Friday, May 25, 2012

Sorry, just not big enough

I launched my new website yesterday,, and blogged about it. If you're going to make an announcement, you should make it and then shut up. You shouldn't blurt on to a totally unrelated point before anyone can have read your promo piece.


I have to talk to you about this. So bollocks to waiting a decent interval for another blog.

Here's the thing.

There are certain lines that make me weep. Emily Dickinson's "hope is the thing with feathers", for instance. Of course the power is always in the meaning and in the context, of course it's the same whether I read those words in a poem or I hear Dar Williams's beautiful You're Aging Well. And of course it is never, say, the actual shapes of the letters on the page or on the screen.


Bruce Springsteen has today released a video for Rocky Ground. This song will always mean empty highways to me, far more than his songs that are famously set there – listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad for a moving, despairing description of a highway – because that's where I was when I heard it. I was moved by the song, it's the reason I bought the album Wrecking Ball even having not been impressed with the other tracks.

Videos are meant to sell the song, sometimes in every sense, and I've already bought so I might not have watched but look around: this video is getting huge coverage online. It's not the first single from the album, it's not as if the album is still new, but I've no idea what other videos have been made because none of them are this strong.

Springsteen isn't in it. It's a stark, monochrome film overlaid throughout with someone handwriting the lyrics to the song. Rolling Stone: "Mixed with the song's steady beat and soaring gospel chorus, and of course Springsteen's own pained howls, the clip never loses its power."

I've not spotted this before today but there is now a little genre of pop videos that use the physical shape of lyrics. I know the one you're thinking of and I suspect you're right, surely this started it all.

Pardon? You were expecting something else?

The first one that really arrested me, though, was Dar Williams's As Cool As I Am. If you've known me longer than a biscuit then you know I'm a fan of hers. I'd say I admire Williams's work but that sounds quite detached; it sounds as if I rate her technically or something. I do, but that somehow hides how much I just love her music. I've said it before: I wouldn't kill to write like Dar Williams – but I'd maim.

It all began here for me. I play you this and I can see me sitting in the house I lived in back in 1996 or so, watching this on our even-then ancient TV that was later to explode. Presumably with excitement.

Notice that word 'falling' which literally falls at 1'40" or so. It's not a lyric yet it's right. Then toward the end there's a lyric that feels as if it's surely wrong: she sings 'I am the others'. But it's a perfect example of the wrong word (or maybe plural in this case) being exactly the right one. I don't think I could've written that and this is a weakness in my work.

I interviewed Dar a few years after this and she mentioned wishing she could re-record her older albums now that, she felt, her voice was stronger and she'd performed the songs that much more. Also because she was just that much more experienced in the studio.

So she did.

As Cool As I Am is redone on her live album (iTunes UK, iTunes US), then again on her particularly fine Many Great Companions (iTunes UK, iTunes US). Off the back of that last version, she released a video that I think has an especially strong version of the song - but it doesn't have lyrics on screen or projected. I'd still like you to see it.

That newer video is in black and white. All of these have been in black and white. I could wonder whether it's not letterforms that I'm finding striking, it's the monochromatic bleakness that speaks to my soul. That happens a lot: one of my favourite albums is Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and I swear he wrote it in black and white.

Plus of course, all these songs have been in English: if I couldn't read this language, you have to wonder whether they'd have any impact at all.

But then text is generally black on white, isn't it? Plus here's a video in colour and whose strength comes from the burnt-in text subtitles – and I'd say the non-English lines are the most powerful.

I'm not sure, to be fair. The subtitles are replete with powerful lines and that they so quickly break away from the lyrics to become a separate yet connecting story mesmerises me. I wish the font were a touch stronger; it looks video-generated and a bit weedy. But you can't take your eyes off it.

I know I've said before about Emily Dickinson making me weep – once, at a cancer awareness event, that hope line was read out and I shook; I'm shaking now – and I've obviously said numerous times that Dar Williams can't half write.  I must've mentioned Rocky Ground before too. But I don't think I've ever blathered on entirely about music.

