. But it is is arrogance and so very much more when you don't know what we do yet you carry on patronising anyway.

It's not a pretty thing. TV is still trying to be as aspirational but because it's failing, and failing stupidly, that's what it can look like: it can look and feel and be extremely patronising. It doesn't like looking stupid either, so it wants to tell technical stories - but because it's patronising and superior, it believes we can't understand these same stories. New writers on Casualty and the like will always jump up and down about their great idea for a Tourettes story, for instance. It's great, they say in the certainty that we've never heard of it before, because it's a disease that makes you swear all the time! Then they, sometimes amazingly slowly, put it together that primetime BBC1 is not going to allow a torrent of Tourettes language. So they water it down: he goes around saying Ooops all the time! That's drama!

There's an argument, too, that because we're all so very plainly stupid, our TV heroes mustn't be clever. You can see this in the US Presidential elections too: Sorkin wrote in the New York Times last month about how "The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it".

Consequently, if you're smart in a TV drama, you're inevitably a geek. If you're the one who knows that using Windows will ultimately bring down the entire global financial network, you cannot be the one who can do anything about it. You have to be the one who tells the hero - and the hero must always give you a little put-down for being so nerdy.

So all you have to do is switch over from Bugs, walk away from Bonekickers - that's a different argument but sound advice nonetheless - and don't question Knight Rider very closely, and then all's well. But just as technology has pervaded our lives for a very long time - I got my first email address 25 years ago - so it's invading all dramas. So it should. But then you get things like Casualty.

Last year a little girl held the entire NHS to ransom with a USB stick in Casualty. She was eventually persuaded to plug this 1Gb drive into a USB slot and instantly - instantly - the whole Holby network boomed back into life. Phew. Richard Curtis co-wrote that episode.

The argument, I believe, is that most people won't know what a USB stick is so I should get a life. But if you're going to rest your drama on something you believe most people don't know, how do you expect to involve them? Where are the stakes? What's the human connection if you don't know why these characters are so fussed? Isn't that just as bad as when you know what a USB stick is and therefore know all these characters are utter idiots who have no right to be treating the public?

I love television drama because it involves you. I have a difficulty when it just sits there and tells me I'm an idiot.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Take two blog posts into the shower?

I'm just after being told off for not blogging at you so much lately, and here I am back in seconds with a, well, second.

I may have mentioned this before but if I did, it was to say that there's a type of dialogue I love that I've never been able to write. And I just have. By accident.

It's the line that makes no sense but in doing so, makes vastly more sense than a logical, rational version would. The example I would've given you is Billy Bragg's line about waiting for phone call, "when at last it didn't ring / I knew it wasn't you". What I've just written is a text to a friend. There's something up that she doesn't want to go into, but I wanted her to know we could natter about anything, this problem or just about anything to take her mind off it.

So what I wrote was: "Call if you don't want to talk."

If you think dialogue is just grand oratory or just something to slip in after you're tenth draft of a script, you're wasting your time. Consider directing. Real people talk absolute rubbish to each other, we hardly ever listen and we certainly don't wait our turn in the conversation politely, but in our selfish rubbish we understand each other and we give away so much.

And we also misunderstand, both other people and even especially ourselves and our own motives, plus of course we lie with abandon.

Drama is dialogue, and isn't that wonderful?

Consequently my entry to this year's Red Planet competition consists of very little talkin' and a lot more helicopter action than any reasonable TV company could ever afford.


Winged chariot

Some months ago, my car's driver-side wing mirror had to be replaced on account of it being smashed off. Yesterday I took the car back for a service and waited for the phone call.

GARAGE: You know that wing mirror we fixed?
ME: Ye-ess.
GARAGE: It's fine.
ME: Er, good.
GARAGE: But the rest of the car...


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Place your bets

The Guardian says Jane Tranter is leaving. There doesn't seem to have been a confirmation yet so this may just be yet another in the long chain of rumours about her going that we've seen this year. Yet the Guardian is confident enough that it talks about who's likely to replace her as Controller, BBC Fiction.

I interviewed her once for something at BBC News, haven't the faintest idea what it was about now, but I came out of her office very impressed. And as a drama nut, really quite happy. So she's going to be tough to replace and the Guardian's list is interesting: all very strong candidates, most of them women as it happens. I feel that's a good thing but I do notice that I noticed: if the majority had been men, would I have thought to mention it?

