Friday, June 29, 2012

By any other name

I've said it before and I'll doubtlessly say it again: no sooner do you create one character for a script than you have to create a second so they have someone to talk to. What's more, they have to have bleedin' names.

Names are so hard. Get them right and it's impossible to imagine the character being called anything else. Gene Hunt, for instance. But there's right and there's familiar: Tom Rockford sounds wrong where Jim Rockford sounds spot on yet that's what James Garner's character was called right up to filming of The Rockford Files. (See for yourself: here's the pilot episode script by Stephen J Cannell, who co-created the show with Roy Huggins.)

Mind you, nobody remembers why that show was called The Rockford Files. The title referred to the type of cases that this detective character would take on: as he had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned, so he was going to investigate similar miscarriages of justice. I have no idea whether he ever did and neither do you: you just know it as an especially good detective drama with a particularly charismatic lead character.

Writers set up all these thing and we needn't: that title was specifically about the cases he takes on but it became specifically about the series. We didn't need Jim Rockford to take on anything other detectives didn't, we just needed him to be who he was and to open every episode with one of those great answering machine messages.

My favourite is episode 9:

ROCKFORD'S VOICE: Hello, this is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message, I'll get back to you.


CALLER: This is the message phone company. I see you're using our unit, now how about paying for it?

Lots of writers spend a lot of time thinking about names. Some like their names to say something very specific about their character: Squire Allworthy is unlikely to be a right git in Tom Jones for instance. You can go far with this, viz Basil Exposition in Austin Powers.

I'm not that keen on meaningful names. I blame the parents.

But it means I'm left pondering names an awful lot. I will confess now that I used to cheat: I came up with the name Susan Hare for an early script and I thought for a long time that I would keep on using that name until one of those scripts sold. So Susan was an international jewel thief, a journalist, a 12-year-old kid, a banker and a baker, countless different things that were incompatible in age if nothing else. Only, I then realised I was writing new characters with her name in such a way that you could make all the versions fit together into one remarkable life.

I stopped. But not until after I'd used her name in a little experiment on an online service (where I gave her and a barely-intelligible male character the same computer problems to see who would help out who). And not until after I'd created a Facebook page for her. The photograph above is a version of her profile picture: I came around a corner in Cardiff Bay and saw this lonely image. By the time I'd taken that shot and tried to talk to the woman, she had vanished. So I do think of her now as Susan Hare.

I've lost the password to Susan's account and it's like she's alive out there without me. It was her birthday the other day. She has more friends than I do. Two people I would've said were my friends started fighting over her.

That's what I call a successful character name.

But what's got me thinking about this today and wanting to talk to you about it now is not how you name characters but how you name products. Apple has just released a new free iOS app called Podcasts. You immediately know what it's for.

The word 'podcast', though, is of course formed from two words: iPod and broadcast. It's a mark of a successful product when podcasts have outlived iPods.

Maybe that success has inspired other names; maybe it's all a coincidence that every product name is now a compound of two words. Maybe I'm only seeing this now because I'm looking for it, a la confirmation bias.

But look at the products that new Apple app is going to compete with. Instacast is the biggie: I have this and occasionally use it – remarkably occasionally since I used to produce my own podcast with UK DVD Review – and again the origin of the name is obvious. Instant podcasts. Fine.

Only, if you're going to name something from two words, I think it behooves you to think both of what the two separate words mean and what the new compound word does too. Follow: another app for the downloading of podcasts is called Downcast.

They didn't think that through, did they?

But at least it's better than this. There is a clearly high-profile and apparently successful iOS app for iPad and iPhone which lets you sketch things. It's meant to be for creating artwork and the makers would have you regard it as a highly professional piece of software. I've seen countless reviews of this product, none of which have appeared to notice that the name ought to have been worked on one more time.

It's called Procreate.

Friday, June 22, 2012

What's it about? Uh-huh. And what's it really about?

I've been having a slightly anxious time on a script. Can't tell you what it is yet but it's a commission that came up quite quickly and unexpectedly; it's a project that has to be completed quite fast. I like all this, it suits the way I work, it takes all my newsroom training and applies it to drama – and it means I've less time to fret.

Let me tell you right now, most especially if you're currently wondering whether it's the script for you that I'm talking about, it's going fine again. Brilliantly. Flying. In fact, you could stop reading now.

Have they gone? Is it just you and me again?

Sometimes it does fly. I had a problem on it that cost me a day but when I realised the solution, it was so clever I patted myself on the back. And as I contorted around in my chair to do that, I also realised that the clever solution came with a free "oooooooh" moment thrown in. I told Angela. "Ooooooooh, " she said.

