Thursday, September 26, 2013

"I'm calling from the Trib..." or why I write

I'm not sure you need to know this but I need to tell you. I realised recently, and instantly mentioned to you, that writing is an illness. But if it is, then you're supposed to catch the bug from Shakespeare or Larkin or Dickinson or Dickens.

I got it from Gene Reynolds, Leon Tokatyan, April Smith, Robert Schlitt, Michelle Gallery, Seth Freeman, Allan Burns and James L Brooks. You may not know the names but not one of them knows mine either.

Not true.

April Smith is now a crime novelist and we exchanged emails a few years ago. So at one point, yes, one of those names had heard of me but by now she'll have forgotten. So it stands: not one of those people knows a pixel about me and yet, in combination, they got me writing.

Because they made Lou Grant. They wrote and produced my favourite show.

Lou Grant aired from 1977 to 1982; I don't want to work out how young I was then but I was pretty young.

It's a funny thing but today the show isn't well known at all yet when it was cancelled, there was controversy. I mean, controversy. There was a march. People marched on the studio demanding its return. I've seen photos.

Its cancellation was so controversial that its star Ed Asner was blamed – he'd become a political and union figure in real life – and its star Ed Asner paid the price of not working for years afterwards. How much of that was politics, how much of it was that he was so well known in this one role that it was hard to see him in another, I don't know.

Lou Grant was a journalism drama and I became a journalist, but that's not how it worked. I didn't become a journalist because of this show, I became a writer. Because it was the first time I'd watched a TV show and become conscious that it was a crafted piece of work. That effort and skill and talent had gone into it. That it mattered. It wasn't just an hour's entertainment to half-watch at the end of the day, it was an hour's drama that took work to make.

From that moment on, the one-hour TV drama became to me what the three-minute pop song is to so many others. I love the form and its constraints and what can be done, what is done, in that time. That shrinking time: Lou Grant's 'one-hour' episodes run 50 or even 52 minutes where something like today's Leverage 'one-hour' is 43.

I also got into the history of this dramatic form and Lou Grant is special there too: it was the first and to this day remains the only hour drama to have come out of a half-hour sitcom. If that doesn't sound like a big deal, think about it again: a supporting character in the comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show became the lead in a drama. Look at how the character of Lewis changed when he was promoted to the lead of his own show after Morse changed and he was staying in drama. Look at how Frasier Crane changed when he went from Cheers to his own show Frasier – and he was staying in comedy.

Lou Grant and the actor Ed Asner had to change and to bring us along from a four-camera brightly-lit sitcom which, as very good as it was, had its chief aim of being to make you laugh at least twice a minute for half an hour. And we had to be brought to the same character now in a very naturalistic, single-camera one-hour drama that intended – and succeeded – in exploring serious areas. Very serious areas. They seemed easier to me because I'm in the UK and they were primarily American issues so I didn't have the context and the grounding that its main intended audience had, but they had it.

As a writer looking back at it now, I can see that I was fascinated by how little happens. It's a bit Alan Plater-like in that respect because despite being a 1970s/80s primetime US hit, every episode really boils down to people in rooms talking. It was a technically very clever show in how it managed to keep finding new and seemingly fresh ways to have a reporter interview someone in a room but more than that, it made you forget that this is all you were getting.

I love the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) and actor/writer Julie Delpy has said in interviews that the hardest thing about the talky scenes in that is to make them be dramatic enough to not be boring yet not so dramatic that they are unrealistic. Lou Grant did this all the time.

It was also an ensemble piece with many major characters all able to lead an episode. It did that before Hill Street Blues – which was made by the same company – and it even did Hill Street's trademark handheld camerawork. It only did that for one episode but it was deeply more effective, I think, for that: we were so used to the smooth and fluid dolly-track-driven camerawork of most episodes that to see one done handheld was jolting.

