Friday, December 21, 2012

Live blogging Doctor Who at Christmas


Sorry it’s so late but here’s the live blog for Christmas Day’s Doctor Who. What poor sod’s got to check the site on the day? Make sure they keep an eye out for when it actually TXs: I’ve done all the timings from 6:15pm but last year BBC ran it two minutes late and we looked right prats.

Also, the BBC preview doesn’t include the ending so I’ve just finessed that a bit.

I’m off until the 4th now but you’ve got my number. Phone any time except Tuesday: I’ll be stuffed rigid with the worst Christmas dinner you’ve ever imagined.

Have a good one and thanks for putting this into the CMS for me,

PS I’ve put in as many Google Adsense words as I can but could you add our Amazon affiliate links before it goes live? I’m below my quota for monetising this month.



*****RUN FROM 18:14 ON 25/12/2012*****

18:14 Who’d have thought that pair would win Strictly? Well deserved, mind.

18:15 And we’re off, this is what we’re here for. Doctor Who at Christmas. Does it get any better than this?

18:16 That’s rubbish.

18:16 Oh, pardon me, did you hear that? I belched. Just had the most delicious Christmas dinner of all time. I wish you could’ve been here for it. Bit drowsy after it, if I’m honest.

18:20 What? Missed that bit.

18:21 Oh-hoh, here we go, here we go. New title sequence! New arrangement of the theme music! I love that they do this, it’s so exciting.

18:22 Hate it. What was your favourite Doctor Who title sequence? Bring back Delia Derbyshire. (Did you know that there’s a Delia Derbyshire Day on 4 January?)  The story goes that Ron Grainer penned the Doctor Who theme music and when he heard how the Radiophonic Workshop had realised it, asked if he’d really written it. Delia says: “Kinda.” Or something.

18:23 I’m not following this plot at all. Typical Stephen Moffat. [XXXXXX EDITOR TO CHECK: is it Stephen or Steven? XXXXXXX]

18:24 I do like this new look for the Doctor. What do you call that hat he’s wearing? Top hat, topper, black silk/fur melusine top hat, grey silk/fur felt/melusine top hat, black cloth/silk opera hat, black silk/fur melusine top hat with mourning band. Something like that.

18:24 Hang on, I’ve got a mince pie left somewhere. Just have some nice Bell’s Whisky to wash it down.

18:25 I love Doctor Who. We don’t need this bit, this is just running around.

18:27 Still running around.

18:28 What’s great about live blogging is that we’re doing it together. I’m here, you’re there, the telly’s on. We can talk all the way through the show.

18:29 Didn’t see that coming. As I was saying, I’ve nipped in from the family to see this as it airs. BBC has a previews site now where journalists can download programmes in advance, we don’t get tapes or DVDs anymore but there is just nothing like the real deal, on the TV, on the night. I’m your Doctor Who expert in the corner, pointing out what you need to know to enjoy this properly.

18:30 Oh, come on. The Doctor did exactly the same thing in that other episode. See for yourself right here [XXXXX ADD AMAZON AFFILIATE SEARCH FOR ANY OLD DOCTOR WHO DVDS WE CAN SELL XXXXXX]   Moffat just can’t write anything original.

18:31 I think we’re supposed to get that the Doctor’s upset over losing Rory and Amy. I think he’s just twigged that the Statue of Liberty can’t be a stone Weeping Angel as it’s made of copper. I went to New York last year, you know. Got a very good deal with Virgin flights.

18:32 Finally, some action. That was a good bit.

18:35 What’s happening there is that the Doctor has realised.

18:40 Now we’re in trouble.

18:45 And a corridor.

18:46 Hate this. Bring back Patrick Troughton.

18:47 While you’re watching this, have a look at the many, many galleries of photographs we’ve done on the site from this episode.

18:48 We’ve also got my preview of what all the rumours said would be in this episode and my take on what makes a great Doctor Who Christmas.

18:49 I said they’d do that. It’s so predictable.

18:51 The new companion is rather good. [XXXXX ADD IN HER NAME XXXXX] Of course, I knew how they’d get her in after that Dalek thing.

18:52 Aren’t you glad you’ve got me to explain these things to you? It doesn’t say a lot about a show that I’ve got to tell you what’s going on.

18:55 What’s going on?

18:56 Matt Smith should do Strictly Come Dancing.

18:59 Heading for the endgame now. This is what us professional writers call the third act on the hero’s journey from the inciting incident to the last-beat reversal on the story mountain. I could do better than this Moffat.


19:02 That was good.

19:04 The problem is that it’s just not setting up the scene correctly. Back at the start, it should’ve told us that these snowmen were dangerous so we’d understand it now. Not everybody's concentrating as much as I am. Amateur stuff, it really is.

19:05 That was good.

19:06 I see where this is going

19:08 Oh. Didn’t see that coming.

19:11 Listen, I’ve worked out the ending now, but I won’t spoil it for you. You just watch the rest and then get straight on the comments page afterwards. That includes you, Mr Moffat, though I bet you won’t. You never come on comments pages, you just keep writing the next episodes like that’s what’s important.

19:12 Christ, my mum just came in with more mince pies. I’M TRYING TO WATCH DOCTOR WHO! What’s the matter with people?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A movie's Hippo-cratic oath

Someone is making a Hungry Hungry Hippos movie. For real.

If you went to see the blockbuster* movie Battleship this year, please tell me if any character suddenly whines, shouts or emotes: "You sank my battleship!" For when anyone argued that you cannot make a major motion picture out of a two-person board game, I spent this whole year saying wait – they made a classic TV advert and that's got to be a start. Actually, more than one advert.

Unfortunately, that Battleship movie truly was a start. And despite blockbuster* status, it's not the end either.

*I keep saying blockbuster. Apparently Battleship earned $300m, which is somewhat more than I did this year but then I didn't spend $200m making it. 

Someone thinks that's a good deal and – do you know this already? I only learnt it yesterday and it took me 24 hours to believe it –  the big joke when Battleship came out has become real. There truly, genuinely, is going to be a Hungry Hungry Hippos movie.

Prejudice is bad, of course, but just sometimes it's quicker: Hungry Hungry Hippos will not be a good movie. There will be no Oscar buzz. ("For Your Consideration: Jeremy Renner as Yellow Hippo.") If you are over eight years old when you see it, you will have been dragged there by your eight-year-old. (I don't have children: I'm a civilian.)

Everybody whose name will be written on the end credits will at some point or another convince themselves that they are doing a good job and that it's worthwhile. Only the credited accountants will be correct.

But a film is an accomplishment whether it's good or bad, it's a true achievement whether or not you're subsequently willing to leave it on your CV or not. It is a physically hard thing to do to get a movie made and so the core force in a film, the very DNA of getting that project done, the oath that a filmmaker swears, is not to do with quality and it is not to do with artistic endeavour, it is to do with getting the bloody thing made.

To make Hungry Hungry Hippos, you have to fool yourself into thinking that it is at least worthwhile enough that you can look anyone in the face during a production meeting. 

And the first person who has to find a way for all the other people bar the accountants to have anything to do whatsoever, is the writer.

IMDb says Hungry Hungry Hippos is in development and that if I pay to join the IMDb Pro service I can find out who the writer and producer are. I'm not going to do that. I don't want to know the names of people suffering.

But you'd tell me if it were Aaron Sorkin, wouldn't you?

Somewhere out there, most likely in California, most probably within a ZIP code or two of Hollywood, there is a writer who has just opened up a new blank document in Final Draft.

He or she is a pro and, unlike most Final Draft writers, has remembered how to find the title page. Wherein this has been written:



based on
the Hasbro game

Let's just call the writer Al. So far, so good. Got the title. That's important. What comes next on the page has a little air of doom, though:


But that's nothing compared to page 1, scene 1. 


This is where Al goes to make some fresh coffee.

He stands there as beans percolate and ideas don't.

Eventually, he starts speaking out loud to his kitchen.

"Well, look, start with the givens. You've got to have hippos. People are gonna want hippos."

He rushes back to the keys and writes:

ENTER a load of HIPPOS.

All imagination now spent, he goes back to the kitchen. One more pot of coffee later and suddenly:

ENTER a load of HIPPOS 
And they're HUNGRY.
Back to the kitchen.

This is Al's life for the next 120 pages.

Of the first draft.

If he's lucky, he'll be bumped from the project by no later than the fourth rewrite and go into a credit arbitration that he's secretly hoping he might lose so that he keeps the cash but sheds the "written by".

I told you it took me 24 hours to believe it but I think now that it might take 25. A film with no possibility of a story and no possibility of any characters. A film with a certainty that it will have every possible fantastic visual effect.

All visual and no substance.

I've just heard that as well as Hungry Hungry Hippos there will be a Monopoly movie.

Directed by Ridley Scott.

Suddenly, you believe everything.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Princess and the Li-On

Princess Hard Centre had a secret temper. It wasn't the same temper she had when Prick Toffee-Caramel lost her spinning wheel up a beanstalk, that was a fine and reasonable temper that anyone would've torn him apart for.

This was a secret temper.

Everybody knew about it, obviously, as a temper that you really keep to yourself isn't a temper, it's an ulcer.

