Saturday, February 16, 2008

Strictly go dancing

On a Saturday evening some years ago, my wife Angela mentioned that she really liked watching Strictly Come Dancing with me.

"Pardon?" I said, looking up from a book.

I felt beholden to at least try watching it instead of just being in the room and, as perhaps with most things bar football and Babylon 5, once you start watching, you do get into it. I now really like the show; I think its companion series It Takes Two is particularly well done; and I've a friend who's obsessed with it to a point that might even be frightening if she weren't also so funny about it. So that's grand; I'm sure you know the show, perhaps you like it, perhaps you don't. But just today, I've taken a Life Lesson from it.

Well, a Scriptwriting Life Lesson anyway.

If you're a writer, you'll understand me when I say that beginners think adaptation is easy. If you're not a writer, let me offer you my congratulations and say that, really, that's what they think. It's right up there with "I've got this great idea, this guy, right, he meets a woman, it's fantastic, and it really happened, I just need someone to write it up into a film".

I'm not exactly immune to this: I would like to adapt Margery Allingham's books for radio some day. But I know I'll never do that without some strong original material under my belt and on my CV first; nor do I remotely think it's easy. I never have, actually; it's like travel writing: everybody expects it to be a doddle but I've never tried it, never thought I could. I'm having a go right now pitching to write for a children's magazine and that's a tough market too. That's partly why I want to try it.

But still, Strictly, Scriptwriting Lessons, adaptation, today. I've just come back from the NEC Arena in Birmingham after seeing Strictly Come Dancing – the Live Tour. And it was fascinating to see how it was adapted for stage.

Follow. I'm sure you know the show but just in case and to point up the key elements I want to use, Strictly goes thisaway: celebrities pair up with professional ballroom dancers, over 12 weeks or more, they learn to dance, there's a phone vote, there are judges. It's a toss up whether the show is known best for its dances or for its judges: they veer from unbelievable to pretty unpleasant. And the judges are the same.

Now, all that is transferred to the live show along with the best dancers from all the years of Strictly Come Dancing.

Of course it is. What else would you expect? But while it's so inevitable as to be inconceivable that the stage show wouldn't be like the TV one and it's unimaginable that anyone would produce a stage version without the best dancers, those same factors are a huge problem. They're difficulties that whoever adapted this for stage had to fight against.

For instance, these celebrity dancers are the ones who've done really well: if they didn't win their year, they came close. So they are going to continue to do well, aren't they? When the first two couples came off and got great praise and the same near-perfect scores from the judges, I thought the entire show was going to be like that. It wasn't, though, primarily because the show was cast very well. You know that the TV series is cast in much the same way any drama is; BBC looks for people to fulfill certain types of roles such as the older-but-game sort (Jimmy Tarbuck, Gloria Hunniford), the young-hopeful type (Louisa Lytton). It's aiming to appeal across demographics, it's aiming to fashion the best potential for drama. Every reality show does precisely the same, you wouldn't do it any differently.

And while the stage show has a more limited range, it does allow for one single bad dancer: Christopher Parker from the first series of Strictly is in it. I didn't see that series, I was still doing silent reading in the corner, but everybody else in the auditorium had and they loved groaning at the sight of him. It seemed to me that everything he was apparently famous for getting wrong was repeated here quite deliberately and it was lapped up. He got a scalding from the judges: we got to see them give their famous torrent of insults.

You can argue that he's a very good sport for coming back to Strictly and reliving this torture each night, but I don't think that's it at all: I think he's playing his part exactly as he was hired to do. So are the judges.

And those judges... Len Goodman, Arlene Phillips and Craig Revel Horwood review every dance after its done. Is there any other musical stage show that criticises itself along the way? It feels so post-modern.

I'm sounding like I didn't enjoy the show and that's wrong, I did, but when the judges praised these top dancers I couldn't help but think that of course they would. And when dancers got mild criticism, I felt they had no reason to care: the performance I saw was the 34th live show they'd all done and each is its own whole competition. Where the show takes three months to build to a conclusion and you can lose your place at any week, here you're back for tomorrow's matinee no matter what.

I've realised that what I like about the TV show is the sense of learning, of progress. People who dance poorly or not at all at the start of a series, can become strong by the end. It's why I don't watch The X Factor: so you sing each week, so what?

