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...