But, anyway, I am so certain about this. So certain. Nobody's even hinted at it, and I have asked some of the people involved but they all deny it, yet I will bet you money that Jane Tranter will be replaced by Julie Gardner.

I think this will be good news too, though I also think it's great that there are so many genuinely strong candidates. Isn't British TV drama in good shape?

But it will be Julie Gardner.

Please place your bets and come back when I am made a fool of or I start typing very smugly.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Losing your Innocence

Previously: my one-act thriller, Innocence, was to be staged at the Rose Theatre in Kidderminster 25-27 September. You've already seen the past tense, now read on.

The whole thing's been cancelled: both plays in the double bill, the entire thing. I don't know all the details and some of those I do I'm not really able to tell you here, but it's gone and I'm inappropriately fine about it. A production is a production, I wanted it on my CV, but I'm sure the organisers will understand my telling you that I wasn't at all happy about how it was going.

In the end, neither was the theatre. Innocence and another thriller were being produced by a group that works with the Rose Theatre but isn't entirely part of it. And I'm told it was the theatre management who pulled the plug.

I do have one regret. I had to write a bio of myself for the programme and that'll now never be printed. (The posters were, including the mistake with my name. You have to feel for the organisers: money spent like this. And I don't know what's happening with tickets. If you bought any, let me know: I'll refund you and get the money from them.)

But it occurs to me that the bio was fun to write and here's a platform for it. So, I don't know if it's possible for a blog to get any more egotistical, but let's have a good go: here's my bio from the Theatre Programme That Never Was.


WILLIAM GALLAGHER is a writer and journalist from the Midlands. He writes the daily TV history column On This Day plus radio and TV reviews and drama features for Radio Times magazine. He’s freelanced for newspapers such as The Independent, the Birmingham Post and The Los Angeles Times and magazines from Doctor Who Adventures to Sewing Today.

He’s been a journalist and columnist for BBC News and BBC Ceefax, editor for education and computing magazines, interviewed people from Stephen Fry to Maureen Lipman and spent one crazy day having afternoon tea in the mess room on a Russian nuclear submarine. He’d tell you more about that but he’s not honestly sure how it happened and regrets calling the place a dive.

He’s produced for BBC Radio 4, researched for the BBC World Service and reported for BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio WM and BBC Hereford & Worcester.

Scriptwriting includes ITV1’s Crossroads, the UK DVD Review podcast and radio adverts. Theatre writing includes Manhattanhenge at the Carriageworks Theatre’s new writing festival in Leeds earlier this year and Time and the Conway Twitty Appreciation Society at the Patrick Centre in the Birmingham Hippodrome in 2007.

William’s portrait and jewellery photography has been published in magazines and books in the UK and America and he’s filmed “Making Of” videos for BBC Worldwide. He’s now doing voiceover work for DVD documentaries, developing radio drama projects with BBC Birmingham and independent production companies. His literary agent is currently pitching William’s first novel to publishers.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

My first theatre poster - updated

It's quite a moment. As I've told you often enough now - you're very patient with me, thank you - my Innocence play is being staged 25-27 September at the Rose Theatre, Kidderminster. But now, for the very first time in my career, here's the poster:

Click it for a larger version. The theatre's website has details of both plays in this double bill and, go on, you know you're wondering about the other one. "Married to the Moby" by Martin Drury. Details of both are right here where you can also buy tickets.

I really enjoyed writing that last bit. Buy early, buy often!


Friday, August 29, 2008

On That Day

I've just filed my last On This Day copy with Radio Times magazine. I couldn't have left on better terms, I couldn't be handing over to better people, but it's a sad time for me.

But I'll tell you one shock: the amount of time it's freeing up. I used to spend over the odds on it each week simply because I enjoyed it so much. When you add it all up, though, it's startling: I can actually afford to pitch for a book project I've been wanting to do.

Still, it's been a favourite gig. Hopefully On This Day will go from strength to strength and readers will no more remember me than they do the fella before.

Last entry will be on the Radio Times listings pages for Friday 26 September.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lyrical punch

How's this for a thought? The Salem Witch Trials were not about religion or fear or superstition, they were about soil.

Seriously. If you didn't already think this, and it hadn't ever occurred to me in my most geo-cynical mood*, then you are forever going to think it now because you just know it's true. Burn a widow as a witch and there's nobody left to stop you taking her land.

