Sunday, December 19, 2010

Strictly: Best Final, Worst Show Dances

This is a lie but I believed it for a whole week: I would have been happy whoever won this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.


I mean, I would’ve been happy whichever one of these particular three won. Let’s not get carried away. Matt Baker, Pamela Stephenson, Kara Tointon, any one of them could’ve won and whichever one pulled it off, I was certain I would be happy.

Until the gap between the two shows. Twitter scuttlebutt had it that Pamela was doing well: people trying to phone vote for her seemed to be having more difficulty getting through than others. So much for Twitter, but I realised that in fact I would be very disappointed if she beat Kara.

Then we came back from the break and Pamela was out

And I was disappointed again.

But maybe you don’t want me to detail my minute-by-minute disappointments and satisfactions, you don’t want me to count my blessings or alphabetise my woes. Instead, let’s look at the big disappointment of the night.

The show dances.

I’ve looked forward to these all week and none of them worked. Pamela’s was the best by a considerable way but it wasn’t tremendous. Kara’s timing was worse than mine and Matt’s had great, great and three times great moments but an hour’s wait in between each one.

You didn’t hear this because you weren’t here but Angela said it first: the show was wrong to make them do four dances. If they’d given us three and padded out the time with more Take That or something, perhaps there would’ve been chance for the show dances to be polished.

Yet, despite the highlight of the night being weak, this really was the best final we’ve had in years. Now it’s perhaps easy to see and to say that Kara was certain to win but at 7pm on Saturday night, you did not know. More, there was no Christopher Parker, no Ann Widdecombe. There was no one who seemed to be incorrectly favoured: to this day I smart over Darren Gough snatching the trophy from Zoe Ball back in 2005.

Grief. Five years ago. I should probably get over that.

I do think Matt Baker was incorrectly marked or perhaps not incorrectly, more unjustly. His opening dance was a rousing, roaring start and it put him right back in the very top of the frame for me. I have no technical knowledge, no technical skill, I do this by what connects with me somehow and I thought he had it there.

Then Kara had that same thing tenfold so to give her marks that were close to the heavily criticised Matt seemed wrong. I don’t often disagree with Craig but saying she was better than last time and then giving her the same score had me looking at him. Yes, exactly like that.

I’ll let him off eventually: you know I’m not one to bear grudges. I can’t bear them at all.

And part of Strictly is its friendliness: writer Ken Armstrong commented on Twitter that: “If I had to say a difference, I would say that 'Strictly' is a good-natured show while the 'Other One' is not. There was camaraderie and delight from contestants in the friends they have made. It seemed real.”

He’s right: it’s one of those observations that seems obvious once it’s been made yet I’d not thought it before. Strictly is built on a spirit that seems to extend out to its audience and I’m going to miss that.

Because it’s Sunday night and there’s no results show. Tomorrow there won’t be an It Takes Two. You’ll be aware that next Saturday is December 25 when there’s some big quasi-religious event, Doctor Who or something, but there is also a special Strictly at 7pm.

John Barrowman and Ronni Ancona are among the new celebrity dancers. What did they feel when they were asked? It must be fantastic to get the call from Strictly but then to be effectively told it’s a one-off and you’ll never get the main series, how does that feel?

And while I’m asking you questions, what will Kara and Artem have to talk about now?

Myself, I’m going back to blogging about what we write and what we write with, when we can be bothered to write. Strictly is out, my own prattling is back in - starting shortly with my Doctor Who audio. But that’s another story.

Thanks for the comments and the tweets and the nattering. That’s why I did this on my own blog this year when, for production reasons, it couldn’t continue on

So, altogether now: keeeeeeeeep nattering.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Strictly: But first, the news...

Okay, I give in. The pink frock, the beauty of the dance... You were right, I was wrong: I do have a crush on Kara Tointon. Oh, stop looking so smug.

Obviously, then, I needed her to get into the final but actually this is the first year I’ve ever watched the semis with my fingers crossed. It was essential Kara got in, it was essential Gavin got out. I also wanted Pamela in so thereafter it was a numbers game: how much I would care if Scott was out, how bothered would I be if Matt left.

Not that much, really. But on the narrowest of balances, I did want Matt and we’ve got him.

Only, I may have changed my mind a little because of some news. But speaking of news...

Remember that odd moment last week with Len talking about the best-ever Viennese waltzs? Catherine explained the mystery in the blog comments here: “I think the best Viennese waltz comments were directed at Alesha then Kara, but the camera didn't allow us to see Len pointing to Alesha, only Kara so it came across as a bit confusing.”

Then the whole question of whether the swingathon was prerecorded or not. We have the answer. A friend of a friend was at that edition and reports that it was live. I don’t know the friend of the friend but I do the friend and if it’s Strictly, she knows.

But because she also knows other things, I’m going to pretend she doesn’t have a name. She is sans name.

Let’s call her Sans.

Sans also told me: “Bruce's duet and the pros' dance (for Sunday) were pre-recorded that night, however. Also, Matt was furious with his comments, with Scott and Natalie having to try and calm him down afterwards. Ironic how things turned out.”

It’s a disappointment but it’s not a surprise. Instead of the now slightly tedious two-shot of the couples coming out of the studio door and happening to find a camera crew there, this week we just saw Matt fly by pursued by a studio assistant.

It might even have been the very same studio assistant who had to get Gavin and Katya off the floor after they failed to notice they were ejected from the swingathon. Though the show probably has more than one, you’re right.

What to think, though. Kara was an obvious choice for the final for me - oh, get off my back, it's her dancing! - and Pamela was obviously right to get through for her dancing too. And part of me would like to see Pamela beat the Strictly casting, the way she was picked to fill the role of the older contestant who bows out early.

I’m just not sure now about Matt. We saw him give a quiet sob and I admit that did make me warm to him. The man’s caught up in the emotion, thats what it is.

So I’m pretty sure I still prefer him in the final than Scott and I do so because his dancing is better.

It’s a bit like the Dancing with the Stars final: I didn’t like Jennifer Grey as a person but her dancing was terrific.

Mind you, she was up against two total non-dancing no-hopers in her US final where the UK one could go any way, could really have any of those finalists lifting the trophy.

It’s been a very good year for the show in every sense. Next time you hear Tess Daly asking someone about the pressure of dancing on live TV, listen for the numbers she uses. At the start of this series she’d say “What’s it like dancing in front of 10 million people?” It’s steadily gone up until this week she asked Gavin about the pressure of “14 million people”.

I think she even had a little glee in her voice. And quite right too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Strictly: Was It Recorded?

You think I fancy Kara Tointon and there is a tiny chance that the next thing I’m going to say is going to convince you.

She has tremendous legs.

Now, hang on just one sentence: she has fantastic arms, too.

I was thinking when we watched Pamela and James tonight that - well, first I was thinking that her dress was dreadful but then I was enjoying the dance. And then I went back to the dress. That frock’s job was to show off her legs and if I meant all this the way you’re thinking that I do, then yes, Pamela Stephenson has good legs.

But there is something wrong. There’s a kind of lag to her leg movements. It’s not that she has heavy or big legs but they look heavy, they don’t have this much-talked-of musicality in them.

Whereas Kara’s limbs are all preternaturally light and moving: she doesn’t seem, for instance, to be lifting her legs in a kick or flick, it feels that it’s the music lifting her.

This is why she’s described as a natural and I completely agree that she is, except that I completely disagree that she should be called it.

Maybe Kara is a natural but somehow saying that diminishes her work. I got ratty tonight at Len for nicely telling Gavin he was unlucky that his dance hadn’t suited him because he claimed that Kara’s had been right for her. I do believe that certain dances work for certain people but the implication was that Kara hadn’t had to work.

She did. You do not get to be that good, you cannot ever be good without work.

It’s great that Kara Tointon makes dancing look easy, but we’re not supposed to be stupid enough to ever think that it is.

Mind you, did you hear Gavin on one of the video packages? “Counting? You mean that 1, 2, 3 thing?” Did you understand Len’s thing about the two best Viennese waltzes being Kara’s one?

Then did you hear Bruce Forysth’s jokes? No, I wasn’t listening either, I was looking away.

Much like the judges must be during poor Matt’s dance. I don’t really doubt them, they are three professional judges and Alesha Dixon, but they did feel harsh tonight. So much so that Matt Baker was visibly crushed and so much so that I felt crushed alongside him.

Crushed. It’s a funny word: so similar to “rushed”, which Matt and Aliona then were.

I don’t know if tonight’s show was really done live: it felt so but if it was then Matt and Aliona had very little time to get changed for the swingathon. They could’ve done it, we’ve seen fast changes before, but while I don’t question that they could manage to get into the next costume that quickly, I do question the fairness.

Not just because the swingathon was all about stamina and every other couple had time to recover from their dances. But because if it were live, then Matt was on stage again just moments after the worst bruising he has ever had from the judges.

I found I wanted him to win the swingathon. If the phone lines had been open tonight, I might’ve voted for him.

