Thursday, July 25, 2013

Truth hurts

I wrote a script once called Wasps. It did very well for me: opened lots of doors, got me some of the attention you need and it was also very validating. I wrote that, it was received so well, I thought yes, maybe I can do this.

But one thing that kept being said of it was that it showed so clearly that I had done my research. On a Doctor Who once I was told I shouldn't be afraid of showing my library card. You've learnt all this stuff, use it and show us. Wasps was a police drama in a new setting (yes, there really is one) and was quite apparent that I had spent months with this unit.

In truth, I hadn't gone farther than my kitchen. It was a spec script, I'm always more interested in characters than anything else, I wrote real people in a setting that I'd research if we ever went to series.

But it did read as if it were true and I'm not saying this to boast to you. Well, I suppose I am, but it's a pretty feeble boast and if I came in thinking I was great for fooling producers then I'm now uncomfortably embarrassed that I didn't put the work in and even pick up the phone to the police.

What I think I got right was authenticity. The characters were people. There was also a lot of jargon and I don't mind jargon, I think having a short techy word for something long and complex is essential in certain conversations and really handy in drama. It's rare that as a viewer or reader you actually need to know what a spindizzy is and how it physically works. It is the opposite of rare, it is mandatory that you know the character knows. And that it means something, both literally in the sense of the definition of the jargon term and more importantly in that it matters to them.

I'm good with dialogue and I've been around enough jargon that I can hear it both as the rhythms of someone's speech and as the technical words. So for a placeholder, I made up some terms for these police characters. It was a helicopter unit and I've flown helicopters – now, doesn't that sound like a boast? It wouldn't if you knew how little I'd done. Man, the cost. Rotor time is the easiest way to burn cash outside of an Apple Store.

But did you see what I did there? I admitted an interest, an effort, a failing and gave you a glimpse into my financial state – and I used the term 'rotor time'. Odds to onions, you hadn't heard that before. Doubtlessly you can work out what it means but you didn't bother, you read it and accepted it. It sounded real, it sounded authentic.

It was. It is. I knew all the helicopter stuff so all my characters knew it too. Whereas I have not one possible clue where the phrase 'odds to onions' just came from but I accepted it, didn't you?

(Quick aside? Jargon's jargon, fine, but sometimes it is gorgeous. The rotors on a helicopter spin 600 times per minute and they are attached to what's called a mast. You can imagine the forces going on there as that machinery spins. It's as likely to wrench the whole helicopter around one way as it is to spin the blades the other. That's why you have tail rotors: they fight the machine being spun. And two-rotor choppers like Chinooks don't need tail rotors because their two main rotors are spun in opposite directions.

Still, imagine that torture on the helicopter. Pounding, pounding stresses.

And there is a nut and bolt that keep the rotors attached to the mast. Pilots and engineers call it the Jesus Nut – because if it ever fails on you, the next person you'll see is Jesus Christ in heaven.

Isn't that wonderful? That's what you get from real research. So I'm not knocking real research at all and therefore I really am not boasting that I fooled a few people by making up onions.)

What I am saying is that Wasps was authentic.

Authenticity: if you can fake that, you've got it made.

This is all on my mind and I wanted to talk it through with you because I was in a conversation last night with a friend who had a play on at the Rep Foundry, a night organised by the Birmingham Rep theatre. His piece is a true story and, wow, you can tell. It really takes you somewhere new – new to me anyway – and into a slice of recent history that is teeming with drama. But in chatting afterwards, he was arguing that writers have to be true.

I completely agree.

What I couldn't quite articulate with him last night, because I don't think I realised I thought it, was that there's no reason you can't lie about being true.

There's truth and there's reality. A key reason I prefer drama to journalism is that in journalism you try to make things simple: this person did that for this reason at that time. In drama, you embrace the fact that there are no facts. That this person or that person may or may not have done this or that. And if they did it, they may not know why. The world is an utterly delicious mess and drama gets that.

I was watching an episode of the US legal drama Suits this week and something bad happens to a key character. I don't know if Suits is technically and legally accurate, I do know that it feels authentic, but this bad thing – I don't want to spoil it, sorry to be vague – cut into me. Lawyers in New York, it cut me even though it could not be a more alien world if it were Star Trek.

Though, that's a thought. There was a gimmicky Star Trek once where Scotty came back and guest-starred in The Next Generation. Fine, whatever. Gimmick. Only, here was this starship engineer recalled to life through transporter technobabble and facing intergalactic peril yet it was moving. Nuts to all the Starfleet uniforms, all everything did in that setting was get us to where the story really was. This Scotty had been the ace engineer – "the engines canna take it, Captain!" – and here he was decades in the future where his skills have been superseded. Where he is a curiosity at best and a danger at worst.

He wants to help save the day in whatever the story of the week science fiction threat was against the USS Enterprise. That was the plot but the drama was that he couldn't. This science fiction trope of a character was suddenly an old man burning to recapture glory days that had ended so soon and before he'd noticed. He was worker who could no longer work. Everything this character was and needed now wasn't.