I love this kind of thing: the one starkly simple idea that's new yet feels so right that you must always have known it. And I didn't get this information - notice how it's already changed from a thought to information - from a documentary or a script or a novel. I also, despite the title of this piece, didn't get it from a song lyric. Not yet.

For Dar Williams has a new album coming, Promised Land, due September 9 in the US and hopefully the same day or sooner here. And there's an interview with Dar about it on YouTube. In it, she talks about having this same Damascus moment when a friend suggested this Witch Trial point to her. Now I believe she's done a song about it.

Funny: saying that feels trivial. Cor, there's this powerful notion, let's sing a song, let's put the show on right here. But I tell you, as I have told many before you, that while I wouldn't kill to write like Dar Williams, I would consider maiming.

If you don't know her work, I envy the fun of what's ahead of you, but if you do then you'll know that she has this huge range of material but generally it's always immensely memorable and catchy musically, and the lyrics are pounding with more thought than you might see in a novel.

Now, I'm a scriptwriter and in a script you have to carry an awful lot of information in dialogue. You're only doing it right when everyone still sounds natural. ("Whisky, eh? That's a strange drink for an attractive auburn-haired girl of twenty-nine."**) In a song it doesn't really seem to matter: if it did, if people listened to lyrics, how could anyone think Born in the USA was pro-American?

Yet here's Dar Williams, packing every song out with really pin-sharp puncturing ideas but doing it in such a way that you just unconsciously end up humming entire paragraphs as easily as you do the main chorus line of any chart song. She'll make you smile, she will make you laugh, and there are songs of hers that make me weep, I think they're so perfectly done.

She finds these truths, she conveys them with such intelligence and concise precision: Dar Williams doesn't write scripts, so far as I know, but she'd still be on my list if you were foolish enough to ask me to list my favourite scriptwriters.


*Honest, I get geo-cynical. Can you tell me how Gerry Mander managed to get *both* of his names immortalised? These are the things that keep me awake.

**That's from Timothy West's deliberately bad radio play. This Gun That I Have In My Right Hand Is Loaded. I told a friend I'd look out my copy for him, but that'd mean loaning a book so I'm compromising and releasing one sentence per blog entry.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Meme me

I do like internet memes, even if I don't know how to pronounce that and am not 100% sure that it's the correct plural of meme. You couldn't put me straight, could you?

But of all these interest-of-the-moment ideas that float around blogs and to which everyone contributes their version, I've rarely been bothered - or at least, I've rarely been bothered in time. Bits about writing, bits about TV drama, I've had my opinions and I've kept my counsel primarily because I've just not been quick enough to slip into the zeitgeisty feel of it all.

I'm not any faster today.

But what I admit I've lost in speed, by God I'm going to make up for in enthusiasm. I am so enthusiastic about this one that I positively begged Piers Beckley to tag me in this meme lark so I could gush at you. It's the now probably long-forgotten meme about where we all work; the spaces we make for ourselves and our writing. You've got one, everyone's got one, I've probably seen yours on your blog too, but now it's me.

And I'd like to tell you for why.

I'm arrested by this whole meme because a simple desk in a corner becomes so important. Very, very good days flow through this - and so do very, very bad ones. When I'm up against deadlines so much that it's fraught and if I don't take five minutes out I will fry, the place I escape to from my keyboard is my keyboard. I lean back from Word or Photoshop and watch a bit of the news, or play some music, maybe flick through some of the hundreds of hours of TV drama I've got on my Mac.

It's like the way I am fascinated by keyboards. Partly it's a technical thing and an overhang from my computer magazine days when I'd use so many of them that I was very aware of the differences. I'm on my third keyboard for this Mac not because I needed to or that I'd worn out the earlier ones (though it is true, I have bled over my keyboards) but because I wanted to try new ones. Right now I'm using Apple's latest slimline thing, which observant people usually described with more pejorative words than "observant" will have seen used a lot in the Doctor Who story Silence in the Library. (Honest: I bought mine a year before that. Honest.)

But as well as the technical aspect, there's also the fact that writing feels right to me on a keyboard, much more so than with pen and paper. This is undoubtedly because my handwriting is shudderingly bad. But Aaron Sorkin had a Sports Night character say once that "writing is a tactile experience" for him and he meant using the keyboard. I really recognise that.