So I began being aware of the technical side of television too. Lou Grant got me because of its writing, then it got me seeing television as an industry, then it got me appreciating the technical craft of production done well and finally it got me appreciating actors who were able to handle long, involved scenes without the aid of car chases and explosions.

It got me into technology, too, as video had just come out and I was watching those episodes on VHS over and over. Lou Grant was supremely fortunate to be about the newspaper industry just as it was going through what then seemed its big change. It's gone through the internet since but in the 1970s and 1980s, we would see scenes in Compositing: a huge room where strips of paper were physically cut and pasted together. No Cmd-C, Cmd-V, actual scissors and actual glue. And then we'd see how quickly and radically that changed as the fictional Los Angeles Tribune newspaper switched to computers.

Oh, and the show got me into soundtrack music too because Patrick Williams's theme was re-recorded each season and I noticed it because I'd know the previous run's tune so well.

So maybe it's no wonder when I first went to Los Angeles, about ten years ago now, I got to see the Gene Reynolds Collection at UCLA. The scripts for that show I loved so much, the production memoes, the day to day makings of it. Heaven. I also went down the road to the real-life Los Angeles Times and got a smidgeon's worth of work out of them. The Times wasn't the inspiration for the more rundown Trib but it was a huge resource and it was a big presence in the show because the real paper was presented as the fictional one's rival.

I tell you this now because I've just been back to Los Angeles. I didn't get any work, I didn't look for any work – I brought work with me, let's not be daft – but this was a holiday. And still I had to go to Pershing Square.

Lou Grant was filmed over at CBS Studios, that's where people marched in the early 1980s, but the exterior of the Trib was filmed at Pershing Square. It's actually an ordinary office block and they popped a Trib sign over one for a pharmacy on the corner, but that's the building that sticks in my mind all these years.

And it's the building I had to go to. I said so many people have their three-minute pop song obsession and I have my one-hour television one. They have their Abbey Road, I have my Pershing Square.

And here I am, pointing at the real place and its fifth floor, where the Trib's City Room was supposedly set and where I spent my formative television-viewing years.

I'd love for you to see the show. It's not available on DVD but you can get the first three seasons on iTunes and also there are many episodes lurking on YouTube. Try this very early one called Nazi.

I hope you like it and that you watch the other 113-odd. And that next time you're in Los Angeles, you can be sitting in a hotel in Long Beach watching an old episode on your iPhone that happens to be set... in Long Beach. 

There. Had to tell you all that. How have you been?


Writer: Doctor Who audios, British Film Institute: The Beiderbecke Affair, The Blank Screen

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The first ever blog about America

I can't believe no one has ever written about America. It's not just blogs, I'd truly have expected there to have been books, films, articles, songs. But no. None. Not a one. So it's down to you and me. Are you ready for this?

I'm a city boy and I'm writing to you from Long Beach, Los Angeles. It's one of those places and this is one of those trips where I think you learn more about where you come from than about where you are. I've learnt, for instance, that I'm not actually a city boy, I'm a people guy. In the UK, the cities are the land. That is what the UK is: the pavements and the roads and the people. I understand that there are these, like, green and pleasant things out there but they're out there, this is here, the city is reality.

I've felt the same in Paris and most certainly in New York, which I continue to maintain is the finest place in the world. Manhattan is where I am taller. I step out onto those streets and I am a taller man.

But coming to the West Coast has made a difference. Specifically, driving the Pacific Coast Highway has made an immense difference. So far I've driven about 700 miles with my wife Angela and sister-in-law Margaret plus Suzanne Vega on the most gorgeous audio quality experience I've ever had since I was last in the States listening to Sirius XM. Wait, I'm missing something: drive, PCH, Angela, Margaret, radio – right, gotcha, of course: I'm driving and occasionally being pulled over by police officers with guns.

