Friday, August 31, 2012

Plainly writers are perfect, then

I had a slew of deliciously unexpected reactions to last week's piece about actors who claim to rewrite their scripts and alongside online comments, emails, tweets and Facebook updates there were conversations in pubs. Imagine that. Rockin' it old-school.

And as the evening would wear on and we'd all had maybe a little bit too much of the Pepsi Max nectar, I got asked about this one point. I had said in my blog that it was hard to describe what actors actually do. Let me be specific, I said this:
...what an actor does boils down to, mathematically reduces down to is that they read the script and they say the words. That does not convey a scintilla of the task, but it completely describes the job.
Okay, said my slurry friends, by the same mathematical reduction, all writers do is type. Give us a better description of writing or this round is on you.

I instantly replied – for 'instantly' read 'one week later' and for 'replied' read 'am writing a new blog' - with an answer.

This is what writers do. This is what writing is like. Follow.

First, please forget all about writing. Just for a moment.

Imagine instead that it's this morning. You're in the bathroom, listening to the radio as you get ready for your day. And someone cracks a gag on the Today programme. John Humphrys or some politician says something so funny that you choke on your toothpaste.

It really makes your day. One terrific joke and you leave for work happy. You're especially happy because tonight's the night you go for a few jars of lemonade and you can't wait to tell everybody this brilliant joke.

That evening, all those hours after the joke, it's still so funny to you that actually you struggle to get it out without laughing. But you manage it, you give it your all and you can even see yourself as a standup comic with the way you're delivering this joke so well.



No reaction.

Eventually one of your friends goes: "Right. Yeah. Good one. Really... good one. So, anyone see The Bourne Legacy yet?"

You've heard that writing is rewriting. So rewrite the above, write it thisaway:

Version 2

It's this morning. You are in the bathroom, you are getting ready, you don't have the radio on. Instead, from out of nowhere, you think of this really funny joke.

It's so funny, you have to stop to wonder: was that something Milton Jones already said? Did someone tell you it?

But no, it's yours. All yours. You have thought of something so funny that you choked on your toothpaste, that your whole day is brighter and that it is going to bring the house down when you tell it to your hard-drinking lemonade crowd tonight.



No reaction.

Eventually one of your friends goes: "Right. Yeah. Good one. Really... good one. You should be on radio."

One more rewrite. A shorter one.

Version 3

You're not in the bathroom.

You haven't thought of a joke.

You're not going out tonight.

You're not going to see your friends, they aren't going to be drinking.

Instead, you're going to a meeting where the other people are expecting you to have a terrific joke. They are waiting for it. It is the reason you are there. Not because you're funny, not because they just fancy a gag to brighten their day, but because they hired you to do it.



No reaction.

That's what it's like being a writer. Or at least a writer with a mortgage. You can feel it now, can't you? And you can feel what it's like when they do laugh, when the stuff in your head does work out there in the real world.

It's the best job in the world. And I can tell you right now – stuff modesty – I am a great, great typist.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Is this why actors claim to rewrite their scripts? No.

I didn't want to mislead you there with a Betteridge/Marr style headline so let me first emphasise that, no, I don't know why star actors tell journalists that they rewrite scripts when everyone in the production knows they do not.

Let me say second that Betteridge/Marr is a new term coined about forty words ago. This has been called Betteridge's Law: if a headline is a question, the answer is no. Apparently Ian Betteridge said that in 2009 but now others are pointing out that Andrew Marr said it five years earlier. So. Betteridge/Marr. You read it here first.

But now, third, I do have an idea about actors and why they do this.

It's not very common; this topic is only in the news this week because of an interview the New Tricks cast gave to Radio Times saying this – and then writers said hang on a mo about it.

And actually I remember the last time RT covered the start of a New Tricks series and the cast said the same then. I'm not sure why it's got more coverage now: maybe we just all thought they were kidding at first.