But Princess Hard Centre believed it to be secret and it's impossible to find out the truth about anything when you're a princess. Try it. Ask anything.

For when a princess asks you, say, whether you think she’s clever, your first word had better not be “Well...” because there’s a fair chance it’ll be your last, too.

The good people of Chocolate Box Land and especially those who enjoyed being alive at Castle Cadbury had long ago learned to begin any answer with “Of course!” and a big smile. It wasn’t foolproof and it had caused some beheadings but all the heads on the castle railings were smiling and statistically speaking it was the safest reply.

It just wasn’t a useful one. “Tell me, my little Fondue Set, who is the fairest in the land as ranked by height, weight, academic achievement and fashion sense?”

“Of course!”

“Are you being funny?”

“Well -”


To be fair, the well-gets-you-beheaded rule had begun generations before when royals were much more powerful and consequently much more angry because they could be and you couldn’t stop them, so there. Princess Hard Centre was just the latest in a very long line and she was genuinely clever, she had figured out that the secret to a good answer is the right question. But that’s harder than it sounds.

For instance, it means really having to figure out the answer before you ask the question so that you could instead ask: “My little Fondue Set II, is it correct that Princess Boiled Sweet is the fairest in the land as ranked by height, weight, academic achievement and fashion sense?”

“Of course!”


The mistake there, of course, is that it might be correct that Princess Boiled Sweet is the fairest in the land as ranked by height, weight, academic achievement and fashion sense, but it isn’t right and I hate you. Princess Hard Centre knows much more than Boily ever did and everybody says they can’t see the spot on her nose so that clearly doesn’t count.

Late one night, as Princess Hard Centre lay down to sleep and Fondue Set III applied just a little bit of acne cream, the princess suddenly shook. “Hang on,” she said. “There’s a logical fallacy here, isn’t there?”

“Of course!”

“Unless I can get accurate charting and a reliable system of data tracking, I can’t work out who is the fairest in the land as ranked by height, weight, academic achievement and fashion sense. So I can ask if rotten Boily is best but then I have to ask if Milk Duds is best and then I have to ask about M and then I have to ask about the other M. There’s no end to it.”

“Of course!”

“You’re no use at all,” said Princess Hard Centre. “Give me that cream. And one more thing.”


Fondue Set III fell towards the floor. Servants never hit the ground, that would be unseemly, so they were always caught by the Palace Guards who had become terribly well trained and even more practiced at swooping in to catch falling bodies.

“Oh, where will I find a Fondue Set IV?” cried the Princess.

“Craigslist,” muttered a Palace Guard.


It was a disaster. The surviving guard who had already caught Fondue Set III exactly one half of one pixel off the ground now had to throw her body up in the air in order to catch the dead palace guard before he dropped to the floor too. For a single precious moment, it was a frozen tableaux. The one breathing, sweating, panicking guard held himself off the ground with all his weight on just his little pinky finger, scooping up the dead palace guard with his other hand exactly as Fondue Set III landed on his upturned feet.

The acrobatic guard stretched out a second finger and used the two to make teeny tiny steps back out of the room.

Princess Hard Centre didn’t notice.

She was thinking about Craigslist.

She was thinking about Google.

The next morning was a new day.

It was a new world.

Suddenly, Princess Hard Centre was floating around her castle. Instead of asking questions, she was answering them - and you’d better have a question.

“Um, how far is it from Castle Cadbury to the nearest Hershey Bar?”

“What’s the calorific content of chocolate? Are you sure?”


“If a man leaves Castle Cadbury at 92mph in order to leave a box of Milk Tray, how far is it to the Mars Bar?”


“Ask me something sensible. ”



“My dear Fondue Set VIII, ask me something useful right now.”

“Of course! What’s the speed of light?”

“It’s 186,282.4 miles per second in a vacuum, approximately,” beamed the Princess.

She did a lot of beaming now. All knowledge was hers. Nothing was filtered by wells and of-courses. She was more informed than any royal in the history of Chocolate Box Land. “And that damn well includes Boily and Prick Toffee Caramel and I don’t care that they’re getting married. It won’t last. I give it 20.8 years, based on current census averages.”

All morning, every morning, Princess Hard Centre was a mine of information and everybody loved it, they absolutely said so.

But come the afternoon...

If it had been a hard day of serious and useful questions with brilliant answers, the darkness could even begin around 3pm.

If Princess Hard Centre took it carefully, then maybe she’d make it to 6pm.

Once she’d even gone to 10pm but that was then the same night that Fondue Set VII failed to plug the Princess’s iPhone in to be charged. She never made that mistake again.

For Princess Hard Centre’s beaming, her entire demeanour, her very life became tied to the battery power on her beloved iPhone. She loved no one like she did her iPhone and her iPhone didn’t love her back because it was just a phone but that was okay, it would learn to, she was quite sure.

Its lovely screen made her face glow. And the way that Siri was connected to Wolfram Alpha’s research database made her heart sing. It was very handy for eBay too, and she’d hired the last seven Fondue Sets through

But come the low battery, come the darkness.

Servants who previously pretended that the hadn’t seen how the Princess got all this wondrous information were now openly peering over her shoulder to see what percentage battery life was left. From 100% down to maybe 80%, everything’s fine.

From 80% down to 60%, well, chop

It always seemed to Princess Hard Centre that, try as she might, she couldn’t make the battery last as long from 60% down to 40% as she could 100 to 80 or 80 to 60. She considered turning it off.

But as she stroked the iPhone, she knew she could never leave it alone. And so she’d ask it less and less as the day went on, she’d hold it and cherish it and nurse it and hope that the battery would last.

It never did.

Slowly, so very slowly, as the battery would die, so Princess Hard Centre would begin to stoop and to slow down herself.

“Well,” said Fondue Set XXV. “That’s a fine thing to be seeing.”

The Princess just looked at her. Spent. Unable to raise a blade.

Dependency on iPhone is a recognised medical condition, she’d asked it that and it had said “Of course!”, but it didn’t help.

Until one day...

One bleak and lonely day when the union of Fondue Sets had said enough was enough, we’re all for job creation but we want our members to survive just a little bit, the Princess was left alone.

A storm began to rage outside.

Good, she thought. That’s the only bright spot in my day.

Between the lashing wind and the crazed rain, though, she could still hear the sound of laughter from Boily and Prick’s wedding party and Princess Hard Centre wept.

A tear fell on her iPhone’s Retina display.

It was a royal tear.

It was a Princess’s tear.

And the iPhone’s multitouch display registered it.

With its last spark of battery power, it brightened up its screen – and at that very moment, as if conjured by the phone itself, the castle door opened.

The roar of the storm rose. Rain smashed in. And there were flashing lights and strong language from the start.

Prince Dark Chocolate stood in the doorway.

His princely tunic was torn, ravaged by battles unseen until the prequel, and his chest rose and fell with the breath of a strong man with a stronger heart. He gave one manly shake of his head and a single drop of rain ran down his face, ran down his chest, ran down across his hairy, strong, masculine chest. The Princess’s gaze followed it down, down, far further down than you should be thinking about right now.

Life stood still.

Time stood still.

Prince Dark Chocolate’s lips parted with a breath and a faint smile, a faint but knowing and so very commanding smile.

The Princess’s heart skipped a beat to catch up with where her eyes had looked, where her mind had gone and where her other organs were none of your business. “Yes?” she said.

“Delivery for a Princess Illegible Squiggle?” he said. “Sign here.”

And so Princess Hard Centre finally took delivery of her Mophie Power Juice extra battery with lithium ion pack for her iPhone. It was a good day.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Buy any other name

A few weeks ago I mentioned finding an old school photograph and how it felt to see Whatsherface, a woman I'd been particularly keen on. I've been asked several times since how, if she was so great, I can't remember her name.

Of course I can remember her name.

I just don't want you to.

So she's Whatsherface. And while we're talking about names and being keen on people, I'd like to tell you a very short story about how my own name prevented me going out with someone.

Actually, my name's surprisingly problematic. Only this week, when it was my birthday, there was an issue of whether my niece and nephew still call me Uncle Lemmy. When my nephew was four or five years old he was plainly deeply into heavy metal lore and saw in my height and girth something of the rock god legend. Or "William" was just too difficult to pronounce.

Apparently Dar Williams is called Dar for similar reasons: I can't remember who but someone very young in her family couldn't say "Dorothy" and it kept coming out Dar. I assume that's passed, that this person who is very young in her family has now grown up, but Dar stuck and I'd have taken that too. I like Dar. She gets a whole thing with the Daughters of the American Revolution thinking she was named after them. And I get Lemmy.

We compromised this year and they settled on calling me Uncle William. I don't feel like an uncle; uncles are old people or have names like Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. But I am an uncle and in fact I am their only uncle. My niece sent me a card with a line about my being a Number 1 Uncle and I thanked her for the sentiment, the thought and the mathematical accuracy.

I think I've told you before that William Gallagher also gets phone calls from people wanting to work on Bill Gallagher's TV shows. Whenever one is on, I gets the calls. I do wonder at people who are applying to me to work on, say, The Paradise, when the show is already airing. The Paradise was still in production when it began airing but, still, you'd think they'd have staffed up by then.