And I'm not going to now, either. Not entirely. Because there's this film.

The Hotel New Hampshire is a 1984 film adapted from John Irving's novel by writer/director Tony Richardson. (The film isn't on iTunes. You can get a DVD from Amazon UK, Amazon US. And the book is on Amazon UK, Amazon US too.)

The film is fine. I remember it being quite deftly written; I think I remember it being well performed. But I know exactly which sole moment really worked. A character has typed one single line of text and for a moment, for several frames, it's the only thing on the screen.

The line itself is important and we've heard it before, building to this moment. But seeing it as text is a slap. We've not seen text on screen since the credits, we don't often see text in movies anyway. The shape of the letters and how they're written on a typewriter speaks to what we know of the character who wrote it. And we are the characters who are reading it.

Film is a visual medium. Pop videos are surely an entirely visual medium: the images can overwhelm the music. But just once in a while, it's text and the actual letterforms that pull us in more.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Master of my own domain. And some subdomains.

I'm trying to squeeze something extra into my book about The Beiderbecke Affair. But that comes out 28 September and so things are a little far along and I may not be able to. Just in case, let me share it with you here instead.

As all enterprising writers would, I did include my email address in the book's acknowledgements. But I'm trying to change that from an email to a new website URL and so I've asked that we add a line that goes this away:

Read more about The Beiderbecke Affair on my site That's b-e-i... wait... will get you there too.
It really does. You won't find much there today but it works and by publication there'll be some extras like unused extracts from interviews with Barbara Flynn and more. Not a great deal, to be honest, because I managed to pack a huge amount of that in. But everyone I talked to for the book was so interesting and Barbara gave me an utterly golden trove of photographs and cuttings. I scanned everything and handed this giant parcel back with all the scans on the teeniest of USB sticks. I'm sure she'll be fine with me showing you some of the material.

But the reason there's not much of it on there today is that I only just got the idea this week while producing a new website for myself. That was partly prompted by the book, partly by people asking where they could get it, partly by my finding out that it's even going on sale in Japan and so mostly and consequently because my ego is currently overwhelming.

Plus Apple kicked me out.

I've been a MobileMe user since before it was MobileMe and that Apple service hosted my website but they're taking it down and they were gonna take me with it if I didn't do something. It's all because MobileMe has been replaced by iCloud and that's fine because iCloud is rather spectacularly great – when it works.

Nonetheless, this 'ere iCloud don't take kindly to strangers, you hear, so my site and everyone else's sites on there had to move.

I'm still on but that tent is now pitched on A Small Orange. I'd never heard of this hosting site before but I can't stop talking about them now: a real human being from their support team replied with a solution to a problem less than 90 seconds after I sent it. Love 'em.

With a need to move comes a desire to spring clean. Besides, my mother has never understood what I do for a living and now I can just point here to the site. Once I convince her to get online.

When she does, you can bet the first thing she'll say to me is that oi, those scoundrels at 123-reg sell you subdomains like for a tenner but you can get them for free. And do you know, she's right? Over the years I have paid for subdomains to stand up particular projects. Most of them I can't tell you because they're still in play but, for instance, I did once have a I liked that. Radio William Gallagher.

What was I saying about my ego?

As part of the process of pulling up sticks and headin' on outta town to A Small Orange, I learned this about free subdomains and that's when the penny dropped about having

I am sure that by 28 September that and its easier-to-spell counterpart are going to be well worth you having a look.

But for today, I'm rather pleased with how my own main site has turned out. Do please have a look at when you can. Right now I think it is just the way I want it, I think it has just the things I need.

Except I'll tell you the truth: I had a problem with an image on the front page. It's supposed to change randomly between me looking serious, me looking sexy* (*delete as wishful thinking) and my very most embarrassing photo ever.

Other pages have these rotating images but I'm plainly getting something wrong so you only get the serious one. There is no sexy one. You knew that. But fortunately the embarrassing one will never accidentally make it onto this blog.