Slightly less high profile was an unrelated Yorkshire Post article this week which was about actor Conrad Nelson in which he said:
"The most important thing I do as an actor is attempt to get out of the way. My job is to not impede the path between the words the author has written and the audience. All I’m trying to do is release the play. I go down the road and the only thing I really control is the number on the speed signs."
Remember when Lenny Henry played Othello and got deservedly high praise? Nelson played Iago in that run. Now, I'll admit this: usually Iago is played as a bit of a moustache-twirling villain but Conrad Nelson frightened me. I know the man a little, I know him enough to meet for a natter after the performance, but this is how good his Iago was: when I saw him ten minutes later, I found it harder to shake his performance than he did. I was still a little scared while he was right back to his typical charming, funny self.

So don't ever imagine I am not impressed with actors. There are good and bad as there are in anything, I just don't understand how they do it.

And that, I think, is at the heart of all this.

It's very hard to explain what an actor does. You can point at the end result, but the end result is an immense collaboration: drama is collaboration, that's one of the reasons I love writing it, that I love - truly love – the discussions and the debates and the sense of everyone wanting the best result and everyone having something to contribute. I also rather love the tight feeling in my chest as I try to step up and contribute as much. I'm a better writer through this process and it's an improvement I take with me back to books and prose.

One of the contributors is the actor. It's traditionally a hard thing for a writer to accept, but by the end of the process, a good actor will know their character better than you do. I don't see how that can happen when the speed of production means getting the script as you step in front of the cameras, but it is what is meant to happen and it is an important part of making drama work.

You get this idea but can you or I really describe it? (No. Is no the answer to every question? Yes.) In the end, I think all description of what an actor does boils down to, mathematically reduces down to is that they read the script and they say the words. That does not convey a scintilla of the task, but it completely describes the job.

It doesn't make for a very exciting interview. New Tricks has been running for nine series: would anyone really say, and would anyone really read, that they still read the script and still say the words?

Series are special. I love TV drama series: the one-hour TV drama is to me as the three-minute pop song is to so many. The form is just terrific and the things you can do: one idea of bliss for me is being scooped up by watching a TV drama that so takes me away that I forget everything else going on in my life and then it plots me down somewhere new at the very end of the hour. To have gone somewhere with the story, with the characters. It's all I care about: whether I am engrossed in the story.

Yet series are special because they are different. Actors can spend years upon years playing the same role in a series and there, if they truly have no input into the stories at all, you're wasting their talent and they're wasting their time. Plenty of actors write, plenty of actors direct, but even if your star solely acts, they have spent such a long time in deep with their character that they are a resource. You do get actors who say "My character wouldn't say this" and you do get times when what they really mean is "I don't want to" but I think more often you get actors who are like every single other person in the production and they want the best for the show.

There's a rather detailed blog about Leverage by creator/writer John Rogers which routinely talks of how involved the cast are with that fun series. What interests me is that it's also routine to see questions on that blog from fans who want to know if this or that actor ad libbed a particular line. (Usually no. Sometimes yes.)

Why do people want to think the actors made it up? It used to be that viewers quite commonly believed characters and shows were real: you can mock the idea that people would genuinely apply for jobs at the Crossroads Motel but many did. We are ever more sophisticated and television-literate now: is this desire for the actors to have written what they say just an evolution of that?

I think I'd like the answer to be no. But I think it might be a maybe.

I also think that alongside our increasing literacy in television – our collective knowledge of the form such that you can spot a soap plot three weeks out, how you instinctively know when a scene is ending, how you know when the adbreak is coming – there is an increasing feeding of our interest.

Radio Times interviews actors all the time. It doesn't often interview writers or directors. Nowhere does. It's always actors and they are the obvious ones to go for because they are in our faces on screen and they do also tend to be marginally more attractive than even rogueishly handsome writers like me. (Let me have that one.)

So actors are feted and because they are feted, to consciously or unconsciously justify giving them all the attention, actors are specifically feted as being the most important part of any production. Which means everyone else is not the most important. You may well expect me and everyone other non-actor in drama to complain about that being unfair. I think it's boring. But I also think it's ultimately very damaging to actors. It diminishes their genuine accomplishment. Because if it's hard to describe what they do, it doesn't matter: nobody asks them now anyway.

