Wednesday, May 28, 2008


I've only recently realised this so don't press me on the details, but when I leave a room, I just assume I'm forgotten. I'm not complaining. But imagine how it feels, then, to know that there's a cast and a director out there rehearsing my words.

Specifically, these words:
The golden sun hanging clearly in the sky, away from Manhattan island, high above the water. The sun in the distance over New York Harbour. Over Ellis Island. Striking the Statue of Liberty. The Brooklyn Bridge. And now imagine the view of the city from the East River, the sun still just barely above the buildings. It’s briefly blocked by the Empire State Building, then the Rockefeller Centre. And now it’s lower, nearer to the buildings, lower and lower, until you can see it. The city of New York looking like Stonehenge at solstice.

My short play, Manhattanhenge, is to be performed at the Carriageworks theatre in Leeds next month: it's a two-night festival of new writing and what I'm told is that my piece is to get a prime spot.

I'm even more pleased than you expect: Manhattanhenge is a tricky piece, it's taken a lot of work to get right and I hadn't expected it to fly. But you know how whenever you write, you try to write something new, something you've not reached for before: this time, I finished the tale and shivered at it. I've never done shiver before.

And though I've yet to meet the cast or the director, they're telling me they were moved by the piece. I can't wait to see them play it.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Anoraks in aisle 9

Years ago, I had lunch with people selling geographic information systems and to the terror of their PR agent, they showed me how to make their software go wrong. I think they were pleased I knew what they were talking about: they had been used to selling to corporations, now they were aiming at the PC market and few of the journalists they'd met were all that interested. Even fewer knew about projections, I was the only one who would defend Mercator's system.

(Rant. I still will. Don't you knock Geradus Mercator in front of me. His way of translating a globe into a flat map is a working one: he wasn't pratting about settling political scores, he was getting ships to go where they were pointed. /Rant.)

So these people saw a fellow cartography fan in me and we had a ball. Shortly afterwards, the feature I wrote about them and various other GIS manufacturers got me a nomination for Magazine Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards. (I lost to a dog columnist in Bitch monthly. Quite seriously.)

I just relish the artistry in maps: the choice of what you show, what you don't. The way a map tells you as much about its artist and his or her society as it does about the lands it depicts. The lands it depicts: the far-distant shores, the pin-sharp accuracy of Ordnance Survey and the wild imagination of mappa mundi. Actually, also the imagination of Ordnance Survey: the way acres of military property will be marked "lake" or something. Shouldn't the OS mark ordnance when it finds it? I'd think that was a contractual obligation.

Anyway, I bring this up now because I wish to complain and I promise that there is no one but you I can tell in all this land. Here's the thing. My local hypermarket, a very big Sainsbury's, has been remodelling for six months: every time I go, and I go an awful lot lately, they've moved things. Now it's finally finished, it's all very good, but it's big and different so they have maps up.

They have maps, I have an iPhone that lets me blog here live from the freezer section, can you see where this is going yet?

I photographed the map with my iPhone. I wasn't planning to show it to you, or to anybody really. But standing there in aisle 9, I had no problem with people staring as I tapped the screen to zoom in on Light Bulbs, aisle 27.

Only, the map lies.

I put my social standing on the line for that map, and it lies.

There are no light bulbs in aisle 27. And I may be a man, but still I can ask questions: the staff directed me back toward aisles 3 through 7.

Maps exaggerate the prominence of enemy territory in wartime. They suggest safe passage where no such thing exists. It's through mapping we get gerrymandering - how did Gerry Mander get both his names remembered? - and it's through maps that we can see society change over centuries.

But we can't find light bulbs in Sainsbury's.

All that J Sainsbury money, all that Sainsbury graphic design, all that Sainsbury lying.

Hang on. I'm in Asda.


Friday, May 16, 2008

How do you get 17 People into a bottle?

If a particular friend of mine is writing a script where it becomes vital that the protagonist knows the right time, she will introduce a blind watchmaker and his seven sons, sure an' they'll all have a tale to tell, in order to get someone to tell him or her it's eight o'clock. Myself, I'll write in a watch.

There's really no way to say which of is right in our approaches, except that obviously I am, because where I could muster arguments on practicality, your basic storytelling, and simple budget, she could argue that I have TV mentality. She's writing for a bigger canvas. I'm not saying that's what she argues, but she could and the next time we argue about this I've just given her some armament.

