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.