Other times it's not flying. But I've realised why and actually now, here, setting out to talk to you about this, I've realised that the reason is deeper than the script, it's also tied into how my work has changed so much and so quickly. It's terrific that I am now writing drama and books but it's very different from just being assigned another feature to do.

Here's the thing. When I pitch you a script, I start by telling you what it's about. But as soon as we can, we move on to what it's really about.

Follow. My first Doctor Who was a short 25-minute piece that was about the Doctor being stuck in prison. It was really about how I think time itself is a prison; this idea I've said to you before about how we are trapped here and the very best we can ever hope to do is to bang on the pipes a bit to pass a message along.

You don't need to know that when you read the script or hear the finished drama. In some ways, it might not even be in there in finished work: certainly it will never be stated or in any way emphasised. But without it, the script is a plot. With it, it's a story.

So this blog is about how scripts need to have more in them than plot. How they have to have something of you in them or they just don't work.

But what this blog is really about is my move from journalism to drama.

I say all this to you about plot and theme and it feels a bit arty-farty, to be honest. I am of the get-it-done school, the park your bum at the desk and write until it's finished. That has served me extremely well in journalism where I'm productive and fast enough that things get written and then I'm fast enough and not so precious that I can change things rapidly too. I don't believe in the Muse.

Well, I didn't. And if you tell me a great male artist had to have a woman around as his Muse, I still think he was just trying to impress her and I'm far more interested in what she does than I am in his poncing about.

But Aaron Sorkin said this glorious, liberating thing the other day. He's working on a biopic of Apple's Steve Jobs and said: "I'm at the earliest possible stage... What I'll go through is a long period that, to the casual observer, might very well look like watching ESPN."

Sheer air pressure propelled me out of my office when I was writing a piece called Wirrn Isle; I spent a day walking around my home city of Birmingham with my head in a futuristic Loch Lomond. It was as necessary as eating and I'd never had that before. With this new script, I've tried building in times like this, scheduling them rather than reaching the end of a rope before giving in to it. So yesterday I had a coffee with a guy, today I talked the ears off a water meter inspector, I've watched endless episodes of particularly well-written sitcom in the middle of the night.

Not endless. But I'm on my fiftieth episode of The Big Bang Theory since February. It's not always a great show but so many times it is and the craft in those 19-21 minutes is delicious.

They do so much in that time and by contrast I've just spent an hour trying to find you a quote from Dar Williams about the necessity to make time for whatever you call this writing-while-not-writing. I have failed to find this quote. But in keeping with how this noodling about is an essential thing if you're to create anything new, the search for that quote led me to another one hers that I like.

Asked by the Wall Street Journal how she gets inspiration to write, Dar Williams said: "You have to walk around a lot of museums, a lot of sculpture parks. And time your caffeine, so that you are in an open, wide contemplative space for when the caffeine takes hold."

It's 2pm. I forgot to have breakfast, I should probably do something about lunch now too. Drama is a weird world and it's scaring me a little how I'm having to change to do it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Indicing with death

Two hours ago, I finished writing my first index. Twenty years ago, I finished writing my first article about writing indexes.

That was in the March 1992 issue of Personal Computer World and as a commentary on the state of word processors at the time, it's fine. As a read, it's not. But I have just had a very good time re-reading it after twenty years more experience writing, after twenty years of more technology progress and of course after my first genuine need for an index.

Back then, I was testing all the very latest word processors to see how they coped with indexing a 23,000-word document. Reading between the lines, I think I believed 23,000 words was long. Mark you, I also seemed to believe that being snarky was clever and that randomly opinionated was useful.

But I did also take all these word processors with their apparently very fancy automated indexing tools and conclude that the only sensible thing to do in the real world was ignore the lot of them and hire a professional. Can you believe this, though? I gave the address of the Society of Indexers. The address. The postal address. We have come a long way since I can now just point out their website to you.

What I don't know is whether we've come any further with word processors. That slightly disturbs me because word processing was my beat, so to speak, on a number of computer magazines and I'd forgotten that I used to be so interested. Naturally I wrote my book – BFI Television Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair – on a word processor so it's not that I'm a typewriter-wielding Luddite, it's that my interest in computers is dead. I knew that: I went on Macs around the time of that article and have never looked at a blue screen since.

That said, I did get a little twitch looking at all the software I listed in that article: I was testing and comparing away happily and obviously you say what you were testing and comparing. Two of the software applications have entirely died since then – PageMaker and FullWrite Professional – while one – Interleaf – has been mildly reborn as something else. WordPerfect for Macintosh was in there too and that's no longer sold but WordPerfect itself limps on.