Just staying off the point here and trying to build up some drama, the other week I was in the offices of Doctor Who Magazine and was asked if I were the William Gallagher who was a Doctor Who fan and did lots of fanzines in the 1980s. I'm not.

I'm also not Liam Gallagher.

But it's a funny thing. You know how we are ultimately all related to one another? We still draw a line somewhere. I don't know enough about the third-cousin-twice-removed lark but I do know that there is a line. Up to a certain point, we're related. After that point, we're not. The line is Liam Gallagher.

I am related to Liam Gallagher but not to his brother Noel.

None of this has much to do with the thwarted love life I did – or I suppose did not – have back when I lived in London in the early 1990s.

My problem is – well, it's far from my only problem but focus on this for today – my problem is that I cannot conceive of the possibility of you fancying me. Generally speaking, this is completely accurate. But just once in a while... Whatsherface, for instance. I still don't think she was interested but seven or eight years after I last met her, I realised that she might have been up for trying me out and seeing how it went. But since she'd already rejected me once and since I am an especially stupid man, it took me those years to notice that maybe her torrent of complaints to me about her boyfriend might – might – have been a hint of an expression of a chance of a thought of an interest in maybe – maybe – suggesting I ask her out.

Eight years.

I blame myself.

But she had rejected me. I'd chanced my arm, I'd tried my hand, I'd burnt my fingers.

Still, eight years.

The only time I've ever been faster was this moment in 1990s London when it only took me an hour to suspect that someone was interested. I'm going to have to call her Whatsherface II.

I need to flash forward a bit here and point out that I got married and that so long as I keep feeding Angela the drugs and top up the hypnosis, I think she's as happy as I am.

But back to the 1990s.

It was Pizza Hut.

I lived in a flat and they opened a Pizza Hut opposite my window. The bastards. They knew my weakness. They knew I'd seen Pizza Hut heavily featured in Press Gang. They knew I just liked the stuff.

I set a record for the time between availability and ordering that I have in fact only broken today, this morning, all these years later when Apple's new iMacs went on sale and I bought one before reading all the way to the end of the word iMac.

Back then, Pizza Hut opens its doors for the first time and instantly I am in there. Whatsherface II is on staff and, honestly, I think I am in there. It takes me an hour to realise this as I put it down to a general I-smile-at-everyone-because-I'm-paid-to-work-here but, honestly, it got more. If I noticed it, it got a lot more.

And I did like Whatsherface II.

But it was never to be. It couldn't ever be. And that was because of my name.


She couldn't take my order without entering my name and address into their rinky dinky new computer system. It didn't matter that I was there to get it, it didn't matter that I lived less than sixteen metres away and even I would never, not ever, not once get someone to deliver that distance. No name, no pizza.

"Harry Broderick," I said.

I can't remember now but I must've made up an address too.

What I remember is that I used to go to that Pizza Hut quite a lot. I was working way across London, I'd actually got a flat in about as far away from my work as the Tube network could manage. It was a minimum of an hour's tube ride on a good day and if the wind was in the east. Plus, I'd work late. So I'd regularly get home from work around nine or ten o'clock and that red and yellow sign would be reflected in the window of my flat and those red and yellow pizza smells would be waving at me.

"Hi, Harry!" she'd say.

"Hello, Whatsherface II," I wouldn't reply.

She'd take my order and I'd wait. She'd chat away about things and I'd nod, wondering if there were any possible way I could tell her that yes, my name was Harry, but I spelt it William. And then she'd hand me my pizza and thank me for being such a good listener and I'd leave to clog up my arteries with cheese.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Polite and QWERTYous


Apparently I was a good kid. I don’t know what went wrong. But to everyone who foolishly claims that toys maketh the man, let me tell you that the one I craved and the one I was happiest getting was this: I once got a toy typewriter for Christmas. You see? How can that possibly connect with a subsequent career in writing?

Imagine if I'd wanted a football.

No, I'm trying here, but I can't ever imagine me wanting a football.

I’m afraid I can’t remember how old I was but I can see that Christmas morning. All my adult’s clarity of the room and its facts like dimensions and position and all my child’s sensations of warmth and the dark of the early day, the orange glow of the tree lights reflected on our brown, glass-topped coffee table, the books around me and the typewriter if not in the centre of the room then in the centre of my attention.

I don’t know what made it a toy typewriter instead of an actual one, by the way. It was a full-size portable with full-travel keys. (Travel is the distance you have to press a key down before it registers, before it types.) I can picture now the typed “Happy Christmas from Santa” message on it. And I can picture it in part because my little kid brain recognised a problem: Santa seemingly couldn’t type.

That’s not to say that the real Santa isn’t 120wpm, but this note was not the work of a typist, not so much. You won’t know this if you’ve only typed on electric typewriters or computers or touchscreens but the shift key used to be a physical lever: as you pressed it down, typically you were raising the carriage that held the paper. Each key was a lever that sent a letter hammering onto the paper but each key had maybe three different letters (a lowercase and uppercase version of the same letter plus a punctuation mark) and what went on the page depended on which bit struck the paper. The keys and their levers stayed where they were, so it was the paper rising on its roller-like carriage that made the difference.

And Santa didn’t know that.

So the H and the C and the S in Happy Christmas from Santa were there but shift hadn’t been pressed properly, hadn’t been pressed all the way, so you got a capital letter but not quite in the right vertical position. Rather than a straight line with some capital letters, you got a kind of watery wave of text.

I’m, what, less than ten years old? And I know why this has happened, I know it means Santa didn’t do it, and I even know that the right description is that the capitals weren’t on the baseline like the rest of the letters.

I am a very visual man but what I see is text. I’m just awkward. And I also have typewriter DNA.

Last year I was researching a book, a piece I did for the BFI about Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Affair, and was just agog as I read his typewritten scripts and notes and correspondence. And read everyone’s replies to him, read Yorkshire Television’s official letters. I got the same this year reading 1970s/1980s BBC memos for my next big book, which I STILL CAN’T TELL YOU ABOUT, where names I knew so well, names that were vitally important to British television, were sending out letters that looked so bad.

But they only look bad today. We’re so used to perfect typescript with no corrections – you can apparently still buy Tipp-Ex, or at least a metric equivalent, but good luck finding any actual use for it – that old typing invariably looks bad. Even Alan’s meticulous letters look bad now.

And it’s because typewriters were monospaced.

Monospaced means every letter takes up exactly the same space so, for instance, a capital 'I' occupies as much space on the page as a lowercase 'm'. The width has a name: it’s called an em, and it’s named after the letter m which is as wide as lowercase gets. Half an em is an en. This is why we have em dashes – like that, for emphasis, and hyphens or en dashes for I-can’t-think-of-an-example.

On typewriters, we just got a dash and we just got all letters taking up the same width. It’s just the way it was. And it meant that an A4 page always had a typical maximum of 80 characters across and 66 lines down.

It looks so ugly now. Today our computers – just as proper typesetters have always done – position letters so that they make the best use of the space and they fit together pleasingly. Look at this word: “Tea”.

No matter what you’re reading this on, which browser or computer or RSS feed, your machine just tucked the letter “e” back a ways under the bar of the capital T. It’s called kerning and it’s beautiful.

It’s also just impossible on a typewriter.

So typewritten letters from the 1970s and 1980s look ridiculously widely spaced: whatever was considered perfect typing then is plainly rubbish today. The difference in type quality now is so great that we don’t even notice it: we see perfect type every day on every letter from the bank, on every email we get. I’m not saying the spelling will always be great and of course the literacy isn’t guaranteed and naturally it’d be nicer if the bank were writing to say that they’d accidentally left a million pounds in my account and would like me to keep it because I’m still a good kid really, but the typing is exquisite. Compared to typewriters.

I did move from the toy typewriter to a Silver Reed Silverette typewriter. I remember being distraught at how expensive it was going to be to repair it when it went wrong: I couldn’t afford it. I bent a spring instead so that I could do a workaround and keep its carriage moving at least approximately evenly.

For something that was so important to me and so key, forgive the pun, to me and my very innards, I’m afraid I don’t know when I stopped using one and I don’t know what happened to that broken machine. I do have my very last typewriter. And I do have an antique portable once owned by a war reporter. That’s lovely. That’s the one in the photo at the top here.

Typewriters moved into computers for me so early and so quickly that I’m surprised how very much I reek of typewriter lore. My own personal typewriter lore plus all the rest of it, all the stories of why we still write on QWERTY keyboards. How you can still type the word ‘typewriter’ using only the letters on the top row.

I’d say that typewriters did that to everyone but maybe it’s just me. Because I can tell you that I used a BBC Micro in easy preference to a ZX Spectrum because it had a full-size, full-travel keyboard. I can tell you that I adored the 102-key IBM PC AT keyboard which became the standard, which became the keyboard against which others were measured. For a while I used a little utility that gave a typewriter-like clack-clack sound to every letter I typed on a PowerBook Duo. I stopped because it was wrong: every clack was the same when I knew that my e should sound different.