Friday, May 18, 2012

How many characters in search of an author?

Angela Gallagher, my wife, has earned herself a place on a Birmingham Rep theatre writing programme. I am beside myself with excitement: I get nervous when she goes to it, I watch the clock until she's back, I gobble up everything she can tell me about it. And at the moment, we're talkin' character.

We've always talked drama but somehow it feels richer at the moment because she's devoting all this time to pursuing her ideas while I'm over here in the corner pursuing mine. Feels all the more active. And we get into right debates.

Which is where character comes in. Or where character will. Character is the next subject in the Rep's programme and I will earwig everything I can from what Angela gets to discuss with them. But until then, we sit here, she and I, with a different volume of opinions. I have a lot to say about character. She could say a lot but she's waiting to talk about it at the Rep.

I really, really don't want to pummel my opinions away at her: I like it best when she disagrees and can change my mind. This is especially true right now because I am about to pontificate on a certain issue to do with characters and I know I am wrong.

I also know I am very serious and that I have benefited from this opinion. But it is wrong. Probably.


I have a friend who loves creating characters in her scripts. I've pointed out to her that if her lead character needs to know the time, she will for preference have him meet a blind dwarf watchmaker with 11 sons, 8 daughters and sure an' they'll all have a tale to tell. Whereas I'll give him a bloody watch.

Her way is perhaps more filmic. Certainly more imaginative. My way is very cost-conscious and practical. I think the right thing is probably somewhere in the middle. Don't be daft with characters but don't limit yourself either.

With her approach, I'd argue that the characters are so many that they must remain ciphers. But with my approach, you know every character is extremely important. If they appear to pop into a scene and vanish again, you know dollars to doughnuts that they're coming back later. I don't like this in me.

But let me tell you a Doctor Who story. There's a character in the last one I wrote, Wirrn Isle, called Dare. In the first draft, she was the best character you never saw. She was so vivid that you reached the end of the draft script and were certain that she'd been in it. Yet she hadn't.

Dare – a quick aside; the names in Wirrn Isle were all generational things, it was a whole socio-economic thing, I can bore you on demand - and where was I? Dare. Dare was a throwaway line, she was a character who ran something or other and had said this or that. I can't remember now but whatever it was, it began as an unimportant aside. And it just grew and grew in the not-telling.

Alan Barnes at Big Finish read this and pointed out that Dare was a little bit too interesting to not even feature in the drama. Between him and Dare herself, I was convinced. She boomed into the second draft and became not just important, but one of my favourites of my own characters.

Partly for this reason. There's a little exchange in Wirrn Isle and I liked it so much on hearing the final audio that I wondered whether I'd written it or if it had been an edit. I so wanted it to be mine that I wouldn't look up the script, just in case. But even if I can lie to myself, I can't lie to you. So just in order to give you the right credit, I have now read the draft script.

And the line is mine.

I love you.

It's just this: Dare's boss asks her how she can possibly be so stupid as to believe a particular thing and she replies:

DARE: I started with the evidence and worked backwards, sir.

Call me daft, but I like that line (of mine) and actor Helen Goldwyn delivered it just so. But here's a thing. I've never met Helen Goldwyn. I actually had no clue what she even looked like until right now, at this point in this sentence, when I broke off to go find a photo for us.

Now that I have, I also see that she has credits as long as you like, both for acting and writing. I'm not sure how I can be daunted after the fact, but I am.

The reason I didn't meet her, though, is because I was doing this thing that meant I could only get to one of the studio days for Wirrn Isle. As a writer, I don't have to think about who gets booked to do what role when: that's the producer and the director. I know David Richardson cast at least most of Wirrn Isle because I thanked him for it on my studio day: this whole set of actors were terrific and made me sound great.

Nonetheless, I've got a point lurking here somewhere and it is this. Even though I didn't have to think about whose scenes could be recorded on which day, I did have to think about how many people I used. How many characters in total.