I am a little startled at my stupidity, though. I'm used to my general stupidity but this was a specific thing and it appeared to be a kind of consensus stupidity: I and the word processor manufacturers alike all unthinkingly assumed that there was any point indexing the (say) Word document. I did write my Beiderbecke book in Word but the text was typeset in some other system. (I don't know what system but I do know the typesetters did a gorgeous job of it: I got the page proofs and they are beautiful.)

Just doing a quick che –

– wow. I have this minute, this second, that sentence, been sent a proof cover of the book. I can't show you because it's not final, it's got lots of text on that's for position only, but the colours are great and it is rather nice seeing my name on there. Reminds me of the Doctor Who: Wirrn Isle cover. Somehow my name goes on someone else's artwork. That's not bad.

What was I saying?


Just doing a quick check on Google, I see that Adobe InDesign page layout will import index marks from Microsoft Word. I like InDesign a lot; I learnt it at Radio Times and am using it now on some book projects.

I've no idea whether The Beiderbecke Affair went through InDesign; I know that I wrote in Word 2011 and that I did the index by marking up a PDF copy of the galley proof in GoodReader on my iPad.

Weird to think that my iPad didn't exist when I wrote that article.

Depressing to think my talent didn't either. I don't want to say it's a bad article; I've read scripts of mine from around that time that are exponentially worse. And I also don't want to say it's bad because I had help on it and will not criticise that help.

For some reason I have very clear visual memories of random moments; I mentioned to someone today that I can clearly and quite precisely see where I was the time I first downloaded an iPhone RSS app called Manifesto. There's rarely a particular reason I remember one moment over another. But this time, what I remember is a note from a friend about a draft of this article.

Reading the article now, I can tell you which lines were borne of which of his suggestions. It's that clear to me. There's no point telling you the lines out of context, but I can tell you the fine fella: Rupert Goodwins.

Most of the points I made in that original article failed to help me at all now as I've been making a real index in a real book. Most of the software mentioned in it is long forgotten. Personal Computer World magazine ceased publication in 2009. But I still know Rupert and that's all that matters.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Grating expectations and clickbait

I would never call you normal. I hope you know that. But I do have this image of you as being sensible. A little. So, for instance, I don't picture you having one of your RSS feeds devoted to news about Apple.

I mean, who would do that?

You also wouldn't queue up from five in the morning to buy an iPhone but there I'm going to have to tell you that I have done exactly that. And it was a blast. Such a good time. It was five in the morning so maybe I won't rush to do it again, but I definitely now understand how delicious it is rabbiting on with people you've never met before and will never meet again. The things people tell me.

There was no great need to use the word 'iPhone' in that last. You knew it was Apple. Partly because you know me but also because people do this with Apple releases.

Microsoft could have the same thing. But it tends to do these huge midnight openings to shift world-changing software that we've already got. You do get more of a will-it/won't-it excitement with Microsoft as you plug the thing in and surely this time it'll work. Somehow I'm immune to that. Can't understand why.

If you get it, you get it, and if you don't, you don't. It'd be dull if everybody agreed on everything. (I once told Alan Plater that I thanked God I didn't share even a fraction of his interest in football because otherwise we agreed on absolutely everything.) But forget that it's Apple and forget that it happens: I have thought a lot about this as drama. Apple's producing products rather than stories but it's getting an audience.

You'd imagine it must be harder to get an audience excited about a piece of aluminium than it is, I don't know, a theatre piece or a film. Certainly there aren't many firms that manage it and most don't manage it for long: you are unlikely to be fussed now about Sony's next offering. (Though, really, that's their own fault: they showed me a demo of the House of the Future once and I had to tell them, I already lived there. And my house works.)

The problem with building this audience is that you build expectation too. Each new Apple release must be not just as transformative as the iPhone, the Mac, the iPod, the iPad and the iTunes Store but be unexpectedly as transformative. 

There's an Apple event next week, the Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC. By volume, the event is meant for the developers in its title: if you are one, you get to learn about APIs that matter to you and talk to Apple engineers about what API stands for. But I think the event runs for the week and all that anyone really cares about anymore is the opening 90 minutes.

It's where Steve Jobs used to make a lot of his presentations. It helped that he was a fascinating presenter in an industry which doesn't have that many of them. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer is a Del Boy yard sale caricature, for instance. And it helped that he used to often do a Columbo-like "One more thing" at the end of the 90 minutes and introduce something big.

You can learn a lot of stagecraft from those presentations and if I ever write a theatre piece that's a one-person monologue with a product at the end and a turtleneck throughout, I'm sorted.