It was desperately moving. I think it had a Starfleet-happy ending and naturally the Enterprise survived whatever it was. Can't remember. Don't care. But twenty years since I've seen it, I remember the feeling.

Because it wasn't real, but it was true.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Enduring Faith #1: Thought for the Day

July 19 On this fine morning, I was squatting in a flat in Ealing, and looking out at the people going past. Across the busy street I saw two workmen, one a young lad and one a broad old hand. The older man was picking up a plank and grinning at the gangly youth for a moment before saying something and setting both of them laughing. My heart warmed at the sight because I realised that while I, as an outsider to those men and unfamiliar with their terms of reference, could never truly appreciate their joke, it was a rich, and personal vein of laughter in a sorry world.

And in the shop next to them there was another universe to which, yes, I was closed away from, but which nonetheless had the promise of the same kind of laughter. All over the world there was friendly banter, friendly jokes, showing us that we are all part of this human society. And that surely, with laughter as plentiful as it was, society was a good, warm, welcoming, and downright funny place that we should be proud of. The two men had vanished now, and a smaller gentleman was describing the planks to a police officer.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Get your priorities right

So I'd say that I've lived in only three different To Do applications but I've written about many more, tried even more than that and alpha tested some. Most have one thing in common: they encourage you to say that the report for your boss is Priority One, High, Flagged, Five Stars, something.

Bollocks to that.

Oddly enough, the To Do app I use now, OmniFocus, doesn't bother with priorities. I'm sure it has its reasons. I want to show you mine and why this stuff looks handy but just gets in your way.

I do believe in lists but lists are there to be worked through, not worked on. Time spent writing myself a clear task is worth it: "Call Jim re new date for pitch meeting" instead of just "Call Jim" or even "Jim". Good. I want to open my list, see what I've got to do and not have to think about it: do what with Jim? Call Jim what? Jack?

That's useful. Choosing which shade of red to have the text in, not so much.

Let me prove it. This is your To Do list today:

Get aspirin
Reply to Tom
Buy veg
Research chapter 3
Phone re bill
Read Pride and Prejudice

If I asked you to put those in priority order, I doubt you would: we're just talking here and your tea is getting cold. But you know that you could do it and I know that you could do it very easily. You'd haver a bit because you don't know who Tom is but you reckon he's on the list, he must be important enough, you'd bung him near the top. Equally, you probably put Pride and Prejudice at the bottom. I'm trusting that you did so because it's something you can read for pleasure after work and, besides, you're not about to interview Jane Austen.

So depending on the ferocity of your headache, the odds are that your sorted, prioritised list looks like this:

1. Get aspirin
2. Reply to Tom
3. Phone re mistake on bill
4. Research chapter 3
5. Buy broccoli
6. Read Pride and Prejudice

You're happy now: you can use that, it's a clear sequence and you're getting the important stuff done. But you seem to have forgotten that boss of yours and he or she is on the phone now, demanding whatever they demand and by god they're demanding right now or else.

Seriously, are you going to write out this:

2. Get more aspirin because boss really shouted
3. Reply to Tom
4. Phone re mistake on bill
5. Research chapter 3
6. Buy broccoli
7. Read Pride and Prejudice

I'm a smartarse and you've already gathered that I wouldn't prioritise that list. But, as I say, I'm a smartarse so while we've been talking, I bought some aspirin - and I did it at the supermarket so I could pick up some broccoli at the same time. I regret that as now I'll have to carry veg around all day. But I also remembered that my Austens are on the shelf back at my office so I downloaded the free ebook version to be ready to read on my iPad when I get the chance. I haven't done that task but now when I get to it, I can actually get to it.

It's not as if these are the highest priority items on my list but now I've only got five things left to do and you've got seven.

Similarly, it's not as if everything is equally important or equally quick to do on your list.

But it is that your To Do list needs to be useful or you won't use it. The job is get your tasks done, not to end up with a perfectly numbered list with a rainbow of priority colours.

I'm irritating, I'm sorry, but it's become a hobby horse. Plus it's all on my mind because I did have a very full day today - and now it's doubled. My mind is on what I can do, what I have to pass on, why in the world I took this extra gig on - answer: because it is huge fun - and why I keep talking about broccoli when I don't like it. That's a different issue, I grant you, but I can ponder it and I can have this mug of tea with you now because I've got my priorities right.

A version of this blog without the words bollocks and smartarse appears in the forthcoming family-friendly book The Blank Screen: Productivity for Creative Writers.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Documentaries – Sensationalism or Global Catastrophe?

Hello, I'm Flavour O'Themonth, the roguishly handsome runner-up from Strictly Come Dancing who is a real man's man as well as appealing to a broad demographic of women with my casual but highly made-up stubble and these blue eyes. So very blue. Look at them. Look at me. Don't listen.

I want to find out why all modern documentaries are more about their presenters than their subjects. Join me on my personal journey. It's a journey that will shock you. It's a startling story that starts right here, just about one extension lead's distance from a TV studio.

And it's a story that will end by changing the face of documentaries forever.