Besides, if you take my reluctance to introduce what I'd call superfluous characters to extreme, you know that any character you do see in my material is important. It's like when there's a gun to your head so you're watching Poirot: there is a limit to how many people can be the murderer because there's a finite group and the fine line between the importance of the roles is erased by looking at the cast list.

But I love, absolutely cherish working to very finite constraints. Each On This Day entry for Radio Times is between 89 and 94 words long, I wrote some 16,000 Ceefax pages that were extraordinarily constrained, Crossroads was so many minutes and so many cast, it goes on. And I also cherish it when someone else works to extreme constraints and does it well.

Hence 17 People. That's the title of a West Wing episode I'm particularly fond of. I re-read the script today while I was waiting for something and tonight I just re-watched the episode. I honestly don't think I realised this back in 2001 when it aired here, but it's what American TV calls a bottle show. I don't know what UK TV calls them. Probably "cheap". And in the intro to his published script, Aaron Sorkin says it was mandated: make this one cheap. No guest stars, no location filming, no new sets. "In other words, I got to write a play," he said.

If you know the series at all, this was the episode when Toby was told of the President's MS, but that doesn't matter. Well, not now, and not so much to me anymore: knowing what the story was and where it was going to go, this is still a glorious episode and the type of drama that makes me a drama nut. Usually I've said that drama is two people talking, but here it's two, three, seven people talking. Same principle, though: I read scripts about the end of the universe and I could care less, if I tried very hard. I read the script to 17 People and every scene is two or more people talking and I am transfixed.

By contrast, I switched on what I think I'll just call a Popular UK Drama the other night and it was exactly this, it was a scene with two people just talking. But every line was clichéd, it was quite remarkable how nobody need any new lines even to bridge between a couple of clichés. I was transfixed again, watching for their resolve to break and a fresh thought to come through but if they managed it, it wasn't before I'd switched to the news.

So maybe I'm just saying is that it's fine to have constraints, it doesn't mean you mustn't do anything with them.

And hiring Richard Schiff doesn't hurt.


Friday, May 09, 2008

It's about time.

A friend who was in a brutal traffic accident a few years ago told me once of his utter anger at Casualty: a character had a similar accident and because he wasn't fairly immediately sanguine about losing his legs, the doctors and nurses fretted that he was unusual. They'd been treating him for several minutes, he should cop on to himself, sort himself out. I'm told it recently had a side story, a B-story in which someone learned they had cancer, went through all the chemotherapy and died within the one episode.

I did explain to my friend that it's written into Casualty that all accident stories, all guest stories will be completely dealt with in a single episode and, moreover, that one episode will cover one shift at A&E. Maybe we'll see someone going into work first, maybe coming out after, but otherwise, it's in that eight-hour period. But of course really what I was saying was precisely the same as my friend: we were both saying Casualty is unrealistic and aggravating, I was just using more words.

We all know this one-shift approach is rubbish and we have all complained about TV characters, in many shows, miraculously getting over amnesia/nuclear war/dry cleaning within a single episode. But I think we've been trained to accept it anyway.


I was just re-watching Noél, a particular favourite episode of The West Wing from December 2000. I remember it being criticised a lot at the time for how, it was said, Josh Lyman gets over his post-traumatic stress in an hour.

But he didn't. The episode concentrated on the ten or so hours of one day, the first day in which he is diagnosed and after which he will begin treatment. More, the episode was actually set over a two-week period as we saw Josh crumble. So, two weeks, ten hours, the start of longterm treatment, it was exactly right. More, the reason for doing the episode was directly because Josh had been shot at the start of the season, the makers didn't want to pretend that goes away easily.

So how does The West Wing get criticised when it seems you have to be ill or in an accident to get mad at Casualty?

I don't know. I thought I'd figure it out if I just talked it over with you but I have to say you're being very quiet so far. I don't doubt that you agree Cas is wrong, Wing is right, but why the difference in perception for most people? It can't be that we expect less of Casualty, though I believe we do, because that suggests we expect more of the Wing and that it let us down but I can't see how. Nor can it really be that The West Wing is more popular than Casualty because, again while that's patently true worldwide, it's utterly the reverse in the UK. And it cannot be acting,it surely cannot be acting because Bradley Whitford is superb as Josh and, er, there are probably people in Casualty too, presumably.

Perhaps it's to do with how Casualty is bone-numbingly sequential: it will only tell a story in one direction, will only ever do this happens and then that happens and then the other happens. That West Wing, quite typically for the series, was focused on one day but it jumped through it while simultaneously taking us through those two weeks beforehand.

But I don't know, I really do not know. And because you have no doubt which approach I favour, I'm troubled by it all.