It’s not just me, I promise. Only last month I read a review of a keyboard that promises to have the mechanical feel of an electric typewriter but was a bit quieter for the poor sods around you.

I won’t be buying it. I'm not that bound to typewriter memories. I am sometimes tempted by this, though. The iTypewriter. I warn you: the typing speed in this video will take your breath away.

Got your breath back, didn't you? I reckon that's about 10 words per minute. I presume I'm no longer 120wpm myself, but I am far faster at typing than I am at handwriting.

What I've definitely lost is the sheer wallop of my fingers: as guitarists get callouses, so those of us who learnt on manual typewriters developed terrific upper finger strength.

I still press too strongly. When I type on an iPad's screen I actually feel myself denting my fingers on the glass and I can only really muster a few thousand words at a time.

But I enjoy it. I enjoy typing. Writing, for me, is typing. I enjoy fashioning the words, kneading the keys. I need the keys.

So this week’s news of the final typewriter being made in the UK is – well, I was going to say sad, I was going to say bittersweet, but both are true and neither is quite right. You can see that it unlocked me, that it was a little prick of the typing finger that made me bleed out all of this to you.

I am sad it's over. I’m more astonished that it’s taken this long: I can't claim that typewriters will never fade away because they already have. But you can have a wallow in the online Virtual Typewriter Museum. Then if you’re anywhere near my hometown of Birmingham, get to the Pen Room Museum in the Jewellery Quarter.  It’s a pen museum, I can tell you’re shocked, but it also has shelves of old typewriters and there is something terribly special about seeing them all together.

This is a machine that we used to use. That I used to use. A machine from my own lifetime. But you look at the rack of them there and it seems impossibly archaic. You don’t think professional writing equipment, you think Jules Verne and maybe Professor Branestawm. Here's a thing you almost certainly didn't know: a portable typewriter has about 1,000 moving parts. A full-size manual one has nearer 2,000 – and an electric typewriter, which you'd think would have fewer, tended to have around 3,700. It feels like engineering madness: I can only think of two moving parts in a computer – the fan and the hard disk. And the hard disk is going away.

Those numbers of parts in typewriters are as of 1974, the date of "Century of the Typewriter" by Wilfred A Beeching: a very of-its-time kind of book. I say that because it has a list of how terrible things would be if there were no typewriters and one of them is "No female typists in offices!!". (Yep: two exclamation marks. I think one of them is mine.) But it does also have the of-its-time advantage in that it was written when typewriters were still the business. Apple's Macintosh was a decade in the future. Windows 1.0 was eleven years away, so, you know, one step forward, two steps back.

My copy of that book is a 1990 reprint by when you'd think the typewriting would be on the wall but no. The book continues its unspoken certainty of the place of typewriters and it's sobering. The book and the museum together feel like a single moment slowed to a stop. Kind of frieze-dried.

I’m not going to say that you look at these and inescapably feel that you are yourself archaic, but we’re both thinking it.

William Gallagher

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Prince and the Spinning Wheel's Angular Momentum

Prince Toffee-Caramel looked out across the kingdom. It was a beautiful sight and he'd never really looked before - and he'd certainly never looked from way up here in a beanstalk.

The beanstalk swayed a bit.

The beautiful Princess Hard-Centre had boasted that she could throw the spinning wheel higher than anyone and she was right. But it had stuck in the beanstalk and Prince Toffee had leapt up to climb up it and get her back the spinning wheel.

He got stuck too. It was very high and he'd just eaten and it wasn't fair. He gripped the beanstalk. He couldn't look down. Far, far below, he could just make out the lovely, lyrical song of the princess as she sang “I don’t have all day, you know”.

And as he looked out across the white clouds and the blue sky, he thought he heard birds laughing.

Okay, he thought.

Nothing else came to mind. Just “Okay”.

He tried saying “Right!” but it came out a bit weedy.

“RIGHT!” he said. And as he said it, the gusto in his voice seemed to unlock his mind and he suddenly thought, just a minute, use what’s around you. Maybe not the laughing birds.

There was the beanstalk. It could bend and it could really sway but he wasn’t sure what else it could do. He wondered about breaking bits off but the beanstalk had grown from a seed to seven-mile high weed in thirty hours and you don’t do that with bits that can break off.

“Use the spinning wheel,” cooed the Princess. The wind snatched her words away: he wasn’t sure, did she say “darling” or “dumbass”? He decided it must be darling and, filled with vigour, verve and the kind of overwhelming love that everyone but him would recognise was just a bit of lust, he had the answer.

I'm going to use the spinning wheel, he decided. And he mentally slapped himself on the back for having such a brilliant idea. He tried actually slapping himself on the back but the beanstalk bent and the ground lurched and he thought twice about it.

Gripping onto the beanstalk until it steadied, Prince Toffee managed to look up to where the spinning wheel was just, just, just out of his reach.

He strained as hard as he could and his fingertip just, just, just made contact. It was the most he could do.

But unbalanced and straining, he again made the beanstalk lurch – seriously, how rubbish was this beanstalk? – and that tipped the wheel just a fraction and started it turning just a fraction and suddenly a line of the most beautiful golden thread was unfurling toward the Prince.

He held a strand and marvelled at its shimmering beauty and above-average tensile strength. When he had just enough to loop around his waist, the spinning wheel’s momentum stopped.

The prince gave a gentle tug and more strands appeared.

He looked at the thread.

He looked at the ground.

He looked out across the kingdom.

He nodded at a pigeon. How-do, he said. S’alright, said the pigeon.

And the Prince jumped.

Prince Toffee leapt away from the beanstalk and out, out, out across they sky, twisting his body to build on centrifugal force and pull out as much of the thread as was on the wheel.

Whump, he went through the air. Whump. Faster. Faster. Whump.

Whump, he went.

Whump-splat went the prince and pigeon. “Sorry!” said the Prince.

He reached his greatest possible acceleration and, judging that the thread was running out, he turned his body, angled his arms, set up a windflow over himself so that now he was turning downwards and his stored-up energy was turning into a dive. He was a prince, but he read a lot.

So now he dove for the ground like a bungee jumper.

The wind tore past him.

The ground waited.

The birds got out of the way. The rest of the birds, anyway.

The wheel span faster than it had ever spun before.


The thread reached its end, reached the lock on crunched end-stop and sent a snap of a wave down the line to the Prince.

For one crisp instant, Prince Toffee-Caramel was suspended above Princess Hard-Centre. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him for the perfect, pure moment that it was.

Then the end-stop broke, the wheel slipped an inch, the tension in the thread rang out like a harp string and the Prince was yanked back into the air.

He flew up, used his movement to turn his body and appeared to stand in mid-air before he sliced at the golden thread, cutting himself free and dropping to the ground like an athlete.

It was like an exquisite dismount from bars and as he stood up, straightening his knees and smiling his most rogueishly handsome smile, he knew he was greatest Prince in all the land. He knew he was in there.

“Truly, you are the greatest prince in all the land,” said Princess Hard-Centre. “And if I were looking for a husband who could earn us a living at a circus, you’d be in there.

“But it was actually my spinning wheel that I wanted. So could you sort that out? Is it too much to ask?”

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Chickens and the Shoes: how to win any argument

I can't do this and now that I see your honest eyes, I don't think you can either. But it doesn't seem to stop many people. I'm thinking politicians, especially, who've found this method and are welded to it but it applies to many annoying people in real life and it only surprises me that you don't see it used much in drama.

I'm not very surprised. I mean, I am, but surprise is the smallest of everything I'm feeling today: currently the biggest feeling is anger. That actually doesn't sit very well with me: everything I'm doing is going terrifically – looks for wood to clutch, sees only metal and plastic, gulps – so it's not as if I go around grumping. Yet I have a new anger button and I'm afraid I want to share it with you.

On the plus side, you'll know a way to win any argument. On the negative side, you might be angered every time you see it used. On the bit in between plus and negative, there's the fact that you've already seen this.

This is how you win an argument: move it.

If someone says to you that shoes are the scourge of the land and must be destroyed, you respond with urgent vigour saying: "That absolutely should be looked at and do you know what else? Do you know what's worse? Chickens." 

And then you argue about chickens. 

You do that because you actually have big issues with chickens, because you've got a nugget of chicken info you can use, or because you can't afford to deal with shoes. 

It's such a blatant and supremely obvious move that it's childish yet it works again and again. At the first peak of criticism of the current UK Government, Nick Clegg launched a huge debate about rabbits or something. I guffawed. 

But he got hours of coverage on television, there were debates on radio – especially local radio – and he got acres of newsprint. It's not as if newsprint matters any more, but you'd have thought one of them would have had a headline going "Rabbits? Seriously?"

In that case the shoes of the argument were just minor things like betrayal of the democratic process, the self-destruction of the Liberal Democrats and the certainty that the government's plans for restoring the economy would start and conclude with making sure that the members of the cabinet are okay. The chickens were rabbits.

I've been bubbling about this for much of the last month as we've approached the date of voting for the Police & Crime Commissioner lark. It's a democracy, I believe entirely that voting is important, so off I go looking into who to vote for.


The shoes.

The shoes this time are that what's happening is the reduction of the police force. It's slicing away at the force and the cost of policing. It's reducing the Bill. 