I mean yes, Kara’s dance was everything I watch this show for, but I would say that, apparently I fancy her rotten, don’t I?


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Ann Widdecombe for President! Or something

Anything, really. King. Queen. National icon, I don’t care. I sat here saying this, repeating it like a mantra, with my eyes closed and my fingers crossed as we waited to hear whether she was out or not.

I do think the comments against her were scaldingly personal and I recognise what a sport she was for taking that. I’m also aware that I didn’t like her before the show so it was going to take an enormous amount to win me over.

Yet I’m now rather pro Pamela Stephenson: I still find the psychiatry schtick a pain, most especially because her Shrink Rap TV series threw away the opportunity to do a new Face to Face level interview and instead was a platform for her to talk. But fast forward ten weeks and I was a wee bit choked during her dance this time. I’m not going to hide that I felt a bit teary when she got that first 10 from Craig, too.

Thinks. Sudden need to remind you I’m a man.

I suspect that just did it: the feeble need to remind you was masculine enough. Though I’m also going to say that if you could possibly vote for the professional and not the celebrity, I’d have voted for Katya Virshilas.


Ann Widdecombe.

I offer that one reason people like her is that she doesn’t suffer fools - and that a reason I don’t is that she somehow expects fools to suffer her.

I think I’ve just called myself a fool.

Still, I don’t see you disagreeing. Let’s move on.

You could disagree a little bit, you know.

I’m not saying you have to mean it.


Ann Widdecombe.

If she’s been the only problem in the series for me this year, there have been odd niggles and they seemed to resurface this week. Claudia Winkleman got an unexpected send-off: you could really only infer that she isn’t doing the rest of the results shows, it wasn’t announced per se. We just had Tess with that Borg-protrosion heavy metal nail gun frock suddenly getting emotional over Claudia for anywhere up to a fifth of a second.

Then on Saturday night’s show both Tess and Bruce kept emphasising the wrong day: “We’re back Friday, Saturday and Sunday!” with heavy underlining of the word “and”. It was as if the Sunday show was the new and unexpected one, not the Friday.

Maybe it’s because the Friday/Saturday split makes sense to them and it’s news, to their mind, that Bruce is doing the Sunday again. Not quite news enough for them to tell us explicitly, though, it’s as if we are supposed to know these things. That’s what niggles me; it’s like the contortion over the results show, the way we have to pretend the results are called out in two batches when it looks reasonably certain that it’s one go edited.

We do know that everyone is to do three dances next week: two individual and one group one. We also know that if they did this in one go the show would overlap with The X Factor so perhaps we do understand why it has to begin on Friday.

There was a moment this weekend when it was asked whether Ann Widdecombe could manage to learn three dances for next week. Obviously now she doesn’t have to, obviously I just wondered why it was asked when she'd yet to learn any dances that I could see.

But it actually made me wonder about Scott.

Watching him fall asleep for half a second in training, falling asleep standing up, was a little scary. I’ve done it myself, I recognised the sensation, and I feel for the guy. But in a slip of the tongue, he said that he was jaded, not tired. The man was exhausted and you can’t expect him to be jolly while that wrecked, but still he’s right: there is a jaded feel to him and I think he’s lost it.

It’s for this reason that I thought he’d go this week. I think now that he will go next.

Not that he should, there’s little question that Gavin is the one who ought to be leaving next. But I’ve been voting for Katya, so.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Duncing with the stars

I mistimed Ann Widdecombe’s dance: I’d already got a cup of tea before she came on. But as worked hard at getting down to the tea leaves rather than watch her, I had a vision of the future.

It was a very specific vision, the kind of vision you get only by accidentally treading on your Sky+ remote and starting playback of the finale of America’s Dancing with the Stars. But it came to me like a vision of Christmas future because this year’s finale there had many a similarity to what we’re facing here.

They had three people in their finale: Jennifer Grey, Bristol Palin and Kyle Somebody. Kyle Somebody plainly made a big impression on me. Jennifer Grey was rather irritating somehow but she could and did dance. And Bristol, daughter of Sarah “Which is north again?” Palin was the Ann Widdecombe.

That’s a little unfair. Bristol Palin can’t dance, she has no music in her, but you watch for a moment and all you think is that she’s just young. Have another go in the future, bless.

But she made it to the final off the back of the public vote: she needed to get votes from ill-informed people who can’t see the evidence of their own eyes so, actually, she was fine there. You could’ve predicted she’d make it to the end.

The problem was with the judges and this is where it’s scaring me. If we vote Ann Widdecombe into the final or perhaps even to win, we have ourselves to blame. But if the judges copy what appeared to happen in America, they will start giving Ann better and better marks.

We’ve already seen Len switch to the “it’s fabulous entertainment” side. And this week we saw votes that bore more relation to how we’re near the end of the series than to the quality of the dances: Pamela did not deserve 10s, even my previous favourite Kara did not deserve her 9s.

Kara made a disappointing start because while the steps were there, the musicality wasn’t. Nobody had that this week, nobody.

They’re just all jiggered from their jigs, aren’t they?

If I look up now, by the way, I can see the spines of two Titanic books on my shelves. Up in my office I’ve probably got another four. Two weeks ago, I touched a piece of the Titanic’s hull at the Las Vegas exhibition. A real piece. The real hull. The actual metal of the ship. It was a moment like an electric shock.

And still I couldn’t keep my attention on Ann and Anton’s Titanic-themed dance.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's time to meet the stars of our zzzzzz

“Will you be home in time to see it tonight?” writer Katharine Robb asked me at an event today. I have rarely been so certain in my answer yes, so rarely correct and yet simultaneously so entirely wrong. While you were enjoying Kara Tointon and the best dance of the night, I was at home. Asleep.

It hits you at odd times, the post-travel jetlag zero-exercise no-stamina need for a pillow, but it is the first time Strictly has sent me nodding off.

Bless the wonder that is Sky+, though: I got to watch the whole thing, as live but delayed by an hour or so. And the only consequence was that as I reached for the phone to vote for Kara, Tess Daly said on the telly: “No, William, you’ve messed it up again, voting closed about a minute ago.”

I may be paraphrasing there.

Funny night, don’t you think? Blackpool feels very different: we got many more camera angles from behind a row or two of audience and somehow I had a sense throughout that all the dancers were farther away than usual. I felt the distance, felt less connected at times.

And I can only account for the scoring by assuming the judges have finer eyesight and better seats than I do. Matt Baker’s tens were kind, Pamela and James’s ones were a kind of stock clearance, using up the tens before the show finished for the night. And while I could well accept Len’s logic about Kara’s dance not being as advertised, I was disappointed with Craig only giving her a 9.

But as my mind wandered during Ann Widdencombe’s Canary Waif routine,I kept coming back to Anonymous’s comment last week: the point that I was wrong about celebrity dancers and the Argentine Tango. I’d posited that Kara Tointon’s was the first time a celebrity had done it that well and Anon said no: what about Mark Ramprakash?

It’s a true and a good point. I’d forgotten him - and yet I hadn’t forgotten that dance. He and Karen Hardy dancing the Argentine Tango back in series 4, way back in 2006, that was one of the highlights of the whole of Strictly. I can see it now, vividly clearly remember her dance steps, his lifting her, her stroking a leg against him like a preying mantis.

Yet I forgot him because I realise now that I see the Argentine Tango as the woman’s dance. The man is there to frame, to support, the woman does all the work.

Which means Anonymous sent me off doubting my memory and brings me back ever more sure of what I said: Kara Tointon isn’t a pro but I really think she dances like one.

I’ll say it again: give her the trophy now.

Not that she really stands a chance at beating Ann Widdecombe. Seriously.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Strictly from Vegas – the real one

Perhaps you had the sound muted because Bruce Forsyth was making the funnies but if you caught him contorting a gag about the Las Vegas of the North, please picture me with a cold slice of pizza and a surprised look: I'm in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas of the, er, Nevada.

Angela and I are here, it's a work thing, I'd tell you but I promise you'd be bored by the fifteenth paragraph and I'd be irritatingly giddy, so, you know, enough. The fact that Bruce made this gag that way was disconcerting, that's all. No more about me and half-choked, half-cooked pizza.

Instead, you'll also have seen Pamela and James opening their routine typing on computers. Do you want to know what they were doing? They'd set their Macs in their home office to record Strictly Come Dancing via EyeTV, a teeny Freeview box about the size of a prayer that plugs TV signals into your computer. This EyeTV lark recorded the show for them, it transcoded it into a smaller file size and copied it up for my to my MobileMe cloud space where I was able to pull it down onto the MacBook I brought with me to work on.

If the BBC would just open up the iPlayer to international viewers, I'd have been able to concentrate on my work instead of figuring all this out.

But then it did also occur to me that this is Vegas: would the glamour of Strictly Come Dancing suddenly appear a bit limp to me? Would I have to hide behind geeking out just for something to say? Might I turn to, I don't know, which satellite I bounced the cloud signal off just so I didn't give in and rage at you about Ann Widdecombe?