Here on stage, the celebrity dancers were no different from the start when they walked onto the dancefloor to the end when one of them lifted today's trophy. It's not a competition, it's a story. It's a musical where the judges provide the dramatic dialogue scenes in between the numbers.

The judges are superb at appearing to adlib. Arlene always appears over-studied on TV but she's consistent and seems the same here. Len appears to be genial, Craig appears to be churlish. They're all what we expect them to be, in fact what we've paid to see them be. But I did look up a review of an earlier show in this run and the same adlibs were praised in Glasgow as were laughed at here in Birmingham today. Never believe an adlib is an adlib, not in any show.

As with the TV show, once the judges have done their judging, the audience gets to vote. Right there in the auditorium, you're encouraged to vote by phone. That feels a little sticky: this is not a BBC show but you forget that it isn't so a call to spend more money seems wrong. It's also much more expensive than on TV: in the television show the cost is 25p (or perhaps more depending on your service provider) of which 12.5p goes to Children in Need. Here Pudsey gets the same amount but the call charge is between 50p and 75p.

When that's all done, and we've had some show dances - Flavia Cacacea and Vincent Simone's Argentine tango stops the world turning - then the stage show recreates the Moment of Truth. On TV, that's where some dancers are saved to come back next week and two risk going home forever. There's no next week here, and there's no going home either, so this is inevitably tension-lite. Not tension free, but no breaths are held.

And then it's all over.

I am sure the winner is different each night - I really was sure but I checked anyway! - and I've no doubt that the judges are fair, I'm certain the phone vote is too. What I don't think is that this is Strictly Come Dancing: it's like it's really the Strictly Come Dancing Experience. See the Judges in their natural habitat. See the dancers, the dances, the frocks. Hear the very good live band.

Every thing you like about Strictly on TV is in Strictly on stage. It's like dramatising books for film: I believe it's precisely like that, that this isn't metaphor, it's straight description.

But adaptation, dramatisation, it's difficult. The recent Sally Lockhart dramatisations on BBC1 failed, I felt, because they hit all the plot points from the novel and didn't let the characters breath. And then when Alan Plater dramatised Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War, he created a new work of art. Recognisably Manning's, unmistakeably his own. It had to be. Television and novels, film and stage, they're all extremely different and it'd be boring if they weren't. Plus, I believe completely that if you want a perfect, faithful version of a novel, buy the paperback.

For anything else, any dramatisation, you have to keep the original's heartbeat but you can't forget that you're making something new. Strictly Come Dancing - The Live Tour is more like Sally Lockhart than Alan Plater so it's not satisfying. It isn't a show that stands on its own; if you didn't watch the TV show, you probably wouldn't enjoy the stage one.

Yet, if every single Strictly thing has become a box to be ticked or filled, the stage show does tick 'em and it does fill 'em. I am thinking about going to next year's tour, but it will depend on who's dancing.

How's this for proof that Strictly Live is adaptation by the numbers instead of a new animal, a new stage drama? The show's programme is a quite beautifully printed book - an expensive one, a tenner a copy - and it comes with large score numbers, 1 to 10, for you to vote with.

And you never get to.

They're just never used, not once.

I saw a matinee performance, by the way, and all the time I've been writing this to you, the 35th show has been underway. I know there's no question but that you think I'm critical of the stage show, but I'd like to see the dancing again. And maybe that's enough. The dancing would not carry a show on its own (no offense to dancers or dancing; I mean sixteen 90-second dances don't make a show) so the framework of the faux competition is crucial, it's a frame that both supports some gorgeous dancing and weakens the show. It's a necessary, contrived evil but the dancing does soar through. That's part of the heartbeat of Strictly Come Dancing, a huge part, and that has successfully transferred to stage.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Day Before...

Have you seen this? A Cape Town newspaper has been running a series of ads on the theme of how much the world can change in a single day. This one is of September 10, 2001.

Click on my stolen copy to see a bigger stolen one or go to this site to see all four and read about them in more detail.