We don't get to vote on that, we get to vote on the chicken part of the argument: which poor sod gets to have a job. 

I've gone round and round about this. Voting is important but voting for this is a way of playing chicken, it's a way of validating the chicken, it's a way of ignoring the shoes completely. There will be a lot of fuss and attention about the results and you know that there will be political pundits proving that so-and-so winning means this has been a blow to the government. You also know the government doesn't give a damn and has no reason to: they wanted the reduction and the cost saving, they got it.

But you've got to vote. Got to. It's so important.

Except. I'm minded of the protestors who were against one of the early motorways. I can't remember which one or when this all was, but a particular UK motorway was planned to cut through some nice countryside and protestors managed to make enough noise that something happened. The government of the day (I've no idea if it were Labour or Conservative) announced a public enquiry.

But a very clever protestor recognised the chickens and the shoes. He saw that the public enquiry was the chicken and no more. The typically long and detailed ruling that set up the enquiry included one key shoe-in: the government was now legally obligated to hold the public enquiry before building the motorway. But exactly and precisely that: obligated to hold the enquiry before building. It didn't actually matter what the result of the enquiry was. The public could condemn the motorway unanimously, they could prove that it was the end of the world, the government could still make the motorway once the enquiry had happened.

So that smart protestor blocked the enquiry.

Forget any voting in it, forget making a case, forget the power of oratory in politics, just stop that enquiry happening.

I'm not saying we should stop the Police & Crime Commissioner vote. I'm saying that it wouldn't make a difference. This government has done the whole shoebang before giving us the chicken feed.

As I say, I've been going round and round in my head about this and I wanted to talk to you about it because, well, I always do. And I know you've seen this happen, I want to know what you think about it and whether it narks you as much as it does me. I want to examine it as a drama issue because I think the reason you don't see it in scripts, that you don't see characters doing the same thing, is because it's too unbelievable. There's that Mark Twain quite: "No wonder truth is stranger than fiction: fiction has to make sense."

Only, you've picked up on the past tense there. I'm every bit as angry about this as I say, and you've picked up on that too, but there's a new shoe and a new chicken in town.

I don't think politicians are inherently stupid but I do think they know safe ground and they run toward it whenever possible. The safest ground of them all is the media. Preferably the BBC, but any of it will do.

So now we have the incident with Philip Scofield on This Morning. If you missed this, he presented Prime Minister David Cameron on air with a list of alleged child abusers. Schofield's point was that you can find this information online and he asked if Cameron was going to investigate the people on the list. This was a list of alleged child abusers and the list itself is getting gigantic attention but what is on the list is not.

Schofield has had to apologise and I can see that: you could apparently read the list if you looked at your telly close enough. 

But David Cameron did not want to discuss alleged child abusers so he moved the argument. He could've said that this was trial by television, that's a popular phrase, and he could've done what has happened since and criticised ITV to the point where some reports say the broadcaster will be in legal hot water.

Instead, he went for a chicken so big that I can't ignore it even as I know unquestioningly that it is shoe-avoidance.

This is what he said:
"There is a danger, if we're not careful, that this could turn into a sort of witch-hunt, particularly against people who are gay and I'm worried about the sort of thing you are doing right now - giving me a list of names that you've taken off the internet."
It doesn't matter if David Cameron actually believes that gay is a synonym for child abuser, it matters very much that he alluded to it. 

I know that the shoe is that these child abuse allegations may involve government and Number Ten. I know that the chicken is this enraging slur.

I know this and yet I am enraged. I know what he's doing, I watched him do it and I know that I shouldn't let my blood steam up over this when that helps him dodge the abuse allegations.

I know this and I know it means he wins. 

But sometimes you've got to punch that chicken.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Doctor Who: And the jaw-dropping actor is...

A new Doctor Who of mine was recorded a few weeks ago and if you caught me on twitter, on Facebook or in pubs across the nation that day, you will have heard this: “Oh, my lights,” I kept saying, “I could eat that voice.”

I was a little late to the recording session and slipped into the control room mid-scene. A character of mine called Elder Bones was speaking and I just thought cor, that actor has the most fantastic voice. Seriously: I could eat it, I said. Nobody quite knew what I meant. To be fair, nor did I. Not exactly. And nobody ever knows what I mean by “Oh, my lights”. You get the idea but the specific words, not so much.

Since so much of what I say derives from some quote or other, I’ve always just assumed that I got the phrase from somewhere. This is now true: it’s in my new Doctor Who and I can’t tell you why or who says it.

But it isn’t Elder Bones.

I lean toward writing fairly long scenes: a lot goes on, things are radically interrupted, but technically speaking it’ll often be one scene that goes on for a fair time. Plus, of course, this was a recording session so there might well be multiple takes. All in all, I think it must've been half an hour before there was any kind of break and I could see who was in the studio. Half an hour with me just sitting in that room, deeply happy with all the cast and most especially enjoying this wonderful voice playing Elder Bones.

Half an hour in which director Barnaby Edwards quite often called this actor by his name and yet I didn’t twig.

I didn’t put it together that “Ron” could ever be Ronald Pickup.

That man has been acting on television, in film, on stage and in radio for nearly fifty years. You may know him from – I’m not sure now, take a gander at his credits on IMDb. I lost count around seven million roles.

But for me he will always be Prince Yakimov from Fortunes of War.

Do you know, he actually thanked me for writing a good role? I’m quite sure he was just being nice but I’m having that. I’m taking that.

I want to tell you more but then I’d have nothing to say when this comes out next year. So let me just tell you that it’s called Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear – Angela came up with the title when I was struggling – and that it’s out in February 2013.

Drama is collaboration. But I sat in that room listening to Ronald Pickup being Elder Bones, listening to Barnaby Edwards direct him, hearing really deft little changes from the discussions with script editor Alan Barnes, and part of me wondered what bit I’d done. The rest of me just enjoyed the story. I was listening to it being recorded out of sequence and without any of the gorgeous audio and aural and musical work that Big Finish does for its productions yet still I was caught up in the tale of Elder Bones, Naysmith and the Tantane Spaceport.

Funny thing about this spaceport: there is one Arrival – it’s a blue box. But there are no Departures.



Friday, October 26, 2012

The News Cycle

A church priest asks a local celebrity to open its fete

The priest reports this in the church's parish newsletter

The church puts it on its parish website

A local events portal site picks this event up and lists it

A blogger who fancies the celebrity tweets about the event

A local news website features it in its weekend preview

A local radio producer reads the website and regurgitates the story with a clever new angle that is entirely invisible to anyone outside the station

A local newspaper editor hears the radio

That local newspaper editor is the entire staff of the local newspaper and thinks this will fill up another page or two so runs it immediately

Local newspaper's website puts that copy online

The celebrity's Google Alert tells him or her it's up

Celebrity tweets a link

Celebrity's fans retweet

A lot

Celebrity's detractors make sarky comments about the parish fete

Two sarky comments make a newsworthy controversy, apparently

Local radio runs phone-in debate: Twitter – Any Better or Worse Since This Time Yesterday?

Regional television wants to interview the celebrity, settles for the priest

National television gets the celebrity

National newspapers see the broadcast and use story as excuse for photo spread

Newsnight sees the spread and plans feature but drops it on editorial grounds

National newspapers decry Newsnight's decision and prove it is BBC bias

The Sun demands BBC Sex Licence Fee be scrapped

Conservatives threaten BBC

BBC appoints special correspondent for parish fetes

ITV says BBC using unfair advantage

ITN realises it can just announce a special correspondent – who's ever going to check?

On the day of the event, BBC Breakfast and The One Show come live from the parish

BBC News 24 has a reporter on scene who reminds us it hasn't been called News 24 since 2008 but still nobody listens

Newspapers devote five pages to slamming the media for the cost of all this coverage

Three radio writers separately come up with the same idea for a radio play set at the fete but BBC Radio 4 isn't sure it's really for their audience

Seventeen TV writers separately come up with the same idea

Before noon, Andrew Davies is commissioned to write it for ITV

The celebrity appears at the fete and says maybe thirty words, half of which you couldn't catch

Twitter, Facebook and all entertainment blogs agree it was a speech right up there with the Declaration of Independence and that thing Beyoncé said that time

Twitter, Facebook and all entertainment blogs say it was a calamity right up there with that thing by the place where Katie Holmes went that time

Conservatives say it's proof that people can raise money for themselves and that they'll match the donations

The fete raises £37 from the public

The cash box is stolen before the end of the afternoon

Conservatives say this is proof that plebs can't be trusted and consequently there's no point matching any donations or providing health care or a national police service

The fete raises £1,912 from journalists drinking afterwards

The fete raises £9,177 from Young Conservatives drinking afterwards

That evening's episode of The Archers includes two specially-recorded sentences about the fete that sound exactly as if they were two specially-recorded sentences

The News Quiz makes a great crack about the fete the next day

Mock the Week makes a fair gag about it in the next series two months later

The parish puts the money toward replacing the lead stolen from the church

The new lead is stolen from the church

Four hundred online fan fiction writers retell the story of the fete with themselves now a terribly important part of it

The fete features in an end-of-year roundup on Five

In the new year, ITV runs an expose of the celebrity's past

Immediately after transmission, the BBC apologises unreservedly for the ITV documentary

On the first anniversary, ITV screens its drama version, now reworked as "Fete!", a period drama written by Julian Fellowes

On the second anniversary nobody does anything

On the fifth anniversary, the parish priest writes a Was It Really Five Years Ago? sermon

On the ninth anniversary, nobody does anything because, come on, it's the ninth

On the tenth anniversary, celebrities rush to be filmed talking about that great day

Local radio fails to get people to re-enact the events but tries to make it sound on air like it was a success

On the twentieth anniversary, the celebrity dies

Tributes to the celebrity centre on that time when there was, like, this fete and everything

The parish priest's successor decides to cash in on the story and asks another local celebrity to open its next fete

William Gallagher

Friday, October 19, 2012

Making tracks

In the late 1980s, when Angela and I were on one of our very earliest dates, we drove to Wales. I worked at a radio station then and had access to the kind of music library you could only dream of. Today you can dream of it and just glance up at your own iTunes collection. But at the time, this meant I could ask Angela to list her favourite 50 or maybe even 100 songs and know that I could get them all for her.