No, if it had come to that I'd just have told you that The A Team movie is very funny when you watch it on an airplane because all the airplane-blowing-up bits of the plot have been removed. It's like watching Casualty when Gold used to show it during the daytime: you'd get the oh-oh, there's trouble, then the oh-yes, it's that big railing spike they keep cutting to and there'd be ominous music if Casualty had a budget, then there's the eh-what? as the big accident of the week is deleted.

Speaking of Ann Widdecombe, I am just bored. I'm not a fan of the woman anyway, I can acknowledge that she's handling all this aplombably but I just want her gone. So Len's effectively positioning the judges on her side did not win me over.

Nor did Kara Tointon's dance.

But that's because I was won over by her last week, I'm on this woman's side, I expect to enjoy her dances and I truly do believe she should win the whole contest this year. We've seen many a good Argentine Tango on the show but this was the first brilliant one danced by a celebrity.

Next week Strictly is in Blackpool, the Vegas of the North, and I am not. Did you spend that boring half hour applying for tickets to each episode of Strictly separately? Every week now I am reminded of that afternoon because the BBC ticket office regularly now emails me to say tough luck but there may be spaces for a hilarious new Radio 3 comedy about ducks.


I feel a bit bad complaining about never getting to travel to Strictly since I am currently 5,212 miles away.

Right. Sorry about that. I must away to the gaming tables. Someone's got to fund this trip, you know.

It's okay.

I have a system.


Monday, November 08, 2010

Talking, talking, talking at the London Screenwriters' Festival 2010

So it turns out that I can talk. Possibly you’re not surprised, especially if you followed a link here expecting Strictly Come Dancing chatter. There is plenty and it contains News: you’ll find it here, which is the metric equivalent of about an inch down the page.

Anyway. Talking. Possibly you think my problem is more on the shutting up side, more likely you’ve never spent a second thinking about it.

But it turns out I can talk and it was a little startling to me.

Specifically, I can pitch.

At speed.

The one thing that spoiled the London Screenwriters’ Festival for me last weekend was the dread and the fear of pitching an idea to people in a speed-pitching session. And then the things that risked overwhelming the whole festival for me were the fire in me when I got to do the pitching and the elation when it went so well.

It’s interesting to me that what I got out of a writing festival was speech but that was always going to be the way. No matter what anyone tells you about courses, nobody can teach you how to write. Get better at it. Get more successful at it. But writing itself, no. I don’t know if this troubles you at all, but in case it does I will also point out that there are many fine people who state without question that if you were to spend 10,000 hours on your writing you would become a fantastic writer.

If you believe that, please come back when you’re on hour 9,999 and we’ll talk.

Even then, see, it’s all about talking. I used to truly wonder if writers are the people who don’t write.

Then I met several hundred who all wrote, all the time, and still had lives so long as you count other jobs and wine o’clock as lives.

I did get into a natter about science that had nothing to do with writing and everything to do with entirely fascinating me. I did meet people who proved to be as funny in the flesh as they do on Twitter.

And every one of them has at least one great script or great project - oftentimes they left it up to you to work out which it was - and every one of them was increasingly fired up by this festival weekend.

I wasn’t going to the London Screenwriters’ Festival until I got a bursary for it from Screen West Midlands: thank you very much to them. It’s first time I’ve been directly funded for an arts event and it was an event I was very keen to go to so that was particularly good news that could not possibly have even a hint of a dark cloud.

It had rain instead.

I learnt that as part of the bursary, I got to take part in the speed pitching sessions. I just had to tell them ahead of time what my project was so the organisers could match me up with people who might be interested. The project I got the bursary on wouldn’t do: it’s tied up with a producer already. So I said the first one that came to mind, the first script of mine I could think of.

I contemplated pitching the idea without rereading the script or even entirely fully remembering a single thing about it.

Somehow that just seemed to make a five-minute speed pitch feel like it was going to last an hour. So I read. And, since it’s you, I’ll tell you I enjoyed the piece. It’d been a year since I looked at it and I’d forgotten so much that I got into the story again.

Let me skip ahead: all three people I pitched to liked the idea.

But let me skip back: I’m a writer on a bursary who has to show what he’s got and do it at lightspeed. I was genuinely scared going in to this session and it coloured the whole first day of the festival for me.

Since you ask, the colour was a kind of Doppler effect: all blue in the morning before it, all brilliant red in the afternoon after. I left that room ten feet tall and wouldn’t have noticed if the rest of the festival was bad or perhaps if it even happened at all.

I’m bubbly about this event just talking to you, feeling anew that rush that came before the chin-on-desk slump when I got back home to work. There were things that didn’t go well at the festival: one speaker advised new writers to write a spec Absolutely Fabulous script. Silly man. “Hello, Mr or Mrs or Ms Producer, here’s a script I’ve written for a show that finished ten years ago. I promise I haven’t spent a decade on it and I do know that comedy has moved on a bit since then. Can I have a commission now, please?”

But I learnt that soaps are brutal and harsh and so very like the newsrooms I was trained in that they appeal to me again. I found out that German television makes a billion and a half single dramas every hour where UK TV hasn’t since the 1960s. I fortunately also found out that German television translates British-language scripts.

And of all the events, I had the best time in a crime one run by Barbara Machin. Finally, someone else who likes crime and doesn’t care whodunit. Or rather, that’s the least important thing in a crime tale that’s any good.

It sounds a bit off, but hearing people you rate saying the same things you believe is rather invigorating. Please agree with me in the comments here and make me feel great.

I have learnt for next year, however. I’ve learnt that I need to practice my trade more, I need to build up writing muscles, I need to exercise what resilient skills I have: oh yes, next year I too must be able to stay up drinking Pepsi until 7am and losing my voice.

If you want to know more about Screen West Midlands who funded me, they have a particularly fine website here. And as for the London Screenwriters’ Festival 2011, you’ll probably hear about it first on creative director Chris Jones’s blog.

Strictly: Who to Blame and Who to Thank for this year

I’ve said to you before that there’s no Strictly blog on this year and this is true. Would I lie to you? When you could catch me out that easily?

But there is today a piece I’ve written for them about Ann Widdecombe staying in while good dancers go out. For balance, the piece also covers a similar thing that is apparently happening on The X Factor with someone called Wagner but, really, I phoned that bit of the piece in. Are Novelty Acts Spoiling Strictly and X Factor?

Tell me you didn’t look at the final leaderboard this week and gasp: “Scott’s at the bottom!” even though Ann was below him. Tell me it’s not you voting to keep her in every week. We can get past this, our friendship can survive the blow, but if we have nothing else, we have to have honesty.

It would be nice to have news. I’m a newsy guy. And I have some. If Ann Widdecombe is the bit of Strictly that should go, perhaps in an ideal world taking all the props with her, then in a fair and just world, there is someone we should be thanking for how very much better the show is this year.

It’s not the fabulous Dave Arch who can’t be bothered to take his headphones off. It’s not the fella with a hat who sits behind him. It’s not any headgear person at all because this one isn’t directly in the production, isn’t even credited at the end.

She’s Katie Taylor, head of entertainment and events at BBC Television and she dun it. It helped that the BBC has invested more money and there is a new executive producer too but Taylor is responsible for the revamp.

And she told Broadcast magazine this week that she may not be done with the show just yet. “Nothing can stay the same or the audience will get bored, and when that happens, they switch over,” she said. “The format is the format, but it’s there to be tweaked.”

You see the word tweak and you think Bruce Forsyth but, no, he’s not on the way out just yet despite skipping the results shows this year. “Bruce is 83 and his energy is quite something,” she told Broadcast. “But it was tiring doing both shows, and Claudia, who is already part of the Strictly family, is so witty and really lives and breathes the show, so Bruce was really happy with it. I am sure he will call me up if he decides to leave, but we’ve not had that conversation yet.”

I’m ready to declare a winner, by the way. I’m ready to call it. Kara Tointon for champion. You saw it here first, unless you saw it anywhere else before me and didn’t mention it.

Yes, the tricks as she called them were quite eye-popping but what got me convinced was the return of what I’ve briefly seen before with her: a moment or three when she wasn’t dancing steps, wasn’t following choreography, she was in the music.

I don’t think there’s anything more I could want.

Except for Ann Widdecombe to do a John Sergeant and leave gracefully. For gracefully read quickly, but gracefully is good too.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Strictly Come Texting

Perhaps you already do this and I'm certain you’d enjoy it if you did: watch Strictly while using twitter to discuss it blow by blow, frock by frock, lift by stumble.

Now, if you do that during drama, if you do that during In Treatment, then you and I are going to have words. After the show. But in shiny floor entertainment, not only is it a genuine boon, last year it was often all that made Strictly worth watching.

This year, things are much better so tweeting isn’t necessary and in fact if you’ve been affected by the subjects discussed in this blog, please contact the helpline on @wgallagher.