And what goes through our minds while we type? As I wrote that last paragraph, an email came through: my fingers never left the keys and my mind never really left the thought but I went from typing text to pressing Apple-tab to skip to my Mail programme, I hit Apple-R to do a Reply, wrote text in that message, clicked Send then right back to this. Practically uninterrupted, certainly very smoothly, and yet I'm treating the keyboard in such different ways throughout. I'd even forgotten this: I also tapped a key that set iTunes playing a new Dar Williams track.

I get similarly anoraksic about offices and workspaces. So much so that the real reason I'm a month behind everyone else on this meme is that I thought, right, I'm going to tidy this bloody place up for once. For years I've had bookshelves around me with everything wedged on wherever it would fit. So, as if you were about to pop by, I tidied it up. I mean, I really worked on this. And all the way through I had this notion of precisely the photograph I could take that would show you how this office is a kind of nest, how it really does echo my personality as I believe all offices do of their creators.

But I took that photo just now and it's appallingly bad. Instead, and I would underline that I've spent a month tidying this place, this is the photo that best shows where I work. And you can't see a bloody shelf in it. I even hoovered.

The toast is gone. The tea is a bit cold. But while you can't see it, there's a fox outside that window now. (Er, in the garden. I don't mean he's pawing at my first-floor window like a thing possessed and craving toast.) That is a BBC2 metal logo originally from a BBC press launch but given to me by a favourite friend. That is a Blake's 7 teleport bracelet behind it but I feel no urge to discuss that any further. And there's that keyboard. It's very good. In between the keyboard and the BBC2 logo is a cutting block: from back in the day when you used to cut tape to edit it, when anyone did that, you used a block like this. There's a central channel where you lay the tape, marked up with chinagraph pencil, and there are three slits for running your razor blade through. It always surprised me that colleagues didn't know why there were three of them: they're at progressively sharper angles and it changes how the edit sounds.

The image on the two monitors is mine: it's a closeup photograph I took of a discarded piece of glass at a glass factory.

But, ah, go on, if you've read this far, you want to see the naff photograph, don't you? And I appear to burn to show you. So:

There aren't usually cars outside the window: that's my neighbours' garden and they're repairing both of those. From where I sit I can see five gardens, though I've never yet figured out how to get out to my own. It's for want of trying.

I've also never once been able to straighten out that blind. But the clock the right side of it is managing to hide from me is a Rugby one: a clock tuned in to the Rugby transmitters. You should see it when the clocks change: it's almost worth being up working that late to see the hands suddenly whiz around by themselves.

And just for completeness, if you sit in that great Captain's Chair (that's its name, I promise you) and look back to where I took the photo, this is what you see:

What you can't see is that the bookshelves extend quite far either side: apart from the window and a small patch of wall where my Rugby clock is, this room is floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Some of those shelves are of my own cunning design: look at the rows of folders on the very top: I've extended the bookshelves out with those planks of MDF in order to fit them all on. They're still very disorganised but they amount to around 20 years of Radio Times issues that I use for my On This Day research. They're broadly the 1980s and 1990s, which is the period Birmingham Central Library's collection has the most gaps so it is a very great thing that I've got these.

Up in the corner there, where you can see two of my precarious new MDF shelves sticking out, there's a BBC Newsroom Entrance sign. I like the idea that the rest of the world outside my office is a newsroom. But I also nicked the sign from BBC Pebble Mill when it was being redecorated. I don't know why they bothered, really, since they've demolished the entire building since then.

One more picture? Just saying that about Radio Times reminds me. On the wall directly behind me there's a gorgeously-bound set of RT issues from 1999 onwards for a couple of years.

The curving on the left side of the shot is just because of the lens I happened to have on. But the curving under that shelf of the RT volumes is real and entirely down to the weight.

We'll see who breaks first - the shelf, my resolve to keep this place as tidy as it is today, or you and whether you managed to get this far.

Love this stuff,

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Best news ever.

Angela's just had the all-clear from the hospital: her hundred years of chemotherapy have worked, the bastard cancer is no more.

Been a bit preoccupied with this lately, since about last September. Thanks for your emails, they've been a help.

William "Off to celebrate" Gallagher

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ooops, forgot one

If you're keeping track - presumably only so you can divine between the different William Gallaghers I mentioned - then I should say I'm in the new issue of MacFormat magazine.