But driving along, it feels wrong here. It feels a bit wild. When I drive somewhere new in the UK, I expect to find streets and roads and pavements and it's all normal and ordinary. Here, you get a highway and it's cutting through what looks like untouched terrain. A bit of desert here, a lot of mountain to the left, some huge amount of ocean to the right. Each new road, each new place on the highway doesn't feel normal, doesn't feel like it has always been there, it feels as if it's been carved into the rock, cut into the land. It feels out of place somehow, it feels civilisation has just this minute reached just this point and no further.

It feels a lot like the land is allowing these roads on suffrance and may take them back at any time.
The land is overwhelming me. Usually I can't help but noodle as I drive, thinking of the latest job, the writing project that I cannot shake, and this works well for me at home where I can drive to London and have an entire short film script in my head ready to transcribe. But here. Here's different. I've got this thing on my mind about two warring five-a-side football teams in court – it's going to be called Ten Angry Men – and I am enjoying exploring the idea, tasting it.

Until the land says no.

The land says no a lot. The LAPD say no occasionally, too, but the land is continually saying come on, William, stop it. You're face to nose with some of the most beautiful scenery in America, the sheer scale of both geography and time, it dwarfs any idea I have. It swallows up any writing I can ever do.

What can I possibly write that will be worth a pixel next to the Pacific ocean? The impossibility of living up to this scale is the same enormity of ever bothering to write anything when we've already had Billy Shakespeare, when we've got Suzanne Vega and Dar Williams and Paul Auster and myriad others.

I've got another few days here in the States and I am letting this world reach inside me and mess with my innards. But then I fear I may have to shut it out, to pretend that it is worth my pressing on with writing. I have to write, it's an illness, and writing is also the way that I get to talk to you so that's gonna continue, I'm not letting go of that. But I do feel trivial.

I will shut out the land the way I shut out the fact that the world is replete with writers I'll never match. Consequently nobody has ever written anything about America before. No, sir. Not a word.
Now, please excuse me, I've got some books from the John Steinbeck museum to read.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Postcard from Alcatraz

It's 9pm on Alcatraz. My head hasn't adjusted to the time zone yet so in my mind it's 5am and I should be getting to work. But I always slack off on Fridays to have a natter with you. And, besides, they've just clanged shut door after door.

"Are there any of you left in here?" said a guard - sorry, presumably a tour guide but he deliberately sounds like a guard just now. Especially as we're outside in the cold and have that silly but palpable worry that the boat has gone.

I have to touch things before they're real. Are you like that? I had to hold a cell door before I knew what it was like, before I knew I was here. A few years ago I had to break the rules, lean over the ropes and touch the hull of the Titanic. Had to.

It's surely why I like meeting you and shaking your hand. It's certainly why I like typing: it's me touching the words I write.

Earlier today I was on a helicopter tour - a sad aside: I've now spent longer in helicopters as a tourist than as an impoverished would-be pilot - and we flew under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a marvellous moment but I swear it wouldn't have been so rich if I hadn't walked the bridge yesterday. Touched it yesterday.

Which may be why I have problems with holidays. Can't touch them. I want to quote MC Hammer and say can't touch this but I can't remember who that is and can't look up Wikipedia because there is no wifi on Alcatraz. Hard labour, harsh cells, screaming winds and no wifi. The poor bastards.

Whoever MC Hammer is, I bet he or she is better with holidays than I am.

I have managed to get two jobs to do while I'm away, so that helps.

And I have turned to theft: I've stolen this whole 'Postcard from...' blog format from a pal, Katharine D'Souza, who regularly writes such things here.

Back to Alcatraz where I've just met a fella who can't understand why anyone would come to the West Coast and another Cliff Clavin type who wanted to tell me more about Birmingham than I already knew.

Neither of them had any work for me. But both of them got us onto the last boat. Somebody really should organise overnight stays at Alcatraz but I've done my time.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Dramatic setting

A producer once told me that the most important thing in drama is the setting. I lied my agreement, as I wanted to work with her, but I knew the truth: drama is character. I happen to believe that dialogue is character, but we're talking people, not places.