But this week I was off. Away. I’m getting reluctantly used to missing episodes of It Takes Two when necessary, I’m itchy but acceptant about delaying watching the main show if Angela’s away or we’re off together. But this week it was me, gone, away, off. By heart-wringing agreement, Angela was left to watch Strictly without me.

And to text me with Very Unhelpfully Tantalising Not To Say Cruel messages.

Such as this one. I’m in a pub. It’s work, okay? I’m not enjo - well, I am, alright, but It’s Kind of Work, and I get the familiar throb over my heart as the iPhone in my shirt pocket vibrates this text at me: “How did Brendan do that with his waistcoat?”

Followed by “Not a great music choice.”

I tell you, after a few of these it is entirely possible that I was chatting with you in that bar and wouldn’t know.

“Vincent has the cutest son.”

Okay. Okay. This has all been by text, it’s all been direct texts from Angela to me. But I’ve still got twitter. Yes, yes, thanks, mine’s a Coke on the rocks, I’ll be with you in a sec.

“I just realised, Kara’s paso dress is the same as Alesha’s AMAZING FLYING CAPE DRESS! I need to get out more” @PadsterMo

“Well that took the sex right out of the Argentine Tango” @gibbzer

Wait, Angela’s back texting: “How do they do those eyes on Jimi?”

Thanks for the Coke, I need a whisky chaser now.

Flashforward to the results show and my beloved Angela texts me on my train home saying: “Shock - I didn’t expect them to go!”


Angela: “Did I tell you we had the first 10s of the series?”


Here’s what I’ve learnt from the weekend. I have yet to see one dance, one vote, one frock and this is all bad.

It’s rather fundamentally bad and it must be stopped, I must watch our Sky+ recording immediately.

But on the good side, it was by far the most tantalising and tense Strictly I’ve ever not watched.

Next week, we continue the science experiment by attempting to watch The X Factor without drinking.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Strictly: Stockings and suspense

Two reasons the US Dancing with the Stars doesn’t work. They use props to disguise that they’ve not got the dancing chops and the celebrities are overmarked so much that you wonder what happens to our Len and Bruno on their transatlantic flights.

Now on Strictly Come Dancing, we’re getting props aplenty: this week the Play School windows with Matt and Aliona, the “strumpet” wine glasses with Felicity and Vincent, the flying rig for Ann Widdecombe. Plus we’ve had card tricks and even wellies. There was a time when Len used to object if they had so much as a cape.

We’re also getting very high marks: couples this week, a month into the three-month series, came within whiskers of getting 10s.

But not unreasonably so. Unlike previous Strictly and unlike all Dancing with the Stars, the dances have boomed into life immediately and the standard now is what we’re used to seeing much later in the series. I’ve even had a brief glimpse of that intangible moment that makes Strictly so good: the dance that blows you away. While Kara Tointon’s routine was niggle-marked by the judges, she had the music. Wasn’t just doing the steps well, she was dancing the music.

Reminds me of when I knew John Sergeant was going to be trouble. On one of those “we’ve just met for the first time, really” items, his professional dance partner Kristina Rihanoff asked if he could hear the music. “I’m not deaf,” he said. Despite his known Broadway dance experience and the way his frame is as ruggedly athletic as mine, that’s when I knew he’d be out in a week.


Things you might not want to know: Strictly’s results show is indeed recorded on Saturday nights while we’re all out but naughty people allegedly post the outcome online around 10:30pm. I haven’t looked. Let it be between you and your conscience if you bookmark the forums. I would offer that betting shops have probably figured this trick out by now.

Things you have no reason knowing: I am the only man on Earth who does not, um, respond to stockings and suspenders. I think they look silly. Consequently Erin had the worst costume of the night for me.

But then it was a poor night for frockwatch: it’s always a little bit rubbish when Tess Daly gets the best outfits.

Still, if the dresses were lacking, the dancing wasn’t and that’s probably the best way around, sulk, stomps foot, shrugs like a teenager. And the dances are good: it’s hard to remember how much conversation and nipping out to put the kettle on we used to be able to have during last year’s routines.

You do wonder if the standard can keep up - and whether it’ll be a bit dull if they all get to 10s in week five and have nowhere else to go for the rest of the series. I’m not saying a word about 11, but we’re all thinking it.

We just need to get rid of the deadwood now. And with Peter Shilton gone, we’re making a start.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Strictly Shock: Bruce was funny

Let's not get carried away. But Bruce Forsyth was funny enough that I looked to see whether there was a new writer on the credits. What do you mean, you didn't know there was a writer?

This time last year I would've seized on this because the dancing itself was giving me problems. Writing on Radio Times, I did wonder first whether RT would be all that impressed with my criticising every inch of the show. They were. If that's the way it is, they said, what else can you do? After a few weeks of that, though, it became that I wondered whether you'd be all that impressed. Another week, another criticism. I was running out of gags.

But it feels a world away now because this new series is flying. We're seeing real dancing already and moreover it feels like real competition. So soon. And with so many frontrunners: Matt Baker, Kara Tointon, Pamela Stephenson, Scott Maslen. All of them doing well and in fact much better than they should be so soon into the run.

I want to add Felicity Kendal into the list of people doing well but I can't watch her. No human being should be able to bend like that. You know those bent over double back-spraining moves? I can't make that move going forwards.

I can look before she dances, though, and she does consistently get the good frocks. So does Flavia. I swear to God that Ola's costume made her look fatter this week: it cannot be so, it is not physically possible to make her look fat, but it tried.

Again, I'm not a man at all. Men should be newsy, right? Let me have a go. Tina O'Brien got a bye this week because of her chicken pox but if she's still unwell next week, that's it. Chicken pox usually lasts 7-10 days (see? You're getting hard facts here) so it's surely touch and go whether she'll be back at all, let alone whether she'll be back in time to rehearse enough.

You're wondering what's going to happen with Brendan Cole too, aren't you? He's out next week: he's flown home to New Zealand following the death of his father. But Michelle Williams will be dancing: she's reportedly going to be partnered for one week by Ian Waite.

That'll be confirmed, presumably, in tonight's Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two. Last year this series was better than the main show; this year the main show is catching up with it. So now it's only the Sunday night results show that needs fixing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Strictly: Silenced is Goldie

Silenced is Goldie and my eyes can’t see quite why. I wasn’t a fan, I don’t especially mind he’s out, but he could move a bit and so far Peter Shilton is just the bloke who gets to stand there watching Erin Boag dance closer up than the rest of us.

Do you ever think you’d forget to dance? That you’d just get lost watching your professional partner dance so stunningly? A poet once performed close-up poetry on me, her nose practically touching mine. Mesmerising. Not all that hygienic, but mesmerising. If I were a celebrity partnered with someone as good as these dancers, I would just find myself enjoying their dance and entirely forgetting mine.

Oh, come on, you’ve thought about it too.


Maybe it’s because I’m completely untouched by football that I don’t appreciate Peter Shilton and can only take it on trust that he has in some way done something important for someone, some time. It was vital, I know that. It was more important than anything I’ve ever done, I actually do know that.

I should say that while I wouldn’t miss him and I won’t miss Goldie, it’s nothing personal in either case. The only feeling I had when Goldie’s name was finally announced was a mild case of immense, total and overwhelming relief.

Because I didn’t see Strictly until Monday night and the power of Twitter meant that I knew the outcome where Angela, with more self-control and anyway she's a Facebook user, did not. I hate knowing the future.

Much easier knowing the past. Such as the way in every previous Strictly series we’ve had a few duff yet entertaining weeks as these folks find their feet. How it takes a good month before we start seeing anything interesting and the reason we watch is promise and anticipation more than any great reward.

But to give this year’s series credit, we’re on the second week and it already feels as if we’re deep into the contest. Maybe there’s still no utter wow of a dance but there is spectacular, there is strong dancing and there is a sense of competition fight in people.

We’re also somehow finding favourites sooner. Last year I hung on to hoping Craig Kelly would get better because I just liked the guy.

This year I’m a little the opposite. I don’t happen to like Ann Widdecombe so I’m not engaged with her routines, much as I can respect how she’s handling it. I don’t happen to like Paul Daniels, but that’s not his fault, that’s just an opportunity for a tea break.

There does seem to be more personal comments and jibes this time around. Daniels got described as Yoda - like it not did he, a lot not he like - which seemed unnecessarily cruel when he’s a bit more like Golum, really.

The jibes surprise me a little, the newfound use of dance props reminds me more of the US Dancing with the Stars than Strictly: if Erin brought out those mannequins now, would it still be Muppetgate?

Yet the biggest surprise was the mess of the results show with Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman. Do you see the logic of how how the saved and the unsaved couples were announced? If there’s anything shiny floor entertainment shows are not, it’s complicated. Yet splitting things up, looking like they’d recorded it all in one go and edited it around, I felt I parked my interest until they’d brought out the two muggins facing the chop.