I sat in a round-robin interview on the set of Holby City, way back when that started, and each actor had their turn sitting in one chair faced by a semi-circle of maybe 15 journalists. Each one of us got our turn in sequence and I was something like number 7, so I watched six of my peers – and actually six far more experienced journalists than I was – asking their questions.

It was excruciating.

George Irving was up first and he was playing a curmudgeonly heart surgeon named Anton Meyer. The six people ahead of me all asked exactly the same question with the most minuscule differences:
"Did you ever want to be a heart surgeon yourself?"
"Did you, yourself, ever want to be a heart surgeon?"
"Did yourself, you, a heart surgeon ever want to be?"
You will not be surprised to know that the answer was no. What were the odds?  Irving was a pro: I can't remember how he answered but he found six different ways to say no, yet he has always had great admiration for heart surgeons and now that he'd watched operations in preparation for his role, he admired them even more. Things like that. Six things like that.

Then it was my turn.
"Anton Meyer is a clear curmudgeon, an authority figure who uses disdain and arrogance to get what he wants. Do you think there's a risk that, as fresh as that seems now, it could become a one-note type of character that's hard to develop over the series?"
I'm afraid I can't remember his answer. I know it began with "No". But what I remember very vividly, like it's video in my head, is how he changed. He sat up straight, his eyes did that slight flicker you see when someone is trying to think, and he actually thought. Every answer to that point had been as easy as batting back a ball, but here he thought. And gave me a considered, smart, really interesting answer.

And then it was number 8's turn.
"Do you want to become a heart surgeon?"
Irving settled back into that relaxed, easy pose and batted back a line about no, but he had always admired heart surgeons immensely and now he'd watched some in preparation for his new role as Anton Meyer in Holby City, starts 12 January on BBC1, he admired them even more.

A few minutes later I got an extra interview with another member of the cast who was playing a nurse. She went through the same semi-circle of dread but with a twist:
"Did you ever want to be a nurse yourself?"
"Tell us about the breakup with your boyfriend. Did you cry?"
After that, she and I got whisked off to a side room for a follow up. Can't remember why. But as we walked there, I confessed I wasn't going to ask about her boyfriend. That I really didn't care about her boyfriend. It was like a little tap being released: "I know!" she said. "Who the fuck cares whether I've got a boyfriend or not?"

Apparently everybody.

And it's a problem. You can really only talk about the mechanics of drama: the shoot gets immense coverage even though it's the last and arguably easiest part, because it's visual. Nobody's going to photograph me pulling my hair out at the keyboard. Nobody's going to film a producer managing to sell the script. Nobody's going to interview a TV commissioner about how they do their job. But if you act, you're interviewed.

Even if there weren't a inbuilt prurient interest in actors as celebrities, eventually we'd get there anyway because there is a physical, statistical limit to how often you can rearrange the words in a sentence about being a heart surgeon. There are even fewer ways to say "No" in new and different ways.

So actors get asked about how they get on with their co-stars. Shock: everybody was lovely! Okay, so, tell me about the production. It filmed in this place or that. Great. Got anything else?
"If we felt that a story didn’t work, or that bits of the story could be improved, then – if the writer wasn’t around – we would set about rewriting it ourselves” – Alun Armstrong 
"You have to remind yourself that people aren’t as stupid as writers think" – Dennis Waterman
I'm not defending this. If you haven't read the rebuttals and don't know, or can't guess, this sums up the reaction the cast have got from their comments:
"A New Tricks I wrote and directed airs on Monday. I can tell you EXACTLY how much of it the actors wrote: not a fucking comma.The following week, Sarah Pinborough's episode is on. I directed that too. Cast contribution to script? Big fat zero" – Julian Simpson
Of course you know he means they didn't contribute to the writing, that there is nothing in the script that they changed or added or proposed. But they did perform the script and that is a gigantic contribution. The genuine, real-life and at times immensely admirable contribution actors bring to a drama is ignored or at most trivialised.