And FYI, I found this via Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider blog.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Word don't come easy

There's no reason you should know this, but I used to be an expert on word processors. Every writer thinks they are, after all this is the machine they spend the best part of their day not using to write on. But I was paid for it: it was part of my patch when I worked on computer magazines.

And you know how it is, there are some jobs you can never quite shake so last year I had a really, really anorakful time following all of Microsoft's blogs about the new Word 2007. It was groundshaking, I thought, the work they were doing, the effort they were putting into the work. The way they were risking everything to get a better word processor / changing everything pointlessly to get everyone to upgrade when they didn't need to* (*delete as applicable), it was impressive.

As a writer, I particularly applauded how the core aim was to get out of your way. Having to go through five menus and a dialogue box to print something out crunches at me the same way heavy exposition does.

But in Word 2007, if you wanted something, it was to be there. No messing, no searching, absolutely and resolutely no confusion. Just writing? Off you go. Adding a chart? Wallop, every chart option is brought to your fingertips. Bit of the old page layout? Kaboom, Word 2007 is a page layout program. Sort of. Enough.

This went on for a year: inch by inch, detail by detail. I'm a Mac user, but I was still following all the Windows threads on this topic.


One day came the ta-daa, the final reveal when all this work came together in a finalised appearance. Microsoft put up screenshots for all us warmly-dressed people to admire. No messing, no searching, absolutely and resolutely no confusion.

But I stared and stared at that screenshot, utterly unable to see how to open a document.

Or start a new one.

Or save anything I did manage to open.

The reason is because all that kind of nonsense is now hidden behind a large and ugly Microsoft Office logo in the top corner. It looks like a tedious logo, it is actually a button.

That ended it for me. All that great work, totally wiped out because of last one per cent.

And I'm reminded of this today in part because I'm polishing a script but also because I'm working in an office where the staff have just had training to move over to Word 2007. And the first sentence I heard when I walked in came from a woman halfway down a hall, begging f'ing Microsoft Word to let her open a s'ing document.

And then a chorus of voices saying "It's under the c'ing Office logo".

The last one per cent is stopping people seeing the 99 per cent excellence underneath.


PS. While I'm geeking out, Word 2007 is for PCs, Macs now have Word 2008. It lacks a lot of the new whizzy features of the PC side, it adds a tonne of utterly worthless pretty pictures, but it flies far faster than the last version. So now I've no excuse at all for writing slowly.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The History of Television

So Aaron Sorkin writes the history of TV and it goes to Broadway. I write it and it goes... nowhere.

Back in November 2006, I was commissioned to write a Radio Times article to go alongside BBC2's Imagine... series which was doing a special on TV's anniversary. That show got bumped around the schedules, my article had to be transformed into about 70 words and that was that. I hadn't actually thought about it since about December 2006 but just now, searching for something totally unrelated, I found that document on my hard disk.

I can't see any reason why I shouldn't show it to you, and I think you might like it too. So here it is: as not published in RT.

Hope you like it,


Radio Times has behind the scenes access to television - and it always has. As BBC1's Imagine... goes back 70 years to the start of television, RT reveals how its coverage goes back even further to when John Logie Baird was young and anxious to show his new invention to us.

Summer, 1923: no TV, no Radio Times. But they were both a heartbeat away. John Logie Baird was talking up his new invention and Lord Reith was having it out with newspaper publishers who wanted money for printing BBC radio listings. By July, Baird had got a patent for television and by September, newspapers had seen their circulation rise because of listings, but Reith wasn't listening: he published his own paper, The Radio Times.

The 1920s were fast-moving: on April 4, 1924, the BBC's Organiser of Programmes, CA Lewis, wrote in RT: "Television is a long way off, and, as far as I can hear, the various inventions in regard to 'talking' films are not achieving success."

Yet before the end of the month, on April 25, RT's cover said: "Television - a Fact!". Baird had demonstrated his flickering, faltering system to RT writer William Le Queuex who enthused madly: "A Maltese cross was first transmitted, and was clearly visible. My fingers, moving up and down in front of the transmitting lens, were clearly seen moving up and down on the receiving disc. It remains now to transmit detailed images and a machine to do this has already been designed."