Well, I'm still not persuaded. And while she was talking about television drama in general, the conversation was dipping mostly into soaps. It's funny that I can remember this part of the conversation so well yet I can't fathom how we got onto it, but the topic included how a soap needs to provide a setting that very many characters can thrive in. And specifically a setting that can outlast its characters. I can see that. I can see that more than this maxim that setting is always more important than character or anything else.

Yet I'm pondering it. This is like sales: if you can get the customer to consider the product, you're halfway there. If you can just get them to say yes or engage in the conversation, you've got them. It's why all those tedious cold calls begin with "Hello, how are you today?" (I'm okay with that. I tend to say that I'm good, thank you, and then ask them how they are. Nine times out of ten, that throws them completely. One in the ten will reply and I'll carry on listening. The rest will lurch on to the next line of the script, and I won't. Actually, just to carry this aside way off, I've had a right spate of cold callers coming to my door lately. These ones always begin with "Don't worry, I'm not selling anything." To which the only reply is: "Goodbye, then.")

Where were we?

I'm pondering. Thanks.

The reason I should really ponder is because it happens to be true that each time I've found a particular setting for a Doctor Who story, the idea, the pitch, the treatment and then even eventually the script have flown far and fast and I think quite high.

But I'm actually pondering because of Deep Space Nine.

I'm going away on holiday shortly and intend to stock up my iPad with some reading so I checked out the Kindle and iBooks stores. (If you don't know, you can read Kindle books on iPad. And the Kindle Store has more books than Apple's own iBooks Store. But the iBooks application on iPad is sufficiently more pleasant to read that I buy more from there than I do Amazon. The differences are small and decreasing over time, but they're still there. The iBooks application has better typography, to my mind, and it matters.)

Deep Space Nine.

This was a Star Trek television series many years ago and now it is a long, unending series of Star Trek novels. I like Star Trek novels: I think they work better than the TV shows and over the years I have particularly enjoyed many linked DS9 novels. Not enough that I read all of them, but plenty enough that I look out for ones I fancy.

And it turns out that there is a new Star Trek book whose description begins:

After the destruction of the original space station by a rogue faction of the Typhon Pact –
– what? Destruction of what?

The fictional station Deep Space Nine has been destroyed and my first thought was that they can't do that, I lived there.

And then just to make certain I pondered setting, this week saw the opening of the new Library of Birmingham. I was already excited by this: I gabbled at you about it not long ago. But now going there, it was… overwhelming. Everybody had cameras and was photographing this rather extraordinarily marvellous new building yet I couldn't. Needed to see it without a lens in front of me. Needed to absorb it, somehow.

You know and I know that sometime quite soon, we're going to be used to the new library. I do want to know my way around it, I do want to work there, but I love how just at the moment, just at this moment, it is a barrage, a torrent of options and possibilities.

And it is so exciting to see people being so excited about a library.

I bubbled at one of the staff who bubbled right back: she's been working on the library project for five years. Can you imagine how she must feel now it's done?

Well, okay, yes, you're a cynic. She feels unemployed. But apart from that.

She showed me the room I'm going to be doing a workshop in. (And that reminds me, I am delighted to say that tickets are selling briskly but now I've seen the room I also have to tell you to get a move on as it's going to be a quite contained small event. A workshop on The Blank Screen or rather how to fill it, how to get on with writing. Have a look at the official brochure listing for the Birmingham Literature Festival. But, unofficially, a colleague just described it as being "about getting off your arse and writing". I like that. That's a poster quote, that is. I'm not 100% sure he'd like having that used or I'd tell you his name, but he's a smart guy. We'll leave it at that.)

I went back a day later to explore more, to finally take some photographs – and to join Angela at the newly reopened Birmingham Rep to see a play. The Rep's been closed for years while all of this has been going on so it is fantastic to be able to go back inside.

Into that gorgeous setting.