I decided to get on top of my email usage; looking into rules and folders and whatever the other thing is, and I did it in part by writing about the same thing for MacFormat. It's a fun, good magazine and I learnt something doing the article, I hope if you read it you will to. Got to tell you now, best to let you down gentle like, if you're a PC user then my feature will teach you bugger all.

But, hey, I'm in so many magazines at the moment... Okay, that was boastful. But it was nice doing the shopping today and meandering past the shelves of magazines thinking I'm in that one, I'm in that one, I'm working for that one - and, ooh, Doctor Who Monthly's covermount is an old Who novel. I bought the Marco Polo one. It's not very good.

But the magazine is. I just am not 100% sure how I started off boasting at you that I was in all these magazines and end up recommending you read one I'm not.


Friday, June 27, 2008

The definition of success

A friend is just after saying that he avoids writing blog entries about rejections, he chooses instead to focus on the successes he has. I couldn't fault that in the slightest, I've no doubt you see his point entirely: whatever else a blog is, or whatever else you claim it is when you're excusing the time you spend on it, a blog is an advert for you.

That may be a bit harsh: call it a promotion. I'm a professional writer so maybe it's more apparent with folks of my ilk (I sell my writing, here's some writing I do, I'm available through Thursday, rates on request, that kind of thing). But anyone's blog paints a picture of them for us all to see, just as all writing is terribly revealing of the writer.

So, successes.

Trouble is, you get me talking and I feel more comfortable talking about rejections. I've got more practice. Plus, I should say that there are successes I cannot tell you about: projects that have gone well financially, for instance, but otherwise don't have a lot of material to show for themselves. I'm sure I'll tell you about them some time, you're certain I'll never spill the beans about the beans they pay me.

(Just as an aside. There's a William Gallagher who used to edit Doctor Who fanzines. It isn't me. But once I stumbled across an internet discussion about him/me, lambasting my writing and being jealous of his incredible earnings. Even being one of the William Gallaghers involved, it was hard to unpick their confusion except that I'm guessing the incredible earnings are his. That would mean the lambasting was mine, but if I can't tell from your writing who you're talking about or what he's done, I think there's it's a fair bet it's not my writing you should be focusing on first.)

(Another aside. There is another William Gallagher. There are loads of him. But there's a new one, a new William Gallagher has started a blog. I can't read it, I don't even recognise the language for sure, but somehow Google's references to it are in English and he appears to be greatly concerned about internet dating. If you're here looking for advice on New Zealand dating practices, I thank you for your patience in reading this far and direct you please to this fella.

Now after all that, I've run out of time. Okay. Can't tell you about cash, can't tell you about contracts, can tell you I've had a great, great week. Three days on RadioTimes.com, two days on Doctor Who Adventures, five mornings and five evenings on Doctor Who Adventures, one day on Radio Times magazine. I realise this adds up to more than five days but that's because it did. It has. Er, it was. It's continuing to be.

Doctor Who Adventures is a delight: instantly liked everybody, instantly relished the work. Can't get enough of it.

Then that short play of mine has been kicking up some dust for me. If you'd asked, I'd say you were mad to write a piece that short but it is doing surprisingly well for me. And right now it's doing well on its own: I don't even have to tend it, I just hear positive noises every now and again.

Speaking of plays and scripts, I'm doing a thing in the gaps this week that is definitely one of the best ideas I've ever had. Not 100% sure I'm getting it down as well as I could but it's getting down and it's working.

And speaking of working, you'd be surprised how many people ask me to read their scripts. Hardly any. It used to come up a lot and I've even been a professional script reader for real money but a few months ago I had someone's piece in front of me and I just had enough. I truly believe it when producers say there are very few good scripts around because I don't see any either.

So I've stopped agreeing to read things. But I agreed last night and read something through that was a treat. Bit scary for my wimpy tastes, but dialogue that was alive on the page. Sounds so simple, but it's so rare.

As is my gushing. Sorry, I went off on one: it's really been a bouncy, great week and I just had to bubble at you for a time.

Did I mention how good Doctor Who Adventures is?


Friday, June 20, 2008

The Return of Wednesdays

I'm a freelance writer but my most reliable gig is a part-time staff writer position at BBC Worldwide where I currently work three days a week on RadioTimes.com. My freelance work includes a lot for Radio Times magazine, so things get a bit confusing but that's another story. Today's story is the Return of Wednesday.