There is no Steve Jobs at next week's WWDC and there is no information whatsoever about what Apple will release or announce. (Those do tend to be synonyms with Apple: where Microsoft will often boast about how great it's products are going to be next year, in five years, in ten years, Apple just loves ending a presentation with the words "available today".)

Apple never says what it's going to announce. But if you were to just happen to have an RSS feed on Apple news, you would be reading hundreds of articles revealing exactly what is coming and what it will all look like. The articles are predominantly bollocks, though some are persuasively written, and they routinely feature Photoshopped images of what the new Apple products will look like.

Like this, for instance. I knocked this up just now.

On the left, the current as-of-today 27in iMac. On the right, the new one that will definitely, definitely, definitely perhaps be announced next week and look exactly, exactly, exactly maybe like that. If you can't see the difference, you plainly aren't used to Apple fan sites that show you pixel- and millimetre-differences between items and I am shocked at you.

I will tell you this: I am in the market for an iMac and I won't buy one until after next Monday's announcements. But beyond that, I'm not expecting any particular thing and I'm trying to ignore the news.

Looking at this as a writer, though, I think there is something new this time. We should all have Apple's problems of living up to audience expectations, but I believe the company has tried something new.

About ten days ago, these unofficial Apple sites were proving that there will be a new iMac that costs 4 pence and comes with a 50-foot Retina display. That there would be MacBook Airs that wrote your scripts for you. That the next iPhone would have an optional teleport add-on. They'll run Windows too but Windows as you've never seen it. Working.

And then someone leaked a shot of a box.

Someone in the big, remarkably secretive Apple supply chain, released a photo of the specs written on the back of a MacBook box. The world gasped.


The world of unofficial Apple news sites gasped.

Because the specs had no interplanetary features, nothing was made of absurdium, lives would not be saved by what amounted to a little speed bump since the last MacBook release.

I think Apple leaked it.

I've no justification, I've no secret source, I just think it. Last year there was an extremely successful launch of the iPhone 4S yet the perception is that the event was a disappointment. Again, no teleportation. I'm surprised to say I was disappointed too. If I hadn't still been in contract I would've bought the 4S but mostly because it would be better than the rather damaged little iPhone 4 I've been limping along with. 

But the iPhone 4S looks the same as the iPhone 4. I think it's a bit depressing when news outlets believe people only buy a new iPhone so that they can show off that they have it but that's what a consensus was: why would you buy a new one if it doesn't look different?

This is about more than the audience leaving the launch show shrugging. Apple's stock was damaged by it. Given that Apple has more money than the US government, it can cope. But it intrigues me that unfounded expectations (and the rise of click-bait headlines in news articles that contain no news) leads directly to noticeable, measurable consequences.

So this time, out pops this Apple MacBook image with barely any change to the specifications. For a good hour, that was it: this year's WWDC was no longer going to be where we get alien first contact, it was going to be rubbish.

Suddenly anything Apple did launch next week would be better than expectations. It was a terrific move.

Except they probably did it too early. Because now everybody's back with absolute proof of new Apple gear. I believe some of it. But everything is so lost in opinion pieces, er, like this one, with mockup shots of products, er, like this one.

But this is the only one that looked at the expectation from a drama point of view. I think it's also the only one to have clickbait in the title so you knew what you were getting. 

It is definitely not the only one that gives you no information, has no value and exists only to ask whether you fancy queuing up outside the WWDC hall at five o'clock next Monday morning.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Just one more thing

It has taken 41 years but this week, the script to the first episode of Columbo leaked onto the internet. Have a very good time and lose at least hours, probably weeks, with all the many scripts collected on Lee Thomson's TV website or if you're happy with a barebones file list, nab a few Columbos in this part of the site.

This is important: you should grab this script right now. Now. Go. This minute. Seriously. I'll wait. For wherever they're posted, scripts tend to get pulled down again quite quickly and I remain crestfallen that I didn't get the final script to Sports Night in time.

Oh, and just one more thing. This first episode of Columbo isn't the first episode. Not really. It's the first from when the show went to series.

Except the show didn't go to series. Not really.

It's a little deliciously appropriate for Columbo that even something what came first has a couple of twists. It's also especially appropriate that nothing is quite what it seems. In the show, Lt Columbo always got his man or woman by appearing to be anything but the incredibly sharp mind he was. Similarly, if you don't know, then you may have the idea that Columbo is a faintly comedic, insubstantial, series akin to Murder She Wrote. You are certainly aware of the image of the lieutenant with his raincoat, his cigar, his "just one more thing", the whole act.