Claudia Winkelman’s name came up in a couple of meetings I had the other week and in each I was unable to convince people that I don’t rate her because I fancy the woman. Look at how quick-witted she is, I argued fruitlessly. Yeah, but wait to see how good she’ll be on the results show. How much better she’ll be than Bruce Forsyth.

I hate not knowing the future.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Strictly: “There was nothing average about that...”

True, Saturday’s show wasn’t as good as Friday’s but this is already a better series than last year’s. Enough so that you can relax into it and immediately enjoy those familiar Strictly staples.

Such as the contractually-negotiated introductions. Jimi Mistry is “movie star Jimi Mistry” when he walks down the stairs, much as Jo Wood was an “entrepreneur” last time. Then “Patsy Kensit has done a lot of things in her career,” began Brucie as lawyers fretted about her CV and BBC producers fretted over how Bruce’s jokes would dent the ratings.

Those producers have made more visible changes than any before them and generally they’re very good changes. It is hard not to miss the old spangly purple title sequence but the new one has style and flair and it is impossible to miss the new Enormous Lettering for the celebrities’ names.

We’ve got a new set that keeps the action in one place with Tess’s backstage area now only elevated so it feels inclusive, it feels like it’s part of the action. It does also feel a little cruel to make the dancers have to dart up those stairs before they’ve caught their breath. And – tell me you didn’t think this – the new arrangement and the new camera angels on the dancers bouncing up those stairs are, um, intended to keep a certain half of the viewing audience interested.


We’ve not had a dance that really carries you away yet but the way the new set was lit in fairytale blue for Pamela Stephenson’s dance came close. It is quite an amazing set: that blue for Stephenson, then a sea of twinkly lights for Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow.

It’s not really the Strictly set, though, it’s the Earth Defense Directorate from Buck Rogers. Or at least it was when Michelle Williams and Brendan Cole danced.

Bruce maintained that Michelle Williams was the finest singer with the surname Williams, only as a gag against Robbie but unthinkingly also forgetting both Andy and Dar.

But then Bruce also inadvertently set up the most tellingly ambiguous comment of the weekend. After his spiel about the judges being average, Len told Jimi Mistry that “there was nothing average” about his dance. Breath was held, but he meant it as a good thing.

Which is nice. Even nicer is how we can already disagree with the judges. How they are already seeing different dances than we are. If you watched with someone else, how often did you turn to look at each other and say “Eh?” A clue: it would be exactly the same number of times we saw standing ovations.

Nobody warranted a standing ovation, few were very good, some were terrible. You knew Paul Daniels was in trouble from the start when his wee little magic trick would’ve had three-year-olds shrugging.

He wasn’t bad enough to stop your mind wandering during his dance. And he’s not good enough to get your mind wondering if he’s going to win. Ola Jordan will be available for bar and bat mitzvahs from about week 2. She’ll provide her own costume, but you may not be able to spot it.

It is startling how often the costumes in Strictly cause problems. Kara Tointon must have true precision dancing skills the way the poor woman managed to catch a heel in material as thin as superstring. And that after having her entire personality erased by the makeup and hair styling department.

Erin Boag, Felicity Kendal and Katya Virshilas got the best out of the costume department while Flavia Cacace did best by the hair stylers with gorgeous vivid red streaks in her dark hair.

I’m not a man at all, am I?

I did spot that thing with the camera angles.

A couple of things to tell you. There’s no Strictly blog on this year, that’s why I’m waving at you from here, but there is a lot of very good Strictly material on that site. I’ve just cut a series of videos for there showing the celebrities and their professional partners posing for the Radio Times covershoot. You can see that, plus the photos and considerably more at

Whereas I just went to to check the spelling of Katya Virshilas’s name and the spangly new site has remarkably off-putting photographs. Someone at the BBC has discovered Photoshop’s Sketch and Stylise filters. They must be stopped.

Is that harsh? Am I obsessing too much with the new set and Flavia’s hair? As soon as I can figure out how to do it, I’m switching off the thing that means you have to register to shout comments at me here. This does mean we can expect a lot of offers for sex aids and financial windfalls, some written in Chinese. But if we just ignore them, they’ll go play somewhere else.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Strictly: Poor Anton

"It's never too early to start panicking on this show," said Len and with that we're instantly back into Strictly: lapping up the atmosphere, being aghast at the frocks, pitying Anton and automatically tuning out Alesha Dixon.

We've just never been away. Yet this does feel like a shaken up Strictly. "This is the best lineup ever," said Len, this time reading from his contract. Yet there is some truth in it: this is the first series in years where the celebrities are better known than the professional dancers. Then the new graphics are more nicely Hollywood than Shepherds Bush and the redesigned set is smart.

Plus of course, the whole idea of a launch show is new - to Strictly, at least. The format of the launch show is very familiar if you remember sports day at school or you've ever spent quality time at a meat market.

There wasn't the promised tension and excitement over who was paired with whom, not when you could guess most with one squint at their respective heights. But we did have the little frisson over who is genuinely pleased, who is truly appalled and who had comments that were well enough prepared to make you suspect a fix.

There was a fix. Strictly is always cast as carefully as a drama and there is no random shuffle on who got whom but Anton got the joke: forget that Ann Widdecombe has been hired as the new John Sergeant, just look at the sixteen feet height difference. "If you are a politician of course you're going to say what you think," said Widdecombe during an interview recorded before we watched her and Anton pretending to be pleased with each other. That was rather sweet, her demonstrating the same grasp of reality she applies to Catholicism.

"That was seriously quite good," said Bruce as the hour came quite quickly to an end. That was the best part - not that it ended but that it seemed to fly by. It's easy to criticise the show but it does still have atmosphere, its artifice is balanced by fun and just often enough there are dances that lift you.

Not tonight, unfortunately, but you know they're coming and you know you'll be watching. Waddya say, round my place for a Strictly party on Friday 1 October?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Strictly Come Dancing: Um, about this launch show...

Last year, someone dropped out of Strictly Come Dancing with about a biscuit and a half to go before all the celebrities were due to be announced. Nobody's saying who it was, but it's because of them that we got to see the hips and the moves of Richard Dunwoody.

So that was a success all round.

The Mystery Celebrity tried it out, thought long and hard about how very much they prefer a game of soldiers and vanished with only the production team and the professional dancer knowing who that masked man was.

It's happened before, you could've bet that it would happen again but it can't now. The reveal of who this year's celebrities are to be was originally going to come out this Saturday night in the new launch show. Given that it's being recorded today at BBC Television Centre, someone had a Damascus moment and realised they weren't going to be able to keep it out of tomorrow's papers.

So instead, the celebrities were leaked and the officially announced late last night - and the new twist is that neither we nor the celebrities know who the professional dancers will be. If that's entirely true, the first time the celebrities meet their partner and have a good go is sometime this morning.

Maybe the people who got tickets to today's recording aren't as lucky as they thought.

But if there's no cooling off period for celebrities to change their mind and run away this year, that's really more a problem for them than for us. We'll get to see the ones who are truly suffering, and you are very cruel for thinking of that.

It's a questionable move and it'll be interesting to see if the launch show idea is repeated next year, but you do have the sense that things are being shaken up that needed to be shaken up. This year you've heard of at least most of the celebrities, for one thing. And Alesha Dixon is back judging.

So there's swings and roundabouts.

There's also some very, very odd photography. Last year the official Strictly photos were done under tight security and at the last minute but almost all of them were very strikingly well done shots. This year, all the official ones are truly dreadful: they look like they were taken on a phone and they've ramped up the cheesiness to a degree one can only hope the show does not follow.

Roll up, roll up: see for yourself Patsy Kensit trying to hold her stomach in, Peter Shilton looking like you've just ordered the wrong wine and Paul Daniels rather resembling Golum.

That's a link to the official BBC Strictly Come Dancing site. You can also get news of the show on Radio Times but note that unfortunately there won't be an RT Strictly blog this year.


Thursday, July 08, 2010

Alan Plater

I first met Alan Plater in the mid-1980s and if you can ever pull it off, this is the way to meet someone who's going to become a friend: I interviewed him. It was for a long piece in the BFI's television magazine, Primetime, and it was thirty ways exciting: my first long piece, my first writing about drama, actually one of my first pieces of journalism, and certainly the first time interviewing someone I was a fan of.

That doesn't always go well, mentioning no names Trevor Eve, but it did then. I was a little bit starstruck. I remember right now this moment, talking to you, that I was drawn then to the walls of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had in the flat they lived in at the time. And I realise right now, just glancing up, that I went the same way, that I got the shelves and I got the books and they mean everything to me.

Never got a dog, though. I can picture Shirley bringing Alan and I a cup of tea and being surprised that we'd got down to the interview so nervously fast. And her not being surprised that their dog, the Duke, had plonked himself across my feet, pinning me down and just being so warm that it was lovely.