The New Tricks cast brought this specific incident on themselves. I am agog that they would say this and specifically describe their own series as "bland" when they were promoting the series.

But are there reasons they and other actors have come to claim that they contribute beyond their acting?


Is there a good excuse for them claiming to be writers?

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Greatest Story Ever Told – (2 stars)

GARDEN OF EDEN, LEBANON – The local Eden council is going a bundle on this new "Bible" book but having had an advance copy, I can only assume they are desperately trying to justify all the tax breaks they gave to the publishers to set it here.

I don't have any inside knowledge of the negotiations but you can imagine the pitch. "Paradise," the Bible lot would've said. "We'll show everyone the great side of Garden of Eden. It's going to be so big, from now on people will be using the name Eden as a synonym for paradise itself."

It would've been a tempting proposition. Locals know we've never really recovered from the great snake infestation of the Year of Our Lord '09 to the Year of Our Lord '10. And scenes set in Garden of Eden in the book have drastically fewer of the little buggers than even the most optimistic of us would have hoped.

But however loudly the council insists Bible is great for the county, they can't pretend there are many chapters and verses that even refer to Garden of Eden. Myself, I would've insisted some scenes take place during our buttermilk festival and at the very least demanded they include better transit information than just "a garden in the east". We have a terrific Garden of Eden app, would it have hurt to have even one character use it on his iPhone?

If Bible really does go worldwide as the publishers hope then readers are actually going to think we only have two people living here. I suppose we should be thankful that Bible doesn't draw attention to the terrible overcrowding problems we have in the Garden of Eden suburbs but this goes so far that you have to think there's something wrong with the place. Did everybody leave? Does the sewage system run itself?

Do this pair run all the hotels and the bars? You have a bite to eat in the Tree of Life pub, then take a stroll and we're supposed to believe there's Adam again flogging ice creams.

He really is a bit dull, that Adam. The other character is Eve. Bible doesn't go in for surnames much, I expect it's a legal thing, but it left me wondering whether they were really married or just saying so. Because, Eve, kid, if there ain't a ring and there ain't no kids tying you down, you could do a lot better for yourself.

Such as get yourself into some of the better chapters of the book. After it's done with making Garden of Eden sound like a haven for thickos – it hints that we're all PC users with its thinly-veiled piece of product placement for Apple – then this Bible does move on to the real meat of the story. We get intrigue, betrayals, all good stuff, just not much of it here in Eden.

There is a lot of it elsewhere, in fact there's a lot everywhere else in the book, but it does tend to try impressing us by sheer volume rather than quality. I tell you, this book could've done with another pass at the editing stage. There are huge sections that make the whaling stuff in Moby Dick look short. I mean, I like that we get a list of all the characters: this is a sprawling tale and it's hard to keep track. But, seriously, there are verses that consist of nothing but this fella begat that fella.

Okay, that's fine at the start when Abraham begat Isaac because then we're thinking this is all kicking off now, some serious family stuff is going to happen, but I admit I sank a bit then when Isaac begat twelve patriarchs. Are we going to get the complete life history of all twelve? No. Most of the time Bible gets into these huge begat passages and we never hear of half of these people again. It's probably a metaphor for life and how most of us get through our days without making any impact above the odd court summons for a parking ticket.

But by doing that, it really focuses our attention on those characters that Bible does follow up. These must be crackin' important, you think, but generally no, not so much. Even the ones that are key seem to come and go too quickly.

You'll have seen from the press interviews that King Herod is a real badass and that's true: it's a very exciting segment of the book and if you're a parent like me, you're going to be shocked at what he gets up to. Only, that's like the tiniest part of this epic. It feels like it's over before it begins. The whole book skips on faster and faster, never really stopping to explore the drama it creates and often, frankly, leaving me bemused. What the hell is myrrh?