The character of Columbo and the performance of him by Peter Falk is so easily caricatured that for the very best example of a bad impersonation, see the later episodes of Columbo. In various ways, Columbo ran originally from 1967 to 1978. Anything you see from that period will vary from inconsequential right through to compellingly brilliant and it averages out as being absorbingly interesting.

After the show died, it was revived in 1989 with the contractual proviso that every episode be as bad as it possibly can be. I've only made it all the way through one, Columbo Goes to College, and it was an immensely aggravating experience because it's a rather good episode until the dreadful ending.

Endings were always a big problem in Columbo. But usually it was because of a failure at the start.

Let me explain. Take a biscuit.

Every episode of Columbo began with us witnessing a murder. When the body is discovered, the police arrive and shabby old Columbo spots the killer and fixates on him or her. Unusually, we know who the killer is. Very typically, we know the police hero character is going to get him or her in the end. With Columbo, everything is in the bit between. We often didn't see the actual arrest because it didn't matter. The pursuit was everything and all the drama was conjured out of people talking.

At it's best, and the script that was leaked this week is one of the very best, it is extraordinarily satisfying and interesting. You don't have a gaggle of suspects, you have one for the whole 90 minutes or two hours and direct upshot of this is that the one character has to be mightily interesting. They have to be the equal of Lt Columbo in tenacity and intelligence otherwise the fight is over.

So here you have two extremely strong characters, locked in absolute conflict, for up to two hours of screen time. It can be electrifying.

It can also be unsatisfying. Even in the original run, if the start wasn't right, nothing was. It is extremely, but extremely hard to write a Columbo because you have to begin it with what appears to be the perfect murder yet you have to plant within that the perfect clue that will unravel it in the end. And you have to give Lt Columbo a genuine reason to latch on to the villain. And if it's too obvious who the killer is, Columbo would just arrest him immediately.

Columbo is always held up as the crime show in which we see the murder but everything, all of its success and most of its failures, come down to the single moment after the murder and when Columbo first appears. Get that little nugget right and we are with Columbo as he delves – and we are with the murderer as he or she tries to avoid capture.

Isn't it gorgeous?

I need to make sure you know about this whole which-came-first lark. You don't need to know it. You only need to know to avoid anything from 1989 or afterwards. But I need to tell you. Columbo makes fans of us and we fans have to tell you.

Columbo was created by William Link and Richard Levinson. He began in Enough Rope, an episode of the TV anthology The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960 where Bert Freed played him. That same story became the stage play Prescription Murder in 1962 where Columbo was portrayed by Thomas Mitchell. Then in 1967, that same story came to TV as a one-off movie where Peter Falk began as the lieutenant. Watch it now and it has a period-typical psychedelic title sequence but otherwise plays very well as a strong, even archetypal Columbo story.

Two years later, America's NBC television network wanted a series. But despite having already had an aired Prescription: Murder, they wanted a pilot episode first. So we got another one-off movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, written by Dean Hargrove from a story by Link and Levinson. It's good and the series was taken up.

Except it wasn't a series. Columbo used to run one episode every few weeks, rotating through the month with other detective shows such as McMillan and Wife. That was called a wheel format and it's why even though it ran in this series form for seven years, there are only 43 episodes (plus the 2 pilots). A typical series of that period and running for the same length would have exceeded 150 episodes.

So there were two pilots and then a kind-of series. But the first episode of that kind-of series was Murder by the Book, written by the then unknown Steve Bochco and directed by the then unknown Steven Spielberg.

It is one of the finest-crafted crime dramas you may ever see.

Except there's just one more thing.

I must've seen this episode for the first time 30 years ago and every time it comes round, the opening scene narks me to high heaven. Murder by the Book is about two detective novelists and here's why I was narked.

A novelist does not type out a manuscript in all uppercase. Not even if there is some poor sod at the publisher who is going to have to set each page out in hot metal.

And now after all these years, I can finally see that it was not Bochco's fault. His script is very specific about the typing and reeks of having been written by someone who uses typewriters every day. It reads:

No, it isn't wonderful detective novel prose but it is from a good script and it is written in mixed upper and lower case. So I don't know whether it was Spielberg or a production designer who had it be done in all caps. Maybe it was the actor. But the thing is that it wasn't the writer.

It wasn't Steve Bochco. He can be my hero again.

I'll even defend his Cop Rock now.

When you get intrigued by Columbo enough to watch, just accept that you will go from there to fan and want the set. I've not been able to devise an Amazon search that gets Columbo but excludes the 1989-onwards shows, so be careful. This is what Amazon US has, this is what Amazon UK has.