It's perhaps too obvious to say that the whole afternoon was much the same but I'll say it anyway. The Duke was very heavy. The interview was not. The peg for the piece was that The Beiderbecke Connection was due shortly on ITV, the third and final of Alan's four tales about a woodwork teacher and an English one. If you've seen the Beiderbecke trilogy until your off-air tapes have worn out, get the DVD: it includes Get Lost!, a precursor to the show you remember.

I learnt all this on that day and, really, next time you meet someone, interview them. Somehow the brief for the piece ranged very wide and I pumped this nice guy for details of everything, his entire career and life. Yet still we had time to meander off onto other topics. He was adamant that he'd never change from a typewriter to a word processor, adamant. Also remarkably persuasive: I was then a nascent version of the geek I am today and even I could see his arguments.

The next time I saw him he'd bought a PC. I helped him onto a Mac later but never got him onto an iPhone. Shirley secretly fancies an iPad, I can tell you that.

I don't remember anything else about the second time we met. But it was dark when I was leaving their flat that first afternoon and it must've been December because I can still picture Shirley at their door, asking if I minded popping a pile of Christmas cards into the postbox downstairs. I can picture the corridor outside their flat, I can just about picture the cards. I can't see the postbox so clearly. I'm suddenly worrying about that.

The article had two mistakes in it. All these years later, I remember the mistakes. But then that's little to do with Alan and Shirley, I just remember mistakes and berate myself in the middle of the night for errors ten years in the past. You can't believe the cockups I did once or twice at BBC Ceefax; I can see my editor there, the dear and tremendous Lucie Maguire, gently starting to tell me what I'd done and I can feel my legs going the way they did.

I see a lot, don't I? Remember a lot. Strikingly clearly, sometimes. Not always over important things, not always for an understandable reason. But certainly over people and times that matter to me.

Such as the handwriting on the letter that so sweetly told me I'd made those mistakes: Shirley and Alan having no interest in whether I got something right or wrong about them, but keen to make sure I knew my jazz history. If you ever find the BFI piece online and read it, let me know so I can tell you what I got wrong about Ellington.

Strange to think of handwriting and letters when it feels now as if Alan, Shirley and I have always emailed a lot. That letter's long gone, I'm not one to keep mementoes and anyway what would've felt like one then doesn't now: at some point and quickly, Alan went from an interviewee to a friend.

He read my first ever stab at a script, a piece called The Strawberry Thief. Still a good title. Still a rubbish script. And he said so. But he said so in such a way that I was inevitably going to pick myself up and have another go. He told me then that the stage directions I'd written had often made him laugh out loud and that I should get that into the dialogue where viewers would see it. When I did, he told me it was a great step for writerkind.

It is to my now permanent regret that I didn't get further with my writing while he could see it. I can point to a hundred things I've done, including television like Crossroads, certainly to all the journalism and stage pieces - years later Alan and Shirley came up to Birmingham to see my very first one, came during a busy time, came for just about exactly the two hours it took to see my play and get back to the train - and not only can I point to these things, but I do and I will. Still I've not achieved what I wanted, what I think he wanted for me, what I sometimes like to think he expected. You didn't have to say much on the day he died to make me choke, but a text from a friend did it and does it still: Andrea Gibb told me to go get drama work in his memory.

I will. I should tell you immediately that for all regret and all hope for the future, it is to my permanent and cherished and unshakeable pride that I am a better writer because of Alan Plater.

After my brother died, I took my mother to Leeds to see a play of Alan's and to finally meet him and Shirley. While I was at the bar, they talked to her about writing and writers and how there are some people who have it, who are writers, and there are those who just don't and never will. They told my mother that I had it, that I was a writer.

As much as that means to me, it also amuses me that I know because they very soon blabbed to me that they'd said this and my mother eventually mentioned it too. There were other things going on, other things rather monopolising thoughts but I also think she was processing it. I am too.

A quick, unexpected memory. I once gave Alan a lift from a talk he had given, one of the myriad talks he gave to writers everywhere, and the conversation became unexpectedly awkward, I felt for a second like I was right back to being the fan interviewing a hero. And I realised why: we had such similar views on whatever the conversation was about, doubtlessly drama, that I sounded sycophantic. "Thank God I don't like football," I told him, "because otherwise we agree on everything."

The last time I saw Alan he was trying to watch the World Cup and to explain something or other to me about football, again. I promise I waited until the little men with the ball thing had finished, though I'm not always sure what's a highlight, a repeat or just the same boring patch of grass. Might've been a goal. Then while he paid as little attention to ITV1's presenters as everyone else, we meandered again.

For some reason, and I do not remember why, we meandered onto the topic of Misterioso. I knew and you know that Alan wrote a stunning amount, that his body of work is incredible. I knew that then and I was still surprised to hear at the funeral how little I knew of it all. Hundreds of pieces of TV, stage, film, books, music. Any single one piece of which you'd be exultant to have written yourself. And when, inevitably, there is debate over what was his best, the contenders are lined up from here to the Mexican border.

I can't tell you if Misterioso is his best, it's probably not: the version that means so much to me is the original novel and that's a quiet, soft, gentle piece I've only read twenty times since it came out. "Bless you," said Alan on that last time I saw him, "I haven't read it since I wrote it." I informed him then that it wasn't his any more, it was mine. Tough. It's long felt like that: I know I can hear his voice in the writing but it's that story and that way of telling it with these characters that make this a book I hold close to me. I've probably recommended it to you already, that's how much I like it. And you've probably been disappointed because it's not been in print for years and you're never getting my hardback.

Nor has the TV version been released on DVD. Alan and Shirley got me a copy a few years ago and it is at this moment on my iPad. At the time they were both disappointed that the project had become a one-off instead of the serial they'd intended and I should have been disappointed because this was a TV adaptation of a book I loved. That rarely works out but here it's as if I have two Misteriosos, one a dear book and one a dear TV film. Come round my place some time, with all its books and bookshelves, and I'll show it to you.

Bring lunch. You'll have to watch The Beiderbecke Affair too. And Fortunes of War, the joyously beautifully perfect Fortunes of War. The last lines of which made me cry then and do today, do right this second as I remember them: not because they're sad, not because they're a weepie melodrama, but because they are right.

I told you I'm not one for mementoes. I told you that Alan Plater became a friend, became family really, and so much so that it's hard to remember just being a fan all those years ago. But there is a memento, just one.

The watch I was wearing that day I met Alan broke a short while afterwards but I kept it anyway. Because I'd worn it that day. I wore it again last Monday at his funeral.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Making a math of it

People are telling me this with a straight face: yes, England lost 4-1 to Germany or whichever team it was, but if one goal hadn't been disallowed, England would've won. People had been telling me with only slightly less of a straight face that, the other day, America beat some team 2-2.

Alan Plater wrote a stage play called Confessions of a City Supporter in which characters, fans of Hull City FC, would regularly insist a defeat was a moral victory: "We smashed 'em, nil-two."

Football maths. I love this, just love it, because it feels like a collision between math and drama. In drama people lie and misunderstand and don't know and don't realise what they know, it's a seething mass of contradiction. Whereas the beauty of math is that it's right. You can debate whether it was really Pythagoras who spotted what triangles get up to and there are gorgeous stories of lying bastards who got glory for other people's brilliant mathematics - but the math is correct. Triangles, hypotenuse, you know how it goes, it's true and it will always be true.

Seriously, always.

Science is about asking questions, it's about figuring something out then testing, testing, testing until it looks pretty solid. And yet it will forever be questioned, forever tested and the moment it breaks, science will drop it. Scientific method: it seems to be misunderstood these days, newspapers seem to believe today's science is absolute and that boffins - they're always boffins; if you've read a book, you're a boffin - think they know everything.

If a science experiment demonstrates that something happens 99 times out of 100, that's fair enough, that's a good, working, practical conclusion and science will use it until it breaks. Writers, on the other hand, work with issues and feelings and topics that actually do not make any sense at all, except that they make every sense.

Then mathematicians work in proof. That 99 out of 100? Not good enough. Not even close to being good enough. The math behind the security of every credit card transaction in the world is based on something that so far has not been proved. How many billion transactions happen every day? How crucial is this math to the world? Actually, it's crucial enough that banks hire mathematicians and pay them very, very well to try either proving or breaking it. Billions of pounds are spent relying on this math, millions are spent trying to break it before anyone else does and before they take down practically our entire economy.

But because it's not proved, this math is stubbornly called a theory. It's the Riemann Hypothesis. I am no mathematician but when it's explained as well as, say, Marcus du Sautoy does in The Music of the Primes book (UK edition, US edition) then I can see some of the sheer beauty of it. Enough that I wish I'd been a better student at school.

Quick example of how rigorous math is? This is one of my favourite jokes. Actually, it might come from that du Sautoy book. Not sure now. Anyway, are you ready?

A writer, a scientist and a mathematician are on a train travelling from England to Scotland. As they cross the border, the writer looks out and exclaims: "Look! Sheep are black in Scotland!" The scientist takes a look and says no: "In Scotland," he insists, "there is one sheep who is black."