I did my own list too and that's what I got: not a tape of her favourites, but four or five cassettes filled with music that alternated between hers and mine. Whatever you thought of the current song, you knew one of your utter favourites was next.

It was a good idea and a nice day. But over the years, much as we played them, those tapes did slowly vanish in various house moves or when Angela's car was nicked. The original lists we wrote vanished even sooner. Neither of us have any idea what was on any of those tapes.

But when I say they vanished, actually one survived.

But when I say survive, I'm being generous. It has floated back into view every few years as we've moved or I've done some big rearrangement of my office furniture. I've always liked coming across it but it's been a moment of nostalgia rather than anything I can actually use: you've already guessed that we don't have anything that could possibly play a tape cassette. But there is also the more permanent fact that the tape broke very many years ago. At least fifteen years ago.

I spent four hours this week disassembling that cassette and attempting to get it to work again.

To be completely honest, I thought it would be easy. I used to work in a radio station. I must've cut tape thousands of times; I've edited music on reel to reel tapes where you physically find the beat and slice through that part with a razor blade. Right in front of my office Mac is a radio cutting block that I used to use for that sole purpose.

But the reel tape is wider than cassette tape and also stronger. I did undo all the plastic and get out the reels, I found the break in the tape and I laid it all out in the cutting block but it wouldn't bleedin' stay in long enough for me to do much.

Hours I spent getting to this stage. And when I had it down to just one break, I put some Sellotape over the join. You used to mark out where you wanted an edit by making a line with a yellow Chinagraph pencil and then you'd razor the bits apart and splice them back together with a very thin piece of white tape. That tape was exactly the width of the reel tape and you put it on lengthways.

I didn't have splicing tape. I do have Chinagraph pencils but I can't find them. So I did it by eye and I stuck down Sellotape lengthways, going across the join and then – I didn't have a bare razor either – trimming the tape with scissors.

You know how small C90 audio cassettes were, I now know they are incredibly fiddly. I also knew that it was going to be impossible to trim that Sellotape closely enough, there was always going to be tiny extra width where the join was. And I also knew that Sellotape is substantially thicker in depth than splicing tape so as I'd thread it all back onto the cassette's wee take-up spool, there was going to be a bump. It might be enough to throw the tape off the reel, it'd definitely be enough to cause a hiccup, and it might bend the little pieces of metal and plastic that are meant to hold the tape against the playhead.

There was no possibility that this tape would be properly repaired but hours of surgery should mean that I would be able to play it – once. Just play it once and get the track list off there.

I borrowed a tape player from my mom. She hasn't used it in decades and it was dustier than archaelogy but it did power up. She loaned me the speakers too but – um, she's not reading this, is she? – I wasn't entirely sure where they were. Plus, I was doing this in the middle of the night before Angela and I went away on holiday so to be quiet, I plugged headphones in.

It was unintelligible.

Like music being played backwards. I've heard that often enough, you used to wind tape by hand to get to the exact point you needed plus you'd rock it back and forth over a bit when you were judging the right moment to cut, so I knew what I was listening to. I just didn't know why.

And I still don't. Because even as I tried figuring out how I could've reversed the tape somehow, it managed to right itself after I'd held down fast-forward and play.

Well, I say it righted itself... Really it was just playing in the correct direction. You couldn't hear it well enough to enjoy it, but you could make out the songs. Most of them.

Alright, some of them. For a few of mine and for very many of Angela's, I had to use Shazam. Picture me in my office at 1:30am with one earpiece in my ear and the other pressed against my iPhone's microphone.

I don't want to tell you what the tracks were because I'd rather you imagined what you would've put on. But I will tell you that Shazam was convinced I'd chosen Liebe Fängt Im Herzen An by Nicole Freytag when actually it was Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen's main theme from Edge of Darkness.

That went on the list. As I nursed the tape through to the end and then realised, er, I had to now nurse it through again on the other side, I wrote down each track. I'd never go use Angela's computers without her knowing – it'd feel like going through her handbag – but our iTunes libraries use home sharing: if her Mac is on, my iTunes shows her entire library as a playlist and hers shows mine. So I could search across both our iTunes without giving the game away.

There were two tracks of mine that I didn't have. Plenty I didn't still listen to, but two I didn't have. There were six she didn't. I spent about a fiver on the iTunes Store getting hers and 79p getting one of mine. Amazing how those 79p and 99p amounts add up.

Edge of Darkness wasn't available anywhere. It doesn't appear to be available to buy in any format: you can sometimes get a vinyl EP on eBay but I already have that, that's what I taped it off in the first place. So I used an alternative means of acquisition.

Moving on.

This morning, as I write this, I got into the car with Angela and handed her my old iPhone 4 – looking like this.

That's an app which just plays whatever is on your iPhone's music library but displays a moving cassette and a "handwritten" title. I rigged it so that instead of it being many songs in a playlist and therefore the title would be just whatever the first song was, it said "Wales Tape Side A".

I wish we still had the original lists. I wish I hadn't chosen The Eve of the War from War of the Worlds. I wish I'd dragged the original version of Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing instead of her recent acoustic one (look, it was 2am and I was trying to be quiet, I saw that title and figured I know that one, that's easy, just drag it over and get back to trying to figure out who on Earth John Foxx is).

But by the time we reached Lancaster for lunch, we had driven through 1989, we were peeking back through the walls since then and reliving both a special Wales day and how we had met in another music library back at BHBN hospital radio.

You've gathered that Angela didn't know I was going to do this. Debbie, a friend online equally late at night, heard about it at length because I had to tell someone when I'd finally got it all working. Mark, a soundtrack fan who's really brought me back to the form after years away, worked with me on the Edge of Darkness lark though did not in any way consult or consort with alternative methods of provision.

And now you know too.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Choose your own ending

Prometheus has been released on DVD and the ads are trumpeting that you can watch an alternative beginning – and also an alternative ending. I chose an alternative middle and watched a different film altogether.

(ALL: “A different film.”)

I suppose that in one sense it all worked out very well indeed: I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. But this concept of slotting in new beginnings and new endings, it’s just wrong.

Periodically someone will announce a new drama where the audience votes for the ending. Similarly, you do still get some books that say “if you want to kill the monster, turn to page 94; to eat a nice supper with the monster and reminisce about old times, turn to page 17” but they are dying out faster than normal books.

There’s a reason for this.

Giving the audience a choice of endings or requiring them to make their own way through your story is bollocks.

The desire to do this kind of audience participation is invariably made by people who can’t write and wish they could. It’s also praised as a great new idea by people who think we’re so thick we won’t remember when it was tried last week. And by people who are themselves so thick that they don’t remember when it failed last week.

If you want alternative endings to work, click here.

If you want them to never be attempted again, please God, then click here.

If you’re undecided or only halfway through your biscuit, read on.

There’s a seventy percent chance that you didn’t click anywhere, that you just read on. And a 34 percent chance that you did so because who can be bothered to go clicking away?

Each click, each jump to page 94, each voting breaks the story: it takes you out of it and needs you to make a decision before then plunging back in. It is very, very hard to get anyone into any story so deliberately throwing them out and hoping they’ll come back is on the doomed side of foolish.

But my aggravation and my conviction that this is an impossible concept is because that stopping is as permanently disruptive and damaging for the writer. Now, the writer is paid to get back in there but the fact that they have to means to me that the story is shot through with bullet holes. If you’re not scooped up and carried along by the story and neither is the writer, there just is no story.

There are also no characters.


Follow. Let’s say that there’s been a murder, that I’m a rogueishly handsome detective, you are a suspect and let’s say that bit about me again because I liked it. Let’s say that this actual proper drama that in every way bar the aforementioned hunky me is in fact Columbo.Right from the top the watching audience knows whodunnit and right from about twenty minutes in, Columbo suspects whodunnit. For the next seventy to ninety minutes, it’s you and me. Toe to toe. Question to answer. Accusation to alibi. Move to counter move. You have to be a hell of a great character to keep us for the whole show.