Those three days for RT.com vary enormously; I'm forever telling friends that I will always and only be in London on Thursdays but then they point out I'm standing there in a London pub saying this on a Tuesday. And I say it's three days, it can be four, it's been five.

When my wife Angela began having chemotherapy a thousand years ago, I decided to just simplify things as much as I could: I told Radio Times I wouldn't ever work for them on Wednesdays. Angela's clinic days were always Wednesdays, usually about three weeks apart, so I could've worked at least two Wednesdays out of every three, but it was messy. Just because Radio Times was being fantastic about my taking time out to look after Angela, there was no need to make it impossible for them to work out when I'd be where.

And as it happens, all those Wednesdays that weren't clinic days did get filled very quickly. Sometimes I'd go to the clinic for prescriptions, oftentimes I'd just help Angela. Once in a long while, she'd be well enough that we could take the day off and go out for lunch.

All that's over, and for the best of reasons: last Wednesday was the last Wednesday. Twelve sessions of devil drugs done and gone.

One odd thing. Many, many people assume that's it. Apparently even chemotherapy patients have been known to assume this: you've had your last chemo session, shouldn't you be feeling better? Well, er, no. Chemotherapy is such a variable beast that it's impossible to generalise but nonetheless, I'm going to generalise: chemo sessions take place every three weeks. And it's not because of NHS resources, it's for the very practical purpose that your body can only take so much. Remember white cells? Forget 'em. Every cell you own is smashed, pummelled, hung, drawn and quartered in every chemo session and you cannot have any more until the good cells have recovered sufficiently.

Have a guess how long that takes.

So you're not getting chemo sessions when it suits the hospital, you're getting them as fast on each other's heels as it is physically possible for you to have. And countless things can prolong the problems: in fact, you don't recover between sessions, you just recover enough. Angela was apparently unusual in how she made it through all 12 in exactly the time hoped for, without any reason to abandon the treatment at any stage. Though she did discover that she's allergic to yew trees. Seriously: the strongest, foulest, devil's brew drug, taxotere, is based in part on the bark of a yew tree (aren't you picturing three witches stirring a cauldron right now?) and Angela, like so many others, had an allergic reaction to it. That wasn't what you'd rank as a highlight in the treatment: me grabbing staff, crash-cart teams racing over to Angela.

Your mileage may vary, by the way. Got to say that. Even if you had precisely the same breast cancer as Angela, I mean precisely the same - frankly, if you were even Angela herself, you'd best not bet on needing or getting the same treatment. It's that variable, that different from person to person. And each person reacts all but immeasurably differently. So if you ever need taxotere, you may fly through it. I hope so, obviously.

Anyway, Angela's had her final session. But where so many people assume that's it, that on Thursday she'll be skipping, the truth is that of course she has at least three weeks in which she'll be recovering from the final session. We don't know how long it will take: every previous session has been capped by the next one coming through, so the odds are it won't be three weeks to the day. I have to tell you that some patients, a significant number, report feeling bone-tired for another year. And bone-tired is the right description: this stuff knackers your bone marrow.

Pleasant stuff, isn't it? But there are good things. All this violent medication gets rid of the cancer, so I do think of taxotere as the devil drug from heaven.

And right now Angela has booked a holiday in the Lake District. We've just come back from one, one we had during a lull in the cycle, and she's going again next month. The month after that, we're off for a short break to the Lake District. And I'm buying her a birthday present of an iPhone 3G and a Christmas break in the Lake District.

Did I mention she likes the Lake District? I've a feeling that's come up.

But for all I've just told you quite straight about the effects of chemotherapy, the truth is that it is over, so things are getting better. And I'm working Wednesdays again.

Next week it gets very complicated as I juggle days in order to work half the week on Radio Times, half on Doctor Who Adventures magazine. But the return of Wednesdays, it's a peculiar notion. I am stunningly lucky to have the job I do; I've always known this and I am reminded of it by getting a short gig on Doctor Who Adventures: I'm so looking forward to that work. It's been a sobering boon to be able to drop all Wednesdays for the last eight months or so; I know many or even most people cannot do it, but that and the ability to work at home 80% of the week, I'm very grateful for it.