The mathematician peeks over their shoulders and says no. "In Scotland, there is one sheep, one side of which is black."


Friday, June 04, 2010

Apple's iPad for writers

This is the kind of thing I wanted to know before I bought an iPad and it's what I've found after about a week's moderate use of it. So it's about the keyboard, it's about the apps and it's also about disappointments and the odd surprise.

You zoomed in on that word "disappointments", didn't you? Let's start there then.

Disappointments with the iPad

There have been two. First, I unthinkingly expected the box to include the wee little dock, the iPad equivalent of what comes with the iPhone. Apple's quite clear that it doesn't and I'm fine with how it doesn't come with headphones, so I shouldn't have been disappointed but I was. (You get a mains plug and a cable that attaches either to that or to your computer for docking.)

More seriously, the keyboard. This is an odd one because on the whole I'm so pleased with it as to be relieved, surprised and delighted. I will not be buying an external keyboard for it - though I think I've got a kludgy old keyboard somewhere that will connect wirelessly to it, maybe I'll give it a try some time.

Yet there were disappointments with the keyboard and it is what you, as a writer, spend most of your time on. I found the size and shape of the keys good, but the layout, not so much. It appears firstly, for instance, that there is no apostrophe on the main keyboard: you have to press a button marked .?123 which changes the QWERTY letters to 1234... numbers and includes punctuation. There is a secondly, though, which makes this better. Press and hold the comma button for an instant and the apostrophe appears.

So that's good. Except that I now find it easier to go to that numbers screen for it rather than hold up my writing for even that brief instant you have to wait. Plus, the iPad is even better at inserting apostrophes for you as you type than the iPhone is. That's great and and I did just type "thats", letting it correct me. But I type well, I like typing, so I'm having to train myself to let it have its way.

This kind of intelligent interference causes me problems with capitals. The iPad, especially in the excellent Pages app (£5.99 UK, $10 US) assumes quite rightly that every sentence begins with a capital letter. I hold this to be self-evident but that means I go to do it too: I tap the shift key, thinking I need it. Since Pages has already pressed shift, so to speak, I find I'm really un-pressing it and my sentences begin with a lowercase letter.

For some reason my fingers can't get used to where the wee little shift keys are either, so I find I'm pausing to find them and then pausing to go back to correct this uppercase/lowercase issue.

But that said, the automatic correction is rather impressive. I loathe predictive text on phones but here it's more what-you-really-meant. Very nicely, the iPad is good at spotting when the mistake is that you've left out a space: it's smart at recognising when one mistyped word is really two correctly-typed ones run together.

And the whole feel of typing on glass is very, very good. I should say I am in the minority who likes the iPhone keyboard even for protracted typing so maybe your mileage will vary. I also wonder if it will be as good for women or anyone who doesn't have a nervous fingernail issue.

Last, you do need to prop the iPad up to type on. Well, you don't. It's flat in front of me now but that means your hands tend to hide some of what you're typing. I bought Apple's iPad case (£30 from Apple Stores) and it's mixed, leaning toward good, and works very well as a stand that tilts the iPad to a good angle for typing. Also for reading: I've found I leave it propped up at that angle even when I'm actually using another computer. I tend to refer to the iPad for my calendar, for Twitter, for reading books in stolen moments.

Apps for writers

Buy Pages. I bought it before I bought the iPad. It's a good, strong word processor and is preposterously cheap. I thought the desktop Mac version was preposterously cheap but this is under a tenner.

Pages will read and write Microsoft Word documents though I expect not very complex ones. Getting documents in and out of Pages is not great: you end up emailing them around and thereby getting a bit in a tangle over which is the latest version of what document. You can copy your documents to and from your computer using iTunes but I've yet to even try, it's sufficiently inelegant. You can share your documents over but I've not even looked at that.

If you can think of Word as just the thing you need to send documents to people, if you don't think of Pages as trying to be a Word clone, you will like Apple's word processor. More: you'll be impressed. And when you go back to Word on your Mac or PC, you'll find yourself poking a finger at the screen.

That's how good Pages is and also how good the iPad's touch screen is. Using a mouse and proper keyboard do very quickly feel archaic, even wrong.

I did find it hard to see how to name the documents you create in Pages: turns out when you have the list of documents open (it looks a little like Cover Flow) then pressing and holding on the name lets you set it.

Once you've bought Pages

There are writing tools on the iPad app store, some of which are exactly the worthless distraction we seek but a few are close to essential.

For most writers, I'd say that in includes Evernote (free). The app lets you jot down anything, stray lines, ideas, images even and then later examine them right there in the app or on any computer that you can point at I have a problem with some of the graphics, just aesthetically, and they happen to be one of the few bits you can't customise. So I recommend Evernote but am still looking around


I thought I wanted an iPad for iBooks, for being able to read a lot.

Damn right.

For all that I write on the iPad, watch a lot of TV and video on it, listen to a lot of music and radio programmes, and spend far too much time on Twitter with it, by far the thing that has given me most pleasure is reading.

What I didn't expect was that iBooks isn't the only game in town.

There are three.

By far the best to use for straight reading and for buying books too, Apple's iBooks could be all you need. But there aren't that many books yet on the iBooks Store. Whereas there are many, many times more books downloadable from Amazon for its Kindle and Barnes and Noble for its Nook device.

Fortunately, both companies make free iPad and iPhone apps. Both are fine, leaning toward very good, though iBooks wins because buying books is much more obviously easy and simple in that. Dangerously so.

You may be thinking that I've sequed away from the topic of iPad for writers. But you can't write if you don't also read and reading on the iPad is a joy.

Plus, it's possible if a little tricky to get your own books into your copy of iTunes and iBooks. I did a pitch recently that reworked 10,000 words and reading it again on the iPad was a bit of a treat.

I'm not certain I'll write the next 10,000 words on it. But I've written all of this blog entry on my iPad: I think I've done it more slowly than I would've done on a full keyboard but I also think part of that is how I still need to get used to the keyboard layout differences.

Apple's iPad is available from online and real Apple Stores. Other tablet computers are available - apparently - but if they were any good, you'd not have read this far about iPads.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Prejudice is bad, if quick

I've a colleague who watched all of The Wire, every season, every episode, because she hoped she'd get to like it. I'm a hard, hard man: I want everything to be fantastic but if episode 1 doesn't hold me in some way, in any way, I'm off. And I think I'm wrong: this is the prejudice of the title, the rather less socially significant but since we're writers who want our work to keep people's attention, still important prejudice.

Follow. Back in the mid-1990s I saw the movie Stargate and didn't happen to like it. Consequently I saw only the odd channel-hopping sliver of its TV follow-up, Stargate: SG-1. Didn't watch a single frame of that show's follow up, Stargate Atlantis. Until checking this out before talking to you, I had never even heard of Stargate Infinity.

But now I'd probably call myself a fan, certainly an addict, of the latest series, Stargate Universe. That's happy for me. Only, as well as just enjoying the drama, I am agog at the differences between this and previous series: differences that are led by how the new show is written. I'm so agog that I've gone nipping back into the other Stargates, sampling this, trying that, running away again from the film. Some of it can be exciting, some of it can be funny and I'm not knocking the shows at all, I'm just saying they're not my kind of drama.

All the previous Stargate shows were science fiction adventure tales about fairly square-jawed hero types who usually spoke in one-liners when they weren't reciting technobabble. They were fast-paced shows, high-stakes, high explosions, big, epic, aliens, wooo, all of that.

Stargate Universe, on the other hand, is serious, it's about very real people under pressure and their problems are not resolved by the end of the hour, they go on week to week, getting worse week to week. This is my cup of tea. I enjoy it so much, I look forward to it so much each week that I want to thank Daniel Hardy: he listens and has contributed to the UK DVD Review podcast I do and it was solely on his recommendation that I gave this new show a go.

It's entirely my own fault that I've gone poking about the other series.

What I've found is that these other Stargate series are made by the same company, they share broadly the same premise in that they have these Stargate things. They share storylines, they share some characters and actors. And they are written by much the same people.

So have a look and see if you're as startled by the differences as I am.

First up, Stargate SG-1. Nip along to 3'50 in this and watch a typical "Gentlemen, there is a crack in the world" type of sci-fi scene. It's also a key scene for the Hero, Richard Dean Anderson as Jack O'Neill and Amanda Tapping as Sam Carter. I watched through my hand.

Next, the opening to the pilot episode of Stargate Universe.

I'l bet money your first thought is the money. Stargate Universe looks much more expensive. I believe it is, too. I worry that your thought after that is how slow the beginning is. Watching it with you now on YouTube with the wee little screen, it doesn't have the strong, arresting, intriguing, feature-film-like feel at first but is that true or is it just that I've seen it before? Not knowing what's going on, I think you're curious and as the show zooms in on the ship and through its broken corridors, maybe it builds some nice tension. It did with me on my telly.