Compare and contrast.

We’re now in Murder Most Randomly Selected. Britain’s Got Murderers. The X Ending.

There’s still been a dramatic murder. I am still good-looking. You are still a suspect. But now you are one of five suspects and not only could any of them have done it, every single one of them has done it –in one of the five alternative endings.

The murderer is instantaneously one fifth as interesting a character. They get less time on screen so they need less character so they have less character. Each of the five has to have all the setup to explain how – only cursorily why but always in detail how – they did the deed. So the murderer has one fifth of the plot too.

I think it’s even less than that, though. If anyone can have done the murder, anyone did and it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a puzzle to solve - where any answer is as good as any other.

Stories are not puzzles. They are not games. They can be both, they can be either, but if that’s all they are then they are not stories. Stories are about characters and if a character has one fifth as good a motive for killing as they should or murder – surely the most profoundly dramatic moment in their life – is instead just any old five to one shot, it’s not a story.

If it’s hard to get an audience into a story and it’s arithmetically harder to keep them there, then it is geometrically harder to create compelling or even just interesting characters. Anyone who believes one-fifth of a character is good enough is someone who can’t create full characters.

Two very good films would seem to give the lie to this, but hang on. Raiders of the Lost Ark was actually a series of terrific ideas for set-piece moments all strung together. The Bourne Identity had an alternative start and ending filmed.

But a writer strung those Raiders ideas together and the writer, director and producers planned and ultimately decided against the alternative Bourne.

It wasn’t the audience voting in the cinema to say they want the bit with the rolling boulder next, please.

You don’t have to like the choices the writer made but if they want the audience to make up the story they should hire them.

Not that I feel strongly about this, by the way.

Friday, October 05, 2012

What you can get away with in Elementary school

I would like to propose a small alteration. Instead of:

“When you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”

let us have:

“When you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, means you haven’t got the whole picture yet”

The Sherlock Holmes line works for him exclusively because he is fiction and written in a world conjured to fit only him. No one but Holmes is allowed to spot a clue, no one but him is allowed to correctly deduce anything. And the only clues that exist are precisely the ones that will lead him to the villainous criminal.

If there’s a spot of blood on a wall, for instance, it’s to do with this case. It cannot ever be that there was another unrelated gang killing in the same spot twenty minutes before.

Similarly, in the latest retelling of the tales, Elementary, Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) correctly spots that shards on the kitchen floor come from two wine glasses and that therefore the victim knew her assailant.

The deduction is correct only because Holmes made it. I deduce instead that, say, the victim saw it was wine o’clock, started knocking back a jar or two of the old vino until she was heading toward being legless and managed to smash her first glass. “Oh, well,” she says, throwing her arms wide with drunken abandon, “I’ve got another one just like that.” And off she goes, drinking from a new glass until the cycle would’ve repeated but for how she was murdered.

This is absolutely not possible, it is an entirely wrong deduction. But solely because Holmes didn’t make it.

This is the case with all fiction, it’s just that sometimes it’s taken to extremes. Sherlock Holmes is the world’s greatest detective primarily because he says so. I don’t know why people believe him – and yet they believe him to the degree that folk around the world really do write to this fictional detective asking for his help on real crimes.

You know that. You’ve heard that. I’ve never heard what those crimes are. You’ve got to suspect that they’re probably not on a par with his usual cases. I mean, they immediately lose some sense of urgency just since people are writing from overseas. They are also writing to a fictional character who by definition never lived but just to be sure was also killed off in 1893 but never mind that, focus on the overseas bit. Something that makes you write overseas for help is either going to be such a gigantic case that the police can’t help you or it’s going to be so piddling small that the police won’t help you.

It’s piddling small, isn’t it? Maybe it’s a variant on Occam’s Razor, but I would offer that if something is either epic and earth-shattering or dull as ditchwater, it is always going to be ditchwatertastic.


The greatest detective in the world gets asked for help finding lost poodles instead of hounds. He also, lest we forget, doesn’t exist. From this, he gets his reputation.

I have had friends I liked very much, and even admired, to whom you could say: “A Study in Scarlet, page 63” and they would tell you what was on the page. It’s a kind of religious devotion in that it has the same remarkable accuracy of the devoted the same willingness to ignore elephants. Fans speak of Holmes’s brilliance yet even with all the clues laid out for him – only for him and only the right clues – still Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to cheat over some plot points.

The Sherlock Holmes short stories don’t hold me. I have enjoyed the novels much more but they have left me blinking at plot chasms and that niggles at me, it gnaws at me, actually it flat-out maims my interest.

Just not because I like plots.

The more I write, the less I am interested in plots. It’s character that matters to me and actually dialogue. Have I said this to you before? Were we in a pub at the time? If I don’t believe what a character is saying, I don’t believe the character. If I don’t believe the character, I don’t care what happens to them. Have a fantastic plot, I’m already gone.

Always, always, I just want to be scooped up by the characters and into the world of the story. Without question, I’ve utterly missed plot holes because I’m caught up in the tale. I’m fine with that. I’m more than fine with that. I might wonder about it technically if you point it out to me afterwards, but whatever you get away with in a film is fine by me.

I’m plainly just not that taken with the character of Sherlock Holmes or I wouldn’t mind, I wouldn’t notice failings in the tales or their retellings.

You know I’m right. You just also know that I haven’t written anything that’s lasted 125 years, been filmed over 200 times and has one high-profile and very successful British TV version plus a very high-profile and at least initially quite successful American TV version at the same time.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Paperback writer: The Beiderbecke Affair is published today

I think it was about November 10, 2010 when I looked at my watch, saw I was late leaving my office and yet as I stood up to go, still thinking, what the hell, make one more phone call. I rang the British Film Institute, as you do, and proposed a book.

It's September 28, 2012 now and that book is on sale: BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair.

This is true: I am shouting about the book's release everywhere I can and I'm doing it obviously because I want the book to be a success but also this is about The Beiderbecke Affair and, stuff me and my involvement, if I hadn't written it I would today be buying it to read. So I take every opportunity to tell everyone who might be as interested as I would be.

But not this time. Not this particular time. Listen, it's just you and me here, I will add all the links to the book and the videos and the podcasts that I've produced but I'd like to just talk to you about what all this means to me. One book is very much like another and if I find revelatory insider details to tell you, well, they are probably revelatory insider details you already knew. In which case, the question is less why I'm telling you and more why you didn't tell me.

I guarantee that you don't know that I am writing to you from the tearoom at Winterbourne. Bugger. You know now.

It's just a rather strange day. Yesterday I hadn't written a book, today I have. That's obviously not how it works but it's how it feels and I am surprised to say that it's only on publication that I'm realising the difference between this and most things I've done. Up until this book and my Doctor Who work, everything I've done has been ephemeral.

Follow. My favourite gig at Radio Times was On This Day, a piece in the daily listings about the history of television as reported in RT and it was very much as if I would bound up to you with a new morsel of information. I vividly remember going to look up The Glittering Prizes, an especially famous drama from 1976 and discovering that it began on the same day as Kizzy. Turning that page, seeing that listing, I was right back in 1976.

I hoped then and I still hope now that maybe you got the same or a similar rush from seeing something that I brought to your attention. But I didn't do it today. I can't remember when that gig finished but if you wanted to read any of it now you'd have to go to some trouble looking up eBay listings for old Radio Times. Many, many people buy and sell old Radio Times copies and not one of them does it to get their hands on one of my On These Days.

Similarly, all my Ceefax work was gone the day it was done. You can still look up BBC News Online pieces but why would you?

Whereas, for good or bad, my book is here. It will go out of print but even when that happens, it has queered the pitch for anyone else wanting to write about The Beiderbecke Affair. It's me or it's nothing. I was aware of that when I originally phoned the BFI, I was aware of it as I wrote – of course you want to get things right but you have to, you have to, you have to since nobody else is going to cover the same topic – but I think I only really felt it now.

Shirley Rubinstein, Beiderbecke writer Alan Plater's widow, told me that I am now forever bound up with Beiderbecke. I am not bound up with One Direction or whoever I last wrote about on I'm okay with that. I gulped a bit when she told me because it's true. Whether my book is good or bad, it is the only book on this topic. If you Google the words "Beiderbecke Affair" you do get me.

Wait. Let me try it. I'm writing on my iPad, newly, freshly tethered over my iPhone in a way that lets me think I'm online but actually takes just long enough to connect to anywhere that every page becomes an exciting, tantalising, cliffhanging mystery as it sloooooowly appears.

Google: "The Beiderbecke Affair"

I am there. But I'm ninth in the search results and that's way below the fold, you would never scroll down past eight other fully Beiderbecke references feeling somehow dissatisfied until you reached me.

So that's alright then.

What am I worrying about?

Alan Plater was a friend. Shirley Rubinstein is. The Beiderbecke Affair made a big difference to my career: my very first big magazine article was about it. Actually, my book is about The Beiderbecke Affair, it's about Alan Plater and it's published by the British Film Institute and that very first article was too. It was about Alan and Beiderbecke, it was published by the BFI.