The truths you and I will uncover tonight are going to shake the entire world, though obviously they won't make a difference to anything or get a pixel's worth of coverage on the TV news.

But they will shock enough to get us a feature in Radio Times and tomorrow there'll be a nasty feature and extensive photo gallery of me in the Daily Mail by a writer who didn't watch either but needs my celebrity name to drive traffic to his website.


When I was a little boy, things were a lot simpler. BBC showed documentaries like Jonathan Miller's The Body in Question. Dr Jonathan Miller took us around the world but he also just talked to us. Lectured, really. Huge long sequences that – [QUICK: THEY'RE LOSING ATTENTION: SHOW A RUBIK'S CUBE] – just had him telling us things we didn't know. Crazy.

And yet, demonstrating how I'm intelligent but in a non-threatening way, I watched that show agog, completely lost in it and even for a brief while forgetting the Rubik's Cube I had in my hand.


Caption: "Reconstruction"

FLAVOUR O'THEMONTH (15) watches a 1950s-era TV set showing a copyright-free clip of someone who looks a bit like Jonathan Miller. Flavour drops his Rubik's Cube.

And I here I am, the impossibly handsome adult, catching that very same Rubik's Cube as it falls from nowhere in particular but looks fantastic in slow-mo.

Coming up, I'm going to find out how Rubik's Cubes were made and look at why they were so important to me. Not to you, to me. This is my personal journey, I don't know why you're watching. Why don't you change channel to BBC99 where Vacuous Poorly-Paid and Insufferable Know-It-All are delving into exactly how cars work?



VACUOUS: It's very exciting, isn't it, Insuff?
INSUFFERABLE: It certainly is, Vacuous! We all drive, don't we?
VACUOUS: Some of us worse than others!
INSUFFERABLE: Naming no names! But seriously, we're all very used to cars and we all have opinions, but how many of us actually know how they work?
VACUOUS: Certainly not me.
INSUFFERABLE: We just don't need to, do we?
VACUOUS: Er – so why are we doing this show?
INSUFFERABLE: Ha, ha, very good. But seriously, it's a complex feat of engineering – that's a kind of mechanical type of work, everybody – and truly fascinating. Here's the science. Watch this footage now as we see the "engine" being put into what we call the "car". It's really like the body of the car. It's the bit that looks like a car but without that engine, it won't go anywhere!


VACUOUS: Truly fascinating.
INSUFFERABLE: And I bet you didn't know any of it before, did you?
VACUOUS: Well, I skimmed the script the work experience researcher wrote for us but I zoned out a bit during our rehearsals, so yes, it's all new to me.
INSUFFERABLE: And I'll bet you'll drive that little bit more carefully now you know, won't you?
VACUOUS: Why don't you go f-


I set out on this personal journey to uncover the truth about documentaries and their fatuous, nervous need to appeal to no more than one of your brain cells at a time and I've ended up learning a little bit about Rubik's Cubes.

I don't know about you, but that Rubik's Cube took me back to my childhood. I presume it didn't take you back to my childhood too but perhaps yours was similar. I don't care. This isn't about asking questions, it's about showing me looking terribly serious and yet still roguishly handsome.

Here's a montage of me nodding seriously, looking a bit shocked, giving a gasp, laughing – because, don't worry, it's all okay really – and now I'm talking to someone who's obviously a scientist. What do you mean, she's a woman? Get a man. Get him a white coat. And a clipboard. What do you mean, he doesn't wear glasses? Find me someone more socially awkward to reinforce stereotypes. I want a Bafta out of this, I need to look handsomely patient and show I'm able to speak to the little people.

Science, yeah, yeah, let him go on for ten seconds. Make sure he pushes his glasses back up his nose a bit while I slap him on the back like a real man.


Caption: "Reconstruction"

YE OLDE SCIENTIST (100, bearded, dusty clipboard and stained coat) repeats what the real scientist just said but does it standing in a much better set borrowed from CBBC and pro-nounc-ed ver-y slow-ly and port-entous-ly be-cause he's an act-or.

And has a Rubik's Cube.



Caption: "Beautiful Sunset".

I set out on this personal journey of personal, deeply all-about-me investigation knowing you're watching because of me and because I need something worthy to go on the CV as I'm actually getting just a bit too old for decent acting roles. Thank God I'm not a woman, my career would be over by now. Wouldn't even get voiceovers.

But I've learnt a lot on my personal journey about the anti-aging benefits of moody back-lighting and I've really discovered just how much we can repeat the footage of that sodding Rubik's Cube.

I hope you've learnt something too. I don't really, I just hope that you've stayed watching for the entire hour and that I can now tell you to press the Red Button, to go online to our website or switch to BBC3 to watch the inside story of the making of my personal journey.

I'm Flavour O'Themonth. Next time, the winner of Strictly Come Dancing takes you on a personal journey of discovery into some topic or other. Doesn't matter what. We've just got this charter that says we have to cover factual stuff, blah, blah, we don't actually watch this crap, and anyway it's cheaper to make than drama.

I'm going to walk away from the camera now while they play a current top ten hit and squeeze the credits into a corner of the screen.