So. I've got working Wednesdays now. If only I could get sleep back next.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting that New York vibe

John Davison and Therase Neve in Manhattanhenge by William Gallagher, directed by Joanna Egan

Do you know how long I've had this open with a photo and no text? Since Wednesday, actually Thursday if you want to be picky: maybe around 2am. The instant I got back from the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds where a short play of mine was performed: a short play, a small theatre, but a bit of a milestone for me.

You had to pay to see it. Last time, I had a larger audience and a longer piece but that audience was made up of producers, theatre agents, publishers, a fella from the National Theatre. It was a showcase, it was wonderful, but this week's one involved an audience paying cash.

And they loved it. I think it's fair to say that: one woman told me in an audience discussion afterwards that she'd had goosebumps at the ending. Another said she'd cried. And the cast told me they were proud to have been in it.

Now, okay, I'm always likely to think someone's just being nice but when they say things like that and you have to know that it was in the heat of the night, everyone pumped up from being in a success, all these things. But that's a good reason to be pumped and I choose to believe my cast.

I've been so lucky with cast that I'm starting to suspect all of them, all actors everywhere, are good. Mind you, I wrote a short sentence in Crossroads that had five meanings and the actor chose to deliver... none of them. Still not entirely sure how she was able to strip it of all five without actually dropping the line but I will tell you that mumbling was involved.

She also probably had no more than thirty seconds rehearsal time: it was a busy show.

I'd have liked to have been in rehearsals on Manhattanhenge. I'm not saying I'd have done things differently, but the process is great and I miss that. And I might have been able to fix a thing that bothers me: I've got a nice joke in it which is good but it's necessarily so close on the heels of something else that it gets a little lost. Let me show you.

You need to know that these two people have just met, they're strangers and they're really going to stay that way, it's just that for these few minutes, they're brought together by this mysterious thing called Manhattanhenge that I seem to shy away from explaining to you. He's 40s, fretful, American, a restaurant manager. She's 19, back-packing, gap-year British.

MICHAEL: They do say it makes you stop. It's a cleansing, spiritual breath that runs right through the city. That New York trick of being completely private and alone in a crowd, that loosens, dissipates. Connections are made. People just talk.

JOANNE: Look at us. Would we have talked?

MICHAEL: Probably. I'd have said "Hello, my name's Michael, our specials today are..."

JOANNE: And I'd have said "Hi, Michael, I'm Joanne, and what do you got for five dollars?"

MICHAEL: "The exit, madam."

It's that last line that felt on the night that it came in too close. Can't see what to do about it yet, the rhythm's right but the punch isn't there. Still, I think actually I may leave it precisely the way it is: the piece is not a comedy, that excerpt is not building to that joke and it's not that gigantic a gag anyway. And what does most definitely work, what was just a treat to see on the night, is that talking about the way they would normally be separate, would normally not really talk, heightens the fact that now they are.

Manhattanhenge very successfully sounds like a really, truly casual chat, a conversation that you could completely believe spontaneously happens between these people. It's unforced, bouncy and it hides how I've telescoped the scene down into its most economic form.

And I think that's part of the reason it worked. Now I've told you that people cried, you'd be looking for the punch or the tragedy and I think you might even be disappointed: you look for what I've done on the page and it's a tiny thing. But when you aren't looking for it, when you don't know something is coming, the fact is that you provide the tragedy: nothing bad happens here at all, not the slightest, tiniest thing.

It's the gap between what these characters know and what you do that makes the piece just a little shivery.

And I love that: I love fiction where it's taking place in your head as well as in front of you. I wrote a thriller thing once where you provided a character with an alibi, your assumptions provided her with it, and then I spent weeks making the reveal the smallest yet most unmistakeable moment I could. Something that would've passed you by, maybe even bored you, if it were one character giving another an alibi, becomes an almighty gasp because you knew the answers and you'd fooled yourself.

That piece got me a literary agent. I should go back to it.

Nothing's happening next with Manhattanhenge. A few people I rate highly are reading it, I'm toying with the rest of it: I have five Manhattanhenge stories, this was just the one that was right for stage. I suspect as good as the others are, I may throw them away and leave this one on its own. I don't mind a short, it's much better than a padded piece: a sketch is better than a stretch.

But I tell you, upsetting people is even better than seeing them shake with laughter. And that was pretty good.

I've just spent 12 hours driving over the last ten days or so, I swear since 2am on Thursday morning I've had my chin on the desk, I've been wondering what all these buttons are with letters on them.