Part of the problem – and again, I have no inside knowledge here but it's obvious just from reading it – is that this Bible has been written by committee. I assumed at first that the reason we don't get an author's name was that it was done by someone really important, someone who couldn't be named. But slog through those begats enough and you soon see that they don't add up, that different writers have taken different liberties.

One writer, for instance, pads out a few chapters with the begats and really only to make the point that this new hero character, Jesus, is directly descended from King David through his dad's side. Fine. Joseph comes from family. Got it. But in what I can only presume is a segment hived off to a freelance because the deadline was getting close, another part has Joseph claiming that Jesus isn't his kid at all.

Maybe they were trying to set up some deep psychological stuff for later, get this Jesus struggling with father-rejection issues, that kind of thing. If so, they never follow it up.

Instead, the writers try to have it all with some light mystery kind of thing. The book really needs more laughs, but this is its sole set-piece comedy: Joseph gets Mary pregnant and when he's caught lying about it, he does that classic farce thing of exaggerating further and further. I won't spoil it by telling you how big the lie becomes, but by the end it is truly a whopper.

I did enjoy that and you know it'll be a great scene if they ever make a film. But then it is right back into the sombre, dreary stuff with bizarre tirades against the banking system that I think are the writers just trying to be topical.

They should've concentrated more on the story and most definitely on the characters. The publishers are billing this as "the greatest story ever told" but I'm very much afraid that is pure hype. There are some interesting moments but what few good characters it has are woefully underused and I swear there isn't a single plot twist in the entire book.

Maybe now it's set up such a lot of backstory, the rumoured sequel will be better. But for now, I really can't recommend this book to anyone and certainly not if you know anything at all about what life is really like here in Garden of Eden City.

Bible is published in hardback by Caxton and Kindle by Amazon

Friday, August 10, 2012

Appy days

You won't believe this because you know me, but if strangers ask, then I will tell them and convince myself that I don't like posting incessant details online about me and what I'm doing. No, listen. I don't. On twitter or Facebook, I am more interested in you than in me. I have one filter: is the thing I fancy saying going to make me look like an eejit? If yes, but only me and nobody else, it goes up.

I am regularly, persistently, vocationally an eejit so I say a lot online. But you'd have to work hard to find me saying I was checking in at the All-Night Wicker Store. I love finding out something and rushing to tell you but sometimes if it's work, I don't because I can't. Sometimes even I draw an eejit-line. And I don't post photographs of me taking photographs everywhere I go. Maybe you do, maybe you love it, probably your photos are better than mine, but it doesn't appeal.


I have been aware, lately, that quite a lot is going on: a surprising number of projects I've worked a long time to get to do, I'm getting to do. And just day to day stuff is rather good at the moment. So I am finding that days go by where I've simply had a great time, where I've learnt something, where I've actually seen me improve as a writer, and while I would sooner show you a slideshow carousel of my last eighteen holidays than bore you with it all, I am aware that it's going by. And I don't want to miss it.

So I bought Day One.

This is a journalling app – lots of people don't like the word app; I'm not keen on the word journalling – and it's been around for ages. Entirely unnoticed by me. Until this week when I must've been in the mood for it because I caught news of its newest update and was sold. You can write in it like a diary, which is nice. You can just take a photo and caption it, not caption it, whatever you please. And whether you write or photograph, Day One stores that and adds location details. Also the current weather.


This is a terrible idea. I got an app that lets me record all that's going on and since I bought it on Monday, it's been hell.

Monday morning I delivered that script, which is a good thing obviously, but then I spent Monday evening directing actors in a cold reading of a stage play of mine and that went unexpectedly well. It was in a script development kind of gig and I was expecting, well, criticism. I was assuming I'd get criticism and that if I were lucky, some of it would be really useful. Instead, it went down tremendously.