Sure. There's no question Baird was first but he was never good enough and though the BBC experimented with both his kit and a rival system from EMI/Marconi, by the end of 1936 everyone found it easy to see which was going to win. They just found it harder to say. So the official decision to drop Baird was delayed until February 1937 - three months after a Crystal Palace fire destroyed all his equipment.

So RT's very first behind-the-scenes feature of TV as we know it was in The Radio Times Televison Number (2d), published October 23, 1936. The first behind-the-scenes photo was of "The Baird control room" but the second was of the Marconi-EMI studio with "The Three Admirals rehearsing" at the first television studios at Alexandra Palace.

And it was a detailed yet so innocent time as RT took us around Ally Pally, mentioning: "The walls attract your attention. You touch them. An asbestos compound, of course. Just the stuff for absorbing sound."

Strangely, there were no actual television programmes in this special issue of RT. There was a radio play (October 29) dramatising how "from the first ideas of the early pioneers there has gradually developed the high definition television service which is to be opened from Alexandra Palace on Monday next."

And there were ads for HD TV sets, though HD then meant 405-line images on a narrow screen: today it means 1080 lines widescreen, not to mention colour. But some things don't change: the 1930s HD TVs were expensive. RT advertised a GEC High Definition Television Receiver (Cat. No. BT3701) for 95 guineas or over £800 in today's money.

"If you can afford a television set," wrote RT in this issue, "and you if you live near enough to Alexandra Palace, the next few months will be full of interest. You will be watching the beginnings of a new art. How does this affect people outside the London area? Wait and see."

It was quite a wait. In 1936 you had to live within 25 miles of Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, London, and only a couple of hundred people watched the first months. By February 1939 the price of TV was dropping radically but the BBC was still saying 25 miles and RT interviewed farmhand George Boar who lived twice that distance away. "He did not even trouble to see a demonstration. With astounding pluck he invested his whole fortune (and £126 is certainly a fortune to a farm-hand) in his set," said RT. Boar invited Radio Times to join him and his neighbours one night. "Reception is amazingly clear, causing the majority of the audience to express their wonder in strange Suffolkese."

Boar himself knew he'd spent wisely, telling RT: "Television's far more entertaining and much less trouble than a wife would be." The revealing word there is probably "would" but six months later his TV went dark: the BBC Television Service was suspended on Friday, September 1, 1939 at the start of the Second World War. By then, around 20,000 TV sets had been sold and its power was spreading in every sense: for the May 1937 Coronation of King George VI, 50,000 people had crowded around what sets there were and the signal now reached up to 63 miles from Ally Pally.

"Television Again" said the cover of RT for June 2-8, 1946 as we saw the Reopening of the BBC Television Service - in London. In 1948 Londoners saw the Olympics but coverage was also extending to the Midlands which it reached in 1949, then South Wales and Scotland in 1952. In 1953, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was seen by over 20m viewers and for the first time more people watched than listened on the radio.

By then Baird was dead but others were pressing ahead with the next big thing: colour. Unofficial tests ran even in the 1950s but it was July 1, 1967 when David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2, could write in RT: "This week we launch colour. All BBC2's coverage of the Centre Court at Wimbledon will be transmitted in colour. So will The Virginian on Monday and Late Night Line-Up every night. Many viewers are no doubt waiting to make up their minds about colour until they see it with their own eyes. We offer the launching programmes, with confidence and excitement, as evidence."

BBC2 offered five hours of colour every week until December 2, 1967 when it officially began its full colour service and then BBC1 followed on November 13, 1969. But there was still a difference between the BBC broadcasting colour and our receiving it: James Redmond, BBC Director of Engineering, responded to RT readers by explaining: "Because about 500 transmitters are needed to cover the country, it will take right through the seventies to complete the project."

So you might have had to wait a bit, but you had colour television - and two weeks after BBC1 moved to colour, Radio Times looked at what could come next. The November 22-28, 1969 issue peered into the far, far distant future... of 2000 and "interplanetary man, as he could be."

Some predictions were startlingly good - "one paper-thin TV set on the wall will offer him news, information and entertainment" - and some weren't. "He sits on a column of air, his control panel gives him robot service on 5, a problem-solver on 11." Channels 1 to 3 were expected to be for Earth, Moon and Mars.

"The year 2000, you recall, is just thirty-one years away."

William Gallagher