Of course there's a budget issue: I don't know the figures for Wirrn Isle but no radio production can keep adding actors on a whim. But budget is just one of many practical concerns with characters: I only had two hours of story and I have to juggle so that everybody always had something to do. In radio, especially, if a character doesn't speak for a page or two, they are effectively gone. Vanished from the listeners' mind.

Which happens to fit my natural approach of writing as few characters as conceivably possible.

Characters are a right bugger to create. You come up with one and the next thing you know, you have to create another one just so the first has someone to talk to. Bastards.

If the Birmingham Rep gives Angela any insights into character, I will steal them for myself and never tell you. It's not personal.

It's in my character.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Cover me

This is a complicated thing to explain to you just to stand up the image there, but follow.

I am a freelance writer. However, through a budget requirement and/or a clerical error years ago, I went on staff for a couple of days a week at at Radio Times. I shrugged: what difference did it make?

It made a lot of difference to my accountant who had to periodically phone me up to ask why this bit of work was staff and taxed but this bit wasn't.

He's happier now because I am back to being entirely freelance. But this time, I didn't shrug. Instead, I crossed my fingers.

Because I've been there long enough to know that some people, some times, get a remarkable gift when they come off the books at Radio Times.

You're looking at it. I mean, they gave me a terrific send off in every way but the bit I want to tell you about, the bit I really hoped would happen, is this cover.

I can't tell you that it's a Radio Times tradition, because I don't think it is. Not everyone gets it or the art department wouldn't have time to do the real magazine cover. I really don't know how they had time to do this one.

I feel honoured. Seriously: this is Radio Times, the only magazine I know whose covers are so famous that they get republished in books, that have had art exhibitions devoted to them, and which each year are the excuse for the all-star celebrity Radio Times Covers party.

But I don't think these fake covers are well known outside the magazine so I wanted to tell you about it. And to boast, frankly to preen a bit here as there is no measure to how big my head is today, but also just to tell you.

If you can't guess and you don't happen to have an instant-recall memory of every Radio Times cover, what happens is that they take a genuine old cover, Photoshop you into it and then rewrite all the cover lines to chide/mock/belittle/kid* you (*delete as applicable).

You've got three questions now, I can tell. The answer to the first is yes, I'm getting this framed for my office. The second is that, go on then, here's the original version of that cover.

It's from 2008's cover for the Doctor Who special, The Next Doctor, starring David Tennant and me. I mean, David Morrissey.

As to your third question, well, I don't know, it's a very good point. A very good question. Hard to say. Very hard to say.

But I wondered too. Does this mean I'll be invited to next year's Covers Party?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Finishing Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle

I've just this minute discovered that my iPad knows the word Wirrn. It's obviously learnt this from the number of times I've written it, unless my iPad is sneaking off to watch Doctor Who without telling me. But from now on, whenever I'm asked how I wrote Wirrn Isle, I will tell the truth: my iPad autocompleted it for me.

Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle came out over a month ago now and at first it was a right treat reading reviews and online chatter. Writers often say they don't read reviews of their work: I thought it was through some arty reasoning, or maybe just fear, but it's possible that it's only because there are so many. I set a Google Alert on the word Wirrn and got swamped with references to my work, with one-liners, with full-blown reviews, criticism, praise...

...and with pirated versions. Hmm.

You know people download films, I just never knew how many pirate sites there are. Some pirate users appeared to be eagerly waiting for Wirrn Isle, so I suppose that's a good thing.

If you want to be on the legal side of the angels, here's where you can get it properly on CD and online. You can also get it through some outfit that seems to be doing well; a place called Amazon. Wirrn Isle is on both Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Oh! Can I tell you this? Just between us? The other week, I went to Amazon UK to order a couple of copies to send to some radio producers and I got what is now my absolute favourite warning to read online anywhere: "Only 1 left in stock".

I needed two, actually, so I was fully justified in buying that last one. I didn't have to wait long before they restocked and I could buy for the second producer, but this means I was officially and certainly sold out at Amazon.

I've been called a sell-out before, but never in a good way.

Right, I'm off to see what other Doctor Who-y words my iPad knows.