But that was Monday, that's ages ago. After Monday – you won't believe this either but I promise it's true – there came Tuesday. I took part in a spoken-word cabaret at the launch of Birmingham's Mee Club event. (It's a very good event: next one is August 21.) It was a particularly friendly, happy crowd but such a rush having people laughing when you talk – er, and when they were supposed to laugh. Met some terrific people, every one of whom was engrossing and fun to listen to, but shush now, this is about me, not about them.

Wednesday and Thursday: I finally get to the BBC Written Archives. I've read about that place for years and never had a job that meant I could go but there I was, lapping the place up.

And then on Thursday night I get home and the first advance copy of my Beiderbecke Affair book is waiting for me. Ages early. You can't buy it until 28 September (in the UK, where you can get it from Amazon) or 30 October (in the US, where you can get it from a different Amazon).

That's quite unreal. Most of what I write is ephemera; I still have the first issue of Radio Times magazine that I got a byline in but if I ever lost it, I'd be stuck trying to replace that. But Doctor Who audios, now books. Honestly, I've now read my own book in paperback and it still feels a bit unreal that it's here.

I will get used to it. But that's the fun of Day One: I've just captured this moment of unreality in it.


I've captured it here too.

And you saw this one.


Yes, but apart from that... Day One is a smart way of flooding myself with the torrent of things I want to remember and don't want to flood you with.

And of course it is because I got a journalling app that I began to find I had something to journal.

Next week: I buy a Print Your Own Money app.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Quick Kiss Goodnight

I tend to do quite well in writing contests (Big Break, Red Planet, BBC writersroom) but only because I wait until I've written something and then if I go for a contest at all, I look first for the next one that fits what I've already done. It's not always true, but usually, and it usually works out.

Except the other day there was the 50 Kisses contest and the moment I read the brief, I had the whole thing in my head. It was a writing contest where you wrote a two-page scene set on Valentine's Day and presumably a kiss would be a good idea.

I wrote it in one go, sent it in immediately, entirely failed to win. Didn't even make the long list.

You can see where this is going, I know, and I do apologise in advance for selling you secondhand goods but I just had a really good time writing this and I want to share some fiction with you instead of incessant babbling about writing fiction. 

So. If you'll forgive the near-as-blogger-will-allow script layout, let me tell you a story.


CAUGHT by William Gallagher


SUSAN HARE and TOM BRYSON (both white, late twenties, smart) kiss like there is no tomorrow. Like there is no one else in the world. 

The kiss lasts and lasts and lasts.

Finally, they break lips -

- but it's only to catch a breath -

- and they are back in the single most important snog of their lives. 

The snog lasts and lasts and lasts.


REVEAL DANNY (7 years old) holding Tom's hand. He's squeezed in between Tom and Susan's legs. He's embarrassed by them. 

That's enough now, Danny. 

REVEAL CHARLOTTE: Tom's wife, standing some distance behind him. She's slightly older than him and has been carrying a bunch of Valentine’s roses he gave her. She slowly lowers them.


Danny wriggles away from his dad and goes to her.  Charlotte hangs on to him like you're-never-taking-him and at-least-I-can-trust-him.

But Tom and Susan are utterly unaware.

Susan, dear -

REVEAL MRS. HARE, Susan's mother - and MR HARE, her dad. Both dressed in Sunday best. 

Neither any happier than Charlotte. 

Tom and Susan eat each other. 

REVEAL a SOLICITOR (woman, 40s).

Ms Hare, we are waiting.

REVEAL the ‘we’ is herself and TWO UNIFORMED POLICE OFFICERS standing behind her.

REVEAL that behind them is a Court House.

Tom and Susan finally break their kiss.

But still hang on to each other.

Susan presses her hand against his chest.

Not seeing me at my best.

Always the same when you bump into someone on the street.

Ms Hare!

(to Solictor)
Right. Right.
(to Tom)
Listen. Whatever they tell you... I did do it.

I don’t care. At least I found you again.

This could be seven-years-away crazy.


I’ll wait.

(to police)

The police lead Susan toward the court.

Tom turns to Charlotte.

She holds up the roses and lets them drop to the street.

Hap-py valentine’s day.