I admire the opening for how completely still it is and then how completely the quietness is punctured by the arrival of that first character, Lt. Scott. And then the mayhem. So quickly you go from this utter stillness to a very human fear and panic.

I'm also going to bet money that you are more tempted to carry on watching Stargate Universe than you are Stargate SG-1, just based on these excerpts. So why not? The show is on Sky1 on Tuesday nights in the UK, it's on Syfy in the US on Fridays - though in both cases it's about to reach the end of its first season. I'd recommend starting at the beginning which I'm sure will loop around again on Sky and Syfy but is out on DVD shortly and on iTunes now.

I recommend it so thoroughly that I'm surprised I've forgotten to mention Robert Carlyle stars in it. I recommend it so thoroughly despite having learnt that every single atom of the show that I enjoy this much is detested by fans of the old SG-1 series.

There are people who long for this series to be cancelled and their favourite SG-1 to be revived. Fortunately, as well as being a bit unlikely anyway, these vocal voices appear to belong to an intense but small group of fans who need to let go.

Or to go live in what I've been dying all day to call a stargated community.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Mac vs PC: can we end this once and for all?

If you buy a PC, you’ve just bought a PC. If you buy a Mac, somehow you’re a Machead, a cultist, an Apple fanboy or girl, you’ve joined a religion, you worship Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive, you’ve been fooled by the hype, you’re trying to be cool, you think shiny is good, the list goes on.

You hear much the same degree of jeering between football fans but at least with that there are fans on both sides. Who’s actually fan of Windows PCs? But okay, if Apple is a religion, it’s the Church of the One That Works.

If Microsoft comes out with something, I’ll probably hear about it at some point. I don’t follow many of the techie news sites I used to when I worked in computers but I’ll hear eventually. Mostly because it takes so long: a pretty standard spiel from Microsoft is that our new product will kill Apple/Google/Everybody as soon as it’s launched in three to four years. And it’s cheaper too, so there. Will be cheaper.

There was a nice-looking tablet computer they did this about: if you saw the articles, you quite fancied this. It was a wee way off, they said, and now the other day they cancelled it entirely.

In comparison, Apple loves making big announcements about fancy technology and ending with the words “Available today”. I’m not sure whether you’d call that smug or gleeful, but I think they earn whichever it is. The famous Apple secrecy up to the launch of a product has some unpleasant sides but ultimately where so many firms talk about what they’re going to do, Apple tends to just do it first.

Seriously first, too. They nicked the idea for a graphical computer back when there used to be any other sort. Microsoft nicked it from the same place an hour later. But where Apple took Xerox PARC’s idea and made it commercially practical, commercially available, Microsoft Windows has been copying the Mac for nearly thirty years and it’s still not there.

You have a mouse. You wouldn’t have if Apple hadn’t done it first, or at least if someone hadn’t, because Microsoft came late to mice. If you’ve got a laptop, it has the keyboard pushed to the back so you can type comfortably and it’s got a slick touchpad. Because of Apple. I was at the UK launch of their first PowerBook with that touchpad and they crowed about how they had patented it.

Apple patents are plainly rubbish, but there you go.

When Apple does come out with something new, I hear about it much, much faster because these days I’m looking. I’ve got a couple of Mac sites on my iPhone’s newsreader and I’ll read them not through fervour, not because they happen to update while I’m bowing toward Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino.

I read them because of Apple’s track record and how the firm thinks things through.

One example. I hope this has changed in Windows 7 but it lasted for the first twenty years of Windows so it’s a fair illustration of how the technology doesn’t matter, it’s the people behind it. Copy some documents to a floppy disk, if you can find a floppy disk.

Windows gives you a nice, pretty graphic of paper airplanes flying between an icon of your hard disk and an icon of your floppy one. Until suddenly the floppy is full and it panics. “Error!” it screams. I can’t remember the unmemorably techie error message but its meaning is very clear: it’s your fault. You’ve got it wrong, not Windows.

Do the same thing on a Mac and it looks first. Tells you there’s not going to be enough room on the floppy.

That’s it, it’s just sayin’.

Microsoft did the pretty icon fine, it just thinks that pretty is enough. Well, sort of. Windows XP has a very Fisher Price kind of look but Windows 7 is prettier. It’s just that pretty is as pretty does, I think: Apple products have a shine to them at least in very great part because they work and work so well. Before the iPhone, no phone looked anything like it. Since the iPhone, no phone has been released that hasn’t tried to copy it. That’s design, that’s thinking brilliantly.

That’s not trying to make a long list of features, that’s trying to make the things useful.

Not long ago I recommended that a friend did not switch to Macs because I felt he was so wedded to Windows and had so many applications that changing was a giant deal. He changed anyway. I’m very persuasive. And for weeks afterwards he’d phone me up laughing. Because he’d buy some new software, new hardware, something, and he’d read out the six pages of instructions for how you install them under Windows before delivering the punchline. For Mac, the instructions were always “Plug it in.” The End.

I used to actually like computers. I enjoyed fiddling, I even had a fair enough career in computer magazines though I always felt I was a magazine guy more than I was a computing one. And all the friends I still have from there are nodding now. Possibly also nodding off, but.

Today all I want is to work on a machine that works. Someone asked me recently how I could possibly enjoy computers so much. I had just repaired a ridiculous problem with his Windows Vista laptop but I swear we stared at each other as if across a gulf. I don’t like computers, I like that I can talk to you like this, I love that I can do my work wherever I am in the world, I adore that right now I’ve got music playing, that in a short while my Mac will record the Afternoon Play so I can listen in the car later. That BBC News channel is open on my right. That Twitter is updating in front of me. That the film I’m buying off iTunes will be ready to watch in a second or two.

And obviously I write. But for every advantage this Mac gives me for writing, it does offer a thousand distractions.

It’s just that I’m not distracted struggling to find a DLL, whatever in the hell that is, I’m not interrupted by WARNING! VIRUS! YOUR FAULT! messages. And when my disk is full, I know I’ve just been talking too much.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why do women act?

Easy one first: name a great woman actor. Got one? Got a hundred? It's a doddle. Straight off the top of my head, I immensely admire Jodie Foster, Judi Dench, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Emily Mortimer, Allison Janney, Helen Hunt, Alison Pill, if I say any more I'll itch to sort them into alphabetical order. And anyway, you've got your own list.

But now name a great role for a woman. You can do it, each of these women has had a least one tremendous role or I wouldn't know to admire them, wouldn't know they are as talented as they are.

Yet most of the time the woman's role is as nothing more than being the unattainable object for the hero, who attains her by the end anyway. For instance, I just watched Se7en for a thriller-writing course run by Script in the West Midlands and, watching it as a writer, I kept wondering why Gwyneth Paltrow took the part she did. It's a great film and the parts for the leads, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are tremendous, but Paltrow is a big name and it's a tiny part.

How did Kim Basinger get an Oscar for LA Confidential? I'm not saying she was poor, but what did she actually have to do in the film? How did Judi Dench get an Oscar for thirty seconds of screen time in Shakespeare in Love?

Those two films are exceptions for me because both parts were fine, they just didn't have much to them. Whereas the majority of time, I find that as a viewer, I am prone to slapping my forehead. Particularly when the hero says he's going "to get the girl". I can't help it: I immediately hear him saying that today he's got to pick up the laundry, wash the car, get to the post office before 3pm and, oh, yes, collect the girl. Whoever she is in the story, she's not a person, she's not a character, she's a UPS parcel.

Yes, I'm pro-feminist. I think it's embarrassing that there's only one woman in the new British Government cabinet. It's bad that I can't bear her, but embarrassing too. But I don't slap my forehead from some ideological idea, I do it because this accepted norm of the woman as "the girl" to get is crippling to drama.

Follow. The hero falls for a "perfect" woman. Already she's boring me, but still, let's go with it. The hero is someone this woman would never look at and yet without him actually changing into someone worth being glanced over, she is required to change her mind by the end of the story. Usually this involves the hero doing something for 90 minutes when she isn't even in the room. We know nothing about her, we care nothing about her, she isn't actually anything: certainly not a character of any low number of dimensions. There's a good chance she's blonde. I wouldn't count on her wearing much in the way of a costume.

But if you don't care about this unattainable object that the hero is striving to attain, it's hard to keep your mind on the hero's striving. Hard to get behind a hero who's so shallow that this empty life-size poster of a woman is his ultimate goal.

So a will-they/won't-they tale rapidly becomes, for me, a will-he/why-would-she story. Then it's a who-is-she story, penultimately a who-is-he tale, then a what's-on-the-other-side-kind-of-drama.

There's always something on the other side. I'm just grumbling at you today because so much of it appears to be like this and I can't understand how all drama, all writers, all producers aren't grabbing talent. I actually can't understand why there are so many talented women actors when this is what's on offer for them.

Except, of course, when everything works. I only recently saw Emily Mortimer and Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie: a beautiful gem of a film by Andrea Gibb with real women, real men, real characters.

I can well see why women would want to act in drama like that. Because I want to write drama like that.