I actually think that Beiderbecke becomes personal to anyone who watches it. Or at least anyone who watches and enjoys it. That first one, especially. Without anything really seeming to happen, huge things go on and the Beiderbecke world is warmly enveloping. I have a habit of picking up lines from dramas and finding that they are in my everyday speech, my own ideolect, and there are plenty of Beiderbeckeisms that have come tripping out of me over the years.

This is all unconscious and I never know why it's happening, I routinely say something I know is a quote but I can't place it. But I am conscious of one line in particular. It's not from Beiderbecke but it is an Alan Plater line and I used it in the book most deliberately.

I used it in the dedication: "This is dedicated to Angela, Alan, Shirley and all passing by – as am I."


Buy BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair
Watch the Author Video about the book
Subscribe free to the Beiderbecke podcast on iTunes

Friday, September 21, 2012

J'queues Apple

Standing in the cold and being jeered at just so you can pay some outfit hundreds of pounds for rubbish even though they rip you off every year by making some pathetic tiny change to, I don’t know, a colour or something. It is beyond me why anyone goes to football matches.

It has been said – often and loudly and forcibly - that queuing outside an Apple Store to buy a new iPhone on launch day is silly. It is. But as silly things go, I mean if you were looking to be right daft, if you yearned for world-record breaking silliness, it’s not really up there with voting Republican or LibDem. It’s pretty mild silliness, really.

Maybe you could feel sillier by pointing out that Apple is laughing all the way to the bank. But then banks are laughing all the way to themselves. There’s a lot of jollity out there. Not a great deal of it seems to be reaching us individually but in a time when things are rather hard, the fact that anyone both wants to and can go queue to spend dosh, well, it is silly but I think it’s a lot of other things first.

Especially since we all give companies money every day and at least this way has some theatre to it. Some style. I met a guy this morning who said he wouldn’t queue even if they were giving the iPhone 5 away – but he was the owner of a mobile phone shop and there was a bewildered longing in his voice as he watched hundreds of people walk past his store.

And there were hundreds in Birmingham today.

Usually when I go through the city at that time of the morning, it’s probably a cold and quiet place but I’m so three-quarters-asleep that I don’t notice. Today at 05:45 it was alive. Still bleedin’ cold, but alive.

Some years ago I queued for an iPhone at an O2 store on New Street. It was a blast. There must’ve been a hundred people and we gassed away. Met such interesting folk I’d never normally come in contact with. Promised to stay in touch. But I was talking about this with a friend today and had been about to say something about that time we queued there when I realised that we hadn’t. I’d queued in Birmingham’s New Street, he’d queued somewhere else. But he and I had nattered on the phone in the queue, many of my hundred were nattering equally to the people around them and on phones. It was just a buzzing, happy, shared experience.

With a hundred people.

I can tell you that times have changed. Back then, whenever it was, I fancied a new iPhone. Today, I need one. (Need is a relative term, but.) With my new unexpectedly financially savvy head on, I schlepped through all the maths about tariffs and handset costs and total-cost-of-ownership. And the other year, I also worked out how often I actually use my iPhone. I counted. On one day. It was 230 times.

So over the two-year contract, I used it 167,900 times.

It’s still such an integral part of my work that as I have it in my left hand looking up emails, I’ve often found myself reaching into the pocket to get it out to do something else too.

Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve done repeatedly and very successfully is drop the poor thing. It is now a bruised and limping iPhone. Hardly a scratch on it, but the innards are wobbly and I somehow broke the Home button.

So trust me, I need a new one. Forget NFC, if you even know what that is, the killer features I needed in the iPhone 5 were: availability and my being out of contract.

Consequently, today, this morning, getting up at my sometimes usual time of 05:00, I decided to do it. I could’ve just ordered online and had a chat with the postman in eleven to eighteen days time, but instead I went in to Birmingham city centre to have a great time with one hundred people and come back with something I actually know will be a part of my every working second for the next couple of years.


It’s 05:45.

Birmingham city centre.

And there are not 100 people queuing, there are 1,600. If you know the city, let me explain that the line stretched up out of the Bullring, around the statue of the Bull which is an unacknowledged and actually a bit bowdlerised ripoff of the one in New York’s Bowling Green area, then up New Street toward Corporation Street and lastly take a left up the ramp to the train station.

I did a fast estimate, realised that even if this were the greatest crowd of people in the world to talk to, there was physically no possibility that I could queue here for an iPhone 5 and get back to my office in time for a scheduled Skype interview.

It is not silly to queue up with a group of strangers, it is fun. It is not silly to buy an iPhone, it’s my business. I’m not even going to say that it’s silly to take the entire day to do it, but I am going to say that it wasn’t possible. Not for me.

So instead I am at home in my office and actually I’m writing this to you while I wait for that Skype interview which is currently two hours late and feels unlikely to be happening. Thank you for being my distraction.

One thing occurs to me. You will not have to look far to find people saying that folk who buy Apple products are fans who have been taken in by the advertising. It’s a child’s argument and especially so as it comes with a concomitant suggestion that by not buying an Apple iPhone you are in some way superior. Gosh. If only I were as brave as you.

Yet think about what it would mean if it were true. What it would feel like if Apple did this, if Apple got 1,600 people queuing outside just one of its shops purely because it did a nice ad campaign. You’d have to feel pretty good about yourself if you were Apple. But you don’t have to buy your iPhone from them at all.

That guy who wouldn’t queue if they were free knows that they aren’t free because he sells them too. You could buy an iPhone from his shop. In sight of his window, there were 1,600 customers that keen to buy an iPhone and precisely 1 queuing outside his shop.

Where was the marketing magic for him?

More, think about what it would feel like if your business did have this magical advertising and it did work for you, it did get crowds coming to your door with open credit cards – and then you lost them all.  For as I walked up that line of 1,600 people, I passed the same O2 shop I’d queued at last time and there was no one there.

You can hype all you want and you might even get phenomenal business out of it – but you'll only get that once. If you keep getting queues and today's is sixteen times longer than the last one you got, you're doing something better than choosing a nice photo for your posters.

Sent from my bruised old iPhone 4

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Premiere: video trailer for The Beiderbecke Affair

UPDATE: Try as I might, I can't make that video look as shiny as it does here on my Mac where I've been editing it. But I can make it look better: would you watch it on my Facebook author page, please? Head right this way.


I really should be promoting my own book here – listen, it's BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair and it's out on 28 September in the UK – but I've also got to urge you to buy the Network DVD release of The Beiderbecke Affair. I couldn't recommend that more if they were paying me. Though actually, Network was a great help to me with the book: they couldn't have been more help if I'd been paying them.

Network DVD is a UK firm so I presume you can't usefully buy that in the States or Canada but fortunately you can get my book everywhere. It's out 30 October in America and in Canada too.

Before all of that, I'm going to be speaking at the PowWow LitFest in Birmingham on 23 September swapping live on stage between a Beiderbecke hat and a Doctor Who script writing one.

Other events and much more Beiderbecke to follow but, seriously, that's enough linking for one day.

Funny. By the time the book comes out in the US, it will have been near enough two years since I phoned the British Film Institute with the idea to write it. I can see me standing up by my desk, needing to get out to a meeting but thinking I'd just try them while it was on my mind.

And I do very clearly remember weighing up whether to pitch the idea at all. If you're going to do a book about something, you have to love it enough to be willing to hate it. To accept that by the end of the process, you will scream if you ever hear the title again. It's inevitable: so much goes into your head during the researching and the writing; plus no project is ever straightforward so there will be many times when you wonder if it's bleedin' worth the trouble.

Or so I thought.

I suspect now that The Beiderbecke Affair may be the very best introduction to book writing that I could've had. The BFI is great to work with, everybody I spoke to about Beiderbecke was enthusiastic and informative and charming. I cannot draw to mind a moment that didn't work as planned – that didn't work exactly as hoped.

Certainly, there were problems getting everything in and getting everything done to deadline. There was the moment when I got to read every script of the show bar the last ten pages of episode four which have somehow vanished from the archives. There was the moment when I was conflicted: I'd either already written or had extremely thoroughly allotted every chapter, every section, practically every word but I'd also now just found a previously unpublished Beiderbecke short story by Alan Plater.

It was murder cramming that in. Also rather a new experience for me: I've commissioned hundreds of thousands of words of journalism from all sorts of writers but not once before had I ever had to negotiate rights to publish someone's fiction. I'm writing this to you in my living room and I remember making the first phone calls about that story while hovering around the window and looking out at the rain.

Actually, if you want to build a picture here, I'm sitting in the seat I bounded out of when Diana Dunn phoned me. Did I tell you this already? Complicated story. She ended up phoning me because of someone else I'd been tracking down for the book and she honestly did not expect me to even know who she was. "DIANA DUNN!" I said calmly.

I've probably seen The Beiderbecke Affair thirty times now, and only twenty of them over the last two years. The other ten were spread out since it first aired in the 1980s and long before I even imagined writing a book. And each time I'd catch an episode, I'd see Diana's name on the credits for having designed that terrific title sequence.

I'm sure I've told you that. I'm sure I should be telling you all this kind of thing in about two weeks when the book actually comes out. But you've just got that kind of face, I feel I can tell you anything.